Book Review by Ron Maness
January 26, 2015
I just completed perhaps the greatest commentary I have ever read, and below I have written a review of it. I realize the review is somewhat long, but even for those who will not want to undertake reading the book, I would recommend that you read the review, because it will give you an overview of the book of Revelation from a different perspective—in this case how an amillennial interpreter views the book of Revelation. And I have summarized it in 20 key points. Therefore, even if you never read a book from that viewpoint, you will at least have an understanding of that approach to Revelation, the final book in the Bible which constituted God’s last written communication to His people and which, for that reason, is very important stuff! Many of you took the handouts which we recently made available on “Four Views of the End Times”. However, that was just a brief overview, and several people said to me that they had never really studied other views. So, here is your chance: read this review and see how one perspective fleshes out the book of Revelation.
Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, by G.K. Beale with David H. Campbell, Eerdmans 2015, 529 pages. Beale was born in Dallas. He received his ThM at Dallas Theological Seminary and his PhD from Cambridge. Although graduating from DTS, he now holds to an amillennial position regarding Biblical prophecy. He has taught at Wheaton, and currently teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary.
In 1999, G.K. Beale published his monumental commentary on Revelation in the New International Greek Testament Commentary series, which is a very technical commentary series focusing on the Greek text. It has been the top-rated commentary on Revelation ever since. The problem with it was its length (1,300 pages) and technical depth. Ideal for scholars, it was pretty heavy reading for working pastors, Bible students, and informed laymen. Beale got his master
In answer to those problems, Beale has just published Revelation-A Shorter Commentary, with the assistance of David H. Campbell. This volume distills the larger commentary into just over 500 pages, and makes it more accessible for pastors, students and the general Christian reader. This volume contains the main work of the earlier volume, but for the most part eliminated references to Greek, references to secondary literature, and references to Jewish interpretations of OT passages used in Revelation.
Beale views Revelation as an integrated whole, as a conscious continuation of the OT prophetic books, and shows that recognizing Revelation’s nearly constant use of OT allusions is the key to unlocking its meaning. Throughout the volume are more thatn sixty sets of “Suggestions for Reflection” to help readers better grasp the relevance of Revelation to their lives and our world today.
Beale notes that 278 of the 404 verses in Revelation contain references to the OT. There are 500 allusions to the OT, compared to only 200 in all of Paul’s letters. Revelation can be seen as fitting into the genre of OT prophetic/apocalyptic works, especially Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah, in which the writer is given the heavenly, behind-the-scenes perspective of earthly events. Beale says that “apocalyptic” works should not be seen as greatly different from “prophecy”, but “the former contains a heightening and a more intense clustering of literary and thematic traits found in the latter” (page 4).
The apocalyptic-prophetic nature of Revelation can be defined as “God’s revelatory interpretation (through visions and auditions) of His mysterious counsel about past, present, and future redemptive-eschatological history and how the nature and operation of heaven relates to this” (page 5). This revelation irrupts from the hidden, outer heavenly dimension into the earthly and is given to a prophet (John) who is to write it down in order that it be communicated to the churches. This heavenly revelation usually runs counter to the assessment of history and values from the human, earthly perspective.
In his introduction, Beale says “how sad it is when the study of Revelation in today’s church regards it merely as futurology, rather than setting in place a redemptive-historical mindset or worldview for the church” (page 6).
Beale notest that there are four ways of interpreting Revelation: 1) Preterist (dealing with events up to destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD); 2) Historicist (dealing with successive stages of church history); 3) Futurist (all of the book, except for the letters to the churches in chs 1-3, deal with events surrounding the return of Christ at the end of history); and 4) Redemptive-Historical Idealist View (symbolic presentation of battle between good and evil).
Beale believes the fourth view is essentially correct but needs some modification. He believes all four views have some elements of truth which need to be incorporated in his view, which he calls the Eclectic Redemptive-Historical Idealist View, since, while the focus is on a symbolic presentation of the battle between good and evil, and on specific repeated historical events during the church age, aspects of the preterist, historicist, and futurist views are incorporated (hence, “eclectic”).
Since the term for his view is wordy, let me try to simplify it—a symbolic presentation of the conflict between God and the spiritual forces of evil as it plays out during the history of God’s plan of redemption (thus redemptive-historical) up to the final consummation.
Beale is amillennial, although since the “a-“ prefix implies negation, that is “no millennium”, he prefers the term “inaugurated millennium”. That is because the so-called millennium (simply 1,000 years in Revelation) was inaugurated with Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension to the Father’s right hand where even now He rules in heaven. The millennium is therefore the entire church age, until Christ’s return (the 1,000 is symbolic, as typical in Revelation). The next event on the prophetic calendar is Christ’s return for the final defeat of all evil spiritual forces, the resurrection for final judgment and reward, and the establishment of the new heavens and new earth.
The characteristics of his view as demonstrated throughout the commentary are as follows:
- The symbolic nature of the truths taught in Revelation are indicated by the Greek word ”semaino” in Rev 1:1, which is translated “made known” (NIV, ESV), “communicated” (NASB), or “signified” (KJV). The word can typically mean to symbolize, signify, or communicate by symbols. The source of John’s statement can be found in the Greek version of Daniel 2:28-30, 45, where the Greek word semaino appears and refers to the symbolic vision which Nebuchadnezzar had.
- Thus we can expect to find that the truths of Revelation are to taught in symbolic and figurative communication. So many if not most of the things that are about to unfold are not to be taken literally (lions, lambs, beasts, women, etc.) Rather, they refer to another reality or set of realities. So we will see divine communication by symbolic vision.
- Whereas dispensationalism uses the axiom to interpret literally unless forced to interpret otherwise, Beale turns it around and says that due to the genre of the literature and many interpretive keys, we should interpret symbolically unless forced to interpret literally.
- There is a literal meaning underlying the symbol—it may be either physical or spiritual realities. It is a mistake to bypass the visionary and symbolic and go straight to a literal interpretation.
- There is symbolic significance to the numbers in Revelation. Three numbers in particular—four, seven and twelve, along with their multiples—recur throughout the visions and are best interpreted according to their OT significance.
- John’s use of symbols is similar to Jesus’ use of parables and are rooted in the language and signs of the OT prophets. Like Jesus’ parables, the symbols of Revelation use powerful and often shocking imagery to open the eyes of true believers while leaving hardened unbelievers in deep darkness.
- The key to interpreting the symbols is to go back to the OT and see how they were used by the prophets.
- The visions of chs. 4-21 are about the present, not just the future, and the purpose is to speak both a warning and an encouragement to believers to persevere in their commitments to Christ and to divorce themselves from any allegiance to the world system. This is in contrast to the futurist view which sees the visions of chs 4-21 all occurring in a short period at the end of history.
- Thus the visions of Revelation were not of just some far away future just before Christ’s return, in which case they would not have had relevance to the seven churches to whom the letter was written. They were undergoing persecution and temptations to compromise their allegiance and witness to Christ with idolatry. These visions explain what is going on behind the scenes at that time and all during the church age until Christ returns. The visions demonstrate that whatever the appearances, God is in sovereign control. Though they may suffer or even die physically, their spirits are secure in heaven and in the future they will be resurrected physically to enjoy God’s eternal presence in the new heavens and new earth.
- The key to the whole book of Revelation is Rev 12—the conflict of the Serpent with the Woman and her Seed. This introduces a new series of seven visions which portray of deeper dimension of the spiritual conflict (12:1 to 15:4).
- A key part of Beale’s interpretive scheme (which he shares with many other interpreters) is the Recapitulation position—i.e., the visions are not chronologically linear. Instead, the various series of judgments are parallel descriptions or recapitulations of the same events from a different perspective. Thus the events of the seven seal judgments don’t occur first, then the seven trumpets, and finally the seven bowls. All of these judgments occur throughout the church age—they are parallel descriptions of the same events from a different vantage point. Toward the end of each series, there is a description of judgment followed by a depiction of salvation. Thus the seventh seal brings us to the point of final judgment, so does the seventh trumpet, and so does the seventh bowl. So each series brings us up to the point of the final judgment, but then John sees the next series. Whenever John says “after that “, he is referring to the order in which he saw the visions, not the order on which the events in the visions occur. Within the visions, there also occur interludes, where the scene shifts to behind the scenes in heaven.
- As an example of recapitulation, the same battle is portrayed in Rev 16:14, 19:19, and 20:8. In that battle, Ezekiel’s prophecy of Ezek 38-39 is universalized, i.e. oppressed Israel is universalized into the camp of the saints and the beloved city, i.e. the church throughout the earth. Gog and Magog likewise are not to be identified with any current or future geographical entity.
- God’s judgments (tribulation) recur throughout the church age, although there may well be an intensification near the end.
- During the 1,000 years, Satan is bound to some degree, so that he cannot deceive the nations from accepting the gospel or deceive the nations into assembling for a final battle against God’s forces. After the 1,000 years, Satan is released and deceives the nations, Gog and Magod, to assemble them for the final battle.
- The beast from the sea, the beast from the land, the harlot—all of these are symbolic portrayals of evil spiritual forces. They have various manifestations throughout church history; therefore it is futile to try and identify them with particular historical, present, or even future personages (as John said in 1 John 2:18, “you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come” (ESV).
- Armageddon likewise is symbolic, and not to be identified with any geographical location. The final battle in which Satan and his evil forces will be defeated is not to imagined as a battle fought with early weapons. The battle is spiritual, Christ defeats them with the sword coming from His mouth (i.e. His Word) and the weapons of His followers are the words of their testimony which they upheld despite suffering, persecution, and even martyrdom.
- “In the latter days” of Daniel 2, the “shortly” of Rev 1:1, and the “after these things” of Rev 1:19—all refer to the entire church age. The church age is also the period of tribulation; there is no seven-year tribulation preceded by a rapture, and followed by an earthly millennial kingdom. How many Christians have already been martyred in this church age?
- The church is the true Israel, and the beneficiary of the OT prophetic promises. Where Israel failed, Christ succeeded as the true Israelite and the true Son of David. And all who believe in Him are in union with Him (in Christ) and therefore constitute the true Israel, along with all OT believers who trusted in the promises of God before the incarnation. Israel as a nation has no future relative to the Abrahamic promises, except as they as individuals accept Christ and become part of the true Israel. The land promises to Israel will be fulfilled to the true Israel (the Church) in the form of the new heavens and new earth.
- By the same token, there will be no future temple. Jesus claimed to be the true Temple, replacing the old physical temple which would be destroyed in 70 A.D. Because believers are in Christ, they also are called the temple of God in Paul’s epistles (“do you not know that you are God’s temple? 1 Cor 3:16) and a holy priesthood in 1 Peter 2:5. And in the New Jerusalem , God and the Lamb are the temple.
- Whereas there is some disagreement among interpreters whether the New Jerusalem is a place or a people, Beale holds that New Jerusalem is not a literal place, but is symbolic of the redeemed community which has been faithful to God who will live forever in the presence of God and the Lamb in the new heavens and new earth—the new creation. The New Jerusalem interprets and fulfills Ezekiel’s temple vision of Ezek 40-48—they both saw the same reality of the final establishment of God’s presence with His people.
My recommendation: even if you don’t plan to read a commentary on Revelation, read Revelation as it was written—as a letter—read it one sitting and let it wash over you. And be amazed at the immense realities that are beyond our physical senses, and worship Him who has sovereign control over all things, and will bring all things together at the great consummation.
P.S. If you would like a copy of Beale’s outline to the book, let me know and I will send you one. If you want to read a shorter commentary that uses a similar approach to Beale, I can recommend two I read recently: The Returning King: A Guide to the Book of Revelation, by Vern Poythress (198 pages) and Revelation for Everyone, by N.T. Wright (207 pages). Others are The Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation, by Dennis E. Johnson (363 pages) and The Message of Revelation, by Michael Wilcock. In addition, The Book of Revelation, by Robert H. Mounce (NICNT), who is historical pre-mill, has much in common with Beale, except he holds to an earthly millennium.