The Theology of The Book of Revelation by Richard Bauckham

At Risen Life Church we are about to begin a preaching series out of the book of Revelation.  Anytime I tell someone that we are going preach Revelation their ears perk up and a million comments and questions ensue.  “What is your eschatological position?”,  “Wow, that’s bold to preach such a complicated book!”, “I am very excited to hear what you all have to say!”, “Who do you think the antichrist is?”, “Do you think we are in the end times?”  You know the drill.

As I prepared for preaching this series I read a great book by Richard Bauckham entitled, The Theology of The Book of Revelation.  Now this sounds academic and hard to understand, and it is academic, but this book is one of the most helpful books I have ever read on the Revelation to John and here is why.

Bauckham’s book is high level, in fact the General Editor, James Dunn, comments in the preface that the series in which this work appears is “directed at those who already have one or two years of full-time New Testament and theological study behind them” (xii).  Lots of the theology that is presented in the volume is what I would call, “frame-work” theology.  Bauckham is hitting the major emphasizes of the book of Revelation and giving you the theological framework in which to plug all the parts and pieces that we so often get ourselves entangled with when we go to interpret and understand the book of Revelation.  But here is the brilliant thing about this book, though it is dealing with big and deep theology, it is so well written; every page communicates Bauckham’s message with ease.  The book is also a delightful length, only 172 pages.  I would encourage anyone wanting to understand the book of Revelation to read this book.

Bauckham begins his book by highlighting one of the most important features of the book of Revelation, how it pulls back the veil on the throne room of God and shows God to be the one sovereignly in control of all things.  Furthermore, by nature of God being sovereign it is right that He is worthy of worship.  John gives us as readers a new perspective on our situation in life, and particularly that of the seven churches in Asia, by setting our world within the broader context of God’s universal purpose of overcoming all opposition to his rule and establishing his kingdom (31).  As we stare down the barrel of our culture and general opposition of the world to the things of God, John says to the churches and us, “Don’t worry, God is in control and will complete His purpose and will bring this rebellious world into submission.”  This is a very sobering and yet comforting thought for believers.

Bauckham builds on the sovereignty of God that is so foundational to the book of Revelation and then highlights how John unambiguously shows that Jesus belongs to the fullness of God (56-57).  Or in other words, Jesus in the book of Revelation is shown outright to be God.  A comparison of Revelation 1:8 with Revelation 1:17 along with a comparison of Revelation 21:6 and Revelation 22:13 show the same titles being applied to both God the Father and Christ the Son (57).  And these are not just any titles; these titles in the Bible were reserved for God the Father throughout until they are applied to Christ in Revelation.  Bauckham goes on to show how the worship of the slain Lamb in Revelation 5:1-14 further illustrates the point that Jesus is part of the Divine since He is worshipped alongside God.  This is just scratching the surface of the Trinitarian theology that flows out of Revelation.  Even from the outset of the book, Revelation depicts the Trinity, as seen in Revelation 1:4b-5a (23).  When we find ourselves struggling to understand or defend the Christian doctrine of the Trinity let us look to John’s words in Revelation that speak to the issue in no uncertain terms.

Beyond the major statements about God and Jesus found in the book of Revelation Bauckham works at the central message of the book.  He identifies the main message of the book coming from Revelation 11:1-13.  Bauckham believes Revelation is a message to the churches revealing the role they are to play as prophetic witnesses to the nations (83).  Here is what he says:

God’s kingdom is to come not simply by saving an elect people who acknowledge his rule from a rebellious world over which his kingdom prevails merely by extinguishing the rebels.  It is to come as the sacrificial witness of the elect people who already acknowledge God’s rule brings the rebellious nations also to acknowledge his rule (84).


We now see that this redemption of a special people from all the peoples is not an end in itself, but has a further purpose: to bring all the peoples to acknowledge and worship God.  In the first stage of his work, the Lamb’s bloody sacrifice redeemed a people for God.  In the second stage, this people’s participation in his sacrifice, through martyrdom, wins all the peoples for God.  This is how God’s universal kingdom comes (101).

Now Bauckham spends many pages working out this central idea of the churches witness in a pattern after Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, but I think it is important to speak to a few points of application that come from Bauckham’s thesis.

First, if the message of Revelation is to reveal to the seven churches in Asia and us that we will participate in and win the nations through our witness to the truth of the Gospel and self-sacrifice even unto death in a pattern after Christ’s work then this should radically reorient the way we look at our world and our faith in this world.  We should not be surprised when we face great trials, persecution, and cultural pressure against Christianity.  Revelation calls us to embrace the fact that this life may not end well for us.  Let us be careful to blame God for our troubles when in fact he has warned us about what is to come and faithfully witness to the truth of the Gospel until the end.

Secondly, this alters the way we have popularly thought about missions and evangelism.  Many have pointed Matthew 24:14 and said that we will triumphantly preach the Gospel to the nations and after many have been saved Jesus will come back and we will live happily ever after.  But if Bauckham’s thesis is true, then it makes the end of all things more imminent since the nations come to faith as the church is apparently defeated in martyrdom.  But as Bauckham points out, this is exactly the way Jesus saved the world, through apparent defeat, and our partnership in that apparent defeat will preach the Gospel to the nations and then they will come in.  As we begin to face more and more cultural defeat and increasing persecution as the faithful church, let us realize the end is near and this is God’s plan to preach the Gospel through our defeat which reflects what God did in Christ.  I am afraid many evangelicals if they rightly understood Revelation would have to severely reorient their eschatology in light of Bauckham’s thesis of a church witnessing through suffering and death after the pattern of its Savior.

Bauckham’s thesis concerning the witness of the church is heavy lifting, but not all of Bauckham’s book is.  Throughout Bauckham also drops more easily attainable thoughts, particularly in the realm of hermeneutics.  Of John’s imagery in general in Revelation he says, “He is painting pictures which each portray a valid aspect of the truth” (103).  This ideal is great guidance for anyone thinking through Revelation.  Similarly concerning prophecy in general he gives these guidelines: prophecy discerns the contemporary situation in which it was written, it predicts a future situation, and it demands a response of its hearers (148-149).  I have often heard the first two ideals on prophecy, sometimes said as forthtelling and foretelling, but I think it is very important to include the need for a response to prophecy not only historically but now.  One of my only criticisms of Bauckham’s book is that I believe he seems to lean toward seeing most prophecy as only fulfilled in its historical context (in the case of Revelation that was for the churches under the rule of Rome) and the prophecy for us is applied as general guidance only.  I would like to think that with all prophecy there is an immediate fulfillment and a future fuller fulfillment.  Though Revelation may have been fulfilled earlier in history we know that there are aspects of it that have yet to happen at all (such as the New Heavens and New Earth) which lends credence to the fact that at least some other parts of the book must also be speaking of future events even though they had a historical fulfillment.  But to be fair, even though some events will have a dual fulfillment, we should be careful to not see within the picture John is painting something more literal than the truth he intended to communicate.

There are many, many pieces of theology to discuss out of Bauckham’s book.  Suffice it to say, I wanted to give you a taste of the way he has dealt with Revelation.  Again, I highly encourage anyone who wants to engage in a serious study of Revelation to read this book.  Bauckham helps us to see the book of Revelation as a literary whole and as the capstone of Christian theology it is meant to be for the churches as we look forward to the parousia.

Bauckham, Richard. The Theology of The Book of Revelation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 172pp. $30.99
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