Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Literal or Symbolic? Imminent or Not?

In my latest reading of G.K. Beale's The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, Beale disagrees with the view that Revelation 4:1-22:21 is a literal description of what will take place in the future.  Rather, Beale relates the Book of Revelation to the redemption at Christ's first coming, the church age, and the Second Coming of Christ.

Beale offers a variety of arguments for his position that Revelation 4:1-22:21 is not describing in chronological order what will literally happen in the future.  For one, the same events (i.e., an earthquake, the Second Coming) appear throughout the book, in different places, and so (for Beale) the Book is obviously not talking about events as they will chronologically occur.  While Beale observes that the plagues intensify through the seven trumpets and the seven bowls, he does not believe that this intensification will occur literally as it is depicted in Revelation; rather, he maintains that the intensification serves "to emphasize the reality of the three motifs of judgment, persecution, and salvation for a confused church living in the midst of compromise and doubt" (pages 144-145).  Second, there are connections between the letters to the first-century C.E. churches in Asia Minor and the rest of the Book of Revelation (i.e., Philadelphia being kept safe from the coming worldwide tribulation, martyrdom, dealing with Satanic dominions, etc.).  Moreover, Beale argues that Revelation 4:1-22:21 is (at least partially) about healing the sorts of problems that are mentioned in the letters to the churches of Asia Minor. 

Beale disagrees with the literalist view that much of Revelation should be taken literally, unless the Book explicitly says what a symbol represents.  But, if the Book does not tell us what a symbol represents, how do we know what the symbol represents, or even that it's a symbol, for that matter?  On page 68, Beale says that we can arrive at insight by looking at the Book's immediate context; the use of the symbols in the Hebrew Bible, early Judaism, and the New Testament; and the Greco-Roman environment in the time that the Book of Revelation was written.

Numerology appears to be significant in Beale's commentary so far.  He argues that seven represents perfection or completion, and that six (i.e., 666, the sixth trumpet, the sixfold repetition of Babylon) relates to human imperfection and sinfulness.  On page 115, he notes that the numeric value of the Greek word for Jesus is 888, and he says that the number eight "likely had the significance of referring to Jesus' resurrection and new creation in earliest Christianity" (page 115), since the number eight comes after the number seven, which relates to the completion of creation (since God rested from creating on the seventh day).  The idea is probably that after the first creation (number seven) comes the new creation (number eight).  And Beale observes that the new creation (the new heavens and the new earth) is the eighth scene in the Book of Revelation.

For Beale, there are a variety of things in Revelation that pertain to the church age.  On page 148, he says that "John applies the plagues from Exodus typologically to hardened unbelievers living between Christ's resurrection and final coming in the first five bowls and to the wicked at the conclusion of history in the last two bowls (the sixth bowl directly precedes the end)" (page 148).  I'm curious as to how he will argue that the first five bowls have been occurring throughout the church age (when hardened unbelievers do not appear to have been experiencing God's wrath, unless you want to count certain catastrophes), or what he envisions the fulfillment of the last two bowls as being like.  On page 149, Beale affirms that "The millennium is inaugurated during the church age when God limits Satan's deceptive powers and when deceased Christians are vindicated through their reign in heaven."

What I wonder is this: Could the author of Revelation have envisioned an imminent end, and expected the end to occur literally as he saw it in his visions?  A belief in an imminent end would explain why there are connections between the letters to the churches of Asia and the rest of the Book of Revelation: Philadelphia was told that it would be kept from tribulation because it was believed that the tribulation discussed in the rest of the Book would take place at the time of Philadelphia.  And, even though Revelation does describe the same sorts of events in different places, perhaps the author still envisioned a literal fulfillment of them----a literal earthquake, for example.

How does Beale address the parts of Revelation that appear to imply an imminent end: Jesus saying that he will come quickly, or the statement that the time is near?  Beale states on page 137 that "What Daniel expected to occur in the far-off 'latter days,' the defeat of cosmic evil and the ushering in of the divine kingdom, John expects to begin in his own generation, if it has not already started to happen."  For Beale, the Book of Revelation holds that the Kingdom is already and not yet, meaning that it was realized (in some manner) in the time of John, but would also be more fully realized in the future.  I'm curious as to how that would comfort the suffering Christians in the first century C.E., though, for it makes more sense to me to view Revelation as a book that encourages first century Christians with the idea that God will soon defeat the powers of evil that oppress them and will set up God's own kingdom.

These are my impressions so far, and I may be missing things, since this is a heavy book to read.  But I will hopefully understand Beale's argument more as I go through his book.

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