The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: Revelation (Page 1 of 2)

The Very Political Book of Revelation

Recently at Cloverdale, our preaching minister completed an excellent series of lessons on the Book of Revelation. Not only was the series well done, it was also incredibly encouraging in a very difficult season (the worst statistical days of the pandemic and the bitter presidential election and its aftermath).

Revelation is somewhat of an infamous book: as an example of apocalyptic literature, to modern readers it comes across as strange, unfamiliar, and notoriously difficult to understand. Efforts at understanding the book have been further complicated by long traditions of treating Revelation as some sort of crystal ball that gives detailed geopolitical predictions about the time period of the interpreter in question. This has led to all sorts of fantastical claims—Christians needing to support the modern nation of Israel in building a third Temple to hasten the return of Jesus, references in Revelation to the USSR, or the COVID-19 vaccine being the mark of the beast—that would have been absolutely unimaginable to John, the author of Revelation, or the first-century Christians to whom he was writing.

Although the imaginative imagery and apocalyptic genre of Revelation are challenging to us as modern readers, it remains an intelligible book if we seek to understand it on its own terms. John is writing to seven congregations of Christians in Asia Minor about things that actually would have been relevant to them in their time and place. He peels back the curtain to allow his audience to see the spiritual realities that lay behind their daily experiences.

Specifically, he addresses the pressure that Rome, the great beast (itself under the influence of Satan, the great dragon), is placing upon Christians to deny their allegiance to King Jesus and instead succumb to the social, economic, and religious demands of Caesar. To those faithfully resisting Roman pressure, John encourages them to persevere with the assurance that Jesus has already claimed the victory over Satan, and that His followers will be vindicated. To those who have already compromised their faith and acquiesced to the demands of Rome, John’s message is one of warning and judgment: they must repent before they are destroyed along with the rest of God’s enemies.

The message of Revelation would have come across as strikingly political to the original audience. Click To Tweet

A third-century Roman coin (AD 244) depicting Emperor Philip II holding the earth in the palm of his hand.

Though challenging to us, this message would have been easily understood by John’s original audience(s), and it would have come across as strikingly political. After all, the Mediterranean world of the New Testament time period was all about Rome. Propaganda proclaimed that Rome was good news (“gospel”) for the world and the bringer of peace. Rome deified its emperors and depicted them as omnipotent rulers whose dominion extended over the entire earth. So interconnected was Roman government, Roman religion, Roman military might, and Roman society that it was impossible to be considered a good citizen or a good neighbor if one resisted the expectation to sacrifice to the gods or pledge allegiance to Caesar above all else. And in such a context, John depicts Rome as a hideous beast under the influence of evil spiritual forces! This is a deeply political text.

In light of this reality—the evil and corruption of the world around them, what are Christians to do? Before we answer that question, we should first note what they are not encouraged to do:

  • They are not encouraged to obsess over how beastly Rome is and constantly rail against it because of this. After all, it should be expected that beasts will act in beastly ways. Rome is a beast, not the Bride of Christ! 
  • Furthermore, they are not encouraged to “Make Rome Great Again”, hearkening back to some fictitious history when the beast was somehow not a beast. 
  • On the other hand, neither are they encouraged to revolt against Rome or tear down all the pillars upon which society is built and work to create a utopian society where justice reigns.

Instead, John encourages those to whom he is writing to remain faithful to Jesus, their Lord, at all costs. Keeping with the political nature of Revelation, as I have discussed before, the statement “Jesus is Lord” is an inherently political claim:

“Lord” is an interesting word; to us, it is almost exclusively a religious term. We tend to think of it as a synonym for “God”, but really, “Lord” was a favorite title of Jesus in the early church. And it’s not primarily a religious title, either; it was a title with distinctly political overtones. “Lord” was the official title for the Roman Emperor: laws, edicts and decrees were signed “Lord Caesar.” This means that when early Christians called Jesus “Lord”, they were making a political statement: by saying that Jesus was Lord, they were simultaneously saying that Caesar was not. Jesus was the One who had absolute authority over their lives, He set the standards by which they were to live, He was the One to whom they owed primary allegiance, and it was He who sat on the throne of the universe.

The Book of Revelation may not tell us when Jesus will return or what will happen in the Middle East next year, but it is incredibly relevant. It makes the striking political claim to Christians that, rather than worry about the kingdoms of this world—which are beastly and will one day come to nothing—we are to “return to our first love” and live out the confession that Jesus is Lord in our daily lives. Instead of trying to reform or uphold or overthrow the society in which we live in order to make it better, our focus should be on living as citizens of God’s kingdom, the better reality that already exists. It is a kingdom that will never be destroyed and will one day supplant and replace all earthly kingdoms. It is a kingdom that subverts worldly understandings of power and wealth, led by a King who laid down unparalleled power and unimaginable wealth to live as a servant and die as a sacrifice to save His subjects.

I have frequently said that I am not a very political person, but that is not technically accurate. Certainly, I am not very political in the sense that I do not focus on partisan loyalties in the American political spectrum, but I confess that Jesus is Lord, and seek to place my allegiance to Him at the center of my life.

As the Book of Revelation shows us, that is a very political claim.

I confess that Jesus is Lord, and seek to place my allegiance to Him at the center of my life. As the Book of Revelation shows, that is a very political claim. Click To Tweet

Restorationism and the Very Flawed Church at Corinth

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to take a graduate school class on 1-2 Corinthians, and as part of that class, read several commentaries and lots of articles. One of my favorite reads was Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians by Ben Witherington III.

Here is one particularly insightful quotation from Witherington:

Careful attention to the historical and social matrix of the Pauline communities makes it clear that the early ekklesia [church] was far from perfect. As often as not, Paul was busy exhorting Christians to change their ways. If we believe that the Christian community of today should in some sense be biblically shaped and if we hold up the example of the Pauline communities, then we must say “go and do otherwise” at least as often as we say “go and do likewise.”

One reason we tend to commit the fallacy of idealism when we reflect on the early ekklesia is that we have assumed that the “determining factors of the historical process are ideas and nothing else, and that all developments, conflicts and influences are at bottom developments of, and conflicts and influences between, ideas.” Such a premise too often leads to the false conclusion that if we get our ideas about the faith right or if we emulate “the pattern” of the early ekklesia, then our Christian community will be what it ought to be.

But if we read Paul’s letters carefully, they reveal that right living and proper social interaction both within the Christian community and with the larger world were at least as much of a concern as right thinking, and evidently the early Christians had difficulties with all these matters.

Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth, p. xv

As many readers know already, and as I have written about before, I am a spiritual descendant of the American Restoration Movement, which is based on the premise that Christians should seek unity in God’s church by emulating the teachings of the New Testament and following the example of the early church. I believe that such an approach is fundamentally valid, but I think Witherington provides some important words of caution.

When we read about different congregations of the early church in the pages of Scripture, we come across some like the church at Corinth or some of the seven churches of Asia in the Book of Revelation that serve better as negative examples of what not to do rather than examples that we should try to follow today. So, when we say that we want to be like the church of the New Testament, we need to understand that we don’t exactly mean that, because the various New Testament congregations of which we are aware varied greatly in practice, and not all of them are worth emulating. Because of that, sometimes we might clarify our restorationist goals by saying that we want to be the church of the New Testament as conceptualized and instructed by apostolic teaching. But Witherington provides a caution here too, since having the right ideas and beliefs does not necessarily lead to right practices. And after all, what does it matter what we think if we don’t live right?

To me, none of this discredits the validity of the Restoration principle, but it does mean that we should be careful when we talk about it and as we seek to apply it. For example, rather than seeking to emulate the practices of the early church in wholesale fashion, we should examine biblical texts carefully to see where and how first century congregations were affirmed or reproved for their beliefs and practices, and choose to emulate them accordingly. Furthermore, we need to realize that faithful Christianity is about more than simply believing the right things; it also entails living in a certain way. As Witherington points out, the latter does not necessarily follow the former. At the same time, while it is true that right ideas do not guarantee right practices, it’s also true that wrong ideas make right practices nearly impossible.

While it’s true that right ideas don’t guarantee right practices, wrong ideas make right practices nearly impossible. Click To Tweet

God is concerned with both: He wants us to believe certain things, which in turn empower us to live a certain way. And from this perspective, the positive and negative examples of the early church, along with apostolic teachings preserved in the New Testament, are incredibly helpful.

A New Heaven & A New Earth Part 8: The Unified Story of Scripture

This post is part of an ongoing series. You can find links to all the posts here.

Some of the content of this post was anticipated in the previous one, when we looked at the consequences of sin as described in Genesis 3 and then saw how Revelation 21-22 show that, when Jesus returns, all of these consequences will be dealt with (including the curse that is placed on creation). Today, we are going to continue to spend time in these same areas of Scripture.

Before we do that, though, I want to reflect on the nature of Scripture itself: what is this book we have that we call “the Bible”? 

Well, first, we should probably point out that the Bible is not a book so much as it is a library of books. As we have it, it is a library of 66 books written over hundreds and hundreds of years by dozens of people.[1] Nevertheless, in the background, behind all of these human authors is the reality that Scripture is God-breathed:  in a way that we will never fully understand, the Holy Spirit worked in conjunction with humans to produce the Bible.



So, when I say that the Bible is a library of books, I don’t mean to say that because of that, it is hopelessly disjointed or contradictory; no: the Bible is a library of books all telling the same grand Story. 

And we need to come to that Story on its own terms.[2]

When asked what the Bible is, many Christians would say something about it being an instruction manual for how to go to heaven when we die (ever heard the B.I.B.L.E. = “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth mnemonic device?). As we discussed in an earlier post, not only does the phrase “go to heaven” not appear anywhere in the Bible in relation to death, this also just doesn’t seem to be the grand Story that Genesis is introducing. Genesis doesn’t talk about going to heaven when we die, and there are only minimal instructions. Instead, it introduces a story about a good God who lovingly created a good world. He created humanity in His image and tasked them with overseeing and stewarding His creation. When humans disobeyed God and betrayed His trust, they were sent into exile, sin reigned in the world, and creation was tainted, but God did not give up on His people or His creation. Instead, God set a plan in place to redeem and restore humanity, and, indeed, all of creation.[3]

This is what you would expect from reading the first book of the Bible, and it’s what you get when you read the last book of the Bible. Even though Genesis and Revelation were written hundreds of years apart by different authors in different languages, when compared to one another they provide fitting bookends to the Scripture library.

(It would be of great benefit to read Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21-22 back-to-back before proceeding. Go ahead…I’ll wait.)

Creation and New Creation

Simply put, Genesis 1-3 describes the creation of the heavens and the earth, and Revelation 21-22 talks about the new creation of the new heavens and new earth.[4] In the description of the new heavens and new earth in Revelation 21-22, over and over again you have echoes of what occurred in the creation of the heavens and earth in Genesis 1-3:

  • In Genesis 1.4, there is a division of light and darkness; in Revelation 21.25, there is no night.
  • In Genesis 1.10, there is a division of land and sea; in Revelation 21.1, there is no more sea.
  • In Genesis 1.16, the rule of the sun and moon is described; in Revelation 21.23, we learn that there is no need for the sun or moon.
  • In Genesis 2.10, we are told about a river flowing out of the Garden of Eden; in Revelation 22.1, we are told about a river flowing from God’s throne.
  • Genesis 2.9 describes the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden; Revelation 22.2 describes the Tree of Life throughout the city.
  • Genesis 2.12 tells us that gold and precious stones are in the land; Revelation 21.19 tells us that gold and precious stones are throughout.
  • God walks in the garden, among His creation as described in Genesis 3.8; Revelation 21.3 states that God’s dwelling will be with His people.
  • Following Adam and Eve’s sin, Genesis 3.17 states that the ground itself will be cursed; in the New Creation, there will be no more curse (Revelation 22.3).
  • As a result of sin and the curse, life in creation is characterized by pain and sorrow (Genesis 3.17-19); in the new creation, there will be no more sorrow, pain, or tears (Revelation 21.1-4).
  • Additionally, the sin results in death, described as a returning to the dust (Genesis 3.19); in the New Heavens and New Earth, there is no more death (Revelation 21.4).
  • Adam and Eve are banished from the garden, and cherubim guard the entrance to it (Genesis 3.24); angels actively invite into the city in Revelation 21.9.

There are actually many more points of comparison that could be made, but I think these are sufficient to prove the point: in Revelation, John is clearly describing the eternity that God’s people will spend with Him in the New Heavens and New Earth in language that echoes back to the story of creation and fall in Genesis 1-3.

In making these connections between Revelation and Genesis, John is making a significant and profound theological point, and it is, in fact, the point of the Story of Scripture. God is going to redeem, recreate, and perfect the creation that was tainted by our sin. And when He does so, He will dwell with His people forever.


[1]When I say “as we have it,” I am not implying that there are missing books of the Bible or anything like that. Rather, this is a reflection of the fact the number 66 is a product of combining the New Testament to the Hebrew Bible, and counting the books of the Hebrew Bible differently (for example, originally, Ezra and Nehemiah were combined in one book, 1-2 Kings were one book, etc.).

[2]Beginning to read Scripture in this way, as a grand, overarching, and interconnected Story, was a game-changer for me. Rather than pulling verses (or even entire books!) out of context, they must be read in light of the Story that Scripture is telling. 

[3]See Wes McAdams, “7 Things I Noticed When I Read Genesis Today,” and “A Quick Summary of the Old Testament.” These posts come from a series in which Wes read entire books of the Bible in one sitting to better glean the broad themes and discern the Story that Scripture tells. I highly recommend the series and the book that came from it.

[4]Or, we could say, the “recreation of the renewed heavens and renewed earth.” This is not a theological point that I am simply asserting here; the whole series has pointed in this direction. And we see it here, in Revelation 21.5: Jesus does not say, “I am making all new things”; He says, “I am making all things new.” This is renewal language: the point of Revelation 21-22 is that God is performing an epic makeover. Certainly, absolutely, things are different, but there are clear and repeated points of continuity to what was before.

Creation and New Creation: Connections Between Genesis and Revelation

Introduction: The Bible as Literature

I recently preached a sermon in which I was discussing literary techniques that we see in Scripture. Sometimes people read the Bible in a flat, wooden sort of way, almost like they were reading a police report or something similar, where all you have is a list of facts and no sort of interpretation.

I think that is unfortunate, because the Bible is really a library of books all telling the same grand Story, and within that library, there are various types or genres of literature, and different genres of literature need to be read in certain ways if we are to understand and apply them faithfully. Much could be written both about different types of literature that we see in the Bible—wisdom literature, history, ancient biography, prophecy, poetry, apocalypse, epistles, etc.—and also different types of literary devices that biblical authors used to tell their stories in more powerful ways.*

Examining either of those in detail is beyond the scope of this post, but one literary technique that I do want to focus on here is what I call echoing, or the frequent practice of the authors of Scripture to refer back to an earlier event in the Bible by repeating certain language, or telling stories in similar ways, or comparing certain characters.



Creation and New Creation

One powerful example of echoing can be seen in a comparison between Genesis 1-3, which talks the Creation of the heavens and the earth, and Revelation 21-22, which talks about the New Creation of the New Heavens and New Earth. I shared this particular example in the sermon that I mentioned above, and considering the feedback I got from people who had never noticed these strong connections before, I thought it would be worth sharing here.

Simply put, in the description of the New Heavens and New Earth in Revelation 21-22, over and over again you have echoes of what occurred in the creation of the heavens and earth  Genesis 1-3:

  • In Genesis 1.4, there is a division of light and darkness; in Revelation 21.25, there is no night.
  • In Genesis 1.10, there is a division of land and sea; in Revelation 21.1, there is no more sea.
  • In Genesis 1.16, the rule of the sun and moon is described; in Revelation 21.23, we learn that there is no need for the sun or moon.
  • In Genesis 2.10, we are told about a river flowing out of the Garden of Eden; in Revelation 22.1, we are told about a river flowing from God’s throne.
  • Genesis 2.9 describes the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden; Revelation 22.2 describes the Tree of Life throughout the city.
  • Genesis 2.12 tells us that God and precious stones are in the land; Revelation 21.19 tells us that gold and precious stones are throughout.
  • God walks in the garden, among His creation as described in Genesis 3.8; Revelation 21.3 states that God’s dwelling will be with His people.
  • Following Adam and Eve’s sin, Genesis 3.17 states that the ground itself will be cursed; in the New Creation, there will be no more curse (Revelation 22.3).
  • As a result of sin and the curse, life in creation is characterized by pain and sorrow (Genesis 3.17-19); in the new creation, there will be no more sorrow, pain, or tears (Revelation 21.1-4).
  • Additionally, the sin results in death, described as a returning to the dust (Genesis 3.19); in the New Heavens and New Earth, there is no more death (Revelation 21.4).
  • Adam and Eve are banished from the garden, and cherubim guard the entrance to it (Genesis 3.24); angels actively invite into the city in Revelation 21.9.

There are actually many more points of comparison that could be made, but I think these are sufficient to prove the point: in Revelation, John is clearly describing the eternity that God’s people will spend with Him in the New Heavens and New Earth in language that echoes back to the story of creation and fall in Genesis 1-3.

In making these connections between Revelation and Genesis, John is making a significant and profound theological point: the creation that God created good but that was tainted by sin, He is going to redeem, recreate, and perfect!


*When I discuss Scripture as literature or as story, I am not suggesting that these characteristics somehow diminish its truth. I believe the Bible relates the truest Story of all, but it is still told as story, and employs a variety of literary techniques in the telling of it.

Book Review: Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible

While on vacation, I was glad to be able to read Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible: A Commentary on Revelation 1-3 by Richard Oster.

Dr. Oster is one of the professors at Harding School of Theology, and is known for his extensive knowledge of New Testament backgrounds, particularly through the study of ancient inscriptions, artwork, and numismatics (coins). In Seven Congregations, Oster does a masterful job of using that knowledge to help better explain John’s letters to the seven churches of Asia in the early chapters of the Book of Revelation.

Oster’s commentary focuses on the Asian congregations, and the challenges they faced as they were forced to choose between faithfulness to Christ and assimilation to the surrounding Roman culture. Interpretatively, Seven Congregations emphasizes the relevance of Revelation to the churches to whom it was written, rather than being a series of predictions of what would happen some 2,000 years in the future (which is exactly how far too many people read it). In addition to this emphasis and the fascinating background information, one of my favorite things about the book is the way in which Oster does not shy away from presenting ideas that are a part of Revelation but are not popular in today’s culture (you’ll see some of this reflected in the excerpts below).

I’ve selected some quotations which I enjoyed and which I think provide a good feel for the book (I have bolded certain parts for emphasis):

“As surprising as it might seem in light of centuries of mistaken emphasis, a careful examination of these six specific verses reveals that there is in fact no explicit reference to a temporary millennial enthronement of Christ in Revelation (20:4, 6). Furthermore, if this traditional view were true, then this millennial interregnum of Christ would stand in clear contradiction to the teachings of the rest of the New Testament regarding Christ’s cosmic enthronement.” (p.11)

“…The prophetic message of John is not designed only to comfort the afflicted. John’s words were also clearly written to afflict those Christians who were guilty of assimilation to idolatry, immorality, and emperor worship, either in the present or future. Without doubt the letters destined for the seven churches of Asia contain the promise of blessings to the faithful, the overcomes, but with equal clarity they contain the assurance of divine punishment and retribution for those believers who surrendered themselves to the pressures of the surrounding culture and its mores.” (21)

“The christophany of Rev 1:12-16…contains powerful and horrific imagery and does not portray a Jesus into whose lap one can sit and be cuddled.” (21)

“Indeed, the relevance of prophetic books lies in their specific connection with their own historical setting and not in their predictions about remote history and the end of humankind.” (24)

“Although it might initially sound strange to some futurists, this mention of Jesus’s “coming with the clouds” is one of the few references to Christ’s Second Coming in the entire book of Revelation. Most of the references to impending punishment in Revelation are either against the seven churches or are plagues, bowls of wrath, and the like, against the Roman Empire. Rarely in Revelation is the wrath of God and the Lamb directed against the entire planet with all its inhabitants.” (64)

“Specifically, John’s sectarian outlook considers all synagogue attending Jews who did not accept the messiahship of Jesus as no longer the true Jews…Thus Revelation agrees with other New Testament writings in its support of a modified replacement understanding of Israel and the Christ based congregation (cf. 1 Cor 3:11) of God…According to John, identification as a real Jew is determined on the basis of devotion to the Lamb rather than upon traditional Jewish criteria, e.g., birth and upbringing, adherence to Jewish statues and ceremony.” (124)

“Even though spiritual intolerance is currently the “unforgivable sin” in most areas of contemporary culture, both sacred and secular, this prevailing Western perspective does not represent the outlook revealed to John by Christ.” (148)

“…Christ’s kingdom is always subversive and has appeared explicitly to destroy alternative nations, empires, and their values, until “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (11:15).” (158)

“…This scene presented to the Laodicean congregation is patently not a prototype of the evangelical “sinner’s prayer” where Jesus is invited into the heart of the unregenerate sinner.” (191)

“…The meaning of repentance in Scripture is to change the direction of one’s life, not merely changing elements of intellectual assent.” (192)

“Unless intercession is only artificial role playing, then God’s future actions may be altered by the intercession of his people.” (207)

The commentary is 276 pages including notes and appendices, and though very scholarly, is still written in an engaging way (I was able to read it in a few days). I think the background information Seven Congregations provides is invaluable, and I look forward to reading the next volume.

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