I have been reading Richard Bauckham’s The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation; I was spurned to read this because I read his smaller book The Theology of the Book of Revelation a few months ago, which was excellent and a must read. In fact I would say that if you haven’t read either of these books you haven’t really ever studied the book of Revelation. What I want to highlight is a bit of Bauckham’s discussion and identification of the Beast in the book of Revelation. Now, if your reading this as a dispensationalist you will be challenged (to say the least); but I think if you read Bauckham’s development in full you would be hard pressed to refute what he has to say. He looks at the internal structure of the book, and really presses the ‘Epistle’ genre of the book (then also the ‘Apocalyptic’ and ‘Prophetic’); resulting in taking seriously that John was writing for the seven churches he is speaking to in 1st century Graeco-Rome. Bauckham is at his best as he situates the apocalyptic genre of Revelation in its proper literary context. Meaning that he identifies how all of the picteresque and emotive language of Revelation was understood within its historical context, and what the prophetic significance would have been for these 1st century Christians; and then what it means for us today (by way of application). I uphold what Bauckham here communicates about the ‘Beast’, and I want to commend it to you for your consideration. What he brings out on the Beast and Empire presents a paradigm shifting proposition in the way that most Evangelical Christians have understood this amazing book. I am going to share this quote on the Beast and Empire from Bauckham, and then I will close with a few parting comments.
[T]he images of the beast will probably become most easily accessible to us as we realise that it was primarily in developing the theme of christological parody that John found the Nero legend useful. It enabled him to construct a history of the beast as paralleling the death, the resurrection and the parousia of Jesus Christ. Some interpretation of Revelation has made the theme of christological parody seem a mere creative fantasy which John projects onto the Roman Empire, which of course had no intention of aping the Christian story of Jesus. In fact, as we have seen, the christological parody corresponds to real features of history of the empire, to the character of the imperial cult, and to contemporary expectations of the future of the empire. It is a profound prophetic interpretation of the contemporary religio-political image of the empire, both in Rome’s own propaganda and in its subjects’ profoundest responses to Roman rule. This religio-political ideology, which John sees as a parody of the Christian claims about Christ, was no mere cover for the hard political realities: it entered deeply into the contemporary dynamics of power as they affected the lives of John’s contemporaries. He sees it as a deification of power. The empire’s success is founded on military might and people’s adulation of military might. By these standards Christ and the martyrs are the unsuccessful victims of the empire. Instead of worshipping the risen Christ who has won his victory by suffering witness to the truth, the world worships the beast whose ‘resurrection’ is the proof that this military might is invincible. The parallel between the ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’ of the beast and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ poses the issue of what is truly divine. Is it the beast’s apparent success which is worthy of religious trust and worship? Or is the apparent failure of Christ and the martyrs the true witness to the God who can be ultimately trusted and may alone be worshipped?
The ambiguity of the period of the beast’s reign, in which to earthly appearances the beast’s ‘resurrection’ has established his eternal kingdom, while those who acknowledge God’s rule are slaughtered by the beast, cannot be permanent. God’s kingdom must come. The parallel between the beast’s ‘parousia’ and Christ’s poses the issue of what will turn out ultimately to be divine, whose kingdom will prevail in the end. The cult of military power contains its own contradiction: the city which lived by military conquest will fall by military conquest. But beyond that, military power which aims only at its own absolute supremacy must prove a false messiah. It overreaches itself because it is the merely human grasping for what is truly only divine. It is only the parousia of Christ that can establish an eternal kingdom, because it is truly the coming of the eternal God who alone can be trusted with absolute supremacy.
The riddle of the number of the beast pointed specifically to Nero as the figure whose history and legend displayed, to those who had wisdom, the nature of the Roman Empire’s attempt to rival God. Any contemporary reappropriation of Revelation’s images that aims to expose the dynamics of power in the contemporary world in the light of the Gospel would also have to be specific. [Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, 451-52]
The first thing I want to draw our attention to is Bauckham’s last paragraph. What he is doing with this is delimiting the application of the book of Revelation to a particular set of boundaries. In other words, he is using its original audience and shape as determinative for how we can appropriate and apply it to our own context and situation today (just as in principle we should interpret the so called Minor Prophets or Book of the Twelve). What this does, by implication, is that it disallows the Dispensationalist interpretation of the book of Revelation. It won’t allow for providing the kind of the nitty-gritty detail that Dispensational exegesis of this book is known for. There is a general understanding of end time events revealed in this book (as it pertains to the end of the current world system), and only a more particular understanding of the consummate age or heaven. In other words, to read stuff into Revelation (like identifying the European union as the ten headed beast, or taking the “Mark of the Beast” as a literal mark or bar code embedded on your hand or forehead) will not work; and this is convincingly revealed as the exegete studies the background context and Jewish-Christian apocalyptic tradition from which John wrote and received the revelation of Jesus.
Bauckham’s prior development, to the quote above, has highlighted how the history in the 1st century (second Temple Judaism) supplies all the historical referents for which John’s apocalyptic language finds a referent. In other words, the language of “Beast” was common moniker for the Roman Empire, and its gone wild military power. The ‘Mark of the Beast’ was required in order to buy and sell in the Roman Empire (or allegiance to Nero and the Caesars). So as Bauckham notes, if true, then the application of this (prophetically for the future) is that the power of the Beast (represented by empires who have their strength through military might and power) will not last (which was immediately realized in the Roman context as ultimately the Roman empire collapsed, but this kind of “power” has continued to persist into the present). Also there is an interesting note, historically in regards to the language of the Beast receiving a fatal blow to the head, and then his resurrection (which was also common apocalyptic language directed toward the Roman empire and the Nero legend by other apocalyptic writings during this period like the Ascension of Isaiah etc.); Bauckham identifies how this was something that had already happened in reference to the Beast (in particular Nero legend, whom the number 666 through Gematria [the common usage of Greek letters that have numeric value to identify people or places, in this instance, the Greek letters for Nero add up to 666]); that after Nero committed suicide, it appeared that the Roman empire was doomed, but at the time of 70 AD Titus Vespasian resurrected and coalesced the empire through the sacking of Jerusalem and the military might of the Rome. It appeared that the Beast had died, but within a short period of time he rose again to excessive power. These are just a few examples of how Bauckham reorientates the book of Revelation through providing a thick account of the context in which the book of Revelation was written. The exegete, if genuine, cannot simply over-look what Bauckham has provided if he or she is going to honestly engage the book of Revelation. Which leads to my last implication.
For all too long, personally, folks I have been around who want to continue holding onto their particular interpretive schema of things (especially dispensationalists) will caricature other interpretive approaches to the book of Revelation in particular. There usually is a sketch of the other positions (like historist, idealist, preterist), but then this is only used to relativize the interpretive situation (or confuse); at which point the dispensationalist steps in and offers his clarity of interpreting the book of Revelation through a futurist lens alone. This is not good practice, and it ultimately turns people like me off. True, each one of us has to make our own decisions when it comes to principles of interpretation; but I would like to think that that involves being honest, and taking all the evidence (we are aware of) into account. That we are not so locked into particular denominations and their distinctives that we are afraid to change our minds, and allow our preunderstandings that we bring to the text to change in accordance with the relative weight of the evidence on the ground that we are confronted with through the kind of rigorous study that Paul admonishes us to (cf. II Tim. 2.15). [I am of course not talking about essential things here, I am talking about so called secondary things like this issue entails]
One more implication. If what Bauckham writes is true, then this has paradigmatic consequences for how we view our current situation, especially as Westerners and Americans in particular. We should not conflate being a Christian with being a Patriot, a Republican-Democrat-Independent, or simply with being an American. In fact insofar as America’s strength is rooted in her military might, then she exemplifies the features of the ‘Beast’ and not the City on the Hill that Ronald Reagan attributed to her. What the book of Revelation does is that it places any empire (like, really the emerging Global Empire we inhabit) on notice; that its time is short, and that all of its wanton desires are coming to an end. You can kill the Christians (and the ‘Beast’ has, statistically more so in the 20th century by itself than the previous 19 added together), but it is through the martyrs blood that the Beast only proves his own demise; the blood of the martyrs cries out, and signals that the Lion-Lamb’s kingdom has come and will finally come at the last trumpet. What Bauckham’s insights implies is that the Beast (or Anti-Christ) is not necessarily embodied in a single person; instead Nero and the Roman empire exemplifies or symbolizes the kind of power that is embodied by empires or empire in the world. There will be, according to the unfolding of the judgments in Revelation (the Seal, Trumpet, Bowl) an intensification of the Beast and empire just prior to the return of Christ (where the Danielic ‘Stone’ will crush the kingdoms of this world cf. Daniel 2). In other words, Jesus could come at any moment!