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In this volume of the Continental Commentary, Roloff has done an excellent job of summarizing the historical factors behind the symbols and images in Revelation. He brings the socio-political context to life, explaining how every one of the symbols and images of the coded message fits the current situation of the young Christian community in the precarious Roman environment.
Believers in Asia were experiencing growing pressure in Asia Minor to publicly participate in Emperor Worship. The Emperor Worship cult was the most active in this province. Roloff references official documents as well as other sources to draw the picture of the background of the situation the Revelator is speaking to.
The English translation for the German of this Swiss Reformed scholar is smoothly handled, with helpful indications of the German chosen to represent the particular Greek word or concept. The Greek vocabulary is presented in the discussions, enabling the reader to understand the original concerns and expression of the Revelator.
Although he takes a thematic approach, rather than an analytical approach, Roloff follows a standard classic exegesis format, providing a summary of main points of each focal passage as he goes. He then provides a brief commentary on the passage as a whole, before analyzing the passage point by point. His passage-by-passage approach, however, maintains the flow of the story and he does not allow us to lose the connection of one section to the other, as often happens in popular Bible study or preaching.
Roloff traces themes, images and concerns, even specific phrasing, in the Revelation to Jewish-Christian sources, and distinguishes these influences from the Gentile Christian influences in the mixed cultural setting of Asia Minor. He points out patterns, theological themes and vocabulary in Revelation that seem related to Paul's letters and the Gospels at important points.
He helps us understand the interplay of the Old Testament apocalyptic visions adapted by the Revelator. He provides the first detailed comparison I have seen of the partial borrowings, changes made by the Revelator in some visions, images or metaphors and the creative combination of two or more images from scenes or visions in different Old Testament writings.
Revelation draws heavily, of course, from both Ezekiel and Daniel, and Roloff helps us with the thematic and cultural background of these works, as well as non-canonical writings referenced in the text of Revelation. This brings to life the real-world context of the book. Roloff also points out other Torah references in the book as well, further underlining the Jewish character and context of the work.
Roloff also spends meaningful time on the possible influences and themes from non-canonical, but very popular, literature of Jewish apocalyptic of that time, such as the Book of Enoch. His careful and prolific referencing to chapter and verse of these common sources clarifies the broader Jewish context of the Revelation and its message, and provides some insight into the prominent Jewish composition of the churches of Roman Asia.
God or Government
We see in Roloff's in-context study of Revelation that these were down-to-earth actual churches of real Christian believers in a real situation at that time. Roloff brings out clearly this real-life setting that provides the context for meaning of the complex of images and their message of hope, in language that reveals to the hearers but hides the meaning from uninitiated Roman pagan authorities, the enemies of the Gospel and its new community.
He provides a very competent and thorough thematic analysis, enabling the reader to see the connection and interaction of the various and multi-focal images the Revelator uses.
Each section ends with suggestions for application of the meaning in our time and socio-political setting. He deftly shows how Emperor-worship finds its modern contemporary in the political structures of western governments and nationalism that equates God with country or nationality, or places nation or government in priority one of our lives.
Roloff maintains the integrity of the text, rightly rejecting the modern popular-culture "Rapture" cult of prediction and linear end-time scenario, to place the book of encouragement and hope in its proper historical and cultural context. Roloff just sticks with the text in its cultural setting to keep us attuned to the message of the text to its stated audience.
The common millennial hype has become a big-dollar industry in modern America, preying on the modern desire for the novel, mysterious and thrilling, riding on the great popular wave of the science fiction it resembles. This approach, arising in the late 1800s and skyrocketing to national prominence in the development of modern electronic and publishing media, overlooks the down-to-earth setting provided by the 7 letters of the Introductory section of Revelation.
Roloff enriches us with a practical and understandable message for today, rather than the common esoteric code of linear events at some vague future time. He points out that the text had to make sense to the immediate audience who would have heard the text read aloud in the Christian assemblies for the first time. A message of hope in their perilous times, when periodic outbursts of persecution were directed at those strong enough to stand up against the patriotic cult of Emperor Worship.
In the popular "Rapture" scenario, home Bible studies, emotional television discussions and ficitonal dramas envision an in-group gnostic approach to the future (a secret knowledge that only the initiated few can know). In this doomsday mindset only the chosen, enlightened few will be delivered out of troubled times as the world goes downhill even faster. Faith seems to fall out of focus.
Roloff shows how this modern concept clashes with the actual structure and context in Revelation, which provides encouragement to the persecuted believers to be faithful to their calling and commitment, enduring the trials they now see. He points out that, true to Hebrew persepctives in the Old Testament, "faith" is more "faithfulness." This is a strong theme in Revelation.
Statistics indicate only about 10-15% of American evangelicals believe the Premillennial scenario as a literal future possibility. Yet it has become so prominent in home Bible studies and even from popular pulpits, those themes of escapism from real life and the vision of a violent vengeance against evil clash with Jesus' own careful and extensive description of the Kingdom of God.
Victory through the Word
The Gospels present a very different reference point from the violent way-of-the-world version presented by modern popular apocalypticists. Jesus describes the Rule of God on earth as a very different way of life from the violent, coercive and manipulative worldly way of human power that are our governmental structures, now and in every era. Revelation is consistent with the Gospels.
This clear Gospel vision of an alternative way is captured in the Revelator's clear focus that the enemies of God are destroyed by the Sword of his Mouth -- the Word of God, not the Sword of the Conqueror. The Revelation drama is exciting and powerful as the victory of a Lamb, who conquers by suffering and Truth.
Roloff avoids the temptation to the cheap thrill found in this popular culture approach to Revelation, in where one verse or short passage, or one vision, is isolated and raised to fill the total vision, detaching it from the overall themes and message of this important book. One vision or powerful symbolic image is separated from the total package that is Revelation, and rearranged into a linear sequence of historical events, to match the more empirical and rationalistic analytical modern mind.
The Message in Context
In this important volume, Roloff fights for the integrity and coherence of the text of Revelation in its cultural and biblical context. He warns us of the misdirection we suffer when the text is detached from its historical, incarnational context in the real world of John's flocks in Roman Asia Minor.
A latter-day popular-culture approach has led to the arcane and esoteric "rapture" interpretations that have proliferated in the second half of the 20th century as science fiction seems to merge biblical interpretation. Rather than succumbing to the popular-culture desire for titillating futurescape predictions, Roloff maintains faithfulness to the original context and intent of the text itself.
This prodigious yet readable work brings the Revelation to vibrant life and enables its message to speak anew to our time.
See related reviews and articles on this site:
The Book of Enoch
The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish Origins of Christianity
A Gnostic View of Jesus
God and the Problem of Evil
History and the Future in Mark's Gospel
A New Testament Window into First Century Jewish Literature
Jesus and the Jewish Resurrection
Split-Rapture Recent Origins Exposed
Thessalonica, Qumran and the Cult of the Emperor
For More on Revelation:
Revelation Commentary, Dr Jim Dennison - Baptist Way Press
Revelation Resources: Interpretative Views Of The Revelation
For More on Premillennialism:
Non Pre-Tribulation Rapture
Manuel Lacunza Apocalyptic Teaching 1792/1827
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Review posted on Amazon and Thoughts and Resources 22 January 2012
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2012 Orville Boyd Jenkins
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