A good advice in life is to “Begin with the End in Mind”. If you know where you are heading, you’ll know what you are doing. If you agree, then today’s book review is for you.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I’m reviewing “Revelation and the End of All Things” by Craig R. Koester. This is the second edition, published in 2018 by Eerdmans Publishing. It’s priced at USD9.99 in Amazon Kindle but it’s free in Logos for January and only January.
Puzzling, Mysterious and Scary Revelation
Revelation. How would you describe the last book of the Bible? Puzzling. Mysterious. Scary. You are not alone. Koester quotes a a famous theologian who said that Revelation was “neither apostolic nor prophetic”. This famous historical figure could “in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it”. He also said that “Christ is neither taught nor known in it”. And thus he “advised people to stick to the biblical books that present Christ clearly.”
Who dares to speak against holy scripture? Why, he is none other than Martin Luther. Who dares to smear such a great man? Why, he is none other than Craig R. Koester, a professor at Luther Seminary who has written commentaries on Hebrews and Revelation for the Anchor Yale Commentary series. He was also involved in the Lutheran World Federation’s project on the “The Bible in the Life of the Lutheran Communion” from 2011-2016.
Martin Luther is known for his over the top language but what provoked his outrageous comments against Revelation? Koester explains that in 1521 there were three radical preachers stirring up trouble by proclaiming the imminent end of the world. By warning people to stick to the biblical books that present Christ clearly he was protecting Christians from false teachers.
Because to follow a wrong interpretation of Revelation can be dangerous. Koester gives three examples.
The first group predicted Christ’s return in March 21, 1843, then March 21, 1844, then October 22, 1844. Then they argued that Christ did return but he returned invisibly to cleanse the heavenly sanctuary. This is the Seventh Day Adventists.
The second group predicted Christ’s return in 1874, then 1914. They taught that 144,000 saints have a special status citing Revelation passages. This group is of course, the Jehovah Witnesses.
The third group attempted to gather 144,000 people to greet the arrival of God’s kingdom which was prophesied to happen on April 22, 1959. When the date passed without incidence, Vernon Howell, who later called himself, David Koresh took over the remnant. Listen to how Koester describes his teaching:
Since Isaiah 45:1 calls Cyrus or “Koresh” God’s “anointed one” (christos in Greek), David Koresh argued that many New Testament references to the “christ” referred to a latter-day warrior rather than to Jesus. For example, he insisted that the Lamb who would break the seals on the scroll that contained God’s plan for the ages (Rev. 5:2) was not Jesus, but Koresh himself. He also claimed to be the conqueror on the white horse that appeared when the first seal was broken (Rev. 6:1–2). Like Cyrus before him, Koresh envisioned himself as the adversary of “Babylon,” the term he used for federal agents and other outsiders.
When you read how Revelation has been interpreted by the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah Witnesses and David Koresh, Martin Luther’s over the top warnings seem prudent.
Luther in his commentary on Revelation offers one significant insight. Revelation is a message of warning and promise. Throughout this book, Koester will take Luther’s cue to show that message of warning and promise.
If you know nothing about interpreting Revelation, the first chapter is a must-read. Here, Koester traces the history of interpreting revelation from the early church fathers onwards. Notable names include Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Montanus, Jerome, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and later the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah Witnesses, David Koresh, postmillennialists, premillennialists, and more. From his big sweep through history, Koester highlights what he sees as important threads and brings them together for his book.
For example, Revelation is not a chronological straight line reading. It is cyclical, meaning the same ideas are repeated in different ways.
You Literally Don’t Know What Literally Means
A central argument he makes is Revelation is not a code book for 22nd century Christians to reveal the divine secrets of current or future events. Koester rejects a futuristic interpretation and holds a historical and timeless interpretation of Revelation.
You say, “Why don’t we just take a literal interpretation?” The funny thing is everyone says they are taking a literal interpretation. Premillennialists say Revelation literally shows the world will get worse and so Christians must heed the warnings and prepare for it. Postmillennialists say Revelation literally shows the world will get better and so Christians must heed the promises and work towards it. Amillennialists say we must take Revelation as it is literally. It is literally a revelation, a prophecy and a letter.
Many end-times debate start at Revelation 20, which is the millennial kingdom chapter, and people interpret the rest of Revelation based on their view on the millennial. Koester asks that we read Revelation not from Revelation 20 but from the first three chapters of Revelation, read it as a letter to the seven churches.
Then as we advance further and get buffeted by the seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven bowls of wrath, the creatures with faces resembling a human, a lion, an ox and an eagle and so on, Koester our steadfast guide will remind us that all these visions were written as a message of promise and warning to the seven churches as they confront assimilation, persecution and complacency. And what they face, we also face. Thus, the message of promise and warning which historically applies to them is timeless for all Christians.
In the start of a chapter, before he begins his commentary, there is a circle or a cycle to be precise. When he comments on Revelation 1-3, the picture is of one cycle. In the next chapter, we see two cycles and so on. What I appreciate is he doesn’t just tell us there is this cyclical structure in the book, which we can gather from an outline. What Koester does so well is to show how the cycles connect to each other. For example, at the start of chapter three, he writes:
As the previous cycle concluded, Christ stood knocking at the door, waiting for the Christian community to open to him (3:20); but before readers can respond, a new cycle begins as John is shown a door that already stands open (4:1). The contrast is provocative: as Christ asks the community to open their door to him, he opens heaven’s door to them through John’s prose.
By showing the connection between cycles, when we reach the final chapter, which is the sixth and final cycle of visions, we are persuaded of his conclusion. Let me quote from him:
The peculiar cyclical structure of Revelation, which we have followed throughout this book, directs attention to God and the Lamb as the End of all things. By taking readers through a dizzying spiral of visions, Revelation helps to undercut the readers’ confidence that they can know the steps by which future events will unfold. Those who find a kind of security in knowing where they are on God’s timeline subtly fall prey to a false faith, because God keeps the secrets of his coming hidden from human eyes (Matt. 24:36). Therefore, the kaleidoscopic changes in images that overlap with each other and convey similar messages in multiple guises actually help to show readers the limits of their own abilities to determine where they are in time. As Revelation’s spirals unsettle readers, however, they repeatedly bring readers back to the presence of God and the Lamb, who are worthy of the readers’ trust (Rev. 1:12–20; 4:1–5:14; 7:9–17; 11:15–19; 15:2–4; 19:1–10; 21:1–22:5).
Sometimes commentaries ask a lot from the readers, knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, ancient history, literature but Koester makes no such demands. He shows us there is a cycle simply by putting the Bible verses together. Just follow the evidence and you will reach the same conclusions.
Not a Reference Book But Better
Normally, if you pick up a commentary on Revelation, it’s because you want to know what a symbol means. For example, let me read from Revelation 5:6.
And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
Christians understand the Lamb to symbolically refer to Jesus Christ. Nobody takes this verse to mean a literal lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. But you wonder, “What do the seven horns and seven eyes mean?” So you take a commentary, and the one we are reading is Koester’s and you are disappointed.
To answer your question, “What do the seven horns and seven eyes mean?”, Koester just tells us that the horn is a symbol of power (Ps 132:17) and seven refers to God’s sevenfold Spirit (Isa 11:1-3). That’s it.
What Koester lacks in detailed exposition he more than compensates with big picture exposition. He does explain who is the 144,000 redeemed, the woman, Michael and the dragon, the two beasts, the Great Harlot and so on, but he always tackles the question of what the symbol means in light of the whole book of Revelation.
Why A Lamb? Why Not Something More Direct?
For example, in his comments on the lamb who was slain, the verse we read just now, Koester poses a different question. He writes:
This scene is a good place to ask again why Revelation communicates through word pictures rather than in a more direct way.
Notice that by asking this general question, “Why word pictures?”, the answer will help you grasp the entire book which is full of word pictures. Listen to his answer on why a lamb.
In this single vivid image of the Lamb, John brings together multiple dimensions of meaning: vulnerability, sacrificial death, and deliverance. As noted earlier, the imagery also appeals to the emotions and the will by evoking sympathy and a willingness to identify with the one whom the Lamb represents. By juxtaposing the images of a Lion and a Lamb, John portrays the suffering and death of Jesus as an act of power—the power of redemptive self-giving, which accomplishes God’s purposes. The widespread use of the Lamb image in Christian art, music, and worship attests to its ability to capture the imagination.
This is a brilliant answer putting forward the theological, emotional, contextual and practical.
What is the Beast?
Another example, “What is the Beast from the Sea in Revelations 13?” Instead of trying to identify who are the ten horns and seven heads – Are they Roman emperors? Are they the United Nations? – Koester contrasts the Lamb Who Was Slain against the Beast from the Sea. He comments:
Many of the beast’s features are hideous distortions of those of the Lamb. Christians believed that the God enthroned in heaven sent Christ into the world as the Lamb who suffered and died for others. In a perverse counterpart to this story, the Devil who is kicked out of heaven sends a beast into the world to make others suffer and die. In previous chapters, readers learned that the Lamb shares the power, the throne, and the authority of God (5:6, 12, 13; 12:5, 10); now they learn that the beast shares the power, the throne, and the authority of Satan the dragon (13:2).
Koester later concludes that “the beast exemplifies the threats that confront the people of God in many generations.”
Do you hear the clash in approach? The clash between the futuristic versus timeless interpretative approach? The futuristic approach tries to map the beast to someone we have to watch out. The futuristic approach is a common way of reading Revelation which Koester rejects. In contrast, the timeless approach warns us to watch out for assimilation, persecution and complacency. The problems that has historically affected the seven churches are the same problems we currently face. Thus, the beast is a timeless symbol of persecution.
A Holy City Shaped As A Cube
One last insight. In keeping with what Martin Luther said is the purpose of Revelation, let’s look at a promise this time instead of a warning. In Revelation 21, John speaks of the new city, the New Jerusalem. Verse 21:16:
The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal.
If the length, width and height are equal then this city is a perfect cube. 12,000 stadia is 1380 miles or 2220 kilometers. Let’s just look at the height. The tallest building in the world right now is not even 1 kilometer high. It is barely half a mile high. Imagine the scale. The mind resists to imagine a cubic city and perhaps resistance is futile. Futile, maybe because the numbers and dimensions point to something else.
Koester asserts that the cubic shape points to the holy city as a sanctuary. Did you know that the inner chambers of the tabernacle and the temple, the Holy of Holies, is a cubic space? Let me read from 1 Kings 6:20.
The inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and twenty cubits high…
Instead of trying to visualise a cubic Holy City, which is more than 2000 times taller than our tallest building today – How does it look like? How would it be constructed? – let us consider rather the relationship of New Jerusalem with the Holy of Holies.
Who Is This Book For?
Who is this book for? When it comes to interpreting Revelation, I suggest there are three groups of people.
The first group is so intimidated by Revelation that they avoid reading it. The book overwhelms the mind. It’s such a hard book, I don’t understand it and I’ll just skip it because there are 65 other books for me to understand. For the longest time, I was a member of this group.
Then there is the second group who are cocksure that they have nailed the interpretation of Revelation using obviously, obviously, the correct biblical approach and nothing would convince them that they are wrong. Even if they stood before the Great White Throne surrounded by the angelic hosts, they would probably tell the Lord Jesus that it’s all great and all but the movie, I mean the outcome, is different from the book.
Between those two extremes, are people who are timidly exploring Revelation to learn Old Testament allusions and theological categories like eschatology, apocalyptic literature and millennialism.
This book has something for all three groups.
For the first group, the scaredy cats, this book gives you the satisfaction that you can understand the book of Revelation. I don’t know how to impress upon you how wonderful a feeling this is for a book that is so impenetrable for so long. For those who feel lost reading Revelation, Koester offers a map, a cyclical structure, that will help you make sense of all the visions.
For the second group, the confident students of Revelation, Koester will not change your mind. He spends more time explaining why he is right, and not why you are wrong. You will gain a clearer and better understanding of one interpretation. Or to paraphrase one of R.C. Sproul’s jokes, you will have two interpretations, one is yours and the other is God’s.
Joking aside, when Christians discuss about the end times we often lose sight of what we agree about the end times. Koester tells us Revelation begins and ends with God and the Lamb. You agree. Koester tells us that Revelation functions to offer promise and warning to Christians. You agree. So while many may disagree with the details or what it means to take a literal interpretation, there is still far more that unites us than separates Christians in this Revelation debate. This book helps build that unity.
For the third group, my earlier comments obviously apply but I add another. We don’t like being unsure of anything. It makes us uncomfortable, wishy-washy, sitting on the fence. We become tempted to rush into the first position that makes sense to us. If you are still exploring and are not familiar with other positions yet, I ask that you hold on. At least until you understand why other Bible-honouring Christians hold to differing positions.
Understanding Revelation As A Whole
I have one final reflection that hopefully might tip the balance to get you to read this book. I don’t know about you but the Revelation sermons I have heard all came as short series. For example, I attended a conference where Tim Keller preached a series on the seven churches. I remember my pastor preaching a short series on the seven seals. When you consider what Revelation is, with all the psychedelic colours and noise, it’s understandable why it’s offered as a short series rather than preached from Revelation chapter one to chapter 22. But I understand my experience could be different from yours.
All I am saying is, if you are looking for a book that gives you a clear structure to follow and explains the relationships between the chapters of Revelation in a way that you can get it and stirs you with a timeless message of promise and warning, then this is the book to get.
This is a Reading and Reader’s review of “Revelation and the End of All Things” by Craig R. Koester. It’s available now for free from Logos for this month and this month only.
Next in Reading and Readers!
As regular listeners would know, Logos is not the only one with a free book of the month programme. Faithlife has one. The next book I will review is “Sunsets: Reflections for Life’s Final Journey” by Deborah Howard.
Let me read the description:
Because one death touches many lives, it is important for both those who are dying and those who love them to be prepared for the pain and grief that accompany it. Here Deborah Howard shares words of comfort and encouragement for everyone coping with suffering and death. Her compassion, firm faith in Christ, and years of working as a hospice nurse create a uniquely sensitive, experiential, and biblical volume.
Above all, she emphasizes that there is a light that cuts through death’s dark shadow. That light is Jesus Christ, and He offers hope and comfort to all who are facing life’s final journey.
I’m looking forward to sharing my review of this book with you in two weeks. See you then!