One of the many benefits seminary is being introduced to new theologians as I prepare my papers. This past semester, I wrote a paper about Christology in Philippians 2:6-11, and I drew on the writings of Richard Bauckham. Not all theologians are engaging writers. He is. I was interested in what else he has written, so I picked up his The Theology of the Book of Revelation.
In my early years as a Christian, I was steeped in the tradition whereby Revelation is a book to provide us with a key to figuring out when the end times is and what that will look like. My church has very specific views about what Revelation means, but as I've learned more about genres of New Testament Scripture, I have had questions about what I've learned over the years.
Compared to what I've been taught, Bauckham has very different views about the theology of Revelation. His conclusions are influenced by the book's genre: apocalyptic literature. Because of its genre, it not read as if it's an epistle or a gospel. Its genre as apocalyptic is not something that has been discussed in my church when the book is taught. The symbols and images have not been as much of a focus and there has been no reflection on the cultural circumstances of when John wrote the book. It has been more a case of placing an already existing template over Revelation and working to make things fit. That is not the way I've been taught in seminary. Seeing how Bauckham uses the text to draw conclusions is a very helpful exercise.
In Revelation 4, the scene is the throne room in heaven, and gathered around it are worshippers. Jesus is on the throne and around that throne are twenty-four other thrones with twenty-four elders seated on them. It is an awesome scene full of lighting, thunder, and lamps burning. In the centre of the throne area are four living creatures:
The first creature was like a lion, and the second creature like a calf, and the third creature had the face like that of a man, and the fourth was like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and around; and day and night they don't cease to say, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come." (Rev. 4:7-8).
Bauckham highlights that this is a scene that is not focused on humans, but on God:
Humanity is radically displaced from the centre of things where humans naturally tend to place themselves. At its heart and in its eschatological goal the creation is theocentric, orientated in worship towards the Creator. But even among the worshippers human beings are not pre-eminent. The four living creatures who lead the worship of the whole creation are not portrayed as anthropomorphic beings, as angelic being often are. Only the third has a face resembling a human face.
Do I mean to say that this passage has nothing to do with humans? Not at all. But what I have come to see in my own reading of Scripture is that I often have been more focused on what I can know about myself than God. Bauckham's comment that this is a theocentric -- God-centred -- passage is something that can be applied to the whole letter, and certainly to the whole Bible.
Scripture is not given for the sole purpose that I can use it to unlock the mysteries of the future. It is given so that I may see God revealed, and that I may know who he is. Yes, we live in light of who God is, and Scripture should influence our conduct, but I am seeing more and more that I must first look for God in the Scripture, not myself.
I haven't finished the book, and there may be things I don't agree with. But even if I don't fully embrace everything Bauckham says, his exhortation to see the theocentric nature of Revelation is a lesson worth receiving.