Stephen S. Smalley IVP Academic 2012-10-17

In the introduction to his commentary on the Book of Revelation, Smalley, a competent Johannine scholar, states that he bases this commentary on Nestle-Aland’s 27th revised edition of the Greek text and that he approaches the book as a unit, that is, as a coherent drama, despite the fact that John drew on earlier sources. Smalley argues that the author is John the apostle who wrote the Apocalypse during Vespasian’s rule (A.D. 69–79), most likely before Jerusalem’s fall in A.D. 70. Smalley says John was addressing the Johannine community in Asia Minor, which consisted of three groups: (a) Jewish Christians who considered Jesus as the divine Messiah, (b) Hellenistic Christians who thought of Jesus as fully human, and (c) a third group who saw Jesus as both divine and human. These three groups of believers found it difficult to exist together within the community; thus John enjoined love and unity. Furthermore there was within the community a tendency toward “social, political, ecclesiastical, and economic” idolatry (p. 6), all of which needed to be combated.

The literary genre of Revelation is both apocalyptic and prophetic, suggesting that John was a prophet-seer not only for the Johannine community in the first century but for all ages. Typical of Johannine literature, Revelation presents the dualism of the earthly historical Jesus who was crucified and the heavenly exalted Christ. Rather than preterist, historicist, or futurist interpretations, Smalley follows Gregory Beale with a modified idealist interpretation, which portrays Revelation as “the timeless conflict between the forces of good and evil, God and Satan” (p. 16). Regarding the structure of the book Smalley suggests that one should not attempt to view the book as presenting some sort of chronological sequence. Instead the book should be viewed as a theological literary work that allows for the development of “the divine plan for final victory” (p. 19). After the prologue (1:1–8) Smalley divides the drama into two parts: “Act 1: Creation and Salvation through Judgement (1:9–11:19)” and “Act 2: Salvation through Judgement, and New Creation (12:1–22:17),” concluding with the Epilogue (22:18–22).

In each section Smalley gives a translation, discusses the textual critical issues and the literary setting, and then makes detailed comments on the passage. Also included is an excursus entitled “Angels in Revelation.” In Revelation 2–3 Smalley presents helpful insights regarding the seven churches of Asia Minor. Following this he discusses the heavenly court in chapters 4–5, and here his comments are rich in theological insight.

Smalley views the four horsemen in Revelation 6 as the forces of evil that proceed as a part of God’s plan but are ultimately conquered by His sovereign power in Christ. Smalley also views the fifth and sixth seals in a similar way. The sealing of the 144,000 symbolizes the sealing of believers, not the Israelites, in protecting them from the consequences of evil, which may occur at any time or anywhere. He says the seven seals, the seven trumpets, and the seven bowls “do not refer to specific and consecutive events in time which can be identified but to principles of right and wrong, divine goodness and human evil, which operate throughout the history of the world and its society” (p. 245). He concludes that rather than a literal interpretation of the seals, trumpets, and bowls a spiritual or allegorical interpretation is intended.

Smalley continues this reasoning in much of the rest of the commentary. He writes that 12:1–22:17 concerns salvation through judgment and the new creation. However, in discussing chapters 19–20 he shifts his interpretation. He views 19:11–16 in a more literal manner, proposing that Jesus will come personally to judge the wicked, rather than viewing this passage as a symbol that impersonal good will overcome evil. He does not take the millennium (20:1–6) literally; instead it represents “a long time,” namely, “from the event of the Word made flesh to the final parousia of Jesus including his life, ministry, death and exaltation” (p. 504). On the one hand, when the wicked are cast into the lake of fire this is a spiritual and not a material judgment. On the other hand, however, he regards the new Jerusalem, new heavens, and new earth in chapters 21–22 as more literal and physical. Here he views Christ as dwelling with the redeemed saints.

Although Smalley interprets Revelation in a modified idealist sense, those who interpret it in a futuristic manner should not dismiss this commentary as unhelpful, for insights may be gained from reading it. Whereas this reviewer disagrees with many of the author’s interpretations, it must be said that there are excellent insights on God’s victory over Satan and his evil machinations. Usually after each section there are two pages on theology that are worth reading. Smalley often refers to works on Revelation by Beale and Aune as well as works by Beckwith, Caird, Charles, Mounce, Prigent, Sweet, and Swete. However, it is disappointing that Smalley includes no references to works by Thomas, Kistemaker, Osborne, or Walvoord.

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