Dr. Craig Blomberg reviews Fee's new commentary, Revelation
Gordon D. Fee. Revelation. New Covenant Commentary Series. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010. xxii + 332 pp. $39.00 pap. ISBN 978-1-60899-431-1.
A new commentary by Gordon Fee is always a welcome event, especially since he is well into retirement and one realizes that he won’t be writing forever! Fee’s wonderful material on apocalyptic literature in his and Doug Stuart’s classic How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth whets one’s appetite all the more for its detailed outworking in a Revelation commentary. In recent years, Fee has regularly described his approach to book production—writing what he wants to say first and then filling in the footnotes and interaction with other literature afterwards. His years of research and teaching allow him to do that; unfortunately, in this volume the second step never occurs. The rare footnotes are almost entirely content notes. Still, we get vintage Fee, but not always why he prefers a given approach against major alternatives.
A concise introduction defends apostolic authorship because that was the nearly uniform belief in the early church and because the stylistic differences with the Gospel and Epistles that bear John’s name are, overall, quite minor. The setting is the end of the first century, with “the church and state. . .on a collision course of some magnitude over who runs the universe, and John fully recognizes that power and victory presently appear to belong to the state. But because of Rome’s arrogance and oppression, God will bring her to ruin” (p. xvii).
Fee never labels his exegetical conclusions as adding up to one of the main approaches to Revelation, but it appears to be moderately amillennial, with a combination of preterist, idealist and futurist elements. The imagery must all be interpreted in terms of what John and his first-century readers in Asia Minor would have understood, from Old Testament backgrounds, Second Temple Jewish developments, and recent events in the Roman empire. But the main themes and principles that emerge prove relevant in every age of church history and will eventually lead to one grand finale as Christ returns and ushers in the eschaton.
From the first chapter on, Revelation is permeated with high Christology and Trinitarian theology. (The “sevenfold Spirit” who reappears throughout the book must be the Holy Spirit in all his fullness.) As in the explicitly hymnic material of the Apocalypse, one can sense Fee himself being moved to worship, adore and praise God in Christ through the Spirit at almost every juncture in the book. His writing regularly includes observations like “these words hardly need commentary, but rather affirmation and acclamation” (p. 83, speaking of 5:7-13).
Appropriate to the imagery of a scroll once rolled up and kept closed, opening the seven seals does not depict the end times judgments per se, but what must take place before them, in the near future from John’s perspective. The first seal in 6:2 is not Christ but a demonic parody of Christ, just as the three beasts of chapters 12-13 will parody the Triune Godhead. To understand the martyred saints’ pleas for vengeance (6:9-10), modern critics of this language must remember how displeased they would be to have lived “under the heavy-handed rule of the kind of totalitarianism of the Roman Empire” (p. 98).
The sealing of God’s people at the beginning of chapter 7 is the first of several important reminders that although they will live through tribulation, including persecution and even martyrdom at the hands of satanically influenced human beings, believers never experience God’s wrath. This language is reserved for the judgments that are poured out solely on God’s enemies. Indeed John also preserves a distinction between “anger” (the reaction of God’s enemies) and “wrath” (God’s response). The fact that the list of twelve tribes corresponds to none of the many known lists from ancient Judaism at the very least suggests a non-literal interpretation. The 144,000 are best taken, like the numberless multi-ethnic multitude, as the entire church, just as a lion can also be a lamb (and literally be neither because they are images for Christ). The two witnesses of chapter 11 are likewise most likely “the people of God worldwide” (p. 150).
The triumph of the martyrs in 12:11b, because “they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” stands “in offensive contradiction to some contemporary teaching that for one truly to love others well people must first of all love themselves well” (p. 172)! The 144,000 “who did not defile themselves with women” in 14:4 are neither misogynists nor celibates. The imagery instead points “to the reality that the Holy War has already begun, and that God’s people must prepare themselves for it in the same way as did the soldier in ancient Israel” (p. 192). With only a minority of commentatrors supporting him, Fee nevertheless persuasively defends the view that the great harvest of 14:14-16 refers to the salvation of people from every nation, while only the trampling of the grapes of wrath in verses 17-20 depicts God’s judgment on unbelievers.
Chapter 17 portrays Rome with all its political alliances at its most religiously blasphemous; chapter 18 reminds us of its enormous wealth at the expense of all the subjugated people and promises its ultimate demise. In wanting, apparently, to avoid even historic or classic premillennial implications, Fee describes chapter 20 somewhat unusually as another interlude. But what a long and emphatic interlude, if that is what it is, following seamlessly from the end of chapter 19 with the demise of the devil after the judgment of the two beasts! While telling us what Fee doesn’t believe chapter 20 represents—a distinct period of time between Christ’s return and the eternal state—he never tells us what he think it does represent; he does not obviously equate it with any or all of the church age either, or with the new heavens and earth. Fortunately we can all agree on the magnificent perfections of the latter and long for it deeply.
Despite Fee’s claim to the contrary, calling the Jewish community in Smyrna a “synagogue of Satan” had to be derogatory, but with Fee that doesn’t make John anti-Semitic because he is not indicting the entire race. Amazingly he repeats the old preacher’s mistake of seeing “cold” in 3:16 as bad, instead of following Rudwick’s and Green’s dissemination of the archaeology of Laodicea, known as early as the 1950s, that Laodicea’s water supply came either from the hot springs of nearby Hierapolis or the cool, refreshing streams near Colossae, making them both (against Laodicea’s legendary lukewarmness) desirable. The view that 666 is 777 caught up short, just like the parody of the Trinity comes close to imitating each person of the true Godhead but just falls short is not even mentioned, yet seems to me more probable than a gematria for Neron Caesar, especially given the unusual spelling of Nero, and only in Hebrew, that is required to yield that.
The New Covenant Commentary Series advertises as one of its distinctives regular sections on “fusing the horizons,” but Fee introduces only three of these which together add up to less than five pages. And less than half of those pages comment on trends distinctive or pervasive in the twenty-first century. This is particularly disappointing because Fee has distinguished himself by writing such material in the closing paragraphs of each fairly small subsection of his NICNT volumes and could easily have done much, much more here for a book that particularly cries out for it.
The handful of typos I noted include “Lindsay” for “Lindsey” (p. ix), “doceticism” for “docetism” (p. 26), “Noacic” for “Noahic” (p. 105), and “diving” for “divine” (p. 159). It is not clear why “the bodies and souls” are in boldface in the printing of the updated NIV text in 18:13 when no other portions of scriptural pericopes are so highlighted. And “latter” appears several times when “last” would have been appropriate.
There is little that is new or ground-breaking in this commentary. But if one wants a succinct overview of perspectives held by many evangelical scholars in eminently readable and even worshipful prose, and especially if one is grateful for all of Gordon Fee’s contributions to the church and the academy and hopes to read as much as possible from his pen while there is still time, one will definitely want to acquire this work and absorb it.
Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament