Book Review: Unlocking Revelation: 10 Keys to Unlocking the Bible's Final Words
When it comes to the book of Revelation, Christians tend toward one of two extremes: some never read Revelation; others seem to only read Revelation. For both groups, Laurie Guy’s Unlocking Revelation is a helpful corrective. It demystifies this puzzling book which seems daunting and foreboding to some, and debunks the fictional hype surrounding Revelation that makes it an obsession to others. Guy has written an accessible introduction to the book of Revelation that provides a useful guide for readers and preachers of the Apocalypse.
Unlocking Revelation unfolds in three sections. The first contains five interpretive principles for studying Revelation. These provide a hermeneutical framework within which to understand this book of Scripture. In the chapter “Context”, Guy follows most modern commentators in placing strong emphasis on the socio-political world in which this book is set, the world of the late-first century Roman Empire. But he moves beyond the traditional view that Revelation primarily responds to the problem of persecution among first-century Christians. He follows more recent interpreters in proposing that Revelation also responds to a tendency within John’s churches to accommodate themselves to the social imaginary of the Roman Empire, particularly the imperial cult. This dual focus provides a more robust interpretive framework, allowing readers to see Revelation as a double-edged sword, intended to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.
Especially helpful in this section is the chapter “Echoes”, in which Guy explores intertextuality between Revelation and the Old Testament. He focuses particularly on the Exodus story as a narrative backdrop to Revelation, a theme he returns to several times throughout the book. Guy identifies not only the obvious Exodus references in the book (such as the song of Moses in Rev 15:3) but also the broader way in which Exodus themes such as redemption, judgement and inheritance, shape Revelation as a whole. This insight will help readers more clearly see the internal coherence in Revelation and the place of this book within the canon of Scripture.
In my view, the only weakness of this first section is the chapter “Imagination”. Guy rightly points out that imagination is an important interpretative key in studying Revelation. But he contrasts imagination with literalism, which by which he means futurist readings of Revelation that rely on a woodenly literal interpretation of the book. However, some of the most literal readings of Revelation come from interpreters with arguably too much imagination! Perhaps the issue should be framed not as imagination vs literalism, but as biblical imagination vs wild imagination. Guy’s focus on imagination is valuable, but it would have been useful to emphasise how imagination needs to be grounded in the biblical story.
The book’s second section is on five dominant themes in Revelation. These offer a macro-view of the golden threads running throughout the Apocalypse. His chapter “Future” is Guy’s most direct critique of futurist interpretations of Revelation, which is a theme throughout his book. He argues that interpretations which largely treat Revelation as a road-map for events leading up to the return of Christ depend less on exegesis and more on eisegesis – reading into the book ideas from outside. This often includes reading Revelation in view of current geo-political events (from a Western perspective) rather than giving attention to the book’s original context and the nature of apocalyptic literature. Guy is rightly harsh on such readings. Yet he shows how Revelation does focus on the future, not specific harbingers of the end, but the ultimate victory of Christ and the establishing of his eternal kingdom.
In his chapter “Jesus”, Guy paints a majestic picture of Revelation’s christology, some of the highest in the New Testament. He sees Revelation 12 as the christological centre of the book, a symbolic portrait of Christ’s victory over Satan which Guy describes as a “key to the whole” (p. 63). While I agree that this passage is clearly important in the christology of Revelation, I felt that more attention could have been given to John’s vision of Christ as the slain lamb in Revelation 5. Guy doesn’t delve into the significant paradox in that vision of Christ being described as both the Lion of Judah and a slain lamb (Rev 5:5-6). That juxtaposing of strength and self-giving love – which Michael Gorman describes as “lamb power” – becomes a key christological theme throughout Revelation. It would have been good to see this covered in Guy’s chapter.
Finally, the book concludes with three examples of exegesis from specific passages in Revelation. Because this section follows the discussion of key themes in section two, Guy prevents the reader from getting lost in exegetical minutia. Instead, he shows how the overarching motifs from the previous section play out in particular texts within the book of Revelation.
I found the chapter “Musing the millennium” the most insightful in the book. Here Guy analyses Revelation 20, which describes the binding and loosing of Satan, and his ultimate demise. Guy rightly points out that the mention of the “thousand years” in v3 has been forced by interpreters to bear theological weight far beyond what it was intended to carry. Indeed, this one verse has come to define the dominant categories of eschatology among evangelicals (pre-millennial and a-millennial). These categories themselves need to be challenged, but that is beyond the scope of Guy’s book! Rather, he unpacks Revelation 20 by masterfully returning to the Exodus story to show how the double redemption from Satan described here is mirrored by the double redemption in Exodus 12-14 (escape from Egypt and crossing of the Red Sea). He then connects this to Revelation’s original readers by showing how John is also describing their double redemption (and ours) – through the cross and future victory of Christ. Not everyone will be convinced by Guy’s interpretation of the millennium as a metaphor but he provides a fruitful and faithful exposition of a challenging text.
Unlocking Revelation is helpful on three levels. Firstly, for casual readers of Revelation, it provides a biblically and theologically grounded entry-level introduction to the book, assuming no prior knowledge of Revelation or apocalyptic literature. Secondly, for pastors and preachers of Revelation, it is a helpful guide in teaching and preaching from this book, a valuable resource to use alongside commentaries. The preaching notes are particularly useful for those brave enough to proclaim Revelation from the pulpit! Thirdly for those interested in venturing into the scholarly literature on Revelation, this book is a good first step, giving a concise overview of key exegetical and theological issues, without getting bogged down in academic debates. At whatever level the reader engages with Revelation, they will find Guy’s overview a reliable guide through this fascinating book of Scripture, and through it they will gain a greater love for the Christ whom the Apocalypse reveals.
Reuben Munn is Senior Pastor at the Shore Community Church, Albany, Auckland.
 Michael Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness; Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Oregon: Cascade, 2011), 111.