or The Cultic Core of Revelation
“Revelation is not just a vision of the King of Kings,
but of the King of Kings in His court.”
Preterists have a go at dispensationalists for interpreting the Bible through the lens of current headlines. We recognize that the Bible must be interpreted in its historical context, for its “first audience.” But there’s a brand of “newspaper exegesis” that plagues preterism as well.
In 2007, I listened to a lecture series on Revelation by Ken Gentry. I thought it was pretty good, but something didn’t sit right. Next, I got into James Jordan’s series, and it did sit right. Rather than forcing an interpretive framework onto the text, Jordan lets the text speak for itself. In fact, it sings.
What’s the difference? As much as I hate to set the work of these two gents in opposition, Gentry’s approach is to begin with Josephus’ account of the Jewish war and seek to find correlations in the text of St. John. But isn’t this just a first century version of “newspaper exegesis”? Gentry would agree that Revelation is “level-pegged” with Ezekiel as a prophecy against a corrupted Temple. But if we had a 6th century BC equivalent to Josephus, would anyone try to interpret the book in the light of the CNN of the day? No.
But what framework does this leave us with? Where does Jordan begin? How does he make near perfect sense of a text that has baffled scholars for centuries? Rusty Reno gives us a clue, in his foreword to the recent James Jordan festschrift, The Glory of Kings.
James B. Jordan is remarkable. There are plenty of Bible preachers in America who know the Scriptures well. Lots of professors read books in philosophy, history, and literature and have all sorts of interesting things to say about culture. Pundits cultivate a sharp, pungent, and readable style. But Jim is perhaps unique.
Jim knows a great deal, but I have no doubt that the electricity in his writing and conversation come from his biblical vision. He does something remarkable. He takes the cultic core of the Old Testament—Temple and Priesthood, altar and sacrifice—and reads it into the full sweep of the biblical witness.
Who else writes detailed interpretations of the Book of Daniel and quotes Allen Tate’s poetry? Who else can give a lecture on echoes of Leviticus in the apocalyptic vision of Zechariah and then chat over cigars about Friedrich von Hayek and Richard Weaver? Moreover, who can cover such a range with vivid images, punchy tag lines, and memorable turns of phrase? Not many, which is why I’ve come to think of Jim Jordan as one of the most important Christian intellectuals of our day.
Jim knows a great deal, but I have no doubt that the electricity in his writing and conversation come from his biblical vision. He does something remarkable. He takes the cultic core of the Old Testament—Temple and Priesthood, altar and sacrifice—and reads it into the full sweep of the biblical witness. The result is not the usual sort of “theological” interpretation we’re all familiar with: Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament explained by way of warmed-over theologies of substitutionary atonement or observations that really amount to little more than restating New Testament passages. Instead, Jim takes texts such as Leviticus seriously on their own terms. He brings to life the intense concreteness of tabernacle and sanctuary, and he allows the prophets a retrospective restoration as well as a prospective anticipation. As Jim has helped me see, the Scriptures are forever reaching back and renewing even as they reach forward to fulfillment in Christ.
We live in space and time. Our lives have a concrete and quotidian reality. Precisely because Jim’s reading of the Old Testament takes its bearings from the point of maximal particularity—the cultic focal point that is the most enduring and transparent anticipation of the Incarnation—his reading of the larger biblical witness is saturated with immediacy. Take a look at any of his writings on worship. The life of God’s people has a particular shape in Israel. The tabernacle and temple have a specific architecture. The sacrifices involve discrete patterns of action. As a result, we do not encounter nebulous theological concepts. The immediacy of the cult of Israel is accessible to us today. Indeed, it is more accessible and more immediate, because in Christ we have been brought into the inner sanctuary.
Any particular detail of Jim’s biblical theology is up for debate, but the larger project is compelling—and much needed today. Many of us have limited biblical imaginations. We have stock phrases and favorite passages. We think of ourselves as biblical, but our friends recognize that nine times out of ten we’re quoting from Paul’s Letter to the Romans or the Book of Revelation or the Gospel of John. The Old Testament functions as a hazy background. The Psalms have no living power. Although we would vigorously deny it, we are functionally allied with Friedrich Schleiermacher, who notoriously set aside the Old Testament, or Immanuel Kant, who rejected the “Jewish” parts of the Old Testament as unusable.
Should we be surprised, therefore, that our preaching and teaching remains “spiritual” or “theological” in an abstract and theoretical way? Nothing we say is heretical. Orthodoxy carries the day. But it all floats a few feet above the ground. The gears of faith never seem to do what Jim’s biblical theology does: mesh with the gritty realities of life.
If we diagnose ourselves honestly, then perhaps we can see that, unlike Jim, there are no biblical actualities at the center of our preaching and teaching, things to be seen and entered and touched. Perhaps, for example, we imagine ourselves agreeing with him because we endorse a “sacramental” view of the church. But there is a world of difference between “sacramental” and Jim’s trenchant reading of the Book of Revelation as a handbook for Christian worship, a reading that depends upon his interpretation of the cultic core of the Old Testament. Again, one can debate the details, or the biblical typology, or Jim’s assumptions about how to understand biblical inerrancy, or his conception of biblical history, or any number of other different technical questions. But of this I am certain. Jim does something few achieve, even (perhaps especially!) those who make loud claims about their biblical fidelity. He puts the living realities of the Bible at the center of his thought…
The rest of the foreword deals with the need for Jim’s sort of thinking in the Church today, but here I want to focus on his reading of the Revelation. The book is a “handbook” for Christian worship precisely because it is a worship service. We have little idea of the flow of what is going on because we haven’t internalized the books of Moses. Chilton started us in this direction, but it is Jordan who really makes sense of the details.
All the action takes place in the Temple court of God, and it brings with it all the baggage of Old Testament history. Well, not so much baggage as a royal entourage, tent and all. Revelation is not just a vision of the King of Kings, but of the King of Kings in His court. The detail of the Jewish war of AD66-70 is not what concerns Him. What concerns Him is the “changing of the guard” in His heavenly council. The shadowy concepts communicated by the Mosaic furnitures and rites have found their fulfilment in flesh, in the people of God. Instead of an Altar of Incense, we have actual elders with bowls of Incense, etc.
So, the structure of events cannot be interpreted through the lens of Josephus. The Jewish war is as relevant to the Revelation as the details of the destruction of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar are relevant to the book of Ezekiel. That is, not very much.
However, I do recommend you read Gentry’s brilliant work on the actual dating of the book of Revelation, Before Jerusalem Fell. Current scholarly opinion is wrong on this one, again because they don’t listen to Moses. And on this one Gentry gets it right.
Jordan’s lectures are available from www.wordmp3.com (click link in right column).