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Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches Hardcover – January 31, 2012
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“Hamilton has done his homework—and numerous footnotes reveal his scholarship—but he keeps the plot moving as he focuses on the pastoral duty of preaching the book. When exegeting difficult texts he presents the best case for differing viewpoints and then argues persuasively for his, all with an eye on preaching. Pastors will find here an inspiring foundation to craft their own sermons (and check their work), and laypeople will discover a pastoral guide through the minefield that is Revelation. Do you have a question about a passage in Revelation? Look here first.”
—Michael Wittmer, Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Cornerstone University
About the Author
James M. Hamilton Jr. (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is professor of biblical theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church. He is the author of God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment and the Revelation volume in the Preaching the Word commentary series.
R. Kent Hughes (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior pastor emeritus of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hughes is also a founder of the Charles Simeon Trust, which conducts expository preaching conferences throughout North America and worldwide. He serves as the series editor for the Preaching the Word commentary series and is the author or coauthor of many books. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, and have four children and an ever-increasing number of grandchildren.
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Dr. Hamilton's commentary is unlike any other commentary I have read on Revelation, and, generally, novelty on Revelation is not to be commended. He is not novel in his material, but rather in the rare combination of idealism, premillennialism, and humble offering of his convictions. He sounds like an idealist amillennial throughout until he arrives at Revelation 20, where he opts for a premillennial reading. Even on his convictions of the millennium, he is willing to admit that the number 1,000 is likely symbolic, but is a sequential frame of time nonetheless.
He departs from the usual dispensational interpretation on just about everything else throughout the book. The author is careful to qualify his assertions with a humble tone, as is seen in the following exceprt:
Fourth, I am going to suggest that John has interpreted Daniel's seventieth week in the various references to three and a half years that we find in the book of Revelation. My goal here is to set what John has written in chapters 6--16 within the wider story of the Bible in order to see how these events fit within what God has revealed of his plan. Whether my attempt to set out the details of the plan is correct or not, we can agree that there is a plan. The fact that there is a plan is reassuring (Hamilton Jr. 2012:163).
One of the helpful guiding hermeneutical principles for Hamilton is his adherence to chiastic understanding of the literary units in Revelation:
1:9-3:22, Letters to the Seven Churches: The Church in the World
4:1-6:17, Throne Room Vision, Christ Conquers and Opens the Scroll
7:1-9:21, The Sealing of the Saints and the Trumpets Announcing Plagues
10:1-11, The Angel and John (True Prophet)
11:1-14, The Church: Two Witnesses Prophesy for 1,260 Days, Then Opposition from the Beast
11:15-19, Seventh Trumpet: "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever." Worship!
12:1-13:10, The Church: The Woman Nourished for 1,260 Days, Then Opposition from the Dragon and the Second Beast 13:11-18, The Deceiving Beast (False Prophet)
14:1-19:10, The Redemption of the Saints and the Bowls of Wrath
19:11-20:15, Return of Christ, He Conquers, Sets up His 1,000- Year Kingdom, and Opens the Scrolls
21:1-22:7, New Heavens and New Earth: The Church in Glory
22:8-21, Letter Closing: Jesus Is Coming Soon
Another thing that chiasms accomplish is that they set mutually interpretive items across from one another. Thus, I would suggest that we should interpret 11:1-14, which describes the two witnesses, alongside 12:1-13:10, which describes the struggle between the woman who bears the male child (Jesus) and the great red dragon. Both sections deal with the church's struggle against satanic opposition (Hamilton Jr. 2012:165).
Other noteworthy insights from Hamilton would be his understanding of the trumpets and bowls of judgment:
Both the first trumpet and the first bowl affect the earth. Both the second trumpet and the second bowl affect the sea, making it blood, and sea creatures die. Both the third trumpet and the third bowl affect the rivers and springs of water. Both the fourth trumpet and the fourth bowl affect the sun. Both the fifth trumpet and the fifth bowl result in humans experiencing terrible pain. Both the sixth trumpet and the sixth bowl depict armies massed for the final battle. Both the seventh trumpet and the seventh bowl result in the triumph of God in Christ. So I think the trumpets and the bowls are presenting complementary descriptions of the final judgments. There are also similarities between the trumpets and the bowls and the plagues on Egypt; so I think John presents the trumpets and bowls in Revelation as the plagues that accompany the new exodus. God will save his people at the end the same way he saved them at the beginning: by judging his enemies. These final plagues in Revelation, however, are not the only events in the New Testament that are presented as the new exodus. The death of Jesus on the cross is also spoken of as an "exodus" that Jesus accomplished at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). God redeemed his people through the death of the new Passover Lamb, Jesus (Hamilton Jr. 2012: 168-169).
Hamilton also offers a lengthy explanation of his conviction that Daniel's 70th week should be understood symbolically and not literally as a 7 year period. That will surely rile up some of his old Dallas Theological Seminary professors, but he makes his case convincingly. As for the millennium - which is no small matter - Hamilton says:
Jesus comes in judgment in 19:11-21, slays his enemies, and throws the beast and the false prophet into the lake of fire (19:20, 21). Then Satan is bound for a thousand years (20:1-3), and during that thousand years resurrected believers reign with Christ on earth (20:4-6). At the end of the thousand years, Satan is released and deceives the nations, led by Gog of the land of Magog, as prophesied in Ezekiel 38, 39, in a final rebellion. Note that in Ezekiel 38, 39 in the latter days Gog attacks the land that has experienced eschatological restoration (cf. especially Ezekiel 38:8, 11, 12).1 Satan's final rebellion is defeated in 20:7-10, and then 20:11-15 shows the final judgment at the great white throne. Just as the defeat of Gog of Magog in Ezekiel 38, 39 is followed by the description of the new heaven and earth in the form of a cosmic temple in Ezekiel 40--48, so also the defeat of Gog of Magog in 20:7-10 is followed, after the final judgment, by a new heaven and new earth as a cosmic temple in Revelation 21, 22 (Hamilton Jr. 2012:366).
Responding more directly to amillennialists, Hamilton continues (2012:368):
Some think this binding of Satan for a thousand years happened when Jesus died on the cross, and they think that we are in that thousand-year period right now. In their view chapter 12 described the same thing as we see described in another way here in chapter 20. The differences between chapter 20 and chapter 12 are too significant for me to find that view convincing (see Table 22.1, "Differences in Detail between Revelation 12:7-12 and 20:1-3" in chapter 22 of this commentary). Those who think that we are now in the millennium are called amillennialists, but they do not necessarily think there is no millennium at all, just not one in the future. They hold that we are in the millennium now; so some prefer the label realized or inaugurated millennialism. Against that perspective, I find the view that the binding of Satan is something that will happen in the future far more compelling. This view holds that the millennium has not happened yet, so we are now in the period prior to the thousand years described in this text (thus the label premillennial).
I don't want to give everything away that Hamilton says about Revelation 20, but I will offer these final words regarding the fourth verse about the resurrection (2012:373-374):
Dead people "came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years." Amillennialists claim that this is either regeneration or a coming to life in the presence of God in Heaven.7 I think that kind of explanation does violence to this text. These are clearly dead people, and these are dead people who were beheaded for the gospel. So their coming to life cannot be describing their regeneration. Look at the phrase in verse 4, "They came to life," which is identified as "the first resurrection" in verse 5, and then immediately preceding that in verse 5 is a reference to "the rest of the dead" coming to life. "The rest of the dead" coming to life after the thousand years is neither regeneration nor an entrance into life in the presence of God in Heaven. It is physical resurrection, and the same is true of the believers coming to life in verse 4. Nor will it work to say that they came to life in the presence of God in Heaven because elsewhere in Revelation we read of people reigning with Christ on earth. Compare the last phrase of verse 4 with the last phrase of verse 6: 20:4, "They came to life and reigned with him for a thousand years." 20:6, ". . . they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years." Now with those two verses in mind look back at 5:10: "and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth." I submit that the kings and priests who reign with Christ for a thousand years in 20:4-6 are the kings and priests who reign with Christ on earth in 5:10. It is useful also to contrast these statements about reigning for a thousand years here in 20:4, 6 with what we see at the end of 22:5, ". . . they will reign forever and ever." So I think the most natural reading of 20:4 is to understand it as describing those slain during Satan's war against the church then being resurrected after Christ returns and defeats his enemies, the angel binds Satan, and the thousand-year reign of Christ begins. This picture is substantiated by the description of the coming to life at the end of verse 4 as "resurrection" in 20:5: "The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection." Putting 20:4, 5 together, we see that believers will experience the first resurrection, coming to life and reigning with him for a thousand years. The rest of the dead are not raised until after the thousand-year period.8 We have two resurrections envisaged in 20:4, 5. The first is of believers and happens at the beginning of the thousand-year reign of Christ. The second is of the rest of the dead, and it happens at the end of the thousand years.
What I like most about this commentary is that it is homiletical in nature. Hamilton is able to faithfully and colorfully illustrate the main point of each periscope in Revelation. He provides helpful illustrations that can be incorporated into ones preaching. It's so easy to get sidetracked into disputes about the particularities in Revelation that one loses sight of the main points. I recommend this commentary and will turn to this in the future for both academic and homiletical reference.
This volume is composed of thirty-seven sermons. Each sermon follows the same structure: 1) Introduction, 2) Body, and 3) Conclusion. Each section follows the same purpose(s). In the Introduction: 1) to grab attention, 2) to raise awareness of a real need, 3) to state the main point of the text, 4) to preview the structure of the text, and 5) to give the wider context of the passage. In the Body: 1) to connect the main ideas in the section to the main point of the passage, and 2) to apply the teaching of the text to the congregation. In the Conclusion: to restate both the key ideas in the text as well as the main idea of the passage (15). Each sermon is also littered with helpful footnotes that demonstrate the depth of scholarship behind them. These footnotes: 1) trace Hamilton’s sources in his study, 2) point the reader to specific sources for further study, 3) elaborate on exegetical detail Hamilton did not feel necessary for the verbal presentation of these sermons (but recorded, nevertheless, with an awareness that pastors would read them as they worked through these passages in sermon preparation), and 4) elaborate on various other relevant details that were not necessary for these sermons in their delivered context.
The first of Hamilton’s thirty-seven sermons is fitting to summarize because it is written as an introductory summary of the entire book. It opens by powerfully calling the congregation out of its slumber to see reality most vividly in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Hamilton’s thesis statement of the book is: “God has given us the book of Revelation so we can know him in his glorious justice and mercy and live worshipfully by faith” (18). In this sermon Hamilton breaks down the book into three main sections: 1) 1:1-8 (The Opening), 2) 1:9-22:9 (The Vision), and 3) The Closing (19). He further breaks down the middle section of the book into three large sections: 1) 1:9-3:22 (Jesus and the Letters), 2) 4:1-16:21 (The Throne and the Judgments), and 3) 17:1-22:9 (The Harlot, the King, and the Bride).
As he works to place Revelation in its canonical context, Hamilton makes a bold assertion that he carefully maintains throughout his thirty-seven sermons: “The book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ is appropriately placed at the end of the canon. This book catches up and weaves together all the Bible’s lines of prophetic revelation. John writes in such a way that his book is the capstone of all the prophecy in the Bible” (19).
The remainder of this first sermon follows the structural breakdown above, as well as the three-section breakdown of John’s large, middle section of his vision on the Lord’s Day. Throughout this body Hamilton not only summarizes massive amounts of Scriptural content but also pointedly applies that content to his congregation. When necessary he carefully defines necessary terms to understand Revelation.
This sermon is a convincing example of how helpful overview sermons can be for a congregation entering an expositional book study. Through it the congregation gets a grasp of the book as a whole, and its main point in particular, which Hamilton never allows the reader to lose sight of and powerfully brings the reader back to at the end.
To the reader’s immense benefit, what Hamilton did in the first sermon by overviewing the entire book he does three more times in this series. At each main section break he preaches an overview sermon of the larger section to follow. In sermon 4 he preaches an overview of the seven letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3; in sermon 12 he preaches an overview of 4:1-5:14; and in sermon 15 he preaches an overview of chapters 6-16. To me as the reader, it is these four sermons (numbers 1, 4, 12, and 15) that are the most helpful. They serve the purpose of letting the reader (as I am sure it did for the hearer in their delivered context) to momentarily “reset” and process the incredibly detailed material they have been exposed to in each smaller sermon. To include these sermons demonstrates Hamilton’s own awareness of the weight of his task preaching through such a complex book and his concern that his readers/hearers not be overwhelmed or distracted by a book that is designed to help them awake and get refocused on Jesus.
To identify Hamilton’s four summary sermons as the most helpful in the thirty-seven sermon series is not at all to minimize the help that the other thirty-three sermons are. They are immensely helpful. They are filled with urgent needs, clearly stated theses, and pointed applications. They are also an example of exegetical carefulness and theological awareness. Scattered throughout are helpful structural charts for the reader and extensive interaction with the Old Testament. These sermons are careful exegesis and biblical theology on display.
My Kindle copy of Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches is filled on more pages than not with highlights and notes that, even throughout the process of this review, have proved to be edifying all over again. Three specific benefits of this contribution stand out among many more that could be given. These benefits are captured by the words: 1) Intentionality, 2) Scripture, and 3) Summary.
As a pastor, what struck me in the preface was the intentionality with which Hamilton approaches preaching. Structure may not be everything but it must be something. The impressive, structured intentionality certainly aids the reader/hearer throughout this series. Whereas an argument can be made that predictability is disengaging and boring, the predictability on display in this series is nothing but helpful for the hearer to be able to process the content of what is unfolded. It made me want to rethink the level of structural intentionality with which I approach my Sunday sermons. (I remember in seminary being struck with the responsibility I have as a teacher if my students/congregants fail my class or fail to be helped by my sermon. The first place I must look is my own role in their failure.) Intentionality of structure certainly must play a role in this and I was helped immensely by it throughout this volume.
The second specific benefit from this volume was the amount of Scripture outside of Revelation with which Hamilton interacted. For as many times as I have read Revelation devotionally, I was not prepared for how much of its content is from the Old Testament. As I said above in the summary section, this sermon series is an extraordinarily helpful example of careful exegesis and biblical theology. Hamilton’s thoroughness in this area made me want to know the Law and the Prophets better. It made me want to preach more from the Old Testament and work harder in my New Testament preaching to step out of the careful exegesis of my specific text for the bigger picture. It made me want to continually rehearse to my congregation the biblical storyline and work extra hard to show them how to make inter-canonical connections.
The third specific benefit from this volume is what I think James Hamilton does extremely well: summarize. The four summary sermons of this book are not the first time this reality has struck me in his writings. Every book and article I read of his reminds me of this unique ability. It is helpful because, even though these sermons (and others of his writings) are incredibly detailed, I have never felt lost in the detail of reading him. This is a distinct strength that from personal attempt/failure I know is very difficult to do well. Hamilton’s volume on Revelation is to be commended not only for the extraordinary detail in the sermons but also for its clarity and readability. Hamilton works hard to never let his readers/hearers get lost in the detail along the way.
Reading sermons can be a laborious process. Reading a commentary can be downright painful. Both can be uninspiring when not done in the context of working through a biblical book for the sake of preaching or teaching it to a congregation. When I read James Hamilton’s Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches, I was not working through the book personally for any preaching or teaching endeavor. Worse still, I was doing it for required reading! Yet what I discovered was a doctrinally rich, Christ-centered, rebuking, encouraging, pastorally helpful and mentoring journey through Revelation. It will certainly be a resource I look to many times in the future and one that I can whole-heartedly recommend to you!