How one interprets the New Testament apocalyptic book of Revelation tells a great deal about one's general theological orientation within the Christian community. Based upon that assumption, John R. Yeatts places himself consistently in the middle, somewhere between the passionate dispensationalist premillenialists who view Revelation as the handbook for contemporary events and those who see Revelation as a first century intellectual historical curiosity. Yeatts cares about this biblical text as a formative document in the life of the church in every age, our own included.
Throughout the commentary Yeatts asks the reader to consider alternative interpretations, especially at certain critical sections. He offers interpreters as diverse as John F. Walvoord and G. B. Caird. Often the author will identify several interpretations, asking the reader to consider and choose among the options. Other times Yeatts will show his own inclination to look for moderation by suggesting a preference for the interpretation in the middle, avoiding extremes.
That is not to say that Yeatts avoids clarity and direction. Countering Lahaye in the series of "Left Behind" novels, Yeatts offers a basic principle of biblical hermeneutics: "the Bible cannot mean what it never meant. Another way of saying this is that the Bible cannot mean what its original author did not intend." (p. 212)
Above all, Yeatts excels as a careful and honest observer of the biblical text. He steadfastly refuses to allow preconceived theological and eschatological systems to determine the meaning of the text. It is the biblical text that must form our larger understandings. When discussing whether the images of the new heaven and new earth have to do with the destruction of the world as we know it or whether this image suggests a restoration and renewal of the earth, Yeatts courageously says: "The Bible seems to support both ideas." (p. 423) That is refreshing honesty not often seen among Christians who cannot embrace paradox and even contradiction.
One expects in a commentary series that intentionally chooses its orientation within the Anabaptist theological tradition some indication of how this biblical text has been interpreted within that tradition and also how it has impacted the tradition. Here Yeatts rightly places the centrality of the Lamb in Revelation as critical to the non-violent interpretation of what has often appeared to some to be a violent book. With the coming of the "Rider on the white horse" in chapter 16, Yeatts writes: "Such transformations from warlike to peaceful images have come to be expected in Revelation." (p. 350)
How Revelation has impacted Anabaptist history is evident in several quotes from Menno Simons and others and in references in the commentary under the section "The Text in the Life of the Church." In the final section after the commentary there are essays, one of which is entitled "Anabaptist Interpretation of Revelation." In this essay Yeatts identifies the manner in which Revelation was interpreted in the 16th century Anabaptist reformation. He also documents briefly the two major historical incidents in which the interpretation of Revelation played an important role: the city of Münster in the 16th century and the Claas Epp trek to Central Asia in the 19th century. Other historical settings in which the use of Revelation ought to be documented are the Russian Mennonite experience of the first half of the 20th century and the African Anabaptist churches in the second half of the 20th century to the present.
Generally the author is familiar with and uses other Anabaptist scholars of apocalyptic literature and the book of Revelation, including Ted Grimsrud, Nelson Kraybill, David Ewert, Loren Johns, et al. However, surprisingly missing is the important volume edited by Loren L. Johns and published in 2000, Apocalypticism and Millennialism: Shaping a Believers Church Eschatology for the Twenty-First Century. Also missing in the otherwise extensive bibliography is the moderate premillenial commentary on Revelation by a Mennonite, J. B. Smith, A Revelation of Jesus Christ.
One of the most important contributions of Yeatts in this commentary is his continuing discussion throughout about the structure of the book. His careful observation of the text brings him to the conclusion that Revelation is not to be interpreted as suggesting a chronology of events, one following the other. For instance, he observes that Babylon is destroyed three times! Another word that he suggests as useful to understanding the structure is reiteration or he quotes Schussler Fiorenza in the image of the "conic spiral." I have used the ideas from Catholic scholar Hubert Richards, suggesting that within the larger apocalyptic document we have what amount to smaller apocalyptic units, each of which are complete expressions of the whole. Another image that Yeatts uses is to read Revelation as "an eschatological art gallery!" Why does this matter? It matters because it helps to unhook us from the natural inclination to view Revelation as a "calendar of end time events" in which we miss its intended purpose as a pastoral book to encourage the church to faith, hope, and love.
Another contribution of Yeatts is that he excels in tracing the origins of the multitude of images and ideas in Revelation to their Old Testament or other origins. A single reading through the text as I did does not allow one to check through all the references that he offers, but there is a wealth of documentation available throughout.
The nature of apocalyptic literature in general and Revelation in particular is such that each person who works with the material develops particular understandings. So I do have questions about some of Yeatts' interpretations. Are the seven seals really "judgments" in the way the trumpets and bowls are? I don't think so. Are chapters 12 - 14 an interlude in the way that interludes play into the seals and the trumpets? I think not; it stands as an apocalyptic section on its own. I also think he misses a key link between the fifth seal where the martyrs cry out: "How long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?" and the answer which comes in the millennial chapter 20.
Another place where I think he does not follow his own earlier interpretations of the text is on p. 348 where he lists the corresponding contrasts of praise and persecution. Generally the sequence in the text is the opposite, moving from conflict to resolution, from crisis to worship! Indeed the worship scenes of Revelation form critical division points.
Finally, there is an unfortunate printing/editorial error on p. 29 in his simple diagram of the major sections of the book of Revelation. Chapters 15 and 16 are missing as evidenced by the blank space.
Overall, this commentary is a fine contribution to the church and to the Believer's Church Bible Commentary series. John R. Yeatts has given us a good, insightful understanding of Revelation that will serve pastors and others who are intrigued by its mystery. His work is alive with the heart of the pastor as well as the competence of a scholar, both essential qualities to those who care about faith in the 21st century.
John A. Esau
North Newton, Kansas