Revelation Commentary – Author Interview with Dennis E. Johnson

revelation bible commentary johnsonDennis E. Johnson (Ph.D, Fuller Theological Seminary) was professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California and associate pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Escondido, California, until his retirement in June 2018. He is also the author of Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation.

Dr. Johnson taught at Westminster Seminary California from 1982 to 2018. He previously pastored Orthodox Presbyterian churches in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and East Los Angeles, California. He has served as moderator of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church General Assembly and Presbytery of Southern California, moderator of the South Coast Presbytery in the Presbyterian Church in America, member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Committee on Christian Education, and Trustee of Covenant College. Dr. Johnson preached and taught in various countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

He is the author of Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures, The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption, Philippians in the Reformed Expository Commentary series, Let’s Study Acts, and Walking with Jesus through His Word: Discovering Christ in All the Scriptures. He is also coauthor of Counsel from the Cross and editor of and contributor to Heralds of the King: Christ-centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney. He has contributed essays to Theonomy: A Reformed Critique; The Pattern of Sound Doctrine; Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry; Resurrection and Eschatology; and Speaking the Truth in Love. He is a contributor to the Reformation Study Bible and the English Standard Version Study Bible.

Dr. Johnson and his wife, Jane, have four married children and many grandchildren. They now live in Dayton, Tennessee.

7 Question on Triumph of the Lamb: A Revelation Commentary

Recently, Dr. Johnson graciously answered my questions about his Revelation commentary. This is the seond Q & A Dr. Johnson has participated in with Best Bible Commentaries. Please see his other one on his Philippians commentary in the REC series. Readers will learn how this commentary came to be, what is unique about it among Revelation commentaries, and how the project edified him personally.

1. What previous research and/or personal interests led you to this project and helped prepare you to write this commentary on Revelation?

When I began teaching New Testament at Westminster Seminary California in 1982, I was assigned to offer the required course on the General Epistles and Revelation. I initially approached the course in the form that I had taken it as a student: namely, by devoting the lion’s share (pardon the pun—see Rev 5:5) of the course hours to the epistle to the Hebrews, touching lightly on other General Epistles and even more lightly on the Book of Revelation. Over time, my experience followed that of Moses Stuart in the nineteenth century (see the quote from Stuart’s commentary on page 1 of Triumph), as my students asked for more help in interpreting the challenging visions granted to John on Patmos. I began to reserve more class hours for Revelation year by year. Lecture notes were fleshed out into a 36-page essay for students. Then our seminary bookstore manager encouraged me to polish the essay and submit it to a publisher. By the time I had finished “polishing”, the document had become Triumph of the Lamb, 360+ pages in its published form! Along the way, I had opportunity to preach through most of the Book of Revelation in our local congregation. Preaching Revelation showed me how applicable it is to Christian living, and increased the clarity of my explanations. Incidentally, I proposed the title Window on the War of the Ages; but the P&R Publishing’s editors wisely recommended that we call it Triumph of the Lamb—a title that fits perfectly (Rev 5:5, 9-10). I’m so glad they did!

2. Who is the intended audience for this commentary? Would it benefit pastors? professors? students? lay Christians in the local church?

Triumph was written, first of all, for seminary students, to introduce them to an interpretive approach that arises from Revelation itself and that will equip them to preach its message of challenge and hope to God’s people. The intended audience certainly includes pastors who have the desire and responsibility to preach through the whole book (not just the obviously-practical letters to the seven churches in Rev. 2-3) and who are searching for an alternative approach to the eschatological/political speculation that often characterizes Evangelicals’ handling of the Apocalypse today. I have been encouraged to hear from many pastors that, heartened and helped by Triumph, they have preached through Revelation, and their congregations have received the blessing promised in Rev 1:3. Triumph engages the scholarly discussion of Revelation’s genre, structure, and historical-cultural background, so it is of interest to biblical scholars. At the same time, its style is accessible also to lay Christians (who are free to skip the technical stuff in the footnotes).

3. What is unique about this commentary? What contribution does it make to studies of Revelation?

I grew up in an Evangelical church in which Revelation was taught through a “literal-where-possible” hermeneutic formed by Premillennial eschatology. We read Revelation in the light of contemporary news, especially in the Middle East. So my assignment to teach Revelation in seminary forced me to reexamine my assumptions about the structure of the book and the interrelationships among its visions, and about the hermeneutical key that opens up the true meaning of Revelation’s symbols not only to twentieth-century Christians, but also to first-century Christians enduring Roman persecution. What I found as I looked at Revelation closely brought me to an interpretation that, I believe, has two benefits: (1) It is consistent with the “cues” that the text itself gives us, and (2) it displays the pastoral relevance of this book to the daily life of Christians in every generation.

The “cues” include such insights as these: (a) Revelation’s purpose is not to puzzle us, but to reveal. We can expect to get its message, rather than finding ourselves mired in confusion or controversy. (b) The topic of this book is not geopolitical conflict, but Jesus Christ. This is “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1), and he is the central protagonist throughout: Son of Man, triumphant Lion/Lamb, the Lord’s Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords riding to victory. (c) Revelation’s symbols are best understood against the backdrop of Old Testament events and prophetic visions. (d) Revelation’s visions, rather than always portraying historically-successive events, often provide multiple perspectives (different “camera angles”) on the same events (reduplication).

Regarding the book’s pastoral purpose, Revelation is given to bless the church as it is under attack from Satan through persecution, deception, and sensual seduction. King Jesus gives his suffering, struggling people reason to endure and stay pure by showing us that history is in his sovereign hand and he is directing it toward the bliss of the New Heavens and Earth. Pastors need to preach this book—the whole book—because our congregations are under Satan’s attack through the same stratagems. In some places, violent persecution threatens and tries to intimidate the followers of Jesus. Elsewhere, peace seems to prevail for the church in its cultural context. But there the devil’s insidious assaults through false teaching, materialism, and sensual pleasure are even more dangerous, since they are harder to see!

I am grateful that, in God’s always wise providence, I began my Christian life in a context where Revelation was read differently from the way I read it today. I think my “eschatological origins and pilgrimage” help Triumph’s readers to walk along with me toward a more faithful reading of this awesome, vivid book, which God gave for our courage, correction, and comfort.

4. What section or passage of this commentary was particularly memorable to research and write? Why?

I was struck by the parallel between the visions in Revelation 12 and 20:1-10, and how they mutually interpret each other. In both, Satan appears as the dragon/serpent/devil/Satan (12:9; 20:2). In both, Satan suffers a grave setback but is not yet destroyed: In Revelation 12 the dragon cannot destroy the Messiah (12:4-5) and is expelled from heaven, thwarted from accusing God’s people (12:7-11). In Revelation 20, the dragon is bound, thwarted from continuing to deceive the Gentile nations (20:2-3). As I studied the two visions of Revelation 12, I saw that the setback that Satan suffered was brought about by the incarnation and saving work of Jesus Christ, whose blood gives us victory over our Accuser. I realized that, if Revelation 12 and 20 are complementary “camera angles” on the same historical drama, then the “binding” of the dragon that launched the thousand years occurred at Christ’s first coming—as Jesus said it did (Matt 12:29). Now, since Satan cannot keep the nations in the dark, the gospel is going throughout the world (Acts 14:17; 17:30-31; Eph. 2:1-2, 11-12). Satan’s demise will not arrive until Christ’s glorious return, but in the meanwhile Satan’s binding makes world missions—along with suffering and persecution—not only possible but also fruitful!

5. What personally edified you in writing this commentary, increasing your affections for Christ?

Revelation’s portraits of Jesus Christ showed me even more vividly two astonishing truths about his death for us on the cross. First, his sacrifice displays the depth of his love for us: “to him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood…be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Rev 1:5-6). I need to be reminded over and over that Christ’s death is the display of his love for me, as the inspired New Testament authors remind us over and over (John 15:13-14; Gal 2:20; Eph 5:2; etc.). Second, his sacrificial death is the “weapon” by which he has triumphed over the Evil One, our Accuser (Rev. 5:1-11). Because his suffering is the focal point of his victory, our suffering too becomes the means of our victory in him: “And they have conquered [the Accuser] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:11). The persecuted church is the triumphant church, because our Champion won the decisive victory for us through the apparent shame, foolishness, and weakness of his cross.

6. Besides your commentary, what are your top recommended books (commentaries or otherwise) on Revelation?

G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation (NIGTC) (Eerdmans, 1999)

Richard D. Phillips, Revelation (REC) (P&R, 2017)

Michael Wilcock, I Saw Heaven Opened: The Message of Revelation (The Bible Speaks Today) (IVP, 1975)

William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (Baker, 1939, 1975)

Vern S. Poythress, The Returning King: A Guide to the Book of Revelation (P&R, 2000)

Scotty Smith and Michael Card, Unveiled Hope: Eternal Encouragement from the Book of Revelation (Thomas Nelson, 1997)

7. What is next for you? What project are you currently working on? How can people follow your work and ministry?

Journeys with Jesus: Every Path in Scripture Leads Us to Christ (P&R) an abridgement of Walking with Jesus through His Word; Discovering Christ in All the Scriptures (P&R, 2015), came out earlier this year (2018).

Volume 12 of the ESV Expository Commentary, containing my commentary on Hebrews was recently published (Crossway, July 2018).

I recently submitted introduction and notes on Philippians for the Grace and Truth Study Bible (forthcoming from Zondervan)—Al Mohler is general editor.

My next project may be an introduction to Biblical Theology (redemptive-historical hermeneutics)

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Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see his About page for details.

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