Published on July 30, 2018 by Joshua R Monroe

P&R, 2017 | 764 pages

Reviewed by David B. W. Phillips


There is a joke that one sometimes hears when talking about Revelation. Someone will ask a question along the lines of, “How do you interpret Revelation?” And the one asked the question will say, “I’m panmillenial. I believe it will all ‘pan’ out in the end.” Richard Phillips, on the other hand, opens his commentary with these words, “Revelation needs to be preached!” (xv). As a recent edition to the Reformed Expository Commentary series, Phillips (no relation to the reviewer) has written a commentary that is meant for everyone. The content was first preached by Phillips in his ministry as Senior Minister at Second Presbyterian Church, Greenville, SC (xii, xvii). The upshot of this is that the work is written to be accessible by the non-specialist. This does not mean the scholar cannot benefit from the work, but readers do need to keep in mind the unique nature of an expository commentary to reap the most benefit from it.

Phillips writes from an explicitly Reformed perspective—one of the features of the series is that each volume is “unashamedly doctrinal” and “will teach, promote, and defend the doctrines of the Reformed faith as they are found in the Bible” (xi–xii). From the standpoint of interpreting Revelation, the most significant impact of this commitment is that the volume is written from an amillennial perspective. However, Phillips regularly engages with and makes use of works outside this interpretive tradition (cf. xvi). He outlines his further interpretive positions in the first two sections of the work, understanding Revelation to be “an apocalyptic prophecy, a historical letter, a gospel testimony, and a means of blessing for God’s needy people” (6). Key interpretive takeaways from this perspective are: Revelation must be read as symbolic literature unless there is a good reason to read the images literally (8); the work was written by the apostle John during the reign of Domitian and meant to be understood by the original audience, to speak to the church throughout history, and to point ahead to the second coming of Christ (7, 9, 11–12); Revelation’s imagery is largely grounded in the prophetic literature of the OT (12–13); and Revelation is meant to strengthen Christians in the face of opposition, encouraging them to follow Christ (15). In addition, Phillips understands the main problem facing John’s audience not to be persecution but spiritual apathy that must be dealt with if Christians are to endure persecution (19–20).

Given that this is an expository commentary, difficult interpretive issues tend to be addressed rather quickly. Phillips generally does a good job of briefly providing the major options and then noting why he has taken his position. As most people interested in a commentary on Revelation are likely curious to know how particularly difficult passages are handled, here is a sampling of some of the more debatable issues in the book:

  • Structurally, Revelation is organized in seven parallel, recapitulating sections which describe both what will happen in John’s time and what will be repeated throughout history, building climactically to Christ’s return (9).
  • The seven angels of chapters 1–3 are guardian angels of the churches. These angels fill similar roles to the angels described in Daniel (cf. Dan 10:21) and are so closely related to the churches that they can be spoken of as one entity (69–70).
  • The 144,000 of chapter 7 refer not to a literal number of Jews from specific tribes converted after the rapture of the church but rather represent the entirety of the redeemed church (245–46).
  • Chapters 7; 10:1–11:14; 12–14 are “interludes.” The first two passages highlight God’s calling and providential care for his Church as he brings judgment upon the world (239–40, 296–97, 299), and chapters 12–14 are a symbolic history of the world that focuses on “the spiritual warfare raging behind the scenes of church history” (419, cf. 433).
  • Chapter 11, with its description of the measurement of the temple, the numerous temporal references, and the ministry of the two witnesses, is arguably the second most challenging section of the book to interpret (following chapter 20). Phillips understands the temple as referring to the church, and Rev 11:1–2 is meant to encourage God’s people that God will preserve them spiritually even as they face martyrdom. The outer court of the temple represents those associated with the church who are not truly Christians. The forty-two months depicts not a specific length of time but a quality of time, a time of rebellion when God protects his faithful people during trials. The two witnesses (Rev 11:3) refer to the church, this time focusing on its role in carrying the gospel to the nations (sent two by two as in Luke 10:1). Finally, the 1,260 days are again a reference to forty-two months, highlighting the oppression of God’s people. The reason or the shift from referencing this period in days rather than months is that the previous image focused on the oppression of God’s people as in a siege (measured in months), whereas the church’s witness is a day-by-day endeavor. All these images offer different facets on the same reality: the calling of the church and God’s care for his people in oppression (308–22).

Phillips should be commended for this volume, and several strengths can be highlighted. First, the volume is consistently practical. Even when dealing with the most difficult interpretive issues in the book, he always draws clear applications from the passages, and his main goal is to help his readers understand and respond to the message of Revelation in faith, worship, and obedience. As an expositional commentary, its greatest value is not in looking up the meaning of a specific verse. Rather, it is most helpful for understanding the overall purpose of a certain section, particularly with the goal of responding to it, and for thinking through how to preach the text. Second, due to its practical nature, the commentary is refreshing to read. It never gets bogged down in technical discussions but consistently moves from explaining the text to exhorting readers to respond appropriately.

Third, the practical nature does not come at the expense of addressing the details of the text. True to his preface, Phillips focuses on engaging with scholarship to help readers understand Revelation, doing a solid job of providing helpful historical-cultural background information. And while he is not focused on discussing every possible interpretive option before presenting his opinion, he nonetheless does address various possibilities for the more challenging passages. Finally, Phillips displays a willingness to bring the strong exhortations of Revelation to bear on his audience, even in ways that might be uncomfortable. One example of this is seen in how he challenges his readers to put their hope in Christ rather than country (519).

In addition to these strengths, a few weaknesses and caveats should be mentioned. First, Phillips, with a few exceptions, uses footnotes only to cite quotations. The work has clearly been well researched, but where the author has been informed at specific points is generally left unstated. The lack of citations is unfortunate, though perhaps necessary given the volume’s already extensive length. Yet even though this is not a scholarly work, citations would still be beneficial as they would allow readers to follow up on certain issues or questions. Second, the book’s format could be stronger. The commentary is broken up in units that represent sermons Phillips preached. Each one has a title and indicates the verses covered in the unit. The comments on the passages generally have a few headings that help break up each unit into smaller sections, but they lack any explicit indicators of which specific verses are being covered in each section. As a result, locating comments on individual verses requires going to that message and then skimming through the comments and looking for the parenthetical verse references contained in the body of the text. While this is not a grievous problem, the work would be served well by providing verse numbers for each section heading. (For an example of this kind of structure, see The Christ-Centered Exposition series, whose volumes also represent preached messages.) While these issues may be related to the series and not only this volume, they are nonetheless areas that could be strengthened.

Beyond this, many of the potential downsides of the work largely stem from its nature as an expository commentary. They should not be considered weaknesses as much as caveats, items to keep in mind when thinking about how to best use the work. First, there is no formal introduction discussing the standard introductory issues: authorship, date, provenance, occasion, interpretive positions, or structure. Rather, these items are largely dealt with in the first two sections. Finding this information is thus slightly more difficult than in other commentary series. Second, while the sections of the commentary normally progress as one would expect, the expositional nature means that the verse ranges do not always line up neatly. For example, Phillips has a unit on 1:9–16, followed by one on 1:10–20, then on 1:17–19. While this does not happen often, and is not problematic in and of itself, it does mean that on occasion finding comments on a specific verse might mean looking through multiple units.

One result of the weaknesses and caveats is that the work is not best used as a reference to help answer specific exegetical questions; it also does not break new ground in the study of Revelation. But it is not designed to do either of these, or to serve as a defining element of seminary students’ exegetical papers. From the standpoint of the layperson, student, pastor, and scholar, the greatest benefit of the work is that it will help your heart. It will keep you focused on Christ and encourage you in following him faithfully as you read Revelation in your devotions, as you study for sermon preparation, or as you work through the book in personal study. And this is what Revelation should be doing in the first place.


David B. W. Phillips is a Ph. D. candidate at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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Revelation (Reformed Expository Commentary)

P&R, 2017 | 764 pages

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