The powerful imagery and predictions that are the well-known writing, The Book of Revelation, have often been quoted out of context, not necessarily conveying the meaning intended by the early Christian author. Apocalyptic literature like Revelation is challenging to understand. This study begins by helping the learner understand the context, origin, and history of this genre in the experience of the nation of Israel. This is followed by a look at the overall design and complex structure of the piece.
Eight sessions are offered, each delving into one of the images used to describe judgment on the unjust and the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. It is likely that learners will understand these images and their messages in slightly different ways, lending a richness to the learning experience in a group study.
Studying Revelation this way will certainly make it more accessible and is worth the effort!
Meet Our Professors
Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament
Harry Attridge has made scholarly contributions to New Testament exegesis and to the study of Hellenistic Judaism and the history of the early Church. He has published numerous books, authored book chapters and articles in scholarly journals, and has edited 11 books, including Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, First-Century Cynicism in the Epistles of Heraclitus, The Interpretation of Biblical History in the Antiquitates Judaicae of Flavius Josephus, Nag Hammadi Codex I: The Jung Codex, and Psalms in Community. Dean Attridge has been an editorial board member of Catholic Biblical Quarterly, the Harvard Theological Review, the Journal of Biblical Literature, and the Hermeneia Commentary Series. Before coming to Yale, Dr. Attridge was Professor of New Testament Studies and Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame. He has served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature since 2001. He holds degrees from Boston College (A.B.), Cambridge University (B.A., M.A.), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Harvard University (Ph.D.).
David L. Bartlett
David L. Bartlett was the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. An ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches, USA, Bartlett served as the senior minister of congregations in Minnesota, Illinois, and California. From 1990 to 2005, Bartlett served at YDS on the faculty as well as in administrative roles including Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Dean of Academic Affairs. Bartlett has published numerous books and scholarly articles. It is with great sadness that we note his passing in late 2017.
Yale Bible Study
The Book of Revelation
The early Christian movement, born on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and growing around the shores of the Mediterranean, was rooted in the proclamation by Jesus of Nazareth that the Reign of God was near at hand. That proclamation was rooted in traditional Jewish hopes for liberation from oppression, the Exodus experience that lay at the heart of Israel’s sacred story. The forces that oppressed Israel in the first century of the common era consisted of a complex array of political and economic realities. Over them all stood the military might of the Roman empire, which had extended its sway over the land of Israel in 63 BCE, when Pompey’s legions intervened in a local civil war between descendants of the Hasmoneans. Since that conquest, Rome had been initially content to rule through a client king, first the last Hasmoneans, and then, after 40 BCE Herod the Great and his heirs. By Jesus’ time, Rome had assumed direct control over the heart of the ancient land of Israel, Jerusalem and the areas of Judea and Samaria. Herod’s sons, Herod Antipas and Philip, ruled as Tetrarchs in the north, in Galilee, southern Lebanon and what is now known as the Golan heights. They followed in the footsteps of their father and engaged in a process of modernization, or what we might call “globalization” of their territories. The land of Israel was unified briefly under Herod’s grandson, Herod Agrippa I, but then Rome resumed its direct administration after his death in 44 CE. A series of Roman procurators confronted an increasingly restive people until revolt erupted in 66 CE. That revolt resulted in disaster for the people of Israel. A massive Roman force under command of Vespasian invaded the land and first subdued Galilee and the Golan. Imperial politics delayed the campaign. The emperor Nero, last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, whose increasingly erratic behavior undermined confidence in his rule, committed suicide in 68. Leading generals decided that it was time for a major change and for a brief period, four contenders wrestled for imperial power. The last one standing was Vespasian, who returned to Rome and left his son, Titus, in charge of the campaign in Israel. It was Titus who then supervised the siege of Jerusalem that preceded its destruction and the burning of the Temple in 70 CE. Rome had proven itself to be more than a new Egypt, keeping the people of Israel in bondage. It was a new Babylon, the imperial power that had devastated Jerusalem in the sixth century BCE.
The political situation that lead to the watershed moment of 70 CE and the desolation that followed it generated an array of literature that expressed hopes for liberation as it condemned the forces inimical to the wellbeing of Israel. This “apocalyptic” literature was rooted in ancient prophecy, such as Ezekiel and Zechariah, with their symbolic portrayals of contemporary political reality. Apocalyptic literature was also heir to imaginative works such as the Books of Enoch, which described heavenly journeys and explored fundamental theological issues such as the cause of sin and corruption. Many of these texts find echoes in the pages of the Book of Revelation, but foremost among the predecessors of the New Testament’s “apocalypse” is the Book of Daniel, also a product of a critical time in Israel’s history. Written around 164 BCE, Daniel told tales of a Jewish visionary at the Persian court who predicted the events of the second century, the attempt by the Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes to suppress traditional Jewish practice, and his eventual demise. Those visions used imagery of beastly empires that tried so suppress the people of Israel, symbolically represented by a “Son of Man” or “Human Being.” Daniel’s hopes that the defilement of the Temple in his day would be rectified were fulfilled when Antiochus IV reversed his policies shortly before his death. The success of Daniel’s prophecy gained it a place among the texts that the people of Israel revered.
Followers of Jesus, grounded in his proclamation of God’s inbreaking reign, participated in the hopes for liberation of their day, and, like other heirs of Israel’s heritage, expressed their anxieties and their judgments on contemporary history in the symbolic forms of visionary, “apocalyptic” literature. Passages in the Gospels and in Paul attest to their hopes and fears, such as the “Synoptic Apocalypse” of Mark 13, or Paul’s consolation to his converts in Thessalonica that the “dead in Christ” would be the first to greet him on his return (1 Thessalonians 4:16). The Book of Revelation is the one major example of a literary “apocalypse” that frames its message of judgment and hope in the symbolism of visionary literature.
The date of the book of Revelation is debated. Second-century tradition places it in the last decade of the first century, under the emperor Domitian, the second son of Vespasian, who was assassinated in 96 CE. Some elements within the book, such as the symbolic list of “kings” of what must be Rome in chapter 17, suggest a date of composition at the time of the Jewish revolt against Rome, after the suicide of Nero, but before Vespasian gained control over the empire, but the depiction of Rome as a new “Babylon” seems to indicated a date after the destruction of Jerusalem. It may be that the author of the book used earlier prophetic pronouncements in his final product.
Tradition identifies the author of the book, who tells us his name was “John” (Rev 1:1, 4, 9), with John the Son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve disciples of Jesus, whom tradition also connects with the Fourth Gospel. That identification has led to the inclusion of the book of Revelation in the corpus of “Johannine” texts. Imagery associated with the visionary of this book has also been used to depict the evangelist of the Fourth Gospel, often assumed to be the Beloved Disciple, John the Son of Zebedee. It is, however, highly unlikely that the Gospel and Revelation were written by the same hand. There are too many marked differences in the use of Greek in the two works to have come from the same author and the two works display very different forms of belief in Christ. Some readers have suspected that the John of Revelation was the Son of Zebedee, and that the Gospel was written by some disciple or group of disciples. This suggestion seems unlikely in light of the way the author of Revelation refers to the Church as an entity founded on the Twelve Apostles (Rev 21:14). Although other readings are possible, it seems most likely that the author here refers to a group of witnesses of the past.
Whoever the author was, his situation is somewhat easier to discern. The book begins (1:4-3:22) with a series of “messages” to seven local churches in the Roman province of Asia, i.e., Western Turkey (or Asia Minor). These messages suggest that the author was addressing a community of believers in Jesus who felt very keenly the oppressive regime of local aristocrats, who supported and benefitted economically from imperial Roman power. These followers of Jesus understood themselves, like many others in their day, to be members of the people of Israel, whatever in fact their genealogies may have been, and some probably were of Gentile origin (cf. 14:6). They stood in opposition to others who claimed Jewish heritage, the “Synagogue of Satan,” who were probably Jews who rejected claims that Jesus was the Messiah. They also were in tension with another group, who were probably believers in Jesus the Messiah like themselves, but who had a different attitude toward participation in the culture of the Greek cities of Asia Minor. The author refers to them symbolically as followers of Balaam and Jezebel. Their fault was to “eat meat sacrificed to idols” and “fornication” (Rev 2:14, 20), probably a symbolic reference to a practice that the author considered idolatrous. These rivals sound a good deal like the believers whom Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians, and perhaps they were Christians who had been influenced by something like Paul’s version of the Gospel.
This community of followers of Jesus in the Roman province of Asia had suffered some persecution and at least one of their number had been martyred (Rev 2:13), perhaps for refusing to participate in worship of the Rome and the emperor. The community also knew of the destruction of Jerusalem by that same imperial power. The sometimes poetic, sometimes bizarre visions of the Book of Revelation speak to the situation of those followers of Jesus. They offer an interpretation of the difficult realities of the present situation by placing them within a framework defined by three points of reference, God’s present sovereignty over all that is, the victory of Jesus over the powers of evil in his death and resurrection, an event of the past that shapes the present, and the future manifestation of God’s sovereignty and Christ’s victory in a world restored to its pristine form. While eschatological hope looms large in this complex vision, John the seer also affirms that the divine victory can already be experienced in the community founded on the witness of Jesus and his apostles. That community testifies to the truth that it knows whatever the cost, sharing in the victory that the lamb has won.
The book that conveys this message displays a clear, if complex, structure, built on sequences of sevens: seven messages to churches (ch. 2-3), a heavenly scroll with seven seals (ch. 6-7), seven angels blowing their trumpets (8-9), seven visions, each introduced by the same formula, “and I saw” (ch. 12-14), seven angels who pour out the contents of seven bowls (ch. 16) and another set of seven visions, each introduced by the “and I saw” formula (ch. 19-21). Many of the visions in these sequences consist of pictures of gloom and doom, and declarations of judgment on the sinful. Interspersed with these visions are special vignettes: of a heavenly liturgy (ch. 4-5), of Jerusalem besieged (ch. 11), of the peaceful “glassy sea” of heaven (ch. 15), of a harlot on a beast (ch. 17-18), symbolizing Rome, and of a bride, symbolizing the Church. The material in the first half of the book is woven together with references to a sequence of three “woes.” The first two are explicitly identified (9:12; 11:14). The third is not, leaving the sequence open to what lies outside the text. Also interwoven with the visions are poetic interludes, like choruses in a Greek drama that offer important interpretive comments on the visions. Appearing at 11:15-18; 12:10-11; and 19:1-8, these are particularly important articulations of the claims of the book that the decisive divine victory has already been won.
Reading the Book of Revelation is not a simple process and interpreters have adopted many different strategies for exploring its message. One that is well known in the US today, in part because of the prominence of the “left behind” series and apocalyptic predictions of some evangelical pastors, takes the book as a prophecy of events of our own day. Readers adopting this perspective try to find correspondences between elements of Revelation’s visions and contemporary political or military events. That approach to the book has a long history in Christian circles, although the immediate roots of the most widespread readings of this sort are in Dispensationalism, a movement within English evangelical circles of the early nineteenth century. Rather than understanding the book, which describes itself as prophetic (Rev 1:3) as prophecy in the sense of a set of predictions of end-time events, we suggest that the book is prophecy in a classical sense of proclaiming what the visionary, John, understands to be the word of God for his time. He expresses that word in a complex set of images drawn from Scripture. The word is a message of judgment on the unjust and oppressive structures of the first century, a word of consolation for those who suffer from those structures, and a word of hope for a future that is in the hands of a gracious God whose Son has already achieved victory over evil. Translating that message into a contemporary idiom can be a challenge, but it is well worth the effort.
Justo and Catherine Gonzalez, Revelation (Westminster Bible Companion: Westminster John Knox, 1997) 1-11. This book will be used for general orientation throughout this Bible study.
Christopher Rowland, “Revelation,” New Interpreters Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 12: 501–736.
Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Revelation,” in Eldon Jay Epp and George W. MacRae, eds., The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989) 407–27.
The Challenges of Interpretation
David L. Barr, “The Apocalypse as a Symbolic Transformation of the World: A Literary Analysis,” Interpretation 38 (1964) 39-50.
Brian Blount, “Reading Revelation Today: Witness as Active Resistance,” Interpretation 54 (2000) 398–412.
Adela Yarbro Collins, “Reading the Book of Revelation in the Twentieth Century,” Interpretation 40 (1986) 229–42.
Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004). (Available Upon Request from the Yale Divinity School Library)
Yale Bible Study
The Book of Revelation
I. Revelation 1-3: The Vision of the Son of Man and His Messages to the Churches of Asia
The Book of Revelation begins with a foreword (1:1-3) and then a general message to seven communities of followers of Jesus in the Roman province of Asia (1:4-20). That message focuses on the author’s vision of a heavenly figure, the Son of Man enthroned in heaven. There follow seven messages to individual communities: Ephesus (2:1-7), Smyrna (2:8-11), Pergamon (2:12-17), Thyatira (2:18-29), Sardis (3:1-6), Philadelphia (3:7-13), and Laodicea (3:14-22). The whole section is an intricately interwoven composition that foreshadows the concluding declarations of the book. The beginning of each individual message repeats an element of the vision of the Son of Man and the final remark in each message consists of a promise by the Son of Man to to give a prize to “the one who conquers” in each community. Each of the prizes anticipates an element in the final visions of the book in chapters 19-21.
The foreword has several elements that help to define what kind of work the book is. The very first word, “apocalypsis” or “revelation” has, of course, become the book’s title, although it in fact describes its content. It is useful to keep in mind that the word is singular. The book is not entitled the Book of Revelations, as it is often called. Although its imagery is complex, it finally consists of a disclosure of a single important truth. To anticipate the results of our study we might define that revealed truth as the declaration that the Lamb has already been victorious over the powers of evil that seem to rule the world. Yet the book also offers a vision of what “must soon take place” in order to make the Lamb’s victory manifest. As v 3 indicates, the book is a work of “prophecy.” The prophecy involves an account of the “time” or better, the “appointed time” that is “near.”
The two terms, “apocalypse” and “prophecy” point to the literary precursors of the book, the prophetic literature of ancient Israel and the literature describing visionary experiences (“apocalyptic”) that became widespread in Jewish circles of the period. The visionary author, who reveals his name as “John” in v 1 and again in v 4, will constantly use material from these literary antecedents and it will be important to trace them and think about how he deploys what he borrows.
The Letter to the Churches
The message to the communities of believers begins (v 4) as a standard letter, with the name of the sender, “John” and the recipients, “the seven churches.” Then, where an ordinary letter writer would put in a word of greeting (see, e.g., James 1:1), our author says that “grace” is sent to the recipients from three entities, the “One who is, who was, and is to come,” the “seven spirits who are before his throne,” repeated in v 12, and finally, to Jesus Christ, the “ faithful witness.” Each of these elements resonates with portions of scripture. The first, referring to Israel’s God as known in the Biblical tradition, probably alludes to Exodus 3:14 and Isaiah 41:4. The second recalls the presence of angelic spirits before the throne of God in prophetic visions such as Isaiah 6:2-3, although the number seven is probably an allusion to Zechariah 4:2, which will be repeated in v 12. The reference to Christ as the “faithful witness” may recall other early Christian portraits of Jesus.
That Jesus came as a “witness” (v 5) is strongly affirmed in the Gospel of John (John 18:37), that he is the “faithful one” is a key point of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 3:2; 12:2). That Jesus is the “firstborn of the dead” expresses the general Christian belief in his resurrection. The final description of Jesus as “King of the kings of the earth” introduces a distinctive political note that will run through the whole book. Jesus kingship, ironically affirmed in the Johannine trial scene before Pilate where his role as “witness” is also central (John 18:39) sets him in opposition to the “kings of the earth,” particularly the emperor of Rome.
Following the greeting in an ordinary letter, there would often be a prayer of thanks, as often in Pauline letters (see Romans 1:8-15 or 1 Corinthians 1:4-9). John instead (vv 5-6) presents a doxology, offering honor to Jesus as the one who has “saved us from sin by his blood.” That Christ’s death offered atonement for sin is a common early Christian affirmation (e.g., Romans 3:25-27; Hebrews 9:23-28). To this our author adds another affirmation, that Christ has made his followers a “kingdom, priests serving his God and father.” This claim echoes an affirmation found in 1 Peter 2:5 and 9, which may be understood as fulfillment of a prophecy of Isaiah 61:6. Like so many other elements in the opening chapter, this affirmation will return as a central claim of the book. See 5:10; 12:10; 20:6.
Following the doxology, the visionary cites scripture (v 7). This is not a simple citation, but an amalgamation of Daniel 7:13, the Son of Man “coming with the clouds,” Zechariah 12:10, the vision of those who pierced him, a verse cited at John 19:37 about the crucified Christ, and Genesis 12:3 and 28:14, that the reference to “all the tribes of the earth.” The ultimate source of the message is made clear in the declaration of the “Lord God” in v 8, which picks up the description of God in v 4.
A Vision of the Son of Man
The author’s voice resumes and he gives a brief description (vv 9-11) of the circumstances of his composition. He was on the island of Patmos (v 9), a small island off the coast of Asia Minor, to which he has probably been exiled by local authorities on the mainland. On the Lord’s Day (v 10), presumably Sunday, he had a vision, “in the spirit,” heard the sound of a trumpet and a command to send messages to the seven churches.
That our author had some sort of visionary experience is entirely likely. In this regard he would not be different from other early Christians, such as Paul, who spoke about his own visions, while criticizing those who relied on them (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Translating that experience into the written word of this text no doubt involved more than ecstatic rapture. As we shall continue to see, there is considerable artistry in the author’s weaving of allusions to various scriptural traditions throughout the book.
The heart of the general message to the Churches is a description of the author’s vision of the Son of Man (vv 12–16). The richly symbolic image of the Son of Man considerably embellishes the simple image of the classical text depicting the Son of Man, Daniel 7:13. That passage, which will be enormously significant for the whole of Revelation, described a dream vision in which the seer saw four world empires that had oppressed Israel, each represented by a beast. After the beasts were eliminated, one like a “human being” (i.e., an “offspring of man” rather than an “offspring of a beast”) was enthroned before the “Ancient of Days,” clearly an image for God. The visionary in Daniel soon provided an interpretation of the vision, which referred to the “people of the holy ones of the most high” (Daniel 7:27), i.e., the people of Israel, who would be liberated from the oppressive rule of the Seleucid (Greek) kings of Syria. The Danielic text came to be understood as a Messianic prophecy, by some Jews and certainly by early Christians. Jesus himself may well have stimulated that interpretation by his use of the language of “Son of Man” to refer to himself. In any case, in his prophetic comments about coming woes (Mark 13:26: Matt 24:30; Luke 21:27) and in the account of his trial before the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:62; Matt 26:64) the gospels report that he used the term, and obvious imagery from Daniel to refer to his future coming in power.
John’s embellishment of the image of the Son of Man involves elements from other prophetic sources, such as Zechariah 4:2, which already appeared in v 4. The most striking adaptation, however, involves elements from Daniel itself. The description of the Son of Man’s while hair and clothing (v 14) evokes Daniel again, but not Daniel’s description of his Son of Man. Rather, the imagery is that of the “Ancient of Days,” Daniel’s symbol of God. John has, in effect closely identified Father and Son in this vision; in a way that recalls the strong affirmation of the divinity of Christ in the Gospel of John (John 1:1-2).
A further important embellishment appears in v 16, where a “sharp, two-edged sword” emerges from the Son of Man’s mouth. This is probably an allusion to Isaiah 49:2, where the prophet described his prophetic vocation: “The Lord called me before I was born; while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword.” This rather surreal image serves an important function in Revelation’s portrait of Christ. The sword coming from the mouth refers physically to the prophet’s tongue, but metaphorically to the sharp and pointed words that he has to say. In other words, the sword that the Son of Man wields on his heavenly throne is connected with the role of Jesus as the “faithful witness” (1:5). The same “swift sword” is the weapon that the triumphant warrior Messiah will wield in his final appearance at 19:15.
The visionary falls in awe of the sight of the Son of Man (v 17), who proceeds to tell him, in the words Yahweh spoke to Israel (Isaiah 44:2: Zechariah 9:9), “Do not be afraid.” The Son of Man then describes what he has and does. These descriptions will reappear in the detailed messages.
Messages to Individual Churches
The pattern in each of the messages is the same. The message is addressed to the “angel” of each church, presumably its guardian spirit. The source of the message is identified using an element of the description of the Son of Man and then something is said about the characteristics of the church. Each message concludes with a summons to hear the prophetic word and a promise to “the victor.”
Some messages highlight local landmarks, such as the reference to “Satan’s throne” in Pergamum, probably a reference to the altar of Zeus set high on the acropolis of that important city. The heart of each message is the reference to the behavior of the church. Often there is a balance of positive and negative judgments, as in the case of Ephesus, congratulated for its “patient endurance” (2:2), but chided for falling away from “the love you had at first” (2:4). Most interesting perhaps for assessing the situation of the visionary John are references in these messages to other people or communities in the environment of the churches. These are usually veiled and therefore often more tantalizing than informative. Such for instance is the reference to the “Nicolaitans” in Ephesus (2:6) and Pergamum (2:15), probably another group of followers of Jesus who have a different approach to some matter of belief or practice.
Somewhat more definite are the references to Jews, such as the “synagogue of Satan” in Smyrna (2:9) and in Sardis (3:9). The visionary claims that these “say that they are Jews and are not.” Some readers have taken this jibe at face value and identify the opponents as Gentiles, who have embraced Jesus and who claim to be Jews, but do not practice circumcision or keep kashrut. Others understand these opponents to be traditional Jews, but who in the author’s estimation are not “real” Jews because they do not accept Jesus as the Messiah. Either scenario is possible.
Yet another group is symbolically labeled “those who hold to the teaching of Balaam,” referring to the opponent of the Israelites (Numbers 31:16) or a prophetess, “Jezebel” in Thyateira (2:20). The visionary’s contemporaries taught that it is permissible to “eat food sacrificed to idols” and to “practice fornication” (2:14; 2:20). These issues echo the problems that Paul had with his Corinthian congregation, who apparently thought that followers of Jesus enjoyed considerable sexual freedom (1 Corinthians 5:1; 6:15-20), and thought that eating meat sacrificed to idols was a matter of indifference (1 Corinthians 8:1-6). The object of John’s ire may well have been people in the Pauline tradition.
Perhaps a more pervasive problem is represented by the church of Laodicea, a community that is “neither cold nor hot” (3:15), a church that perhaps lacks the ardor of its first enthusiasm for the vision of a Messianic kingdom. A similar problem seems to affect the community at Sardis which has “a name of being alive, but you are dead” (3:1).
However the details of the visionaries criticized are interpreted, the messages to the seven churches tell of a situation of religious competition, disputes about claims to be the authentic heirs of Israel’s prophetic tradition, and a flagging enthusiasm for this brand of Messianism. This is the situation that Revelation attempts to address, all the while trying to reassure those who remain faithful, those who “conquer,” that their hopes are not in vain.
Focus Text: Rev 1:9-20; 2:1-11
Gonzalez, Revelation, 12-37.
On the Vision of Jesus as Son of Man
John J. Collins, “The Son of Man in First Century Judaism,” New Testament Studies 38 (1992) 63–72.
D. Guthrie, “The Christology of Revelation,” in Joel B. Green et al., eds, Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) 397–409.
Christopher Rowland, “The Vision of the Risen Christ in Rev 1.13ff.: The Debt of an Early Christology to an Aspect of Jewish Angelology,” Journal of Theological Studies 31 (1980) 1–11.
On the Messages to the Churches
G. Biguzzi, “Ephesus, Its Artemision, Its Temple to the Flavian Emperors, and Idolatry in Revelation,” Novum Testamentum 40 (1998) 276–90.
David A. de Silva, “The Social Setting of the Revelation to John: Conflicts Within, Fears Without,” Westminster Theological Journal 54 (1992) 273–302.
Steven Friesen, “Ephesus: Key to a Vision in Revelation,” Biblical Archaeology Review 19 (1993) 24-37.
David G. Mitten, “A New Look at Sardis,” Biblical Archaeologist 24 (1966) 38–68.
Stanley E. Porter, “Why the Laodiceans Received Lukewarm Water,” Tyndale Bulletin 38 (1987) 143–49.
S, S, Smalley, “John’s Revelation and John’s Community,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 69 (1987) 549–71.
Questions for Reflection:
- Does the vision of the Son of man evoke terror or consolation?
- The letters to churches in Asia identify issues that threaten congregations of believers. What are those issues? Are there analogous issues that threaten contemporary churches?
- Revelation styles itself a book of “prophecy.” What is your experience with prophetic books of the Bible? What kinds of expectations does your experience generate as you come to read Revelation?
Yale Bible Study
The Book of Revelation
II. Revelation 4-5: Heaven Opened: The Lion and the Lamb
When he was a boy David Bartlett came to know Edgar J. Goodspeed, a distinguished New Testament scholar and translator. Goodspeed had retired from Chicago to Beverly Hills and had made friends of his neighbors. “I’ve told Cecil B. DeMille,” said Goodspeed, “that he ought to make a movie of Revelation. It’s really not simply a book to write about; it’s far too spectacular for that.” DeMille was famed in the mid twentieth century for making movies with huge casts and spectacular effects, and Goodspeed was suggesting that the book of Revelation was spectacular enough to warrant de Mille’s Hollywood touch. Certainly from chapter four on we get a sense of the dramatic way in which our seer seeks to unfold the future and the providence of God.
In particular we notice three things about chapters 4 and 5.
First, these chapters are steeped in imagery. Of course any attempt to show us the Holy One depends heavenly on the author’s use of imagery and on our use of imagination. The almost arithmetic attentiveness of the author’s description—all those fours and sevens and twelves—should not tempt us into confusing the blessed excesses of poetry with the measurable and quantifiable realities of every day.
Second these chapters are grounded in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. Sometimes the author quotes quite a passage directly; more often we can find allusions in the language of Revelation to Old Testament language or reconfigurations of Old Testament images in the imagery of these verses.
Third, Revelation 4 and 5 contain several hymns, several passages of doxology or praise. In part this is appropriate punctuation for the heavenly vision of God flows inevitably into praise of God. In part these passages suggest that the whole function of this book is not only to prepare the readers for the future but to entice the readers and hearers to praise the God who was, and is, and is to come.
With chapter 4, Revelation shifts from an earthly to a heavenly perspective. Now the seer is not simply addressed by an emissary from heaven, he is caught up into heaven. From 4:1 through the end of Revelation those who hear or read this book are brought into an almost God’s eye view of their world and their history.
It is also evident that heaven is not separate from earth. John is to include the vision of what he sees in the letters he sends to the seven churches. The vision of heaven provides for the earthly communities a vision both of comfort and judgment. And as we all see the concerns of the earthly communities are caught up into the worship in heaven. Revelation looks to a new heaven and a new earth but even in the present time the boundary between heaven and earth is permeable.
Like the prophet Ezekiel, John of Patmos is taken up to the heavenly council, and like Ezekiel he relies on highly pictorial symbols to hint at what he sees. (See Ezekiel 1 and 10 and also Isaiah 6. The image of the beasts draws heavily on Ezekiel, that of the angels heavily on Isaiah.) Notice how flexible the imagery is in Revelation. The Christ who appeared in 1:1 as the transcendent Son of Man appears in chapter 4 as a lion and in chapter 5 as a lamb. The divine is perceived differently according to the faith and imagination of the believer and according to the theological and pastoral questions that the writing addresses.
By drawing on the images of Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6 John of Patmos not only provides details for his heavenly vision that will resonate with those readers who know something of the Old Testament. Implicitly at last he identifies himself with those two major prophets for whom the vision is also a call. John’s words, like those of the ancient prophets, will not only declare God’s judgment they will enact God’s judgment—and God’s promise, too.
I. The beginning of the vision: Revelation 4
The voice that John hears is the voice he has heard as he prepares to write the seven letters 1:10. There the voice is “like a trumpet”; here the voice is accompanied by a trumpet. We deal as much with metaphor as with description. The trumpet will be heard again not just for the seer but for the world in Rev.8:6 (see also I Thess. 4:16, Matthew 24:30-31)
The Spirit was present for the dictation of the letters. Now the Spirit is the agent that moves John from his place on Patmos to his place in the heavenly realm.
We note the reticence with which the author describes God’s own self. We have references to the throne and a description of the one who sits there as gemlike in perfection. We know who is around the throne and we get the stage effects of lightning thunder and a rainbow—perhaps an echo of the rainbow of the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9.
Not only the Spirit is present but a host of the seven spirits. Surely one spirit is for each church to whom John writes. The seven are also a numerological sign of the perfection of the heavenly vision. They are torches because they bring light; they are spirits because they bring knowledge. They are the messengers of the God who can scarcely be described.
The twenty four elders may represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. In any case they are distinguished from the spirits and almost certainly represent earthly persons now translated to heaven. The fact that they are dressed in white may suggest that they partake of the divine glory. (See Rev.1:14, 7:9, 20:11)
The four creatures, drawn in large measure from Ezekiel with wings from Isaiah, suggest the wholeness of creation both human and nonhuman,
The four creatures join in antiphonal song with the twenty four elders, the larger choir. In Philippians 2 and Colossians 1 we almost certainly have traces of hymns sung in first century Christian churches, and it is tempting to think that the songs the heavenly creatures sing may echo the songs the congregations of the seven churches sing on the Lord’s Day.
Though the one sitting on the throne is not described, his attributes are made clear in words that fit both the Old Testament witness and the new. God is the one who reigns forever and ever. God is the one who created all things—presumably including the beasts and the elders.
When the elders cast down their crowns before the one on the throne and sing of God’s worthiness and power the early readers perhaps think of the ways in which emperors and lesser monarchs seek to demand loyalty.
II. The Lion who is the Lamb: Revelation 5.
God holds in God’s right hand a book with seven seals. The New Revised Standard Version calls this a scroll and it seems likely that this allusion to Ezekiel and the designation of the seals suggests that what the lamb is to open is a scroll full of revelation.
This is a book of poetry not code-breaking, so the associations of the “book” are manifold. It reminds us of the Torah given by God to Moses. It reminds us of a last will and testament which was often sealed with seven seals. It reminds us of the scroll that Ezekiel was told to eat in Ezekiel 2. It reminds us of the book of letters and visions that John of Patmos is sending to the seven churches in Asia Minor.
It is clear from the context that when the book is opened it will not only reveal what is to happen in the last days, it will set those events into motion. So when the seer weeps he weeps not only because he is frustrated by ignorance but because the divine time seems to have stood still.
The angelic voice then promises a solution to the problem of the seven seals by making a messianic prediction: “The Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered.” The language is clearly language that anticipates a Messiah, or describes the Messiah. There is much reference in this book to those who conquer (Rev 2:11, 17, 26: 3:5, 12, 21; 12:11) and we will seek to understand the word better as we explore those larger contexts. Our first impression may be that the Lion of Judah will come with military might, but it is to be remembered that those who read of this vision already know the story—they are not being introduced to this Lion for the first time and therefore they are not perhaps as shocked as commentators think when the lion turns out to be, also, the lamb.
The “also” is important. As with much good poetry we are asked to hold two quite different images in our minds simultaneously. The Christian story is full of these juxtapositions. The least who is greatest; the last who is first; the child who is King; the crucified Messiah.
John does not put these images together to disabuse his readers of a falsely triumphant messianic hope. He puts them together because as his readers well know they belong together in the story.
And of course this is no ordinary lamb. Slain in sacrifice, as the Christian tradition holds, he also has seven horns—a sign of rulership—and seven eyes, a sign of wisdom and omnipresence. This is an awe-inspiring lamb which is why the creatures raise their voices and the elders bring out their harps.
Van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece: Adoration of the Lamb (1432)
All the cosmos is joined in the song. The elders bring to their worship the prayers of the saints on earth. The host of heavenly angels joins. And then not only the saints but every created being joins the song.
The book of Revelation will point us toward redemption, but already in its heavenly vision and its earthly song it celebrates redemption. Revelation is a call to patience and to courage. It is a call to worship, too.
Focus Text: Rev 4:1-11
Gonzalez, Revelation, 18-45.
Paul. J. Achtemeier, “Revelation 5:1-14,” Interpretation 40 (1986) 283–88.
Brian Blount. “Wreaking Weakness: The Way of the Lamb,” chap. 3 of Can I Get a Witness?: Reading Revelation Through African American Culture (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2005) 69–90.
Larry W. Hurtado, “Revelation 4-5 in Light of Jewish Apocalyptic Analogies,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 25 (1985) 105–24.
Christopher Rowland, “The Lamb and the Beast, the Sheep and the Goats: ‘The Mystery of Salvation in Revelation,” in Markus Bockmuehl and Michael B. Thompson, eds., A Vision for the Church: Studies in Early Christian Ecclesiology in Honour of J.P. M. Sweet (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1997) 181–191.
L. L. Thompson, “Cult and Eschatology in the Apocalypse of John,” Journal of Religion 49 (1969) 330–50.
Questions for Reflection:
- Revelation is written in part to contrast the sovereignty of God with the sovereignty of the Emperor. How do you reflect on the relationship between God’s authority and the authority of government or economic power today?
- What do you make of the image of Jesus as both lion and lamb? How do you think these come together in these chapters of Revelation, and does the combined image help us understand who Jesus is for the church today?
- For many believers today religious “visions” seem odd and off putting. How might a visionary like John of Patmos broaden and deepen our view of God and God’s interaction with the world?
Yale Bible Study
The Book of Revelation
III. Revelation 6:1-8:5: Seven Seals and 144,000
In the previous vision of a heavenly reality, John had seen a lamb enthroned, surrounded by “beasts” and “elders” who acclaimed him and declared him worthy to “take the scroll and open its seals” (5:9). He now proceeds to do just that. At the opening of every seal, something disastrous happens on earth. The first four dire events follow in rapid succession, introduced by a cry of “come” from one of the beasts surrounding the throne (6:3–8). With the opening of the fifth seal, the pace slows and another voice chimes in, this one coming from the “souls of those who had been slain” (6:9-11). The opening of the sixth seal, accompanied by a great earthquake and a blackened sun reveals a scene of frightening judgment (6:12-17),. The expected seventh seal is delayed and, in the interlude before it is opened, John sees a different vision, not of desolation on earth, but of a more positive reality. An angel arises from the east to put a seal on the “servants of God” (7:1-3). These servants then are counted, 144,000, twelve thousand from each tribe of the people of Israel (7:4–8). The scene then expands to a vision of a “great multitude that no one could count,” coming “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (7:9). Their acclamation is echoed by the angels around the throne (7:11-12). One of the elders standing near the throne then interprets the vision for John, in poetic language that underscores the message of consolation and hope that the vision conveys (7:13-17). Finally the lamb opens the seventh seal and there is a half hour of silence before the next sequence of visions (8:1).
The structure of this set of visions, which will be repeated in an expanded form in the next sequence, is significant. The best known images of the Book of Revelation are those of gloom, doom, and destruction, and indeed such images abound. Yet negative images always stand in balanced tension with images of hope and consolation. This is true of the book as a whole and true even of the sequences that focus on the negative. The first six images of the “seals” sequence are indeed horrific, but move along quickly. John spends almost as much time and effort on the scene that appears after the image of judgment associated with the sixth seal. That scene, framed by the visions associated with the “seals,” reveals a deeper and more encouraging reality.
It is also worth noting that the whole sequence seems to tell a complete story of end time tribulation and judgment. The vision of the sixth seal culminates in “the great day of their wrath” (6:17), which certainly looks like a day of final judgment. This fact is relevant to a question about how the whole book is to be read. Some readers, including modern Dispensationalists, have attempted to find in its list of visions a single blueprint for events of the end time. We have already noted that the book invites a different kind of reading and the sequencing of the visions of gloom and doom points in that direction. In fact, the church father Victorinus of Pettau in the late third century insightfully suggested that the visionary images of the book repeat the same overall story, that there is tale of judgmental woe to be told.
The Four Horsemen and other Woes
The woes of the “seals” sequence include a well-known image of Revelation, the “Four Horsemen,” which has been appropriated in a variety of ways in popular culture, including the “Four Horsemen” of Notre Dame’s 1924 football team. The image itself comes not from athletics, but from the Prophet Zechariah’s vision of four horsemen on variously colored steeds who “patrol the earth” (Zechariah 1:7-11) to keep it at peace. Revelation’s four connote more than running prowess or peaceful vigilance. The first, riding on a white horse with bow and crown (6:2), seems like a victorious general, and anticipates the image of the returning Messiah in 19:11–13. The second rides a red horse, like Zechariah’s peace patrol, but he takes peace from the earth (6:3-4). The third, on a black horse, is engaged in the economics of scarcity, selling wheat and barley for an exorbitant price, while protecting oil and wine. The reference to economic exploitation is hardly unique in Revelation and in its central vision of earthly power in collaboration with ultimate evil, money will again play a pivotal role (13:15–18). The final rider, on a “pale green” horse, embodies death for more than a quarter of the earth’s inhabitants, “by sword, famine, and pestilence and by the wild animals” (6:7–8). The fact that it is all too easy to match this vision with the realities of war in our day is not an indication that Revelation is talking about our time. That pale green horse and its rider have been doing their work throughout human history.
The opening of the fifth seal offers a brief respite from the visions of doom and destruction, but only long enough for the voices of martyrs to ask how long it will be before their vindication (6:9-11). The opening of the sixth seal is replete with familiar imagery about eschatological disaster. The prophecy of the end time attributed to Jesus in Mark 13 tells, in language drawn from Isaiah 13:10 about the sun and moon being darkened, stars falling from heaven and the heavenly powers shaken. Details of this passage (6:12–14) derive from other sources. The moon being turned to blood echoes Joel 2:31 (3:5 LXX), which is cited in Acts 2:20. The fig tree losing its leaves recalls both Isaiah 34:4 and Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree in Mark 11:12–14. Heaven being rolled up like a scroll echoes Isaiah 34:4.
All of these signs drive rulers to flight, a scene which will be repeated in later passages that tell of the judgment and destruction of the earthly minions of the power of evil (18:1–3; 19:19–21). A verse from the prophet Hosea 10:8 gives voice to the dismay of these rulers, who ask the hills to cover them from the divine wrath (6:16). Hosea attributed these words to sinners within Israel and Samaria facing the aggressive policies of the Assyrian empire. Whatever he believes about divine judgment in the end time, it may be that our seer, John, envisions something similar happening in his own day, that is, a political and military event that will destroy the political powers that cause the slaying of the martyrs of (v 9).
Illustrated Manuscript by Beatus of Liébana (730-800)
Albrecht Dürer, 1471-1528
Some modern efforts:
The Ones Preserved from Wrath
The visionary intermission between the opening of the sixth and seventh seals falls into three parts, the vision of the 144,000 (7:1-8); the crowds from every nation that hail them and elicit a response (7:9–11); and the interpretation of the whole vision by an “elder” (7:13-17). The whole scene verbally sketched here, and the acclamations of the people in it, mimic a public pageant in the cities familiar to John. Heroes, as if returning from a grand Olympic context, are assembled; a large crowd of spectators’ shouts out an acclamation to the ruler, echoes by those attending him. An official gives a speech celebrating both the contestants and the ruler. That John engages in a parody of forms of the civil religion of his day is hardly surprising and we encounter more parody of this sort in chapters 12–14.
The composition of the groups involved here is significant for understanding John’s assessment of his audience. The 144,000 from every tribe of Israel certainly attest to his belief that he and his community are the authentic heirs of the people of Israel. This is the kind of claim that was increasingly made by followers of Jesus, whatever their ethnic background, in the late first century and beyond. The number of 144,000 is certainly symbolic: 122 x 1,000. It is a large but limited number, a “remnant” of ancient Israel. John’s image, in other words, performs somewhat the same function performed by Paul’s reflections in Romans 9-12. Paul, confronted with the distressing fact that his gospel had been largely rejected by his fellow Jews. This, he argued, was part of the divine plan. Some Jews had accepted his gospel, like the “remnant” of Israel through whom God had worked in the past (Romans 11:1–10).
The 144,000 have been “sealed,” like the people of Jerusalem in the vision of Ezekiel 9, in which an angel is directed to go through the city and “put a mark on the foreheads of those who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it” (Ezekiel 9:4). Other angels were directed to cut down the rest of the inhabitants of the city, sparing only those with the mark. The “seal” that John has in mind is probably something more than a random mark on the forehead, since “sealing” by the Holy Spirit, probably symbolized by anointing with oil, was one image used for the ritual of initiation into the Christian community (see Eph 1:13; 4:30).
What the voice of the “elder” tells the visionary is that the image that he sees of the 144,000 and the myriads that surround them, symbolizes the divine promise to protect those “who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” yet another reference to baptism. The imagery of paradoxical, even surreal, laundering, of whitening with red blood, functions refers to the same reality of Christian experience to which Paul appeals in Romans 6:3–4. Through the ritual of baptism, followers of Christ identify themselves with the death and resurrection of Jesus, accepting the gracious forgiveness of their sins that God offers to them. Through that baptism they are enabled to participate in the reality of “worship … day and night” depicted as a heavenly reality in chapter 4. The baptized also receive assurance that, whatever they experience, including death for their testimony (6:9), God is with them. The language used to describe that divine protection, relief from hunger and thirst, and protection from the harsh sun (7:16), evokes the promise of Isaiah 49:10, who describes a hoped for day of liberation of prisoners. That God will “wipe away every tear” (7:17) recalls another powerful image from Isaiah, of a banquet that the Lord, the refuge of the poor and needy (Isaiah 25:4) will provide for “all peoples, a fest of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines” (Isaiah 25:6). The prophet also promises that God will “swallow up death forever…”wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth” (Isaiah 25:8). John will allude to the same prophetic passage in his concluding vision of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:4). Here as there, the temporal horizon between present and future is blurred, as John suggests that believers hoping for a dramatic transformation of the human condition can have a foretaste of that now as they participate in the worship of God and of the Lamb. The embrace of that worshipping community trumps whatever travails they may experience.
Focus Texts: Rev 6:9-17; 7:11-17
Gonzalez, Revelation, 46-58.
J. A. Draper, “The Heavenly Feast of Tabernacles: Revelation 7.1-17,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 19 (1983) 133–47.
John P. Heil, “The Fifth Seal (Rev 6,9-11) as a Key to the Book of Revelation,” Biblica 74 (1993) 220–43.
Susan Hylen, “Metaphor Matters: Violence and Ethics in Revelation,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73 (2011) 777–796.
A. Kerkeslager, “Apollo, Greco-Roman Prophecy, and the Rider on the White Horsein Rev. 6:2,” Journal of Biblical Literature 112 (1993) 116–21.
Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “The Followers of the Lamb: Visionary Rhetoric and Social-Political Situation,” Semeia 36 (1986) 123–146.
C. R. Smith, “The Portrayal of the Church as the New Israel in the Names and Order of the Tribes in Revelation 7.5–8,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 39 (1990) 111–18.
Questions for Reflection:
- How do you react to the scenes of doom and destruction that accompany the opening of the seven seals?
- How do you perceive the balance between the visions associated with the seals and the visions of the saints in heaven?
- The vision of the 144,000 and the countless throng that accompanies them sends a positive signal. Does its depiction of a “heavenly” reality appeal to our modern sensibilities?
Yale Bible Study
The Book of Revelation
IV. Revelation 8:6-11:19: Seven Trumpets
It is perhaps most helpful not to think of this central section of Revelation as a kind of timeline, with the drama of the seals followed by the drama of the trumpets followed by the drama of the bowls. Rather what we have here is a kind of triptych, with three panels set up beside each other. Or we can think of it as a kind of split screen motion picture with events juxtaposed against each other simultaneously.
In each case what Revelation affirms is the power of judgment and the hope of redemption. In each case the power of the judgment is presented in such dramatic, almost overwhelming images that it is hard to grasp the hope, but in each case there is a fundamental affirmation of salvation that is there if we can pay enough attention, or rally enough faith.
The depiction of the trumpet will in itself will resonate with John’s readers or hearers. There is the trumpet that calls people to worship at the temple. There is the trumpet that sounded before the fall of Jericho. There is the trumpet that is regularly part of the scenario for the last days in early Christian expectation:
“For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1Thess. 4:16)
“Listen, I will tell you a mystery, we will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead shall be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (1 Cor. 15:51-52; see 1 Thess. 4:16, Matt. 24:31)
Again the seven trumpets echo the letters to the seven churches, the perfection of the letter seven, and perhaps the first century belief that the universe contained seven heavens—one assigned to each planet—and that each heaven had its own angel or angelic host. (See for instance the magical document Sefer ha Razim.)
Also note that as we saw in our last session the revelation of the trumpets takes place in the context of heavenly worship. The unfolding disasters and the unfailing hope are presented by God in response to the prayers of the saints, presented before the divine altar.
The First Five Trumpets: Revelation 8:6-9:12
Again in these verses we see two characteristics of Revelation’s rhetoric. First, the language is imaginative, allusive, metaphor piled upon metaphor. It is a misreading of the material to try to determine exactly which feature of the vision applies to which kind of punishment or pain. To ask why the stingers in the scorpions’ tails can harm people for five months rather than two months or a year and a half is to misunderstand the nature of apocalyptic, and poetic, imagery. You might want to look at some of the apocalyptic poetry of the 18th century British poet William Blake to see how this kind of poetry works, not as a code but as a kind of overwhelming torrent of imaginative possibilities. In 1793 Blake published his poem “America” one of the “Visions of the Daughters of Albion.” Albion is England and more than England, America is America and more than America.
Washington spoke: “Friends of America, look over the Atlantic sea;
A bended bow is lifted in heaven, & a heavy iron chain
Descends, link by link, from Albion’s cliffs across the sea, to bind
Brothers and sons of America, till our voices pale and yellow,
Heads deprest, voices seak, eyes downcast, hands work-bruis’d
Feet bleeding on the sultry sands, and the furrows of the whip
Descend to generations that in future times forget.”
The strong voice ceas’d, for a terrible blast swept over the heaving sea;
The eastern cloud rent; on his cliffs stood Albion’s wrathful prince,
A dragon form, clashing his scales…” (In The Portable Blake, Viking, 195, 302-303)
Blake also created illustrations that tried to capture the mysterious imagery of the Book of Revelation, such as this one of the Beasts:
Second the language time and again echoes passages from the Old Testament without simply being a recital of any of those older narratives. The plagues that are to fall upon the earth remind us of the plagues that fall upon Egypt in the book of Exodus before the children of the Hebrews are led out from bondage, but Revelation does not simply replicate that list of plagues.
In all these plagues, as Christopher Rowland points out, something comes down from heaven and wreaks havoc on the earth. At the end of our story there will be new heaven and new earth but in the meantime heaven’s dealings with earth look more like judgment than like mercy. The continued use of the passive tense (the angel of 9:1 who is also a fallen star “was given” the key) suggests divine activity without directly naming the Ancient of Days who is the implied actor behind all these scenarios.
It is also the case that from time to time we can see hints that the purpose of the plagues is not simply to wreak destruction but also to inspire repentance, though the option of repentance is, to put it mildly, underutilized by the inhabitants of earth. It is also clear that the author is not predicting events for future millennia but is telling his readers/hearers that the end times have begun, that the time for repentance is now.
The first two trumpet calls are accompanied by fiery destruction that consumes one third of pretty much every created thing that is, except for the grass, which is destroyed entirely. Earlier in these visions one fourth of creation is threatened, so perhaps judgment grows from worse to worse. (See Rev. 8:7, 9, 11, 12) And still perhaps there is some hope in the claim that by the time the trumpets have all sounded two thirds of most of the universe remains.
With the third trumpet call and the fall of the star called Wormwood it is evident that not only is a third of extra human creation being destroyed but human creation along with it. The realization that heavenly or earthly pollution of springs of water deals death is not a twentieth century discovery. The bitterness of the water here may also point ahead to the bitterness of the scroll our seer is instructed to eat in Rev. (on Wormwood see Jeremiah 9:15 in the context of another prophetic threat.)
The fourth angel brings darkness, recalling Egypt and its plagues, but also undoing creation in reverse order—first the earth and the waters, and then the heavens and the heavenly lights of Genesis 2.
In 8:13 the eagle that flies in midheaven mediates between heaven and earth, destruction in the heavens and destruction in the land. His cry mediates between the woes that have just passed and the three woes that are to come. What has gone before was bad enough; what comes now will be worse.
It is not entirely clear whether the prophetic bird is an eagle or a vulture. In any case what he cries is doom.
The trumpet call of the fifth angel brings the most elaborately described plague so far. We will see more of the meaning of the depths for our author later, but here out of the depths come forth these locust/scorpion/humanoid creatures. (See Joel 2:4 and Exodus 10:1-30)
The locusts, like all the other scourges, are ultimately set loose by God, but proximately they are under the control of a satanic figure whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon and in Greek Apollyon, both of which can be translated as “The Destroyer.” J. and C. Gonzalez tell us that the emperor Domitian liked to be identified with the Greek god Apollo and wonder whether these verses may not identify that emperor with the forces of cosmic destruction. The article by J. Franz in the suggested readings notes that Domitian identified himself with various of the gods. Moreover he had coins made in his own honor, with the image of Apollo on one side of the coin. This suggests one way to read Revelation’s concern with the “mark” which might seem to be an image of Apollo but which John believes is also the image of the great Destroyer. Apollo/Apollyon.
In any case we get in this passage what we’ve barely seen since the initial seven letters of our book—there is a chosen people with the mark of sanctity on their foreheads. Many will be destroyed; Abbadon will have prey aplenty, but not everyone lives under promise of nothingness.
John informs his audience that with these five punishments the first woe has past and that there are two to come. The second woe will be announced later in Revelation; for Revelation’s first readers the third woe is apparently yet to come just at the end of the end. Or perhaps this is another example of John’s interest in mysterious and metaphorical revelation. Perhaps we are encouraged to re-read in order to see what this third woe may be.
The Sixth Angel and a Prophetic Pause (Revelation 9:13-10:11)
The sixth trumpet brings about yet another kind of disaster, now not “natural” disaster but warfare, albeit warfare of a particularly mythological and metaphoric kind. Different commentators make different suggestions about what actual armies inhabitants of the Roman empire toward the end of the first century might have feared, or which of Israel’s ancient enemies provided the background for this picture. Some of the details may be references to the armaments of John’s time, so the “sting in the tail” of the locusts recalls for the readers the Parthian archers who rode and shot arrows as well. What is clear is that this is an army to outdo any other army—two hundred million horsemen.
It is also clear that the horsemen are, like all other threats of this section of Revelation, under the ultimate control of God who allows for release of the four angels who are presumably the intermediary handlers of this terrifying host. Rev. 9:15 suggests a theory of history that comes close to predestination in the sense that the angels of war have been bound up until the pre-appointed time, known presumably only by God.
In vv. 20-21 we get one of the reminders that the purpose of all these plagues was not simply punishment but repentance, but the two thirds of humankind who outlast this warfare remain unrepentant and we can be sure that their day, too, will come.
In Revelation 10 our author reveals that he is not only a poet but a dramatist. An additional angel, beyond the seven trumpeters, now arrives from heaven. He is described in ways that remind us both of the Ancient of Days and of his Son. He has come to announce that there will be no more delay in the coming of the last days, but dramatically, his announcement itself delays the action.
The delay continues when the angel validates again for John of Patmos his own prophetic call. Like Ezekiel John is given a scroll, and like Ezekiel he eats the scroll he has been given.
“(God) said to me, ‘Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. ‘ Then I ate it, and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.” (Ezekiel 3:3)
The scroll is not that one sealed by the seven seals, but a new scroll, unsealed, presumably full of the oracles of God that John is to pronounce. Unlike Ezekiel’s scroll the sweetness of the first taste if followed by bitterness—appropriately for this first century prophet.
As with so many words of God the prophecies taste sweet at first but then turn sour in the mouth. Wormwood revisited. One of the great questions of this book is whether God will restore sweetness to creation once again. The last sections of our passage for today offer some hope.
The Witnesses and the Seventh Trumpet (Revelation 11:1-19)
The delay that follows the announcement that there will be no further delay continues.
John is given the task of measuring the temple in Jerusalem. Clearly more is signified here than an architectural assessment (especially since by now the temple has almost certainly been destroyed.) Perhaps this is preparation for the confirmation of the final vision of new heaven and new earth when the temple is transcended. Perhaps the temple is a cipher for the faithful people who bear God’s mark on their heads and who will be able to endure forty two months until the end, while those “outside” face their destruction. That number, by the way, comes from the prediction in the Book of Daniel 7:25 about the limited period of three and half years during which the Temple in Jerusalem would be subject to the desecration imposed by the Greek Seleucid King Antiochus IV.
There is at least one clear hope that God has not given up on God’s people. God will provide two witnesses to bear witness for a time. The Greek word for witness, martys,has been borrowed by the English language for our term “martyr.” What the term catches is that the witness not only bears witness by words but by the life the witness lives and often the death the witness dies. The witnesses are promised that for the time that God allows they will be enabled to make their testimony. But John’s readers are also warned, more likely also reminded, that the punishment for the witnesses fidelity will be death and disgrace.
Whether we can imagine a particular city that is Sodom and Egypt and Jerusalem at once, or whether we see this “city” as a metaphor for earthly powers and principalities we see that for the witnesses’ (as for the lamb in the midst of the throne) the price of faithfulness is suffering and death.
But as with so much of the Christian story the conclusion of the witnesses’ witness is not torture and death but resurrection. The loud voice from heaven says what it said to John of Patmos at the beginning of chapter 4. “Come up here.”
It is impossible to know what witnesses the author had in mind. The Gonzalez’ thinks that they are symbols of the Jewish and Gentile believers in the crucified lamb. Others try to identify them with particular figures in the early church (James and John?) The olive trees that accompany them are sometimes associated with the prophets. The lamps illumine the seven churches in the first chapters of revelation. Probably again we move beyond any simple equivalence to see in the two witnesses the inspiration and remembrance of John’s readers of those who have stayed faithful till the end.
And now with the translation of the martyrs to heaven and the accompanying signs and wonders some people do at last begin to give glory to God.
The interlude ends. The seventh trumpet sounds. The end of the story (which is both now and yet to come) is sung rather than proclaimed. The resurrection of the witnesses is the clue to the end of this drama—after all the tribulation, punishment and martyrdom—the kingdoms of this earth will be ratified as the Kingdom of our God.
Focus Texts: Rev 9:7–21; 11:1–19
Gonzalez, Revelation, 59-75.
David Aune, “God and Time in the Apocalypse of John,” in A. Andrew Das and Frank J. Matera, The Forgotten God: Perspectives in Biblical Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002) 229–248.
G. K. Beale, “The Influence of Daniel upon the Structure and Theology of John’s Apocalypse,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 27 (1984) 413–23.
Gordon Franz, “The King and I” (Bible and Spade) http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2010/01/18/the-king-and-i-the-apostle-john-and-emperor-domitian-part-1.aspx#Article
Allen McNicol, “Revelation 11.1-14 and the Structure of the Apocalypse,” Restoration Quarterly 22 (1979) 192–202.
John O’Rourke, “The Hymns of the Apocalypse,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 30 (1968) 399-409.
Questions for Reflection:
- In religious literature from the first century until now it seems easier to portray vivid judgement than to portray vivid redemption. What are some of the signs of God’s promise that Revelation provides for its readers? What are some images of redemption that are helpful to you today?
- The honored Christian virtues are faith, hope and love. In Revelation, however, there is also considerable emphasis on patience. How might we grow patience in our own time and our own communities? How can we distinguish Christian patience from disappointed resignation—“things don’t change”?
- Revelation stresses the importance of “witnesses” for God. Best known religious witnesses today are probably Jehovah’s Witnesses who are courageous and explicit about sharing their faith. Are there other forms of witness that might be appropriate for your own congregations and your own gifts? (Remember that in the first century as in the twenty-first faithful witness is never risk-free.)
Yale Bible Study
The Book of Revelation
V. Revelation 12:1-14:20: Seven Signs in Heaven: A Woman, A Dragon, and Two Beasts
With seven seals opened and seven trumpets sounded, John launches into another set of seven visions. These are not explicitly numbered as were the previous sequences, but they are all introduced with a reference to the seer’s vision. The seven visions of the next section of the text are:
- 12:1-18: A Woman and a Great Red Dragon, introduced by “A great sign appeared”
- 13:1-10: A Beast from the Sea, introduced by “And I saw”
- 13:11-18: A Beast from the Land, introduced by “And I saw”
- 14:1-5: The Lamb Enthroned, introduced by “And I saw”
- 14:6-13: Three Angels, introduced by “And I saw”
- 14:14-20: The Son of Man and his Angels, introduced by “And I saw”
- 15:1: Another Sign in Heaven, introduced by “And I saw”
The final vision repeats the motif with which the series started, and like the final “seal” at 8:1, it simply begins the next sequence of visions. The first three visions of this sequence are no doubt the most important of the series, containing important data about the situation that Revelation addresses.
The Woman Clothed with the Sun
The Woman and the Great Red Dragon (12:1-18) are images that have universal resonance, with parallels in widespread myths. The basic elements are a pregnant woman
(vv 1-2), threatened by a menacing serpent (vv 3-4), who continues his threats after the woman gives birth (vv 5-6). A hero appears to defeat and cast down the serpent (vv 7-9), leading to a celebratory hymn (vv 10-12). But alas, the serpent is not totally defeated and returns to afflict the woman and her child (vv 13-17). The last episode in the mythic imagery sets up the next two visions, beasts from sea and land, who are somehow tied to the Great Red Dragon.
The image of the “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet” (12:1) has had a lasting influence on Christian iconography of the Blessed Virgin, both in Europe [The Immaculate Conception by Batolomé Esteban Murillo, 1678, in the Prado Museum, from Wikicommons] and, in North America, in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe
[Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City, Mexico; from Wikicommons]
Or on the Golden Dome at the University of Note Dame, Notre Dame, IN.
Yet, while the image may make some reference to the actual mother of Jesus, it resonates with other referents. The woman surrounded by heavenly bodies is reminiscent of various mother goddesses of the Mediterranean, including perhaps Artemis (Diana) especially revered at Ephesus, one of the cities addressed in the book. The figure of a divine mother and a child threatened by a serpent has a close parallel in Greek myths told about Diana and her brother Apollo and their mother Leto. That the author might be ironically alluding to such a myth is likely, as part of the Revelation’s appropriation of the oppressors’ symbols. Roman emperors since Augustus had associated the order and beauty of their imperial rule with Apollo, and John had earlier (9;11) referred to the angel of the abyss as “Apollyon,” a pun on the name of Apollo, meaning “the destroyer.”
[Woodcut copied from a Greek vase]
Once the serpent is cast down from heaven, the woman, now a mother, is given the wings of an eagle (v 14), perhaps evoking the promise of Isaiah 40:31 that those who wait on the Lord will “mount up with wings like eagles.” She flees to the desert along with “the rest of her offspring” (v 17). They are defined as “those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.” This final set of comments on the woman suggests that she is a symbol of a collective reality. As the mother of the very special child, she is Israel, and as the mother of those who hold the testimony of Jesus, she is the Church. Using feminine imagery for collective realities such as cities was common in the Greco-Roman tradition. Christians made a similar move when they imaged the Church as the “bride” of Christ (Ephesians 5:23), as John will do in his final vision.
The persecution of the woman and her offspring is to last for a limited period. That period is specified twice in this chapter, in v 6 as 1,260 days and again in v 14 as “a time, times and half a time.” Both refer to the same period of time mentioned in 11:3 as forty-two months, and as noted there, the whole notion of such a specifically limited period comes from the book of Daniel (7:25; 9:24-27; 12:7).
The Great Red Dragon
[From the Angiers Apocalypse Tapestry, 1377-1382]
While the image of the Woman has a certain ambiguity that has created many associations in the history of interpretation of the book, the image of the Great Red Dragon has a more definite profile. The curious combination of seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on each head (v 3) gestures toward the fourth beast of Daniel’s “visions by night.” This creature, “terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong” with “ten horns,” (Dan 7:7) represented the last of oppressive imperial power. The combination of seven heads and ten horns and crowns will be replicated in the case of the “where the beast from the land shows up” (13:1), the earthly embodiment of the Great Red Dragon. The specific significance of the number seven will finally become apparent at 17:9. It will have nothing to do with the sacred number seven that has structured the sequences of visions. It will rather be the demonic counterpart to the realm of the sacred, the Seven Hills of Rome and seven “kings” or Roman emperors.
But the book has not yet moved to the realm of earthly politics. After threatening the woman and her child, the Dragon battles a heavenly hero, “Michael and his angels” (12:7). As a result of the conflict, the serpent is “cast out” (v 9). That fate connects him with Genesis 3:14-15, and the deceptive serpent of the creation story, whom Yahweh curses and casts down to the dust of the earth. John makes the connection explicit, naming the dragon, “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world,” who was “thrown down to the earth” (v 9).
Yet the serpent remains a Dragon, and as such, evokes ancient myths of combat between forces of good and evil. Such myths were known in ancient Mesopotamia, where the divine hero Marduk defeated the sea serpent Tiamat, and in ancient Canaan, where Baal defeated the sea monster Yam. The myth of heroic combat with a dragon continued to be popular in Western culture and is most familiar to us in the guise of St. George and his battle with a dragon.
[Raffael, St. George and the Dragon]
The Great Red Dragon of Revelation, in any case, is clearly the embodiment of ultimate evil, but the main affirmation that John’s vision makes is that this power has already been defeated. The great voice heard in heaven heard in v 10, like the voice of the elder of 7:13, interprets the vision and celebrates victory in poetic form (vv 10-12). This voice echoes some of the exultation of the heavenly acclamations of 11:15-18. It declares that “Now have come” the realities of the Reign of God and the authority of his Messiah (v 10). What the NRSV translates as “our comrades,” more literally “the brethren,” have already “conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (v 11).
Yet though defeated, the Dragon is not yet totally overcome. He still has venom to spill, which he pours forth form his mouth like a torrent (v 16), threatening the woman and her offspring. This notice sets up the next two visions.
The Beast from the Sea
The keys to understanding the Beast from the Sea have already been mentioned in connection with the Great Red Dragon, which this beast replicates. The various beastly characteristics enumerated in v 2 derive from the images of the several successive empires that oppressed Israel symbolized in the vision of Daniel 7:4–6. What is curious about this beast is that he has a head that “seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed” (v 3). If this is a mysterious riddle at this point, its meaning finally becomes clear when the symbolism is explained in 17:9 as “kings” associated with Rome. The “death blow” must refer to a violent death, from which the beast itself, the Roman Empire, recovered. The two candidates for the slain head would be Gaius Caligula and Nero, both of whom died violent deaths in the first century. The visionary will later (13:18) provide a clue that Nero is in view.
The rest of the description of the Beast from the Sea (vv 4-8) perfectly fits Roman imperial rule, which would have come “from the sea” to the shores of Asia Minor. The most striking part of the description is the focus on worshipping this blasphemous beast (v 8), no doubt an allusion to the contemporary cult of the goddess Roma and the divinized emperors in sanctuaries of the major cities of Asia Minor.
The description of the Beast from the Sea concludes with a warning to those under its heel (vv 9-11). The warning, in effect, rejects violent resistance to the beast. If captivity or death comes, it is to be accepted. Endurance and fidelity are what is required of the faithful.
The Beast from the Land
The next beast is a shadow of the two great beasts that have preceded it. It has two horns, like the Lamb, but speaks like the Dragon (v 11). Its major function is to enforce the worship of the Beast from the Sea (vv 12-14). One of the ways it does so is through the use of a talking statue (v 15), a device that is attested for the period in the work of a second-century satirist, Lucian of Samosata, who wrote about a religious charlatan, Alexander of Abonoteichus, the “false prophet,” whose image was a human-headed serpent!
The details of the worship imposed by Beast from the Land is the use of money, coinage that bears the images of Roman imperial rule, without which one cannot buy or sell (v 17). John claims that this coinage functions as a demonic parody of Jewish phylacteries or Tefillin, boxes with verses of scripture tied to head and forearm (cf. Exodus 13:9, 16; Deueronomy 6:8; 11:18). Coins would certainly be found in the hands of any buyer or seller, and would probably be touched to the forehead as a good luck gesture (v 16). In any case, the coins are idolatrous because of what is on them, the “image of the beast” (v 16) and his name and “number” (v 17).
John here plays a symbolic game, known as gematria, based on the fact that in Hebrew and in Greek numbers were represented by letters of the alphabet, not by separate numerical symbols, as in Rome. Therefore, any name has a numerical value, the sum of the numerical value of its letters. One can play a guessing game, as John does here. He tells his readers that he has a name in mind the value of which is 666 and asks them to guess the name. The problem of course is that while a name will have one numerical value (depending on how one spells it), a number could refer to many names. Readers of Revelation, who think the book refers primarily to events of the reader’s own time, usually find no difficulty in identifying a name that will add up to the requisite 666. The most likely solution to the riddle, however, is that the number refers to the name of Nero Caesar, spelled in Hebrew. This would fit the references to the “head that was slain” (vv 3, 12). The gematria works as follows:
ר ס ק ן ו ר נ
200+60+100 50+6+200+50 = 666
The Remaining Visions
After the three, largely threatening, visions of chapter 13, the rest of this sequence of unnumbered visions contains relatively familiar items. The first is the vision of the Lamb on Mt. Zion, recalling Rev 5:6, surrounded by 144,000, recalling 7:1-8.
A vision of three angels follows (14:6-13). As in chapter 7, the 144,000, here described as virgins (v 4) are part of a larger entity, those to whom the first angel of the next vision brings the gospel (vv 6-7). A new note is introduced by the proclamation of a second angel that “Babylon has fallen” (v 8), anticipating the description of the destruction of Babylon in chapters 18 and 19. A third angel recalls the imagery of chapter 13 and issues a warning not to worship the Beast (from the Sea no doubt) or its image or the coins on which the image is stamped.
The sixth vision returns to center stage the Son of Man, whose appearance to John had inaugurated the book (1:12–20). Here he is accompanied by angels who prepare the “harvest,” particularly of the “grapes of wrath” (vv 18-19), familiar to Americans from the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
The final vision (15:1) simply introduces the next sequence.
Focus Text: Rev 12:1-18
Gonzalez, Revelation, 76-97.
P. J. J. Botha, “God, Emperor, Worship, and Society: Contemporary Experiences and the Book of Revelation,” Neotestamentica 22 (1988) 87–102.
Adela Yarbro Collins, “The Political Perspective of the Revelation to John,” Chapter 6 of Cosmology and Eschatology in Jewish and Christian Apocalypticism (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 1998) 198–217.
Steven Friesen, “Myth and Symbolic Resistance in Revelation 13,” Journal of Biblical Literature 123 (2004) 281–313.
Paul S. Minear, “Far as the Curse is Found: The Point of Rev 12.15-16,” Novum Testamentum 33 (1991) 71–77.
S. J. Scherer, “Signs and Wonders in the Imperial Cult: A New Look at the Roman Religious Institution in the Light of Rev. 13.13-15,” Journal of Biblical Literature 103 (1984) 599–610.
Questions for Reflection:
- How do the images of the Dragon and the Beasts relate to the images of Daniel 7?
- How do you assess the impact of demonizing political realities?
- Chapter 12 presents the first major feminine image in Revelation. How do you understand the way in which that image works?
Yale Bible Study
The Book of Revelation
VI. Revelation 15:1-17:18: Seven Plagues, the Beast and the Whore
Plagues from the Temple
Revelation 15:1 provides the good news that frames all the destructiveness of the plagues. “seven angels, with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended.”
Again we are reminded that it is most helpful not to read the account of the seals, the account of the trumpets, and the account of the plague filled bowls as if they represented a timeline for the end days. They are better read simultaneously as symbols of the fierce judgment of God. Each symbol builds on, clarifies, and corrects the last.
Readers of our time are often convinced that the Old Testament presents a wrathful God and the New Testament a gentle God, revealed by the gentle and loving Jesus of Nazareth. We are reminded, though, how often God shows mercy in the Old Testament, and we are reminded, not only in the book of Revelation, that a stern God can promise judgment through a demanding Son. There is a strong distinction between the New Testament understanding of real judgment and real grace on the one side, and the benign assumption that everything is all right all the time on the other.
Nonetheless the judgment of Revelation is always qualified by mercy. There is mercy in the call to repent. There is mercy in the promise that those who suffer will conquer. There is mercy in the blood of the lamb, his own blood surely, not that of his enemies. There is mercy in the vision of a new heaven and a new earth.
At the end (at The End) they are all still symbols. This is not an elaborate code to be cracked but a dramatic poem that points to actual events in the first century world but also resonates with the visions of God’s judgment in all times and places—and finally with the vision of God’s triumphant mercy, too.
Before the depiction of the seven plagues we are given the dramatic setting. Gathered in heaven are the saints and presumably still the beasts and the elders. Heaven is separated from earth by a sea of glass. Despite the hymnist’s delight in the possibility of throwing down our golden crowns around the crystal sea, it is not altogether clear that the sea represents a beneficent scene.
The image of the sea is multifaceted in meaning and in the possibility of interpretation. (Revelation is poetry not code; there is not an Enigma machine that can translate everything from symbolic language to more prosaic explanation.) On the one hand the sea marks the boundary of the heavenly doxology; here it is not only glassy (something to be desired or not) it is mixed with fire (almost certainly not to be desired.) We remember that the sea separates John of Patmos from the land, from his former life; it imprisons him. God will establish God’s reign by overcoming the barrier suggested by the sea. On the other hand the portrayal of the sea in Revelation resonates with ancient myth. The sea is chaos calmed by the activity of the creator God. In this reading of the vision the glassy sea is the sea tamed by the power of the one on the throne; presumably it reflects the divine light. In any case the sea is what separated for the children of Israel and destroyed the troops of Pharaoh. It provides a fitting backdrop for the saints to sing Moses’ song.
Again the setting for God’s activity is set by song. The song of Revelation 15 does echo the song of Moses in Exodus 15 as the plagues that follow will echo the plagues God sent on Egypt. The penultimate lines of the hymn sing what chapters twenty and twenty one will show: “For you alone are holy; all nations will come and worship before you.” (Rev. 15:4b) The final line is an apt description of all that we have seen in this book so far, and will see in the next two chapters as well. “For your judgments have been revealed.”
What John sees in heaven is the “temple of the tabernacle of witnessing”—Zion, Jerusalem, the martyred saints all signified in the heavenly building. What comes forth from this temple is plagues, but the plagues are carried in bowls by angels dressed in white. Servants of God dressed in redemption clothing bring the instruments of judgment that must precede the general redemption. This is perhaps why no one can enter the temple until the judgment is complete.
We have seven angels of course. Seven plagues; seven seals; seven trumpets; seven churches, and as we have suggested, perhaps seven heavens leading to the highest heaven of them all.
The Bowls are Emptied (Revelation 16:1-21)
The voice that cries from heaven is presumably either the voice of God or the voice of the Son of Man. As throughout this book it is clear that all these terrifying portents and the angels who carry them are under the direction of the sovereign God and of his Christ.
One striking feature of this vision is found in 16:11 where the recipients of the fourth plague “cursed God because of their pains and sores, and they did not repent of their deeds.” Hidden beneath the obvious prophetic language of doom and destruction here, once again, there is the reminder of the latent prophetic hope. If I preach the judgment that I see perhaps they will yet turn and be saved.
The seven plagues wreak destruction cosmically—on earth first and then on the sea and then on the rivers. When the rivers turn to blood we have a brief liturgical interlude where the angel congratulates the Holy One on the poetic justice of his wrath. Those who have spilled the blood of the saints and prophets now choke on blood. “It is what they deserve” in verse 6: “It is what they deserve” might better be translated: “They got what they had coming.”
Then the plagues reach to the heavens, turning the sun dark, recalling the darkness that encompassed Egypt (Exodus 10:22-29), as well as predictions in Isaiah 13:10 about the sun being darkened in a time of judgment, a passage cited in New Testament prophecies about the end (Matt 24:29; Mark 13:24-25; cf. Luke 21:25)..
The sixth angel dries up the Euphrates, and we catch the allusion to Babylon set on that great river. We will soon note other allusions and suspect that the kings of the East bring judgment not on Babylon alone but on the new Babylon, Rome. The dragon and the beast are by now familiar figures of both cosmic and imperial evil. The false prophet reminds us that these visions are sent to real churches who have known something of false prophecy themselves.(See Rev. 2:14-15 and especially 2:20 where “Jezebel” is linked both to false prophecy and (like the whore of the next chapter) to “fornication,” probably idolatry. The frogs remind us of Exodus (Exodus 8:1-15) and the demonic plague somewhat of the gospels’ exorcisms and somewhat of a violent video game.
Between the sixth and seventh plagues we have another brief interlude where Christ himself speaks the meaning of these events. He echoes the Gospel assurance (Matthew 24:43; Mark 13:35), echoed by Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:2), that the Kingdom will come like a thief in the night, one of the few places where a link is made between these visions and the gospel tradition.
The plagues are embellishments of the plagues of Exodus—blood, darkness, frogs.
The seventh angel is in fact an evangelist. Here is the good news; see, it is done.
No one is sure where Armageddon was. The best guess takes the Hebrew root and claims it as the “Mountain of Megiddo” but Megiddo has no mountains. We may discover that Armageddon is a bigger battleground than that; and the war a greater battle.
The Whore, the Beast, the Explanation Revelation 17:1-18.
Uniquely John not only presents the vision he has received from one of the seven angels, in the last verses of this chapter he provides a kind of explanation direct from the angel. The explanation, fortunately or not, is about as metaphorical and elusive as the original vision, but you can’t blame an angel for trying.
What seems dramatically and poetically clear is that the whore of Revelation 17 is contrasted to the woman clothed with the sun in chapter twelve and the “bride of the Lamb” who will appear in 21:2. The woman surrounded by sun reminds us of redemption, Eve, Mary the Mother of the Lord, the church. She fights against the satanic dragon. She is waiting for the end. (Rev. 12:6)
The whore reminds us of idolatry and fornication. She is Babylon and Rome but also dwells in Babylon or Rome (this is poetry not geometry). She is not only drunk, she is drunk with the blood of the saints whom she murdered.
She sits on a beast with seven heads, which are both the seven hills of Rome and seven (or eight) emperors. There are ten horns who are somehow related to the kings whose power will threaten the hegemony of Rome until she (we use the pronoun deliberately) is destroyed.
The commentaries search at some length to decide how to count emperors, wondering whether the present emperor is Nero or Domitian or someone else entirely. The attached table shows a likely reading of the chronology of this picture (Option 1) along with two other options for identifying the “kings” with Roman emperors. Any attempt to date the book of Revelation exactly is complicated by the fact that John of Patmos (like other New Testament writers) may have incorporated images and themes from earlier Christian material. There is no way to be sure. The beast was and is not and is to come. That may give a first century inhabitant of Asia minor an important clue about the beast’s specific identity. It gives readers and hearers of every generation a contrast between the beast and the God who was and is and is to come.
|Seven “kings” or emperors||Option 1||Option 2||Option 3|
|Augustus (31 BCE – 14 CE)||1||1||1|
|Tiberius (14 – 36 CE)||2||2||2|
|Gaius [Caligula] (36 – 42 CE)||3||3||3|
|Claudius (42 – 54 CE)||4||4||4|
|Nero (54 – 68 CE)||5 & 8||5 & 8||5|
|Galba (68 CE)||6|
|Otho (68 CE)||7|
|Vitelius (68 CE)|
|Vespasian (69 – 79 CE)||6||6|
|Titus (79 – 81 CE)||7||7|
|Domitian (81 – 96 CE)||8|
The beast has its home in the bottomless pit from which it shall ascend. God has his home in heaven from which he will descend to make new heaven, new earth.
Rome is Rome and also Babylon and therefore metaphorically more than Babylon; every age has a Babylon or two. In the history of Israel (so essential to our author’s reading of his own history) Babylon was not only the great power but the power that destroyed and exiled. Now Jerusalem is destroyed; John of Patmos is exiled.
For us the picture points ahead to any power that wreaks havoc and sends people into exile. The heads of the beast may represent particular emperors but they represent empire now and then.
All these are the symbols and surrogates for the kingdoms of this world. They will be subsumed by another Kingdom altogether.
Focus Texts: Rev 15:1–8; 17:3–18
Gonzalez, Revelation, 98-115.
David L. Barr, “Towards and Ethical Reading of the Apocalypse: Reflections on John’s Use of Power, Violence, and Misogyny,” Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 1997 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997) 358-73.
W. H. Shea, “The Location and Significance of Armageddon in Rev 16.16,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 18 (1980) 157–62.
Questions for Reflection:
- Revelation was written long before our modern awareness of the ecological crisis, but in his vision John of Patmos warns us of the possibility of the reversal of creation, the virtual destruction of heaven and earth. Does his insistence on the judgment of God and the hope for repentance shed any light on our anxiety about the future of the earth and its resources?
- From the first century until now people have worked very hard to identify the number of the beast and to assign that number to some individual or power that seems particularly threatening. If, as we suggest, the number made sense in its original context do we still have an obligation as faithful people to try to identify forces that strive against God’s justice, or should our faith be purely private and reticent? If we need to name injustice, how might we start?
- We tend to think of evil deeds, evil decisions and even evil people. What we do not much talk about in many of our American churches is the idea that Evil is larger and stronger than particular evils—like a ravening beast. Is this just a childish notion best discarded, or might it point to a truth about the extent and endurance of evil?
Yale Bible Study
The Book of Revelation
VII. Revelation 18:1-19:21: The Fall of Babylon and the Coming of the Messiah
Angels have poured out the vials holding the liquid from the grapes of the wrath of God. Their actions have brought to reality the declaration of the angel in 14:8, that Babylon has fallen. The object that wrath appeared in the last chapter with its thinly disguised allegory of Rome portrayed as a whore riding on a beast. The next section of the book (18:1-19:9) celebrates the fall of this new Babylon, relying heavily on passages from Jeremiah and Ezekiel, involving dramatic prophecies and taunt songs celebrating the demise of Israel’s oppressors. Then begins the final major section of the book, consisting of seven unnumbered visions 19:11-22:5, each introduced by the formula, “and I saw,” like the visions in the central section (chapters 12-14). This week we shall read the first three of those visions, about the coming of the Messiah and his defeat of the powers of evil. Although there is a structural division between the two parts, they substantively overlap in intriguing ways.
Celebration of the Fall of Babylon
Chapter 18 begins with the appearance of another angel, who announces, as had the earlier angelic voice, that “Fallen, fallen is Babylon.” Of course, no such fall had taken place when John wrote Revelation and Rome would remain intact until sacked by the Alaric and the Goths in 410 AD. John’s celebratory vision of the fall of Rome therefore seems a bit premature. Exactly what readers are to make of the prophetic declaration is a bit mysterious. It is possible that John anticipates a political and military catastrophe in the near future which would overthrow the established imperial order. He might remember the events of the chaotic year of three emperors, alluded to most recently in 17:10. Or perhaps some form of the prophetic vision was already composed in the circumstances of that period in which Roman power seemed to totter on the brink of chaos.
It is also possible that John understands the fall of “Babylon” in a metaphorical sense. The imperial order, and all its components which the rest of chapter 18 will specify, has already fallen in the face of the “conquerers,” the witnesses to the truth, whose “victory,” anticipated in the declarations of the messages to the churches, was celebrated in the hymnic acclamations that accompanied the central images of 11:17 and 12:10-12. The vision of the coming of the “warrior” Messiah in the next chapter (19:11-16) will add to the evidence that this is indeed John’s perspective.
The celebration of Babylon’s fall in chapter 18 develops a more detailed vision of what it is that has fallen. After describing the desolation, real or metaphorical, that follows the fall (18:2), the visionary returns the motiv of the “fornication” committed by Babylon. The initial angelic declaration had connected Babylon’s fall with the image of “the wine of the wrath of her fornication” as well (14:8), a symbol for something that the imperial power had forced on “all the nations.” The language of sexual immorality, which has been a part of Revelation since the complaints against some of the churches (2:14, 20), is symbolic of another problem. The prophetic tradition, beginning with Hosea, used sexual immorality as a symbol of the infidelity of the people of Israel to Yahweh, and so it is with Revelation, where the “worship of the beast” that is Rome has been the major sin (13:8, 12, 15). Yet an important part of the indictment of those who worship the beast is that they use the coin of the realm (13:17) with its mysterious “name.” John has thus hinted that he sees an intimate link between the idolatry involved in the worship of Rome and participation in the economic order that the empire nourished. The connection between political and economic spheres continues in a clear and forceful way in this chapter. The next verse (18:3) introduces the theme connecting “kings of the earth” who have “committed fornication with her (i.e., Babylon)” and the “merchants of the earth,” who have been enriched by her.
The rest of the chapter consists of five segments, a voice that cries a warning to the people of God that judgment is coming (18:4-8), a brief lament by the kings of the earth (18:9-10), a much longer lament by the merchants and sailors (18:11-19), another angel describing the desolation of the great city (18:20-24) and a heavenly chorus celebrating the fall (19:1-9).
Echoes of Biblical prophecy resound throughout this section. The call to the people of God to “come out” (v 4) recalls Jeremiah’s advice to the people of Israel to come out of the original Babylon (Jeremiah 51:9, 45). This was a warning that responded to a divine decree that Babylon was to be destroyed (Jeremiah 50:8-9; 51:1-5), a prophecy that inspires much of Revelation’s language about the fall of the new Babylon.
The voice that cries out from heaven calls for vengeance, for Babylon to be repaid for her sins (v 6). The repayment is a dreadful mix of “pestilence, mourning and famine.” Repayment was also part of Jeremiah’s call for the sins of Babylon (Jeremiah 51:24), and he paints an equally bleak picture of the devastation to be administered to Babylon (Jeremiah 50:34-38). This call for retribution is perhaps one of the most disturbing parts of the book of Revelation, hardly compatible, it would seem, with a faith grounded in the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount that those who suffer should “turn the other cheek” (Matt 5:38-42). Yet the followers of Jesus, though committed to a radical ethic of non-violence, believed that it was God, not they, who would set things right in the end. They believed, as the Epistle to the Hebrews 11:30 notes, quoting Deuteronomy 32:35, that “vengeance is mine, I will repay.” A righteous judgment was a firm part of most early Christian expectations of God’s eschatological action.
Thus far the vision of chapter 18 has echoed Jeremiah’s prophecies about the fall of Babylon. After the perfunctory lament of the kings (18:9-10), the cries of the merchants and sailors (18:11-19) recalls another vivid prophetic passage, Ezekiel’s description of the fall of the Phoenician merchant city, Tyre (Ezekiel 26-27). The list of merchandise (18:12-13) parallels the roster of wares traded by Tyre (Ezekiel 27:12-22). The reaction of the merchants to Babylon’s fall (18:15) resembles the reactions of merchants to the Tyre’s demise (Ezekiel 27:36). The “shipmaster, seafarers, and sailors” (18:17) were also part of Ezekiel’s scene (Ezekiel 27:29).
Following the description of the laments of kings and merchants, there is an exclamation (18:20) that sounds as if it is coming from the voice of the seer himself. Whatever its source, the call to “rejoice over her, O heaven” sets the tone for the remaining verses of the section.
Ezekiel continues to be the inspiration of much of the next section, in which an angel casts a millstone into the sea and paints a scenario of the dreary barrenness that follows divine judgment. Ezekiel had described a similar bleakness in the fallen Tyre (Ezekiel 26:11-13, 20-21).
The heavenly chorus that concludes this segment of the book brings familiar characters back to the stage, the voice of a great multitude (19:1, 6; cf. 7:9), the twenty-four elders (19:4; cf. 4:4, 10; 11:16). Their acclamations resemble the acclamations at 11:15-18 and 12:10-12), celebrating the victory and righteous judgment of God, whenever that takes place.
An unnamed divine voice, perhaps of the last angel that had appeared, tells the seer to write down the vision affirming that they are the “word of God.” The seer falls down in worship, in what might be a fitting ending for a “book of prophecy” (19:9-10). But in fact the book does not end there. John reports yet another sequence of visions. The first is of a rider on a white horse (19:11). The horse recalls the conquering rider on the first horse of the four horsemen (6:1-2). The details of his appearance are significant. His fiery eyes connect him with the Son of Man whom John saw at the start of his vision (1:14). Jesus, who for Christians is the Son of Man, has been at the heart of the whole book, either in his glorious heavenly attire or in the form of the lamb that was slain. In fact, the connection of those two perspectives, heavenly glory and patient witness, coincide for our visionary, as they will here.
The rider of the white horse has on his head “many crowns,” more impressive than the crowns on the heads of the Roman beast (13:1). More important than the trappings of royalty is the name that he bears, rather like the name of Yahweh inscribed on Aaron’s turban (Exodus 28:36-38), or, in the words of an early Christian hymn, the name that is above all names (Philippians 2:9) bestowed on the exalted Jesus. The Messiah does indeed bear the name of God as he had borne the characteristics of the Ancient of Days in his first appearance (1:14).
The most important feature of the horseman’s appearance is the fact that his robe is dipped in blood (19:13). For those who read Revelation as a prophetic depiction of a warrior Messiah, who will come and exact bloody vengeance on the unrighteous, the blood here is the blood of his victims. But the visionary does not tells us explicitly whose blood it is, and given what has been said about the slain lamb, it is much more likely that the blood here is the rider’s own, the blood that has been shed on behalf of a sinful world, by the one whose name is “The Word of God,” a possible allusion to John 1:1.
The author continues to play with the imagery of a warrior Messiah, but he subverts that imagery at every step. Yet another characteristic of the rider on the white horse is that he bears a “sharp sword” with which to “smite the nations” (v 15). This is the same sword that appeared at 2:16 and it plays the same metaphorical role, describing the incisive words of prophecy that issue from the sword-like tongue of the chief witness. This rider will be ruler, ruling with “an iron rod,” the same iron rod, inspired by Psalm 2:8-9 that appeared at 2:26-27 and 12:5. This is not; however, a mace or club that a warrior uses, but it is precisely the implement of a “shepherd” concerned for his flock.
The vision of the coming Messiah sketched here is of a piece with the remarkable imagery of the rest of the book. It embodies the hopes of early Christians for future deliverance, but it firmly embeds those hopes in the character of the one whom they follow, the slain lamb, who is also the good shepherd. The “king of kings and Lord of Lords” (v 16) who exercises his rule by his testimony, his witness to the truth. It is that prophetic witness that overcomes the powers of evil embodied in political and economic spheres and that witness is victorious, even in what appears to be defeat. John will continue to play with imagery of eschatological warfare, judgment and vindication as he moves through this final set of visions, but always with an eye to the reality that is already in place, a reality that will be lavishly celebrated in the final vision of chapter 21.
Here two brief visions move the process along, the first appeals again to the prophet whose visions had dominated chapter 18, Ezekiel. First (19:17-18) John turns to Ezekiel 39:17-20, where the prophet had called upon the birds of the air to feast on the “flesh of the mighty.” The subject of the bizarre eschatological banquet is described in the final vision, where the characters of chapter 12 and 13 appear once more. Here they are described as “the beast” (vv 19-20, cf 13:1-10) i.e., the beast from the sea = Rome, and the “false prophet” (v 20), the local aristocracy who supported Roman rule (v 20, cf. 13:11-18). Victory over them precedes a final victory over the ultimate power of evil, which will be described in the next chapter.
Focus Text: Rev 18:11-16; 19:6-10; 19:11-16
Gonzalez, Revelation, 115-130.
Ward Ewing, “Babylon the Great and the New Jerusalem,” in Henning Graf Reventlow, Yair Hoffman, and Benjamin Uffenheimer, eds., Politics and Theopolitics in the Bible and Postbiblical Literature (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994).
Craig R. Koester, “Roman Slave Trade and the Critique of Babylon in Revelation 18,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 70 (2008) 766–786.
G. W. H. Lampe, “The Testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of Prophecy (Rev 19:10),” in W. C. Weinrich, ed., The New Testament Age: Essays in Honor of Bo Reike (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1980) 245–58.
C. R. Smith, “Reclaiming the Social Justice Message in Revelation: Materialism, Imperialism, and Divine Juegement in Revelation 18,” Transformation 7 (1990) 28–33.
Questions for Reflection:
- The images of death and destruction in chapter 18, deriving largely from the prophet Ezekiel are particularly graphic. Are there any significant ways in which John departs from his scriptural source?
- How do we understand the role of images like those of chapter 18 in a Christian context? Is the act of exulting over the demise of enemies compatible with the Gospel?
- What connections do you see between the image of the rider on the white horse of chapter 19? Is John through this image making some pointed statement about how the role of the Messiah should be understood?
Yale Bible Study
The Book of Revelation
VIII. Revelation 20:1-22:21: The Millennial Kingdom and the New Jerusalem
We come now to the conclusion of the vision and the conclusion of our book. The last four chapters of the book provide a kind of counterbalance to the eighteen that have proceeded. Especially in the vision (the visions) from Revelation 3 through Revelation 19. In those chapters the emphasis is on the sovereign God as judge with occasional attention to notes of promise and regular interludes for hymns that remind us that the end of this story will not be judgment but reconciliation. Now in chapters 19-22 redemption is at the center of the action with the occasional reminders of judgment as salutary warnings before we rush too quickly to celebration.
We have found it most helpful in studying Revelation not to attempt to reconstruct some kind of visionary chronology, one action right after another. Seven seals; seven trumpets; seven plagues. Now the woman with the stars; now the woman on the beast. Rather Revelation is better seen as a kind of enormous tapestry, a panorama with scenes that overlap and comment on each other. You will see in some of the illustrations that the book of Revelation lends itself to just that kind of art and interweaving.
In the same way as we come to the end of the end of days we resist falling into speculation about whether a thousand years is really a thousand years or exactly how the millennium relates to the triumph of the rider on the white horse that precedes it or the two bindings of the dragon that follow. Our reticence is not simply a confession of bafflement before the conflicting timelines and images. Nor is it simply our reaction to the long and confused history of trying not only to sketch out the order of events in Revelation but to tie them, each in order, to events in our everyday world. It is our conviction that attempts to rob this poetry of its ambivalence and resonances are in danger of robbing it of its power—both for its own time and for ours. Christopher Rowland points out the ways in which St. Augustine reads this material to support his vision of a heavenly Kingdom which impinges on earthly kingdoms but can never simply be identified with them. “In The City of God…(Augustine) questions simplistic attempts to read off from the complexities of history evidence of the hand of God in the affairs of men and women…The best that can be hoped for in the earthly city is a modicum of peace and justice to assure some kind of stability and harmony. (Rowland, NIB, XII, 712)
We would also suggest that for all its imperfection the church can represent a kind of parable and approximation of the transcendent Kingdom of God, even on earth.
Down with Satan (twice): Revelation 20:1-10
However literally we may want to take the depiction of Satan as a dragon and serpent (with echoes both of Genesis and of near eastern creation stories), what John needs us to see is that not even the most horrendous of human institutions—idolatrous cities, false prophets, overweening greed—stands independent of the depth of evil itself. Behind and through the whore and the beast and the false prophet and the greedy merchants there is the deeper evil connoted by the serpent, and until he is destroyed evil is not destroyed altogether.
It is not clear what we are to make of Satan’s double overthrow. It is a little like the suggestion that D Day was the turning point but not the end of the war; or the image from a football game when, as the commentators constantly remind us, the momentum has decisively tuned. What is clear is that while the Ancient of Days and the lamb will descend from heaven to earth, Satan descends from earth into the pit. The imprisonment of evil empowers the resurrection of the faithful; Satan has no power over them. What we see depicted at the beginning of the millennium is the first resurrection. Perhaps this is because it anticipates a second resurrection, after the thousand years. Perhaps, as Eugene Boring suggests the seer wants to combat any suggestion that resurrection has already happened in the lives of the Christians, prior to the binding of Satan and the coming of the last days. Or perhaps, the “first resurrection” is “metaphorical”, like the “second death”. The “second resurrection” is “literal”, like the “first death.” All the witnesses have participated in the death and resurrection of Christ through their baptism – at least if they have read Paul. That is their “first resurrection.”
What we do know is that this millennial reign is not only the reign of God and of the lamb but of those who have been martyred in their cause. They have not worshiped the beast nor borne his marks; they have not fallen into idolatrous service of emperor or empire. As is typical in apocalyptic visions, the millennium is described as if it had already passed (see vs. 5), but our vision mixes past with future, or ignores our usual temporal categories altogether. The vision suggests eschatology already on the way to realization, using fairly traditional Christian imagery.
Satan and his host return from near death to a dramatic last gasp. The references to Gog and Magog go back to Ezekiel 38, as our author draws once again on Old Testament images to reinforce his own vision.
Perhaps the sudden return of Satan before his final defeat was depicted to warn the first century Christians to stay ever vigilant. It’s not over till it’s finally over. Perhaps it is a reminder to readers and hearers that the final victory belongs to God but only in God’s time. In either case notice that there is no real extended battlefield scene depicting the war between Satan and his troops and God. At the beginning of this section the angel simply seizes the dragon. At the end the devil is thrown (presumably by God) into the lake of fire where he joins his old subordinates forever and ever—a long, long time.
Judgment Day: Revelation 20:11-15
Now God comes to earth in judgment, and the dead both from sea and the underworld are given up to judgment. The picture of God on the white throne seems to owe something to the imagery of Daniel 7:9-10. It is not clear how the works recorded in “the books” are related to the names recorded in “the book of life.” Does the Book of Life simply confirm the verdicts of the other books; those whose works have been worthy? Or does the Book of Life represent a divine judgment of grace that precedes and perhaps even supersedes the score of right and wrongdoing? In any case in the context of Revelation it is clear enough that the deeds that count most are deeds of fidelity and resistance to any form of idolatry.
The second death, after the judgment, leaves no room for future resurrection. For those whose names are not found in the book of life this is the complete and final stop. Death and Hades are personified as was the Dragon, and they too are subject to the final death. In an odd way, therefore, death will be no more.
The fiery lake reminds us of the fiery sea of glass mixed with fire in front of the throne in Revelation 15:2, and of the way in which water serves so often in this book as a symbol and instrument of judgment, of separation from God. Or alternatively, the image suggests the ways in which God finally stills the forces of chaos and destruction often intimated by the image of the tumultuous sea.
New Heaven, New Earth: Revelation 21:1-8
The reminder of judgment now gives way to the dominant motif of these chapters, the promise of life (though judgment will reappear in 20:8) The new creation for which Revelation longs is more than cosmic; the transcendent is transcended. Heaven and earth are both made new.
As in all the divine activity of this book, God does God’s will by sending something down from heaven—now it is the New Jerusalem. We notice that the consummation of history in this book does not come when people are snatched up into heaven but when God establishes God’s new city on earth.
The voice from the throne (God’ own voice? An angel?) proclaims John of Patmos’ version of St. Matthew’s name for Jesus—Immanuel; God with us. Whatever promise John sees in incarnation is completed and surpassed by this final incarnation, this fullest encampment of God among humankind.
We catch something of the context of the churches who read this book when we are reminded in the hymn-like proclamation from the throne that what God needs to do when the New Jerusalem comes is to “wipe away every tear.”
God’s self declaration points both to who God is in God’s self and to what God does for believers. He is the beginning and the end; creator and new creator. He does good to those who thirst for righteousness and to those who conquer—that is to those who like the conquering lamb are willing to bear witness even to death.
Then in 21:8 we return to the bad news; the fate of those who have gone against God, the familiar burning lake. Notice though that going against God involves above all a variety of forms of idolatry, false worship, mistaken faith.
The New Jerusalem: Revelation 21:9-23.
We return to one of the seven angels, previously an instrument of wrath who poured out one of the seven plagues, now an instrument of redemption as he invites the seer to see the New Jerusalem and yet another “woman”—the bride of the lamb, presumably. The passage reminds us that feminine imagery provides for our author rich possibilities not only for anxiety but for sketching the possibilities of God’s reign. The image of the bride and the vision of the New Jerusalem remind us, as Augstine did, that the church itself can be a manifestation of the Kingdom of God, a kind of realized eschatology, imperfect but hopeful. The Kingdom is imperfectly manifest in the church, even the seven churches with which our book begins.
In language drawn largely from Ezekiel 48 John describes what the heavenly Jerusalem will be like. It is a contrast to the earthly Jerusalem, which at its best did not reach this majesty, and which now toward the end of the first century C.E. lies in ruins.
If for a moment we take our cue from Northrop Frye and read the Bible as one large tapestry, what he calls The Great Code, we notice what God the Alpha and Omega has done. At the beginning God set humankind in a garden, but at the end, in redemption, humankind is brought not to a farm but to a city. All the ambivalence our book has shown to capitals, commerce, ports and powers is somehow transcended and transformed, not by returning to some rural past, but by embracing the city which in all its complexity belongs to God.
Revelation 21:22-27 draws a picture of worship beyond worship and of light beyond light. God needs no temple because God is temple. God needs no heavenly lights because God is light. Everyone, remember, is a priest and in the blessed city no one walks in darkness. Of course John cannot end this glorious picture without a quick reminder that idolaters will be excluded (as we remember they’re in line for the lake of fire.)
The River of Life: Revelation 22:1-7
Again the angel is no longer an instrument of wrath but of enlightenment. His job is no longer to punish but to show.
Now we fall entirely into imagery without any particular attempt at daily probabilities. A tree grows on both sides of a river. God and the lamb are everywhere. Work gives way to worship. Notice that the sterile sea of glass and the terrifying sea of tempests gives way to a living stream: usable water, fresh water. And again the faithful are named by the name on their foreheads. Here is their true identity.
The angel sets the seal of veracity on these verses and on the whole book. Who can deny the truth of a book verified by God, the spirits, the prophets, the angel, and the servants of God.
Though we have now puzzled over this book for almost two millennia it is clear that however metaphorical John the seer was in his vision, and however inconclusive in his timeline, he writes for his people and his time with the expectation that the end is near. “See I am coming soon.”
Then the visionary is blessed and those who read or hear and believe.
Last words: Revelation 22:12-15.
Now presumably Christ speaks at the end of the book as at the beginning: here, too, he is alpha and omega. J. and C. Gonzalez suggest that these last verses are a kind of liturgy, recalling us to the book’s setting “on the Lord’s day.”
Again with the usual dualism of apocalyptic literature the faithful are separated from the unfaithful, those who belong inside the new city are separated from the doggedly blasphemous outside.
Several times in this book, John of Patmos has been told to “come”—to witness one vision or another. Now everyone who is thirsty can come, again for living water from a flowing stream.
And again Christ will come, soon.
Focus Texts: Rev 20:1-10; 21:9-27
Gonzalez, Revelation, 130-148.
Adela Yarbro Collins, “The Power of Apocalyptic Rhetoric –Catharsis,” Chap. 5 of Crisis & Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984) 141–163.
C. H. Giblin, “The Millennium (Rev. 20.4-6) as Heaven,” New Testament Studies 45 (1999) 553–70.
M. Gourgues, “The Thousand-Year Reign (Rev. 20.1-6): Terrestrial or Celestial?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47 (1985) 676–81.
C. F. D. Moule, “A Reconsideration of the Context of Maranatha,” New Testament Studies 8 (1962) 307–310.
W. W. Reader, “The Twelve Jewels of Revelation 21.19-20,” Journal of Biblical Literature 100 (19810 433–57.
Questions for Reflection:
- The attempt to distinguish what the thousand year reign might mean have been and not very fruitful. Are there ways in which you can see in the life of the church or in the movements of history something of God’s reign, not fully consummated, but on the way? What would such signs of God’s reign be?
- John’s vision is of a new heaven and a new earth… not of earth dissolving into heaven. How does this challenge or affirm the way you think of God’s sovereignty over the creation, o rhow you think about death and new life for Christians?
- From early in the church’s history and at particular times like the Protestant Reformation some wise Christian leaders have thought that Revelation should not be included in the Bible. It is too complicated and tends to make trouble. Now that you have spent these weeks studying this book, what is your understanding of its role in the scripture and in Christian life?