No other writing in the New Testament is so intentionally mysterious as the Revelation to John, also called the Apocalypse. Within its pages one reads of a scroll eaten from the hand of an angel, a woman clothed with the sun pursued by a great red dragon, a beast with ten horns and seven heads. Exotic symbols and riddles abound. All these are part of a vision that John says he saw “in the Spirit.”
Revelation is a vast pageant set on a visionary stage spanning heaven and earth. The message was directed to Christians who were faced with persecution by the Roman state, and it gave them a vision in which the powers of the world were measured by a new scale.
For example, the mighty Roman Empire, which presented itself as the keeper of ancient values, the fountainhead of order and law, appears in the vision as nothing more than a beast or a harlot, or the demon-filled ruin of a once awesome city: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (18:2). By contrast, the church becomes “a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne” (7:9). It is not seen as it in fact was – a tiny and mostly poor minority within a hostile or indifferent society. The narrative is intended to thrill and captivate its readers as it circles about its central vision of a world transformed by God’s power.
Although to modern tastes Revelation, with its exotic images, may seem bizarre, it was in fact following a common pattern within Jewish literature of its time. Numerous examples of such writings have survived, including the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible and 2 Esdras in the Apocrypha. Scholars call these works “apocalyptic literature” after the Greek word apocalypsis which means “revelation.”
John introduced his book as “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants what must soon take place; and he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.” Apocalyptic literature often described the way in which the present evil age of human history would be overthrown by God, who would then create a new, perfect age from which evil would be banished.
The visions in this literature were described to many of the ancient figures of the Bible: Adam, Abraham, Moses, Ezekiel, Daniel, Ezra, and others, though almost all were written from about 200 BC to AD 200. These great men of earlier centuries were typically said to have received a revelation that either took them on a visionary journey or symbolically laid out the course of human history until its end.
Revelation is closely related to this literature but differs in that it was not attributed to a figure from ancient times. Instead its author was a Christian named John, who was probably known to the readers of the book. Most scholars have concluded that this John was not the apostle John, but was a Christian leader living near the end of the first century.
Toward the end of the reign of the emperor Domitian (AD 81-96), John had evidently been exiled to the small island of Patmos in the Aegean, as he says, “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9). Although we know little about John, the churches to whom he was writing knew him. And they knew this to be a document composed in their own time, with direct importance for them.
To Christians of John’s time, Revelation was startling but recognizable. Though John never expressly quotes the Scriptures, Revelation is full of biblical images and language. John depended on his readers’ knowledge of the Scriptures to catch these resonances. For example, in John’s description of “four living creatures” that surround God’s throne, each creature had a different face. The first had a face like a lion, the second an ox, the third a man, the fourth an eagle (4:6-8). John’s readers would hear echoes of Ezekiel’s vision of God’s throne, in which Exekiel also saw four creatures, each with those four faces (Ezekiel 1:5-10).
The Book of Revelation is structured around the number seven, a number that in the ancient world usually symbolized completeness and perfection. The words that begin John’s strange journey come to him from a “voice like a trumpet” that says, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches” (1:10-11). The seven churches, all from western Asia Minor are symbolized by seven lamp-stands. The churches have seven angels symbolized by seven stars, and each is sent a highly stylized letter. These are addressed not from John to the church but from Christ – with his face “like the sun shining in full strength” – to the angel of the particular church. The letters are specific and direct in dealing with problems in the churches, and they suggest that all is not well.
Christ praised some of the congregations for faithfulness and endurance under persecution, but others were beset by idolatry and heresy. He rebuked the church at Ephesus because they had “abandoned the love” they had at first (2:4). He harshly told the church at Sardis, “you have the name of being alive, and you are dead” (3:1). And the church at Laodicea was so “lukewarm,” he said, “I will spew you out of my mouth” (3:16). These were clearly churches that needed a vision to lift their eyes above their struggle. The message was for all: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (3:22).
After the letters, John was summoned through “an open door” in heaven and ascended to see the throne of God and the glory surrounding it (Revelation 4:1-11). In his right hand God held a scroll, sealed with seven seals. No one was found worthy to open the seals but Christ, who was introduced enigmatically as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” and also as a “Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.” The Lamb was acclaimed by the heavenly court and proceeded to open the seals as a demonstration of his universal authority.
As the Lamb opened the first four seals the thundering vision of the famous “four horsemen” was revealed: conquest, war, famine, and death. The opening of the fifth seal rang with the cry of martyrs. With the sixth seal the overthrow of earth and sky was revealed, and all the people of earth, even the most powerful, were reduced to scurrying among the rocks like rodents before “the wrath of the Lamb.” What more could the seventh seal bring?
Rather than continue the progression of seals, however, John paused to reveal “the seal of the living God,” a vision that depicts the salvation of the faithful. The number of the faithful is given explicitly as 144,000. This number represents all of the redeemed, who are also portrayed by a numberless throng who shout, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” (7:10). When John finally described the seventh seal, it seems an anticlimax: “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” But this was simply a pause before the next series of visions.
The new visions repeat and embellish the themes that were established in the opening of the seals: persecution and martyrdom; judgment and punishment on the forces of evil in the world; and the triumph of God and Christ and the salvation of the faithful. The seven trumpets of woe follow the opening of the seven seals. Between the sixth and seventh trumpets two visions intervene. The final trumpet brings a celebration because “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.”
The vision that follow continue the same themes but focus on the Roman state as the enemy of God and his people. John saw a woman in heaven, who evidently represented the people of God. She was “clothed with the sun” and about to bear a child. A “great red dragon” identified as “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan” pursued her, ready to devour her child at birth. When she bore a son, “who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron,” he was caught up to god, but she fled to the wilderness of earth, still pursued by the dragon.
The dragon then empowered two beasts: one that rose from the sea and a second that rose from the earth. The sea beast represented the Roman Empire, and the second beast represented the emperor and the emperor worship that was common throughout the Empire. Christians from Ephesus might especially have recognized this “beast.” Their city had built a huge temple for the emperor Domitian housing a colossal statue of this emperor who styled himself “Lord and God.” The first beast made war on the saints and the second required everyone, on pain of death, to worship an image of the first beast. In Domitian, John evidently saw the rebirth of the evil embodied in the late emperor Nero, who is represented by the number of the beast, 666 (13:1-18).
John’s vision describes a total conflict between the church and the Roman Empire and its ruler cult. The vision of seven plagues shows God’s punishment of this “great Babylon” just as he had sent plagues on Egypt long ago. John portrays their opposition to god as the dragon and beast gather “the kings of the whole world” for battle “at the place which is called in Hebrew Armageddon” (16:13-16).
This mysterious word, Armageddon, is usually thought to mean “Mount Megiddo” in Hebrew, since Megiddo was the site of many famous battles. But since there are no mountains located in Megiddo, some scholars see in it a veiled reference to Jerusalem. Visions and hymns celebrate the fall of “Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations” and the lamentation of all who supported her (17:1-19:10).
Thus the visions return with new emphasis to Satan’s defeat and the supremacy of Christ’s rule. The cry of the martyrs that had been heard in the opening of the fifth seal was finally answered. Satan is bund and the resurrected martyrs reign with Christ for a thousand years. As the great white throne of God opens to John’s sight, all the dead stand are judged before the throne “by what was written in the books by what they had done.” The “book of life” records the names of the faithful; anyone not there is condemned to the lake of fire.
John’s last chapters breathe a sense of exhilaration and peace as he sees a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem. God is tenderly present with his people to “wipe away every tear from their eyes” (21:4). Paradise has been regained in a visionary city of “pure gold, clear as glass,” and a perfect communion with God.
John wrote Revelation for a community of people struggling to survive against the threats of a hostile empire. Despite their strangeness, the visions were clear in their message. Satan and his Roman beasts would continue to war, but not a single faithful heart would be lost. Thus they could be confident: “’Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”