The Book of Revelation is strikingly different from the rest of the New Testament. It is populated by winged and wild creatures, locust plagues, and seven-headed beasts. Revelation is filled with obscure and fantastic symbolism, and it teems with mystical references. However, it lacks any real internal structure. Unlike the other New Testament books, which tend to mix narrative with sermon-style preaching, Revelation is essentially a long, uninterrupted record of a mystical vision, offering little interpretation for its intricate symbols. Revelation has been read for thousands of years as a code that, properly interpreted, can reveal the secrets of history and the end of the world. The numbers and symbols in Revelation have been read into any number of traumatic events in ancient and modern history.
Revelation was a product of this time of early growth and confusion, but also of a long Jewish tradition of apocalyptic literature. The Old Testament books of Ezekiel and Zechariah contain long apocalyptic segments. The most famous Old Testament apocalypse, the Book of Daniel, was written circa 165 b.c. The apocalyptic genre became more popular after 70 a.d., when the apocryphal apocalypses, 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra, were written in response to the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by Roman armies. There is enough apocalyptic literature that it can be classified as a genre of its own, with its own particular characteristics. Some of these common features are revelations made to a human emissary through a supernatural agency, heavy symbolism, numerology with obscure significance, extravagant imagery, and concern about a cataclysmic day of judgment or the end of the world. Apocalyptic literature tends to take a deterministic view of history—that is, apocalypses are generally driven by the belief that history inexorably follows a set path ordained by God. All of these characteristics of the apocalyptic genre are present in Revelation.
The introduction of Revelation names the author, John, and explains the immediacy of the message: the end of days is at hand. John extends a greeting to the Christian communities in seven major Near East cities in the name of the God of history. On the Sabbath, John falls into a prophetic ecstasy. He sees a vision of a shining Jesus, surrounded by seven stars and seven lamp-stands: these represent the seven churches of Asia. In 2:1–3:22, John is given orders to deliver a message to each of the churches, addressing specific strengths and failings of each church, providing encouragement to some and driving others to repent before Judgment Day. Jesus reminds them that his coming is imminent. The first half of John’s revelatory experience begins with the opening of the heavenly door: “Come up here,” a voice calls to him, “I will show you what is to take place in the future” (4:1). John sees God enthroned and surrounded by twenty-four elders.
Lightning flashes and thunder sounds. Old Testament angels with six wings and many eyes sing praises to the Lord. God holds a scroll sealed with seven seals, and nobody is worthy of breaking the seals except Jesus, by virtue of his sacrifice. Jesus appears here as “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered,” but also as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” (5:5–6). Breaking the first four seals, Jesus releases the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: victory, war, famine, and pestilence. When the fifth seal is broken, the souls of martyrs cry out for justice, but they are urged to have patience until the appointed number of people have been martyred. The breaking of the sixth seal unleashes a massive cosmic upheaval that devastates the world.
Before the breaking of the seventh seal, an angel marks 144,000 people—12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel—with the seal of God to protect them from the coming devastation. Other righteous people, too, are to be saved: a “great multitude . . . [of people] from all the tribes and peoples and languages” have cleansed themselves and they, too, will be protected (7:9). Finally, it is time to open the seventh seal (8:1). But the opening of the seal is anticlimactic; when it is opened, it is revealed that there are seven trumpets that need to be blown. Four of the trumpets blow, each bringing with it disaster and destruction, with fire falling from the sky (8:6–12). With the fifth trumpet, the chimney leading out of the Abyss is unlocked, and bizarre locusts emerge in the smoke, stinging anyone unmarked by God’s seal. The sixth trumpet unleashes a vast troop of cavalry who kill “a third of humankind” (9:18). However, the survivors nevertheless refuse to stop worshipping idols and behaving immorally. An angel descends from heaven, announcing the imminent fulfillment of “the mystery of God” with the blowing of the seventh trumpet (10:7).
The prophet is ordered to consume a scroll, which will taste sweet but be bitter in his stomach (8:10). He is told that two prophets will arise to preach the word of God in Jerusalem, but will be killed after 1,260 days by “the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit” (11:7). God will revive these prophets, and will strike Jerusalem with a powerful earthquake. Finally, the seventh trumpet blows, and John hears voices shouting, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (11:15). The moment for justice, punishment, and triumph has arrived, with lighting, thunder, earthquakes, and hail.
The second half of Revelation begins with the opening of God’s sanctuary in heaven. A woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet,” gives birth to a child who is almost eaten by a huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns (12:1). The child is saved from the dragon and brought to heaven. The archangel Michael makes war on the dragon, who is Satan, defeats him, and drives him from heaven. The dragon continues to pursue the woman, who yet again escapes him. Instead, he makes war on her children. The dragon delegates his power to a fantastical creature identified only as “the beast,” who makes war on the saints and curses God (13:4). A false prophet, “another beast,” arises and convinces people to worship the first beast (13:11). The prophet sees Jesus and his 144,000 righteous followers entrenched on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. He hears the news that the Day of Judgment is at hand, and that Babylon the Great—probably symbolic of the Roman Empire—has fallen. Angels begin to spill out of the blood of the wicked like wine from a winepress. While the righteous sing hymns to Moses and Jesus, seven angels empty seven bowls of plagues across the Earth, bringing suffering and destruction to the wicked. People refuse to repent, and instead curse God. With the pouring out of the seventh bowl, “it is done” (16:17).
John is shown a vision of the Whore of Babylon, who symbolizes the Roman Empire. An angel announces the fall of Babylon and warns God’s faithful to abandon Rome, lest they be punished together with the wicked. Those wicked people who made their livings from Rome’s trade will mourn her downfall, but the righteous will rejoice. Many voices surrounding the throne of God sing his praises at the news, and announce that the Lamb, Jesus, is soon to be wedded to his “bride,” the faithful of God (19:7). John is ordered to write the wedding announcement: “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb” (19:9). In the final battle, the gates of heaven open, and Jesus, clad now as a warrior named “Faithful and True,” leads the hosts of heaven in a war against the beast and the kings of the Earth (19:11). The beast and his false prophet are hurled into a fiery lake, and the other opponents of Jesus are killed. Together with the saints, Jesus reigns for 1,000 glorious years. At the end of the 1,000 years, Satan gathers his forces, Gog and Magog, and again leads them into battle against the saints, but they are consumed by fire. Satan, too, is hurled into the fiery pit. On the Day of Judgment, which follows immediately, everyone is resurrected and judged “according to their works” (20:12). After Judgment Day, John sees a vision of “a new heaven and a new earth,” and a new holy city of Jerusalem descended from heaven (21:1). The New Jerusalem is a picture of shining perfection, carved of precious stones and lit by the glory of God and Jesus, who are present in Jerusalem instead of a temple. John is commanded to publicize the vision that he has received: “Do not seal up the words of the prophesy of this book, for the time is near” (22:10). In the conclusion of Revelation, Jesus himself promises that God will come soon to reward the righteous and punish the wicked.
The Book of Revelation was probably written sometime between 81 and 89 a.d. by a man named John, in and around the cities in Asia Minor. Some scholars contend that Revelation indeed talks about the future, but it primarily seeks to understand the present, a time that was almost certainly one of extreme stress for Christians. Revelation itself indicates that John understood that a persecution of Christians living in western Asia Minor was imminent, and that the persecution would come from the Romans, who would make demands for emperor worship that the Christians would have to resist. John’s revelation is an attempt to persuade the small churches to turn away from imperial cult worship and toward the true God, who was in charge of history and who will triumph in the end. Revelation seeks to accommodate the contradiction of the triumph of God in history with the continued oppressive rule of the Romans.
Revelation’s heavy use of imagination and provocative symbolism is central to its rhetorical power. Revelation turns to poetics and aesthetics to depict the imperial city of Rome as a beast, stating that “its feet were like a bear’s and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth” (13:2). The beast has ten horns and seven heads and carries on its back “Babylon the great, mother of whores, and of the earth’s abominations” (17:5). Babylon, who is “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus,” represents the Roman Empire (17:6). She is eventually judged by the more powerful God, who causes her fall in Revelation’s climax: “He has judged the great whore who corrupted the earth with her fornication, and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants. . . . Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (14:8, 19:2).
John’s potent imagery is not only a “call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (13:10), but it also tries to move the audience to a decision to turn away from the beast “so that you do not take part in her sins” (18:4), and instead to turn toward the God of justice who “will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (21:4). Revelation persuades Christians to stake their lives on that decision. In Babylon, everything is for sale. John does not hedge about the immorality of such disparities between the rich and the poor. When Babylon is destroyed, neither God, Christ, the saints, the apostles, nor the prophets mourn. Those who are upset are “the merchants of the earth” (18:11) and “all whose trade is on the sea” (18:17). In addition, “the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her will weep and wail” (18:9).
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