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.