Luke Timothy Johnson
A Book of Christian Prophecy
The book of Revelation makes for difficult reading. Many interpretations of it over the centuries have led to disastrous consequences both for individuals and communities. The fundamental error is to take Revelation as a literal set of predictions from the past about current events. Reading Revelation that way has been popular for a long time, but it has become an obsession for many contemporaries. Such readings have successively been disconfirmed by facts; the “end‐time” has been awaited many times without occurring. Such readings have caused the distortion of lives. Many have abandoned livelihood and loved ones to meet the New Jerusalem, only to have their dreams destroyed. Such readings also miss the real religious message of Revelation. They reduce its value to that of an astrological chart.
Although the text itself virtually calls out for such an interpretation, with its promise to reveal “what must happen soon” ( 22, 6 ), it is critical to recognize that just such statements are standard features of a specific literary genre of the ancient world, called apocalyptic. Two convictions should guide faithful study of Revelation. First, as with all the biblical writings, the Word of God was addressed first to the original audience; a text's “fuller” meaning for successive ages is secondary and never to be divorced from that first, historical, meaning. Second, as in all literature, religious or otherwise, literary genre dictates meaning. Newspapers and poetry do not communicate their respective “truths” in identical ways. Knowing the conventions of a literary form is necessary to intelligent reading.
Revelation as Apocalyptic
Beginning at least with the book of Daniel in the Old Testament, the apocalyptic style was widely used in Judaism during the New Testament period. Generated by persecution from without and the threat of apostasy from within, this “literature of the oppressed” quickly gained certain standard features: revelations about the future are experienced in dreams or visions, and the insights are communicated through a complex symbolism involving numbers, animals, and cosmic phenomena. The element of prediction is actually a fiction. The seer interprets events of his own age, using a figure of the past (such as Enoch) or an angelic being as a spokesperson.
These literary features serve to express an interpretation of history. Apocalyptic defends God's justice. Events appear to be under the control of evil people or even satanic powers, since those devoted to God are being persecuted. Such is the “present age.” But apocalyptic places God's blessing in a future time, “the age to come.” Just when things become humanly impossible on earth, God will intervene (as through a Messiah) to save his own, and thus inaugurate the “kingdom of God.” Apocalyptic reconciles the conviction that God controls history with the experience that suggests God does not. The religious message of apocalyptic is simple. To the faithful, it says, “hold on”; to the wavering, “stand fast.” It offers the hope of eventual vindication to those now oppressed but remaining loyal to the one God.
Revelation as Prophecy
Revelation fits the apocalyptic genre well. It has visions, animals, numbers, and cosmic catastrophes. It has a two‐age interpretation of history. And its basic religious message is a call for the “endurance of the holy ones” ( 13, 10; 14, 12 ). In other ways, however, Revelation transcends apocalyptic. The author is not a fictional sage from the past but a leader well known to his readers. The voice of prophecy is directed explicitly (and not in coded fashion) to the seven churches of Asia Minor in chapters 2 and 3 . Most importantly, the turn of the ages has already begun. The victory of God over evil has in principle been accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus; even more impressively, the faithful who have been killed already share in that victory in heaven.
The self‐understanding of the church in this writing is thoroughly prophetic. Those who follow Jesus are “servants and prophets and holy ones” ( 11, 18 ). Their witness is the “spirit of prophecy” ( 19, 10 ). Jesus is the first and “faithful witness” ( 1, 5 ) whose mission they continue. The nature of their prophecy is to bear witness to the reality of God in the world. In the letters of chapters 2 and 3 , this is expressed as fidelity in face of corruption or apostasy. In the visions of chapters 4 through 21 , it is expressed as loyalty in face of the idolatrous claims of the state and even of possible death.
The Opening Vision ( 1, 1–20 )
The prologue ( 1, 1–3 ) and the epilogue ( 22, 6–21 ) provide an explicit prophetic framework for the entire work and reveal a self‐conscious literary awareness as well (cf. 1, 3; 22, 18 ). The understanding of prophecy as witness, which becomes the major theme of the book, is sounded at once ( 1, 2 ).
The popularity of letter writing in early Christianity is shown by the fact that this apocalyptic writing contains letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor (Rv 2–3 ), and even has an epistolary greeting to introduce the work ( 1, 4–8 ). The author identifies himself as one known to his readers and recounts the vision that provides the basis for the rest of the book. The phrasing of 1, 9 suggests that John is on the Greek island of Patmos as a punishment for his witness to Jesus. The vision that now comforts him becomes an exhortation to all who are likewise oppressed.
The Risen Jesus is encountered as the Son of Man (the central figure in much apocalyptic), described in the most transcendent terms available. The reader is now in the realm of visions, which means the realm of symbols. The terms are obviously not meant literally, any more than the later fantastic descriptions of heaven. The terms used here and elsewhere are not fresh‐minted but are the coinage of biblical symbolism. Of all apocalyptic writings, Revelation most artfully weaves together the themes of classical prophecy, especially of the prophet Ezekiel. The footnotes and cross‐references in the NAB will repay the effort required. One should quickly realize that Revelation is a self‐conscious and complex literary construction.
The Son of Man appears with the stars in his hands, standing amid seven lampstands. Revelation makes clear from the start that it is the risen and powerful Lord (in cosmic control) who is revealed, and that he is present to the churches ( 1, 20 ), the concerns of which are taken up in the letters that follow.
Letters to the Seven Churches ( 2, 1–3, 22 )
In what are literally “spirit letters” (see 2, 7 ) from the Risen Jesus, seven churches of well‐known cities in Asia Minor receive individualized prophecies. Revelation understands “prophecy” as exhortations to remain faithful to the integrity of their calling. The trials and lapses of the Christians in these communities are here put on remarkable display. We also hear fragments of sayings (such as in 2, 3 ) that occur elsewhere in the New Testament literature (see 1 Thes 5, 2 and Mk 13, 33 ).
The letters all follow the same format. There is a greeting, followed by an elaborate designation of Jesus. The Risen Lord analyzes each community's spiritual condition and concludes with words of warning or of promise. The description of the church's struggles show how they faced opposition from without (as from the Jews), but even more, division within (as with the Nicolaitans). Corruption, too, appears as a vivid possibility. Typical for Johannine literature, the opposition is pictured in terms of false prophecy ( 2, 20 ). The focus of praise and of persuasion in these letters is endurance.
The imagery of the letters is lush. Who can resist the almost fairy‐tale quality of this statement: “I shall also give a white amulet upon which is inscribed a new name, which no one knows except the one who receives it” ( 2, 17 )? Beneath the poetry, however, lies grim reality. The difficulty in these letters of maintaining loyalty in the face of social exclusion and human laxity is raised, in the visions that follow, to the level of a cosmic conflict between the Lord and the forces of evil.
God and the Lamb in Heaven ( 4, 1–5, 14 )
John is “caught up in spirit” ( 4, 2 ), and the rest of Revelation consists in the visions he experienced in his ecstatic state. The vision is a staple of apocalyptic. It is found with equal frequency in early Jewish mysticism, called Merkabah, or “throne‐chariot” mysticism. In prayer, the adept ascended through the heavens to the throne of God's presence. Much of the celestial furniture here resembles that of the Merkabah: the jewel‐encrusted throne room ( 4, 3f ); the sea of glass ( 4, 6 ); the angelic creatures ( 4, 6–9 ), and the numinous hymns sung in praise of God ( 5, 9–13 ).
A dramatic departure from standard symbolism is the appearance of “the Lamb that seemed to have been slain” ( 5, 6 ). Jesus is also called “Lamb of God” in John's Gospel ( 1, 29; see also Jn 19, 36 , a reference to the Passover lamb). It is a bold stroke to picture Jesus in such paradoxical animal terms. The salient aspect of the lamb is its sacrificial function: Jesus was slain. But this lamb is also “the lion of the tribe of Judah,” who has triumphed over death ( 5, 5 ). In a powerful assertion of Jesus' status after his resurrection, the lamb is at “the right hand of the one who sat on the throne” ( 5, 7; see Ps 110, 1 ). Both figures receive the praise of the heavenly creatures ( 5, 9–11 ) and indeed of all creation ( 5, 13f ).
The special character of the visions of Revelation is shown by the problem of the “scroll” ( 5, 1 ). It contains the secrets to be revealed, and because of its use in Ezekiel it is immediately recognizable as a symbol for prophecy ( 10, 8–11 and Ez 2, 9–3, 4 ). Because of his resurrection, Jesus is empowered to open the scroll ( 5, 5 ). What follows, therefore, is both a revelation of and from Jesus Christ (see 1, 1 ). The visions will show “what must happen afterwards” ( 4, 1 ), but the reader is not frightened, knowing from this first vision that the fundamental victory has already been accomplished.
Visions of Cosmic Conflict ( 6, 1–16, 21 )
The next section of Revelation is the most difficult to make sense of, and, not surprisingly, the most worked over for signs of the end. The candidates selected to fit the profile of the “Beast” with the number 666 ( 13, 18 ) have ranged from Nero to Hitler.
The visions are so structured as to give the illusion of temporal sequence, linked together as they are by the phrase “and then I saw…” It is indeed tempting to translate a series of visions into a sequence of historical events, so readers have tried to compute the overlapping series of sevens: seals ( 6, 1–17; 8, 1 ), trumpets ( 8, 1–9, 21; 11, 15 ), plagues ( 15, 1–8 ), and bowls ( 16, 1–20 ). But neither the events reported by headlines nor elaborate literary analyses have ever satisfactorily unlocked this dense poetry. It is in fact more likely that all the visions repeat the same basic message. The saints on earth, locked in conflict with hostile forces, find a cosmic counterpart in the struggle between God and Satan.
Thus, on one side we see all the “beasts” who oppose the faithful: the dragon ( 12, 1–8 ), the first beast ( 13, 1–10 ), and the second beast ( 13, 11–17 ). These are not separate enemies but successive masks of the one force of evil. As in modern horror films, the destruction of one gives rise to another more horrifying still. Beneath the different manifestations, one visible enemy is most prevalent: the idolatrous state that persecutes the saints, enslaves them, and seeks to kill them ( 13, 7–18 ).
On the other side are those loyal to God, the “servants, prophets, and holy ones” ( 11, 18; 19, 9f ). They continue Jesus' own faithful witness to God by witnessing to Jesus. By so doing, they reject the idolatrous claims of the state on their obeisance. They suffer the consequences, some of them by shedding blood. Revelation establishes the connection between “witness” and “martyr” by the disciples' imitation of Jesus' death. The prophetic self‐consciousness of this church is most clearly stated in the account of the two witnesses ( 11, 1–13 ). This earthly interlude shows two people, who both “witness” and “testify” (the terms are interchangeable). They are killed in imitation of Jesus ( 11, 7 ). They are also called into heaven ( 11, 12 ). The vignette describes the conviction of Revelation that those who share Jesus' death also share his triumph in heaven. Thus, alternating with scenes of suffering on earth below are serene descriptions of the saints in heaven celebrating the anticipated and certain victory of the Lamb ( 5, 9f; 6, 9–11; 7, 4–7; 14, 1–5; 15, 2–4 ). In standard apocalyptic, history moves downward to ever more dismal circumstances, until God finally intervenes. In Revelation, however, the final outcome is not in doubt. Not only Jesus but also those “defeated” with him by evil already share in the resurrection triumph. The earthly conquest is just a matter of tidying up.
It is useless to tease such poetry into a train schedule. The vision here is not one of history unfolding like clockwork; it is a religious vision of God's ultimate conquest despite current appearances. Once the reader lets go of the obsessive “need to know” that twists beauty into charts and tables, it is possible to wonder at the powerful poetic and religious imagination at work in these glorious images. On the side of evil, what genius to make the second beast, who is a “false prophet,” mimic the features but betray the nature of the true prophet: “it had two horns like a lamb's but spoke like a dragon” ( 13, 11 ). On the side of good, what beauty in the prayer that speaks to the suffering of all humankind, that hopes “the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life‐giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” ( 7, 17 ).
Punishment of Babylon ( 17, 1–20, 15 )
The masks fall away, revealing as the real enemy of God's people the Roman empire, “the great harlot who lives near the many waters” ( 17, 1 ). Rome is called Babylon ( 17, 5 ) because in the biblical tradition it was Babylon above all that symbolized the desecration of the Temple and the exile of the people. In typical apocalyptic fashion, the sequence of events is laid out: God has given temporary rule to this evil empire to accomplish his ends. It does battle against the Lamb and the people.
The persecution and suffering were undoubtedly real. These Christians were faced with the choices of all who suffer oppression. Were they to resist violently and seek the overthrow of Rome? That was futile as well as contrary to their ethos. Were they simply to cooperate? That would be to lose their identity. They chose the path of passive resistance. They did not fight the beast, but neither would they do its bidding. The path of martyrdom, however slow or fast, is not easy. For those who survive, the psychic toll is considerable. Anger at the enemy can easily turn inward; patient endurance is hard. They were convinced that “the Lamb will conquer” ( 17, 14 ), but in their earthly condition they had not yet seen it happen. Rome's fall is therefore described in delicious detail. The pent‐up fury of the oppressed is released in glee over the degradation of the oppressor. Much of this is obviously and literally wish fulfillment, the stuff of fantasy. The anger of a downtrodden people is deflected to a punishing God.
The end‐time reveals how “the words of God are accomplished” ( 17, 17 ). The “Word of God” himself ( 19, 13 ) leads the climactic battle and inaugurates the messianic age, when the saints “will reign with Christ for a thousand years” ( 20, 4–6 ). But this is not yet the end. There is another outbreak of demonic destruction ( 20, 7–10 ) and the tossing of the Devil into the fire, then the resurrection of the dead for final judgment ( 20, 11–15 ). These stages lack poetry, but the final vision overcomes this deficiency.
The New Creation ( 21, 1–22, 21 )
The conclusion to Revelation is a fitting conclusion to the Bible as a whole. The vision of a new creation ( 21, 1 ) is central to the New Testament (see, for example, 2 Cor 5, 17 ). The Christian experience of Christ was an absolute beginning, rooted in the ever‐new life of God himself. God can say, “Behold, I make all things new” ( 21, 5 ) because God is “the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” of all things ( 21, 6; 22, 13 ). As Genesis began with the creation by a word, so the vision of the end‐time recapitulates that beginning: creation is renewed.
The hope expressed by Revelation is not simply that souls be saved after death, or that evil be conquered, or even that saints reign for a thousand years over a burnt‐out terrain. The hope is that creation itself be transformed. So the sight of a “New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” is the vision of a civilized order, one that is intrinsically holy in the proper sense. Human society is based on the recognition of God's power and presence. No place for those, now, who refuse the “dwelling place of God with the human race” ( 21, 3.7f ).
In this city, there is not even need for “religion” as a separate compartment of life. The temple of the city is “the Lord God almighty and the Lamb” ( 21, 22 ). And all the city's people will be priests of [the Lord] God ( 20, 6 ), showing at last that the fundamental human vocation is praise of God ( 22, 9 ). There need be no division between peoples. Nothing is here accursed ( 22, 3 ). The nations will walk by the light of the Lamb ( 21, 24 ), and the trees of the city “serve as medicine for the nations” ( 22, 2 ). And what medicine! There will be “no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away” ( 21, 4 ).
Great harm has come to those millenarians who have tried by force to make this vision a reality, and establish a thousand‐year reign of the saints on earth. Great despair has come to the utopians who have tried on the basis of goodwill to construct a society like the New Jerusalem.
The vision has its value precisely as challenge, as ever‐receding prophecy to all human effort for renewal. This does not come about by human cunning but by God's gift. The transformation is not technical but organic. But so compelling is the vision that no one who hears it can help joining in the plaintive cry of the epilogue, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” The epilogue also reminds us that we are still in the in‐between time when the world is not re‐created. There is still need for the witness of prophecy and for endurance of the saints, for “the wicked still act wickedly, and the filthy still be filthy. The righteous must still do right, and the holy still be holy” ( 22, 11 ). Here is a call to the saints.