The book of Revelation derives its name from its first word, apokalypsis (in English, “apocalypse”). Apokalypsis, a Greek noun, literally means an “unveiling” or a “revelation.” For obvious reasons, some know the book as the Apocalypse while others refer to it in the plural as Revelations.
Because of the appearance of the word “apocalypse” at the beginning of the book, that term has become the standard label for the overarching genre of revelatory literature to which the book of Revelation belongs. The genre includes the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible and the pseudepigraphical works 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch.
Canonical Status and Location in Canon.
The book of Revelation is the final book in the New Testament and thus the last book of the Christian Bible. Its acceptance into the canon was relatively uncontroversial in the West. The same cannot be said for the eastern churches. The book of Revelation is absent, for example, in several eastern canon lists from the fourth century and it was refused canonical status as late as the Quinisextine Council (Constantinople, 692 C.E.).
Despite such resistance, Revelation had some proponents in the Eastern churches. For example, Melito, a second-century bishop of Sardis in western Asia Minor, wrote a now-lost treatise on the book of Revelation. Revelation was also enthusiastically embraced by the Montanists, a radical millenarian prophetic movement that began in Asia Minor in the second century and endured for several centuries thereafter. It is likely that much of the resistance of the eastern churches was in reaction to the importance placed upon the book of Revelation by the Montanists. Eventually, however, the book of Revelation was accepted in the canon of the Eastern church.
Traditional and Modern Authorship.
Several times in the work, the author identifies himself as John (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8). Early Christians in the centuries following the book's composition assumed that the author was the disciple of Jesus who also wrote the Gospel of John. But, it is highly unlikely that the author of the book of Revelation is the same person who wrote the fourth gospel. While there are a few instances of similarities in language, the differences in both style and theology cannot be easily reconciled. Nor is there substantive evidence to identify the author as an original disciple of Jesus.
Although the identity of the author cannot be precisely determined, some conclusions can be drawn about him. John wrote from Patmos, a small island in the Aegean Sea southwest of Ephesus, to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia (now western Turkey). These churches were located in some of the most important cities in western Asia Minor at the time. Since John refers to his work as a book of prophecy (1:3; 22:18), it is reasonable to suppose that he considered himself a prophet.
It is probable that John was a Palestinian Jew who, like many others, fled to Asia Minor after the Jewish revolt of 66–73 (Jos. Ant. 20.256). While several factors support this suggestion, the most important is John's distinctive style. John's use of Greek suggests that his first language was Aramaic or Hebrew, languages spoken in Palestine (Charles 1920, v. 1, p. xxxix; Aune 1997–1998, v. 1, p. l ).
Date of Composition and Historical Context.
The date of Revelation is debated. The earliest evidence comes from Irenaeus (Haer. 5.30.3), who claims that it was written in the final years of the emperor Domitian (81–96 C.E.). While this opinion was widespread in the ancient church, contemporary scholarly opinion is divided, usually between two alternatives. Since the book of Revelation contains passages that might imply persecution of Christians (e. g., Rev 6:9–11; 12:17; 13:7; 17:6), some scholars favor the hypothesis that the book was composed in Rome in the mid or late 60s C.E., following Nero's horrific persecution. Others, like Irenaeus, date the work to the end of Domitian's reign in the mid-90s. Most of the evidence within the book of Revelation points to the later date (Collins 1981).
Discerning the historical situation lying behind the book is fraught with difficulties. Like much of the discussion about the book's date it revolves around the issue of persecution. Christians in the centuries following its composition believed that Revelation was written against the backdrop of persecution of Christians by the emperor Domitian. Until the later years of the twentieth century, this understanding of the work was accepted by most interpreters. But no substantive evidence for Roman persecution of Christians exists during Domitian's time. At the same time, since some passages seem to presuppose persecution, accounting for the book of Revelation without such a context is difficult. Different solutions to this quandary have been proposed.
One possible solution is to assume the earlier date for the composition of the book, a date shortly following the persecution of Christians by Nero (e. g., Robinson 1976). Another is to argue that persecution existed even though no evidence exists apart from the book of Revelation. It is possible, for example, that persecution at the time was localized and so it would not necessarily appear in sources accessible to historians. A third option suggests that one should not expect to find evidence of persecution in the book of Revelation because the crisis behind the writing was a perceived crisis. Even though people outside the community might have argued that Christians were largely tolerated by their society, John's community felt persecuted. As author, John projected the community's perception of crisis onto a cosmic screen so that the experience of reading the terrifying visions of the book of Revelation would provide catharsis to the members of the community (Collins 1984). A fourth possible solution is that the book of Revelation was not written in the face of any crisis, objectively observable or perceived. Instead, the book was created to help a small group of Christians find their place in the larger society. Suggestions of persecution appear in Revelation not because persecution was actually going on but because persecution constituted a part of the genre “apocalypse,” the genre employed by John when he wrote the book of Revelation (Thompson 1990 pp. 191–199). Finally, a fifth solution is that a conflict indeed existed at the time but the conflict was not between Christians and Romans but was instead a conflict within the churches. Accordingly, John's reason for writing his work was not to lessen any crisis by providing catharsis for the community but, to the contrary, to create or amplify a sense of crisis in the churches in order that John might enhance his own authority (Royalty 1998, p. 241; Duff 2001, pp. 128–232).
Deciding among the various options is difficult. Since most hinge on whether or not some kind of crisis existed within John's churches, the logical first strategy is to look for evidence of such within the work itself. Many passages that seem to presuppose persecution (6:9–11; 12:17; 13:7; 17:6) appear in the context of future prophecy and so their veracity cannot be assumed. However, in CHAPTERS 2 and 3 there exist messages to the seven churches that give significant information about the communities that undermine the persecution claims.
Of the seven messages, only three give any information that might be construed as evidence for persecution. A close examination, however, refutes such an interpretation. One message predicts future persecution (Smyrna), another, the past martyrdom of an individual (Pergamum), and two of the messages suggest tension with the local synagogues (Smyrna and Pergamum). However, these latter two messages give no indication of violence. Instead, they suggest little more than Jewish slander of Christians. With no solid evidence of persecution either outside of or within the text of Revelation, persecution as a backdrop for the book is not a viable alternative.
Although evidence of persecution is lacking, the messages to the seven churches do yield compelling evidence of a significant problem with the leadership in the churches. Five of the seven messages indicate that John has lost influence in these communities (Ephesus, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea). Furthermore, three messages give evidence of factionalism within the churches (Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira). For example, the message to the church at Ephesus mentions “false apostles” and a renegade group called the Nicolaitans (this group is also mentioned in the message to the church at Pergamum). Curiously, the messages to the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira refer to unsavory characters from the Jewish scriptures; the former refers to Balaam and the latter to Jezebel. While it is possible that Balaam is a derogatory nickname given by John to an individual in Pergamum (or simply a reference to the character in Numb 22–24), it is indisputable that the label “Jezebel” (see 1 Kgs 16:31; 18–19; 21; 2 Kgs 9) represents a sarcastic, derogatory nickname given by John to a woman in Thyatira.
The message to the church at Thyatira indicates that “Jezebel” was a rival for the leadership of the Thyatira congregation (although it is probable that she had also gained influence in Ephesus, Pergamum, Sardis, and Laodicea). It is likely that “Jezebel” represented the focus of John's rivalry for several reasons. First, the message to the church at Thyatira—the message in which “Jezebel” is specifically mentioned—is the longest, most complex, and most detailed of all the messages. Second, that message is the only one that describes its author as the Son of God, a fact that suggests that message's significance. Third, the message to the church in Thyatira holds the central position among all of the messages (being the fourth out of seven).
It is clear that “Jezebel” was a Christian prophet (John sarcastically says in 2:20 that she “calls herself a prophet”) who held to a different form of Christianity than did John. John accuses her of promoting the eating of food sacrificed to idols and “fornication.” Since “fornication” is primarily used metaphorically elsewhere in Revelation (e.g., 14:8; 17:2, 4; 18:3, 9; 19:2), this term should probably also be interpreted metaphorically here to indicate what John saw as “Jezebel's” idolatrous behavior. (This term is used metaphorically in a similar way in various books of the Hebrew Bible). The reference to food sacrificed to idols probably points to any meat that had been purchased from the local market, for that meat was likely from animals that had been sacrificed to pagan deities (Duff, pp. 51-55). These two charges indicate that “Jezebel's” form of Christianity was much more accommodating to the larger society than was that of John (cf. 1 Cor 10:27).
John was particularly concerned about “Jezebel” because she seems to have gained considerable influence at his expense. It is arguable whether or not this competition between different forms of Christianity or the rivalry between John and “Jezebel” constituted a crisis. But if it did, it represented a crisis in leadership within the communities rather than a crisis stemming from the active persecution of Christians by outsiders.
Structure and Contents.
- 1:1–8 Title, epistolary opening, and introduction to the visions
- 1:9—3:22 Vision of a heavenly figure that includes messages to the seven churches
- 4:1—8:5 Vision of the heavenly throne room and seven seals
- 8:6—11:19 Vision of seven trumpets
- 12:1—15:4 Unnumbered visions of conflict, deliverance, and judgment
- 15:5—16:21 Vision of seven bowls
- 17:1—19:10 Vision of the fall of Babylon
- 19:11—21:8 Unnumbered visions cataloging God's defeat of his enemies
- 21:9—22:7 Vision of the New Jerusalem
- 22:8–21 Epilogue and Epistolary Closing
The book of Revelation is extraordinarily complex. On the surface, the narrative seems straightforward: John, a prophet, has a vision of a heavenly figure (1:9–20), records messages to seven churches (2:1—3:22), ascends to heaven (4:1) where he sees a vision of God on his throne (4:2–11) and the Lamb (5:1–14). Thereafter, he experiences visions of God's judgment of the wicked, in particular, the judgment of Rome (6:1–21:8). This all culminates with a vision of the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem, where the faithful will dwell (21:9—22:7).
A more careful analysis indicates that this is only part of the story. John's visions are embedded in a letter (1:4–5; 22:21) written by John to the seven churches of Asia. Furthermore, that letter is set within the context of a worship service (Barr 1984, p. 46). This liturgical setting was designed to free its original audience from its own time and transport it into a “new time,” a time after the end, when God's kingdom would be fully realized (Thompson 1990, pp. 69–73).
There is, in addition, a significant depth to the work. Much of what happens occurs beneath the surface of the text. John frequently uses indirect language to make subtle comparisons and contrasts, he uses irony extensively, and he alludes to the Jewish scriptures repeatedly.
It is important to note that the book does not present a narrative that proceeds in a linear way from beginning to end. For example, when the sixth seal is opened, the stars fall from heaven (6:13) but when the fourth angel blows his trumpet two chapters later, there are still stars in the sky (8:12). In the book of Revelation, time folds back on itself repeatedly. Later cycles of visions repeat earlier ones, supplying different details and adding new perspectives. The specific order of events in the book is, on the whole, less important than the repeating pattern of visions about future persecution, punishment of the wicked, and the victory of God, the Lamb, and the faithful (Collins 1976, pp. 33–44).
Title, Epistolary Opening, and Introduction to the Visions (1:1–8).
The book of Revelation opens with a title and a short description of the work (1:1–2) followed by a beatitude (1:3), an epistolary opening (1:4–5A), a short prayer of praise (1:5B–6), a prophecy (1:7), and a description of the deity as “the alpha and omega,” he “who is and who was and who is to come,” and “the almighty” (1:8). The description of the work as a revelation transmitted to John from the heavens establishes the credentials of the author as does the epistolary opening, written in a manner echoing the openings of Paul's letters. The beatitude blessing the reader and the listeners of the work indicates a liturgical setting in which the text was read aloud.
Vision of a “Son of Man” and the Messages to the Seven Churches (1:9—3:22).
In the first vision, John, while “in the Spirit” (a phrase indicating some kind of trance or altered state of consciousness), encounters a figure he calls a “Son of Man” (1:13), a reference to the risen Jesus. John's vision of the “Son of Man” closely resembles Daniel's vision of a heavenly figure in Daniel 10:4–11.
The command given by the Son of Man to John to “write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches” (1:11)—a command repeated in 1:19—further establishes the authority of the document being read as well as its author. Since the command is delivered by a heavenly figure, this adds weight to the various messages of warning and encouragement to the churches that follow in CHAPTERS 2 and 3.
The messages to the seven churches in the following two chapters have similar structures with a few notable variations. The messages to five of the churches (Ephesus, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea) contain both a call for repentance and a threat by the Son of Man against all or part of each community. This suggests some tension between these churches and the author. On the other hand, the absence of these two elements in the messages to the remaining two communities (Smyrna and Philadelphia) suggests John's satisfaction with the theological viewpoint of these churches, and that John's leadership has not been called into question in these two communities (Duff, pp. 31–47).
Vision of the Heavenly Throne Room and the Seven Seals (4:1—8:5).
After the messages to the seven churches, John ascends into heaven, again “in the Spirit,” where he views the throne room of God (cf. Ezek 1, Isa 6). On the throne, God holds in his hand a scroll sealed with seven seals. This scroll, like the “book of truth” in Daniel 10:21, contains the future, end-time events. There is some urgency to the question which is heard—“Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”—for the end-time events cannot happen unless the scroll is opened.
The character called “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (5:5) and described as “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (5:6) is the only one empowered to open the seal because he “has conquered” (5:5). The dual description of conquering lion and slaughtered Lamb communicates the twofold function of Christ in the remainder of John's narrative. He is both the slaughtered victim and the avenging warrior who has conquered, ironically, by his death. Throughout Revelation, John depicts faithfulness, regardless of the physical cost, as a conquest. In CHAPTERS 2 and 3, those in the churches have also been encouraged to conquer by their faithful endurance (2:7, 11, 17, 28; 3:5, 12, 21).
Beginning in CHAPTER 6, the Lamb opens the seals one by one. Each of the first four reveals a rider on a different colored horse bringing a specific type of destruction (cf. Zech 1:8–12 and 6:1–8). The fifth and sixth seals reveal persecution and the dissolution of nature respectively. The opening of the sixth seal is followed by an interlude, consisting of two visions, that interrupts the cycle of the seven seals. The first vision in the interlude describes the marking of 144,000 faithful from the twelve tribes of Israel (7:1–8) with God's seal. This will provide them with protection in the coming ordeal. These 144,000 also appear in later in the book, in 14:1–5, where they stand on Mount Zion with the Lamb (cf. 20:4). The second vision represents a variation on the first. It shows an innumerable multitude “from all tribes and peoples and languages” (7:9) who have “come out of the great ordeal” (7:14). These are martyrs who have “washed their clothes…in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). They are dressed in white, a color of the clothing promised to the faithful in the message to the church at Sardis (3:4–5).
The opening of the seventh seal follows in 8:1 with “silence in heaven for about a half an hour.” This corresponds to the period of silence seen as the appropriate response to any ancient religious ritual or holy place (Murphy 1998, pp. 231–232). The period of silence heralds a scene in the heavenly temple in which an angel, having offered incense (along with the prayers of the saints) on the temple's altar, throws the fire-filled censor to the earth. This action results in a manifestation of the deity in storm and earthquake, a fitting prelude to the next cycle of visions, the seven trumpets.
The Seven Trumpets (8:6—11:19).
The disasters that follow the blowing of first five trumpets recall the Exodus plagues, inflicted on Egypt while Israel was enslaved there (Exod 7:14—12:32). After the fourth trumpet, the first in a series of three woes is introduced. The first woe encompasses the period between the fifth and the sixth trumpet, and the second woe the time between the sixth and seventh trumpet. Curiously, the time of the third woe is not identified.
The fifth trumpet is particularly significant. At its blast, a heavenly figure in the form of a star opens the shaft of the bottomless pit from which comes an army of locust-like creatures to torture those who have not been sealed with God's seal (cf. 7:3). At the head of this group is a figure whose name signifies destruction. With the blast of the sixth trumpet another avenging army arrives, this one commissioned to kill a third of humanity.
Between the sixth and seventh trumpets, an interlude occurs, paralleling the interlude between the sixth and seventh seals. It, like the earlier interlude, consists of two visions, each focusing on prophecy. In the first vision, an angel appears with a scroll in his hand that John is instructed to eat (cf. Ezek 2:8–3:3). John's act of eating the scroll represents his reception of the divine message, which enables him to prophesy. Since the scroll contains God's words, it is “sweet as honey” in his mouth. However, because it predicts coming catastrophes, it is bitter in his stomach.
The second vision in the interlude takes place in a mythic Jerusalem (the actual city had been destroyed by Romans before John wrote). There John measures the temple (cf. Ezek 40–41) but is commanded not to measure the courtyard which will be handed over to the nations for forty-two months. At this point, two witnesses are given authority to prophesy unmolested for one thousand two hundred sixty days. The two equivalent time spans (forty-two months/one thousand two hundred sixty days) are significant and appear again later in the narrative. For example, the woman of CHAPTER 12 is nourished in the wilderness for this amount of time (12:6) and the beast from the sea exercises authority for this period (13:5). The forty-two months/one thousand two hundred sixty days corresponds to the “time, two times, and half a time” (interpreted as three and a half years) that the “holy ones of the Most High” will be persecuted in Daniel's vision (Dan 7:25). It represents for John the time remaining until the judgment (20:4–6).
After the two witnesses prophesy, they are killed by a beast that arises from the bottomless pit, most likely the beast from the sea that will later appear in 13:1–10. The bodies of the witnesses remain unburied for three and a half days (corresponding to the three and a half years in Dan 7:25). They are then resurrected and taken to heaven. Their resurrection is followed by an earthquake in which a tenth of the city (seven thousand people) fall. Those in the city who do not die repent and give glory to God. Remarkably, this is the only place in all of John's visions that we see any humans actually repent of their sins. It is noteworthy that this group represents the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
In each of these two visions, John harks back to his historical predicament. He bolsters his authority as a true prophet, a prophet who has been commissioned by God (i.e., he is instructed to eat the scroll) and who will prophesy regardless of the consequences. He, like the witnesses, is prepared to suffer and die for his prophecy, because he is assured of his
resurrection and place with God. The emphasis that he places on his divine authority here implicitly suggests that his rival “Jezebel” (2:20–23) does not possess such a commission. Rather, her authority, John implies, is self-generated. She is a prophet only because she “calls herself a prophet.”
Following this two-vision interlude comes the seventh trumpet. While each of the other trumpets herald death and destruction, this one precedes two hymns of praise to God. The vision cycle concludes with the heavenly temple opened and an epiphany of God accompanied by storm and earthquake, an epiphany that closely resembles that found at the conclusion of the seven seals (8:5).
Unnumbered Visions of Conflict, Deliverance, and Judgment (12:1—15:4).
The unnumbered visions begin with what John calls “a great portent” consisting of two intertwined stories. The first story concerns a woman and a dragon (12:1–6, 13–17) and into it has been inserted a second narrative about Satan's fall from heaven (12:7–12). In the first story, an unnamed woman gives birth. She is described as clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, with a crown of twelve stars on her head. A dragon stands before her ready to devour her baby. However, upon its birth, the child is snatched away by God and the woman flees into the wilderness, where she is nourished (cf. Gen 16:7–14; 21:14–19). Meanwhile, the second story tells of a war in heaven in which Michael and his angels defeat the dragon and his angels and throw them to earth. The dragon is identified as “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan” (12:9). In the conclusion of the first story, the woman—now in the wilderness—is threatened by the dragon but ultimately she is saved on two separate occasions, once by the intervention of God and the other time by the earth itself. The dragon, frustrated that he has been unable to destroy the woman, leaves to wage war on “the rest of her children” (12:17).
The child who is snatched to heaven obviously represents the messiah. There have been a number of opinions regarding the unnamed woman's identity. In the early church and in the medieval period, she was usually identified with Mary, the mother of Jesus. This interpretation still has some advocates among Roman Catholic interpreters. Besides Mary, the woman has also been identified as the church or the bride of the Lamb (Rev 19:7–8; 21:9–10). It is most likely, however, that she represents Israel and her other children (12:17), including those in the church. This unnamed woman, “clothed with the sun,” is one of several important mythical women who appear in the book. Others are the whore Babylon and the bride Jerusalem. John subtly compares and contrasts these women throughout the book as will be illustrated below.
In CHAPTER 13, John connects the dragon (Satan) to two other beasts. The first is a beast that rises out of the sea (13:1) with ten horns and seven heads (cf. Dan 7:3–8). John indicates that this beast is master of the earth and it has received its authority from the dragon (i.e., Satan). The beast stands for Rome and John's description of one of its heads as having received “a mortal wound [that] had been healed” points to the rumor of the Roman Emperor Nero's return from the dead, a rumor that circulated in the empire in the late first century.
A second beast is described as rising out of the earth (13:11), exercising authority for the first beast, and causing the earth's inhabitants to worship the first beast. This beast points specifically to the worship of the emperor and more generally to the whole of the culture in which John's churches reside. The second beast—in a parody of the divine sealing of the 144,000 (CH. 7)—causes all of its followers to be marked. The chapter ends with the enigmatic riddle of the number of the beast, 666. The number 666 also points to Nero redivivus since the numerical equivalents of the letters in Nero's name and title yield 666 (Charles 1920, v. 1, p. 367).
Throughout the book of Revelation, John uses images of monsters to demonstrate what he sees as the beastliness of Rome. He not only depicts Rome as monstrous (i.e., the beast from the sea in 13:1–10), he also portrays the society underlying it in a similar manner (i.e., the beast from the earth in 13:11–18).
The description of the two beasts in CHAPTER 13 is followed by a vision of the Lamb and the 144,000 standing on Mount Zion (14:1–5), a vision of three angels warning of God's judgment (14:6–11), and a voice from heaven blessing those who “die in the Lord” (14:13). CHAPTER 14 concludes with a scene in which the Son of Man and an angel from the heavenly temple reap the earth, gathering grapes for “the great wine press of the wrath of God” (14:19). The harvest metaphor, here as elsewhere in the Bible, points to God's judgment of the wicked (cf. Isa 41:15–16; Isa 63:1–6; Jer 15:7; Matt 3:12; Luke 3:17).
The cycle of unnumbered visions concludes a scene in heaven, beside the sea of glass, in which “those who had conquered the beast” sing “the Song of Moses” and “the Song of the Lamb” (15:2–3). This scene points to the Exodus story, where Moses and the Israelites, after the miraculous crossing of the sea, sing a song that praises God's mighty deeds on their behalf (Exod 15:1–18).
Seven Bowls (15:5—16:21).
The Song of Moses with its allusions to Exodus provides a fitting transition to the next cycle of visions, for the cycle of seven bowls—like the cycle of trumpets—alludes extensively to the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians in the Exodus story. Of the ten plagues that appear in the book of Exodus, six are strongly represented in this cycle.
The sixth bowl in this series is particularly noteworthy. When that bowl is poured, John sees “three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet” (16:13). These foul spirits gather the kings of the earth to do battle with God at Armageddon (16:16). Here the evil triumvirate from CHAPTERS 12 and 13 once again appears. However, the third creature (the beast from the earth in 13: 11–18) is here named “the false prophet,” an epithet that the beast from the earth will retain through the rest of the book. By making this simple adjustment, John sorts prophets into two types: true prophets (like himself), commissioned by God, and the false prophet, associated with Rome. Of course, the false prophet here also calls to the minds of John's readers the other “false prophet” in this work, John's rival “Jezebel,” whose tolerance of pagan culture (represented by the third beast) John finds appalling.
Vision of the Fall of Babylon (17:1—19:10).
As this vision opens, John receives an invitation from an angel to observe the judgment of the great whore. Following the invitation, he is carried away by the angel (again, while “in the Spirit”) into the wilderness. There, he sees an elegantly dressed woman named “Babylon” who is seated on the back of a beast. The description of the beast suggests that it is the beast from the sea (13:1–10). Babylon holds in her hand a cup “full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication” (17:4) and she is further described as “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus” (17:6). The angel then explains to John the “mystery of the woman and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her” (17:7). The explanation is cryptic, at least to modern readers, and no consensus exists on its proper interpretation, although it is clearly related to the visions of the beasts in Daniel 7–8. Here the woman represents the city of Rome, the heads of the beast represent emperors, and the ten horns on the beast's heads represent other rulers, subservient to Rome, who will make war with the Lamb at Armageddon (cf. 16:16).
Curiously, the actual fall of Babylon occupies only one verse. There the angel explains that the ten horns (representing Rome's client kings) and the beast (representing the remainder of the Roman Empire) will turn on the woman: “they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire” (17:16). Based upon what the angel says, it is not clear whether or not Rome's destruction has anything to do with the battle at Armageddon, although the ten kings will participate in both. The chapter closes with the definitive identification of Babylon with the city of Rome: “the woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” (17:18).
Babylon obviously represents another of the important female figures in the book of Revelation. As Table 1 indicates, John carefully draws her portrait so that it ironically reflects the portrait of the unnamed woman of CHAPTER 12. The woman in CHAPTER 12 represents godliness and purity while Babylon represents all that is evil and corrupt. In a sense, these women are archetypes against which other women in the book are compared and contrasted.
|Unnamed Woman in Chapter 12||The Whore Babylon|
|–The woman is depicted as a mother (12:2)||–The woman is depicted as a mother (17:5)|
|–She is located in wilderness (12:6)||–She is located in wilderness (17:3)|
|–She eats/drinks in wilderness (12:6)||–She eats/drinks in wilderness (17:6)|
|–She is “clothed with the sun” (12:1)||–She is clothed in splendid attire (17:4)|
|–The beast is a red dragon with 7 heads and 10 horns (12:3)||–The beast is scarlet with 7 heads and 10 horns (17:3)|
|–There is a connection in the passage between eating/drinking and death (12:4)||–There is a connection in the passage between eating/drinking and death (17:6)|
|–There is a reference to “those who hold the testimony of Jesus” (12:17)||–There is a reference to witnesses of Jesus (17:6)|
One of the other women in the work that John wants to bring subtly into focus here is his rival “Jezebel” (2:20–23). In addition to the contrast between Babylon and the unnamed woman of CHAPTER 12, John also uses his description of Babylon to draw an implicit comparison between Babylon and Jezebel (Table 2).
As this comparison indicates, John views his rival “Jezebel” as someone in league with Rome, likely because of her willingness to make accommodations to the society in which she and all Christians reside. Such accommodation is unacceptable for John, so he portrays “Jezebel” with the same brush strokes he uses to depict Babylon (i. e., Rome).
In the section that follows (18:1—19:10), John presents responses to Babylon's demise from two different perspectives, the heavenly and the earthly. In 18:1–8, an angel announces Babylon's fall and another angel admonishes the faithful to “come out of her” (18:4). In 18:20—19:10, heavenly rejoicing over Babylon's fall is heard. Sandwiched between these two scenes appears another in which the kings of the earth, the merchants, and the seafarers lament Babylon's destruction (18:9–19).
|The Whore Babylon||“Jezebel”|
|–The woman is identified with a negative name from Israel's past||–The woman is identified with a negative name from Israel's past|
|–She is identified as an inappropriate mother, a “mother” of “whores and abominations” (17:5)||–She is identified as an inappropriate mother, a “mother” whose actions perpetrate the death of her “children” (2:23)|
|–She “leads astray” (planaō, 18:23)||–She “leads astray” (planaō, 2:20)|
|–She is connected with illicit sexual practices (17:1–5)||–She is connected with illicit sexual practices (2:20, 21, 22)|
|–She consumes defiling food (human blood, 17:6)||–She consumes defiling food (food sacrificed to idols, 2:20)|
|–The passage predicts her destruction (17:16)||–The passage predicts her destruction (2:22)|
Unnumbered Visions Cataloging God's Defeat of His Enemies (19:11—21:8).
The section comprising 19:11–21:8 contains six unnumbered visions and, while brief, it is full of action. The first vision depicts a warrior (representing Christ) on a white horse, with the armies of heaven, prepared for battle. The second vision opens with an angel inviting the birds of the air to the great supper of God, a meal in which these birds will gorge themselves on the flesh of the fallen (cf. Ezek 39:17–20). The actual battle occupies only two verses (19:20–21) in which Satan's monstrous allies from CHAPTER 13—the beast and the false prophet—are defeated, their armies destroyed, and they themselves are thrown into a lake of fire.
In the third vision, the last remaining adversary, “the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan” (20:2) is bound and thrown into the bottomless pit for a thousand years. Meanwhile, the martyrs, described as “those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus,” are raised and rule with Christ for a thousand years (20:4).
The fourth vision shows Satan, released from the pit after a thousand years, gathering Gog and Magog for battle. The terms Gog and Magog originate in the book of Ezekiel where Gog represents a mythical enemy of Israel from the northern land of Magog (Ezek 38:2). In Revelation—as in other Jewish literature following Ezekiel—these two names stand for separate end-time enemies (Charles 1920, v. 2, p. 188). They attack the “camp of the saints and the beloved city,” a reference to Jerusalem. Before their attack can succeed however, they are destroyed by fire from heaven (20:9). At the end of the vision, Satan is hurled into the lake of fire to join his other two allies forever (20:10).
A resurrection and judgment scene constitutes the next brief vision (20:11–15) in which all those whose names are not found in the Book of Life are thrown into the lake of fire, along with the personified figures of Death and Hades. The notion that Death and/or Hades are to be abolished at the end appears in other apocalypses of John's time (cf. 4 Ezra 8:53; 2 Bar 20–23) as well as in the letters of Paul (cf. 1 Cor 15:26).
A vision of a new heaven and a new earth constitutes the final vision of the cycle. The notion of a new heaven and earth is not new to Revelation. It also appears in Isaiah 65:17, 66:22, and later Jewish literature (1 En. 91:16; Jub. 1:28; 4:26).
Prior to the arrival of the new heaven and earth, the current earth and sea pass away. The abolition of the sea is significant, for in ancient Near Eastern mythology, the sea represents chaos and in it dwell the monsters of chaos. In the book of Revelation, the sea plays a similar role. In 12:18–13:1, for example, the dragon stands on the shore of the sea (presumably, its abode). Likewise, the first beast rises from the sea (cf. Dan 7:2–3). With the abolition of the sea in 21:1, the forces of chaos disappear.
The New Jerusalem, adorned as a bride, then descends to earth. The idea of a heavenly Jerusalem is known elsewhere in Judaism at John's time (2 Bar. 4) and it appears in the New Testament as well (Gal 4:22; Heb 12:22). Following the descent of Jerusalem, a voice from the throne indicates that God will now dwell with humans, that “he will wipe every tear from their eyes,” and that “death will be no more” (21:3–4). Then God himself speaks from his throne, ordering John to write, “It is done!” (21:6). The vision concludes with the promise of reward to the faithful and the threat of the lake of fire for “the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars” (21:8).
Vision of the New Jerusalem (21:9—22:7).
As the final vision opens, John receives an invitation from an angel who had poured one of the bowls, an invitation that closely resembles the angelic invitation at the beginning of John's vision of Babylon (17:1–3). Clearly, the vision of Babylon and the vision of Jerusalem are intended to be viewed in tandem.
Jerusalem is described as “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (21:9). Her dimensions are measured, as was the Temple in the earthly Jerusalem (CH. 11). Her jewel-encrusted walls, her pearl gates, and her golden streets are described in detail (21:11–21), as is the river of life that originates from God's throne, flows through the streets of the city (cf. Ezek 47:1–12; Zech 14:8), and nourishes Jerusalem's paradisiacal tree of life. The vision culminates at the throne of God and the Lamb (22:1–5) where God's servants worship him in perpetual light (cf. Zech 14:7).
As some elements in Table 3 indicate, Jerusalem, the bride of the Lamb, represents the antithesis of the whore, Babylon. Yet, sometimes, they look alike. But their similarities are meant to be ironic. These two cities illustrate John's sharply divided world. While on one level Babylon represents Rome, she also stands for the larger world in which John and those in his communities find themselves. From John's vantage point, the heavenly command “Come out of her, my people” (18:4) represents the only possible way for Christians to deal with Babylon: They need to escape from the larger world to an uncontaminated site outside of the society in which they find themselves. To do this they need to build a community with strong boundaries to keep what John sees as the corrupt outside world at bay until the time of the end.
While John envisions Jerusalem as a place that will appear after God's final victory, he also understands it as the community of believers in the present. From his vantage point, one need not wait for the end to experience the New Jerusalem. Members of the worshipping community can enter a timeless New Jerusalem on the Lord's Day (Thompson 1990, pp. 69–73).
|The Whore Babylon||Jerusalem, the “Bride of the Lamb”|
|–The opening passage is almost identical to the opening passage in 21:1–6||–The opening passage is almost identical to the opening passage in 17:1–3|
|–The woman Babylon has the name of a city that is the paradigmatic oppressor of Israel||–The woman Jerusalem has the name of the city that represents the historical capital and spiritual center of Israel|
|–She is depicted as a whore (17:1–2)||–She is depicted as a bride (21:2)|
|–She is adorned in gold, precious stones, and pearls (17:4)||–She is adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls (21:18–21)|
|–She has the name “Babylon” written on her forehead (17:5)||–She has the names of the twelve tribes written on her gates (21:12) and the names of the twelve apostles on the foundations of the walls (21:14)|
|–She sits on a beast (17:3) over “many waters” (17:1)||–In her, the deity sits on a throne over “the water of life,” which pours forth from beneath the throne (22:1)|
|– “kings of the earth” come to her for illicit sex (17:2), an act that brings shame (implied)||–The “kings of the earth” and people come to her to bring her “the glory and honor of the nations” (21:24, 26)|
|–The vision ends with an angelic statement that the words of the vision are true (19:9)||–The vision ends with an angelic statement that the words of the vision are true (22:6)|
However, according to John's view of the world, lowering the walls between the uncorrupted members of the church and the corruption of the “Babylonian” society destroys that possibility. And so, not unexpectedly, John sets up a strong contrast not only between Babylon and Jerusalem but also between his rival, “Jezebel,” and Jerusalem personified as a woman, as illustrated in Table 4.
Just as at the end-time, John sees “Jezebel” and her followers in his own time as belonging outside of the New Jerusalem with the rest of “the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and [the] liars” (21:8).
|Jerusalem, the “Bride of the Lamb”||“Jezebel”|
|–The woman “Jerusalem” is identified with a positive name from Israelite history||–The woman “Jezebel” is identified with a negative name from Israel's past|
|–She is depicted as a virgin, a bride (21:2, 9)||–She is depicted as sexually promiscuous, a fornicator and an adulterer (2:20, 22)|
|–She is portrayed as passive||–She is portrayed as active and aggressive (2:20)|
|–She is connected with life-giving food (21:7; 22:1, 2)||–She is connected with defiling food that causes death (food sacrificed to idols) (2:20, 23)|
|–In her, death is abolished (21:4)||–Because of her, death comes to her and her children (2:22–3)|
Epilogue and Epistolary Closing (22:8–21).
The book's epilogue opens with John, at the end of his visions, falling down to worship “at the feet of the angel who showed them to me” (cf. Dan 10:8–9). But the angel admonishes John, commands him to worship God, and tells him that he is a fellow servant with John and with the faithful. This scene bolsters John's authority by dissolving the barriers between him and the angelic beings and it promises the same status to the faithful, “those who keep the words of this book” (22:9). At the same time, it implicitly excludes those Christians who are more accommodating to the society in which they dwell. “Jezebel” and her followers would not be included among the group of fellow servants.
Next comes a command to keep the book unsealed because the time of the end is so near, a command that contrasts with the typical apocalyptic admonition to seal visions (cf. Dan 12:9). It is followed by a beatitude, blessing “those who wash their robes” (22:14). These individuals appeared earlier in Revelation 7:14, described as those who have “come out of the great ordeal” and have “made [their robes] white in the blood of the Lamb.” They have earned the right to enter the New Jerusalem. Sinners, to the contrary, will remain outside. It is curious that sinners are mentioned here, for at the earlier judgment scene, everyone “whose name was not found written in the book of life” was thrown into the lake of fire” (20:15). It is possible that those who remain outside the new Jerusalem represent the Christians in the seven churches who, although they have not become followers of “Jezebel,” have not yet rejected her either. Their salvation still remains a possibility.
Immediately following the beatitude comes a claim for the authenticity of the visions and a liturgical piece:
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”And let everyone who is thirsty come.Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift (22:17).
This represents a portion of the early Christian liturgy on the Lord's Day that implores Jesus to come (cf. 1 Cor 16:22) and then invites all those who have just heard the reading of John's visions to participate in the Eucharist (Barr 1998, pp. 171–175).
A curse that warns of tampering with the prophecy in the book follows, preceding an assertion that Christ is coming soon and the liturgical statement, “Amen. Come Lord Jesus!” The book finally closes with an epistolary conclusion.
Interpreters of the book of Revelation fall into three categories: those who have either ignored it or downplayed its importance, those who have attempted to domesticate its message, and those who have claimed the imminence of the end by applying the prophecies to their own time.
The first group includes the Eastern churches in the early centuries of the Common Era that resisted the canonization of the book. It also includes Protestant reformers like Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–1564). Luther (at least initially) dismissed Revelation as having little value and Calvin wrote commentaries on every New Testament book except the book of Revelation. Many current Christian denominations, while not entirely ignoring the book, have diminished its importance. In the Revised Common Lectionary (the common list of biblical readings used by various denominations), the book of Revelation appears infrequently and the chosen readings are not characteristic of the work as a whole.
Included in the second group are Origen (ca. 185–254) and Augustine (354–430). For Origen, the book figuratively represents the unceasing battle between good and evil. Augustine believed that the thousand-year reign of Christ or millennium (mentioned in Rev 20:1–10) comprised the time of the church. Postmillennialism, a movement within Protestantism beginning in the eighteenth century, also represents an attempt to domesticate the book by interpreting the millennium nonliterally, as the time during which the evangelization efforts of the church would bring about the Kingdom of God, the time when Christ would return. In more recent times, those who read the book as a message of hope to the socially and politically oppressed (and a warning to their oppressors) fall into this group. Examples include the South African author Allan Boesak and the African-American scholar Brian Blount.
The third set, those who read the book as prophecy focused on their own time, contains a greatly diverse set of individuals and groups. It includes the second-century Montanists, some early church fathers, medieval figures like Hildegard of Bingen, Joachim of Fiore, Bonaventure, Savonarola, some sixteenth century reformers, and some seventeenth-century Puritans. It also includes well-known contemporary groups such as Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and a broad spectrum of groups and individuals belonging primarily to a larger group known as premillennialists.
Premillennialists, as their label implies, believe that Christ's second coming will precede the millennium. Most prominent among premillennialists are the pre-tribulation (dispensationalist) premillennialists, whose origin goes back to John Nelson Darby (1800–1882). Darby taught that Christ would return to “rapture” Christians to heaven (1 Thess 4:15–17) before a worldwide tribulation (Matt 24:21) preceding the final judgment. Pre-tribulation (dispensationalist) premillennialism became a standard doctrine among Protestant fundamentalists (especially through the Scofield Reference Bible) and it was made popular in the 1970s by Hal Lindsey's best-selling book The Late Great Planet Earth and more recently by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins's Left Behind series of popular novels.
Throughout the history of the early church, imagery from the book of Revelation has been interpreted to fit the context of the interpreters, particularly those in the third group mentioned above. Once the Roman Empire was Christianized, apocalyptic imagery was used to label enemies of the empire. Sometimes this imagery focused on one or another of the beasts of Revelation but more frequently it was subsumed under the label “antichrist,” a term from the Johannine letters (1 John 2:18, 22; 2 John 1:7). This term typically stood for a figure that represented a conflation of the beasts of Revelation, the “lawless one” in 2 Thessalonians 2:8, and the “little horn” of Daniel 7:8.
Conflicts between the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy in the twelfth century led to the identification of the emperor Frederick II (1194–1250) with the antichrist and specifically with the beast from the sea in Revelation 13:1–10. Frederick insisted to the contrary that Pope Gregory IX (ca. 1170–1241) was the antichrist. Although similar charges were leveled at various popes in the centuries that followed, later Protestant Reformers identified the papacy itself with the antichrist and specifically the beast and the harlot of Revelation 17. While the identification of the papacy with the antichrist lost some of its popularity among interpreters in the early years of the twentieth century, it gained ground once again in the middle of the century, particularly in light of the election of John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic president of the United States.
Like the “antichrist” label, the number 666 (Rev 13:11) has been tied to various figures throughout history. In medieval times, it was interpreted as a reference to individual popes such as Gregory IX mentioned above, Innocent IV (ca. 1200–1254), and Benedict XI (1240–1304). With the rise of Islam, some interpreters saw in the number a reference to the prophet Muhammad. In the early nineteenth century, the number was connected to Napoleon, and in the twentieth century, it was applied to
political leaders of all stripes including Adolf Hitler, John F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Saddam Hussein.
Another prominent number in the book is 144,000, the number of those marked with the name of God on their foreheads (7:4 and 14:1–5). This number has been construed by many religious groups throughout the ages as an exclusive reference to their own membership. It plays a similar role among the Jehovah's Witnesses but with a slight variation. For them, the 144,000 represents the number of those chosen to be rewarded with eternal life in heaven. The remainder of the saved, to the contrary, will enjoy eternal life on earth.
Armageddon, the place in the book of Revelation where the “kings of the whole world” assemble for battle (16:16), has also been interpreted in a number of different contexts through the years. For example, in 1857, the American Methodist preacher Fountain Pitts delivered a day-long sermon to the United States Congress in which he warned that the battle of Armageddon would be fought in the Mississippi valley against monarchical nations of Europe (Boyer 1994, pp. 84–86). During the cold war, Armageddon was sometimes reinterpreted as a coming nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. Since the founding of Israel in 1948, many premillenialist Christians have anticipated a soon-to-be-fought battle at Mount Megiddo in Israel (probably the location intended by the author of Revelation) that would precede Christ's second coming. The members of the Aum Shinrikyō movement in Japan, the group that unleashed a sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, interpreted Armageddon as a world-wide conflagration that would annihilate all cities and ultimately result in a unified government supported by the United States army, Jewish capitalists, Freemasons, and the Japanese government (Juergensmeyer 2000, p. 151). With the rise of the Patriot Movement in the United States in the later years of the twentieth century, some (posttribulationist) Christian militia groups understood Armageddon as an imminent race war (Barkun 1994, p. 88).
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Paul B. Duff