Saturday, February 10, 2018

Bible in a Year: Revelation

Richard Danby, "The Opening of the Sixth Seal" (1828)
National Gallery of Ireland
In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

You might not realize it, but Revelation is very rich in connections to the Old Testament. The letter opens with John stating that God gave him this revelation (apokálypsis, which means uncovering or unveiling), and he greets the seven churches that are in Asia (1:1-8). He states that he was on the island of Patmos when the Spirit came to him and ordered him to write down these visions and send them to the churches at Ephesus, Smyma, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Thus Revelation is an epistle, though a unique one in eschatological, apocalyptic visions.

John sees “one like a son of man” among seven golden lamp stands. The vision reminds us of Daniel’s and Ezekiel’s visions of heavenly realities.

The words to each of the seven churches, with different kinds of warnings, praises, and commands, fill chapters 2 and 3. The Old Testament has many depictions of faithlessness on the part of Israel, and the New Testament—though covering  a much shorter time period—does not hold back on criticizing aspects of the early church, as well. We find a notorious bit of anti-Judaism in 2:9, but again, we must remember that John is Jewish and writes in a Jewish milieu; he is not a Gentile who hates Jews. The warning about the lukewarm quality of the Laodicean church is also famous (3:15-16), but so is Christ’s words to that church, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (3:20).

The remainder of the book (4:1-22:5) area various visions and depictions of the future. We have a depiction of the throne of heaven and the living creatures that give God glory (chapter 4). A prelude to the opening of the scrolls describes the slain Lamb of God who is declared worthy to open the scroll’s seals.

Rev. 6:1-8:1 is the Opening of the Seven seals:
First reveals the white horse and its rider (Rev 6:1-2)
Second reveals the red horse and its rider (Rev 6:3-4)
Third reveals the black horse and its rider (Rev 6:5-6)
Fourth reveals the pale horse and its rider Death, with Hades nearby (Rev 6:7-8)
Fifth reveals the martyrs under the altar (Rev 6:9-11)
Sixth reveals earthquakes and cataclysms.(Rev 6:12-17)

Chapter 7 is an interlude, about the sealing of the 144,000 (12,000 from each tribe of Israel), and the heavenly multitude.

The opening of the seventh seal results in a time of silence in heaven (8:1). The the seven angels who had seven trumpets made their sounds:
The first trumpet, a third of the world’s vegetation is destroyed (8:7)
The second trumpet, a third of sea creatures and a third of ships are destroyed as a third of the sea turns to blood.
The third trumpet, a star named Wormwood falls, and a third of rivers and waters turn bitter.
The fourth trumpet, a third of the sun, moon and stars are struck. 
The fifth trumpet, the bottomless pit is opened, with locusts and the angel Abaddon are released (9:1-11).
The sixth trumpet, an four angels kill two hundred million people.

In an interlude, John eats the scroll (certainly a reference to a similar sign in Ezekiel), and two witnesses provide more visions of the end.

The seven trumpet, and Christ’s victory and Kingdom are announced, and the heavenly temple with the ark of the covenant are revealed (chapters 10-11).

Chapters 12-14 tell of seven mystic creatures: the woman with child, the dragon, the male child, the angel Michael, the beast from the sea, the beast from the earth (and the beast’s number is 666), and the Lamb on Mount Zion. Chapter 14 ends with a well-known vision of the winepress of the wrath of God, into which the grapes of the earth are pressed, resulting in deep blood.

Chapters 15-16 tell of the seven bowls of wrath: sores of people, the bloody sea, the bloody rivers and fountains, the sun’s fierce heat, the darkness, the foul spirits that prepare for Armageddon, and the earthquake.

Rev. 17:1-19:10 are visions of the great harlot Babylon, “mother of earth’s abdominations” who is drunk with the blood of saints and martyrs. Though Babylon will fight against the Lamb, Babylon’s soon is sure, though the evil world may mourn the city’s fall. At last, the marriage supper of the Lamb is announced, with great rejoicing in Heaven.

When the beast and false prophet are defeated, they are thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur (19:11-21). Satan and the dragon are bound and sealed in the bottomless pit for a millennium, and Christ will reign in peace with the resurrected faithful (20:1-6). Satan, though, will emerge and gather forces for battle at Gog and Magog (another Ezekiel reference), but Satan will then be thrown into the fiery lake as well.

Finally, the great white throne appears and judge all the death according to the Book of Life (the Book of Life is very much a Jewish image). Death and Hades will be destroyed for good at this point (20:11-15), and a new heaven and new earth will be established; the blessed will be with God, and the rest will be thrown into the fiery lake, which is the second death (21:1-8).

The final vision of Revelation very much harkens back to Ezekiel’s vision of the restored Temple (Ez. 40-48). The new Jerusalem will be a bright, golden and jeweled, beautiful and bright place. As the Bible began with the Tree of Life in Eden, the Bible ends now with the restored Tree of Life as the faithful will be in God’s light forever (21:9-22:5).

Revelation concludes with warnings about the end times—which, the author believes, will occur soon—and while visions should not be added to the book, these words will bring blessing to those who keep them (22:6-21).

Regarding the various millennial interpretations of Revelation, I found this interesting site,, that discusses these views in helpful detail.

“The Rapture”--when believers in the end times will rise into the air to meet the Lord---is not part of Revelation, but 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18, where Paul is reassuring the congregation about the certainty of Christ's return. For being such a brief passage in the New Testament (discussed nowhere else therein, and never called “the Rapture”), it has certainly captured the imagination of many conservative Protestant Christians, who import it from Paul’s letter into the overall eschatology of Revelation.


Here is more about Revelation, originally posted here.

The Book of Revelation contains more references to the Old Testament than nearly any other New Testament book. I read that there are nearly 200 references, allusions, and images. I’m not keen on interpreting the book's arcane and violent symbolism to gain knowledge of our present times.  But I appreciate the book all the more as the concluding portion of Christian scripture, which ties together many theological strands from the whole of the Bible.

If you really want to dig into Revelation, you might first spend a year or so reading the Old Testament and books about biblical theology. Then, you can appreciate how Revelation reaches deeply into the Old Testament and connects those scriptures (and therefore the whole of God's saving activity since ancient times) to Christ and his final victory.

I found an interesting article, “The Old Testament and the Book of Revelation” at the site. I liked the article because it gave straightforward biblical references without the speculations and polemics that one times in some analyses of Revelation.  Perusing that article as well as my notes in my old RSV and the references in my NRSV, I developed a very incomplete list of references to Old Testament passages that one finds in Revelation.  These are just my notes from these sources, to set up ongoing studies. That article gives many more references and other research about John's compelling visions and style of writing.  

The image of “the son of man” in Daniel 7:13-14 connects to Rev. 1:7.

The image of “the kingdom of priests” in Exodus 19:6 an Isaiah 61:6 connects to Rev. 1:6.

Ezekiel’s vision of four living creatures and four wheels in chapter 1, and also Isaiah 6:1-4, connect with Revelation chapter 4, wherein the living creatures give God honor and glory.

The dwelling of God in the new heaven and earth in Isaiah 65:17ff connects to Rev 21:1-2. Also, Michael the archangel (Dan. 12:1) connects to Rev. 12:7-12.

The condemnation of Deuteronomy 29:19-20, with the image of being blotted out of the book of life, connects to Rev. 21:19. In fact, that article indicates: “Revelation 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15, 21:27 are based on Exodus 32:32-33; Psalm 69:28; Daniel 12:1,” and also Ps. 56:8 and Malachi 3:16. All these have to do with the them of God writing a book containing the names of the faithful.

The differently colored horses of Zechariah 1:7-17 and 6:1-8 connect to Revelation 6:1-8.

The eating of the scroll in Ezekiel 2:8-3:33 and Jeremiah 15:16 connect to Rev. 10:8-11.

Much of Joel 1-2, with its descriptions of plagues, droughts, and the coming day of the Lord, connects to the various events in Revelation: e.g., the locusts in Rev. 9.

Some of Ezekiel’s images of the restored temple in chapters 40-48, as well as Zechariah chapter 4, connect to Rev. 11:1-6 et al. Also, the restored Jerusalem in Ezekiel 48:30-35 connect to Rev. 21:12-14.

Genesis 49 lists the twelve tribes of Israel, in the context of Jacob’s death: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Gad, Asher, Dan, Naphtali, Joseph, and Benjamin. Jacob adopted Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and thus they became heads of tribes. Rev. 7:1-8 describes how angels sealed the number of God’s servants out of “every tribe of the people of Israel,” and then lists the twelve tribes.  Instead of the tribe of Dan we have the tribe of Manasseh, and the tribe of Joseph rather than that of Ephraim is mentioned.

The cities of refuge are described in Numbers 35:9-34. They were places where a person who had accidentally killed someone could flee and when the high priest died they could return home without fear of being killed out of revenge.  The cities were Kedesh, Golan, Ramoth Shechem, Bezer, and Hebron.  Although Rev. 12:6 doesn’t mention “cities of refuge” per se, the concept of a safe place prepared by God is there: for instance, the woman with child (representing God’s people) flees to a safe place in the wilderness where she will be nourished for 1260 days.

Daniel has a vision of four beasts in Dan. 7:1-8, which connects to Rev. 13:1-7, where beasts emerge from the sea. As that article indicates, the fourth beast represents Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the terrible Greek ruler of the Maccabean period.

Ezekiel 38-39 describes the prince Gog of the land of Magog. In Rev. 20:7-10, Gog and Magog become nations who are enemies of God’s people.

The famous story of Balaam and his donkey (Balaam's ass, as we Sunday school kids laughed about) is found in Numbers 25:1-9, as well as 31:16.  This story is echoed in Rev. 2: 14 where God scolds the church at Pergamum.

Rev. 14:14-20 tells of the angel reaping a grape harvest with a sickle and putting the harvest into the winepress of God’s wrath, producing copious blood.  Of course, this is the reference for a line in “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as well as the title of the novel, The Grapes of Wrath.  We find the earlier image in Joel 3:13 and Isaiah 63:1-6.

As that article indicates, Isaiah 65:17, 66:22, refer to the blessings of God upon the exiles who return from captivity in Babylon. These promises connect to a passage near the conclusion of Revelations, 21:1.

With that reference, I thought of my earlier post about the biblical theme of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, the Exile, its connection to the land, and the hope of future redemption that the Exile inspires. Although the Bible isn't exactly “about” the Exile, the Bible is about the history of God’s people on the land in the centuries before the Exile, and then their post-exilic hope in God’s redemption. As I explain there in my notes, the exilic experience pervades the Bible in many unappreciated ways. (The psalms, for instance, which so many of us esteem for our daily faith, deeply reflect the post-exilic hope of God's people.) For Christians, the New Testament describes the fulfillment of that post-exilic hope, and the Book of Revelation brings together stands of biblical history and theology to show the final consummation of centuries of divine promises.


The book of Revelation is an endless source of fascinating questions for many people. I never quite shared an eagerness to decode the book. When I was in high school in the 1970s, barcodes began to appear on grocery products, and I heard someone express concern that barcodes were connected to the Antichrist as predicted in Rev. 13:17. I thought (privately) that was kind of silly.

Then a few years ago, my wife Beth and I led a study on the book of Revelation. We used Bruce Metzger’s Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation, a wonderful book that delves into the Old Testament background and first century roots of the book. The first Sunday, we had a crowd. “I think the Lord has led me to this study,” declared a young woman that first time. During the next few Sundays, our group dwindled down to a faithful core. Where did the others go, including the woman pleased at God’s guidance? Beth and I didn’t attempt to interpret Revelation’s signs and symbols to our contemporary time, and so I’m sure we disappointed folks present at our initial gathering.

The notion that Revelation has a secret meaning about current events, in spite of scriptural caveats about predicting the end (e.g., Matt. 24:36), will always give the book qualities of mystery and urgency. In my experience, though, folks are certain that the book has contemporary meaning, are liable to become frustrated if you imply otherwise, and yet don't necessarily know what that meaning is. It's one of those unexamined opinions people swear to.

Of course, many attempts have been made through history to predict the end times via biblical symbols: George Rapp, leader of the Harmonist sect, William Miller, founder of the Millerites, Charles Taze Russell and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. To me, the numerous failed efforts to connect Revelation to contemporary history advises against the effort---as does Jesus' own caution that only God knows history's final timetable.

Although Revelation is typical of the apocalyptic genre of writing (there are several such Jewish writings not included in the Old Testament, for instance), Jesus’ own end-time teachings aren’t so typical. While concerned about warning people, Jesus isn’t interested in tabulating and predicting the end times in a vengeful way.[1] Jesus’ teachings are not focused on divine retributation against  evildoers and Gentiles, but upon God’s salvation, e.g. Luke 4:16ff. We have to balance the visions of Revelation with the example of Jesus himself.

In portions of his teachings, Jesus warned that people would miss the kingdom of God and would be cast into outer darkness or into the fire (Matt. 24:45-51, Matt. 25:1-13, 30, 46). He warned that people would call him “Lord” who would be excluded from the kingdom if they didn’t do his will (Matt. 7:21-23). The stories of people who followed Jesus, though, are overwhelmingly happy. People who discovered Jesus became filled with joy. Not only had they escaped God’s wrath, but they had abundant, loving power from God in their lives that would carry them all the way through life and death to eternal life. They had escaped Hell because Jesus suffered condemnation in their place. Jesus addressed the seriousness of sin with his love and blood.

Jesus also promised to return. According to Hebrew 9:28, Christ “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” At that time he’ll be king over all earth and heaven (Rev. 11:15), will completely destroy the power of death (1 Cor. 15:25, 26), will bring about the resurrection of the dead (1 Thess. 4:16-17) and the final judgment (Rev. 20:11-13). He will come suddenly (Mark 13:36). Some people expect Jesus to return in our lifetime. Others point to the fact that Jesus discouraged speculation about the timetable of his return (Mark 13:32). Paul told people to stay alert (1 Cor. 16:13, 1 Thess. 5:1-11), but also warned that we shouldn’t become idle and neglect our daily responsibilities (2 Thess. 3:6-13). Whenever Jesus returns, one thing is for sure: we will all die someday. God will reward us for our faith whether we came to Jesus early or late in life (Matt. 20:1-16), but we do need to be ready (Mark 13:33-37)! We need to commit to a relationship with Jesus, however small our faith-steps may be. Readiness means believing in him, following him, trusting his power … and trusting his merciful desire to save us regardless of all our sins and failures!

Here is a very odd pair of books to connect: Deuteronomy and Revelation. Deuteronomy concludes the Torah with a stirring call for Jews to keep faithful to the commandments (reiterated for many chapters) and to remind future generations of God's mighty works of salvation. Meanwhile Revelation concludes the New Testament with arcane and impenetrable symbols that invite all kinds of wheel-spinning speculation about the end times.

And yet Revelation also calls future generations to faithfulness. Revelation proclaims God's mighty work of salvation, too (7:10, 11:15, 19:6), and so, in an analogous way to Deuteronomy, we know that there is no ultimate reason for us to lose heart—or to lose our faithfulness. Although Christ’s final victory lies in the future, he already has defeated Satan. In light of that victory, he calls us to follow him with confidence.


1. Points made by Brevard S. Childs in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), page 68.

No comments:

Post a Comment