This is the chandelier falling at the end of Phantom. Or the Death Star exploding in Return of the Jedi. This is the last scene of a Transformers movie. The giant robot is about to fall from a great height and hit the ground and explode. We’ve seen the depths of Babylon’s evil and over sixteen chapters John has teased us with the huge explosive downfall that’s coming. We are primed and ready. We have gone through our three cycles of seven and at last on our final seven the trigger is pulled.
This image of the woman is wanton, lascivious, brazen (enjoy your vocab for the day). Its crudely sexual and overly lush. The goddess Roma was a prim deity of honor and victory and respect. But John pulls back the curtain. He pulls no punches. She is the great whore. A harlot dressed like a queen, blood drenched and drunk.
This image isn’t an accident. John calls Rome the Great Whore because she is ultimately a seducer. Her first power isn’t the violence or oppression, its her siren-call, her ability to draw the people of the world to her with promises of power and riches and pleasure. This is what Revelation is warning against. The great sin in the mind of the Revelation communities is to give up and give in. Many Christians were making compromises with Rome that they felt were minor but ultimately amounted to idolatry.
This horrible ruler is propped up on a throne of evil. She literally sits on the Dragon/beasts. Their ten horns are their great power. Their seven heads are the seven hills of Rome and seven Caesars. The counting of caesars here gets a little wonky depending on how you interpret the history of the emperors. Some emperors ruled only very briefly which makes the number difficult to figure out precisely. The only two that are truly important are the 6th head, which is likely a reference to Nero’s recovery from a near fatal wound, and the seventh which is likely Domitian. Both of them were responsible for the few periods of particularly harsh oppression of Christians and instituting official policies of violence against them. John was perfectly willing to fudge the numbers slightly to carry the numerology and image of the seven hills.
These kings are somehow interwoven with the beast and the Whore. They join together in violence against the world and for a tiny window they will be successful. But John reminds us that all such victories by evil are not held long. God is already coming to overturn their victories.
The many waters are all the peoples and nations of the world. It’s a mercantile image. It would have conjured the image of trading and traveling and getting very very rich moving things from one place to another. It’s the Kings and the Merchants who profit most from Rome but their relationship is not love or peace or justice but crude self-interest. But its also the image for destruction and chaos and death. When God’s indignation falls on Rome they will turn on her and take part in her destruction. The great sea of destruction she has ruled over will come crashing down on her and destroy her.
Chapter 18 could almost be called “Once more, with feeling.” Rome is fallen, the kings and merchants who profited from her mourn. The city is destroyed utterly, ruined and spoiled for all future use. The song reminds us that no matter how great she was, her violence and oppression and unrighteousness drew down God’s wrath on her. There is no Empire on earth great enough to outrun God and the consequences of their own actions.
This chapter is an exclamation point on John’s plea to the unfaithful churches. “Come out of her” is another crudely sexual image. John is saying, turn away from her blood-stained rewards before its too late. Don’t be an accomplice to this great evil. Return your heart to God before the sky comes crashing down and its all over.
There are two different stories we need under our belts to read Revelation chapter 12. The first is the story of Apollo and Python. This story was incredibly commonplace in the first/second century world into which Revelation is speaking. While pregnant with Apollo, his mother was pursued by Python. She barely escaped and managed to give birth. When Apollo grew up he hunted down the serpent and killed it, establishing the Temple at Delphi and the Oracle over the beast’s former lair. This story was quite common and would have been familiar to most audiences.
John the Revelator is taking this story and reassigning the roles. The characters act the same way but by associating the roles with new people and new concepts he tells us a different story. The mother is God’s communities, Israel and the Church, presented in the vision of a heavenly Mary. The Child is Jesus. The siblings are the believers who suffer under the Dragon. The point of this is to use the preexisting model of hero, mother and monster, to analyze the situation of the first century Christians. It isn’t about who the characters are but using the roles to tell us more about the actors he has cast in them.
The second story is more in John’s wheelhouse. It isn’t enough to have this story be about God and a specific evil. There is no adversary who can possibly challenge God. So to get his point across on this fact John wants to portray a super-evil, a Voltron of evil made up of all the most evil things he could think of.
As we pointed out last chapter. We should be careful not to read this back into the other stories. John isn’t making a statement about the nature of Satan. Instead, John is reaching into the hyperbolic to lay out a specific point. John is gluing together Satan/the Devil, the Genesis serpent and images of horrific monsters from Greek and Hebrew mythology. This is the Mega Bad Guy of all Mega Bad Guys. When God kicks its tail he doesn’t want you wondering if maybe some other evil could have had a shot. This is DRAGON! The ultimate possible evil.
We should also be careful in trying to read the story of Michael’s conflict with the Dragon as a prehistorical Satanic fall story a la John Milton. The strange muddled time signature of Revelation catches us again. Based on the strictest reading, the event seems to take place AFTER the child is born, likely meaning after Jesus’ birth and possibly also his crucifixion and resurrection. It would be an odd timeline to say the least.
The Dragon’s servants have to be just as horrific as the Dragon. The first beast, the beast from the sea, sometimes called Leviathan, is meant to be Rome and its emperors. They take authority over the world through force and violence. They do the Dragon’s will. They resist God and oppress the people of God. The blasphemous names are the divine titles of the Caesars who claim to be gods themselves. Seven is the divine number, here used in inversion or parody. Ten is the number of strength and power. The first beast is a dark reflection of God’s power, a fun house distortion from holiness to evil.
The second beast, Behemoth, the beast from the earth, is the imperial cult and Roman governors, controlling the people, forcing them to worship the first beast and the dragon. It is a parody of the Spirit, rather than enabling believers in the worship of God it coerces victims into slavery to the first beast and the dragon. It is a dragon in sheep’s clothing, an evil parody of the Lamb.
The classic 666 numerology is actually fairly transparent in context. On the first level it is a number of imperfection and unholiness. If 7 is the divine 6 is failure, coming up short. The triplicate is a refrain of intensification, bad, worse, worst. Also, as we mentioned earlier, in Hebrew (as with Latin) letters have numerical values. While there are many combinations that could produce the 666 total the most likely candidate is Neron Caesar, transliterated from
Greek to Hebrew. This reading is confirmed by variant texts which cite the number as 616, the result if one were to use the same name but transliterate from Latin to Hebrew instead. The number isn’t a great mystery at all but another marker pointing us back to Rome and its capricious emperors as our villains.
But these two beasts aren’t just Rome. Using the bestial images from Daniel, John paints us the portrait of a Super-Empire. Bear and leopard and lion blurring together. The nightmare Rome, bigger and badder and more universal than Rome itself. This is capital E Empire. It is Egypt and Babylon and Rome. It is the true character of human power and oppression gone absolutely mad in all times and places.
Together the Dragon and the two beasts form an unholy Trinity. They are the anti-God. The Anti-Father, Anti-Son and Anti-Spirit. John shelves them temporarily but we will return to them in coming chapters.
Revelation 10-11 is another particularly odd series of interludes. Much like the interlude of the Church between the 6th and 7th seal, our 6th and 7th trumpets are separated by an extended and seemingly detached vision.
Chapter ten opens with an angelic messenger, clearly reflective of but not Christ himself (who is never called an angel), offering John a scroll. John is told to eat the scroll. This symbolism is fairly clear, John has to absorb the message being given to him, make it a part of who he is. And because it is God’s word it is sweet. There is a goodness and satisfaction in following God’s design and there is a special power and goodness in God’s words.
But John again differentiates himself from typical apocalypses. The scroll is also bitter. John isn’t receiving just any word from God but a word of judgment, destruction and desolation. John is a follower of the slaughtered Lamb, Jesus is at the center of everything he does. To play a part, even at God’s command, in such a painful series of events is traumatic and difficult. John doesn’t want to be a part of the violence and destruction around him, the words turn his stomach, make him sick. But he continues on.
The strange lines about the sealed thunder, for all that they inspire speculation are actually intended for the opposite. Much like Jesus’ own “No one will know the day or the hour” or talking about the kingdom of God coming like “a thief in the night,” John is reminding us not to get too hung up on intricate calendaresque knowledge of God’s plan. It also seems to suggest a divine impatience. The thunders, based on the logic so far, should likely be another series of 7 woes (maybe even #4 of seven sets). But God is bigger than the numerological conventions of Apocalypse. Things will unfold on God’s schedule and God has just bumped up the time frame.
The measuring of the temple is probably an image intended to represent the church community. God doesn’t pull the church out of trial and struggle rapture style but does mark them to endure through the worst of it. The trampling of the Gentile court could represent either the unprotected nature of the outside world or, if it is intended to represent a segment of the church, could represent the limited success God would allow the world in persecuting the churches. While Rome has the power to kill and imprison some, they are ultimately held back from destroying God’s people.
The number of 42 months (which is 1260 days) is also 3 ½ years. This is half of 7, the number for completion. This is an indeterminate time period which will not go on forever. We see this same symbolism in the 3 ½ days of the witnesses’ death. Neither will last forever, but will eventually be overturned.
The two witnesses are less clear than a lot of Revelation imagery. They could represent the Law and the Prophets, embodied in Moses and Elijah. This would make a lot of sense as they were both considered the pinnacles of prophetic ministry and the specific signs mentioned (water to blood, plagues, drought and heavenly fire) are all associated with the two of them. They could also be literal future witnesses who will continue the prophetic ministry.
All that being said, it seems most likely that they are another embodied image for the Church. Their story sounds a lot like what we see in Acts. A people filled with God’s spirit to go proclaim God’s will to the world with miraculous acts and holy words. A group which seems sometimes supernaturally invincible (like Peter and Paul’s miraculous prison escapes). But eventually die for what they believe (like Stephen, James and eventually Peter and Paul themselves). They look like the OT prophets because God is empowering them to be new prophets, continuing God’s model of prophecy. These witnesses are a glimpse of past successes and present suffering for the churches. The church is currently at the dead and shamed part of this story. But God is ultimately promising to reverse their misfortune, restoring and resurrecting them to show God’s glory. They will be vindicated through bodily resurrection and miraculous renewal.
This is also our first glimpse of the beast(s). We’ll be spending most of chapters 12-15 with them so we’ll hold off for now.
And out of nowhere John closes his long parenthetical story, blaring the seventh trumpet. At the seventh seal we received only ominous silence. Now we hear distant victory songs, sung by the heavenly choirs. We’re getting closer and closer to the end. But we’re still not there yet. God has warned us that the next series will be the last.
As we said last time, it’s important to remember that these are not 21 separate events but this same series of 7 seen in escalating scale. As we come to the end of a cycle the sense of time becomes strange. Here we return to the image of the prayers of the saints, a tangible presence rising up in the heavenly throne room. When they’re thrown down on the Earth we see again the signs of theophany, earthquakes, clouds and lightning. The prayers of the Saints are not wasted, God responds by drawing nearer to the Creation. So we stand paused at the end of this first cycle, the seals. God is right at the edge of the Creation, silently waiting for the final moment to bring all things to resolution.
And jarringly John throws us back to the beginning. A new cycle, this time of trumpets, begins. This section offer us another perspective on the same events, a series of catastrophes which unravel the wider Roman world, ending again with God drawing near.
This time John is bringing together two different series of images. The first is the thematic imagery of the Exodus and the 10 plagues. Our first trumpet evokes the 7th plague, bringing fire and hail. Our second trumpet is the 1st plague, the falling mountain turning the seas to blood. The fourth trumpet evokes the 9th plague, leaving the whole world in darkness. And the consuming insects arise at the 5th trumpet. We’ll jump back to what exactly this Egyptian motif means in a second.
Layered on top of this Exodus imagery is a theme of sweeping natural disaster. All four of the classic regions of nature are coming apart, the land, the seas, the rivers and the skies. This is all of Creation starting to come apart at the seams, a response to God’s silence and withdrawal from the unrepentant world. There’s nowhere to go.
The 5th and 6th trumpet are some of the strangest images in Revelation. Where we just witnessed the natural elements turning against Rome and the Roman world now we see the personified corruption and evil of the human world destroying itself. Our Locusts are not some otherworldly evil but the very real tangible, consuming evil of Rome and its corruption turned back on itself. Their leader is called a “king,” they arise from the earth and their leader’s name is Destruction and Apollyon (a pun on the emperor’s self-made association with the god Apollo). The emperor is portrayed as a king of the damned and the demonic, heading a corrupt army ravaging his own kingdom and hastening its death.
The 6th trumpet evokes images of outside invasion. The fear of cavalrymen invading from across a great river taps the Roman fear of the Parthians, the one great military power they could never overtake, a constant threat to Rome’s rule. When we take all 6 of these together we see a systematic collapse of Rome (much how it historically happened) natural disasters coupled with internal corruption and outside invasion.
But why does God ultimately do this? These things sound horrific, tortures and calamities falling on the world. Well, we have a couple of points to dig through. First, every single one of these events uses the same verb the passive form of “give.” God allows these things to unfold. God is not causing the events but rather God is allowing what would naturally occur to continue without the protection and shelter God had previously sustained. Without God’s sustaining power the natural world collapses on humanity, one catastrophe after another. Without God’s will at work, the powers and principalities built by humanity to help themselves become evil forces which dominate and destroy them. God isn’t directly punishing the world but instead allowing it to fall under the consequences of its own brokenness and evil.
We also have a literary distinction. In the ancient world there was little focus on individuals. We are accustomed to a different kind of narrative that zeroes in on specific characters, their motivations and lives and goals. In ancient literature, as harsh as it sounds, sometimes people and groups of people function only as set pieces, showing something without necessarily bringing you the baggage of a fully detailed character. The focus here is not on those who die but the whole world of those who witness their deaths and still don’t repent. The character isn’t “Bill who gets killed in demon locust attack” but “The sinful and rebellious world,” These fractional population deaths (we’re up to 1/3 from ¼ in the Seven Seals), are blows against the world which can’t see past its own corrupt gains.
And finally, continuing the Exodus theme, these woes are not meant to simply punish the world but to bring it to repentance. This isn’t random, unavoidable damage. The last thought John leaves us with in chapter 9 is one of repentance.
Starting in Revelation chapter 6 the organizational structure of the book changes dramatically. Chapter 1 was our introduction. 2-3 gave us a snapshot of the world and the struggles faced by the churches. 4-5 told us of God and the heavenly throne room and the role of Jesus.
Now we come to the part of Revelation most people are most familiar with (or think they are). Chapters 6-7 tell us of the seven seals, the first in three series of 7 apocalyptic woes. If we try to understand these events as a linear series of 21 events we will quickly get confused. Instead we need to understand them as the same cycle of judgment told in three escalating sequences, each one the same events but growing in intensity. They show a series of judgments or woes (the part of Revelation people talk about the most), usually one or more interlude scenes and then they come to a sudden stop before the next series of 7 begins. This cycle of interruption will repeat twice (7 seals and 7 trumpets) before the true conclusion (the 7 bowls).
Our first cycle begins with the classic image of the four Horsemen. This series of judgments is keyed specifically for Roman audiences. Each of the Horsemen represents a very specific fear, some unsteady load bearing pillar Rome is sitting on. This isn’t just a portrait of generic woes but a very specific outline of how a great human empire can come apart at the seams.
The first rider, the White Rider, with his white robe and bow, is the image of the Parthian archer, a specific neighboring country whom Rome was never able to conquer. He is in some ways a parody of our Jesus. Each one conquers but the Parthian rider returns to the old fashioned violent sort of conquest. He represents foreign invasion from beyond Rome’s borders.
The red rider is the collapse of the Pax Romana. He doesn’t just take “peace” as a generic concept. He overthrows Rome’s control over their conquered peoples. The powerful elites of Rome lived in constant fear of the people they conquered, waiting for the day their pain and suffering finally outgrew their fear of the Roman army and they violently overthrew their governors. The White Rider is real War, an outside invasion by an army. The Red Rider is rebellion and violent unrest against Rome.
The black rider is economic collapse. Rome was economically unsteady to begin with. Different segments of the Empire relied on others to produce the goods they needed and the Roman government relied on constant conquest to keep growing its tax and resource base to support the capital and the army. The specific image they give is an ironic kind of famine, the sort caused by a breadbasket province like Egypt rebelling or somehow being lost. The staple foods like breads and grains become wildly expensive while, ironically, oil and wine (luxury items) keep their price. This was even more intimidating than it sounds because imperially subsidized bread was one of the ways the empire controlled the poor masses. In today’s world this might look alot like the 2008 economic woes, where many working class people had great financial losses but the handful at the very top came through relatively unscathed.
And of course the pale rider, death, who was the final and ultimate fear of Rome. This one doesn’t need much explaining. Death sums up the other three riders, together they will devastate a quarter of the known world.
But here we see the weird attention deficit of John’s vision. In the fifth seal he suddenly transitions from these Roman nightmares to a vision of the throne room. Where those who have already been martyred for God await God’s final judgment and resurrection. The “altar” here is Rome’s courts and executioners, their faithful and innocent deaths a lamb-like sacrifice patterned after Jesus. This vision was an important reminder that those who suffered and died were not forgotten but close to God’s heart, the cause of his judgment. If you were a 1st century Christian suffering under violent persecution, seeing friends and neighbors hurt and killed, this vision is an essential assurance that God is not only aware but moved by what happens to those who love Him.
The sixth seal has the markers of theophany, an appearance by God. Strange unnatural events like eclipses and earthquakes accompany God’s presence. Taken together they tell us that God is drawing near, that God is going to make an appearance to put things to their final rest.
Instead of the expected 7th seal, John’s vision pulls us into another aside. The classic figure of 144,000 is not at all mysterious. It uses numbers we are already familiar with multiplied together. This tells us to take their meanings together. In this case we have 12, 12 and 1000. 12 is the number of tribes and disciples, it represents those who worship God under the old and new covenants. 1000 is a multiplier of scale, telling us this is a huge number (not necessarily just a literal 144,000). This is the living church across all the Creation.
Then John pulls back our camera even further. We see not only the living Saints but those who have gone on before them. This is a vision of the church triumphant, the church of all the believers, living and dead, of all nations and peoples and language coming together in worship. This is an important reminder to the early Christians who are persecuted and isolated, seeing that they are a part of a grand church of all God’s people.
Once again we place ourselves in this persecuted 1st century mindset. When you are a suffering, persecuted religious minority under a brutal and idolatrous imperial structure you would feel incredibly alone. In the Southern American context you can usually see another church from the front door of your church. But in this first century world churches are isolated from one another, swimming in a sea of Grecco-Roman paganism. Every community event and celebration would be steeped in pagan religious practices. Not only was there the immediate and tangible fear of outright persecution but also the slow subtle separation that refusing to participate in pagan events would create. This vision John relates reminds these Christians that they are not alone but part of something larger than the suffering they’re experiencing.
Our seventh seal actually extends slightly into chapter 8. We have seen the escalating movement, we see the storm clouds of God’s presence gathering at the edge of Creation. Everything seems about to unfold and then…silence.
Revelation 4 and 5 are the heart of Revelation. They are the most important two chapters and if you do not understand them fully and deeply everything that follows will be distorted and damaged. John has transported us to the Heavenly Throne Room. Like in chapter 1 we return to the incredibly detailed language of the prophets. John wants us to soak in every detail, each piece is a part of the grand painting he is offering to explain the vision he has seen.
These two chapters draw from a double set of images, the first is the Judeo-Christian gallery of prophetic images. John is drawing from the throne and heavenly visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel and Daniel to convey God’s presence and His relationship to the Creation. But John is also drawing on Roman imagery. The Heavenly throne room is a reverse-parody, it reveals all of Rome’s royal and imperial trappings as a pale imitation of the true ruler of the universe. Caesar is not a god or a true king but a boy costumed in his family’s sheets, playing at something he isn’t.
First, there is the throne, a single highest heavenly throne over everything. God is the King of Kings, the ultimate ruler who sits over everything. John uses the language of gemstones and rainbows to convey the shining, majesty of God enthroned. The first century world was not particularly colorful, extravagant colors were markers of royalty and prosperity and power. The thunder and lightning remind us of the cloud of God’s presence in Exodus and the appearance to Elijah at Mt. Horeb. This breath-taking throne room is ultimately occupied by God/Christ, not Caesar.
The twenty-four thrones are the apostles and the twelve tribes, all those who believe, the old and new, joined together in worship. They rule because they too have “conquered” but their rulership is only under and through Christ, hence the laying down of their crowns. It also echoes the 24 attendants (lictors) who surrounded the Caesars in their public appearances.
The sea was an ancient symbol of death and chaos, sometimes personified as a dragon (like in the Babylonian Creation myth which Genesis echoes). The sea is so still and calm that it looks like glass or crystal. In God’s presence death and chaos are absolutely conquered, held in stillness like the depths he pushed back from the dry land at Creation.
The four living creatures are angelic representations of all the animals and creatures in Creation, each one the peak of a Jewish category of created things, humanity, the wild animals (lion), the domesticated animals (oxen) and the birds (eagle). They also have the six wings and the constant song of the Cherubim and Seraphim as we see them in the prophets. Together with the 24 elders, they are the faithful joining with all created things to continuously praise and honor God.
The book in God’s hand contains everything that will come to pass, when it is unsealed everything that follows begins to unfold. Whether the scroll is meant to be seen as a will or inheritance (as some scholars say) or God’s book of life, we know for certain that it contains God’s judgment which we will see unfold in the next 7 chapters. But John throws us back into an advent-esque despair, there can be no final judgment, God will not yet set things right, because none can unseal the scroll.
But one of the Elders turns to comfort John saying “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” There is a Lion! A messianic symbol. This Lion is God’s warrior-prophet-king who will overthrow all evil and earthly powers and rule the whole Creation. The Lion is strength, royalty, bloodshed, honor and violence. It is the most powerful thing in all of Creation. The Elder dramatically points us towards a lion-shaped hole in our apocalyptic story.
We know how apocalypses are supposed to go. John is joining in a long Jewish tradition of apocalypses. Once this Lion hits the scene the next dozen chapters will look like a scene from ‘300’ as the Lion rampages around, grinding up and destroying the evil ones in dramatic blood-spraying slow motion. Bring on the Lion!
And here John flips the whole world on its head. Into this Lion shaped hole in our Apocalypse John gives us this
“Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth”
Into our Lion shaped hole John plugs “the little slaughtered lamb.” There is a diminutive on this word. Not Lamb. Lambkin. Little Lamb. The very image of weakness, meekness, vulnerability, defenselessness, innocence and purity. And it has already been slaughtered, the word here specifically implies an altar sacrifice. It stands but it still bears the wounds of its death.
Into our Lion shaped hole, John has placed Jesus. Crucified, “forgive them for they know not what they do,” “turn the other cheek,” “die by the sword,” “forgive 70 times 7 times” Jesus. And this is why Revelation is a Christian book. There are lots of Jewish apocalypses that end with God’s violent wrath poured out on the world. But John has taken the Apocalypse formula and stuck a negative sign right down in the heart of it. Everything is inverted and flipped upside down.
Because strength and power are redefined. Strength looks like forgiveness. Power looks like faithfulness. That mystery word, conquering, that John has already used almost 20 times, is redefined as a faithful innocent death at the hands of evil. That throne at the center of all Creation is a rugged Cross, still stained with blood. John is telling us that God has forever redefined the vision of winning.
And this is the place from which Revelation will unfold. Every plague, every bowl, every trumpet, every seal must be interpreted in light of the crucified one who is at its center. We’re not suddenly seeing a new, hidden side of Jesus where he becomes the Punisher and wreaks havoc on the ones who wronged him. Whatever happens must be consistent with who we already have seen Jesus to be. The slaughtered lamb, wrapped in the Holy Spirit, will take the scroll and break its seals.
Revelation 2 continues the introductory section of Revelation. Though using more colorful images and language than Paul, John the Revelator begins laying out an epistle-esque (or epistolary if you’re feeling fancy) series of notes to the 7 churches. We probably shouldn’t worry too much about whether these were intended for the specific churches they were addressed to or whether they were meant to speak to the whole church. What they do instead for us is start to give us a picture of the kind of situations that John was writing to.
Since we left Paul and his letters and the book of Acts a lot had changed for the church. In the early days of the church Christianity was viewed as another school of Judaism. And Judaism had unique protections under Roman law. Rome had a great appreciation for ancient things and Judaism was one of the oldest practiced faiths in their day. They had exemptions from conscription into the army and certain Roman religious practices which were mandated in other parts of the empire. But in 70 AD Israel’s last and final rebellion against Rome was crushed with devastating force, costing them both their protections and the temple itself.
This unrest accelerated the separation of Jew and Christian. Suddenly the broader Greco-Roman world was becoming aware of Christians as a unique religion in their own right. But Christians, much like the Jewish faith they were slowly separating from, were a problem to the Roman world.
For Rome there was no divide between church and state, secular (non-religious) and religious. Everything was both. To be a good citizen (or resident since most folks weren’t real citizens), not only meant paying taxes but participating in a variety of religious activities. You couldn’t just follow Roman law, you also needed to worship the goddess Roma (personification of Rome) and in some areas even worship current and previous Caesars. This was the Roman version of pledging allegiance to the flag or singing the national anthem (but more hardcore).
This was a huge problem for the monotheistic Christians. They couldn’t worship Caesar or Roma. This made them look very very suspicious bordering on traitorous. If you didn’t worship Roma or Caesar your other behavior is called into question. And in fact this “atheism” which Christians were accused of (for not believing in a wide world of gods but just one) also separated them from social, business and community life. The coliseums, athletic events, festivals and celebrations, local tradesman groups and even birthday and funeral celebrations all required elements of pagan worship. They would make sacrifices to Artemis and Zeus or chthonic hero cults like Hercules. This meant that not only did Christians look atheistic and un-patriotic but they also seemed to be intentionally isolating themselves from their local communities.
Imagine if instead of the flag the US had a giant golden eagle called Starry. And if you wanted to go to school, or a baseball game or Target you had to worship Starry. This was a huge issue for the early churches. They were seen as immoral, dangerous and hateful because of their monotheism.
The situations John describes in the different churches all seem to be different ways of dealing with these issues. When we put the first four letters together we get a portrait of a widespread problem. John uses metaphorical language like “Jezebel” (no one in this time would have called their child Jezebel), “Satan’s throne,” and “The Synagogue of Satan” to talk about how this issue was impacting their churches. These Nicolaitans, together with this “Jezebel” were probably people who considered themselves Christian who were convincing other Christians that worshiping Caesar and Roma (or just pretending to) was somehow OK to God. Jezebel was a well known Hebrew image of both seduction and idolatry, a common prophetic metaphor. The “Synagogue of Satan” was probably a church or literal synaoguge which was buying into these views and mixing Imperial-worship with the worship of God. “Satan’s throne” would have been a literal temple to Roma and the Caesars (something we know was found in several of these cities). Balaam was probably a teacher or faction who were allowing small acts of idolatry like taking part in functions in pagan temples.
We see here that John has no problem mingling Satan, the Devil and Rome. He sees Rome with its idolatry and hatred and violence as a clear personification or instrument of evil. This mingling will help us understand some of the more bizarre images we’ll find later.
This might sound like a small thing but remember that Christians were already dying for this. If you refused to denounce or blaspheme Jesus and worship Roma and the Caesars you could be jailed, beaten or put to death. Just because the Romans were kind of tepid, half-hearted or disorganized about these early persecutions doesn’t mean they weren’t still horrific and violent (that was kind of Rome’s default setting). The letters of Pliny and Trajan from around 110 AD, help show both the boring officialness of Roman persecution layered in tight with the awful violence and callous harm. They are very short and you should read the whole thing here
So John’s audience has some very harsh decisions to make. Do you remain faithful to God even if it costs you everything? And what does this have to do with the sevenfold reference to conquering that John has made, using the term in the close of each letter to the churches? Who are the conquerors? We’ll stay with these questions as we continue on in Revelation.
Revelation 1 is our first chance to dig into the unique language and structure of Revelation. We immediately begin to see some of the unique elements that make Revelation unlike any other New Testament book. Like any other NT letter, John the Revelator begins Revelation with a salutation and a doxology, identifying himself, his audience, the occasion for writing and finally a passage of praise and glory to God.
Unfortunately we often treat these sections as less important than the “body” of the book or letter. We skim them quickly and then jump into the more important argument of the writing. But these passages, much like a foreword or introduction in a contemporary book, often give us essential hints, markers or roadmaps to understanding what is going to come afterwards.
In this case John the Revelator is already tipping his hand to several of the elements we are going to see later in the book. First, even in the first chapter we get a taste of the strange Hebraicized Greek that John is going to occasionally use. The oddly fractured Gk. of “him who is and was and is to come” has what would be considered grammatical errors in the strictest sense but might be an intentional stylized choice by John.
John also calls his writing a “prophecy.” We tend to use this term to mean “prediction” but it is better understood as presenting things from a God’s eye view. Like the Hebrew prophets John isn’t primarily concerned with offering glimpses of the future but rather showing the way God interprets the events which have occurred and are occurring and will come to pass (setting up a contrast with the human way of seeing those same happenings).
This prophetic connection isn’t minor either. John practically swims in the prophetic traditions, drawing imagery from nearly every prophet. In v. 1 he uses the Gk. term “semaino” which often gets translated “show” but more specifically means “to show through signs” or “signify.” John is going to convey his story through vivid imagery and pictures.
Vs. 12-16 are one of the most vivid passages of the entire New Testament up to this point. Even the longer Gospels focus on clipped, narrative focused phrases to convey as much story as possible in the shortest document. John, in contrast, pulls out all the stops. This passage has more color, imagery and description than any NT passage before it. And he pulls the picture almost wholesale from Daniel chapters 7 and 10.
But John doesn’t just borrow the language, he makes it uniquely his own to convey something specific about what God has shown him. Daniel offers two different images, one of God or the “ancient one” and the other of the “Son of Man,” a messianic hero-king. John combines the two images, taking familiar prophetic images and reusing them to describe Jesus in a new and vivid way, giving us a human figure who is somehow also God. Jesus and the Father are blurred together throughout Revelation. In a loose, early Trinitarian kind of way, John shows us Father, Son and the (Seven) Spirits together at the throne of Creation.
This chapter also offers us our first glimpses of John’s use of numerology. While some read Revelation with weird algebra to turn to the various numbers into codes the answer is far simpler. In John’s day sharply accurate numbers (the kind we expect today from reporting or stories) was impossible. There were few reliable head counts. So instead they used numbers as another layer of meaning and significance to events. These would have been common sense, obvious elements to the 1st century Jewish-Christian audience John wrote to. The equivalent of talking about “lucky 7” or “unlucky 13” today.
1 was the number of unity and wholeness. It signifies the thing itself, in its entirety.
2 was a number for strength, truth and witness, drawing from legal traditions and language in proverbs. It also sometimes conveys the Jewish tradition, separated into the Law and the Prophets (like we saw in the Transfiguration in the Gospels).
3 was the heavenly number, not only the spiritual heavens but the literal skies and stars.
4 was the four corners of the world, the four directions, the four winds.
6 was a number of incompletion, falling short of perfection and God.
7 was the divine number, the number for completion, perfection and God. It is heaven and earth together. Sometimes 7 was used to mean all of a thing. (Like when Jesus says you should forgive 70 times 7 times he didn’t literally mean 490 times but you should forgive indefinitely)
10 conveyed a sense of great size or duration, often used as a multiplier or intensifier on top of another number.
12 was the number of the church and those who believe. It was the 12 disciples and the 12 tribes.
Sometimes numbers were cut in half to convey incompletion or a sudden stop. 1260 days is a period of 7 years (which could imply a long or indefinite period) cut in half, implying a period of time that will not go on forever.
Before we begin studying the Book of Revelation there are a few important pieces we need to walk through. Some of them are important to read any book of Scripture (like author, audience and time period) but there are a few which are unique to Revelation.
Author: Who is this John who write the book of Revelation? Well the short answer is we’re not super sure. The earliest biblical commentators of the first few centuries always erred on the side of simplicity when ascribing authorship. That means the most books by the least number of figures. So for them this clearly means that John the Gospel writer, John the apostle, John the Elder (who wrote the 3 epistles) and John the Revelator are all one person. This makes for a neat answer but it doesn’t really line up with what we actually have.
First, all three of these sets of books Gospel, Epistles and Revelation, are addressed in a different way. The Gospel writer refers to himself in the third person, calling himself “the beloved disciple.” The epistle author seems to call himself “The Elder.” And the author of Revelation refers to himself by name “his servant John.”
We also have a writing style problem. While all three sets of books have overlapping images and words like “lamb” “light” and “darkness” Revelation completely loses the love language of the Gospel and epistles. There is also a technical style difference. The Gospel of John is some of the clearest simplest Greek in the New Testament. Its so easy some professors don’t want to use it to teach beginners because its so basic. The epistles are also fairly simple, technically solid Greek. Revelation’s Greek is a mess. The author was definitely a native Hebrew speaker and writer. Then he either learned Greek poorly and thus made lots of mistakes (like saying “They is” in English). Or he learned Greek very very well and made an intentional poetic choice to use Hebrew phrasings in the Greek to highlight his Old Testament images. Either way it is very very different from the other 4 books. So for our purposes we’re going to assume we have a distinct “John the Revelator” or “John of Patmos” who is familiar with or somehow related to the apostle/Gospel writer John but is not the same person.
Date: There are two fairly narrow windows which could be the time period for Revelation. Based on the cultural references, especially those around Rome and its emperors, we can get some fairly precise dating. John seems to assume that Nero is dead at the time of writing but still holds him as highly culturally significant which would put us around 70 AD. However, Nero was not a major proponent of the emperor worship to which Revelation is at least in part responding to. He also did little systematic persecution beyond the borders of the city of Rome. Our second window is right around 100 AD. In this case the author is making some allusions to Nero but mostly to link him to the emperor Domitian who did in fact demand emperor-worship which was the root of his persecution of Christians. The Domitian date seems more likely because of the intersection of the imperial cult and a widespread state sponsored persecution. So it was likely around 100 AD.
Audience: So who was John writing to? Well it was certainly Christians sometime around 100 AD. They had deep familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures and were suffering under Roman persecution. Though he cites 7 specific churches its likely his letter was meant to be circulated to any Christian who was being persecuted. Those 7 specific churches were evenly distributed along a major trade route, likely chosen as ideal sites for mass distribution.
Purpose: Revelation is ultimately about hope and faith in times of trial. John wrote to lift the spirits of Christians suffering under intense persecution, giving them a vision of God’s ultimate victory and rescue. This was to give them the strength to continue to resist Roman influence and idolatry even under threat of death.
Genre: Revelation is an Apocalypse (from the greek word Apocalupso which is the first word of the book) a specific mostly Jewish genre of book which literally means “Unveiling.” Apocalypse is similar to but ultimately different from prophecy. It is usually published under the name of a famous Jewish figure like Moses (though Revelation breaks this pattern). It talks about the world in terms of rich, vivid and sometimes seemingly contradictory images and symbols. References to the world around them and the Hebrew Scriptures fill small details with big significance. The closest modern parallel would be something like a political cartoon, where symbolism is drawn from current and past events to offer up some kind of insight. Apocalypses are usually focused around dualism, opposing pairs like good/evil, light/darkness. They often include messengers, angels, dreams and break the world down into a current and coming age.
So we have one more important question, the one which is unique to Revelation. Is Revelation about the past or the future? There are some strong arguments for each.
The Past: Revelation seems to mostly be about Roman persecution of Christianity during a very specific point in history. It references ancient emperors and uses a lot of imagery and symbols unique to the first 1st/2nd century Roman world. And in fact Rome has fallen since Revelation was written, seemingly fulfilling much of its words. Also, John was writing about a very urgent present situation. It seems strange if not cruel to tell people who are suffering deeply this very moment to “hold on because sometime thousands of years from now God will fix this.”
The Future: Well, Jesus hasn’t had a glorious second coming yet. We would probably have noticed. There also seem to be large portions of the story which haven’t quite come to a head yet. So it certainly seems that some if not all of this story have yet to play out.
There is also another way of reading Revelation, a view called Dispensationalism which situates us part of the way through the book of Revelation. Different passages correspond to different points in history, usually lined up around European history and the Catholic Church. So the book moves from the past and is heading towards the future.
Well, many of you have spent enough time in Colby-style youth lessons by now to know that when I present you with an A or B (or C) question the answer is probably “both and neither.” Revelation is simultaneously about the past, the present and the future together. Revelation is a historically rooted book which conveys its meaning through first century and ancient Hebrew imagery. It was written to a group of Christians in the past and had a specific real meaning for them. Revelation is also a book about the future. It is about God’s final victory and the restoration of the whole creation, something which we have not yet seen but never quit awaiting.
But the place where Revelation really hit us is here in the present. Revelation is an unveiling. It is God peeling back the curtain and showing us the way things are right now. The patterns of powers and empires, good and evil and ages and martyrs and the suffering of those who carry their cross and challenge this world, all of those things are just as true today as they were in 100 AD. So we will use the historic images to help us understand and we will chart our course by a future resolution but ultimately Revelation is a book about living faithfully in the world the way it really is.
1Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honourable;
if you honour it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
18 Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
19 as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
25 Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26You shall take up Sakkuth your king, and Kaiwan your star-god, your images that you made for yourselves; 27therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus, says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.
These might be two of the hardest passages of Scripture for Christians in churches today to live into. God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, not just denouncing injustice but rejecting the worship and adoration of the unjust. This is a hard hard word to hear. This passage actually gives us what one might call the thesis statement of the prophets, right worship, justice and love for neighbor are all so intimately interwoven that we can’t meaningfully do one without the other.
In the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the stories from the start of the Kinghood of David and on, we see a repeated cycle. The powerful upper classes of society become wealthy and complacent. They fall out of their trust and relationship with God. They turn to worshiping idols. And they abuse the poor, the stranger and the vulnerable. Isaiah brings together all the different prophets when he tells us that these three pieces rise and fall together. When we trust God with our lives we live justly, we worship truly and we treat others well (and doing all of these things probably also means we are not unjustly rich either). But when we begin to fail in one of these we tend to lose the others. Wealth drives us to protect wealth by turning to other gods who make false promises. It drives us to abuse others to grow and defend that wealth. It’s a vicious cycle that plays out again and again. Even wise Solomon lapsed into idolatry and injustice in his complacent life of luxury, conscripting Israelites to build a massive temple to God even as he set up idolatrous altars around the kingdom.
While few of us would consider ourselves rich that is because we are usually comparing ourselves to others in the very narrow world of middle class (and higher) American culture. When we set our possessions and lives against the global community, all people everywhere, we realize that we are actually sitting not just towards the top of the global pile but actually at its peak. This makes these passages quite a bit more worrying. What seems to be a comfortable middle in the United States and the industrialized world looks palatial and extravagant to much of the world.
These passages remind us that our worship can’t exist in a vacuum. Never, in the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament, has God separated out our worship and our lives. We have to back our songs of praise with mercy and our justice must be rooted in our worship. We can’t have one without the other. The two hold us in balance and help us to grow in our faith and our relationship with God. These passages help to keep us honest before God.