"Following the Lamb Wherever He Goes" (1)
Karl Barth once complained that discussions of method and other material preliminary to actually discussing the matter at hand often got out of hand never quite getting to that matter. He rejected this kind of interminable “throat-clearing.” Yet, I fear we must endure a bit of such “throat clearing” before entering the text of Revelation. Too much, and too much wrong, has already been said and written about this most-contested of biblical books for us to simply jump in at Rev.1:1 and start commenting.
We start with some Frequently Asked Questions about Revelation. This section introduces in brief matters important to interpreting Revelation. They are not complete responses in any way. But they do orient the reader to some of the main issues with the book.
Is the author of Revelation the same as the author of the gospel of John?
We do not know who wrote the Gospel of John. Tradition attributes it to the apostle John. Some think an obscure figure named John the Elder may have written it. We know little about John the Seer of Revelation either beyond that he was a prophet exiled on the island of Patmos for his witness to Jesus. These writings attributed to John – gospel, 1-3 John, Revelation – share enough vocabulary and ideas to be treated as coming from a common tradition and enough differences for them not to have the same author. Perhaps we could say the author of the gospel and Revelation were brothers from the same mother!
Was John imprisoned on Patmos?
There is no evidence that Patmos was a penal colony. It was sparely populated in the 1st century. And while John could not leave the island to visit his churches in Asia Minor, he was apparently free to move around it.
Were the churches John writes to under persecution by the Roman Empire?
Again, there is no evidence of any empire-wide physical persecution of the church by the empire in the 1st century. Nero savagely persecuted Christians in Rome after accusing them of setting fire to the city in the 60’s a.d. The persecutions mentioned in the seven messages in Rev.2-3 are local and sporadic, occasioned by tensions with the Jews in those cities. However, since the evidence for a empire-wide persecution sponsored by Rome fails, comfort for a badly persecuted church is not the sole or main purpose of Revelation. Yet, on the other hand, all seven churches are persecuted by the empire though it is an iron fist in a velvet glove type of persecution. This is the seduction into the Roman way of living and being, the ideology of the pax romana, the Roman peace, which bestowed the gifts and abundance of the empire on its peoples while forcibly oppressing other peoples to resource and support their affluent way of life. Rome constantly promoted its way of life, its goodness, greatness, and glory, and the benefits of living under its beneficent rule. If this sounds something like what we call the “American Dream,” you’re not wrong. And that allows us to feel the power of this seduction. We know it too. First hand. And that gives us Americans our point of entrée in this book. John writes not primarily to comfort those physically persecuted. No, he writes primarily to confront and challenge those Christians and churches that have allowed themselves to be seduced by the affluence and comforts of the empire and become complacent and numb to its influence over them and how destructive it is to the world. That’s what we affluent readers need to hear from John. And if we don’t hear that, we’ve missed the point!
Who was the Roman Emperor when Revelation was written?
We don’t know for sure. Most scholars think it was either Nero (60’s a.d.) or Domitian (80’s-90’s a.d.). Since the temple is presented as standing, some feel Revelation must have been written before 70 a.d. when the Romans destroyed the temple, though most favor the later date.
Is Revelation mostly about the last seven years of human history as the Left Behind series presents it?
In spite of the popularity of this view, it cannot be what John is doing in Revelation. He is writing to seven real churches in Asia Minor in the late 1st century a.d. as they struggle to be faithful to Jesus in the midst of the Roman Empire. He says the revelation God gave Jesus to give to him is about “what must soon take place” (1:1). It seems impossible to stretch “soon” to cover now 2000+ years and counting. No interpretation of Revelation that does not relate to and have meaning for those 1st century churches in Asia Minor can be correct.
Are the Rapture and the Antichrist in Revelation?
No, neither of these key features of the Left Behind view are found in it. Some claim to find the rapture in Rev.4 when John is taken up to heaven to view worship there. But in his vision he later returns to earth to view the beast. It makes no sense to posit that as the rapture. There is no such event found in the New Testament. Nor is the antichrist found in Revelation. The dragon is. The sea Beast is. The land beast is. The great harlot is. But not the antichrist. Revelation has no figure comparable to the antichrist of Left Behind fame.
Is Revelation to be interpreted literally?
No. It should be interpreted literarily. That is, according to the genre it is written in. Genre is our best clue as to how to interpret a passage or book, the kind of truth it presents, and how we process that. Revelation is especially complicated in that it has three genres: apocalyptic, prophecy, and letter. None of these genres are historical narrative which we would translate literally, that is, as continuous sequential narrative. In fact, even a literalist does not interpret Revelation literally. She or he recognize that John uses symbols and they try to interpret them as such. Their literalism comes in when they try to place these interpreted symbols in a literal, chronological order.
Who are the 144,000 that Revelation talks about?
This gets us into John’s symbolic use of numbers. Numbers were regularly used this way in John’s world. It Here’s a list of the numbers John uses symbolically.
The spiritual order
half of seven; thus things in process, still incomplete
The created order; earth, directions, winds, empires
human work/effort (Luke 13:14); incompleteness, imperfection, lack (not yet 7)
days in a week, sabbath rest (Gen 2:1-3); thus natural & divine completeness/perfection
completion; basis of many number systems (# digits on fingers/toes!)
months per year, tribes of Israel, apostles of Jesus; human completion
Christian number for completion/restoration: OT tribes + NT apostles
number of months in 3½ years (half of seven years; see also 1260 days)
= 12x12, thus perfect completion
number of the beast (Rev 13:18 only; variant reading is 616)
number of days in 3½ years (thus incompletion)
The 144,000, then, are 12x12x1000, or the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 Apostles and the number of completion tripled. The whole people of God. Numbers are often used as adjectives or quality (rather than quantity). For instance, the seven churches are literal churches in Asia Minor but also a symbol of the completeness or wholeness of the church. Thus, Revelation is addressed directly and specifically to the literal churches but also in an extended sense to the whole church. This means the risen Christ’s diagnosis of the seven churches serves as a representative profile of the variety of churches throughout history.
Colors and animals are also symbolic in apocalyptic literature. White = victory, black = suffering, red = strife and war, and pale (yellowish grey) = death. A horse = conquest; a lamb = sacrifice; the eagle, lion, and ox head up their respective orders: the air, the wilderness, and the cultivated land.
In some cases John explains the symbol for us:
Reference Symbol John’s Interpretation
1:8 Alpha and Omega The One who was, who is, and who is coming
1:20 Seven stars & lamps Angels and churches
8:3 Angel with censer Prayers of the saints
10:1–11 Little open book Must prophesy again
11:7 Great city, Sodom Where the Lord was crucified
13:6 God’s tabernacle Those dwelling on earth
13:18 Six-sixty-six Number of (a) human
14:14–20 Winepress Wrath of God
17:9–15 Seven heads Seven mountains and kings
17:12 Ten horns Ten kings
18:21 Angel with millstone Babylon cast down
19:8 The fine linen of the bride The righteous deeds of the saints
19:11–16 One on a white horse Word of God
Assume everything is symbolic, especially after ch.3 unless there’s clear evidence it’s not.
What’s the Millennium I keep hearing about?
The Millennium is found (only) in Rev.20:4. It is presented as a thousand-year reign of Christ with the martyrs on earth after the climactic defeat of the powers of evil and preceding the final judgment at the Great White Throne. During this period the dragon is imprisoned in an abyss only to be released for one last battle in which he is forever vanquished. There are many interpretations of this passage, too many even to summarize here. See the comments in the text.
The violence and view of women in Revelation really bothers me. What’s up with that?
Again, a large topic we deal with more in the comments. In short, John does use very violent imagery and in the image of the Great Harlot in chs.17-18 presents a woman in a vile and disgusting light. This makes us readers today uncomfortable, and it should! Yet if we read Revelation carefully, we see that by the great reversal of imagination by which John asks us to with him be astonished by the sight of the mighty Lion of Judah he hears announced in the form of a slaughtered Lamb who yet lives, he inverts everything in the book. Images of violence are to be interpreted as expression of the power of the Lamb, the non-violent power of God to transform his creatures and world. The brutal image of the harlot is balanced by the picture of the New Jerusalem as the bride of the Lamb. Again, this will require more discussion later in the text.