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The New Testament




The Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse (from the Greek apocalypsis, meaning revelation), is the last book of the New Testament and, in many ways, the most unusual. The eschatological beliefs of the early Christians- their beliefs about the end of the world- are expressed throughout the New Testament. In the Gospels, Jesus teaches about the end of the world in the Little Apocalypse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21). The Epistles also discuss the theme, especially 1 and 2 Thessalonians. The Book of Revelation, however, provides a uniquely elaborate exposition of eschatological beliefs.

Revelation is vision literature. It's debated whether the author actually had all the visionary experiences he describes, or whether he's using the visions partly as a literary device. In any case, he sees the world as a vast theater of sin and suffering, which will soon be overturned by the power of God. The writer believes this world will be replaced by a new one, which will be glorious and holy. All this is described in a quick succession of vivid images, which may remind you of the fantasies of science fiction, the hallucinations of mental illness, or the visions induced by certain drugs. The book became part of the New Testament canon, however, because of the religious message conveyed through the imagery.

The author says his name is John (1:1). Traditionally he has been identified with the apostle John, but virtually no scholar now accepts that identification. On stylistic grounds it's highly improbable that Revelation was written by the author of the Gospel of John. There's an ancient tradition that Revelation was written late in the reign of Domitian, who was Roman Emperor from 81 to 96. Students of the book have argued for dates ranging from the 60s into the early second century. Many scholars think Revelation may have been written over a period of time. The same author could have written parts of it as early as the 60s and parts in the 90s. In any case, the book is clearly associated with the Christian communities of Asia Minor.

The book is described as a revelation given by God to Jesus Christ, and transmitted by him through an angel to John.


John writes to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia (now western Turkey): Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos (Pergamum), Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. He says he was on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Asia Minor, "for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ" (1:9)- apparently exiled there by the Roman authorities for Christian preaching- when he had a vision. He saw "one like unto the Son of man" (1:13) with superhuman attributes, who declared "I am he that liveth, and was dead; and behold, I am alive for evermore" (1:18)- the risen Christ. The figure in the vision tells John to write to the seven churches.

The letters to the churches complain of failures to maintain religious zeal. They also complain of some of the religious opinions circulating among the Christians of Asia. A teacher at Pergamos here nicknamed Balaam (a pagan prophet in Numbers 22-24) and a prophet at Thyatira here nicknamed Jezebel (an idolatrous Israelite queen in 1 Kings 16-21) allow their followers to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual irregularities.

NOTE: Paul, in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, raises no objection in principle to the eating of food sacrificed to idols. The author of Revelation takes a more rigorous position.

The letters to the churches refer to trouble between Christians and Jews in Smyrna and Philadelphia, and predict persecution of the church. A certain Antipas (otherwise unknown) is spoken of as having been a "faithful martyr" at Pergamos (2:13).


John sees a radiant Being seated on a throne in heaven. There are "seven lamps of fire... which are the seven Spirits of God" before the throne, and around it "four beasts full of eyes before and behind" (4:5-6). The beasts are like a lion, a calf, a man, and an eagle, respectively.

NOTE: The four beasts resemble the four creatures of Ezekiel 1:5-14. They're angelic attendants at the throne of God. In later Christian art, however, they're used as symbols for the authors of the Gospels: the lion for Mark, the calf for Luke, the man for Matthew, and the eagle for John.

There are also "four and twenty elders" (4:4) seated around the throne. They perhaps represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. The four beasts and the twenty-four elders worship God constantly.

God holds a book sealed with seven seals. The book contains mysteries- presumably God's plan for the world. Nobody is worthy to open the book, except one: "in the midst of the throne... stood a Lamb as it had been slain" (5:6), who receives the book from God. The Lamb certainly represents Jesus, who is elsewhere called "the Lamb of God" (John 1:29) and the "lamb without blemish and without spot" (1 Peter 1:19). The four beasts, elders, and many angels sing the praises of God and of the Lamb.

In ancient times persons of standing customarily had small carved objects, often made of semiprecious stone, to make distinctive imprints when pressed into clay or wax. Such an object, or its imprint, is called a seal. A seal used on the clay top of a jar holding wine, oil, or grain was a mark of ownership. Used on a lump of wax closing a scroll, the seal authenticated the contents and protected them from prying eyes.

The Lamb opens the first four seals, and John sees four horsemen. They ride a white, a red, a black, and a pale horse. These four horsemen represent conquest, bloodshed, famine, and death, respectively. When the Lamb opens the fifth seal, John sees "under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God," crying "How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?" (6:9-10). These are clearly the martyrs. When the Lamb opens the sixth seal, there is an earthquake and catastrophes in the heavens like those spoken of in Mark 13:24-25.

Then John sees angels place seals on the foreheads of 144,000 persons, 12,000 servants of God from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sees "a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations" (7:9) worshiping before the throne. These are the redeemed Christians, who "have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (7:14). When the Lamb opens the seventh seal, there is silence in heaven for half an hour.


In a new cycle of visions, in some ways recapitulating the seal visions, John sees seven angels blow seven trumpets in succession. Each of the first six trumpet blasts is followed by disasters on earth, some of which seem to recall the Plagues of Egypt in Exodus 7-12. Many people are killed, but those left alive fail to turn from their sins.

An angel tells John of "two witnesses," described as "the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth" (11:3-4). They'll be killed, "And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city" (11:8), until they're raised from the dead and ascend to heaven.

Some readers have identified the witnesses with Peter and Paul, representing the missions to the Jews and Gentiles respectively (Galatians 2:7-8). Others identify the witnesses with Moses and Elijah, who were believed to have confirmed that Jesus is the Christ at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3), or with Enoch and Elijah, who were believed to have escaped death (Genesis 5:24, 2 Kings 2:1 1) and might therefore return in the last days.

When the seventh angel blows his trumpet, the temple of God is seen standing open in heaven.


John sees in heaven "a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars" (12:1). The woman is pregnant, and in labor. A seven-headed dragon appears, waiting to eat the woman's child when it is born. The woman bears a male child, who is "to rule all nations with a rod of iron" (12:5), and God takes the boy to his throne.

The archangel Michael fights the dragon (identified at 12:9 as the Devil and Satan), who is cast out of heaven with his angels. On earth the dragon continues to persecute the woman, but she flees "into the wilderness, into her place" (12:14), where she's protected. Then the dragon makes war against "the remnant of her seed, which... have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (12:17).

The woman's son is generally identified with the Christ. Some readers see the woman as a symbol of the church- but the church is scarcely the mother of the Christ. Others think she is Mary, the historical mother of Jesus. The most likely explanation, though, is that she represents Israel, the people who brought forth the Christ. This recalls Micah 4:10, which speaks of the labor pains of the "daughter of Zion."

Next John sees a seven-headed beast, who receives power from the dragon. The beast seems to represent the Roman Empire. Some scholars, noting the emphasis here on the beast's "blasphemy" (13:1,5,6) think the beast specifically represents emperor-worship. Although most Romans probably attached no more religious significance to the rites in honor of the emperor than most Americans do to ceremonies like the pledge of allegiance to the flag, many early Christians saw emperor-worship- the veneration of a "divine man"- as an obscene parody of their own veneration of Jesus.

A second beast appears, who causes people to worship an image of the first beast. The number of the second beast "is the number of a man," and it is 666 (13:18). In Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, the letters were used to write numbers. The best explanation of this passage is probably that the Hebrew letters making up the words "Nero Caesar" add up in numerical value to 666, and that the second beast is thus Nero, emperor from A.D. 54 to 68, under whose rule Christians were persecuted and Peter and Paul were put to death in Rome.

John sees a Lamb on Mount Zion, with 144,000 men who are virgins, "the first fruits unto God and to the Lamb" (14:4). Then he sees three angels. The first has "the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth" (14:6). The second announces the fall of the great city of Babylon. Rome was sometimes called Babylon by early Christians (1 Peter 5:13), because it was the imperial power of their day, and also because the Romans destroyed the second Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 just as the Babylonians had destroyed the first in 586 B.C. The third angel says that those who worship the beast and his image "shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God" (14:10). After the vision of the three angels, John sees one "like unto the Son of man" (14:14; see Matthew 16:27) coming for the Judgment, which is likened to the harvests of grain and grapes.


In a new series of seven visions, which seems partly to recapitulate the visions of the seven seals and the seven trumpets, John sees seven angels with seven golden vials full of the wrath of God" (15:7). The angels pour out the contents of the vials, producing terrible disasters for the kingdom of the beast. Devils gather "the kings of the earth... to the battle of that great day of God Almighty" at "a place called... Armageddon" (16:14, 16).

This place is generally identified with Megiddo in northwestern Palestine. Because of its strategic location, Megiddo was the scene of many battles in Old Testament times. Because the Book of Revelation makes Armageddon the site of the final battle of history, the word has passed into the language in expressions such as "a nuclear Armageddon" to mean a battle that will destroy the world as we know it.

When the seventh angel empties his vial, the world is shaken by an earthquake of unprecedented severity, "the great city" (16:19) falls apart, and there is a great hailstorm.

Then John sees a woman riding on a seven-headed beast, and "arrayed in purple and scarlet color, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls." Her name is written on her forehead: "Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth." She is "drunken with the blood of the saints" (17:4-6). Since the woman sits on seven mountains, she evidently represents Rome, the city of seven hills. The seven heads of the beast on which she rides are usually identified with Roman emperors (17:10), although scholars don't agree which heads correspond to which historical emperors.

In any case, the judgment against Babylon is- destruction. After listing all the luxury items that would have been available in the markets of first-century Rome, an angel announces that "all things which were dainty and goodly are departed from thee" (18:14). For most of the population, the Roman Empire was hardly a consumer society, but for the upper classes it was. As the smoke of Babylon rises, the inhabitants of heaven praise God "for he hath judged the great whore, which did corrupt the earth" (19:2).


An angel tells John to write "Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb" (19:9). Then "The Word of God" (19:13; see John 1:1)- Christ- appears on a white horse, leading a heavenly army to victory over the kings of the earth, and over the beast. Satan is bound in "the bottomless pit" (20:3) and the Christian martyrs reign with Christ for a thousand years. After that, Satan will be set free for a time, before his final downfall.

Then John sees the final resurrection of the dead, and the last judgment. He sees "a new heaven and a new earth," and "the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven" (21:1-2). A few readers think the city is a symbol of the church, but an eschatological interpretation is more probable, for it is a place where "there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain" (21:4). The city has no temple, for God and the Lamb are there. It has no sun or moon, for God and the Lamb provide enough light. The "tree of life" is there (22:2), signifying the restoration of Paradise (see Genesis 2:9). The people of the city see God's face, and He "shall wipe away all tears from their eyes" (21:4).

CONCLUSION (22:6-21)

Jesus tells John to reveal these things. He says "behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last" (22:12-13; alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet). And John himself prays "come, Lord Jesus" (22:20).



ECC [The New Testament Contents] []

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