THE BOOK OF REVELATION
Introduction to the Book
1. Interpreting Revelation
2. John or Jesus?
3. Date of writing
4. A ‘behind the scenes’ look
Chapter 1 - Introduction
Chapters 2-3 - The seven churches
1. Why these seven churches?
2. Why write the letters in this order?
3. Prophetic messages?
Chapters 4-5 - Who is worthy?
Chapters 6-8:1 - The end of the age
1. The first five seals
2. The sixth seal
3. The seventh seal
Where do we go from here?
Chapters 8:2-11:19 - The seven trumpets and three woes
Chapters 12:1-14:20 - A great portent
1. The dragon and the two beasts
2. Other visions
3. The mark of the beast
Chapters 15:1-16:20 - The seven bowls containing the plagues of God’s wrath
1. The final outworking of God’s wrath
Chapters 17:1-19:10 - The judgment of Babylon
1. The beast
a. Babylon and the beast
b. Babylon in the Old and New Testaments
i. Prophecy in the OT
ii. The condition for the destruction of Babylon
iii. Prophecy in the NT
c. Babylon’s fall
Chapters 19:11-20:15 - The final battle
1. The final battle of the age
2. The Millennium
3. Mopping up after the battle
4. The final, final battle
Chapters 21:1-22:5 - A new Heaven and a new earth
1. When is John talking about?
2. Comments on some of the statements
Chapters 22:6-21 - Concluding words
References and sources
I would love to write a commentary on the Book of Revelation.
However, I don’t think that I ever will do simply because there’s a great amount of it which I simply don’t understand. I may be able to tell you what some of the symbols are meant to represent and be certain as to what certain passages are all about but, to write a commentary, I feel that you have to be fairly certain what the text actually means and there are large parts of the writing which I freely confess are confusing.
That’s not to say that I think the Book should be considered as non-authoritative (even though even some of the Reformers could be found in this camp) - I’m quite willing to accept the entire work as inspired by God and infallible - but it’s that I just haven’t come to an acceptable understanding of parts which need to be understood correctly and in context.
So, why this web page?
Very simply, I believe that there are certain passages which are so straightforward in their interpretation that they need to be stated as such. For example, the entire opening from Rev 1:1-8:1 is plain and obvious - and yet we still seem to stumble over a simple interpretation.
Other passages - such as the notes about the mark of the beast (Rev 13:11-18) - would have been better interpreted in the words of John - that is, with ‘wisdom’ (Rev 13:18). I felt that it’s time to commit to record what appears to be the most simple and obvious interpretation of these types of passages and to pull away from the scares which have dogged the Church in times past. Not that I expect a large population of the Church to move over to a more simplistic interpretation - if prophetic interpretations have taught me one thing, it’s that the more complex the theory, the more adherence there appears to be.
The reader will find very large chunks of the Book of Revelation undealt with - and, even the passages that I have decided to comment on, I’ve taken the decision not to attempt an identification or interpretation of each and every item being mentioned.
And, even when I’ve dealt with certain verses or sections, I’ve tried to restrict my comments to as minimal a space as possible with little or no reference to other commentators and works.
I trust that the reader will appreciate that this page is simply a starting point - perhaps just my own personal notes that I should have kept to myself for a later time. But there are some things that we can know about and it’s these with which I’ll try and deal.
Introduction to the Book
Much of this material is adapted from here
1. Interpreting Revelation
John records at the very beginning of his work that he was writing (Rev 1:4)
‘...to the seven churches that are in Asia’
and many commentators have accepted the first three chapters of Revelation as being the fulfilment of his introduction. However, Jesus said (Rev 1:11 - my italics) that he was to
‘...write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches...’
when He could only have been referring mainly to the apocalyptic material which John saw commencing with chapter 4. I would venture to suggest, therefore, that unlike every commentator that I have ever read, the entire Book of Revelation needs to be interpreted in the context of Asia Minor and the events surrounding that area when the letter was given to them.
That may sound revolutionary but it will make the interpretation of the Book no less easy! What it does mean, however, is that unless we get the interpretation of the letters to the seven churches correct, and then manage to go on and re-introduce the vision into its first century setting, we have little chance of succeeding in correctly understanding the entire Book as it was originally meant to be.
I noted, as I’ve searched the generally accepted authentic writings of Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch (written somewhere around the close of the first century AD), who was travelling westward towards Rome to be martyred that, as he passed through this area where you would expect him to draw the church’s attention to John’s words to them, he doesn’t so much as mention the individual save once, let alone the writing called ‘The Book of Revelation’.
But he does extensively mention both Paul and quote from him (Ephesians 4, 6, 11, 12 [twice], 14, 15, Philadelphians 4, 7, Magnesians 10, Romans 4 [twice], Tarsians 2, 4 [where we learn that John was banished to Patmos, the only mention of the apostle in his letters and good evidence for the authorship of Revelation being none other than John, one of the original twelve disciples - see Rev 1:9] - all mentioning Paul - and Ephesians 6, 10, Philippians 1, Tarsians 3 - all quoting Paul. NB - I have scanned only those letters that are usually accepted as being authentic Ignatian letters).
I may be wrong and have overlooked some quotes - and I have no problem if I have done this with removing what I’m about to tentatively write - but it seems to me that, initially, Revelation was a localised scroll for the benefit of the churches in Asia Minor alone (as Rev 3:11) and that it was not spread throughout the Church as, say, Paul’s writings were - at least, not until a much later date than the travelling Ignatius.
Some commentators talk about the Book being extensively read and distributed throughout the Church almost as soon as it was written (notably Gentry who brings together numerous of these types of quotes) but, when one gets down to the evidence of such an assertion, there’s very little which seems to be able to be substantiated from any writing dated before the beginning of the second century.
So, what I’m suggesting here is that Revelation was given to the church in Asia Minor initially and that, though we look for context within the land of Israel, the first and initial context should be of those believers resident within the land to which the scroll was given. It’s to them that it was given and to them that it had particular relevance. It was they who could have understood it - not us - because Jesus spoke into their situation and addressed the problems which they were experiencing.
The scroll will relate to Israel and the return of the Lord there if it speaks of this time period - but the interpretation of it must be seen as being rooted in the context of the circumstances of Asia Minor. Yes, there will be Hebraisms in the text - not least because the John who wrote the Revelation was most likely to have been one of the original twelve disciples, himself a Jew, but also because many of the believers in the local churches were Jews also. But there will be many ‘Asia Minorisms’ too which may, if ignored, confuse our interpretation.
Even if my suggestion that Revelation did not gain a wide readership until much later on is not accepted, the fact remains that the entire Book was written specifically for the church of Asia Minor and it is only in this context that it can be fully understood and interpreted.
In my experience of the Church’s interpretation of the entire Book of Revelation, we seem to have divided the content up into three distinct divisions which we interpret separately. Firstly, the preamble (chapter 1), then the letters to the churches (chapters 2-3) - though these two are often brought together as one, seeing as some of the description used by Jesus Himself in the latter section is outlined in the former. Then, for no apparent reason, we treat chapters 4-22 as one unit but devoid of any real reference to either the letters of chapters 2-3 or the context of what the Church to whom the letter was addressed was experiencing.
Our expositions have been full of references to Jewish idioms and the current Israelite nation and has been clinically removed from much of its original context. I don’t doubt that there are references to Jerusalem and the Israelite nation within the text but it’s only as we understand the reference in the context of the life and times of the first century in Asia Minor that we can possibly interpret it correctly (and that, of course, only through the revelation and illumination of the Holy Spirit!).
I think it certain, then, that the key to our understanding of what the seven letters meant to the individual churches must be settled by recourse to the events that were taking place within the respective fellowships and cities that they were addressed to. And, simply because we cannot possibly know the intricate details, neither can we speak with any great certainty on numerous passages unless historical pointers can be found from that time.
While this is impossible to determine in a great many places - there are some pointers from the archaeological and historical sources that seem to bear directly on the Book’s interpretation, especially when the seven personal letters to the churches are considered. But, as the reader makes his way through the text, the lack of a solid basis for interpretation may be opposed but the variety of interpretations which are offered by commentators shows that, if such a thing really did exist, it seems to have been totally ignored.
The bottom line is this - if we want to know what the Book of Revelation means, we have to be prepared to know what it meant to the people to whom it was written. The prophet Daniel was told (Dan 8:26) that he was to
‘...seal up the vision, for it pertains to many days hence’
but John, differently, was commanded (Rev 22:10 - I will speak briefly about the expected imminency of the fulfilment of the prophecy when I deal with chapter 1).
‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near’
In other words, though the meaning of the prophetic visions that were given to Daniel were expected to remain concealed, those given to John were expected to be understood. It’s not right that we should find trouble in our understanding of Revelation and so consign the meaning to something which was to remain hidden until the days in which we now live.
Rather, it was to be understandable to the people to whom it was sent and, to be honest, our various interpretations of the text in the present day are almost certain pointers to the probability that it remains closed to us. In other words, we may claim enlightenment but we’re more likely to be fumbling towards a correct grasp of the truth than the first century’s believers ever were.
2. John or Jesus?
Commentators repeatedly speak of ‘what John wrote’ to the seven churches of Asia and are often seemingly unaware that the seven letters were spoken directly by Jesus through John to them. When we come to the beginning of chapter 4, however, Jesus’ words in Rev 1:11 are probably more applicable where He commands John to
‘Write what you see in a book...’
for this naturally seems to have to relate to the final 19 chapters of visions. Even so, as we noted above, Jesus immediately links the need for the recording of the visions because they need to be sent to the seven churches of Asia Minor and not because they are to be distributed throughout the believers world-wide.
These points are quite important to note for we’re not looking at an earthly origin for the inspiration of the work but an initial dictation (it would seem) for the seven individual letters, followed by the commitment to writing as the events were transpiring. This last statement may appear to be a somewhat strange one to make but Rev 10:4 records that
‘...when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down”’
Clearly, there appears to be the implication that John didn’t experience the contents of all 19 chapters (Revelation chapters 4-22) without making at least some notes as to what was happening. The accuracy of what is being recorded is also being proclaimed, therefore, and the charge that the author might have interpreted what he experienced after the event seems to be unwarranted.
John’s authorship of the letter, therefore, has to be used with a fair degree of constraint for, while it’s unquestionable that he committed what he both heard and saw to writing, there’s never an attempt made to assert that what is being circulated in Asia Minor was ever considered to be his own work.
3. Date of writing
Although this is the right place to consider briefly the possibilities of the date of ‘composition’, some would think that such considerations bear little or no relevance to the context of the Book. But this is incorrect for how can we know whether, for example, it’s to the pre-70AD or post-70AD people of Asia Minor that we should be primarily be referring it to?
The date has often been tied up with statements in the Book regarding how quickly the signs were to be fulfilled in the recipients’ own experience or by the circumstances in which the Church seems to have been existing but these matters can be deceptive.
It’s possible - and fairly certain - that if we accept the testimony of the Book itself, there is no other date which can be placed on it than before the death of Nero in 68AD.
I don’t believe that a definitive and totally acceptable date for the composition of Revelation will ever be arrived at by believers in the Church and most believers have no problem with accepting a first century date either before the Fall of Jerusalem c.70AD or afterwards. But there are a number of pointers in the text which would persuade one for an earlier date and the testimony of those believers who wrote years after the first century also testify to specific dates which seem to be in contradiction to the internal witness.
However, no real purpose seems to gained by stabbing at a date blindly but it is important because we must try and place the Book into the context of the events which were transpiring in Asia Minor.
First and foremost, we must note that John expected his readers to expect an imminent fulfilment. He speaks (or, rather, the author of the introduction) of what God had given him (Rev 1:1)
‘...to show His servants what must soon take place...’
and (Rev 1:3 Pp 22:10) that
‘...the time is near’
In conclusion, John also is informed by Jesus that the purpose of God (Rev 22:6) is to
‘...show His servants what must soon take place’
and (Rev 22:7 Pp 22:12) that
‘...I am coming soon’
which seems only to be taken within the same time scale as the other statements. Commentators have often struggled with these statements and, because it’s obvious that Jesus didn’t return within the first few years of the giving of the prophecy, it’s generally reasoned from II Peter 3:8 (whether stated clearly or not) that when God speaks about something happening ‘soon’, He rarely, if ever, means to be taken seriously (that’s my interpretation of their words, of course - they wouldn’t ever say such a thing).
Such a distortion of the plain and simple words recorded not only here but in other Biblical passages is based upon the premise that
‘prophecy is pre-written history’
and that what’s spoken as about to take place must happen regardless of the reactions of the people to whom it came. As I showed on my web page which dealt with Matthew chapter 24, there are numerous times in the Bible where what God said would happen never did and that the reason for it can often be tied down to the reaction of the people who received the prophetic word.
Realising that when God said that what he was showing John would soon take place, He was to be taken literally and, accepting that the events didn’t wholly find their fulfilment in the immediate history following their circulation, they're not self-contradictory pieces of information. They don’t undermine the authority of the Book of Revelation because it’s not for the commentator to make subsequent history fit the details recorded.
And it becomes extremely liberating when a date is proposed because the commentator has no need to offer up a date based upon an expected fulfilment.
I am of the opinion that Matthew chapter 24 would have been fulfilled in the events surrounding the advance of the Roman military forces upon Jerusalem from 67AD onwards had the Word of God been received with a positive response in the lives of those to whom it came (see my notes previously cited for an explanation of why Jesus didn’t return within the forty year period in which He indicated He would).
If we were to accept a pre-66AD date of composition, we see that the Revelation was given to the churches in Asia Minor as a confirmation of Matthew chapter 24 (if they had those Scriptures in their possession - as would seem likely) and a further expansion of those days which were to soon come upon them. It may come as a surprise to many but the entire Jewish ‘rebellion’ took the best part of 7 years from c.66-73AD (6 full years and two parts of two others), with the Romans arriving in the land in 67AD, Jerusalem falling 70AD and Masada hanging on until 73AD.
The significance of the ‘end times’ being viewed as a literal seven years is, perhaps, more significant when it’s viewed this way than would at first meet the eye if the end of the rebellion is seen to be concluded with the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. Also, Rev 11:2 speaks of the ‘holy city’ (a label for Jerusalem it seems certain) being downtrodden for 42 months (or three and a half years) and the time between the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD to that of Masada in 73AD seems to also mirror this time period. The existence of a Temple is also assumed (Rev 11:1-2), something that a pre-67AD date is only able to be relevant to.
If, on the other hand, a post-70AD date is accepted, we see the purpose of Jesus to be a reassertion that the events surrounding Matthew chapter 24 were still relevant to the immediate future and that what they knew of the invasion of Israel and the destruction of Jerusalem weren’t meant to bring doubt to the truth of what they thought should have happened.
Again, interestingly, the Bar Kochba rebellion which commenced in 132AD is within the realms, I believe, of the statements concerning ‘what soon must take place’ if this later date of composition is accepted. The rebellion seems to have taken about three years to deal with.
Personally, from this line of argument, I think that a pre-66AD date is the more likely for the simple reason that there’s no indication or reference made to a previous prophecy that had been called into question and which, ultimately, was needing to be renewed. A pre-66AD date is also needed when one realises that the letters to each of the churches were expected to have their full effect first before the visions were to be fulfilled (Rev 4:1) and time would have been needed for this to occur.
In that case, the Book of Revelation was a special illumination and revealing of further events which were to surround the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and of the establishing of the full and final Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
As the reader continues through these notes, they’ll see that the context of the visions recorded by John also seems to fit extremely neatly into a time prior to the date of the death of the Emperor Nero so that, even though a post-70AD date of composition might be asserted (normally tied in with the reign of emperor Domitian), there seems to be no possibility that such a date is allowable on the internal evidence that can be paralleled with certainty into the first century world - for example, the Book assumes the existence of a Temple in Jerusalem (Rev 11:1-2) which, if it didn’t exist, would lack sense (see Gentry’s detailed comments at this point).
Moreover, the great persecution which befell the Church under Nero (64-68AD) and the civil wars which raged within the Roman Empire following Nero’s death (June 68-December 69AD) are equally relevant ‘backdrops’ that seem to be spoken of in the text as shortly to take place in the context of Jesus’ return (I will deal with the identity of the ‘sixth king’ when we get to the discussion headed ‘The beast’ and will show there that it serves us as a positive indicator of the time at which John was given the visions contained in the Book of Revelation).
Most of the weight of such a late date comes from the statements of Irenaeus c.180AD regarding what he believed the apostle John to have said shortly before the close of the first century (most of the other church fathers seem to have relied upon this testimony for their own dating - we’ll look at this in a moment) and, perhaps even more illuminating, that it’s not generally accepted that prophecy could be given before a period in which it finds fulfilment (the ‘liberal’ view) - but the context of the Book as having to take place ‘soon’ seems to be without a secure foundation if pushed towards the end of the reign of the Emperor Domitian.
Affirmation that the early Church believed that the fulfilment of the Book of Revelation hadn’t yet come appears from the testimony of Irenaeus in his ‘Against Heresies’ Book 5 Chapter 30, although it seems to have been overlooked by Gentry who reassesses his statement in support of a pre-70AD date. The reason for this oversight - although not deliberate - would be to show that any thought that the events mentioned in Revelation had been fulfilled in the historical facts known about the fall of Jerusalem weren’t accepted by the early Church who, by the close of the first century, were still continuing to think upon who might be represented by the number 666.
To follow Gentry’s reasoning is worthwhile even though there’s unlikely ever going to be a conclusive statement for dating Revelation which will be able to be proven. He uses the Greek of Eusebius’ quotation in his Ecclesiastical History 3:18:3 (because Irenaeus has come down to us only as a poor translation into Latin according to many. Judging by some of the other alleged ‘quotes’ by Eusebius, however, it has to be noted that he was rather loose in his copying of the original texts) and renders Irenaeus as writing (my italics)
‘We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of antichrist [who Irenaeus equated as being the same as that of the beast of Revelation]; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign’
It certainly appears that the earliest attestation to the date of the Book’s authorship was ‘towards the end of Domitian’ (though quite how Irenaeus could imagine that the date of the writing of Revelation here given as c.95AD could ever be construed as ‘almost in our day’ when it was begun c.180AD is a little unnerving) but the italicised words are far from conclusive as Gentry has discussed.
It’s not important for our brief comments at this point to go into the arguments (and, besides, being a consideration of the Greek words, I’m not qualified to do just that) but the Greek could equally well be rendered ‘For he was seen’ referring to the apostle John.
This would have the effect of unfixing the date of Revelation’s authorship and Irenaeus would only be thought of as noting that John was approached towards the end of the first century and questioned as to the identity of the antichrist, at which time he confessed that it was still unknown.
Gentry’s arguments for a re-interpretation of this passage are well structured and worth reading and, as I’ve already noted, a pre-66AD date for the vision is much to be preferred than one which is post-70AD. But the real strength of Irenaeus’ statement for me is neither the dispute over whether the person or the vision is being referred to, nor that the author states with certainty that the apostle John was known to have been the author but, rather, that the early Church didn’t believe that the vision had been fulfilled in their own time.
Against Heresies 5.30 is an interesting passage because it deals with the subject of the number of the beast which has dogged scholars and commentators down through the ages. It shows us that, even at that early point in Church history, there were still certain passages which were held up as being more intriguing than others.
Irenaeus begins (5.30.1) by griping at the division which existed amongst believers as to the number which was original, the choices being either 666 or 616 and assessing the latter’s appearance in the manuscripts of his day as being due, possibly, to a copyist’s error. He also points out that many had insisted upon 616 as original simply because it served them better in their assessment of who the antichrist would be - note that he doesn’t say that it gives them illumination as to who it was but as to who it would be.
Then he goes on (5.30.2) to urge upon the dissenters patience in waiting for the fulfilment of the matter. He writes
‘...let them await, in the first place, the division of the kingdom into ten; then, in the next place, when these kings are reigning, and beginning to set their affairs in order, and advance their kingdom, [let them learn] to acknowledge that he who shall come claiming the kingdom for himself, and shall terrify those men of whom we have been speaking, having a name containing the aforesaid number, is truly the abomination of desolation’
Again, Irenaeus makes no bones about stating unequivocally that the time of the final rebellion still lay a way into the future (even if he might have believed that it was to occur within his own generation) and even goes on to identify the beast as being of Jewish origin and coming from the tribe of Dan (which we’ll say more about in a later section).
In 5.30.5, he also states that
‘It is...more certain, and less hazardous, to await the fulfilment of the prophecy, than to be making surmises, and casting about for any names that may present themselves, inasmuch as many names can be found possessing the number mentioned’
something which not only shows the generally accepted non-fulfilment of the Book but equally should have served as a warning to all who have come after him. After going on to discuss the various fulfilments of 666 in the names of his own day, Irenaeus concludes that
‘We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen [or ‘For he was seen’] no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign’
Again, towards the end of Domitian’s reign - that is, towards the end of the first century AD - even the author was unknowing as to the positive identification of who the number 666 referred to. Whether we accept the testimony of Irenaeus as to John’s testimony here or not is not too important - what is important, however, is that it was accepted that the fulfilment of the prophetic vision had not yet taken place so that, whether we propose a pre-66AD or post-70AD date, the early Church didn’t see it’s fulfilment in the time which had been assigned to them by the vision itself (Rev 22:6 - see also my comments on Rev 22:6-21 where I’ve shown that the passage is full of references to the imminency of the vision).
Finally, 5.30.4 also states the basis of non-fulfilment, concluding that the name has not been made known because the beast, being known, might not then come (not bad logic, I guess - if people know who the beast is, why would he come to that generation? Therefore the number was given that his identity might be disguised until the moment necessary when a positive identification is needed by the Church).
Present day scholars and believers would probably take exception to a lot of Irenaeus’ exposition of Scripture - and, judging by some of the things which he writes, we’d be fairly justified. After all, he consigns the fulfilment of the Book of Revelation to a yet future time even though John writes plainly that those things written down were for a fulfilment ‘soon’.
Nevertheless, his testimony is certain enough that, even by c.180AD, the Church didn’t believe that the Book had as of yet been fulfilled and the indication is that, if the record of John’s comments on the number of the beast is even half true, neither did the original author.
Those who would tie in the Book of Revelation to a pre-66AD date and then look to a fulfilment of it in the events of the first Jewish rebellion of 66-73AD have to deny the fact that the early Church didn’t view it as such. On the one hand, we have the clear statement that the events were to take place imminently and, on the other, that they were not considered to have taken place by the close of the first century.
It seems to be with some justification, therefore, that we consider the prophecy of Revelation to have been conditional which, in reality, is nothing short of what all other prophetic statements are (whether they can be indefinitely or temporarily postponed or abandoned totally).
4. A ‘behind the scenes’ look
The word ‘Revelation’ (Strongs Greek number 602) is not an unusual word in the NT even though it’s certainly not one of the most common. There’s no doubt that, in the context in which it’s used, the idea is that something which has remained hidden is about to be made known to the people to whom the letter comes.
We would have done well, however, had we carefully considered the position of John as he committed to writing those things which he was observing.
We can accept that Revelation 1:1-3:22 - that is, the first three chapters in their entirety - not only occurred ‘on earth’ but that they were also recorded there as well. But the author changes position with the advent of Rev 4:1 and the commentator often misses the implication which lies behind it.
The voice of Jesus commands John to
‘Come up hither [into Heaven] and I will show you what must take place after this’
so that, from Rev 4:2 onwards, John is observing events often as they’re transpiring on earth but as they appear to an observer who’s sat in Heaven. It’s something like the difference in observation one would have if one was sat in an audience watching a stage show and then were to go back stage and watch the entire performance over again from a totally different position.
As part of the audience, you’d see a man fly across the stage on steel wires which would probably blend into the background so much that you’d think he had real wings. Back stage, however, all you’d see is a few stagehands pull on some wires and then set them down after a few moments.
Watching the play, you’d see the characters enter the stage and deliver their lines - back stage, you’d only see them exiting the stage and the dialogue which might be overheard would be totally different from that which the audience would hear.
It has to be realised, therefore, that what John sees and records might not be accurate descriptions of literal reality as it will appear on earth even though it’s a truthful representation of those things which he witnessed from Heaven’s perspective.
One wonders, therefore, if anyone should ever attempt a commentary on the Book for there are a great many problems with an interpretation which seem not to be able to be adequately dealt with as one approaches each Scripture. Even the plain statement concerning the cross (Rev 5:3 - see a future section) is often missed by readers and one wonders if such a simple observation as this fails to be perceived then what chance do any of us have with the rest of the not-too-easy passages?
From Rev 4:1, therefore, until the end of the Book, the commentator must walk a minefield - and it’s probably the clearest reason why anyone who writes a commentary on the Book of Revelation can be guaranteed to be more wrong than right in what he commits to writing before he ever begins.
I risk calling chapter 1 ‘The Introduction’ because it conjures in the mind the idea of something which can be skimmed over to get to the real meat of the piece. I know that, when my wife and I first married, I used to emphasise repeatedly the introduction of books that she was reading so that she could get a better understanding of the reasons for its writing and the course that the writer was likely to take through the information that he’d researched to present in the book.
I don’t say that by way of criticism, of course, only to point out that, unless one reads every bit of the book, one can think that it’s often unbalanced because it deals with certain issues at the expense of others.
This would be going too far when we turn to the Scriptures and even a brief glimpse at the contents of chapter 1 is enough to make us realise that a lot of what occurs here is repeated in later chapters - especially the descriptions of the glorified Jesus Christ which find their way into most of the letters of chapters 2 and 3.
All of these begin with a description of Jesus, most drawing on the description given us in Rev 1:12-20 though this is by no means exclusively true. Both Philadelphia and Laodicea at the end use none of this imagery (even though a ‘key’ is mentioned in the former of these two letters).
Various other sources are taken for the descriptions - even earlier verses in chapter 1. Many have specific relevance to the type of message that Jesus is bringing to them and it’s important that, wherever possible, we incorporate the reason for their use into an interpretation of the passage - they aren’t ‘little extras’ added to make the letters more colourful but integrated descriptions which enforce and back up the words of Christ which follow.
The introductory chapter 1, therefore, mustn’t be ignored. Although I’ve dealt with a few of the statements in this chapter within my previous introduction to the entire Book, there are still a number of observations which need to be made. We’re still on earth at this stage, though, and the interpretation of the passage is as straightforward as one would have expected.
The reader only needs to exit from this web page and read the chapter to see what I mean - while we may not fully understand each and every description of Jesus, for instance (Rev 1:12-16), there’s no doubt about what’s going on in broad terms. John simply introduces himself to the churches to whom he’s writing (Rev 1:4-7) and then begins with how the work began for him also - a visitation from Jesus Christ and the commission to write what he saw (Rev 1:9-20).
But, we’re going too fast for we’ve missed out the opening few words. It seems likely that these first three verses weren’t written by John at all - indeed, it seems more than likely that, at a very early date, these words were written to accompany the scroll on its rounds or, perhaps better, as an explanation for the person who unrolled it to know what the contents were. There’s a routeway being mentioned here if one reads carefully the words for it appears that the origin and destination are both recorded.
The Father is spoken of as giving the revelation to Jesus who, passing it on to the angel, made it known to John. John was then commanded to declare the words to the seven churches of Asia Minor and, ultimately, the author of the first three verses now finds the scroll in his hand - as the copyist who’s faithfully recording what has been written. The path of revelation, then, is accurately recorded as
God (the Father) -› Jesus -› Angel -› John -› Seven Churches -› Me
where ‘Me’ is the copyist as representative of all who read it. In this series of baton changes, the reader is given all he needs to know about both the origin and transmission of the work being started. We noted above, however, that the ‘Me’ seems to have been limited to the localised area of Asia Minor until quite late on if we’re right in taking the lack of comment on the Book from the writings of Ignatius.
From Rev 1:4, however, the words are all John’s and would appear to be the original work which lacked the explanatory prefix. This would appear to be how John first distributed it or had it distributed amongst the seven churches.
There’s nothing in these opening verses which appear to demand an interpretation that would otherwise cause the entire passage to withhold its meaning. Sure, we may not comprehend what the ‘seven spirits’ are (Rev 1:4), not yet have fully grasped what ‘the first born of the dead’ means (Rev 1:5 Pp Col 1:18) or we might even argue about whether we should read (Rev 1:6) that believers are
‘...a kingdom, priests to...God’
‘...a kingdom of priests to...God’
but there doesn’t appear to be too much which would push us from a simple interpretation.
One final point needs to be made here as it has been the bane of a great many fellowships that I’ve been involved in. Rev 1:10 states that John was
‘...in the Spirit on the Lord’s day...’
the latter phrase being accurately explained by Ozanne as meaning ‘the day of the Lord’ as spoken of in the OT - a day on which God would act in earth history, whether on behalf of His people in some localised judgment and vindication or, as is more often the case in the NT, at the final consummation of the age when all things will once more be brought under His controlling rule and sovereignty. As Ozanne comments
‘The Lord’s day is the subject of the book of Revelation and John accordingly was transported into it at the outset of his visionary experiences’
It isn’t, therefore, that John is being simply asked to record what he’s being told and neither that scenes are being played out before him that are for him and him alone. Rather, what he’s experiencing is a foretaste of the reality of that final time when God exercises His power on earth to defeat everything that’s set in opposition to His will.
However, the phrase ‘the Lord’s day’ is often taken to be an early reference to Sunday (as Hughes, Morris and Mounce) - so early, in fact, that there are no other contemporary records which show that, by the time of writing, the early Church had renamed that day of the week. The identification is erroneous, of course, and is the snare of taking what we presently experience and of applying it to those things which happened long before our own society was in existence.
The same is true of the word ‘baptism’ as I showed on another web page - today, we have differing concepts of the word and imagine that the content of the present day word is in line with the ancient one when, in fact, we’ve changed the meaning to bring it in line with what we want to believe.
As I see it, the only problem against accepting John’s phrase as meaning ‘the Day of the Lord’ is that the use of ‘Lord’ as an adjective is the only occurrence known in the NT. However, as there isn’t so much as a scrap of evidence that the early Church named Sunday as ‘the Lord’s day’ and, even though some make a great deal of the comments that the early Church met on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7, I Cor 16:2) and assert that it had become the christian ‘sabbath’, the most logical explanation in context is that John was carried ‘in the Spirit’ to the time of the end - in much the same way as Ezekiel was taken by the Spirit and brought, in visions, to Jerusalem (Ezek 8:3 Pp Ezek 11:24 [to Chaldea], 37:1 [the valley of bones] 43:5 [the inner court of the Temple]. See also Ezek 3:12,14,24, 11:1).
There’s purpose in seeing John’s reference as being to Sunday, of course, because it begins to elevate one day of the week as of greater importance for holding services to God than others, something which was never meant to become an article of faith. As Paul wrote concerning weak and strong believers (Rom 14:5-6)
‘One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind’
and, stronger than this, Paul commends (Col 2:16) that
‘...no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath’
To the Galatians, he even comments that the observance of special days is actually a denial of their relationship with Christ based on the bestowal of God’s grace and received by faith (Gal 4:10-11). An interpretation that John here means to relate to his recipients that the visions were received on Sunday hinder more than help the believer and it still seems the simplest to accept that John’s statement is one to summarise his experiences as being one who tasted of the final years immediately before Jesus’ return when judgment is to be poured out upon the earth and when everything that’s in rebellion to the will of the Father will begin to be brought back under His control.
The seven churches
Much of this material is adapted from here
Teachers and preachers alike have often taken the record of the words directed to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 and forgotten to place them as an introductory word which precedes the main body of the visions from Rev 4:1 onwards. This is quite necessary - after all, we’ve pigeon-holed the letters to the seven churches until they’ve become a quite distinct section apart from the Scriptures which follow them even though the entire and complete Book was written for the Church of Asia Minor.
In that sense, the first three chapters should serve all readers with a fitting backdrop and Introduction to the entire Book of Revelation - not an after-thought and neither a little bit stuck on at the beginning that are only personal messages. But neither should we rip chapter 1 away from chapters 2 and 3. In my notes on the seven churches (see below for the links), I took time to show how the description of Jesus was woven into the messages which were being dictated (presumably) by Jesus to His servant John.
Finally - and this is a point that I want to emphasise a few times so you won’t fail to miss it - don’t forget that chapters 1 through 3 are an integral part of Jesus’ message to His Church in Asia Minor and that, before we try and apply any of the verses throughout Revelation to present day situations (for example, the number of the beast in Rev 13:18) we must understand them in their first century, Asia Minor, context - not in the context of the Roman Empire (except where it is relevant to the area in question) and neither to Israel (except where obvious and necessary).
1. Why these seven churches?
Firstly, Jesus’ command in Rev 1:11 that John is to
‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches...’
need not be taken with the emphasis that I’ve placed upon it here. The Greek does not force the point that, in English, we may read the words as implying that there are just seven churches situated in Asia Minor.
Besides, it’s fairly certain that there were other churches in the area that were continuing to maintain a witness for the Lord. Col 4:13 notes Hierapolis as having a christian community at the time of Paul and the existence of the letter from which it comes is evidence enough that there was also a fellowship at Colossae.
When Ignatius travelled through this area at the time of the close of the first century, he wrote to a church at Magnesia - also in Asia Minor - whose origin could be reasonably considered to be before the writing of the Revelation.
Therefore, though there were certainly other fellowships in various cities within the region, why did Jesus only choose these seven? Is the number seven purely symbolic as is used throughout Revelation for various other items and occurrences?
We could conjecture many things but, very simply, we don’t know. Perhaps these seven churches were the only ones that Jesus wanted to say anything to?
Perhaps they were considered to be the seven most important churches in the area by Jesus (notice that Jesus speaks of them and not John who is usually attributed with being the overseer of the work of Christ in this area)? Perhaps, amongst the Asia Minor church, this list of seven were the ones who were considered to be representative of the whole or that each one had jurisdiction over an area that was specifically defined in which they were to spread the Gospel?
All or none of these could be correct - but the seven would probably have had some specific significance of which we, nineteen centuries on, are unaware.
2. Why write the letters in this order?
There are some things that can be said about the order and some other things that are best left unsaid. Commentators normally point out that the writing of the letters is in the most logical order if one were to travel round them starting at Ephesus - though that is partly true, it isn’t an absolute.
Firstly, John (whoever this John may be - church tradition holds that it was the John who was one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus who is regarded as having the oversight of the move of God in the area of Asia Minor) indicates that he was on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9), possibly imprisoned within the penal colony located some 60 miles or so south-west of the city of Ephesus in the Aegean Sea. What John actually writes (‘[I] was on...’) could indicate that, although he received the Revelation while on the island, he was recording it having now left - church tradition, however, normally sees John as having both received and written it while exiled away from Asia Minor.
Zondervan describes Patmos as
‘...a mountainous island of irregular outline, measuring approximately six by ten miles’
before contrasting ancient reports which speak of it both as a dry and desolate area and as an island covered with palm trees or terebinth.
If one was to travel from Patmos on a tour of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, the most logical first port of call would be Ephesus. True, one could sail directly from Patmos to Miletus and then overland to either Ephesus or Laodicea but, if time was of the essence, a direct voyage to Ephesus would be the most logical. Smyrna, the other port on the western coast of Asia Minor, lay to the north round a headland which jutted out into the sea some sixty miles west of a line drawn between the two cities, thus hindering a quick and easy voyage.
So, we can be certain that Ephesus would necessarily be the first church to have been reached if a journey was to be undertaken. But the decision as to which church was to be second cannot be answered by reference to the theory that the churches were visited in the most logical order.
From Ephesus, there were two main roads that could have been used to provide an easy ‘circuit’ - either the one which headed almost due north towards Smyrna (the route that Jesus uses in His dictation) or the one which headed almost due east, up the Maeander valley, to arrive at Laodicea, Colossae and Hierapolis (see on Laodicea for the significance of these three cities in the interpretation of the letter).
Both routes appear to be logical and I can see no reason why one should have been preferred above the others apart from, perhaps, by arriving at Laodicea last, it was possible to gain access into the interior of Asia Minor and then beyond, ultimately arriving in Israel. The alternative route not chosen by Jesus would finish the journey in Smyrna, a port from which a ship could be hired to sail to just about anywhere from Athens to farther afield places such as Rome (the explanation which offers that it was done logically in a clockwise direction is a bit of a misnomer as there was no ‘clockwise’ until much later!!!).
So, although the first church visited is logical, the second and seventh do not appear to have anything that indicates to us why Jesus chose one route above the other. However, that He did choose a route is significant in that He’s not listing the fellowships in order of importance in His mention of them. Above that, there doesn’t appear very much we can adequately say about the route chosen.
3. Prophetic messages?
There are various different ‘systems’ (for want of a better word) that are employed when the letters to the seven churches are interpreted. While I don’t intend going in to these structures, it has to be pointed out that the most important thing for a commentator to do is to attempt to come to terms with the messages as written to the respective churches of their day and not with any other hidden agenda at the back of their minds.
Many have tried to interpret them in the light of subsequent Church history, following the different ages of the Church through to correspond with the characteristics of the letters in the order they were written - but this does pull away from a plain and simple interpretation and it denies that, when Jesus said (Rev 1:11)
‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches...’
He actually meant them to understand something relevant to their own plight and situation.
If there is a secondary meaning then let us hope that we don’t miss out on what ‘the Spirit is saying to the churches’ but, primarily, we would be doing an injustice to the text if we failed to apply Jesus’ words to the fellowship of its time.
Therefore, when I studied these letters, I totally removed any concept in my own viewpoint that would see them as futuristic prophecies in order that I might try and arrive at what they originally meant for the people of their time.
For those interested, my commentaries on the letters can be found in the following places:
Who is worthy?
The scene changes - from what was earthly and straightforward to heavenly and viewed through the eyes of an observer who sees what Heaven sees. This is the most important crux of the Book of Revelation - though the previous words have been concerned with a Heavenly message spoken to a recipient on earth, it now changes to one spoken to a recipient in Heaven.
What John sees, therefore, is not necessarily what those on earth will see - indeed, it’s not at all what earth will see even though many commentators have taken what’s now recorded as more literal than either symbolic or inexplicable.
I don’t believe that the churches to whom this message came were completely dumbfounded by the contents of what was being brought to them, otherwise why would Jesus command the letter to be written for the benefit of His followers? Nevertheless, because we’re so far removed from the context of first century Asia Minor, much of the text will become inexplicable, I believe.
Not so, though, the passage which begins here with Rev 4:1 and which continues until Rev 8:1. Even though it’s a record of something which was witnessed in Heaven, the broad interpretation of the contents seems to be far from hidden.
I said at the beginning that I don’t want to get hung up on minute details - so I’ll neglect from attempting an interpretation of the twenty-four thrones and elders (Rev 4:4), the sea of glass (Rev 4:6) and the four living creatures which stand on each side of the Throne of God (Rev 4:6-8), the latter of which was taken by the early Celtic Church to be representative of the four Gospels.
These things, though important, are not necessary to a broad overview of the Book. We can summarise Revelation chapter 4, then, as simply a setting of the scene for John, as a revelation of what it’s like in Heaven where God declares His will and sees it done by those who serve Him.
Chapter 5, though, gets to the bottom of why John’s been invited there, for the dilemma which faces God Himself at its outset is to find a satisfactory answer to the question (Rev 5:2)
‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’
God, then, is looking for a man who’s worthy to end the world and to bring to a conclusion all that has been pointed towards. The reader will, perhaps, consider my assertions to be going a little too far for nowhere in the text do we read of the detail as to what the scroll contains or of what each of the seals is meant to do.
But the breaking open of the seals in Rev 6:1-8:1 will be shown in the next section to be closely paralleled in the statements of Jesus concerning the end of the age (Matthew chapter 24). Because Rev 8:1 is the conclusion of the ‘end game’, the one who opens the seals is also the One who is in control of God’s final ‘play’ in which He brings all Creation back under His sovereign control.
Just as God created the world and crowned it with mankind (Gen 1:26-28) so now also He has determined to bring it to a conclusion through the agency of man and crown it with the one Man who will have everything in subjection to Him (I Cor 15:24-28, Heb 2:8-9).
Therefore, God is looking for a man and, initially, He finds no one...or does He? There’s a deliberate cryptic reference in Rev 5:3 to an event in world history that often goes unnoticed.
Many years ago, I was working on a series of meetings with a fellow worker and were taking breakfast with the Pentecostal minister who’d been invited to speak. He posed us a conundrum which had both myself and my friend totally stumped.
He asked us to read Rev 5:2-4 out which we did. For those of you who don’t have a Bible handy, it runs
‘...I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”. And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it’
Then he asked us a question. He said
‘You agree that the One who’s found to be worthy to open the scroll is Jesus?’
We both nodded our agreement. After all, we both knew the Scripture which immediately followed which said that
‘...the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that He can open the scroll and its seven seals’
and the identification of Jesus as the Lion and the Root were beyond dispute. Then he continued
‘Now, if Jesus has always existed even before time began - and, being God, there was never a time when He wasn’t in existence - what happened to Him when it says that He couldn’t be found either in heaven, on earth or under the earth?’
Well, it left us speechless. We thought about it but couldn’t fathom the answer. After all, if they’d looked for Jesus everywhere but couldn’t find Him, didn’t that mean that He wasn’t anywhere? And did that mean that this Pentecostal minister was saying that there was a time when Jesus was not?
Thankfully, he explained himself after we’d looked totally bewildered. He pointed out that the Scripture didn’t actually say that they’d looked everywhere. It said that they’d looked on earth, under the earth and in Heaven - but they’d not looked between Heaven and earth, the very place that Jesus was suspended when He hung on the cross to die for the sins of His people.
(The minister then went on, I recall, to ask us which man in the Bible is recorded as having no father. Thinking that this was another great revelation, we thought long and hard, offered a couple of names and then were told that we were both wrong. It was Joshua, he said, because he was recorded as being the ‘son of Nun (none)’. Needlesstosay, it didn’t undermine the truth of his first conundrum.)
In other words, the cross was the place where Jesus won the right as a Man to be able to take the scroll from the hand of the Father and to open it to bring the age to its fulfilment in Him. Therefore one of the elders urges John not to cry because Jesus has been found because He has conquered (Rev 5:5) and that, when He appears (Rev 5:6), He’s seen in the form of
‘...a Lamb...as though it had been slain...’
both of which are descriptions of the work of the cross. And, more than this, when He takes the scroll from the hand of the Father, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders proclaim Him worthy to take it and to break the seals (Rev 5:9) because
‘...Thou wast slain and by Thy blood didst ransom men for God...’
All that John is witnessing, then, is the selection of the One who’s worthy to bring to a conclusion the Father’s plan and that His worthiness is based squarely upon the offering of Himself up to God in self-sacrifice. As such, Revelation chapters 4 and 5 are pivotal in the outworking of what will immediately follow for the reader isn’t left to think that God is, somehow, acting impersonally by His power but that He’s chosen mankind’s representative to conclude the history of the people of whom He’s an integral part and by whom He also brought into existence them all at the very beginning of time.
It’s very easy for us to get side-tracked into minor issues and to over-interpret those items which seem to us strange or fanciful - but all that’s contained within the two chapters is only there to assert that God has found Someone to act on His behalf to bring world history to an end.
The end of the age
Much of this material is adapted from here
In the RSV, Rev 6:1 is separated from the conclusion of chapter 5 by an empty line which gives the reader the impression that the writer is beginning once again on a new theme - but this is far from the truth. The unity with what’s preceded it is assured when we read John’s opening words (Rev 6:1) that continue by announcing that he
‘...saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals...’
What John had witnessed as the ‘selection process’ in chapters 4 and 5 now begins to be outworked in the opening of the seven seals which reaches its climax with Rev 8:1. These seals seem to be a concise clock of the last few years of fallen mankind’s control of the earth and the parallels with Matthew chapter 24 are seemingly close enough to pull away from the assertion that they’re passages which refer to two totally separate and distinct series of events.
The seven seals, then, are the ‘countdown’ to the end of the age at which time the visible Kingdom of God and of His Christ will be fully and finally established on earth, but they don’t appear to be events which are necessarily equally spaced. Besides, as we read them, it seems more logical to see them as covering a significant length of time as some of the seals appear to be the consequence of the ones that precede and time is needed for the effect to ‘cut in’.
1. The first five seals
The first seal (Rev 6:1-2) releases one on the earth whose desire is for world dominion. There’s nothing like this in Matthew chapter 24 but it adds to the picture of world unrest by noting that it isn’t to be thought of in terms of naturally occurring trouble - rather, there’s a specific cause which lies behind it. Whether we’re to think of one human individual as being responsible or whether the rider is meant to symbolise a spirit which incites world-wide unrest is unclear. This isn’t the point, however - what’s important to grasp is that there’s an impulse and motivation which comes upon the inhabitants of the earth which propels them to give up what peace they had and to exchange it for conquest.
It could be levelled that the two verses actually say nothing about war but the interpretation that this is what’s being conveyed seems to come from the seals which follow as a natural consequence.
The second seal (Rev 6:3-4) speaks of peace being withdrawn from the earth so that war follows (the vision, therefore, speaks of something universal rather than limited to just Asia Minor where the churches were established) - either a result of seal 1 or one that is to go hand in hand with it. Not only is the impulse to wage war given, but the restrictions placed upon men is also removed. Mtw 24:6-7 is the parallel passage but it has to be noted that Jesus stated that these ‘signs’ were, in effect, no signs at all because
‘...the end is not yet’
But the burden of Jesus’ words is to make the disciples aware that there will always be wars so that, when another begins, they aren’t to think of it as something unusual and an indication that Jesus is about to return. There will be trouble at the end, of course, and the seals describe the need for such a time.
The third seal (Rev 6:5-6) brings famine - a result of seals 1 and 2 (Mtw 24:7) while the fourth heralds great numbers of dead (Rev 6:7-8) - a result of seals 1, 2 and 3.
The fifth seal (Rev 6:9-11) describes the martyrs crying out for God to execute vengeance for the shedding of their blood, paralleled in Mtw 24:9. Jesus used the events occurring within the Church as the one true sign that the end was near - that is (Mtw 24:14 - my italics), the
‘...gospel of the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come’
This is to be accompanied by great persecution in which many believers will not only be put to death but will be hated by all the nations because of their association with Jesus Christ (Mtw 24:9). Rev 6:9-11 refers to the ‘other side’ of the grave, therefore, where those slain on account of the Gospel cry out for their lives to be avenged. They’re told that there are numerous believers still to be martyred (Rev 6:11) and to be patient until the full number has come in.
2. The sixth seal
The sixth seal represents the culmination of the plans of God on earth (Rev 6:12-17). The Great Day of the wrath of the Lamb has come in which the prayers of the martyred saints find their answer (therefore, there must be a significant time between the fifth and sixth seals for the words to be fulfilled).
Here we see the return of the Messiah - Mtw 24:29-31 is the parallel passage and there are five specific similarities which demonstrate that these two are to be considered as describing one and the same event.
Firstly, Revelation speaks of ‘a great earthquake’ while Matthew says that ‘the powers of the heavens will be shaken’; Revelation says that ‘the sun became black’ while Matthew says that ‘the sun will be darkened’; Revelation says that ‘the full moon became like blood’ while Matthew that ‘the moon will not give its light’; Revelation records for us that ‘the stars of the sky fell to earth’ and, in Matthew, that ‘the stars will fall from heaven’; and, finally, Revelation speaks of the nations of the earth being terrified by the return of the Lord when it says that they cry out ‘fall on us’ to the mountains and rocks and Matthew tells us that ‘all the tribes of the earth will mourn’.
It may not be very satisfying to the commentator to have to interpret this passage as declaring Jesus’ return at this point in the narrative because there are still almost 14 chapters of visions to go after the seventh seal is opened - but, if we’re honest to the obvious interpretation, there seems to be very little that these verses can be taken to represent other than what we’ve previously read in Matthew chapter 24.
Before the seventh seal is opened (Rev 8:1), two major events take place preceded by the command not to judge the earth (Rev 7:1-3). This opening observation is somewhat puzzling only because it has to be understood whether it might be a reference to the problems which are experienced on earth that are outlined from Rev 8:2 onwards. These four angels are never again mentioned even though Rev 9:14-15 does speak of four angels which are positioned at the Euphrates and who are given power to kill a third of mankind. These seem to be different, however, for the angels there are told to harm mankind whereas those in Rev 7:1-3 are told not to harm the earth.
Those in our current passage seem to be concerned with judgment following the return of Jesus to earth and, although we would expect them to be released to do what they have been instructed to after the sealing of God’s servants, they’re never returned to - the reader has to assume that they fulfil their commission once the brakes have been removed.
The other possibility is that the four angels of Rev 7:1 are meant to be taken as different to the ones mentioned in Rev 7:2-3 who are given power to harm the earth. In that case, Rev 7:1 would be paralleled directly by Mtw 24:31 where Jesus is said to
‘...send out His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other’
This is certainly what transpires in the two main events of Revelation chapter 7 but the exposition of the first few verses is a little strained to make it fit.
The first main event seems to be the sealing of a saved remnant of natural Israel (Rev 7:1-8 - the 144,000) - by ‘natural Israel’ I mean Jews who have faith in Jesus Christ. The number is probably symbolic being the sum of the groups of 12,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel (and not anything to do with twelve being squared as some commentators maintain).
Identification with this number as being a sum of natural Israel, however, isn’t without its difficulties and commentators point towards the tribal names as being symbolic only, representing the true Israel descended by faith from Jesus Christ - that is, the Church, whether naturally Jews or Gentiles. However, if we accept the Book as being primarily relevant for the first century believers of Asia Minor and due to be fulfilled imminently as we’ve previously asserted and observed, a literal 144,000 becomes a distinct possibility while the multitude contrasted with them (Rev 7:9) shows the overwhelming response of the Gentiles to the Gospel when compared to the Jews.
Even the names identified pose difficulties too, for the twelve mentioned are, in order, Judah, Reuben, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin. Questions abound here - why is Levi mentioned when they weren’t counted among the tribes? Where is the tribe of Dan? Why does Ephraim seem to be replaced by Joseph, his father? Perhaps the simplest way of noting the strange compilation of names is to take the original twelve sons (Genesis chapter 46) and to assert simply that Dan is removed and replaced by Joseph - but that still doesn’t help explain Dan’s removal.
In the early days of being a believer, I met up with a brother who’d been thinking along the very same lines and we’d both noticed that the prophetic word for Dan in Gen 49:16-18 first mentioned the tribes’ future use as judges in Israel before going on rather enigmatically to state that
‘Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that his rider falls backward. I wait for Thy salvation, O YHWH’
Paralleling this with the record of the Fall as being through the agency of the serpent and also noting that, about that time, the Ethiopian Jews were being repatriated back into Israel and these were declaring their ancestry as traceable back to Dan, we came to the tentative belief that somehow the tribe Dan might be used in opposition to the outworking of the purpose of God at the end of the age in a way which debarred them from being numbered among God’s people.
Just recently, confirmation of this position was discovered by myself in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies (5.30.2) who, although he uses a somewhat strange passage to identify the antichrist which he equates as being the same as the beast (Jer 8:16 - it appears to be a passage which dealt with the overthrow of Judah and the advance of the army which would overcome the city of Jerusalem), it does show that the idea of his origin was associated with Dan even that early in the Church’s history.
Irenaeus writes that
‘...Jeremiah does not merely point out his sudden coming, but he even indicates the tribe from which he shall come, where he says, “We shall hear the voice of his swift horses from Dan; the whole earth shall be moved by the voice of the neighing of his galloping horses: he shall also come and devour the earth, and the fulness thereof, the city also, and they that dwell therein”. This, too, is the reason that this tribe is not reckoned in the Apocalypse along with those which are saved’
This doesn’t prove anything, of course - but it does remain interesting seeing as both of us who stumbled into these types of thoughts had no idea whatsoever that just such a position existed in the early Church fathers (some 100 years after the destruction of the Temple in 70AD).
Whether this is actually the case or not, I have no idea - indeed, the more I think about it, the more that our exposition seems somewhat strained. Nevertheless, I’m not aware of any person who’s successfully explained the missing tribe of Dan from the list.
To try and establish that the first century Church of Asia Minor looked to an individual to arise from the tribe of Dan as the anti-christ is impossible, however, and the above is no more than a wild conjecture.
But what does this ‘sealing’ actually mean in real terms? Are we thinking about the resurrection from the dead (which is the obvious interpretation of Rev 7:9-12)? Or of a guard being placed upon them for the judgments which are about to be poured out upon the earth?
It seems preferable to interpret the ‘sealing’ as a means whereby they’re protected from what’s about to occur. The reader should notice that John, standing in heaven, at no time states that he sees this number but only that he hears what the number is (Rev 7:4) so that this total of people is more likely to be those who are still left on the earth and who are there while the judgment takes place. Rev 9:3-4 also speaks about locusts who were to harm all of mankind except those who had the seal of God upon their foreheads (Pp Rev 7:3) and the identification of them as the ones here being mentioned is more than likely.
The judgment which will now fall may be thought to last an extensive amount of time and, as I’ve previously mentioned, we shouldn’t think that these seals which are opened in quick succession in Heaven occur with the same speed on earth. It seems more likely that there can be very great time periods between any two events that goes unrecorded for John because he’s witnessing a compressing of the events into a relatively short timespan.
In contrast with the 144,000 never being seen, the great multitude of Rev 7:9 is seen as being in Heaven and are stated as having come out from the great tribulation (Rev 7:14) which takes place on earth. The judgment which the four angels are told to withhold for a short time (Rev 7:3) is more reasonably applied to the time immediately following the sealing. It’s possible that the sealing is simply the first stage of the resurrection from the dead and that, being symbolic, their number is meant to be included in the following multitude that find themselves in Heaven (if not, we might expect there to have been two resurrections of the righteous rather than one).
Even though there’s a further mention of 144,000 (Rev 14:1-5), it’s by no means certain that they’re expected to be taken as one and the same group of people and the reader is left to hold on to the interpretation rather loosely until the time might come when its fulfilment gives it sense (I’ll comment on their inter-relationship when we arrive at the second passage). Even a positive identification with natural Israel is by no means certain.
The second event which takes place before the seventh seal is opened is John’s testimony to the Gentiles who are before the Throne, presumably gathered from all ages (Rev 7:9-17). This may not, at first, seem warranted because Rev 7:14 states these people as being
‘...they who have come out of the great tribulation’
but, as their bodies are sown in the world and reaped from it at the time of the resurrection of the dead, there doesn’t appear to be a problem. Paul noted in I Thess 4:16-17 the order of the resurrection as
‘...the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air’
If, therefore, these are those who have been gathered out of the tribulation, the dead in Christ must already have risen. The total number which are now seen in Heaven, then, constitute the total number of believers from all points in man’s history. Jesus has returned to judge the world and establish His Kingdom and, even though the judgment is skipped over, it should be expected to be proceeding while John is distracted to witness the scene before him.
When I mentioned this passage in my notes on the Feast of Tabernacles, it was because Rev 7:9-17 fits in very well with the final outworking and fulfilment of the festival which is expected to be completed upon Jesus’ return (the reader should access that web page to get the full background to the following brief notes as it’s not fitting that I should include the entire study here just to prove the point of what I’m stating). There are three (perhaps four) similarities between Rev 7:9-10 and the festival. The great multitudes have
‘...palm branches in their hands...’
which is the lulav that’s used in the celebrations at the festival. At the festival itself, the Jews proclaim both
‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord’
‘Save us now!/Hoshi’ah na’
while they shake them in the Temple courts. But, here, the great multitudes proclaim with a loud voice
instead of the more usual plea for salvation to be granted them immediately, as it’s in the earthly celebration - the reason being that the redeemed of the Lord have received salvation (the Hebrew phrase ‘Hoshi’ah na’ is that which is used to convey the idea of ‘salvation’). The multitudes that John witnesses in Heaven are acknowledging that it isn’t theirs by self-effort but that it’s a gift from God.
Here, then, is a celebration of rejoicing such as never was seen before on earth at the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut 16:13-15) and in fulfilment of the command to rejoice at the earthly celebration of the festival. It will also echo as a fulfilment of the festival for all God’s redeemed.
In Rev 7:17, it also speaks of Jesus leading His own to
‘...springs of living water...’
which is possibly a reference to one of the ceremonies (see John 7:37-39 and the relevant section on the web page linked above). As I’ve shown in my studies on the Festivals as a whole, the Feast of Tabernacles is to be fulfilled in the resurrection of the dead at the close of the age - that John sees the fulfilment in Heaven means that we’re to take it that the event has already taken place and, therefore, that Jesus must have returned.
3. The seventh seal
Finally, to conclude the passage, John records (Rev 8:1) that
‘When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour’
I remember a Dutch believer in my early days as a believer coming to chat with myself and a young lady at the close of a meeting and the conversation got onto the subject of the afterlife and the resurrection. With an air of authority, he announced
‘And of course, there aren’t any women in Heaven’
While the lady looked horrified, I began smiling and thinking that this was some sort of wind up but, seeing both our reactions, he continued
‘No, honestly. It’s in the Bible’
and he gave me the reference of Rev 8:1. I hurriedly flicked through to it and read aloud, just as he was beginning to smile his mirth
‘...there was silence in heaven for about half an hour’
Of course, he wasn’t serious - and that’s not what the Scripture actually means. Rather, it’s more likely to indicate that everything has come to a fitting conclusion so that nothing further needs to be added to it, the age having drawn to a close and Jesus having now been established as Sovereign over the earth (Hab 2:20).
The silence is a mark of completion and of awe before the One who has subjected all things back under His own sovereignty. So, from scenes of loud praise and rejoicing (Rev 7:9-12), Heaven falls silent to the extent that you could hear a pin drop.
Where do we go from here?
As I’ve said above, the reader might find it disconcerting that the end of the age seems to have arrived by Rev 8:1 even though there are still almost 14 chapters of visions to go. But it appears that, to keep the visions together, Jesus revealed them to John in a sequence which would be easier to be remembered. After all, if the seventh seal was opened in Rev 21:1, it would expect much more of the reader to remember what they were all about than if the sixth one was opened towards the end of chapter 6.
There appears to be a deliberate attempt on the part of God, then, to make what is otherwise a confusing series of visions into smaller chunks which can be understood with greater ease. Although it appears to be almost impossible to be able to piece the sections together into a whole, chronological series of events, it doesn’t appear to be too much of a problem to draw the line under certain places so that they can be considered on their own.
The ‘problem’ of Rev 8:2-22:21 hasn’t raised its head until this point for the Book has been laid out logically and, even though there have been places where an interpretation has been difficult, the overall thrust of the message has been straightforward. It’s only when the reader finds the mention of Jesus’ second coming and of the close of the age that the problem raises its head.
Our western minds hinder us in an interpretation by being too logical - we naturally expect a series of events to be written in chronological order or, at the very least, that the reader would be told when certain aspects of the record are to be taken as out of order. The Biblical writers felt no such constraint, however, even if we could determine that they knew the order in which those things which they saw were about to take place. Rather, John records the order in which he sees the visions in Heaven and puts them down as accurately as he can for those to whom he has been told to write.
Neither is the timescale within which John may have experienced the visions meant to be a clear indication that they’ll take place at that speed. So, for example, Rev 6:3-4 may have taken less than thirty seconds to see along with Rev 6:5-6 but, if we’ve understood correctly that the second is the consequence of the first, between the two earthly events there may have been a great many days.
To mention but the briefest of evidence for such a position of seeing the Book repeating time periods at different junctures, I should note the references to the second coming of Christ which occur scattered throughout the book. We’ve already noted the plain description of the event in Rev 6:12-17 and of the resurrection from the dead which accompanies it in Rev 7:9-17 - but there are three specific places after Rev 8:1 which point towards the same event.
Rev 11:15-19 speaks of the establishing of the Kingdom of Christ on earth, an event which is expected to take place on the day of the return of Jesus Christ (Zech 14:3-5,9). Rev 14:14-17 speaks of the fulfilment of the parable of the tares and the wheat (Mtw 13:24-30,37-43) where the two halves of what appears to be one vision should be taken to represent two separate events. Again, this takes place specifically upon Jesus’ return (Mtw 25:31). Finally, Rev 19:7-8 announces that the marriage of the Lamb has come which continues into Rev 20:4-6 where the resurrection from the dead takes place, an event which occurs when Jesus returns at the second coming for His own and to judge the earth.
I should also point out that Babylon falls in Rev 14:8 but descriptions of Babylon - and the details of how it falls - are written down from the beginning of chapter 17 - that is, after the event has already been recorded as having taken place.
I would tentatively suggest, therefore, that the sections which deal with the time of the end of the age (and, it may appear, into a period which is extended a great distance into the future after Jesus’ return) should be divided into seven (not because seven is the perfect number, however, but only because this appears to be the least number of sections needed where ground is covered a second time with different details and applications).
These are 4:1-8:1, 8:2-11:19, 12:1-14:20, 15:1-16:20, 17:1-19:10, 19:11-20:15, 21:1-22:5 and, the conclusion which isn’t so much a vision as a rounding up of the Book’s contents, 22:6-21. The reader may feel that I’ve got the divisions wrong - and, come a few months’ time, I may agree! But they will serve us as a guideline at the very least which can be used to think about the contents and how they might interrelate with and bleed over into other passages.
My initial observations about the work being meant for the churches of Asia Minor and, therefore, to be in need of being placed back into the first century setting of that area is difficult - if not impossible. But, even though the Book might seem closed to us, all which follows was meant to be understood by those who were to receive it.
It may be only me but I find the subsequent visions from Rev 8:2 somewhat difficult - I would rather John have been transported back to earth after Rev 8:1 and given what concludes the Book from Rev 22:6 onwards so that I could say that I had, at least, come to terms with a great amount of the prophecy.
Therefore, my observations on the following sections must be as brief as possible and are meant only to attempt a summary of their content. There are one or two detailed points, however, that need to be made.
The seven trumpets and three woes
I’ve seen some strange films in my day and read some equally weird books - but if they ever made the Book of Revelation into a film and were as faithful as they could be to what’s describe there, it would immediately be boycotted by the vast majority of people but critically acclaimed by most movie critics (am I being too cynical?!).
Let’s face it - the descriptions of what John sees are just downright weird. We may be able to comprehend the general flow of the seven trumpets that follow one after the other but what are we to make of the locusts with a tail and sting like a scorpions (Rev 9:1-6,10) which are like horses lined up for battle (Rev 9:7) with crowns, human faces, women’s hair and lion’s teeth (Rev 9:7-8)? Or of the riders on horses coloured sapphire, sulphur and ‘fire’ with smoke billowing from out of their mouths and bearing tails like serpents (Rev 9:17-19)?
If it wasn’t for the plain statements both at the beginning and end of this Book, one would assume that the descriptions were only there to ‘seal’ the Book so that it’s message couldn’t be ascertained.
Then there are the more natural descriptions of events that have been paralleled by an expectation that they may occur as literally as they’re described. For example, the star called Wormwood (Rev 8:10-11) which falls to earth and infects a third of earth’s waters was taken quite literally to mean that a meteor of some description will collide with the earth, it’s debris cascading into the rivers and seas of earth and making the waters undrinkable.
One could readily accept such an interpretation because it appears less than fanciful until one reads of the other star of Rev 9:1 which could be taken equally as literally until one notes that John speaks of the star as a living being who
‘...was given the key of the shaft of the bottomless pit...’
Is Wormwood meant to be taken as the name of an angel, therefore, for it certainly isn’t without justification that we might interpret it to be something which remains invisible to the earth’s inhabitants but which will have dramatic earthly consequences?
And, again, when the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl first went critical (though, from what I understand of the place, the reactor was never fully stable), it was pointed out by a great many christians that the translation of the name gave us the name of the star which falls to Heaven. Many surmised, therefore, that the star ‘falling’ was only a result of the explosion which had, firstly, sent radioactive particles into the air so that, as they settled back down, they would contaminate the area in which they settled.
While it shouldn’t be said with any great certainty either that the nuclear incident was what was prophesied or that a future accident there will be the fulfilment of the Scripture, incidents like these in our own time show us clearly how easily and unexpectedly the fulfilment of the prophetic passages could come about even when we had no idea what they actually meant a few hours before their fulfilment.
We should continually remind ourselves, therefore, that what appears to us to be straightforward now and understood by recourse to our own culture may, in fact, be totally abstract from the actual truth of the matter. Besides, as I’ve previously noted, what John sees happening is witnessed while he’s standing in heaven and not as it might appear to an observer on earth.
That’s why it seems almost impossible to ever conceive of myself writing a commentary on this Book from cover to cover for one is either constrained to stick rigidly to the text which has been committed to writing (which, therefore, means that it isn’t a commentary) or interpretation has to be placed upon the text which explains what it was that John saw and which, in itself, would obscure realising a fulfilment of the Scripture when it actually takes place.
Hence my reluctance to say much more than point at a few places which seem to warrant a comment. Without further ado, then, let me do just that.
We may give the trumpets a concept name such as the outpouring of the wrath of God but, to be honest, there’s no descriptor given to us throughout this passage which seems safe to use. In Rev 15:1 we read of the seven plagues which are poured out from bowls (Rev 16:1) and these are said to be the final outworking of God’s wrath so such an identification isn’t without warrant. Trumpets were used with a great many purposes in the OT but their specific significance to first century Asia Minor may have been slightly different. However, the idea of a proclamation or announcement being declared is surely not too far from the reason why they were chosen by God as symbols of what was happening on the earth.
What they actually announce, therefore, could be not only the return of Jesus Christ but of the inadequacy of mankind to live righteously before Him - if the events are considered to be judgments upon human civilisation. They certainly don’t appear to be natural consequences of earthly events and also seem to be prompted by the prayers of the saints (Rev 8:3) so that it may not be going too far to see in their outworking a response to the call from the saints to judge the earth for its rebellion against the One who they serve.
We can’t go much beyond this, however.
Whether the thunder, voices, lightning and earthquake are meant to be taken literally (Rev 8:5) are doubtful, in my opinion, but they may simply be a symbol of the fact that what has just happened has radically changed the outworking of earth history. As I’ve said above, the contents of this section are best assumed to fit into the framework of Rev 6:1-8:1 so that events described occur either simultaneously or closely followed by all the events described in the Book. Where to insert this passage is impossible to be certain about but if it’s accepted that Revelation refers to the last seven year period of earth history before Jesus’ return, there should be enough time to fit all the Book’s events into that time period.
After the fourth trumpet, John sees an eagle announcing
‘Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets which the three angels are about to blow!’
a statement which parallels Rev 9:12 that the first woe has passed (after the fifth trumpet has been blown) and Rev 11:14 that the second has been and gone (after the sixth trumpet). As there’s no mention of a third ‘woe’, it seems logical to assume that the seventh trumpet is meant to be taken as the outworking of the third and final one (which I’ll comment on shortly).
The repeated ‘woe, woe, woe’, then, isn’t a dramatic or poetic tool but is used to indicate that there are three woes which are about to follow. Had there not been an explanation of the statement, one could very easily have thought of the eagle’s pronouncement as very little more than a way to draw John’s attention before the content of the message was proclaimed. It also serves us as a warning that, where an interpretation isn’t recorded, we may miss God’s intention to convey a truth.
The sealed of God are mentioned during the fifth trumpet/first woe (Rev 9:4) and, if they’re taken to be referring to those who were sealed in Rev 7:1-8, we would be right in ‘pinning’ this trumpet into the framework of Rev 6:1-8:1 shortly after that point and before the conclusion of Rev 8:1.
There are numerous insertions into a quick outworking of the final trumpet once the sixth trumpet/second woe is described - some of these are quite puzzling. The command not to write the words of the seven thunders is somewhat frustrating (Rev 10:4) though, perhaps, the reason for such a command may not have been, as I heard one preacher say, that it would have revealed too much - it could equally have been that it would have confused the recipients of the vision, even though I prefer the former interpretation.
For our purpose, however, the command to ‘seal’ the message is a good indication that the command not to seal the contents of the entire Book (Rev 22:10) is designed that it could be understood more easily than we can in the twenty-first century.
The statement by the angel (Rev 10:7) that
‘...in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God, as he announced to his servants the prophets, should be fulfilled’
points us towards the return of Jesus Christ to earth and to the resurrection of the dead which will accompany His return.
Rev 11:1-13 seems to necessarily be describing what’s going on in the earthly city of Jerusalem though certain qualifying statements need to be made. The opening two verses are strange from the point of view that John is expected to ‘measure the temple’ especially when we are given no dimensions and, indeed, we never learn if he completes his task (an angel does measure the New Jerusalem in Rev 21:15-17 and it may have been intended that the two were to serve as a comparison or contrast).
If taken literally, the Temple still appears to be in the possession of the Jews during this three and a half year period while the city outside the walls are in the possession of the non-Jews. Josephus records for us the fact that the Temple was the last stronghold in the city and that those who were resisting the Roman army garrisoned themselves up within its walls for a length of time that ran only to a few weeks.
If the Book had been written retrospectively of the events of 70AD, it seems strange that the author would have got such a fact so wrong when there would have been plenty of eye-witness reports.
The passage concerning God’s two witnesses is somewhat strange (Rev 11:4-13) though it’s normally taken to be referring to a fully literal event. Part of the problem is that commentators assume that both messengers or prophets perform their signs in the city of Jerusalem. The assumption appears to be based on the description of where their bodies are laid out when dead, for John describes it (Rev 11:8) as
‘...Sodom and Egypt where their Lord was crucified’
There’s no doubting the identification, the description of it as being both Sodom and Egypt surely points towards the interpretation that the inhabitants of the city are considered to be apostate during the final few years immediately before Jesus’ return - something which may be a bone of contention amongst many believers (it’s possible, however, that they’re laid out in the area controlled by the Gentiles while the believing Jews are described as holding on to the Temple area).
But, I digress. The two prophets’ ministry is taken to be within the city of Jerusalem because of this description but there are descriptions in the passage which may indicate otherwise. For example, they’re described as being able (Rev 11:6) to
‘...smite the earth...’
that those who rejoice over their death (Rev 11:9) will be
‘...from the peoples and tribes and tongues and nations...’
(something which, admittedly, could be a reference to the Gentiles who are in control of the city) but that they had been (Rev 11:10)
‘...a torment to those who dwell on the earth’
We may assume (though this could be totally wrong) that it is easier to lay out their bodies where they were killed than to bring them to Jerusalem from somewhere else in the world - but what we shouldn’t do is to think that their ministry is restricted to Israel but it is, rather, universal in scope. Their resuscitation causes a judgment to be poured out upon the city, too.
This event seems literal - or, perhaps better, half-literal. It’s difficult to know just how literal it’s meant to be simply because, as I’ve said time and time again, John is watching events on earth from the perspective of Heaven.
Finally, the seventh trumpet is blown which, as I commented above, should also be taken as the third woe (Rev 11:15-19 - see Rev 11:14). The contents of the trumpet should make us sit up and take notice but we often gloss over the description and fail to notice that, when it’s compared with the first six trumpets and first two woes, it’s wholly dissimilar.
The trumpets are described as plagues (Rev 9:18,20 - perhaps a more restricted interpretation is necessary which sees the word linked only to a proportion of the events) and, as we noted above, they’re also best understood to be judgments which come about as a result of the prayers of the saints (Rev 8:3-4). The last three trumpets are also known as ‘woes’ but none of these three descriptions, I feel, are obviously relevant to what now transpires.
John writes that there were loud voices in heaven (Rev 11:15 Pp Zech 14:9) announcing that
‘The kingdom [which appears to be singular where a plural might have been expected] of the world has become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever’
where it seems necessary to understand that what’s transpiring is the return of Jesus Christ to set up the visible Kingdom of God on earth with everything that will accompany that event such as the resurrection from the dead, the rewarding of the saints and the judgment of those opposed to God (Rev 11:18). This seventh trumpet, then, ties in with the event which happens after the opening of the sixth seal (Rev 7:9-12) but the problem which presents itself to the reader is that those who are sealed (Rev 7:1-8) are mentioned in the middle of the two passages about Jesus’ return (Rev 6:12-17 and 7:9-17) whereas the sealed remnant (Rev 9:4) occur a while before the event (Rev 11:15-18) in the current passage.
There are a few explanations although I don’t intend going into them here - this isn’t meant to be so much a commentary as some pointers to a general overview - but it may have been incorrect of us to identify the ‘sealed’ in the two passages as being one and the same or Rev 7:1-8 might not be meant to have been taken as chronologically as it appears.
I noted above that neither ‘woe’ nor ‘judgment’ easily interprets the description of this event but, when thought about, one realises that, to those who are left on the earth and who are continuing to live in opposition to the will of God, the return of God’s King and of the setting up of His Kingdom isn’t going to be a joyous event. Rather, it will be expressed by attitudes of grief when the realisation that the wrath of God is fully and finally coming upon them (Rev 6:16-17) even though the events which have preceded the return could also be considered as outpourings of judgment and wrath.
Finally, the description of Rev 10:7 that
‘...in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God, as He announced to His servants the prophets, should be fulfilled’
seems to be described in Rev 11:19 when John witnesses God’s Heavenly Temple being opened (that is, what was once hidden from mankind now becomes made known to them openly) and the
‘...Ark of His covenant was seen within His temple; and there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail’
It’s unlikely that a real and tangible Ark is meant to be understood at this point as being seen by those on earth (God’s Temple and the Ark aren’t mentioned as being visible from earth anyway) - though we can’t be certain, of course - but the symbolism seems to be that the dwelling place of God is now re-established on earth as it was in the beginning when there was no restriction placed upon mankind’s access into God’s presence.
The last four climactic events are the same as those which occur in Rev 8:5 where I noted that it was more likely that they weren’t meant to be taken literally but as an indication that what has just taken place has radically changed the outworking of earth history.
Concluding, we should note that there is little which would persuade us otherwise than that the seven trumpets should be considered to be fully integrated into the previous passage which described the seven seals. Just where they ‘fit’ is open to conjecture, of course, though the final event (the sixth seal and the seventh trumpet) seem to be able to be tied together with certainty.
A great portent
Rev 12:1 throws us into an even more surreal scenario. John, in Heaven, speaks about a great portent appearing ‘in Heaven’. But haven’t we already been standing in Heaven and watching events unfold (Rev 11:16)? The most logical interpretation seems to be that John is conveying to the reader that what he sees shouldn’t be thought of as being ‘on earth’ - the scene changes in Rev 12:13 to events on earth but, for now, the writer is reminding us of where the vision is taking place.
It might also be not too unreasonable to think that John looks ‘up’ to see the event above him (simply because ‘Heaven’ can be taken to mean this - looking towards Heaven can imply simply that a person is looking towards the skies. Morris understands the words this way) and this appears likely when he continues by writing about the dragon being thrown ‘down’ (Rev 12:13).
We should, therefore, understand John to still be standing in Heaven but that the great ‘sign’ (RSV’s ‘portent’) opens up above him and is then played out below on earth at the appropriate point. The writer calls the reader’s attention to it by his initial description of it as ‘great’ and we should, therefore, place a fair amount of emphasis upon it - perhaps even more so than what’s preceded it.
1. The dragon and the two beasts
Revelation chapters 12 and 13
There are a diversity of opinions when it comes to a positive identification of the ‘woman clothed with the sun’ (Rev 12:1) and, dependent upon that assertion, come various understandings of those items which are used in John’s description of her.
Aune lists six interpretations beginning with Mary, the mother of Jesus which, he writes, was often that accepted
‘...in the patristic and medieval periods...’
thus tempting the reader to accept the earliest recorded understanding over and above what appears to be the most likely meaning. His other five possibilities are the Church (as Hughes - who states that what follows proves the identification), the bride of Christ (which he explains as the heavenly Jerusalem which isn’t necessarily a provable equation), the persecuted people of God, an uncertain representation of an astrological figure or Isis, the queen of heaven.
To this list, Mounce adds the idea that she represents ‘the ideal Israel’ though I can’t understand what that actually means in real terms. Morris prefers an interpretation of ‘Israel, the chosen people of God’ which, I presume, is meant to be taken as the nation as a whole rather than only the servants of God within that nation.
I can’t help but think that the identification - and the comment on what follows - is largely tied up with an understanding of what transpired in the following two millennia of Church and world history since the time of the Revelation’s writing. But, as I’ve repeatedly stated above, John was told to commit to writing what was soon to take place and, therefore, what the recipients of the letter should have expected to have witnessed in the majority of their lifetimes.
And it’s to this context that the passage demands to be interpreted. The simplest interpretation here, then, is to see the opening of chapter 12 to be history which forms the basis of the visions which are about to follow for, while it might be accepted (Rev 12:13) that the dragon
‘...had been thrown down to the earth...’
the reason for why this was so is also being described. This means that the situation that exists from Rev 12:7 onwards is the very same one in which the churches of Asia Minor were living. But we’re moving too fast - we need to start from the beginning.
The woman seems to necessarily refer to natural Israel. With this interpretation, Morris then interprets the twelve stars to be
‘...the twelve patriarchs or the tribes which descended from them’
I’m persuaded that this is the correct understanding but, because of the unwarranted detail that most commentators have thrown onto the passages in this Book and which have confused the issues at hand, it seems best to concentrate solely on the main characters and pay little regard to some of the more minor incidentals.
The woman’s travail in childbirth may well also be a reference to the anguish felt by the nation under Roman occupation but the major significance is the birth of the child (simply because travail in childbirth is what would be expected to accompany every woman giving birth) which is taken to refer to Jesus the Messiah.
The text spans both the birth and ascension of Jesus in one short sentence (Rev 12:5) and the identification is all the more certain because of the description that the child
‘...is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron...’
The dragon isn’t, at first, identified but the story continues as centred upon that character from Rev 12:7 and he’s there called (Rev 12:9)
‘...the devil and satan, the deceiver of the whole world...’
His appearance (Rev 12:3) as having
‘...seven heads and ten horns and seven diadems upon his heads’
may well have given the first century reader more of an understanding about his character than twenty-first century man - it may even have been culturally relevant to the authority structure of Asia Minor in that day but, if we stick to a simple interpretation of the dragon, we won’t stray into unnecessary information (Rev 2:13 also notes that one of the churches was sited where satan dwells). A similar description will also be returned to in Rev 17:3,7.
Although I’d certainly expect the features to deserve relevant comment, the fact that commentators are somewhat divided on their meaning should warn us against being too dogmatic with our statements concerning them. But the description is paralleled (but not identical - the number of diadems are different) in Rev 13:1 so that the origin of the beast there mentioned is easily identified.
Before we move on to the second section, we should note that natural Israel is spoken of as fleeing into the wilderness (Rev 12:6) where
‘...she has a place prepared by God in which to be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days’
the last time period being three and a half years which seems to occur in the Book with a fair degree of regularity. Whether this is meant to be a literal time period is doubtful, however, simply because it begins with the ascension of Christ to the Throne of the Father. The Jews of the first century world were certainly under Roman protection even though there were persecutions which befell them (as they have done throughout history) and the majority of them remained in a spiritual wilderness away from the purposes of God in Jesus Christ.
It was the Church and not natural Israel, however, which came under the attentions of the authorities - including the Jewish leaders - and it’s to this that John’s attention is directed from Rev 12:7. He witnesses a great battle in Heaven as the effect of the cross and ascension is applied to the heavenly places where satan had his seat.
So the proclamation that his defeat is an outworking of God’s salvation is a relevant comment on the war (Rev 12:10) but also serves as a fitting record and warning for the present state of the Church on earth who are exhorted to remember that overcoming his work is not only through holding fast the confession of the Gospel but of being unconcerned with the continued possession of their own earthly life (Rev 12:11-12).
John is then shown the anger of satan in suffering defeat by giving his attention to destroy natural Israel, something that he’s unable to do (Rev 12:13-16). Seeing that nothing can come of his initial will to pursue them, he turns his attention towards all those who have also been birthed from the nation (Rev 12:17) where John notes that it concerns
‘...those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus’
It may be reasoned that the vast majority of believers are birthed from the Church or from the Christ but very few could be considered to have come from the nation of Israel. But the Church was born out of natural Israel after the death, resurrection and ascension of the Messiah and so can be considered to be the root from which it’s been formed. As Paul noted (Rom 9:4-5), it was to the Jew that the promises were to be fulfilled but it was to the Gentiles that it fell through their rejection of the purposes of God.
The phrase has particular relevance for the believer of the first century because they would have seen themselves as direct descendants of the believing nation following the general rejection of the Messiah by the Jews then alive.
This, therefore, explains the position in which the church of Asia Minor found itself - with persecution being poured out upon it and yet, all the while, resisting the temptation to deny the One who’d died for them (Rev 1:9, 2:3,9-10,13,19, 3:8). Therefore, the exhortation to ‘overcome’ found repeatedly in the personal messages to the seven churches is here spelt out (Rev 2:7,11,17,26, 3:5,12,21 Cp Rev 12:11).
Chapter 12 concludes (though there were no chapter divisions in the original, of course) with a picture of satan standing
‘...on the sand of the sea’
which is probably best understood to be a picture of his influence being exerted over the peoples of the world, the sand being indicative of multitudes of people (but, having said that, we’re going a bit too far astray from a simple interpretation).
Chapter 13 opens with a beast rising out from the sea, with a description of its external appearance which matches that of the dragon in a particularly relevant way (Rev 12:3, 13:1) so that the reader is in no doubt as to its satanic origin. The logical inference of Rev 13:2-4 seems to be that a world figure is meant to be understood but, if the horns, heads and diadems are meant to be taken as a reference to an organisation, there may have been something particularly relevant to the Asia Minor church which they could have readily understood by them.
Personally, it seems as if the three characteristics are only shown to John so that he’s able to positively identify its origin as being that of satan and may have little or no intended interpretation - so, too, the identical description is offered of the beast upon which Babylon is personified (Rev 17:3). However, it’s clear from this latter verse that there’s something more to be understood from the description (Rev 17:9-14) and that, even though satan has his origin from ancient times, there’s a specific symbolic description which is illuminative for the believer in the imminent future (we’ll consider this passage when we arrive at it in this brief commentary).
Taking the individual as being a real person on earth rather than a spiritual force or organisation (though there are enough hints in the text that an organisation might have been initially in mind), it might not be going too far to expect that such a person was expected to rise out from the cauldron of Asia Minor - or why else would Jesus have sent John to those churches to speak to them and them only?
I offer this only as speculation but, even though news from one end of the Empire could be brought speedily to the other by Roman internal communications, the fact that it’s Asia Minor who are warned concerning this figure may indicate that they were initially to witness the coming of satan’s man of choice before other areas of the Empire were to - and that Jesus refers to Pergamum as being sited where satan dwelt (Rev 2:13) also lends the theory credence.
Whether there’s an era in Asia Minor during the first century that causes the text to sit comfortably, I have no idea. But, even though we know about certain aspects of the area, the descriptions used and how the believers would have understood them to apply may well not be found in the little we know.
The head which had a mortal wound and which had been healed (Rev 13:3) could be taken as a reference to many concepts and commentators have often thought of it in earthly terms - especially as John will go on later to describe the beast (Rev 13:14) as
‘...wounded by the sword and yet lived’
It’s equally possible, though, that it could simply refer to the defeat by Heaven’s armies already mentioned (Rev 12:7-12) and that satan has regrouped his masses for one final assault against mankind. However, the repeat of the observation that the ‘mortal wound was healed’ (Rev 13:12) seems to be underscoring the importance of that piece of information.
It is, perhaps, necessary to think of the verse as being further explained in Rev 17:11 where we learn that the beast is none other than one of the line of seven kings who’s returned - if this is the case (and it’s by no means certain), then the wound would be indicative of having died and risen.
Again, though, this may have had particular relevance for Asia Minor in the first century. If it has any relevance for us in the twenty-first century then speculation of a positive identification would be unwarranted until it becomes obvious as to what Jesus was trying to show John. We appear to be a fair way away from that position, however.
The description of the beast is far from pleasing - especially to the people of God (Rev 13:4-10) - and world dominion seems to be indicated by the passage. His (or her) universal actions against the Church is only an outworking of the power of his source (Rev 12:17), being satan himself, and whether the forty-two months is meant to be taken as literal is uncertain but quite possible (Rev 13:5).
Then another beast is witnessed by John but, this time, it rises out from the earth (Rev 13:11). Whether anything significant is meant to be taken from its different source is uncertain (the second beast comes from the sea while this one arises out from the earth) but partially significant is the description of it having
‘...two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon’
How John could identify the beast as speaking ‘like a dragon’ is an unusual turn of phrase if one thinks that he must be saying that dragons were a part of everyday first century life! Rather, the description seems to warrant an explanation that it ties in this beast with the two which have preceded it.
It would be tempting to identify this beast as the ‘anti-Christ’ described elsewhere in the NT and highly popularised amongst both the Church and secular society but it’s best that we refrain from such a dogmatic identification. Rather, we need to be sure as to what can be definitely gleaned from the words which John records.
This beast, then, appears on the world scene in the form of a prophet to the beast which rises out of the sea. It doesn’t receive worship itself but points towards the one who’s preceded it (Rev 13:12,14-15) with a supernatural demonstration of power derived, one assumes, from satan himself. In this sense, therefore, it’s wholly unlike the anti-Christ who one would expect, by the name, to elevate himself to be the one who’s the saviour of the world.
If we take Rev 16:13 as being a further definition and description of the three creatures or beings from chapters 12 and 13 then the third of these is labelled with the words ‘false prophet’ - an adequate description of the ministry which has been described.
It moves in the same authority as the beast of Rev 13:1 but it appears to be the more dynamic mover of the arrangement even to the point that it commands that no one is able to trade unless they can be identified as receiving the specific mark upon their hands or foreheads which shows their allegiance. I’ll deal with this statement in one of the next sections but, for now, we need only to note what John states as having seen.
To summarise and apply the above to chapters 12 and 13, then, John witnesses events which impinge upon both his readers past, present and future experience.
In the past - but part of the believer’s knowledge - satan had been after destroying Jesus Christ who had been naturally birthed from out of the nation of Israel (Rev 12:1-6). However, through the cross, resurrection and ascension, Jesus had won the victory over all the enemies of mankind, including satan, and, when the victory of the cross was applied to the heavenly places, satan was cast down to earth (Rev 12:7-9), it becoming necessary that the Church should overcome him not only by the victory of the cross but by the determined opposition of their will even to the point of the shedding of their own blood (Rev 12:8-12).
The nation of Israel was also being protected by God through the natural agency of the Roman Empire which was continuing even to the present day of writing (Rev 12:13-16). The present experience of the Church was that satan had now turned his attention to their own number - that is, those who had been spiritually birthed from the nation (Rev 12:17). This was the current position of the Church not only in Asia Minor but throughout the world - under persecution but still victorious through their opposition to satan’s will even to the laying down of their own lives.
What was about to happen in the near future, however, was that one was to arise who would make war upon the saints and kill them (Rev 13:1-10) even though they would still be victorious spiritually by refusing to bow the knee to him. A false prophet was also to be raised up who was to point to the beast by all manner of miraculous signs, causing only those who were in agreement with his will to be able to trade and eke out a living (Rev 13:11-18).
2. Other visions
Revelation chapter 14
Abruptly, the scene changes - we’re not told of the outcome of the first dragon or of the following two beasts that have been described though a future section will tie in more information to the description that the reader has here been given. God’s reason for doing this is uncertain for He seems to cut directly across the interest that’s been generated in the last two chapters but, nevertheless, John begins once more with what seems to be an unrelated vision.
Rev 14:1-5 presents the reader with a few problems but the main effort of the reader should be to try and understand the passage in the context of what’s preceded it.
Firstly, the 144,000 mentioned here could be taken to be a reference to the same number who have been previously described in Rev 7:1-8 who are sealed by God with a mark before the time of great trouble is to descend upon the earth. They would, then, stand in marked contrast to the rest of the world who have received the beast’s mark, having themselves received the Divine mark (Rev 14:1) - and both sets of people are mentioned as being marked on the forehead, though the first group might also have it upon their hands.
It’s interesting to note that their voice comes to John ‘from Heaven’ (Rev 14:2) and that they’re described as having been ‘redeemed from the earth’ (Rev 14:3) even though the mention of Mount Zion would naturally direct the reader’s attention to that place on earth within Jerusalem. For this reason, it may appear that the two places where the number is mentioned should be understood to be representative of different groups of believers but, perhaps better, it could be taken as a reference to the same group of believers but which are observed at different times at the end of the age.
That the number in Rev 7:1-8 are specifically sealed on earth whereas those here are observed as speaking from Heaven, is also indicative of this latter possibility but this might be no more than a description of where their worship is being offered rather than a statement about their temporal location - after all, John records that they follow Jesus wherever He goes (Rev 14:4).
This latter passage, then, can be considered to be mentioning the number described in the former.
The description of the number as being chaste (Rev 14:4) has also caused problems and there are many who would take the description as literal. The Greek here which is translated ‘chaste’ by the RSV (Strongs Greek number 3933) is that which more literally means ‘female virgins’, an unusual description to use. In the light of the spiritual adultery of the rest of the world’s inhabitants, however (Rev 13:5-15), it seems to be readily understood as indicative of spiritual chastity, of sole commitment to Jesus Christ in the face of a great time of trial.
The next vision is of an angel in midheaven (Rev 14:6-7) who carries with Him the Gospel - except that the content of His message is far from the typical call to salvation that the Church bears. For this reason, one should think of the single verse message as a summation which counters the declaration of the third beast (Rev 13:11-16) who has torn away at the fear of the one true God for the worship of the beast which rose out from the sea.
Another angel follows the first announcing the falling of Babylon (Rev 14:8) - dealt with in much more detail in a subsequent vision (Rev 17:1-18:24) and which we’ll deal with at that time. Here, though, it’s fall is announced, presumably, in the chronological order of what’s being described.
A third angel appears (Rev 14:9-12) with a pronouncement of the judgment which will be poured out upon those who receive the beast’s mark. This statement is never proclaimed to those on the earth and it seems, rather, to serve as an explanation to John of the severity of being allied to the dragon’s authority. The warning is spelt out in Rev 14:12 (which seems to be John’s own explanation) while a voice is affirmed by the Spirit from Heaven (Rev 14:13) as speaking about the death of the saints in the context of resting from their earthly works.
Finally, Rev 14:14-20 is seen by John which appears to be a parallel passage to Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Mtw 25:31-46) or, perhaps, the tares and wheat (Mtw 13:24-30,36-43). The first harvest (Rev 14:14-16) - although not spelt out as such - should be taken to be of the righteous, while the second (Rev 14:17-20) of the unrighteous.
We shouldn’t necessarily think of this as being a description of the resurrection from the dead but it’s definitely linked by Jesus with something that occurs upon His return (Mtw 25:31). In the context in which the passage is placed, however, we might think that these two ‘harvests’ represent the fate, on the one hand, of the 144,000 who have remained faithful to Jesus and, on the other, the rest of the world who have sold themselves over into the service of the beast and of his prophet (the reader should note, however, that my interpretation given here is somewhat different to my notes on the Matthean passage found here) - whatever the precise interpretation, these two passages appear to both need the context of Jesus’ return to give them sense.
3. The mark of the beast
Of all the passages in the Bible, this one has to rank up there as one of the most popular along with the verse about Armageddon (Rev 16:16). It’s also one of the most argued about and misunderstood passages when each theory which precedes the former seems to be grasped hold of with greater certainty than the last.
Before I was a believer, I went to see the film ‘The Omen’ when it first came out and remember clearly that the devil child (was he meant to be the anti-Christ or the Beast? I can’t remember) could be identified as such because he had the mark on his own skin. Now it wasn’t immediately apparent to the father that this was the case as he’d bathed him frequently as he grew up but, as destiny would have it (or, better, as Hollywood would), the mark ‘666’ was discovered on his scalp under a thick head of hair that was concealing it.
Of course, the Bible never says that either the beast or the anti-Christ will have the mark themselves but, rather, that the prophet who rises from out of the earth will make those who follow after the beast to have either the name of the beast imprinted on them or the number that his name represents - thus showing that we shouldn’t think solely of a number mark.
But this either/or statement has been too complicated for us in the Church and we seem to have given ourselves over to theorising about what the ‘number’ will be. When I first became a believer, the current theory was that it represented some sort of credit number which, because security would become a problem in the future, it would have the effect of causing plastic credit cards to be discarded and replaced by the 16 digit number tattooed on the skin.
Hence, many believers ran away in fear from ever possessing credit cards and were robbed accordingly by a generation who realised they’d be carrying vast sums of money around with them to pay for their new cars.
Then it became a barcoding mark, similar to that imprinted onto supermarket sales items. One book I saw even had it’s front page depicting a man with this monstrosity of a mark on their forehead. Obviously, it has to be only for men for no female model would ever accept such a disfiguring series of black lines to be placed there.
But - hey! - it could mean that all female models will be saved, couldn’t it?
Also prevalent is the electronic chip theory where an identifying circuit is placed under the skin in the relevant area so that people’s movements can also be detected. Seems to me, though, that, if a super computer couldn’t trace the whereabouts of believers, they could slip undetected in and out of shopping malls and steal just about anything they wanted without the fear of ever being tracked down.
On a lighter note (as if the last few paragraphs weren’t light enough), when I was in Jerusalem in 1986, it was pointed out to me that all the Arab taxis in the city had a license number that was prefixed with the number ‘666’. It seemed too logical, I must admit, for they seemed to drive with a reckless abandon that one would only readily associate with some entity such as the anti-Christ who shows no regard for the sanctity of human life at all.
Incidentally, all these theories fall down in one major respect - they don’t try to understand what the believer in Asia Minor would have understood by the words but, rather, we take present day situations and apply them to the Scriptures. While it’s quite possible that they might have understood a literal tattoo to have been meant, talk of electronic chips, credit cards and the like fall foul of thinking that what they were being told had no relevance to their own lifetime (see the Introduction).
The problem with thinking about the mark being literal is that Rev 14:1 is meant to stand as the antithesis of Rev 13:16-18 and no one I’ve ever read would demand that such a mark given by God to His servants is meant to be taken literally. But, if one is, so must the other be for there’s no indication in the text that they’re to be considered as fundamentally different from one another.
It took me some time to reject all the ideas and theories that were circulating round the Church and think about what the text might actually be saying but, when this is done, the solution to the problem becomes so simple as to make one wonder why it wasn’t seen at a first reading!
I should, perhaps, not have committed these notes to writing for there’ll now be a million and one others who’ll no doubt email me with a disproof and who will feel compelled to show me how a literal number must be intended. But, the reader can judge for themselves whether my notes at this point are rational and worthy to be accepted.
While we certainly shouldn’t assert that no literal mark will ever be given, the simple meaning of the text appears to demand something entirely different and, indeed, something which a great many of the world already possess.
Firstly, we need to look at where the mark is applied. Rev 13:16 states that it’s to be applied to
‘...the right hand or the forehead’
two places of the human anatomy which are used in the OT to symbolise specific characteristics of men and women. The hand is the symbol used to denote what a person does. So, David pleads with God (Ps 7:3)
‘...if I have done this, if there is wrong in my hands’
and observes later (Ps 26:10) that there are men
‘...in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hands are full of bribes’
The list is fairly lengthy of the occasions where the mention of the hand is being paralleled with the action of the person concerned (for example, Ps 18:20,24, 24:4, 26:6). Ps 24:4 uses the phrase ‘clean hands’ for, if a person is said to have ‘clean hands’ then it means that they’ve done nothing wrong. To use the hand, therefore, is indicative of doing something whether it’s inherently evil, good or neutral.
That it’s also the right hand is indicative of the strength of the individual and not something that has been given little thought or which is carried out with little strength.
In contrast, the forehead is used a symbol of an attitude of mind that’s bold to the point of refusing to consider any other course of action as being proper, sticking to their own way and forsaking all the other options. It’s used, then, of stubbornness or, as one commentator translates it, brazenness.
So the RSV translates Jer 3:3 (my italics)
‘...the showers have been withheld and the spring rain has not come; yet you have a harlot’s brow, you refuse to be ashamed’
The prophet Ezekiel records God’s words as using the concept in both a positive and negative aspect. Of the children of Israel, He says in one breath (Ezek 3:7) that
‘...all the house of Israel are of a hard forehead and of a stubborn heart’
and then proceeds to raise up Ezekiel to stand against them by declaring (Ezek 3:8-9) that His work has been to make the prophet’s
‘...face hard against their faces and your forehead hard against their foreheads. Like adamant harder than flint have I made your forehead...’
In these three places, the symbol of the forehead conveys defiance and determination in a certain course of action (so not necessarily implying fundamental thought processes as we might interpret it when understood only from a present day context). However, it implies a definite act of the will, a resolve to follow a course of action whether it be negative or positive.
It infers, then, a mindset that’s in active rebellion against the will of God when used negatively, a mindset that cannot be persuaded to choose any other direction. Very simply, the hand and forehead denote what one does and how one thinks (the latter implying a thought process that will not choose God’s way).
The forehead is also paralleled a couple of verses later in Rev 14:1 where Jesus speaks about a mark having been placed upon the 144,000 who are seen to be in the time of intense persecution of the saints, and the deeds - symbolised by the mark on the hands in Rev 13:16 - is mentioned in Rev 14:13 (my italics) when a blessing is pronounced upon those that die in the Lord that they might
‘...rest from their labours for their deeds follow them’
But the main reason why God only notes the marking of the group of people on the foreheads is because the determination to do the will of God is what lies as the foundation upon which the deeds will spring up. The statement of Rev 14:13 is stating a simple consequence of the internal workings of the heart which won’t be deflected from doing what is known to be unpleasing to the One who they profess to be serving.
If this is the correct interpretation of the passage, then there are a great amount of people who already have the mark of the beast upon their own lives just as there would have been in the society of first century Asia Minor. But there are many people today - as well as there would have been back then - who stop to consider their actions and to try and think through what’s best.
In the scenario presented to the reader, however, the picture is one of a society who has set themselves to do what’s displeasing to God in the stubbornness of a ‘hard forehead’ which overflows into external deeds. In such a situation, therefore, persecution will necessarily fall upon the Church and society will eagerly follow the one who echoes their own stubbornness and determination to oppose God’s will (it can be seen, therefore, that the mark shouldn’t necessarily be taken to be literal but figurative).
Although it’s wrong to state with any certainty that we are in the generation who will go down that track, we should observe at the very least that the leaders we elect are only the ones who reflect our very own natures and characters to a large extent. If we see a leader undermining the will and faithfulness of God in their own lives and yet they find themselves re-elected, it’s only because the society who vote for them see nothing wrong in the characteristics which are being displayed.
The only other consideration which we have to make with this passage is to comment on the statement of John that the number of the beast was 666 - a human number which could be reckoned with those who possessed wisdom (Rev 13:18). Today, the number seems to have taken pre-eminence over the name but John spoke of not just a number being used to mark an individual but that there would be an option of either the name of the beast or the number which symbolised him. We seem to have laboured almost exclusively on the number at the expense of the name.
Both the Good News translation and the Living Bible add substantially to the text and give interpretation rather than translation. Even so, the GNB is fairly reserved when it gives the reader the translation that
‘...the number stands for a man’s name’
but the LB is, perhaps, best to the overall meaning when it renders
‘...the numerical values of the letters in his name add to 666’
It seems that this description was given so that the reader of the church of first century Asia Minor could easily identify the beast because John calls for wisdom to be applied to it, indicating that the solution can be known.
Therefore, is it possible that we could identify the individual concerned? Or, to put it another way, which name in the contemporary society of the original scroll would yield the sum of 666? Hughes notes that this method of summing the numerical values of the letters involved is known as ‘gematria’ and that, in his opinion
‘A survey of the marvellous results which this method is claimed to have disclosed when applied to this passage...gives abundant proof that it is readily amenable to the subjective presuppositions of each interpreter and so can be manipulated to give quite different and even contradictory answers’
Hughes’ list of those identified even has to be generalised to reduce the size of the list. It ranges from Roman Emperors to popes and protestant reformers and it can be seen, therefore, to warrant little attention for the true believer.
If we insist upon a first century identification (as my previous statements would insist upon), it wouldn’t even be relevant to expect it to be one of the Roman Emperors for, though the Spirit specifically states that these events were to soon take place, the fact that they never fully did should be warning enough that the individual concerned might never have risen to pre-eminence and been able to have been positively identified by the churches of Asia Minor.
We should note also the generally accepted concensus (though the differences of opinion are legion) that the numeric values of Nero Caesar’s name in Aramaic can be added to give the reader the numerical value of 666.
Such a ‘fact’ seems to be wholly acceptable when one thinks that the Book was probably written in Nero’s reign (see above where we’ve considered the date of composition) and even Gentry jumps at the opportunity to link the name and the number as if a pre-70AD date depended on it.
However - and this is a very big ‘however’ - Nero doesn’t fit if the Book was written in Nero’s reign for the beast about which the number is symbolic (Rev 17:8 - see my notes on this passage below for a fuller explanation of this statement by the angel to John)
‘...was and is not and is to ascend...’
and it’s apparent that Nero, at the time of writing, could only be described as is and not was. The Emperor is certainly the sixth king currently reigning (as we’ll show below) but he can’t be the eighth because he belongs to the seven (Rev 17:11) and must have been one of the first five if he presently was.
Therefore, however much it might seem plausible to equate the number with Nero, the angel could not have intended John to understand it this way. Unfortunately, then, a positive identification with Nero Caesar as the one who equates to 666 is erroneous.
Hughes’ own understanding of the number is worthy of consideration here, even though it seems to be unprovable. He takes the three sixes as being the mark of a false trinity - or ‘anti-trinity’ - which is mentioned in the preceding two chapters as being comprised of the devil, the beast which rises from the sea and the one which rises out of the earth.
Paralleled in Rev 16:13, we read of this trinity as being
‘...the dragon...the beast and...the false prophet’
which are hardly able to be paralleled harmoniously as the antithesis of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And, more than this, it would be more certain should the Holy Trinity have been described as bestowing the mark of ‘777’ upon those who followed them (Rev 14:1) - either here or in some other place in the Biblical record.
Further, I disagree with Mounce’s statement that
‘...it seems best to conclude that John intended only his intimate associates to be able to decipher the number’
but his observation that it called for ‘wisdom’ must surely have meant that he didn’t expect everyone to understand what was meant by it simply because he felt that fools would rush in where angels feared to tread (a statement which must surely be applied to the subsequent theories which have circulated throughout Christendom in the ensuing centuries).
It seems best, therefore, for the believer to avoid a positive identification but at the same time to realise that there would have been individuals who were part of those churches who would have received the Book and who would have perceived the nature of the statement and, if the individual already existed and was known to them, that he or she would have been positively identified.
More than this is difficult about which to be certain. It should be enough for the believer - having considered what the mark is meant to represent - to be concerned not to develop a mindset which breeds wrong actions that are unacceptable to God. If each follower of Christ did this, the mark would no longer be a point of concern.
The seven bowls containing the plagues of God’s wrath
Rev 15:1 serves as a fitting introduction to the next self-contained section and is a summary of what’s to follow rather than a pronouncement that’s made to John at this point. The seven angels aren’t observed until Rev 15:6 and their function may not have been immediately understood but his header here serves the reader to give him an understanding of what’s to follow.
There’s a clear division between the end of chapter 14 and the beginning of 15 for John speaks of ‘another sign’ or ‘another portent’ but it’s unclear whether he expects his readers to understand what follows as being in direct chronological order or whether, as we stated at the beginning of this web page, it’s seen to both overlap and add to the information already recorded.
Certainly, there are pieces of information contained here that would be meaningless without the preceding passages (for example, Rev 15:2 is explained by Rev 13:16-18 and 14:1) but, because they occur after the initial statements, it doesn’t follow as a logical necessity that they must be considered to be in time order.
But Rev 16:20 doesn’t seem to offer a definitive conclusion for it’s not clear that the return of Jesus Christ occurs here - therefore, if we take this passage as a distinct unit, it’s best to accept it as a section of what was about to happen which has no fixed point either through the beginning or end event and, consequently, it must sit rather loosely.
1. The final outworking of God’s wrath
Revelation chapters 15 and 16
Chapter 15 serves the reader as an introduction to the outpouring of the seven bowls of the wrath of God which are neatly contained in chapter 16. John notes from the very outset that these plagues represent the final outpouring of the wrath of God (Rev 15:1) so that the judgment of Babylon (Revelation chapter 18) and the final battle (Rev 19:11-21) would have to be thought of as occurring by the end of the seventh plague - another indication that a chronological order isn’t being strictly adhered to.
Again, the exact details of each and every item which John witnesses is best left to one side for the sake of trying to gain a working understanding of exactly what’s going on here. However, the identification of the many who were standing in heaven (Rev 15:2) that they were those who had
‘...conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name...’
points the reader back to a few places in the previous passages. Rev 7:1-8 and 14:1-5 were seen above to probably be mentioning one and the same group of people - that is, those who have remained faithful to Jesus throughout the time of the appearing and rule of the beast and his prophet and who haven’t conformed themselves to either the mindset or performed the deeds that were required of them.
Therefore John speaks of them as having conquered the beast, its image and its number. This ‘conquering’, however, shouldn’t be thought of as being bloodless. Although the observation was made that to overcome satan implied not only a willingness to bear witness to the Gospel but to shed one’s blood (Rev 12:11), it should be taken as being equally applicable to the beast who’s of a similar nature and disposition and who rises from out of the sea (Rev 11:1-8) - the description of them both as having seven heads and ten horns was noted as saying this when we first encountered it (Rev 12:3, 13:1).
In Rev 6:9-11, the saints who had already been martyred on account of the testimony of Christ cried out for the outpouring of judgment that their murders might be avenged. Here, however, the conquerors rejoice that
‘...Thy judgments have been revealed’
and should be taken as an anticipation of what’s about to follow through the pouring out of the seven bowls of God’s wrath upon the earth. Their song (Rev 15:3-4) is described as being that of both Moses and the Lamb but the parallels with the former are far from clear and cannot be tied down to any one place in the Scriptures where such a song is recorded.
However, the idea seems to be that the song is a reflection of what Moses believed and lived, and there are snippets of parallels which can be found in the books which deal with his life, especially Ex 15:1-18 where Moses rejoiced before God after the great victory over Egypt at the Red Sea. The parallels, then, are
‘Great and wonderful are Thy deeds, O Lord God the Almighty (Ex 15:11c)!
Just and true are Thy ways, O King of the ages (Deut 32:4)!
Who shall not fear and glorify Thy name, O Lord (Ex 15:14-16)?
For Thou alone art holy (Ex 15:11b).
All nations shall come and worship Thee (Ex 15:18),
For Thy judgments have been revealed (Ex 12:12)’
John then sees the dwelling place of God in Heaven opened (though in chapter 4, he seems to have been standing within the restrictions that Rev 15:5 implies) and the seven angels coming from within to receive the seven bowls of God’s wrath from the four living creatures (Rev 15:5-7). The information that
‘...no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were ended’
is surely meant to convey to the reader that what’s about to transpire isn’t some impersonal reaction to sin and rebellion but that God’s judgments are reflected in a very real anger that makes God unapproachable. Until His anger is satisfied, therefore, His presence has become off limits to each and everybody.
Some of those reading these brief comments on Revelation might be aware of the fairly old chorus based upon the song of Moses and the exuberant tune that’s been written for it. While I have no problem with its singing and use in praise, it should be pointed out that it comes in the context of the rejoicing of those who have overcome the beast, his image and his number and anticipates the outpouring of God’s wrath upon the sons of disobedience.
As David Pawson used to say, the hallelujah chorus in Heaven (Rev 19:1) stands as the conclusion of the judgment upon Babylon and not as an outworking of being granted a new car. For this reason, the believer should consider their motives carefully - if our hearts and lives are so integrated into the world and its ways, rejoicing over its judgment will not be the natural response when God’s wrath is poured out against it.
God’s judgments are ‘just and true’ (Rev 15:3, 16:5-7) - not based upon some unfathomable will or coming from His capricious nature. Rather, in judgment there’s justice - and the final outpouring of His wrath upon the earth is no less and no more than it deserves. And His judgment is shown to be just because mankind continues to harden their heart, refusing to repent throughout the outpouring of God’s wrath (Rev 16:9,11,21).
Finally, chapter 16 begins the concluding outworking of God’s wrath upon the earth and the reader is once more confronted with the problem of whether to take these statements as literal events or as a description of those judgments as they’re seen in Heaven.
Personally speaking, they seem to be more literal than figurative - but they could equally be indicative of events on earth for which these are but shadows or types. Nevertheless, none of these read so strangely that the reader is forced to find something that they might point towards - so human sores (Rev 16:2), the sea and inland waters becoming blood (Rev 16:3-4 - perhaps, changed to something foul rather than literal blood is meant), skin disorders (Rev 16:8-9) and a darkness ‘which could be felt’ (Rev 16:10-11 Pp Ex 10:21) could all be reasonably expected to be the outworkings of God’s wrath.
The way that both pollution (especially that which is responsible for the depletion of the Ozone layer) and nuclear contamination are leading the world into a time which is being prophesied amongst scientists as a time of great trouble is certainly something which may produce these conditions. But the Bible is plain that, even should mankind reap the consequences of his own mismanagement of the earth, these curses are the result God’s activity and seem to be more sudden in their appearance than gradual.
The final two curses are somewhat unusual (Rev 16:12-16 and 16:17-21) because they don’t resemble literal ‘plagues’ as one would expect. The sixth bowl has the effect of drying up the Euphrates so that the ‘kings from the East’ might have freedom of movement (and that’s about all that can be said from John’s record), presumably tied up with the gathering together of the nation’s armies at Armageddon (more on this in the next section).
There may be a deliberate identification of the dragon, beast and false prophet with the kings from the east (Rev 16:12-13 Pp Rev 12:1-13:18), thus giving a pointer in the direction of where their throne is meant to be established - but this seems to be more speculation than fact. However, the statement that the beast, allied with the ten horns, will destroy the harlot Babylon (Rev 17:16 - these ten horns appear to be the place where Babylon has dominion) could be explained by the advance of an eastern power which would find internal allies in a western society and which was dominated by the type which Babylon is.
It’s also significant that the kings are said to come ‘from the east’ for, had the inhabitants of Israel been given the prophecy, John would surely have been told that they came ‘from the north’ - the direction from which even the Baylonians were recorded as descending upon the land in the OT. That they come from the east is another indication, then, that the Book was originally intended solely for distribution amongst the churches of Asia Minor.
The only problem to such an assertion, it seems, is that the seven heads and ten horns are a common method of identification for satan, the beast, and the animal upon which Babylon sits (which, as the reader will see below, appears to be none other than the second of the first three mentioned here) and a harmony of explanation seems impossible.
The idea that the Euphrates needs to be dried up before they have the routeway made available to them is puzzling, simply because it makes the river appear to be a natural barrier over which they’re unable to cross. It could, therefore, refer more especially to those people who dwell around the Euphrates and who are either defeated or removed so that the eastern kings can advance unhindered.
This ‘battle’ seems to be further described in Rev 19:11-21 which we’ll comment on at the appropriate place below. However, as I pointed out, the consequence of the outpouring of the sixth bowl is unlike the previous five plagues (unless one interprets the drying up of the Euphrates’ river to be the result of a plague - it would make sense only if the ‘drying up’ was a reference to people).
This is true also of the seventh bowl but here John notes that the ‘plague’ is hail (Rev 16:21). Even so, with the outpouring into the air, a voice is heard from the Temple which announces the completion of the work, followed by a great earthquake which splits, presumably, Jerusalem into three and brings judgment upon Babylon. Major seismic events are also noted (Rev 16:20) but how literal these are meant to be taken is, in my opinion, uncertain.
While we certainly shouldn’t deny that a literal fulfilment of these events is fully possible to be achieved by God and even that it was expected by the original readers, the difficulty that I noted at the beginning of this web page concerning what should or should not be interpreted as literal causes us to hold fast and to be cautious.
It seems best to neither affirm nor deny literalism here but, rather, to note the record carefully and await illumination as the events unfold. It does us very little good to be dogmatic with such an interpretation.
Rev 16:12-16 Pp Rev 19:11-21
I’d love to have a tenner for every theory I’ve heard about ‘Armageddon’ - the same as for the theories of what the ‘mark of the beast’ is meant to represent. Considering that the place name (if that’s what it is) occurs only once in the entire Bible, it seems peculiar that it should be given so much attention at the expense of other, more important, Scriptures.
For the common man, Armageddon is normally understood to be the place of the last great battle between good and evil but, unfortunately for this theory, it’s normally supposed that man will be on the side of good and the devil will be on the other.
This is far from the truth, however, for it seems plain enough from Rev 19:11-16 that the battle will actually be fought between Jesus and Heaven’s armies against satan and his human armies (as even Cline was able to discern) committed, as they are, against His will and purpose - just as they have been throughout the rise to prominence of the beast who comes from out of the sea and the false prophet who rises out of the earth (Rev 13:1,11).
But even a ‘final battle’ between good and evil isn’t universally accepted by Hollywood who portrayed ‘Armageddon’ as simply a time when there would be an end of all life on earth by cataclysmic events - in the case of the film of the same name, this meant an asteroid on a collision course with earth.
Such theories shouldn’t take up too much of the believer’s time (even though they should certainly be free to watch the film without any religious significance having to be placed upon it) but our own questions concerning where Armageddon will be fought only demonstrate that we haven’t understood the text!
Armageddon, then, isn’t the name of a battle but the name of a place and, even though it’s generally accepted as meaning ‘Hill of Megiddo’, there are still variations which would see it interpreted in other ways. Perhaps the most likely alternative would be ‘place of assembly’ simply because the idea of a coming together of earth’s forces is described in the passage before it’s mentioned (Rev 16:16).
But the ‘Hill of Megiddo’ is a strange phrase when a place of assembly of a vast military force is being mentioned. The hill upon which the ancient city of Megiddo is located is far too small for such a possibility and, therefore, it’s generally accepted that what John must have meant was the great plain called the Jezreel Valley which has been witness to numerous military conflicts throughout human history.
Chilton, however, thinks of the place meant as being Mount Carmel and Megiddo so that a larger area than simply Megiddo is meant. He writes that it refers to
‘Carmel because of its association with the defeat of Jezebel’s false prophets, and Megiddo because it was the scene of several important military engagements in Biblical history’
His assertion that Megiddo is not a mount, however, is not necessarily true for the city has risen as such above the plain over which it looks through successive occupation levels and would have been at a reasonable height in first century Israel.
Cline’s book has done much to categorise each and every conquest and to demonstrate to the reader just how ‘busy’ the Valley has been even from the most ancient of times and certainly upto the present day. Here were fought the battles led by Gideon and Barak (with Deborah) - and here king Josiah lost his life as he went out from Jerusalem to oppose Pharaoh Neco as the Egyptian king pushed northwards in his attempt to come to the aid of the Assyrian forces at Carchemish.
John’s use of the area of Megiddo as the place of battle, therefore, is taken to be not necessarily literal simply because it was amongst the most popular areas visited by trouble and war down through time. Cline sees the use of Megiddo by John as being a deliberate one to speak of the restoration of the Davidic Kingdom which was ultimately ended here in Josiah (II Chron 35:20-25) - his reasoning is that, just as it became the death-knell of Judah’s self-determination, so too will it become the symbolic point where it’s ultimately re-established.
Cline could hardly be charged with a belief in the authority and infallibility of Scripture, however, so all that could be said of his observations is that John might have been shown the area to typify what was about to take place - that is, that Armageddon becomes an allegorical symbol rather than a literal place where the final battle takes place.
The location of the final battle at Megiddo is certainly not without its difficulties when other Scriptures are considered. For example, both Joel 3:2 and Zech 14:2 make it clear that the ‘final battle’ (I use the label loosely) will be fought against the city of Jerusalem and the idea that such a battle will take place many miles to the north seems impossible. It’s understandable, therefore, that Morris observes that
‘...the term is surely symbolic’
But, as we’ve moved through chapter 16 briefly, we’ve noted that most of what’s recorded here appears to be literal so that what John describes in connection with Armageddon might reasonably be expected to be so as well. While Cline’s idea of a figurative interpretation is attractive (and, perhaps, even with what follows, it can be accepted as being part of the truth meant to be conveyed by Jesus - and not, as Cline maintains, the product of John’s furtive mind), it seems to misread the text.
I know that I’ve done what Cline has done many times in my own life - and my web pages can probably be pointed to for sufficient examples of my stupidity in this area - but I have to smile when I read his comments that
‘Some authors, preachers and believers, however, apparently either misinterpret or take substantial liberties with the text as found in the Book of Revelation. Some embellish the simple description of the battle of Armageddon...’
for he holds up groups of people who ‘take liberties’ and then, in the next sentence, takes the very same liberties which he’s observed in others! For Rev 16:16 never makes the assertion that the ‘final battle’ will ever be fought at Armageddon - rather, it simply says that the nation’s armies will assemble at the place called Armageddon.
That is, if we are to take this statement literally, we should understand that John is telling the reader that the valley of Jezreel, at the edge of which lies Megiddo, is the only place large enough to be able to be used for the congregating armies which, if we think about Zech 14:2, will then march upon Jerusalem as noted above.
Far from being the place of battle, Armageddon is actually being offered to the reader as the place where the armies will congregate. This doesn’t, however, make the place any more ‘literal’ because it’s still possible that it’s being mentioned in this context simply for the effect of noting the vastness of the army which the world is putting together.
The description of the battle seems to await expansion until Rev 19:11-21. While it’s possible that what’s there being described is a separate battle, it reads more like the outworking of the preparation of Rev 16:12-16 after which the armies of earth headed by the beast and false prophet - and demonically inspired by satan - march against God Himself.
However, the description ‘God Himself’ must surely be taken as a statement which finds its fulfilment in a natural, earthly enemy that the armies attack and, according to other Scriptures, it would appear to have to be the remnant of the Jewish nation who dwell in the city of Jerusalem.
There are other possibilities, however, which aren’t relevant to the current discussion.
The judgment of Babylon
Beginning his section on chapters 17 and 18, Ozanne writes that
‘Without question, the seventeenth chapter is the most revealing in the book. When correctly interpreted it throws a flood of light on the character of the last times and of the Beast in particular’
a statement which is totally correct though probably in need of some clarification for it appears that it’s ourselves who’ve made a major issue out of the identification of the Beast and so would elevate passages such as these (and those which deal with Armageddon and the number 666) over and above the others.
The aim of the commentator in his interpretation of the passage, however, is to attempt to view it in context and, more especially, how it would have related back into the society and culture of first century Asia Minor. So, to give a previous Scripture as an example, when John speaks about the ‘kings from the east’ (Rev 16:12), we shouldn’t understand him to mean ‘east’ from the perspective of Israel but from the location of where the letter was originally sent - that is, if ‘east’ is taken as a literal indicator about which, it has to be confessed, it’s not always easy to be certain.
Because this Book was given to that group of churches, we have to presume that they were expected to be able to see the events unfolding before their eyes and that they would have been certain as to how both the ‘beast’ and ‘Babylon’ were to be interpreted at the time of the end. The Book becomes confusing only if we try to interpret in to our own era of the present day.
Today, interpretations are legion.
Although I can’t remember where I read it, I do remember the seven heads being developed by one commentator to symbolise all manner of detail that, although it may have been astute, were more a product of his own mind than what appears in the passages now arrived at.
And this appears to be the challenge which goes out to each and every commentator - that is, not to go so deeply into the possibilities of what Jesus might have meant by revealing these things to John and the church of Asia Minor and to stay fairly restricted by the text at hand.
As soon as we state a matter and believe it, it has the effect of blinding us to the actual truth of the matter and to the simplicity which we’ve obscured by our detailed reasoning (something which, no doubt, I fall foul of time and time again).
In the following passage there’s a more urgent need for a lack of detail than there is, perhaps, for any other part of the Bible - simply so that we can sit within what John saw and not propel ourselves beyond it.
1. The beast
Revelation chapter 17
Of first importance is the correct identification of the beast. Ozanne is in no doubt that the beast here being mentioned is the same one as that observed by John in Rev 13:1-10 but, even though he notes the parallels between the two creatures as being conclusive, it must also be noted that John has more to say about the beast who’s seen sat upon by Babylon and that this appears to be a puzzling addition to a simple and unequivocal identification.
Firstly, however, we should note how the beast mentioned is identified as having the same essential nature and appearance of those creatures mentioned in both chapters 12 and 13. Rev 12:3 and 13:1 share the description of Rev 17:3 that the creature being seen has
‘...seven heads and ten horns’
and we noted that such a description, although not being explained in the former passage, had the effect of conveying the truth to the reader that the second beast was to be thought of as one with satan. Even if there were no explanations of what the heads and horns meant, the reader seems forced to interpret all three creatures as being of the same nature.
This beast is similar to the one of chapter 17 - according to Ozanne - in that they both have blasphemous names written on them (Rev 13:1,5-6 17:3), they both make war on the people of God (Rev 13:7-8, 17:14) and they both receive the worship of all those who aren’t God’s own (Rev 13:8, 17:8).
However, the reader should note the passages which have been cited in support of this assertion for the blasphemous names are written on the heads of the first beast while the second is ‘full of’ those names. Second, the first beast does make war on the saints but the second passage mentions the ten kings making war on the Lamb and of the Lamb overcoming them. Thirdly, although worship is offered to the first beast, John records only that the dwellers on earth will marvel to behold the beast of chapter 17 because
‘...it was and is not and is to come’
Far from being a definitive identification, the reader is left to surmise and assume it. While I would go along with Ozanne’s identification, then, I would sound a note of caution simply because the parallels aren’t as obvious as I would have expected them to be.
Besides this, there’re two comments by John which appear to explain that the beast of chapter 17 shouldn’t be taken to refer to an individual but to a large section of the world’s population. He writes in Rev 17:1 of Babylon
‘...the great harlot who is seated upon many waters’
but, when John’s carried away to see the woman (Rev 17:3), he sees her
‘...sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns’
What the angel describes as ‘waters’, John sees as a scarlet beast. Towards the end of this vision, the angel informs John (Rev 17:15 - my italics) that
‘The waters that you saw, where the harlot is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues...’
If we were to run these together - as it seems justified to do - we’d have to conclude that Babylon is a world system (or, perhaps better, a spiritual principality) which rules over kings which, in turn, have been set up over a vast multitude of people who come under their authority and who are, collectively, seen by John as the beast.
However, although such an interpretation fits in with the Scriptures presented, it doesn’t sit very easily with other statements in the chapter which seem incapable of being understood this way. Rather, an individual seems necessary to be understood in the majority of places.
Perhaps what we could say, then, is that the beast which John sees can be understood to be both the people who live under the authority of the kings and the beast itself - depending on the perspective from which one is trying to interpret the situation.
This may tell us more about the nature of the beast than one would imagine for the individual seems inextricably bound up with the people with which he’s associated. Indeed, we may not be going too far to think of the individual as being only the product of the mindset of the people so that, although he rises to power and pre-eminence, he is, in fact, only doing the will of those from whom he’s come.
This last paragraph is going too far, however, even though it remains a possibility that such a relationship will exist. But, moving on quickly before we get too fixed upon this supposition, the angel reveals information about the beast which is, at the same time, the most informative and enigmatic.
At the point in time in which John witnesses the scene, he’s told by the angel (Rev 17:8) that
‘The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to perdition; and the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will marvel to behold the beast, because it was and is not and is to come’
There appears to be phoenix-like characteristics of the beast here being mentioned. The point of time to which the angel is speaking is important to determine because he speaks of the current state of the beast as being not in existence (he says that it ‘is not’) even though it once ‘was’ and that it would again ‘be’.
The point in time may not necessarily be the point of time in which the churches were to receive the letter - don’t forget that John was transported in the Spirit to the Day of the Lord (Rev 1:10). However, that the beast exists in front of John at the time when the angel speaks (and the angel says that it was and is not) would point towards the interpretation that what the angel is saying is that this is how it will appear to John in his own time rather than in the one in which he now stands (otherwise the beast would be described as ‘was, wasn’t and is’) - which appears to be the time which ‘is to come’ (that is, the Day of the Lord).
What the angel appears to be saying is that the beast didn’t currently exist but that it had done in the past. Nevertheless, it was destined to exist once more and it would be at that time that the Day of the Lord would be fulfilled. This seems to be also confirmed by the angel’s description (Rev 17:9) of the
‘...seven mountains on which the woman is seated’
which many commentators have jumped to interpret as being the city of Rome because it’s ancient foundation was settled upon seven hills. ‘Hills’ are definitely different to ‘mountains’, however, and I don’t believe that the point is as clear cut as many would venture to suggest (besides, the city of Sheffield here in the UK was also established upon seven hills - and you can make of that what you will). Even though I don’t take it to be as obvious an identification as others have, I must admit that it seems the only possible interpretation - as Gentry points out, Rome was referred to by various ancient writers as the city built upon seven hills and it’s difficult to see most ancients regarding the descriptor as meaning anything other than the capital of the Roman Empire (it’s also an apologetic why the ‘mountain of Megiddo’ could be taken to mean the ‘hill of Megiddo’ [Rev 16:16] and be referring to that city even when commentators have gone on to suggest that Megiddo isn’t sited on a mountain - neither is Rome sited on seven mountains but it’s referred to as such).
But it’s the seven horns which seem to retrospectively refer back to a positive identification of the seven mountains as being nothing less than the city of Rome.
The angel describes them (Rev 17:10) as also being indicative of
‘...seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a little while’
Again, speaking of the earthly time in which John lived, he notes that the sixth king is currently reigning and that the seventh will only be sovereign over his dominion for a very short time when he rises to prominence. But this isn’t the end of the matter for the angel proceeds to reveal something further about the nature of the beast for he comments (Rev 17:11) that it
‘...was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to perdition’
That is, he firstly affirms that the beast has ceased to exist at this point but that, when it returns, it will be the eighth in line after the seventh king who’s to reign only a short time. It may not be too errant a deduction to assert that, because the heads are numbered seven, the beast must have been one of the five previous in the line of kings so that the eighth isn’t mentioned because he is, in effect, only a return of one of the seven (does that make sense?).
Yet, more than this, Babylon seems to have been sat upon these kings, controlling their reign. The eighth king, the beast, is the one who throws off that domination and so couldn’t be considered to be in the same position as those who’ve preceded him (Rev 17:16).
John, then, lived in the reign of the sixth king - the seventh was to come and to reign for a short amount of time before an eighth was to arise who would be none other than one who’d already existed and, perhaps, who had already been one of the five previous kings.
Many have gone on from here to look at the line of Roman Emperors and to ‘name names’. Ozanne observes that Nero was the fifth in the line of Roman Emperors and that he died in 68AD - even more that there were numerous reports circulating that he would at some point in time return from the east to reclaim his throne (the author points out that the assertions were made that he wasn’t really dead rather than that he would be resurrected or revived).
Ozanne, wisely, doesn’t opt for a positive identification of the beast with Nero - but the reader should note that, should it be imagined that Nero was the one being described, it was the sixth king who would have therefore been reigning at the time of John’s writing and a date after 68AD would be necessary - a time, it has to be pointed out, when the Jewish rebellion had already taken place and the army despatched to Israel to retake the land for the Empire. Besides, 69AD saw civil unrest in Rome and three short-lived Emperors quickly came and went (Galba, Otho, Vitellius) before Vespasian, returning from the reconquest of Israel, was declared Emperor towards the end of the year.
If we were to ‘fix’ the date of Revelation into known world history from Ozanne’s statement, we would have to place the date of the writing of Revelation in Vespasian’s reign (69-79AD) and assume that the year of civil unrest was to be disregarded. Titus would, therefore, be the seventh king who reigned for only three years and Domitian (81-96AD) would be expected to be the eighth who belonged to the seven (but who wouldn’t necessarily have been Nero or his type).
However, there are always dangers with attempting a positive identification with the facts of known history - even my former note that the seven year Jewish rebellion could have been the ‘last seven years’ is no more than supposition - and even more so here because we can’t be sure that the three Emperors of 69AD were considered not to be numbered as sixth, seventh and eighth or that, to the people of Asia Minor, Nero was even regarded as the fifth.
For example, the list of emperors which makes Nero the fifth may also be incorrect because it begins with Octavian (Augustus) and then continues through Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius before arriving at the Emperor whose rule ended before the Fall of Jerusalem. But what if Julius Caesar was accepted as being the first by the writer of Revelation and that Jesus chose to relate the message in his - and Asia Minor’s - own understanding of Roman history?
After all, Julius Caesar’s reign as Emperor was only split from the consecutive succession of the five Emperors (Octavian/Augustus to Nero) by a short period of the rule of the Second Triumvirate composed of Octavian, Anthony and Lepidus (the first one being comprised of Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Marcus Licinius Crassus before the rise of the middle of these characters to one of supreme power and dominance).
It seems more logical (but logic doesn’t come into it at this point) to suppose that Asia Minor recognised Julius Caesar as the first with Octavian’s rule beginning within the Triumvirate and continuing later as sole ruler - and, as Gentry has shown, the ancient writers often accepted Julius Caesar as being the first and even counted the three Emperors of 69AD as being worthy of numeration as well.
That would make Nero the sixth - the Emperor in which John would have been writing - and the seventh would be Galba who did only stay for a short time during the year of civil unrest. The eighth would have to be the beast in this understanding and, to all intents and purposes, it would have been had the prophecy been fulfilled at that time.
It’s much better to opt for this setting of the Book within Asia Minor rather than to think of Nero as the fifth. If this is done - and the seven horns are accepted as being Roman Emperors - the date for the composition of Revelation has to be pre-68AD (that is, before the death of Nero) and, almost conclusively, before 66AD when the Jewish rebellion took place. It would also mean that the eighth which is also one of the first five could not have been considered to be Nero and, therefore, that the mark of the beast numbering 666 has been erroneously applied to him by much greater commentators than me!
Therefore, the eighth king would have been expected to have been one of the first five reappearing and would have begun to rule after Galba. In other words, he was prophesied to have been Otho. As I’ve previously noted above, prophetic pronouncements should never be regarded as being pre-written history (see also my notes on such here) and the reasons for the non-fulfilment of the visions of the Book might never fully be known - but, looking at the internal evidence of the Book, one has to place the receiving of the visions firmly in the reign of the Emperor Nero with the beast expected to have arrived on the scene c.69AD with the cessation of Galba’s short-lived reign.
It should also be noted (even though the relevance of this statement, at the present time, cannot be fully understood in the context of the Book) that FCS states that
‘The province of Asia remained under the power of the Senate, not the Emperor, after the administrative changes which were introduced in 27BC. Asia, however, seems to have regarded Augustus rather than the Senate as its ruler and subsequent emperors were certainly also involved in the affairs of the province’
and also that
‘Augustus generally refrained from interfering in the Senate’s sphere of administration...’
If it was generally accepted that the Senate were their ‘rulers’, would that make the five horns Roman emperors, reformations of the Senate or, perhaps, push the reader to think of them as being more local kings and rulers?
As one can see, the choices are numerous and which one the commentator might decide upon is open to the influence of one’s own preferences.
Whether the beast is meant to be a resuscitated human, a type of the one who was in existence or, as Ozanne, a ‘demon possessed corpse’ is impossible to say. The latter seems unlikely only from the point of view that it appears in the Bible as if demons need a human host to work through - while the beast should certainly be taken as demon possessed, it seems necessary for a human body to be alive during the time of its operation.
The angel moves on to identify the ten horns as also being kings (where the Greek word for ‘kings’ is identical with the one which has preceded it - Strongs Greek number 935) which seems to confuse the issue and their relation to the seven previous kings mentioned. These kings, however, according to the angel (Rev 17:12)
‘...have not yet received royal power...’
but they will do for a short time along with the beast. We might assume, then, that these ten rulers are contemporary with one another and, perhaps, that they’re those who have authority over lands which may even be outside the control of the line of seven kings for (Rev 17:13) they
‘...give over their power and authority to the beast’
a strange turn of phrase if kingdoms are being meant which were already under the authority of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, they’re of one mind and declare war on Jesus Christ - a statement which, presumably, must mean the persecution of His followers and, to a fuller extent, the principles and teachings that He declared. The final battle seems to be described in Rev 19:11-21, after their congregation in the Valley of Jezreel (Rev 16:16). This would point to an identification of the ten kings as being the ‘kings from the East’ (Rev 16:12) and it has to be noted that the Empire didn’t control much of this area of the world which would, again, fit in well with the inference that they operated outside the authority and control of the Roman Emperors - but there’s no definitive statement concerning this and the reader is left to make the rather tentative connection.
But this isn’t the end of the matter for, although Babylon seems to have ruled over the kings of the earth (Rev 17:18), the beast and the ten kings will be prompted by God Himself to turn on her and destroy her dominion (Rev 17:16-17). What mankind had always found security in, the beast will take it upon himself to annihilate - and the saints will rejoice (Rev 19:1-5) at God’s work.
Some of the above points made about the beast should be taken very loosely. What appears to us in the present day might have appeared to those in Asia Minor as something very different. But, as I’ve maintained throughout these pages, that the believers in Asia Minor understood the significance of what was being recorded for them shouldn’t be questioned.
To them, though, the time of the ten kings still lay in the future - as did the coming of the beast. Because we can be certain as to what they knew to be the identity of the sixth king of the seven, we are able to place the Book accurately into its first century setting and, hopefully, find a much clearer meaning for most of the sections that have been interpreted devoid of their original context.
Revelation chapters 17 and 18
Some of these notes are taken from here
‘Babylon’ is not only one of the major themes of the Book of Revelation but also one which runs throughout the entire Bible, seeing as it’s mentioned in connection with the first united rebellion against God and His authority (Gen 11:1-9), presumably instigated at the hand of a certain man by the name of Nimrod (Gen 10:8-10).
No end is ever mentioned to Nimrod’s kingdom. It has a start which continues relentlessly on throughout Scripture, infiltrating the people of God and causing them to stumble.
In Joshua 7:21, it was
‘a beautiful mantle from Shinar [the plain in which Babylon was located - Cp Gen 10:10, 11:2]’
that was instrumental in tempting Achan to disobey the Word of God (Joshua 6:17-18) when the Israelites were in the process of annihilating Jericho. It was a desire for a worldly item that led one of God’s people away from obedience to the revealed will of God.
Satan at one time had his seat in that geographical location as the prophecy of Is 14:11-20 seems to show, which is directed against the ‘king of Babylon’ (Is 14:4). It was Babylon that finally took God’s people into exile (II Chronicles chapter 36) and who were condemned in passages such as Jeremiah chapters 50-51 for their pride and violence.
When the Jews found themselves far removed from the promised land they took to heart the Lord’s words through Jeremiah to seek the land of exile’s welfare (Jer 29:7) so much so that they became entangled in the Babylonian ways and didn’t wholeheartedly return to the land when they were granted permission under Cyrus (Ezra 1:1-5). Repeated warnings to His people about removing themselves from Babylon so that God would judge the nation went unheeded (Jer 50:8-10, 50:28, 51:6, Zech 2:6-8) so that He withheld His hand.
In Rev 17:5, Babylon is called
‘mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations’
that is, the one that’s responsible for slaying God’s servants (Rev 17:6) whether that be removing physical life from them or spiritual. It’s the source of what’s abominable in God’s eyes, and it rules over the kings of the earth (17:18).
Babylon began its history under Nimrod and remains the name given to a system that’s actively opposed to the will of God on the earth. Babel/Babylon was the beginning of man’s organised rebellion against God, the beginning of a dominance that draws its adherents away from following after the ways and purposes of God and, quite naturally, it appears as the system which needs personal dealing with by God before the end comes when the Kingdom of Christ is established on earth.
a. Babylon and the beast
Revelation chapter 17
Babylon has already been mentioned in the Book of Revelation before it’s more detailed treatment in chapters 17 and 18. In Rev 14:8, an angel announces the fall of Babylon and Rev 16:19 ties up its destruction with the outpouring of the seventh and final bowl of God’s wrath - that the armies assemble for battle immediately prior to this (Rev 16:16) and that their mention isn’t one which denotes the actual battle, should show us that the order which occurs in chapters 17 to 19 that Babylon finds herself destroyed by the beast before the final battle takes place is fully justified.
To see the cities of the nations falling at the same time as the mother of the abominations committed therein shows that their prosperity is tied up alongside the continued promotion of her principles. Indeed, the angel’s description that she’s the one with whom (Rev 17:2 Pp 18:3)
‘...the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the dwellers on earth have become drunk’
shows how universal her influence has become. Written on her forehead (Rev 17:5) are the further words that she’s the
‘...mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations’
thus holding her responsible as the source from which everything which is opposed to God derives its source. Rev 17:6 also makes it known that Babylon is opposed violently to the life of Christ - whether only literal murder is being proclaimed here or whether it should, in my opinion, be widened to include the spiritual murder of believers so that their commitment to Christ is either weakened or totally removed. Ozanne observes that the city is
‘...the fountain-head of all the idolatrous and abominable systems which have flooded the earth since the days of Nimrod’
The exact reason for the beast’s removal of Babylon from having the supremacy over the world (Rev 17:16-17) and over himself is far from certain but it would seem logical to assume that, at the time of the decision being made, such a prospect must be the result of a series of events and considerations that make it the best option.
She who once dominated the kings of the world will then be consumed by the ones over whom she held dominion and, on the back of destruction and carnage, the final battle between the beast’s forces and those of Jesus Christ will take place (Rev 19:11-21).
Rev 17:18 calls Babylon ‘the great city’ and Ozanne is careful to state unambiguously that
‘...she is not however exclusively an idolatrous system - first and foremost she is a city’
going on to comment that her mention is an indication that
‘...the resurrected city of Babylon’
is being referred to. This, of course, may be possible (and I note with some interest that Saddam Hussein has begun to rebuild the ancient city in Iraq upon its ancient site - if my memory serves me right, this rebuilding began some fifteen years ago) - or, rather, it may have been possible in first century Asia Minor.
But it seems the more likely that a ‘system’ or ‘influence’ is here being described and that Babylon is being mentioned only as a ‘city’ because that’s what she was from time immemorial even though the word could also be used with more sinister implications that were separate from a direct association with the literal city. I agree that chapter 18 speaks only in words that could be taken as being indicative of a city but I find it difficult to see how one city in the first century could have been thought to have had all the world’s trade centred in her almost to the exclusion of all others.
Babylon, therefore, I believe is more to be thought of as a pervading influence which rules over the leaders of the world than as one geographically defined area which has the same effect. To the recipients of this Book in the first century, it’s hard to see how Babylon could have been anything other than the influence exerted upon the world by the Roman Empire - but this helps us very little in an identification of the beast for we could reason that it must refer to a local ‘king’ under the authority of Rome rather than to the Emperor as has often been the case and as we’ve understood it to be above.
It’s necessary to comment at this point about the statement in Rev 18:19 (even though I’ll deal with chapter 18 briefly in a later section - Pp Rev 18:8,10,17) that
‘...In one hour [Babylon] has been laid waste...’
because the speed with which the world systems are destroyed which allow for trade and commerce may be doubted by a great many of those who read these notes. We have only to turn to the events of September 11 2001 in the US to realise that even an unrelated incident like the hijacking of four commercial planes was enough to almost bring down the American and, therefore, the world, economy.
When the Stock Market re-opened following the events of that day, there was widespread fear amongst investors and share prices began falling. That the economies of the world were bolstered and saved is not the point here - but that a small event in world terms was able to rock the sound financial basis of the global community should be noted.
What little more could have been done to bring the markets to a state of total collapse around the ears of those who have their prosperity in them is not difficult to imagine - but, in Rev 17:16-18, we’re not looking at an attack by one terrorist organisation but by the concerted attempts of the beast and the ten kings who’ve formed an allegiance with him.
The speed with which world markets could be irreparably destroyed, therefore, isn’t a matter of fantasy but it needs only a more forceful effort to bring it about.
Finally, it’s necessary to remind ourselves that chapter 17 has looked at the relationship between the beast and Babylon from the time period in which John lived so that the city’s destruction still lay in the future. From Rev 18:1 onwards, though, we see the effects that the destruction of the city has upon the inhabitants of the earth.
b. Babylon in the Old and New Testaments
I want to briefly consider the prophetic statements regarding the fall of Babylon in this section rather than to be compelled to look at each and every occurrence of the word ‘Babylon’.
i. Prophecy in the OT
The main prophetic passages which deal with God’s judgment on the city can be found in Isaiah chapters 13 and 14, Jeremiah chapters 50 and 51, all of which were written before the fall of Babylon in 539BC under Ugbaru in which Cyrus became king and through which the area of Chaldea was brought under Persian rule.
However, when one considers the prophetic predictions, it’s impossible to reconcile both history and archaeology with them. For example, the city was to be made a desolation due to an enemy army coming against her (Is 13:17-19, Jer 50:3,14-15,25-26,29-30, 51:1-3,26-29,58) - but Babylon is known to have fallen without a fight after which time it began to decline and fall into ruin and was never destroyed by an army which came against her.
The fall of the city was also to come with fire (Jer 51:25,32,58) but the only time it’s recorded as being damaged by it were the uprisings or revolts in 482BC which were internal struggles and not the result of an advancing army coming against her.
Again, no man was to dwell in Babylon forever after YHWH’s judgment was to fall upon her (Is 13:19-20, Jer 50:3,13,39-40, 51:26,29,43 - notice Jer 50:1 especially here as the prophecies concerned not only Babylon but all the ‘land of the Chaldeans’) and, while it could be argued that Ugbaru’s capture of the city was only fully worked out sometime in the middle of the second century AD, the passages don’t read as if this was what was intended - besides, a modern town existed on the site which incorporated some of the ancient city walls before Saddam Hussein’s reconstruction of the place.
This recycling of the building materials of Babylon was never meant to take place (Jer 51:26) and, besides, Zondervan notes that, regarding the structure of the city temple
‘...the site had been robbed heavily in the preceding centuries by locals searching for building materials’
These brief observations should serve the point being made - that is, that the prophetic predictions made before the fall of Babylon in 539BC didn’t come to fruition at that time and neither do they appear to have done in the subsequent centuries down to the present day.
While it may be the case that the historical account might have inaccuracies contained therein, the record of the prophetic pronouncements should be accepted as fully accurate - that is, they’re the faithful representation of the messages conveyed.
I don’t believe that either accounts should be considered as inaccurate (the liberal theologians’ views that prophecy is but prose written after the event to make it fit is shown to be meaningless) - but an explanation needs to be found as to why what was prophesied never came about. If we were to read of the predictions of the fall of Nineveh, one would immediately be struck by their accuracy - but, when one turns to Babylon, one is made to sit up and take all the more notice.
This ‘problem’ sits at the very root of an understanding of prophetic passages throughout the Bible and, as will be seen below, there were prophetic conditions within the statements from Jeremiah and Isaiah that would appear never to have been fulfilled (the reader should also consider the threefold ‘Interpretation of Prophecy’ which can be found at the beginning of my notes on Matthew chapter 24).
As I’ve previously stated, the fall of the city took place in 539BC. This means that the message of Zech 2:6-13 and 5:5-11 were brought to God’s people around 20 years after the supposed or presumed fulfilment of the judgment upon Babylon.
The former passage plainly declares that the city was still to be laid waste while the latter speaks of a house being built for the incarnation of wickedness in ‘the land of Shinar’, the location of Babylon. God was to remove Israel’s guilt and transfer it away from them - but why visit it upon a foreign nation? I dealt with this problem in my commentary on Zechariah where I noted that
‘Shinar is the plain in which Babylon is found, where the rebellion of man began and had to be acted against by God (Gen 11:2). Babylon came to be used figuratively as the symbol of worldliness, of all that sets itself up in opposition to God, the exile probably becoming the pivotal event for closer associations with this concept than would otherwise have happened.
‘As shown in the vision, Wickedness does not belong resident within God’s people - it belongs to those who are in rebellion to God - hence it’s removed to the land where wickedness is served, the house that’s to be prepared for it being in reality a temple where it will be worshipped. The ephah, then, is to be removed to the place of rebellion and away from the people and presence of God...’
Through these prophecies, YHWH redirected Israel’s vision to a future fulfilment of prophecy which hadn’t already been fulfilled in the fall under Ugbaru in 539BC.
ii. The condition for the destruction of Babylon
As the reader is probably aware, the Jews, due to their disobedience, were sent into exile in Babylon by the hand of YHWH even though he used human agents to bring about His will. There were a series of exiles, the first being of the northern kingdom Israel (by Assyria) while the other, progressive, removals of God’s people concerned Judah culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586BC.
Before the final fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah the prophet wrote a letter by command of God to the exiles, recorded in Jer 29:1-9. His message to them was straightforward - they were to make their home in the land in which they found themselves for their captivity was going to be one of length - so (Jer 29:7), he told them to
‘...seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to YHWH on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’
The exiles were to contribute to the area they found themselves in - as it became prosperous, so would they. If they accepted the exile as being from God and therefore settled down to make their home in the land, they’d find their provision from His hand. Yet, they had to stay as servants of the living God and not become a part of (in character or attitude) the idolatry and iniquity of which Babylon was representative.
It was inevitable that God would visit His people at the appropriate time and call them back to His land after seventy years of punishment was fulfilled for their transgression (Jer 25:11-12). The call to return came through the prophet Jeremiah in the judgments concerning the fall of Babylon and was linked to the exodus of God’s people back to their own land, so escaping the judgment that was about to fall upon the region into which they’d been dispersed.
Therefore, Jer 50:8-10 records God’s message to
‘Flee from the midst of Babylon, and go out of the land of the Chaldeans, and be as he-goats before the flock. For behold, I am stirring up and bringing against Babylon a company of great nations, from the north country; and they shall array themselves against her; from there she shall be taken. Their arrows are like a skilled warrior who does not return empty-handed. Chaldea shall be plundered; all who plunder her shall be sated, says YHWH’
and Jer 50:28 also looks at their flight as if it’s already taken place when it observes
‘...they flee and escape from the land of Babylon, to declare in Zion the vengeance of YHWH our God, vengeance for His temple’
Similarly, Jer 51:6 urges his listeners to
‘Flee from the midst of Babylon, let every man save his life! Be not cut off in her punishment, for this is the time of YHWH’s vengeance, the requital He is rendering her’
and, finally, Jer 51:45-46 records that Israel were to
‘Go out of the midst of her, My people! Let every man save his life from the fierce anger of YHWH! Let not your heart faint, and be not fearful at the report heard in the land, when a report comes in one year and afterward a report in another year, and violence is in the land, and ruler is against ruler’
God told His people, then, to come out of Babylon or else they would fall with it. This appears to be the condition that God’s people failed to fulfil - but what was the reason? Zondervan observes what became of the Jews, for they were able
‘...to accumulate wealth. Many were so successful financially that they were able to send money to Jerusalem and when the exiles were given permission by Cyrus to return home, they refused because, according to Josephus “they were not willing to leave their possessions”. This materialism on the part of some of the exiles led to conformity to the customs of the Babylonians and cultural assimilation. The tendency to assimilate included the adoption of the Aramaic language and the acceptance of idolatry and participation in pagan ceremonies, even to sacrificing their sons on pagan altars’
and, again, they note that
‘The exile marked the beginning of the Jews’ major emphasis on banking and business in general’
When the call came from God to return home, many of the Jews were unwilling to return because of the possessions that they’d acquired - they’d become so rooted in the Babylonian way of life that they weren’t willing to sacrifice their possessions for devotion and commitment to God. Their love of materialism was the stumbling block that resulted in the people’s disobedience to the voice of God.
We might think that the Jews showed their commitment to God by giving of their own money to the work of God (that is, the prospering of the returned exiles and the resources for the rebuilding of the Temple), but a righteous act cannot be thought to annul disobedience to YHWH’s direct command to return to the land of Canaan.
We shouldn’t think that materialism is simply the love of money. Rather, it’s the belief that only matter is real or important and so the rejection of spiritual things comes about. It’s the rejection of God for the possession of something earthly, a devotion to and desire for earthly things and a rejection of the spiritual that have no earthly profit or advantage. It’s a reliance upon earthly possessions for security and is, therefore, an example of idolatry. We often limit it to the acquisition and accumulation of wealth or possessions but it goes much deeper than that.
So, God was unwilling to destroy His people with Babylon - the Jews hadn’t fulfilled the condition for the fall of Babylon - they hadn’t acted in faith when they’d heard God’s voice to return - so the event was postponed.
This fall and destruction of Babylon seems inextricably linked to God’s people coming out and returning to their own land (Jer 50:8-10,28, 51:6,45-46 and the Scriptures previously quoted). Jer 50:3-4 (also compare Jer 25:12 with 29:10) says it simply when it observes a nation coming out from the north and coming against Babylon
‘...which shall make her land a desolation, and none shall dwell in it; both man and beast shall flee away. In those days and in that time, says YHWH, the people of Israel and the people of Judah shall come together, weeping as they come; and they shall seek YHWH their God’
God had plainly told His people that they had to get out of Babylon before He’d allow His judgment to fall upon it. After the seventy years’ exile when Babylon should have been destroyed, Zechariah the prophet again pointed to a future fulfilment of the prophecies against the city in Zech 2:6-9.
Once more the exodus of the Jews from Babylon to Israel was foretold so that the judgment of God was able to take place - simply because He’s unwilling to destroy both His people and His enemies together (see also Gen 19:1-26 for the principle). But another and equally important premise is that God expects His people to act in faith and to be obedient to the word that’s received.
As we noted above, Zech 5:5-11 also pointed forward to a future Babylon, to the land of Shinar, where the house of wickedness would be set up after the removal from God’s people of their sin. It was this ‘new’ Babylon, then, that would be judged by God.
iii. Prophecy in the NT
God is going to destroy Babylon and so bring to fulfilment the words that he declared through the OT prophets. Here, again, is the condition that God has laid down for His people to receive with faith and to act upon in Rev 18:4-5 where John hears a voice from Heaven exhorting those who would listen
‘Come out of her, My people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities’
Judgment will fall upon Babylon and everyone who’s a part of it will fall with it - that’s why God commands that His people remove themselves from the coming judgment. The time of Babylon’s destruction depends partly on His followers, therefore - it depends upon how we treat God’s prophetic word and, consequently, it’s important for us to accurately determine what the Babylon is which is to be judged (though, when the message came to those in Asia Minor, it was directed solely to them).
In Revelation chapter 18 in particular, we can see that the Babylon that God has described to His people is a materialistic one - that is, it appears to be its main characteristic. We’ve only to compare the prophecies of the judgment of Tyre in Ezekiel chapters 26-28 with this passage to discover the obvious similarities between the two.
Tyre was a seaport on the Mediterranean coast which grew incredibly rich. Because of the geography of its location, it was virtually impregnable and also had an ideal natural harbour. But Tyre was materialistic and not God-centred - it relied upon trade for its riches and not on God.
A pair of passages which link Tyre and Babylon directly are Ezekiel 28:11-19 and Isaiah 14:3-4,12-21 - both have been taken to refer to satan but one is addressed to the ‘king of Tyre’ while the other to the ‘king of Babylon’ referring to the satanic principality that seems to have ruled over those areas. The Tyre of Ezekiel chapters 26-28 can also be considered to be a type of the Babylon in Revelation chapter 18 - that is, a materialistic society that has gone a great way to undermining the spiritual for the advancement of the material.
This isn’t something that was unusual to the original Babylon situated in the land of Shinar. Babylon was the centre of trade and commerce throughout the time of its power and until its gradual decline (even the Biblical writers bear witness to this fact in Ezek 17:4 Cp 17:12 where the land of Babylon is spoken of as being ‘...a land of trade...a city of merchants’). Egypt was one of the largest centres of trade in the ancient world and Zondervan records that
‘Sumeria and its successor, Babylon, were the only great manufacturing civilisations rivalling Egypt...The Babylonian trade route started at the Persian Gulf and followed the Euphrates river to the Taurus mountains of Asia Minor at Haran and Carchemish’
The Babylon that we’re primarily concerned with is that of materialism - that is, the society that rejects the spiritual and, more specifically, rejects YHWH for the belief that it’s only matter that’s of any real importance. This Babylon is also a universal one with regard to the kings of the earth (Rev 17:18) though the Scriptures don’t specify that all the people of the earth are under its dominion, only (Rev 17:15)
‘...peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues’
which might be best transliterated into ‘many lands, many people’ but it still seems to encompass the vast majority of the population of earth - it’s also the centre of all that’s opposed to God (Rev 17:5). Today materialism holds sway over the West, the ‘one third world’ which uses two thirds of the world’s resources.
Materialistic Babylon, therefore, according to the testimony of the Book of Revelation, will fall suddenly, never to rise again (Rev 18:8,10,14,21). The materialistic influence will be suddenly destroyed and it shall never again have dominion. It’s also interesting to note that the beast will destroy it (Rev 17:16-17) but, even so, it’s by the hand of God because (Rev 16:19) He’s remembering Babylon
‘...to make her drain the cup of the fury of His wrath’
Zondervan also notes that
‘For the first two centuries of the christian era, Asia [Minor] was perhaps the most prosperous part of the Empire’
so that the message that their materialistic society would be cataclysmically overthrown suddenly would have been more of a problem to them than it would have been to those living in Israel.
FCS also notes that, after the decimation of wealth that the province suffered, Augustus brought in a period of unparalleled prosperity for the region which lasted throughout the first century AD. He writes that
‘The establishment of the Pax Romana and the spirit of confidence which peace engendered, along with improvements throughout the Empire, made it possible for the great natural resources of Asia to be greatly developed and this introduced an era of prosperity such as the area had never known....In the first century AD, the increase in building work financed primarily by municipal funds and private gift, gives the impression that a gradual and sound recovery had taken place’
Indeed, if we were to place the Book of Revelation’s ‘Babylon’ squarely into the first century, we might not be going too far wrong to identify it with Asia Minor itself rather than to identify it with Rome as most others and as I myself have done. But, as Asia Minor was part of the Roman Empire, the relevance and applicability of the message appear to be justified in both respects. It’s best to think of Asia Minor as being part of what God was referring to as ‘Babylon’ rather than it being the sum total.
The implications for doing this are far-reaching for it might mean that the ten kings who give their power over to the beast are better identified as being those of their immediate area. Even though Irenaeus looked to the division of the Roman Empire into ten divisions over which one supreme head would take his seat (see above), it seems better to accept that the ten represented authorities could even have expected to have been authorities who were either totally distinct from the Empire (as I noted above when I pointed to the ‘kings of the east’ as being a possible identification) or authorities who sat as rulers over regions within the Empire and who had supported the rise of the eighth king.
If we were looking for a reason why the Book of Revelation never came to a fulfilment in the time appointed, we could do worse than point towards the failure of the Asia Minor Church to ‘Come out of Babylon’ as commanded so that, just as in the OT, the judgment on materialism would not be poured out. It also begs the question as to whether God is waiting even now for a generation of believers who will forsake their materialistic ways that He might bring about the end of all things by the return of Jesus Christ.
However, we’re getting into the realms of supposition - all that we seem to be able to say is that the fall of Babylon would have effected the inhabitants of Asia Minor in a much harsher way than it would have done anyone else in the Roman Empire.
And it’s in this fact that we might, therefore, be able to perceive why John’s message was given specifically to that region - and also why it should be taken to heart today more by the Western societies than the Third World.
There are other characteristics of this Babylon that are apparent from other places where it’s described in Scripture but its main characteristic is that of materialism - it’s not for us to find earthly organisations that fulfil the requirements of Babylon and avoid them, for it resembles nothing earthly - rather, it’s a spiritual principality that has dominion over the entire earth and so, as a spiritual power, it needs to be recognised before, ultimately, being defeated in our own lives.
After all, God’s call to His people in Asia Minor in the first century - and just as it was to His people in the sixth century BC and even today to those still alive - is that (Rev 18:4) they
‘Come out of her...lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues’
A people who are a part of Babylon and her ways won’t share in the rejoicing over her destruction which Rev 19:1-10 records - rather, they’ll be the people who fall with her, never to rise again. Thinking about the church in the West makes me realise that we haven’t yet some to grips with what it is Jesus is saying to the churches.
A great proportion of people who call themselves followers of Christ are too caught up in the decoration of their buildings rather than in the evangelisation of the unsaved - we buy better cars almost as often as we change our underpants, rather than to make do with what we have and invest the money into the advancement of the Kingdom of Christ on earth.
It’s not a superfluous point but a major one which cuts away at the root of our own relationship with God. As Jesus taught His disciples (Mtw 6:24)
‘No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon [material riches]’
Very often, our devotion to God is compromised by those things which we hold on to and by those items which we think are our right to possess. When the ability to acquire those things which we take for granted is taken from this world, a great many followers will fall along with the system which has given them their livelihood - God’s warning should be heeded as soon as possible, therefore, by the western church.
c. Babylon’s fall
Revelation chapter 18
We’ve dealt with a few of the themes of chapter 18 in the preceding sections including the suddenness with which Babylon will fall (Rev 18:8,10,17,19) and how that statement shouldn’t be thought of as impossible when one considers the events which followed September 11th 2001 - and also how the call continued to go out to the believers in first century Asia Minor to remove themselves from ‘Babylon’ in preparation for the judgment which was about to fall upon her (Rev 18:4).
Here, we want only to mention a few of the more minor points which seem to be retrievable from this passage.
Firstly, the pronouncements of the angel and the voice from Heaven take up a fair proportion of the chapter (Rev 18:1-8). The declaration that the city has fallen (Rev 18:2) makes way for an observation of what she’d become (or, perhaps better, of what she always was) and of how all the nations of the world have been influenced by her dominance (Rev 18:2-3). I’ve already noted that the underlying characteristic of Babylon here is that of materialism which is spoken of almost exclusively in terms of trade.
The second voice which John seems unable or unwilling to identify calls the believers to remove themselves from her influence (Rev 18:4) with an extended explanation of the sin and the judgment which is to inevitably fall upon her (Rev 18:5-8).
Rev 18:9 is more illuminative than it may appear at first glance. From this verse onwards, John is being shown the reaction in different groups of people on earth to what God has orchestrated through the unknowing obedience of the beast (Rev 17:16-17). The opening verse, however, comments that
‘...the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and were wanton with [the city of Babylon], will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning’
We already know that Babylon had dominion over the kings of the earth but here we observe them as bewailing the fact of her destruction. I may be reading too much into this but it appears to me that the world leaders here being mentioned must be considered as being different to the ten horns which give their authority over to the beast (Rev 17:12-13) - that is, that the ten horns aren’t to be considered as representing world government at all otherwise, would they have handed over their authority to the one who would destroy their own prosperity?
Even more, the ten kings - if they are to be identified with the ‘kings of the east’ (Rev 16:12) - can easily be seen to have been outside the control of the Roman Empire and, therefore, less dominated by the materialistic influence of Babylon.
It’s worth noting, then, that the beast’s rise to prominence may not be through an allegiance with other world leaders but through a group of men who may be much smaller when a natural assessment of who are the most important men of the world is made.
Even if this is true, it does very little to identify who the ten kings might have been in the first century - and we’re probably best to simply note the problem and move on.
The responses of the individuals continue from the kings of the earth (Rev 18:9-10) to the world traders (Rev 18:11-14), the merchants of the products which were sold for profit within her (Rev 18:15-17) and those who plied their trade by the transport of those goods (Rev 18:17-20). The first and last of these groups are able to identify that what’s happened is a direct judgment from God.
Finally, an angel acts out the destruction of Babylon by throwing a great millstone from Heaven into the sea (Rev 18:21) and announcing that the full and final destruction of the city which stood opposed to God, His ways and His people has been completed, for she’s never to rise again (Rev 18:21-24) - and that, just as it was prophesied of the city in the OT but which, to this point, had never been achieved.
One final point needs to be made here. If the judgment on Babylon in the OT was directed against a literal city in present day Iraq - and if the judgment mentioned in Revelation was to be poured out upon a world system or, as some would have it, against Rome - then we’re right in thinking that the object of God’s wrath changed geographically even though His will and purpose remained the same.
What that should indicate to us, therefore, is that, if Rome was the object of God’s imminent wrath in the first century (though the reader will note that I believe the judgment to be upon a world system), there’s no reason to expect that it should be identified as having the same location in the present day. If the ‘location’ changed in the space of 700 years between the OT and NT, why shouldn’t it be expected to have changed in the 1900 years between the message given to the churches of Asia Minor and the times in which we live?
We shouldn’t tie up an interpretation, then, to identify Rome as being the place where God’s anger will have to be poured out - rather, we must be free to take a look at the world and allow our thoughts to assess what type in the world today is that spoken of by the first century writer, John.
If we were to do that, we may not like what we see - and the indications that that would give us for the area in which the beast and the ten kings could be expected to rise would probably be against our current expectations. Of course, when the world changes, so does the application of the Book of Revelation.
The context of these opening ten verses of chapter 19 is that Babylon has been destroyed - we should focus carefully on the reason for this response of ‘a great multitude’ rather than simply to think that this outpouring of praise is just another example of general adoration.
The response of praise comes about through God’s judgment of His and His people’s enemy - therefore, those who make known their satisfaction announce (Rev 19:2) that
‘...[God’s] judgments are true and just; He has judged the great harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication and He has avenged on her the blood of His servants’
It’s simply not possible to take a delight in the downfall of a world system in which one is inextricably caught up - rather, there has to be coldness directed towards it and a hatred of the way it destroys God’s people for there to be rejoicing over its destruction.
I’ve mentioned above how the church in the West has given itself over to a large extent to running after materialistic principles at the expense of being rich towards God and that, when Babylon falls, that part of the Church will also fall along with it, never to rise again. Therefore, God’s call to His people to come out from the midst of these systems (Rev 18:4) is all the more poignant and urgent - not just because we wouldn’t want to be a part of what’s soon to be judged but because Babylon is the source of earth’s abominations (Rev 17:5).
The contrast between chapter 18 and 19 is fairly stark. On the one hand, John witnesses the inhabitants of earth bemoaning the fact of Babylon’s destruction - in fact, there’s not so much as one voice which is heard which speaks positively about its demise. It’s only the traders who note that the news is good if you’re a believer in Christ (Rev 18:20) but the fact that no voice on earth echoes that of the angel and the heavenly voice is more than a little worrying (Rev 18:1-8).
Rather, it’s left to the multitude who are heard (but John never says that he saw them) in Heaven to erupt into praise at the earthly events which, presumably, they’ve witnessed (Rev 19:1-3). The most natural way to interpret this number is to see them as believers who, presumably, have been resurrected into Heaven from out of the judgment of the earth (as Mounce - who describes them more fully as ‘the Church triumphant’).
The only problem with that is that the return of Jesus Christ appears to take place after these events (Rev 19:11-16) and the fact that the beast is still in existence and will march against the Lamb also demonstrates that the final outworking of God’s judgment has not yet arrived (Rev 19:17-21 - even though we’ve seen the seven plagues which are the final outworking of God’s wrath upon the earth - Rev 15:1, 16:1-21). The multitude are more likely to be the angelic host, therefore, and their observation (Rev 19:3) that God has
‘...avenged on her the blood of His servants’
might have been understood to have been rendered that He had
‘...avenged on her our blood’
had the speakers been believers (and as the martyrs do in Rev 7:10 when they’re appealing to God to avenge their blood on the people of earth - presumably through the judgment of the downfall of Babylon). The twenty-four elders (who we first met in Rev 4:4) along with the four living creatures (Rev 4:6) also exhort all God’s servants to respond in praise because of the judgment which has fallen upon Babylon.
Again, John hears the voice of a great multitude in heaven but doesn’t record that he sees any of them (Rev 19:6-8) - this time, however, the response of praise doesn’t appear to be tied in with the judgment upon Babylon but with the imminency of the marriage of the Lamb to the Bride - that is, of Jesus to His Church (Rev 19:7).
Aune notes that the construction of the Greek is such that it appears that John is saying that he’s not convinced that the multitude which he heard in Rev 19:1 is necessarily the same as those who are now making their voice known (the word for ‘multitude’ is used without an article, making it not have to relate back to what’s preceded it). So, Hughes identifies them as
‘...the entire company of God’s servants, angelic as well as human’
but, again, we have the difficulty of assessing how the latter group have now found themselves in Heaven before the return of Jesus when the resurrection of the dead takes place. It seems better to accept this multitude as being, once more, the angelic host and that the reason for John’s apparent lack of specifying that the two multitudes were one and the same lies in the fact that he’s unable to identify them as such because he’s unable to see them, hearing only their voice.
Perhaps more problematic is the statement that this multitude refer to the Lord as ‘our’ God, something which it might be argued is only possible on the lips of mankind. But the twenty-four elders also refer to God in this manner (Rev 4:11) and do so again shortly afterwards when they’re accompanied by the four living creatures (Rev 5:10). The angel who stands talking with John (Rev 19:9) refers to himself as ‘a fellow servant’ so that it isn’t a far step away from referring to God as one’s own.
However, because their form is never seen, we might equally go along with Hughes’ interpretation for their bodily presence in Heaven isn’t being asserted at this point and it’s possible that their voice is the manifestation of their delight before they’re united with their resurrected bodies and translated into Heaven (as I noted when we considered where we went after observing the resurrection of the dead in Rev 7:9-12, the Book appears to return to time periods that it’s already described and to add details that would have otherwise made the narrative too cumbersome to read together).
The fall of Babylon seems to herald the coming of the uniting of Jesus and His followers if we’re right in taking Rev 19:6 as being in chronological order. The basis of the Bride’s acceptance is not mentioned as being solely on the basis of the cross, however, which is worth noting. Rather, the multitude observe (Rev 19:8) that
‘...it was granted her to array herself with fine linen, bright and pure...’
where John goes on to note that the fine linen is to be thought of as indicative of the ‘righteous deeds of the saints’. As James (James 2:26) noted
‘...faith apart from works is dead’
so that the believers here are those who aren’t thought of as resting on the work of Christ and nothing else but that they’ve actively responded to the message to them, their actions bearing witness to the faith that they have in God’s work. It’s often been said that salvation is free - and quite rightly so. And, in many churches that I’ve attended, it’s also been said that a convert doesn’t need to ‘go on’ but can rest upon the all-sufficient work of the cross.
But, although the cross is everything a man or woman needs to make them acceptable to God, unless they respond it only shows that they haven’t fully understood the message for, instead of cleansing men and women to allow them to continue on their own way, God buys a people from one form of slavery into His own, thereby expecting that His will be done (I Cor 6:19-20).
That the saints are being accepted on the basis of their deeds, then, isn’t unusual or something which shouldn’t be expected. We should note, though, that it’s also being observed that it was ‘granted’ to them - that is, that there was a Divine action which has caused them to be able to produce those deeds and, logically, this must refer to the application of the cross, resurrection and ascension to their lives.
Finally, John finds the vision all too much for him (Rev 19:10) but is soon corrected by the angel. Perhaps most of us - if we’d been granted such a series of visions - might never have gotten up from the first after falling upon our face and would have been unable to see what was going on. At least John has made it through to this point (though he’ll once more be overcome with the visions in Rev 22:8).
The final battle
The title ‘the final battle’ is somewhat of an anomaly, it has to be said, simply because what we consider to be the end of all war and aggression is only that which comes about at the end of the current age at the instigation of the beast and false prophet. There’s yet another battle - a final, final battle - which is seen by John in Rev 21:7-10 as taking place at the boundaries of ‘the beloved city’.
However, the return of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the visible Kingdom over the earth is tied up with the first final battle (is this all making sense?) as will be seen as one reads through the comments on Rev 19:11-21 and the parallels which exist elsewhere in Scripture.
1. The final battle of the age
Our previous discussion concerning Armageddon (Rev 16:16) made us realise that no battle is ever described as taking place at the ‘hill of Megiddo’ in the end times as many have interpreted the text. Rather, it speaks only of the vast area in which the armies of the earth will gather for battle - that is, it appears as if a natural place is being described which is large enough for the force which is being gathered to march against the Lamb.
Whether this is meant to be taken literally as the ‘Valley of Megiddo’ is uncertain. But it remains entirely possible for, thinking about other Scriptures, it appears that the final assault against God and His servants will be in a military campaign against the city of Jerusalem (though at no time is there any direct indication in Revelation that the city is what’s intended to be thought of as the place of conflict. The second of the battles, however, seems to be associated with it directly - Rev 20:9).
Therefore, Zech 14:1-9 speaks of all the nations being gathered against Jerusalem to battle (Zech 14:2) but of YHWH going out to battle on their behalf (Zech 14:3), finally becoming victorious and of setting up a visible and unopposable Kingdom from the city over the whole earth (Zech 14:9). Similarly, Jesus foresaw a great desecration being set up (Mtw 24:15) after which a time of tribulation would fall upon the city (Mtw 24:16-21) which comes about as a result of an enemy army (Luke 21:24). Eventually, however, Jesus will return (Mtw 24:30-31) with all that His reappearing will achieve - such as the resurrection from the dead of all His followers.
The Book of Revelation has also mentioned the fall of Jerusalem (Rev 11:2) and that the occupation will continue for forty-two months (whether this time period is meant to be taken literally is, again, uncertain) with a concluding word following this occupation noting that the kingdom of earth has ultimately become the Kingdom of God (Rev 11:15).
There seems to be no problem for the reader to be able to accept that what’s being here described is another aspect of the final opposition of both man and satan against the rule of God and that, with the advance of Jesus Christ from Heaven, God’s enemies will be fully defeated.
The battle isn’t described - we get no description of the carnage which is inflicted upon the enemies which have come against the Lamb. The narrative stops short of telling us exactly how Jesus has defeated the enemy (that is, the military strategy) and the scene switches from Rev 19:17 to describe the effect of the assault on earth’s military ranks, calling to the birds of the land to feast on the slain bodies which lie on the battlefield (Rev 19:17-18).
However, John notes that Jesus’ weapon (Rev 19:15) is ‘a sharp sword’ which comes from His mouth and which smites the nations gathered (the nations, it has to be observed, who have mourned at the fall of Babylon but who have, by now, turned themselves around to ally themselves with the beast and his advance against Jesus Christ). Perhaps the most literal understanding of the war being waged is that Jesus fights not with the instruments of flesh and blood but with a word of authority and rebuke which is immediately effected by the power of God.
After all, Rev 19:21 speaks of the followers of the beast and the false prophet as being slain by the sword which comes from Jesus’ mouth - it really doesn’t matter whether we think of earth’s armies as possessing nuclear weapons with which they intend to scorch the earth because the last conflict will be over in a second as a word is spoken and they’re rendered useless.
We might better label the battle as a non-event, then, for as soon as the Lamb goes out to war, the victory is achieved and the bodies of those who have actively opposed Him are left on the ground lifeless, ready for the great feast of the scavenging birds of prey and all very reminiscent of Ezekiel 39:1-22 (especially v.19-20) where the prophet is exhorted to
‘Speak to the birds of every sort and to all beasts of the field...’
commanding them to gather for a great feast of human flesh upon the mountains of Israel (but the interpretation of the text seems somewhat compromised because the opening verse of Ezekiel chapter 39 speaks about Gog - and he’s mentioned in Rev 20:8 as being part of the second battle. It appears best not to take the mention of Gog as demanding a fulfilment of the Ezekiel passage which fits well enough into the first battle here being discussed).
There seems to be little doubt that God’s ultimate intention at the end of the age is to gather together mankind in one final bid to overthrow His rule and sovereignty at the instigation of the beast (Rev 13:1ff) and false prophet (Rev 13:11ff) and under the inspiration of satan himself (Rev 12:1ff).
But it ends in disaster for both the beast and the false prophet (Rev 19:20) and they’re committed forever into the place of punishment here described as
‘...the lake of fire that burns with sulphur’
and which is best associated with Gehenna where it appears in other NT passages (see my notes on ‘Eternal Habitations’). The destination of the souls of the men and women of the army aren’t mentioned here but they’ll reappear in the next chapter which, if taken literally, covers a time period which is more extensive than the rest of the entire Book has been to this point!
2. The Millennium
There are numerous pictures throughout Revelation chapter 20 that need dealing with as one complete unit rather than to identify the parts that we seem to recognise and, somehow, try to piece them together into a whole. The passage has become the point from which differing interpretations have produced a-millennialists, pre-millennialists and post-millennialists.
Pre-millennialists understand the thousand year reign to be fulfilled in a future time when a long period of righteousness will be brought in with Jesus reigning over the Kingdoms and a restored Created order. A-millennialists, on the other hand, generally see Jesus as having begun reigning upon His ascension into Heaven and, therefore, postulate that the millennial rule is already in the here and now (Chilton notes that a-millennialists, although agreeing on this position, would themselves go on to disagree with what the ‘coming to life’ of those beheaded could be in Rev 20:4). Post-millennialists believe, according to Zondervan, that
‘...the millennium will be fulfilled somewhat symbolically during the last one thousand years of this present age when Christ will reign spiritually in His Church’
There are variations in all these three positions so the reader will, hopefully, forgive me if I’ve misrepresented their own position but they should give us a basis for understanding the various methods of interpretation.
Chilton’s opening arguments should be noted here carefully for he claims that the entire Church is a-millennialist because it agrees that Jesus Christ’s reign began at the ascension and that He will continue to reign (I Cor 15:25)
‘...until He has put all His enemies under His feet’
because we do not yet see everything subject to Him (Heb 2:8). Indeed, the NT is fairly plain in its teaching in this respect and Bible-believers should have no problem in accepting the plain and unambiguous statements that are made in the first century letters of the apostles. However, that’s a far cry from accepting that the times in which we live are the reality of a visible outworking of the Kingdom in which Jesus Christ is seen to be ruling over the nations and getting His will done ‘on earth as it is in Heaven’ and it’s here that the attempted harmony between the two opposing camps breaks down.
Chilton’s statement that
‘The Millennium...is simply the Kingdom of Christ’
although attempting a definition of the first term without reference to the text of Revelation chapter 20, has actually gone a long way to making a concept fit the word so that, when the reader comes to the thousand years, their mind has already been made up. The starting point would be better stated as a determination of whether this specific ‘reign’ was to be considered, in essence, as the same as that which the Church was experiencing in the first century - or, perhaps even better, would be the determination of how John could record that God’s angel had been sent (Rev 22:6 Pp 1:1 - my italics)
‘...to show His servants what must soon take place’
and then to go on to speak of a time of future rule, also speaking of Jesus (Rev 19:15 - my italics) that He
‘...will rule [the nations] with a rod of iron’
We saw in Revelation chapter 12 that John was able to speak of past events when they formed the basis of something which was about to happen, but the consequence of the battle against the kings of the earth (Rev 19:11-21) is the millennial rule (Rev 20:1-15) unless there are good grounds for understanding this battle to have already taken place by the time of John’s writing - so that the reign had already been brought in.
Far from offering a real solution to a difficult passage (for there are major problems with each of the three millennial positions), it only throws up a set of others which have to be interpreted in the light of what one believes. His comments that
‘The historic Church has always rejected the heresy of Millenarianism...’
isn’t helpful, either - especially as he then goes on to define ‘Millenarianism’ as being both post- and pre-millennialist and seems to assert (I’m taking his statements as inferring this) that to be either means that one doesn’t believe that Jesus Christ is reigning through His Church at the present time. Neither is his statement that
‘It is an unorthodox teaching, generally espoused by heretical sects on the fringes of the Christian Church’
going to build a great many bridges between those with different viewpoints, especially as he continues to try and root both post- and pre-millennialism into the heretical sects which were rejected from mainstream christianity from an early age. One other argument that I should mention here (and I don’t want this to sound like a witch hunt) is that in which he states that
‘...the most basic argument against premillennialism is simply that the Bible never speaks of a thousand-year reign of the saints - outside of Revelation 20, a highly symbolic and complex passage in the most highly symbolic and complex book of the Bible!’
But it could be reasoned that ‘the beast’ can’t be taken as being as literal as made out in Revelation (his division of the Book into one chapter is not helpful - the Book must be viewed as one unit even though we might make divisions for exposition) simply because John is the only one who refers to this character in this way. That there are alternate names given to a character which seems to represent him elsewhere is, obviously, insufficient because any text regarding a return to an Edenic Creation is also rejected as being inadmissible to a support of the pre-millennial position.
At the end of the day, however, a man or woman doesn’t get saved because he holds to the right view of the thousand year reign. There may be every reason why a person holding to any one of the three views might behave differently in the same given situations but, if one believes that Jesus Christ has begun to rule through His Church on earth, whether one believes in a future return to an Edenic Creation or a present one is hardly important. In fact, in my opinion, it promotes far too much animosity between brothers for whom Christ died.
As I showed in Chilton’s commentary, the label of ‘heresy’ is far from a term of endearment designed to agree on the basis of the cross and to agree to disagree elsewhere! As I understand the positions, therefore, we do no real good by heated discussion on this subject. Although I intend detailing my own understanding of the passage below - and even though I’ve taken exception to some of Chilton’s words above - the problem with the passage isn’t so much what we make of it but how we might use it to put others down.
After all, Jesus didn’t come that we might have a correct view of the Millennium - but that we might have our sins forgiven and be restored into a relationship with the Creator.
Firstly, then, I don’t believe that what John writes from Rev 20:1 onwards was meant to be taken as a past event but as a consequence of the final battle of the age which takes place in Rev 19:11-21. There’s no way to determine exactly whether Rev 20:1 is meant to be taken as next in time simply because, while he is concerned to accurately record those things which he saw, John doesn’t attempt to make much sense out of it - that is, although there are a few explanatory comments scattered through the Book, he doesn’t make the reader aware whether one event is to be expected to occur after the other in real time or even how the visions interrelate.
But the temporary judgment upon satan (Rev 20:1-3) seems a natural consequence of the defeat of the beast and false prophet who, as we’ve already seen, are of the same essential nature as satan himself. Besides, if our interpretation of Revelation chapter 12 was correct, the defeat of satan in the Church’s own experience is by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony because they were willing to be martyred for the Gospel - not because satan had been bound for the thousand years. Therefore, an interpretation which sees satan as having been bound and which has been in effect since the days of John’s writing is actually self-contradictory for it undermines the witness of an earlier passage of Scripture.
The talk of thrones upon which those are seated to whom judgment is committed (Rev 20:4) is reminiscent of a time at the end of the age. Similarly, the return to life of the martyrs who have given up their life as a result of opposing the beast and false prophet (Rev 20:4) can only occur after the beast has been revealed - and that, as we’ve already seen, is represented as a future event by John in Revelation chapter 13.
Confusingly, John speaks about both the first resurrection (Rev 20:5) and the second death (Rev 20:14) but he says nothing about either a second resurrection or the first death, even though both are implied, firstly, in the return to life of those after the thousand years has ended (Rev 20:12) and, secondly, by assuming that the death which precedes the second must be the natural death of men and women on earth.
But it still doesn’t explain why there’s no unambiguous statement as to what time the believers who have died in Christ will be raised from the dead. We saw in Rev 7:9-17 that the resurrection from the dead is clearly taught as occurring at the time of the return of Jesus Christ and, if we turn to the other NT Scriptures, the testimony is unambiguous that the event was considered to be tied in with it.
Paul, in I Cor 15:20-24 (my italics), writes that
‘...Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’
and then notes that, as Jesus is the first fruits from the dead then
‘...at His coming [will be] those who belong to Christ’
summing up the chronological process by noting that
‘Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power’
Quite clearly, then, there’s a need for Jesus Christ to subjugate all rule and authority at the end and after the resurrection from the dead has occurred. Again, Paul notes (I Cor 15:51-58) that the resurrection from the dead occurs
‘...at the last trumpet...’
(though we shouldn’t make Paul’s words have to be tied up with the trumpets mentioned in Revelation) going on to speak of the dead being raised imperishable and of those still alive as being changed. The testimony of the NT is also clear that the early Church expected this event to take place within a generation of Jesus returning into Heaven.
II Thess 2:3-15 also notes that, before the resurrection will take place, the rebellion must come first
‘...and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God’
This seems only applicable to the character known as the beast in the Book of Revelation and there seems little need to go into much further comment to secure a positive identification - but, the resurrection from the dead must come about after his appearing.
[NB - We should note that John 5:24-29 seems to go the way of confining both the resurrection of the righteous and the wicked into one event in world history. But it remains possible that Jesus’ statement (my italics) that
‘...the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live’
was meant to be taken that His voice would only call His followers back to life and that there was expected to be another time when those opposed to Him would be raised. However, John 5:28-29 seems to undermine this position and says with an equal possibility that there would only be one resurrection and that, at that time, both righteous and unrighteous would be raised together.
Certainly John’s statement that there’s a first resurrection (Rev 20:6) implies that there must be a second but, if the final rebellion occurs after the final judgment, one wonders where the humans come from who ally themselves with the will of satan.]
Some might argue that Paul’s statement that lawlessness was being restrained until the time of the end when the beast would be revealed is a way of talking about the millennium (II Thess 2:7) but we have to also return to the angel’s statement to John that what he was describing was soon to take place (Rev 22:6,10) for, if the rebellion of the beast and the final battle was to take place after the millennium, it places it automatically a long way into the future and there could have been no expected fulfilment of the prophecy of the Book in the lifetime of its recipients.
Paul also confirms that Jesus will slay the beast by the breath of His mouth (II Thess 2:8 Pp Rev 19:15) and he notes that the transformation of both alive and dead believers will take place simultaneously at the end (I Thess 4:15-17). Even if we were to divide both ‘transformations’ by a lengthy time period, we still have the unambiguous assertion that the dead in Christ will be resurrected at the time when Jesus returns - and, because John notes that the martyred saints take part in the first resurrection (Rev 20:5), it’s difficult to see how these two events can be anything other than one and the same, especially as the Bible makes no claim that dead believers will be divided into two resurrections.
What one would have to explain if this was so is what resurrection from the dead John’s referring to in Rev 20:4-6 which was ‘soon to take place’, something which Chilton seems to note that there’s no universal interpretation regarding - it’s unlikely, I feel, that even John knew exactly what to make of what he was witnessing or he may have added a word of explanation.
We’ve previously noted that Jesus has chosen to be selective with the content of the visions which are being shown to John so that certain events appear to be suppressed even when they occur at the same time. There appears no good reason to me, therefore (though there probably is to a thousand other believers), why John’s selective vision of those martyred for Jesus’ name is simply one aspect of the first resurrection of believers and that the entire resurrection and translation of all followers of Christ takes place at this point in close proximity to the final battle of the age.
So, the thousand year reign (which is unlikely to be meant to be taken literally - it seems to stand in contrast only to the other statements in the Book such as ‘hour’ and ‘forty-two months’ to denote a lengthy period of time) appears from Revelation to be an event which was to begin very shortly after the rebellion against God, Jesus’ defeating of His enemies and the setting up of a visible Kingdom on earth.
I guess that that must make me a pre-millennialist and, according to Chilton, a heretic! But, unless it can be shown that the events described in the Book were fully and completely fulfilled at a point in time a few years after it’s compilation, then I feel it’s necessary to accept that the rebellion is still to come and, with its overthrow, the thousand year period will be brought in following the resurrection from the dead of all believers and the translation of all those believers who are left alive.
3. Mopping up after the battle
The basis for my brief comments in this and the following section is my previous discussion concerning the millennium. The reader should turn to that article before reading these notes.
Following the defeat of the beast and the false prophet along with their dispatch into the lake of fire, an angel is commissioned to lay hold of satan and to bind him into ‘the pit’ so that he might not deceive the nations again until a later date specified as a thousand years.
There’s a logic in this that’s understandable. As we saw in chapters 12 and 13, satan and the beast are of the same essential nature as one another (each has seven heads and ten horns) so that the latter is only the manifestation of the former on earth. When judgment falls upon the beast, it must necessitate judgment to fall upon its origin.
The resurrection from the dead also occurs at this point (Rev 20:4-6) while those martyred for the name of Christ during the last few years in which the beast was revealed on earth are given a special position in the visible Kingdom which has been established - and the mention of thrones of judgment seems to be a fulfilment of the judgment of the nations mentioned by Jesus in parabolic form in Mtw 25:31-46 and, perhaps, what’s previously been alluded to in Rev 14:14-20).
4. The final, final battle
A very ‘loose’ time period of a thousand years is mentioned with little or no details as to what one might expect to happen within it - the Greek preposition means something more akin to ‘whenever’ so that the exact time when satan will be once more loosed to deceive the nations isn’t discernible.
Why this event should have to take place is also not explained but it seems wholly different from that which is recorded in Rev 19:11-21 simply because the destruction of the advancing army is, this time, achieved by fire coming down from Heaven (Rev 20:9) whereas in the former it came about through the word or breath of God (Rev 19:15) - and because the beast and false prophet are never mentioned as leading the armies, their presence having being consigned to the lake of fire and sulphur to where they were dispatched after the last battle of the age (Rev 20:10).
There are no specific characters here which would give us any further information - and we must assume that Jesus didn’t feel it important to do so. Rather, a snippet of what was to happen in the more distant future was all that mattered which continues to the end of the chapter with the details regarding the resurrection from the dead of all those who are opposed to the rule of God (Rev 20:11-15).
Clearly, John saw the final judgment of all men as being concluded after an extended period of time. Even though believers have taken part in the first resurrection (Rev 20:4-6), there’s a long wait until the rest of the dead are judged. If we were to look for an explanation we might conclude that God intends having one final day upon which He’ll judge mankind and that, until the final rebellion, the full expression of sin cannot be considered to have been completed.
However, there’s nothing in the text which would indicate such a reason so we’re best to hold on loosely to whatever explanation that we might accept.
A new Heaven and a new earth
And so on to a passage which is equally as confusing at first as any other that I’d care to mention from the Book of Revelation. It’s not that the reader can’t accept the imagery as being unfathomable and yet take the general message to heart to learn about what the future destination of believers will be like - rather, there are lines of information within this passage which seem to undermine what one expects the descriptors to be talking about.
1. When is John talking about?
First and foremost, one has to decide upon what era or age that Rev 21:1-22:5 is talking about. The choices seem to fall into two camps. Either Rev 21:1 is meant to be taken as chronologically after Rev 20:15 and, therefore, speaking about a time which is immediately after the judgment of all the men and women who have ever lived upon earth (Rev 20:11-15) or else John is once more being brought back to a time which he’s already mentioned, offering the reader greater insights into that window - in this case, the only place that such a description could be thought to take place would be during the time of the millennium or thousand years which is repeatedly mentioned in chapter 20.
My own position has, until fairly recently, been to accept the descriptions as being that which will come about after the removal of all sin from the earth and the sentencing of all mankind at the great white throne (Rev 20:11). However, if John is truly being shown the things which ‘must soon take place’ (Rev 22:6) and even if the millennium is meant to be taken as beginning imminently, we’d still be thinking of what John sees here as happening a great distance into the future - a particular difficulty seeing as the statement from the angel occurs immediately after the description of the New Jerusalem.
This is far from being a certain proof but there are other snippets of information which, although accepted as being a factual record of what John actually saw, seem to throw doubt upon too futuristic an interpretation. For example, how could John write (Rev 21:24-26 - my italics) that
‘By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it...they shall bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations’
or (Rev 22:2) that he saw there
‘...the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations’
or even (Rev 21:27) that
‘...nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood...’
which implies that there’re still those ‘outside’ who will be prevented from coming into the place where the saints dwell? If the dead have been judged (Rev 20:11-15) so that only the followers of Christ are left, where do the inhabitants of the nations and the kings of the earth come from? And why do they need healing? And the statement that the saints (Rev 22:5) shall
‘...reign for ever and ever’
implies that they must have subjects over which to have dominion. The Bible certainly doesn’t speak about a second Creation and the introduction of such a possibility at this point would certainly undermine the work of Christ on the cross now that the redemptive work had been fully and finally outworked.
The presence of the nations seems only to fit a time after the first resurrection but before the judgment of the great white throne and during the thousand year reign - I would anticipate that a-millennialists would have to interpret the New Jerusalem as a symbolic or allegorical picture of the Church of Christ now for the same reasons though, as I don’t read much of their literature, I couldn’t comment on their general position.
However, Chilton’s appears to be that Rev 21:1ff is to be thought of as being a picture of eternity (that is, after the final judgment) with the valid observation that
‘...this vision of the new heaven and earth is not to be interpreted as wholly future. As we shall see repeatedly throughout our study of this chapter, that which is to be absolutely and completely true in eternity is definitively and progressively true now. Our enjoyment of our eternal inheritance will be a continuation and perfection of what is true of the Church in this life’
I note also that Chilton is quite willing to accept the vision of the city as being of a time when the nations have all been converted but I have yet to understand how they might be still in existence after the final judgment has taken place (what I’m trying to say is not that Chilton is wrong but that, whichever way one interprets the passage, there are still sections which need explaining in the light of the theory proposed).
It should also be noted that the statement of one of the elders in Rev 7:15-17 about those who have come out of the great tribulation is very similar to the reality of what the believers here experience (esp Rev 21:3-4) and it’s difficult to suppose that what was being envisaged was a lengthy delay before it would be experienced - rather, the elder’s words seem to speak about the imminence of a fulfilment.
So, similarly, the interpretation which I’ve proposed above isn’t without its problems and these need to be stated and not simply glossed over.
Firstly, the position which would accept that Rev 21:4 means that no death will ever exist again is certainly incorrect for it has to be taken to refer to the inhabitants of the New Jerusalem only - having been raised from the dead, death will be no more within their camp.
Rev 21:8 which talks about the destination of the non-inhabitants of the New Jerusalem being
‘...in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur...’
needn’t be taken to be a statement of what’s already taken place but an observation based upon the vision which has recently been witnessed by John, so that participation in the first resurrection becomes the criteria by which entry is gained into the new city. It does raise the unanswerable question, though, as to whether one is to think of no person being able to be saved during the millennium for, if there’s no second resurrection of believers - but only a second death - what becomes of those who affirm their allegiance in honesty and sincerity? Perhaps we’re to think of a second resurrection after the millennium in which both the righteous of the thousand years and the unrighteous of all time are raised and judged?
While such solutions would go far to explain the apparent unification into one event of both the righteous and unrighteous of John 5:24-29, we would be adding far too much to Scripture and the questions must be left unanswered.
The statement that the work has been ‘done’ (Rev 21:6) would have to be seen as referring to the complete outworking of the work of the cross, even though there would still be a time in the future when one final rebellion would take place.
More problematic, however, is a comparison of Rev 20:11,13 with 21:1 where, in the former, the earth and sky flees away from the presence of the One upon the throne and the sea gives up its dead when, if our interpretation is correct, the statement of the latter concerning the end of the old heaven and earth with the abolition (is that the right word?) of the sea comes before it’s continued presence.
But how symbolic or literal are we to take these statements? It’s possible that a new heaven and earth is mentioned because it has been radically transformed into the place where Jesus reigns - in other words, that it’s become new because God’s will is finally being done universally (the One who sits upon the throne also says that He makes and not creates all things new - Rev 21:5). The sea, also, might be better understood to be a comment on Rev 13:1 so that what John is seeing is that the possibility of another rising up to deceive mankind is forbidden because its source is removed.
These may all be nice ideas, but they don’t go very far to alleviating my own concerns that there’s much more to this passage than would appear at first glance.
As I noted above, Chilton is indeed right in thinking that future realities can be understood as shadows and partial realities now (Heb 6:5) but just how deep an interpretation the reader is expected to place upon the various types of stones and measured distances of the city is impossible to say.
Perhaps all that really needs to be said about this passage is that the future’s bright and that everything which the believer hopes for will be made a reality to him. For this reason, Rev 21:1-22:5 should really be read in anticipation and enjoyed as it is.
There’s good reason to think upon the aspects of the new life here and to describe them more fully but that’s outside the scope of this short commentary. However, one fact that needs repeating in case we forget is that this Book was given to John to show him how events would turn out shortly and during the first century. We shouldn’t expect that they turned out this way and, therefore, the danger which we often fall in to is to attempt to fit them into the framework of what we know about history.
This is superfluous to a large extent - but it’s also what all three millennial camps have wandered in to. It seems to me that John - along with his readers - expected the return of Jesus Christ imminently after the beast and false prophet had been revealed and taken part in a full scale rebellion against the people of God - and, ultimately, against Jesus Christ Himself.
That this would end in defeat for the forces of darkness was equally certain along with the resurrection of all believers - into the hope which had been theirs since first believing the Gospel. This return of Christ would ultimately result in the fulfilment of the promise of eternally dwelling in the presence of God (the new Jerusalem) and ruling over the people of the nations who were still left after their judgment - and that there would be one final rebellion after a specified length of time but about which they were given very little details except to be told that Jesus would, once more, be victorious and that it would herald in the judgment of all the dead.
There’s one final observation that I need to make before moving on to the conclusion of the Book (Rev 22:6-21) and it’s something which may go some way to answering some of what the a-millennialists assert. It’s possible that the thousand years is meant to be a time period that was thought to have already begun and which was to end within their own generation with the return of Jesus Christ.
In other words, instead of seeing the period as being continuous from the ascension until the present day, it continued only until the time for these events to be fulfilled and that, when it was postponed, the absolute reign of Jesus through His Church was also temporarily suspended until a time when, once more, the time for fulfilment will take place.
Personally, I think that the difficulties with such a position undermine it ever surfacing as an arguable and defensible possibility (my comments above about how Revelation chapter 12 undermines the notion that satan had been bound in the manner of Rev 20:1-3 appear to make such a position immediately untenable) but we must get back to the statement that I’ve repeated time and time again on this short overview - that Jesus showed John what was soon to take place - not what was to be fulfilled after an indeterminable length of time that no one had conceived of - it’s retrospective interpretation which raises difficulties and it’s these which have not and cannot be adequately dealt with.
2. Comments on some of the statements
Whether one takes this passage as an observation on what the believers were shortly to experience in the millennial Kingdom or as referring to a time after that when all the dead would have been fully and finally judged, there are numerous allusions here to things which have gone before and which show that God’s in the business not of scrapping something and starting again but of restoring it into what was originally planned.
For example, the statements that God will dwell with His people, reiterated (Rev 21:3) that
‘...God Himself will be with them’
and (Rev 22:4)
‘...they shall see His face...’
and are clearly references back to the Garden of Eden where God walked with mankind with no physical barriers or hindrances (Gen 3:8). Similarly, the reference to the tree of life (Rev 22:2) points back to the Garden (Gen 2:9, 3:22) and implies that eternal life is now a certainty (had Adam and Eve eaten of that tree, they would have lived forever - see the parallel in Rev 21:4).
Even the simple statement that those present in the New Jerusalem (Rev 22:5)
‘...shall reign for ever and ever’
parallels Gen 1:28 where mankind was commanded to rule over all the created order on the sixth day of Creation. The pointers are, then, not just that God does indeed ‘make all things new’ (Rev 21:5) but that He doesn’t give up on what His original will and purpose is - and that He provides for a situation whereby it can come about once more.
There are also parallels here from other passages of Scripture. John states (Rev 22:1) that he was shown
‘...the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb’
pushing the reader’s mind back to the full and final outworking of John 7:37-39 which, in turn, was quoted by Jesus from Zech 14:8 and which pictures a subjugated Creation with YHWH once more ruling over it. We should also add Ezek 47:1-12 as applicable here, for the prophet saw a time when Jerusalem would be restored after the exile when water would flow from God’s presence and outwards to bring life wherever it went - the reader should be reminded of such imagery and be able to see that God isn’t just throwing meaningless items into the structure of the future dwelling place of believers but, rather, there’s a purpose to the imagery that John sees.
The servants of God also have His name written upon their foreheads (Rev 22:4) - which relates no further back than to the sealing of God’s 144,000 in Rev 7:3 and the marking of those who belong to the beast in Rev 13:16. Instead of being a mark added to believers ‘in case they get lost’ (okay, I’m kidding), it’s there to show proof of final ownership that none can remove.
Rev 21:3-4 also integrates neatly into the elder’s observation in Rev 7:15-17 - and Jesus’ statement of Rev 1:8 is repeated in Rev 21:6 with additions and expansions. It’s rightly been said, therefore, that this passage is the pivotal passage of the entire Book for everything that’s gone before seems to point towards the fulfilment of God’s promises to His people.
It’s surprising just how many indications of the imminency of the fulfilment of the prophecies occur in these last sixteen verses of the Book. We’ve already seen that the introduction to the letter - which probably wasn’t written by the author, John - chose to repeat the statements located at the end (Rev 1:1). So, the angel states (Rev 22:6) that God has sent him
‘...to show His servants what must soon take place...’
and that the words of the Book aren’t to be sealed from the Church (Rev 22:10) because
‘...the time is near’
Jesus (although the flow of the Book makes it difficult to determine where His words have begun - the angel appears to continue to speak until the end of Rev 22:11) also speaks (Rev 22:12 repeated in 22:20) about coming ‘soon’, a word which the Living Bible explains as possibly having the meaning ‘suddenly’ or ‘unexpectedly’ which seems to be without warrant here - after all, the clear signs which will precede Jesus’ return have been shown to John and have been written down for the churches of Asia Minor to witness so it could hardly be expected that there would be a suddenness about His return that would be unexpected.
Perhaps the most categorical statement about how quickly these visions would be fulfilled is in Rev 20:18-19, even though they’re normally overlooked. It’s certain that the latter of these two verses could be applied to each and every person throughout history for it speaks about being removed from the Lamb’s Book of life, but Rev 22:18 warns the reader that
‘...if any one adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book’
and these are plagues which can only be thought of in the context of where they occur in events which lead up to the return of Jesus Christ to earth (Revelation chapters 15 and 16) - one of which is the drying up of the Euphrates to prepare the way for the armies to gather together at Armageddon. It’s only possible that a person living in the first century could have been able to understand that they wouldn’t be spared from the judgments about to be poured out on the earth.
The Book, therefore - as I’ve said on numerous occasions above - cries out for an expected fulfilment within the lifetime of the majority of those people to whom it was sent, or else the words which integrate it into time become meaningless.
Why the visions never appear to have been fulfilled is another matter entirely and, unlike Matthew chapter 24, there doesn’t appear to be anything obvious within the text which would indicate why it was that, down to this day, men and women still look for the fulfilment of John’s visions.
Within the scope of this brief overview of the Book of Revelation, nothing more needs to be said except that these final verses round the visions off instead of leaving them hanging in the air and remind the recipients to expect a speedy outworking of those things which have been presented to them.
In this sense, the letters which have been personally addressed to them (Revelation chapters 2 and 3) are to be taken with all the more seriousness for, after the warnings have been heeded and the events there described have come about, the visions will begin (Rev 4:1) - therefore, the churches should be all the more eager to be found before Jesus without spot or wrinkle, knowing that Jesus is at the very gates waiting to return.
References and sources
Aune - Revelation in three volumes in the Word Biblical Commentary series, David E Aune, Thomas Nelson Publishers
Chilton - The Days of Vengeance, David Chilton, Dominion Press
Cline - The Battles of Armageddon, Eric H Cline, University of Michigan Press
FCS - ‘The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting’ by various authors and editors, Eerdmans/Paternoster Press. In this work, I’ve used the article ‘Asia’ by Paul Treblico in Volume 2 - The Graeco-Roman Setting.
Gentry - Before Jerusalem Fell, Kenneth L Gentry, Institute for Christian Economics. A free copy of this book can be downloaded from www.freebooks.com along with a large quantity of other Dominion Theology titles such as Chilton’s commentary on Revelation.
Hughes - The Book of Revelation, Philip E Hughes, IVP
Josephus - All quotations are from ‘The Jewish War’ translated by G A Williamson (Revised edition), The Dorset Press. Page numbers refer to this print. Also available as a Penguin classic.
Morris - Revelation, Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentary, IVP/Eerdmans Publishing Company
Mounce - Revelation, Robert H Mounce, New International Commentary on the New Testament, Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company
Ozanne - The Fourth Gentile Kingdom, C G Ozanne, Henry E Walter. Although the publisher has long since ceased to exist, the book is available on line at the Open Bible Trust (www.obt.org.uk) at a very modest price (at Nov 2000 it was £2 or $3) or available directly by emailing email@example.com. There's now an on line web page accessible that contains the complete scanned book and it can be accessed by clicking here. Please be warned that its size is 11MB so dial-up users will need 40 minutes to access it. Once retrieved, however, it can be saved to the Hard Drive for offline reading.
Strongs Hebrew/Greek number xxxx (or Strongs) - Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, James Strong
Zondervan - The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopaedia of the Bible, The Zondervan Corporation, First Edition.