How to read Revelation


  • Content: a Christian prophecy cast in apocalyptic style and imagery and finally put in letter form, dealing primarily with tribulation (suffering) and salvation for God's people and God's wrath (judgment) on the Roman Empire

  • Author: a man named John (1:1, 4, 9), well known to the recipients, traditionally identified as the apostle, the son of Zebedee (Matt 10:2)

  • Date: ca. A.D. 95 (according to Irenaeus [ca. 180])

  • Recipients: churches in the Roman province of Asia, who show a mix of fidelity and internal weaknesses

  • Occasion: the early Christians'refusal to participate in the cult of the emperor (who was acclaimed "lord" and "savior") was putting them on a collision course with the state; John saw prophetically that it would get worse before it got better and that the churches were poorly prepared for what was about to take place, so he writes both to warn and encourage them and to announce God's judgments against Rome

  • Emphases: despite appearances to the contrary, God is in absolute control of history; although God's people are destined for suffering in the present, God's sure salvation belongs to them; God's judgment will come on those responsible for the church's suffering; in the end (Rev 2l-22) God will restore what was lost or distorted at the beginning (Gen 1 -3)


The cult of the emperor flourished in the province of Asia more than elsewhere in the empire; the result was that by the end of the first Christian century, the church in all its weaknesses was headed for a showdown with the state in all its splendor and might. By the Spirit, John sees that the martyrdom of Antipas (2:13) and John's own exile (1:9) are but a small foretaste of the great havoc that the state will wreak on the church before it is all over (see 1:9; 2:10; 3:10; 6:9-11;7:14; l2:11,17).

As a Christian prophet, John also sees this conflict in the larger context of the holy war-the ultimate cosmic conflict between God (and his Christ) and Satan (see 12:1-9)-in which God wins eternal salvation for his people. The people's present role is to "triumph over [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony,.... not lov[ing] their lives so much as to shrink from death" (12:11). As God has already defeated the dragon through the death and resurrection of Christ (the Messiah is caught up to heaven ,12.5), so he will judge the state for her crimes against his people.

The book plays out these themes in a variety of ways' The earlier parts(chs. 1-6) set the stage for the unfolding drama,starting with a vision of the Risen Christ, who holds the keys to everything that follows (1:12-20),while letters to selective churches represent their varied strengths and weaknesses (chs. 2-3). These are followed by a vision of the Reigning Creator God and the Redeeming Lamb (chs. 4-5), to whom alone belong all wisdom, glory, and power and before whom all heaven and earth will bow. As John weeps because no one can be found to break the seals of the scroll (which is full of God's justice and righteous judgments), he is told that the "Lion of the tribe of Judah" (5:5; see Gen 49:9-10), the "Root of David" (Isa 11:1-2, l0), has "triumphed," but the only lion John sees is God's slain Lamb(echoing the Exodus Passover [and Isa 53:7)), who has redeemed people from all the nations. Such a conqueror can set the drama in motion by breaking the seals (Rev 6), which offer a kind of "overture" (striking all the themes) for what follows (conquest, war, famine, death [first 4 seals]-followed by many martyrdoms [seal 5], to which God responds with judgment [seal 6]). It is especially important to note that' apart from 6riot" in the final battle (19:11-21),the only way Christ appears from here on in the narrative is as the slain Lamb; this is how his followers are expected to triumph as well (12:11).

The two interlude visions (ch. 7)-of those whom God has "sealed" from his coming judgments, but pictured in battle formation for their role in the holy war, and eventually redeemed-are then followed by the opening of the seventh seal, which unfolds as the vision of the seven trumpets (chs. 8-9). These "Judgments" echo the plagues of Egypt, and like those plagues, announce temporal (and partial) judgments against their present-day Pharaoh. But as with the Egyptian

visions between the sixth and seventh trumpets (10:1-11:14) call Pharaoh, the plagues do not lead to repentance (9:20-21). The interlude on the church to prophesy and bear witness to Christ, even in the face of death, while also pronouncing the certain doom of the empire, and ending with a foretaste of the final glorious reign of God and of the Lamb (11:15-19).

The remaining visions (chs.12-22) offer explanations for and apocalyptic descriptions of the final doom of the empire. Chapters 12-14 thus give the theological and historical reasons for both the suffering and the judgment. The doom of Rome itself is portrayed in the vision of the seven bowls (chs. 15-16), which echo the trumpet plagues-but now without opportunity to repent. The whole then concludes as the (original) "tale of two cities," represented by two women (the prostitute [Rome] and the bride of the Lamb), in which the city that represents enmity against God and his people is judged (chs. 17-18). This is set against the backdrop of God's final salvation and judgment (chs. 19-20) and of the final glory of the bride as the city of God, the new

Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven (chs.21-22).


You may easily find yourself in the company of most contemporary Christians, for whom the Revelation is difficult to read, mostly because we are so unfamiliar with John's medium of communication-apocalyptic literature with its bizarre imagery. Thus, along with knowing about the historical context and the way John works out his overall design (noted above), two other items will greatly aid your reading of this marvelous book-(1) to take seriously John's own designation of his book as "the words of this prophecy" (1:3) and (2) to have some sense of how apocalyptic imagery works, even if many of the details remain a bit obscure.

By calling his work "the words of this prophecy," John is deliberately following in the train of the great prophets of the old Testament, in several ways: (1) He speaks as one who knows himself to be under the inspiration of the Spirit (1:10; 2:7; etc.). (2) He positions himself between some recent past events and what is about to happen in the near future. (3) He sets all forms of earthly salvation and judgment against the backdrop of God's final end-time judgments so that the fall of Rome is to be seen not as the end itself but against the backdrop of the final events of the end.

And (4) most important for good reading, John sees everything in terms of the fulfillment of the Old Testament. He has over 250 specific echoes of or allusions to the Old Testament so that every significant moment in his "story" is imaged almost exclusively in Old Testament language. This begins with the picture of Christ (1:12-18, with its extraordinary collage from Dan 1:9; 10:6; Ezek 43:2; et al.), climaxing in Revelation 5:5-6, where the "Lion of the tribe of Judah" (Gen 49:9), the "Root of David" (Isa 11:1), turns out to be a slain Lamb (from the Passover and sacrificial system). The church is imaged in the language of Israel in every possible way, beginning in Revelation 1:6, with its echoes of Exodus 19:6; its sins are expressed in terms of Israel's failures (Balaam/Jezebel), and its redemption in Revelation 7 is pictured first as a remnant of the twelve tribes and second as a fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, thus including the nations. So also the judgment against Rome (e.g., 1 4: 8; 1 8 : 1 -24) is expressed in the language of the prophetic judgments against Babylon (Isa 13-14; 21:1-10; 47; Jer 50-51), so much so that Rome is simply called "Babylon." The climax of the fulfillment is found in Revelation 22:1-5,with its restoration of Eden and total overturning of the curse. It is hard to imagine a more fitting way for the biblical story to end!

About John's use of apocalyptic imagery, you need to be aware of the following (for more details, see How to l, pp.236-37): (1) The imagery of apocalyptic is primarily that of fantasy--a beast with seven heads and ten horns; a woman clothed with the sun. (2) John himself interprets the most important images (Christ, 1:17-18; the church, 1:20; Satan, 12:9; Rome, 17:9, 18), which give us our essential clues to the rest. (3) Some of his images are well known and fixed-a beast coming out of the sea represents a (usually evil) empire; an earthquake represents divine judgment-while others are fluid and are used to evoke feelings as well as mental pictures. (4) Visions are to be seen as wholes and not pressed regarding all of their details, that is, the details are part of the evocative nature of the imagery, but the whole vision is what counts.

If you keep these various matters in mind as you read, you should be able not only to make your way through the Revelation but begin to appreciate some of its majesty.




Note how the prologue sets out the essential particulars: John has received a o'revelation" (Greek, apocalypsis) from Christ about what is soon to take place, which he calls "the words of this prophecy," offering a blessing on the one who reads it aloud and on the hearers in the believing communities (1:1-3). He then casts his..revelation,, in the form of a letter to the seven churches, with appropriate greetings and a doxology-to Christ!


The Historical Setting

Here you are introduced to the three primary "dramatis personae" (John, Christ the church). John situates himself in his exile as their fellow sufferer, before giving the details of his receiving the revelation ( 1:9-11 ); he will be present as the "I" who sees and hears all that follows. Then he portrays Christ as Lord of the church (1:12-16, using a collage of echoes from Dan 7:13;10.5-6; Ezek 43:2) and,Lord of history (Rev 1:17-20; note how language for God from Isa 48:12 is appropriated by the Risen Christ!).

Finally Christ addresses the seven churches (Rev 2-3), revealing his knowledge of their present situation, usually exhorting them in some way, while urging those with ears to hear what is said, and promising eschatological rewards to those who are victors in the coming strife. The

conditions of the churches are a mixed bag (some strengths and some

weaknesses). All is said in light of "the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world" (3:10).

Introductory Visions: The Scene in Heaven and on the Earth



A Vision of the Heavenly Throne

Before the awful conditions on earth are unveiled, John is shown first the incomparable and eternal majesty of God the creator (ch. 4). This is responded to by the vision of God's Lion, the slain Lamb, who through his death has triumphed over the dragon in the holy war (see ch. 12) and who, because of his redemptive work, is worshiped along with God and is deemed worthy to unveil God's righteous judgments (ch. 5).

Don't go too quickly past these visions; all the rest must be seen in their light. You may wish to read Ezekiel I and Isaiah 6:1-3 for the Old Testament background to much of what is said in Revelation 4, and Genesis 49:8-12 and Isaiah 11:1-11 for Revelation 5. What John is offering is the perspective of heaven (where there is constant praise and worship of God and the Lamb), from which his readers are to view the gruesome situation on earth. This is made clear by his including the opening of the seven seals (6:1-8:5) within the framework of this vision, as 6: 1, 3, 5, 7,and 9 make clear.


The Opening of the Seven Seals

Although part of the preceding vision, the account of the seven seals also begins a series of three visions (seals, trumpets, bowls), all of which have the same structure-a series of four, a series of two, an interlude of two visions, and a seventh.

In this first vision, the four horsemen (adapted from Zech 1; 6) represent

conquest, war, famine, and death (= the empire against God's people). The series of two (fifth and sixth seals) also prepares the way for the rest by asking the two key questions: (1) The martyrs cry out, "How long?" and are told it will get worse before it gets better (Rev 6: 10-11), and (2) those receiving God's judgment cry out (echoing Mal 3:2), "Who can stand [the day of God's wrath]?" (Rev 6:17). Thus John is given an overall prelude of the judgments that follow.

The immediate reply to this last question is the interlude. The ones who can stand are those who are "sealed" by God (Rev 7:1-8) and the multitudes who have come out of the great suffering-the redeemed of the Lord (7:9-17). As you read, note that the picture of the people of God in 7:1-8 echoes Israel's encampment in battle formation in Numbers 2, thus anticipating their own role in the holy war. This in turn leads to the next picture of their final rest in the presence of God, which echoes Isaiah 25:8; 48: 10-13.

The opening of the seventh seal then marks the unveiling of the seven angels with trumpets (Rev 8:1-5). The silence is for effect; note that the judgments about to be revealed are in direct response to the prayers of the saints (6:10).

Preliminary (Temporal) judgments of the Empire


This first set of woes announces temporal, partial judgments while also anticipating the final one (chs. 16; 18). That is made clear by the fact that the first four are clear adaptations of the Egyptian plagues, which were temporal, not final judgments on Egypt, and the repeated motif of one-third.


The Judgments of the Seven Trumpets

Note how this series of four (8:6-13) picks up the picture of God's wrath from the sixth seal, but now as trumpets (warning judgments). Watch how John adapts three of the plagues against Egypt to fit Rome, who derives its power and wealth from the sea: hail (#7;Exod 9:13-35); river into blood, split into two parts-sea and freshwater (#1; Exod 7:14-24); darkness (#9; Exod 10:21-29).

The series of two woes (the third is withheld until Rev 18) pictures the judgments in more historical terms, feeding first on Roman fears of the barbarian hordes (9:1-12; men with long hair), but pictured in terms of Joel's locust plague (Joel 1:6; 2:1-5). This is represented second as a great and decisive battle (Rev 9:13-19). But even though the judgments are of temporal and partial nature, they do not lead to repentance (9:20-21).


The Two Interlude Visions

These two visions bring us back to John and the church. The first confirms John in his prophetic task (notice especially the echoes of Ezek 2:9-3:3 in Rev 10:9-11). But note that it begins with a mighty angel standing with one foot on the land and another on the sea, thus marking these off as belonging to God, not to Satan and his beasts (see 13 :1, 11).

The second points to the prophetic role of the church, to carry out the expected end-time witness of Elijah and Moses (see 11:6), even though it means martyrdoms (w. 7-10). But instead of the third woe (anticipated in 8:13; 9:12; 11:14), the seventh trumpet introduces an anticipatory picture of the end itself-but as already present: A song of triumph celebrates the consummation of the kingdom of God (11:15-19; note that the one "who was, and is, and is to come" [4:8] is now "the One who is and who was" [1 1:17]; what "is to come" is pictured has having come).

Conflict between the Church and the Evil Powers


These three chapters form the absolute center of the book-not only literally in the overall design of the narrative, but as the theological perspective (ch. 12) and historical reasons (ch.13) for everything, while chapter 14 prepares the way for the rest of the book.


War in Heaven and Its Aftermath

Note how the two visions of chapter 12 offer the theological key to the book. In his coming and ascension (12:5, the whole story is recalled by picturing the beginning and end), Christ has defeated the dragon (pictured as war in heaven in vv. 7-11), who now goes off to wreak havoc on Christ's people.

Thus "salvation" has already come; Satan has already been cast down, so "rejoice, you heavens." But the end is not yet, so "woe to the earth." Knowing that his time is limited Satan will pursue the Messiah's people (thus pointing to ch. 13), who will overcome him through Christ's death and their own bearing witness to it, even to the point of death.


The Beasts out the Sea and the Earth

This vision sets out the historical context for their suffering-prophesying how Satan will pursue them (economic restrictions and martyrdom)- which will take place because of their rejection of emperor worship.

The beast from the sea is an adaptation of Daniel's fourth beast from the sea (Dan 7:2, 7 -8, 23-25). Pictured is Rome in all its apparently invincible might (note how in Rev 13:4 the people parody the Divine Warrior hymn from Exod 15:l 1) as it makes war against God's people (Rev 13:7)-which will lead to many martyrdoms (v. 10, echoing Jer 15:2). Note: the "fatal wound" that has been healed (Rev 13:3, 12) alludes to the year A.D. 69, when at the death of Nero the world expected Rome to collapse as it went through three emperors in succession. The fact that it didn't is what made it seem invincible.

The beast from the earth represents the priesthood of the emperor cult that flourished in the province of Asia. Note how those who do not bear the mark of the first beast (666 is a play on the name of Nero) are isolated economically.


Outcome of the Holy War: Vindication and Judgment

This series of visions then sets the stage for the final visions, picturing first the redeemed martyrs as first fruits standing on eschatological Mount Zion(vv.1-5), and then the fall of Rome in the language of Old Testament prophetic judgments-especially those against Babylon (which theme will be carried on to the end). The collection of brief vignettes (vv. 6-13) thus prepares the way for the rest of the book, as do the twin visions of harvesting the earth and trampling the winepress (w. 14-20). which point to the future harvest of God's people and the judgment of Rome.

The Seven Bowls: God's judgment against "Babylon"


This third and final set of judgments (see chs. 6; 8-9) specifically singles out God's judgments against Rome.


The Prelude

Note how this prelude to the judgment starts with John back in heaven (cf. chs. 4-6), while the martyrs sing the song of Moses and the Lamb-an exquisite collage of passages from all over the Old Testament (see the TNIV note on 15:3-4). Note also how the setting (w. 5-8) picks up the imagery from 1 1:19.


Babylon Is Judged

Watch how these woes echo the trumpets, but now without the "one third" qualifier. As with the first four trumpets, the first four bowls are adaptations of the Egyptian plagues; note how the third one (water into blood) receives an immediate response in terms of the lex talionis (eye for eye). Here the set of two continues this motif. The interlude in this case (w. 15-16) is noticeably brief and enigmatic (a call to readiness and a reference to Armageddon), while the final bowl of wrath repeats the earthquake from the sixth seal, at the same time continuing the plague motif (hail).

Wrap-Up: The (Original) Tale of Two Cities (17:1-22:21)

Using the powerful and evocative images of the two cities as two contrasting women-Rome as an opulent harlot; the church as the bride of Christ-John now places the judgment of Rome against the backdrop of God's final judgments and salvation' Note especially how the two are introduced (17:3; 21:9-10) and concluded (19:9-10; 22:7-9) in similar fashion and that the one (the fall of Rome) is seen in the "desert" (17:3) and the other (the new Jerusalem) on a "mountain great and high" (21:10).


God Judges the Harlot for Economic Oppression

Note how this initial picture of Rome as an expensive prostitute sitting on the beast (ch. 1 7) echoes several such pictures of Tyre and Babylon in the prophets (Isa 23:15-18; Jer 51:6-7). Note also that the interpretations in Rev 17 :9 and 17: 18 make it clear who Babylon really is.

John then proceeds to sing a funeral dirge over her (18:1-3-talk about prophetic boldness!), followed by a call to God's people to escape from "Babylon" (18:4-8; cf. Isa 48:20;52:11 Jer 51:45; etc.) and the resultant mourning by those who participated in her sins (the "kings of the earth" [provincial governors], merchants, merchant marine; Rev 18:9-24). Here at last is the third woe (see 8:12; 11:14), which itself takes the form of three woes (18:10, 16, 19). Here is the one place where John generally abandons the apocalyptic mode for a prophetic one, especially denouncing Rome's economic policies by which it grew enormously wealthy off the backs of the poor. Note how the immediate response to her doom is rejoicing in heaven (v. 20; cf. 12:12a), while another angel announces the finality of her doom (18:21-23) with echoes from Isaiah 25:10, ending once more on the ultimate reason for her doom-the killing of the martyrs (Rev 18:24).

And now watch as the threefold "Woe" is responded to with a threefold "Hallelujah" in heaven (19:1, 3, 6). And so John returns to the scene in heaven (from ch. 4), where the wedding supper of the Lamb and his bride, the church, is envisioned (19:1-10).


The Last Battle

The interlude between the "destiny" of the two cities brings conclusion to the theme of the holy war, both in John and in the Bible as a whole. This picture forms the final (eschatological) backdrop against which the judgment of Rome itself is to be understood. Christ is thus pictured as the Divine Warrior who takes on the beast, the prophet, and Satan himself ( 19:11 -20: 15); note especially how this "unholy trinity" is one by one thrown into the lake of fire (19:20; 20:10).

Observe how John pictures a separation between the final demise of the two beasts and that of Satan (20:7-10). This suggests, along with the scene in verses 1-6, where the martyrs are pictured as secure and presently reigning with Christ, that Satan still has a further time after the overthrow of Rome. The final event is the judgment of those who have followed him (w. 11-15).


The New Jerusalem: The Bride of the Lamb

Structurally 21:1-8 belongs to the "last battle": note how it anticipates the city of God (described in the vision that begins in w. 9-10), but also concludes (v. 8) with a note about those who have been judged in the "second death." Notice especially how it begins with language from Isaiah 65:17-19, with its "new heaven and new earth."

Thus John's final vision pictures the city of Go{ a new Jerusalem, coming down to earth, where there is a restoration of Eden and a reversal of the effects of the Fall (Rev 21:2-22:6). Watch for two things: (1) The city echoes language and ideas from Ezekiel's vision of the eschatological temple, where Yahweh's glory returns to the temple (Ezek 40:1-43:12), and (2) the city itself rs the temple precisely because it is the place of God's own dwelling (Rev 21:3-4,11,22-23; 22:3-5). And note finally how much of 22:l-5 echoes Eden restored, also using imagery from Ezekiel 47 :1-12.



You can recognize this as a true epilogue in the sense that it echoes many themes from the prologue. Thus, as a fitting conclusion to his vision that has taken the form of a letter, John both exhorts and invites his readers-and us-to participate in God's great future through the coming of Christ.

It is hard to imagine the biblical story ending in a more significant

way. Here is the final wrap-up of the story, not only in the vision of the

restored paradise in 22:l-5 but as the climax of the story of God's saving

his people and of his judgment on those who reject him. John gathers

up all the main strands from the Old Testament and places them in

the context of the New, with Christ and his salvation of God's people as

the centerpiece of the whole.