Focus On Revelation

Focus On Revelation

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The Book of Revelation

Peter S. Perry

What is the book of Revelation? A frightening display of human and divine violence? A step-by-step chronology of end-time events? A liberating vision of God's triumph over evil? Because the genre is hard to define, it has been read in all of these ways. Does the book itself put any limits on how it is read?

Most recently, some Christians who interpret Revelation as a chronology of end-time events have even sought to identify the 2010 Gulf oil spill with the events following the second trumpet: "The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea became blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed" (Rev 8:8–9). In this reading, the burning Deepwater Horizon oil rig becomes the "great mountain, burning with fire." One blogger writes that Revelation's author "was seeing visions of the far future and was attempting to describe what he saw, the above photo and his words 'fit' perfectly."

Not all readers agree. Another blogger, who also reads Revelation as predictions of the end-time but not as a step-by-step chronology, argues that this oil rig was not "thrown into the sea" and did not destroy any ships. Another writer in Newsweek dismisses any direct connection between the oil spill and Revelation. She concludes, "Through a biblical lens, it's hard to see the oil spill as anything but God's punishment for greed and a disrespect of Creation."

Connecting the book of Revelation to current events is not new. In the 16th century, Martin Luther rhetorically called Pope Leo X the Beast (and the Vatican countered that Luther deserved the title), but some today use the label for Benedict XVI. A few still argue that the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is the Beast. The book of Revelation is a complex and multivalent work, almost like a Rorschach test: it may tell more about the person reading it than the book itself.

Does Revelation put any limits on how people read it? I argue that it does place boundaries on careful readers, similar to beams on the side of the road. These limits are not guardrails, however. They do not prevent a reader from going off the road, but the ride gets bumpy when we don't interpret in the wide middle path.

These boundaries are illuminated by the complex genre of Revelation. The book is

  • --an Apocalypse, or "unveiling,"
  • --a series of visions assembled by John, a prophet in 1st-century Asia Minor,
  • --a letter intended to be performed for particular audiences,
  • --an unveiling of the deception of the Roman Empire,
  • --a work of competitive prophecy with Christian prophets who support Rome,
  • --a hopeful vision of the transformation of people, nations, and creation, and
  • --a call to serve God and the Lamb.
  • Each facet of Revelation's genre deserves a closer look.

    The title of the last book in the Christian Bible is given in Rev 1:1: Apocalypsis tou Iesou Christou, usually translated from Greek into English as "A Revelation of Jesus Christ." We get the term "apocalypse" from its title, which is often (mis)applied in modern times. Ironically, the History Channel made a documentary called Mega Disasters: The Oil Apocalypse, not about oil spills but about our economies after we run out of oil. However, the word "apocalypse" literally means "revelation" or "unveiling," not "mega-disaster." It is an "unveiling," meaning it reveals a vision of something not seen before. The question is: Is Revelation revealing visions to correlate to current events, or to something else?

    People often mistakenly refer to the book as "Revelations" (plural) even though the title is singular. Although inaccurate, referring to the book as "Revelations" illustrates the fact that the book contains visions introduced separately by formulae such as "And I saw . . ." and "And I looked and saw . . . ." John presents them as if he saw one vision after another in chronological order, but this does not mean the contents of the visions are chronologically related. Twice John sees the sea become blood, the first time as the result of "a great mountain burning with fire" (8:8–9) and the second following the second angel pouring his bowl into the sea (16:3). How are these events related? Are they two different experiences, two descriptions of one event, or something else? They do recall the Exodus plague of water turned to blood (Exod 7:20–21). Other trumpet and bowl events recall other Exodus punishments (e.g., locusts, darkness). The general similarities suggest John is seeing a new Exodus, but the plague of blood does not explain the "mountain burning with fire."

    Early manuscripts included another title, "The Revelation to John." John is a prophet (22:9) who is writing a book of prophecy (1:3). One tradition identifies him as John the son of Zebedee, the fisherman who was one of the twelve chosen by Jesus. But John of Revelation does not seem to be one of the twelve apostles; one vision suggests they are a separate group (21:14; cf. 18:20). Another tradition identifies him to be John the Elder, a disciple of Jesus who was not one of the twelve but who gave eyewitness testimony of Jesus to Papias in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) in the early 2nd century. Most scholars today conclude that he is another John, a Christian prophet who was known by the seven congregations in Asia Minor at the end of the 1st century, but otherwise unknown to us.

    What we know about late 1st century Asia Minor sets up some boundaries for how we understand Revelation. When John speaks of the "sea" in Rev 8:8–9 and elsewhere, he and his audiences would think of the Mediterranean Sea. Many did have experience with the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE .

    Pliny the Younger (whose uncle was killed on a ship trying to rescue survivors) describes the eruption in a way that describes a "burning mountain of fire" and the death of sea creatures.

    We also saw the sea sucked away and apparently forced back by the earthquake: at any rate it receded from the shore so that quantities of sea creatures were left stranded on dry sand. On the landward side a fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire, like flashes of lightning magnified in size (Ep. 6.20.9, LCL, Radice).

    Natural disasters such as volcanoes, earthquakes, locusts, and floods were a part of the 1st-century Mediterranean experience and provide a context (and a limit) for interpreting Revelation.

    The book is also a letter for particular audiences. It has an epistolary opening similar to other ancient letters, "John . . . to the seven congregations in Asia Minor . . ." with a greeting similar to what Paul uses: "Grace and peace . . ." (1:4, compare Gal 1:1–5). Revelation's closing emphasizes that John is the one who experienced and recorded these visions (22:8) with a final announcement of grace (22:21, compare Gal 6:18). Although a letter, it was intended to be performed, not read silently. The book includes a blessing on the one who reads it aloud and a blessing on those who hear it performed (1:3). As with other letters (e.g., 1 Thess 5:27; Col 4:16), it was intended for multiple audiences. Just as we interpret 1 Corinthians as addressed to a specific ancient audience, reading Revelation as a letter to the seven congregations limits our interpretation2.

    Each audience faced different problems. Christians in Ephesus rejected some unnamed apostles and the Nicolaitans, a group of prophets also found in Pergamum who taught that Christians may participate in social meals where meat was sacrificed to idols. In Smyrna, impoverished Christians faced conflict with a Jewish (-Christian?) group John demonized as "a synagogue of Satan." In Pergamum, Antipas was killed for his belief—the only evidence of violent persecution. Believers in Pergamum faithfully witnessed to Jesus but listened to the Nicolaitan prophets, who taught accommodation to Roman imperial culture. In Thyatira, John identified a female Christian prophet as " Jezebel" who, like the Nicolaitans, taught that Christians may eat idol meat. The believers in Sardis had a reputation for their faith but stopped acting on the message they heard. Similar to Smyrna, Christians in Philadelphia faced a "synagogue of Satan." In Laodicea, Christians were wealthy and comfortable participants in the imperial economy. John addresses the specific situations in Rev 2–3 and invites readers to interpret the visions of Rev 4–22 in light of them.

    The "unveiling" in Rev 4–22 exposes what lies behind all these problems. John sees what the congregations could not: the deceptive and alluring work of Satan and his minions—the Beast (the Roman Empire), Babylon (the city of Rome), and false prophets. Our interpretation of Revelation in the 21st century is limited by these 1st-century opponents, as described below.

    John sees the Beast from the Sea as a symbol for the Roman Empire: "Who is like the Beast? Who can make war against him?" (13:4). Satan "leads the whole world astray" (12:9; see also 20:3). The Greek word translated here as "world" (oikoumenê) is often used to refer to the inhabited world and, in the 1st century, the Roman Empire. "[The Beast] was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation" (13:7). And especially in Asia Minor, the deified Rome (Dea Roma) was worshipped for bringing peace and prosperity. John warns that "all the inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast" (13:8) rather than God, the One-Sitting-on-the-Throne.

    The city of Rome is given a graphic, grotesque, and symbolic exposé in Rev 17–18. The seat of Roman power is depicted as a prostitute sitting on the Beast, decked in purple and scarlet cloth, gold, jewels, and pearls—most of which are brought from the provinces for Rome's rapacious elite consumption (see 18:11–14). She has seduced the kings and inhabitants of the world to commit "fornication," a common prophetic metaphor for idolatry (17:1–3; cf. Hosea 2:5), the same accusation leveled against the Nicolaitans in Pergamum and " Jezebel" in Thyatira (2:14, 21). The city is called "Babylon" (17:5), a symbol of every empire that has opposed God and oppressed God's people (e.g., Isa 13). She is the "great city that rules over the kings of the earth" (17:18). John sees her destruction ahead and hears a heavenly voice urging Christians not to participate in her idolatrous economy: "Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so you do not share in her plagues . . ." (18:4–5).

    The false prophet (aka "Beast from the Earth") links Satan and the Beast to every prophet who leads people astray (13:11–18; see 16:13; 19:20; 20:10), especially the prophetess "Jezebel" (2:20). The false prophet persuades people to worship the Beast with statues and accepting marks on their bodies like slaves in order to participate in the economy. Similarly, many local leaders in Asia Minor were eager to please Roman representatives with statues and social honors like feasts and games and with coins for commerce bearing the mark of the emperor2. John warns his listeners that eating meals with idol meat and participation in the imperial economy are equivalent to worshipping statues and accepting slavery to Satanic forces.

    In this way, the book of Revelation is a work of competitive prophecy, and exaggerated and violent language should be read in that context. The Nicolaitans and "Jezebel" prophesy in favor of accommodation to social meals, rituals, and economy. John opposes any capitulation to idolatrous powers. John's visions call for strict loyalty to the One-Sitting-on-the-Throne and to the Lamb who was slaughtered to buy people out of slavery. People are called not to be slaves with the Beast's mark but slaves wearing God's seal (7:1–8; 9:4; 14:1; 22:4; see 3:12). John calls for faithful endurance and witness against the pressures to accommodate, including visions of other Christian prophets. John's visions of judgment and destruction (e.g., a vision of "a burning mountain of fire") create fear of allying oneself with these prophets and their message of accommodation. The visions of confidence and protection encourage Christians to resist idolatrous powers, even if this leads to persecution and death.

    Despite John's pessimism, his visions end not in destruction but in hope and transformation for the entire world. John sees that all the nations and even their leaders will recognize God as the One-Sitting-on-the-Throne and live by the light of the Lamb:

    And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of earth will bring their glory into it ( 21:23–24).

    This is a reversal of the earlier visions that showed "the kings of the earth with their armies" killed by the sword of the Rider of the White Horse (Rev 19:19–21). At the end of Revelation, the kings of the earth and the nations are servants who walk by God's guidance and bring their glory to God's empire. The vision of destruction is transformed to a vision of service, which signals readers to not take the Book of Revelation as a step-by-step chronology but as performed prophecy to persuade hearers to resist idolatry and serve only God and the Lamb.


    1 For excellent pictures and discussion of the seven cities, see Cities of Revelation by Craig Koester of Luther Seminary.
    2Especially during the reign of Domitian


    • Aune, David E. Revelation. 3 vols. World Biblical Commentary 52a–c. Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1997–1998.
    • Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999.
    • Blount, Brian K. Revelation: A Commentary. New Testament Library. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2009.
    • Schussler-Fiorenza, Elizabeth. The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment. 2d ed. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress, 1998.

    Related Content

    Biblical Passages and Apocrypha

    Exod 7:20–21
    1 Thess 5:27
    Col 4:16

    Subject Entries and Commentary

    Apocalyptic Texts
    Revelation, Book of (in relation to Dead Sea Scrolls)
    Not the End of the World as We Know It: The Book of Revelation
    The Book of Revelation (the Revelation to John)
    Roman Empire
    The Reign of Domitian
    The Cultural Context of Prophecy
    Prophecy in the Second Temple Period
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