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?
And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood; And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed.
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, (Founded in 27BC The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterized by government headed by emperors and large territorial holdings around the Mediterranean Sea in Europe, Africa and Asia) http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/article/opr/t256/e904
- –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:
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:
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.
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
And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man: and every living soul died in the sea.
And Moses and Aaron did so, as the LORD commanded; and he lifted up the rod, and smote the waters that werein the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants; and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood.
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 who is writing a book of prophecy. 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. 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. The Seven Churches of Revelation, also known as The Seven Churches of the Apocalypse and The Seven Churches of Asia (referring to the Roman province of Asia) are seven major churches of Early Christianity. In Revelation, on the Greek island of Patmos, Jesus Christ instructs his servant John of Patmos to: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, and to Smyrna, and to Pergamos, and to Thyatira, and to Sardis, and to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.
“Churches” in this context refers to the community or local congregations of Christians living in each city, and not merely to the building or buildings in which they gathered for worship.
Characters of the The Seven Churches of Revelation
- Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7) – the church that had forsaken its first love (2:4)
- Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11) – the church that would suffer persecution (2:10)
- Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17) – the church that needed to repent (2:16)
- Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29) – the church that had a false prophetess (2:20)
- Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6) – the church that had fallen asleep (3:2)
- Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13) – the church that had endured patiently (3:10)
- Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22) – the church that was lukewarm and insipid (to God) (3:16)
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 . . Revelation’s closing emphasizes that John is the one who experienced and recorded these visions
And I John saw these things, and heard them. And when I had heard and seen, I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel which shewed me these things
with a final announcement of grace
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen
which when compared with
Brethren, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen
Galatians 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. 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 interpretation.
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
Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: 3 And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.
Revelations 2-3 and invites readers to interpret the visions of Revelations 4–22 in light of them. The Throne in Heaven.
What do the seven stars represent in Revelation?
In Revelation chapters 1—3, “seven stars” are referenced four times. There are other “sevens,” as well: seven lamp stands, seven spirits, and seven churches. Also, the first few chapters of Revelation contain letters from Jesus to seven historical churches in Asia Minor.
Seven Lamp Stands
The seven Spirits of God are mentioned four times in the Book of Revelation, and in the book of Isaiah it names each Spirit.
- Revelation 1:4 – John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne;
- Revelation 3:1 – And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.
- Revelation 4:5 – And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.
- Revelation 5:6 – And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.
Isaiah 11:2 ( New International Version)
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
In Revelation 1, John is “in the Spirit” and hears “a loud voice like a trumpet” behind him (verse 10). He turns around and sees a vision of the Lord Jesus in His glory. The Lord is standing in the midst of seven golden lampstands, and “in his right hand he held seven stars” (verse 16). John falls down at Jesus’ feet “as though dead” (verse 17). Jesus then revives John and strengthens him for the task of writing the coming revelation.
The fact that the stars are in Jesus’ right hand indicates that they are important and under His authority. The right hand is a sign of strength and control. Jesus explains to John that the “stars are the angels of the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20). An “angel” is literally a “messenger.” But that leads us to the question—are these human messengers or heavenly beings?
It could be that every local church has a “guardian angel” who oversees and protects that congregation. Even if that is the case, a better interpretation of the “messengers” of Revelation 1is that they are the pastors or bishops of the seven churches, symbolised by the lampstands. A pastor is God’s “messenger” to the church in that he is responsible to faithfully preach God’s Word to them. John’s vision shows that each pastor is being held in the Lord’s right hand. And, as we learn in John 10:28, no one can snatch them out of Jesus’ hand.
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?”. Satan “leads the whole world astray”. 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.
And it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations
“[The Beast] was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation”. 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. She has seduced the kings and inhabitants of the world to commit “fornication,” a common prophetic metaphor for idolatry, 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. She is the “great city that rules over the kings of the earth”. 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 . . .”
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.
Wife of King Ahab; promoted the worship of Baal and a supposed prophetess, probably metaphorical.
The Bible holds Queen Jezebel in such contempt that next to her other scandalous trollops like Delilah appear to be misguided paragons of virtue. If, that is, you take the Biblical account of “the harlot queen” at face value.
A daughter of the Phoenician king Ethbaal given in marriage to King Ahab of Israel, Jezebel is labeled a harlot and sorceress in the Bible (2 Kings 9:22) and would become a perennial bête noir of the righteous. Her ignoble end was thundered down in warning at putative religious deviants from medieval church pulpits, and Shakespeare used her name as a slur.
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.
For excellent pictures and discussion of the seven cities, see Cities of Revelation by Craig Koester of Luther Seminary. http://www2.luthersem.edu/ckoester/revelation/main.htm
Oxford Biblical Studies Online
Defending the Harlot Queen