The Revelation of Jesus was written by John, who was quite possibly the same John who wrote the Gospel of John and the letters of John. In the opening paragraph, John tells us that he is writing an Apocalypse (translated – Revelation). An Apocalypse is a type of Jewish literature which would have been very familiar to John’s readers. They would have been familiar with other texts written in this same style: Ezekiel, Daniel, 4 Ezra, 1 Enoch. An Apocalypse is a recount of a prophet’s symbolic vision that reveals a heavenly perspective on history and current events so that the presents can be seen in perspective of history’s final outcome.
This Apocalypse is also a Prophesy (1:3), which is God’s word spoken through a prophet to warn or comfort them in a time of crisis. John is placing his writing within the tradition of the biblical prophets of the Old Testament but bringing their messages to a climax.
This Apocalyptic Prophesy we call Revelation was written as a letter to people whom John knew (1:4, 22:21). It was sent to seven churches in the province of Asia (Modern day Turkey). Seven is a big number for John. He weaves it into almost everything in his letter. In this style of writing, almost everything is symbolic. I’ve provided some notes below from a class I did on symbolism in Revelation for your own personal study. Seven is the number of completeness based on the Sabbath cycle. John uses these numbers and symbols, drawing on images from the Old Testament, to get his readers to go back and re-examine the Old Testament texts he is alluding to. The early church would have been familiar with these texts because it was the scripture they were reading. This is one of the main reasons I wanted us to work through The Story together so we could lay more of a foundation of the biblical story the early church was familiar with. Revelation was not written to be decoded two-thousand years later to predict the end of the world. John is speaking into the context of the churches in the province of Asia and still has a lot to say to us today, but we must read it within the context in which John writes it.
The letter begins with a vision of the risen Jesus! John is exiled on the island of Patmos and the church was undergoing persecution under the reign of Domitian. They had already been persecuted by Nero and the question we all must face is whether or not we will remain true to Christ when persecution comes. Jesus is standing amongst seven golden lampstands (reference to Zechariah 4) which represent seven churches. The letter starts with a reminder that the risen Jesus is “the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” This picture of Jesus and reminder of the reality of his resurrection comes with the proclamation, “Do not be afraid!” Read the letters to the churches. What is the mood of the letters? Are these churches undergoing persecution? Where is Jesus in these churches? Why would churches be persecuted? Is it possible for a church to not be worthy of receiving persecution?
Revelation, I believe, is written to encourage these churches (and us) to remember our first love, know where our hope is, and to live in such a way that we stand apart from the world. When we know who sits on the throne, everything else should come into perspective. The vision that follows the letters is of God on the throne in heaven and the slain Lamb opening the scroll. Revelation points to the dark powers that are behind every government that has ever ruled on this earth and reminds Christians where their allegiance resides. God is on his throne and at the end of Revelation, a New Heaven and a New Earth where God’s presence is with His people. When we encounter the chaos of this world, will be remain faithful to God on the throne or put our trust in the rulers of this world? When the church is moved to the margins of society and no longer has the power it once had, will we assimilate into the culture to not draw attention to ourselves or will we trust in God’s provision? When the world goes dark, we remember that we follow the Slain Lamb, the risen Lord, and we say, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.”
Symbolism in Revelation
Here are some notes from a class I taught on symbolism in Revelation. I would not call it exhaustive but I leave it here for you to use in your own personal reading of Revelation:
Why use symbols?
- The symbols probably are not a secret language intended to conceal the message from potential enemies. Symbolism is simply the most appropriate language for conveying the fantastic and mysterious nature of what is being revealed. The symbols offer more vague association than direct correspondence, and even when we “get” the symbols, we may feel like there is much that we don’t understand. That is partly the point.
Some symbols are interpreted for us:
- Seven lampstands are churches; seven stars are angels (1:20)
- Four horses are conquest, slaughter, famine, death (6:1–8)
- Red dragon is Satan (12:9)
- Seven heads are seven mountains, but also seven kings (17:9–10)
- Ten horns are ten kings yet to receive their kingdoms (17:12)
- The woman is “the great city” (17:18)
Colors can have symbolic associations:
- White = victory or purity (1:14; 2:17; 3:4–5, 18; 4:4; 6:2, 11; 7:9, 13–14; 14:14; 19:11, 14; 20:11)
- Red = destruction (6:4; 12:3), bloodshed (6:12), re (9:17)
- Purple = royalty, luxury (17:4; 18:12, 16)
- Scarlet = perverse luxury (17:3–4; 18:12, 16)
- Black = mourning (6:5, 12)
- Pale green = death (6:8)
Numbers can have symbolic associations:
- 3 = the spiritual realm (8:13; 16:13; 21:13)
- 3 1/2 = tribulation (11:9; cf. Dan. 7:25; 9:27; 12:7); likewise, 1,260 days = 42 thirty-day months or 3 1⁄2 years (11:3; 12:6)
- 4 = the earth (4:6–8; 5:6, 8, 14; 6:1–8; 7:1–2, 11; 9:13–15; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4; 20:8; 21:16)
- 6 = failure (13:18 [three sixes])
- 7 = perfection or completion (1:4, 12, 16, 20; 3:1; 4:5; 5:1, 6; 8:2; 10:3; 11:13; 12:3; 13:1; 15:1, 7; 17:9); but sometimes 7 appears to signify Rome, which was built on seven hills (12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 7, 9, 11)
Numbers can have symbolic associations:
- 10 = totality (2:10; 12:3; 31:1; 17:3, 7, 12, 16)
- 12 = Israel (12:1; 21:12–14, 16, 21; 22:2); likewise 24 (4:4, 10; 5:8, 14; 11:16; 19:4) and 144 (7:4–8; 14:1–5; 21:17)
- 1,000 = a very great number; thousands of thousands = unimaginably large (5:11); 144,000 = a large Jewish multitude (7:4–8; 14:1–5); 7,000 = a “complete” large number, as many as necessary (11:13); 1,000 years = a very long time (20:2–7)
Imagery often recalls the Old Testament:
- Trumpet blasts (1:10; 4:1; 8:2–11:15): see Genesis19:16–19; Joel 2:1
- Blackened sun, moon like blood, falling stars (6:12–13): see Isaiah 13:10; 50:3; Joel 2:10
- Plagues (8:7–9:20): see Exodus 7:17; 9:18; 10:4, 21
- Hybrid beast (13:2): see Daniel 7:4–6
Some imagery is simply poetic and doesn’t appear to stand for anything specific:
- “a rainbow that looks like an emerald” (4:3)
- “a sea of glass, like crystal” (4:6)