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Introduction to the Book of Revelation

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles

Introduction to the Book of Revelation Four main views of Revelation
Structure of the book Main Characters in the book
Virtual Seven Churches Jesus the Lamb
Allusions to the Old Testament
Millennium Rapture and tribulation

Commentary

I: Prologue (1:1-8) II: Letters to seven churches (1:9 - 3:22)
III: Seven Seals (4:1 - 8:1) IV: Seven trumpets (8:2 - 11:18)
V: Seven signs (11:19 - 15:4) VI: Seven Bowls (15:5 - 16:21)
VII: Prostitute / Babylon (17:1 - 19:10) VIII: Seven judgements (19:11 - 21:8)
IX: Bride / Jerusalem (21:9 - 22:9) X: Epilogue (22:10-21)

Authorship

The authorship of the Book of Revelation is greatly disputed, with many arguments as to whether the apostle John wrote it or not. The traditional claim is that it was written by John the apostle, one of the sons of Zebedee, the brother of James, the disciple who Jesus loved. He was one of the three who listened to the Olivet Discourse, and wrote the gospel and three letters.

From the book itself we see that the writer calls himself John (1:4, 22:8), your brother (1:9), who shares in the tribulation and patient endurance (1:9). He also claims to be a prophet: (1:3, 10:11, 19:10, 22:6-7,10,18).

From the writings of the church fathers there is a consistent tradition of John the apostle being the author. Justin Martyr wrote in AD 140, “And further, there was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that thereafter the general, and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all men would likewise take place.” (Dialogue with Trypho 81).
Eusebius refers to Justin’s words saying, “And he (Justin Martyr) mentions the Apocalypse of John, saying distinctly that it was the apostle's.” (Eusebius: Ecclesiasticsal History 4:18)

Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons in France, who was a disciple of Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of John, wrote this, “John also, the Lord's disciple, when beholding the sacerdotal and glorious advent of His kingdom, says in the Apocalypse: "I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And, being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks ...” (Against Heresies 4:20:11), and this, “And if any one will devote a close attention to those things which are stated by the prophets with regard to the [time of the] end, and those which John the disciple of the Lord saw in the Apocalypse, he will find that the nations [are to] receive the same plagues universally, as Egypt then did particularly.” (Against Heresies 4:30:4)

Tertullian also wrote about the author of Revelation, saying, “For although Marcion rejects his Apocalypse, the orders of the bishops (thereof), when traced up to their origin, will yet rest on John as their author.” (Against Marcion 4:5), and, “Now the Apostle John, in the Apocalypse, describes a sword which proceeded from the mouth of God as "a doubly sharp, two-edged one.” (Against Marcion 3:14)

Jerome also commented on John as follows, “An Apostle, because he wrote to the Churches as a master; an Evangelist, because he composed a Gospel, a thing which no other of the Apostles, excepting Matthew, did; a prophet, for he saw in the island of Patmos, to which he had been banished by the Emperor Domitian as a martyr for the Lord, an Apocalypse containing the boundless mysteries of the future." (Against Jovianus 26)”.

He also described the historical occasion of John’s writing, “In the fourteenth year then after Nero, Domitian having raised a second persecution he was banished to the island of Patmos, and wrote the Apocalypse, on which Justin Martyr and Irenaeus afterwards wrote commentaries. But Domitian having been put to death and his acts, on account of his excessive cruelty, having been annulled by the senate, he returned to Ephesus under Pertinax, and continuing there until the tithe of the emperor Trajan, founded and built churches throughout all Asia, and, worn out by old age, died in the sixty-eighth year after our Lord's passion and was buried near the same city.” (Lives of Illustrious Men 9).

Arguments against apostolic authorship

It has often been suggested that Revelation was written by a different John from the gospels and letters. The letters of two and three John refer to 'the elder', who is suggested as the author of Revelation.

The first to suggest this was Dionysius of Alexandria, who wrote this, "For blessed," says he, "is he that keepeth the words of the prophecy of this book; and I John who saw and heard these things." That this person was called John, therefore, and that this was the writing of a John, I do not deny. And I admit further, that it was also the work of some holy and inspired man. But I could not so easily admit that this was the apostle, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, and the same person with him who wrote the Gospel which bears the title according to John, and the catholic epistle. But from the character of both, and the forms of expression, and the whole disposition and execution of the book, I draw the conclusion that the authorship is not his. For the evangelist nowhere else subjoins his name, and he never proclaims himself either in the Gospel or in the epistle." (Dionysus of Alexandria, Fragments 1:1:4)

It has also been noted that the Greek grammar of Revelation is inferior to the gospel. The gospel is in simple clear accurate Greek, while Revelation is said to contain bad grammar and generally to be uncultured. However there are some possible explanations of this. John probably dictated the gospel and letters to a professional secretary, but wrote Revelation himself, hence the bad Greek. He was on Patmos, in difficult circumstances, where he would not have access to a secretary, and he was not an educated man (Acts 4:13). Also there is no reason why John was limited to using only one style of Greek during his lifetime. It should be noted that Revelation is in a completely different literary style from the gospel, describing apocalyptic visions. John does break grammatical rules, but at other times keeps to the rules perfectly, within the same book. In other words, the so-called mistakes could be deliberate. John had just had a vivid experience of meeting the risen Lord Jesus. He was 'in the Spirit', so was obviously deeply affected by what he had seen.

Arguments for apostolic authorship

No other person could identify himself simply as 'John', as an accepted authority in the church. From church history we know that John, the apostle, spent the last part of his ministry in Ephesus, where the first letter is addressed to. The book is saturated in the Old Testament, in the 404 verses, there are over 600 allusions to the OT, although there are no direct quotations. Many concepts and expressions are found in John and Revelation. These include the unique description of Jesus as the 'logos' (Jn 1:1, Rev 19:13), as well as Jesus being the lamb (Jn 1:29, 36, Rev 5:6). Others include, “He that thirsts to drink water of life” (Jn 4:13-14, 7:37, Rev 21:6b, 22:17), “He that overcomes” (Jn 16:33, Rev 2:7, 1 Jn 5:4), 'keeping the commandments' (Jn 14:21, Rev 12:17), 'the First resurrection' (Jn 5:24-29, Rev 20:5). Other concepts also include Satan being cast out at the cross (Jn 12:31, Rev 12:9,13), and Jesus being pierced (from Zech 12:10) (Jn 19:37, Rev 1:7)

In both books there is the same sharp contrast drawn between good and evil and the conflict between this world and God's kingdom, the same emphasis on being a witness, or bearing testimony and on the keeping of God's commandments. Revelation gives witness to the risen Lord, and the Gospel gives witness to the incarnate Lord in the flesh.

Historical background

The date that Revelation was written is greatly disputed. Dates fall generally into two groups. The early date, before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, during or shortly after the reign of emperor Nero, and the late date in the nineties, during the reign of Domitian. John the apostle is known to have lived until the nineties.

The most important thing to note is that the book of Revelation is a letter addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor, so the book has an occasion, as do all the other letters in the New Testament. Also it is essential to remember that the whole book was relevant to the first readers in the seven churches. Any interpretation which does not take this into account should be considered most suspect.

Reading the letters, there are three basic problems facing the seven churches: Jewish hostility, false teachers in the churches, and persecution

1) Jewish hostility

In the letters to the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia, John refers to the "synagogue of Satan", "those who say they are Jews and are not" (2:9, 3:9). In the Roman empire, Jews were disliked but respected. They had been well established in most Roman cities for centuries. The Christians were seen as a heretical cult. Under the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the Jews had an easier time, but suffered under Vespasian and his sons, Titus and Domitian, especially after the Jewish revolt and destruction of Jerusalem (AD 66-70). Vespasian made the Jews pay their temple tax to the temple to Zeus in Rome instead of to the Jerusalem temple, once that was destroyed. Christians did not have to pay this. The Jews were exempt from Caesar worship, the Christians were not. Jews in the cities of Asia had probably reported Christians who refused to worship Caesar or to participate in pagan worship to the Roman authorities.

2) False teachers in the churches

The following are mentioned: The Nicolaitans in Ephesus, who hated them (2:6), and in Pergamum (2:15) who followed them, the teachings of Balaam in Pergamum (2:14), the prophetess Jezebel and the deep things of Satan in Thyatira (2:20,24). Most of these would involve compromise with idol worship, eating food offered to idols and sexual immorality (2:14,20). The Nicolaitans are an unknown group. All the these are probably different varieties of what was basically the same group and teaching. Irenaeus identifies the Nicolaitans as followers of Cerinthus, the gnostic teacher: "John, the disciple of the Lord, preaches this faith, and seeks, by the proclamation of the Gospel, to remove that error which by Cerinthus had been disseminated among men, and a long time previously by those termed Nicolaitans, who are an offset of that "knowledge" falsely so called” (Against Heresies 3:11:1)

3) Caesar worship

The Roman province of Asia has been described as a religious Disney-land, where people worshipped a multitude of gods, practised astrology, immorality and pagan religion. This the religious background to letters to the Ephesians and Colossians. The cult of Caesar worship was started in Asia to bond the Roman empire together. The intention was to unite the empire in patriotism to Rome. The early emperors did not take their divinity seriously, but were pronounced to be divine after their death. There were imperial temples in several of the cities named in Revelation, and caesar worship became particularly strong in Asia from the early second century onwards. In Ephesus, there was a temple to Domitian, with an eight high metre statue. After Nero, Domitian was one of the early emperors to claim divinity, and was expected to be addressed as 'Dominus et Deus', meaning 'Lord and God'. Emperor worship was enforced more strictly during the reign of Trajan in the early second century.

In the Book of Revelation, persecution has already begun, at least in a small way, and is expected to get worse. The troubles had already started by Antipas being killed in Pergamum, where Satan's throne is (2:13), John being on Patmos, because of the gospel (1:9), and some already being martyred (6:9). Further troubles were predicted: In Smyrna, the Devil was about to throw some into prison, and tribulation for ten days. They were called to be faithful unto death (2:10). The promise was made to Pergamum that they will be kept from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole earth (3:10). The earth is warned that the devil has come down to you in great wrath (12:12), and the great harlot is drunk with the blood of the saints (16:6, 17:6, 18:24, 19:2, 20:4).

In later years, all citizens of the empire were required each year to go to the temple to Roma, the deity of the Roman empire manifested as the current emperor, burn a pinch of incense to Caesar, and say, 'Caesar is Lord'. A certificate called a libellus was signed by the authorities to show that the person had done their duty in worshipping the emperor. Failure to produce a libellus would disqualify a person from joining trade guilds, so they would suffer economically, and refusal to worship the emperor would result in death by burning or being thrown to wild beasts in the arena.

This obviously caused great difficulties for the Christians, as only Jesus is Lord. Christians are called to worship Christ alone. The choice would be to worship Christ or Caesar. In Revelation, the Roman empire is personified as a beast demanding universal worship, that all should bear his mark (13:4,15, 14:9-11, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4). John, in the book of Revelation, shows that the lie that the emperor was god was inspired by Satan, to deceive the whole population of the Roman Empire.

Historically, this happened, for over two hundred years, from late in the first century until AD 312. There was continual conflict between the Christians and the Roman government, with some periods of more intense persecution. Thousands of Christians were martyred because they would not worship Caesar. In the early second century, Pliny, the governor of Bithynia wrote to the Emperor Trajan asking his advice about how to deal with Christians who refused to worship the emperor. He said that when Christians were reported to him he released them if they worshipped the statue of the emperor and cursed Christ. If they refused, then he sentenced them to death. In his reply, Trajan affirmed that Pliny was doing the correct thing.

This is also a message for all time, whenever the state demands worship and allegiance which is only due to God and to the Lamb. This has happened again and again in every century in every nation through history. Examples being Stalin, Hitler, Mao tse Tung in China, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Idi Amin in Uganda, Ayatollah Khomeni of Iran, and Enver Hoxha of Albania in twentieth century. The beast is a picture of anti-Christian government in all times, the Roman empire in John's time and many others since. So, this book is relevant, not only to the original readers, but to Christians who have lived in all centuries in all countries since.

The main message of the book is that although Satan will use his beasts to persecute the church, the final victory belongs to Jesus, because he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. A great message of encouragement to Christians whenever and wherever they live.

Type of literature

The literature question is probably the most significant question to ask in looking at Revelation, as the type of literature has an enormous affect on the interpretation of the book.

Firstly we need to recognise that Revelation is a letter, written by command of the risen Jesus by John to the seven churches of Asia (1:11). These were real churches experiencing real things. Revelation has the same letter structure as is seen in other NT letters. After an introduction about John (1:1-3), it begins with a greeting: “John to the seven churches in Asia” (1:4), followed by a doxology (1:5b-6). The book closes with a benediction (22:21). The primary message of any letter is always to the original readers in their life setting. They would have understood it and found the contents relevant to their lives. Then, as with all other scripture, letters have abiding value to Christians in all centuries and in all nations.

Secondly, Revelation claims to be a prophecy (1:3, 10:7,10, 22:7,10,18-19). In the OT, a prophet spoke God's message, speaking about the present situation, calling the people back to the covenant, in the light of the future. His aim was not just to foretell the future to satisfy the reader’s curiosity, but to challenge his readers to repent. In the NT, a prophet speaks God's message to men or the church for their upbuilding, encouragement, consolation and edification. (1 Cor 14:3-4). Again, a response is looked for now.

Thirdly, Revelation is written in apocalyptic style. It is titled “The revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1). The word 'revelation' comes from the Latin, translated from the Greek word 'apocalypse', which means an unveiling or disclosing of something previously hidden.

Apocalyptic literature was very popular at the time this book was written, from around 200 BC to AD 100. Many apocalyptic books were written, which were not included in the NT. For example: the Book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Baruch, and the Assumption of Moses. Apocalyptic is a type of literature unknown to us today. Someone once said that nearest modern equivalent are rock videos, which make great use of dramatic symbols.

Apocalyptic literature normally claimed to be a revelation from an angel to a great figure of the past, like Abraham or Moses. The message was expressed in vivid or even bizarre symbolism, using familiar items in unearthly combinations. They express the conviction, that although times are currently difficult, God will finally intervene and destroy evil. They were known as 'tracts for hard times'. God’s final intervention was associated with the coming of the Messiah, who would bring in God's kingdom, and the final triumph of the righteous and the judgement of the wicked. The writers were pessimistic about the present world, knowing that man could not overcome evil alone, but looked to God for deliverance. For this reason, there is very little emphasis on moral teaching.

Some Biblical books contain passages written in this style including Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Zephaniah and The Olivet Discourse.

Example of apocalyptic literature from the Book of Esther

In the Apocrypha, there is a Greek version of the Book of Esther, written about 400 years later than the original book, containing several additional passages. In the first passage, the writer describes a dream Mordecai is supposed to have had, which predicted what is about to happen in the book.

Mordecai's dream:
Noises and confusion, thunders and earthquake, tumult on the earth! Then two great dragons came forward, both ready to fight, and they roared terribly. At their roaring every nation prepared for war, to fight against the righteous nation. It was a day of darkness and gloom, of tribulation and distress, affliction and great tumult on the earth! And the whole righteous nation was troubled; they feared the evils that threatened them, and were ready to perish. Then they cried out to God; and at their outcry, as though from a tiny spring, there came a great river, with abundant water, light came, and the sun rose, and the lowly were exalted and devoured those held in honour. (A:5-11)

After the end of the story of Esther, the writer gives Mordecai’s summary of the events as follows:
I remember the dream that I had concerning these matters, and none of them has failed to be fulfilled. There was the little stream that became a river, and there was light and sun and abundant water - the river is Esther, whom the king married and made queen. The two dragons are Haman and myself. The nations are those that gathered to destroy the name of the Jews. And my nation, this is Israel, who cried out to God and were saved. (F:5-9)

This example is helpful as it gives us the meaning of some apocalyptic writing, which would be very difficult to work out otherwise. This dramatically apocalyptic dream is actually the story of Esther.

The Book of Revelation has some similarities with these books. It too was written at a time of intense persecution. It also makes great use of symbolism, visions and images of beasts and dragons, to portray the great conflict between good and evil. Symbolic numbers are characteristically used to describe spiritual realities. The author is guided by angels, who give interpretations of the visions. The focus on the final judgement and salvation, and the triumph of the righteous and judgement of evil. The writing is highly structured with much repetition, and not particularly concerned with chronology.

The introduction to the book (1:1-3) shows a similar literary style to Jewish apocryphal writings. One example is the Book of Enoch,
"The words of the blessing of Enoch, wherewith he blessed the elect and righteous, who will be living in the day of tribulation, when all the wicked and godless are to be removed. And he took up his parable and said, Enoch a righteous man, whose eyes were opened by God, saw the vision of the Holy One in the heavens, which the angels showed me, and from them I heard everything, and from them I understood as I saw, but not for this generation, but for a remote one which is for to come." (1 Enoch 1:1-2).
Another example is the Apocalypse of Baruch, or 3 Baruch,
"Verily I Baruch was weeping in my mind and sorrowing on account of the people, and that the king was permitted by God to destroy His city ... And behold as I was weeping and saying such things, I saw an angel of the Lord coming and saying to me: Understand, O man, greatly beloved, and trouble not thyself so greatly concerning the salvation of Jerusalem, for thus saith the Lord God, the Almighty. For He sent me before thee, to make known and to show to thee all (the things) ... And the angel of the powers said to me, Come, and I will show thee the mysteries of God." (3 Baruch 1:1-8)

There are also some distinct differences. The author uses his own name (1:4), compared with apocalyptic literature which was usually pseudonymous, often claiming to be by some famous person in the past, such as Moses, Ezra, Baruch, or Enoch. Revelation is not pseudo-predictive, such as claiming to live at the time of Enoch and describe the events of the first century AD. John sets his book in his own day and looks forward into the future. Revelation sees that the Messiah and his kingdom have already come, contrasted with the totally pessimistic, fatalistic despair of apocalyptic books. These see the world hopelessly in the control of demonic powers, the only hope being in a final dramatic intervention by God, to bring the evil age to and end and to inaugurate the new age. Revelation claims divine inspiration as a prophecy (1:3), and is concerned with ethical response, containing many calls to repentance, showing more of a prophetic style. So, the Book of Revelation is not a standard apocalyptic book, but shares some characteristics of that style of literature. We should severely question any interpretation of Revelation which doesn't mention apocalyptic literature.

Understanding the Symbolism

Many of the symbols are the same as those used through the rest of the Bible, so we need to use our knowledge of the rest of Scripture to help us understand the Book of Revelation. One example is the sharp two-edged sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth (1:16), which should instantly remind us of the picture of the Word of God (Eph 6:17, Heb 4:12). Through all Scripture, God’s people are described as his bride, so the holy city, the new Jerusalem, is described as a bride, because it is a vision of God’s people coming into the presence of God himself, and seeing his face (22:4). The picture of washing robes and making them white in the blood of the Lamb (7:14) is impossible if taken literally, but is a graphic, yet profound image of the blood of Jesus cleansing us from sin and making us righteous before him.

At various points through the book, John explains his symbolism to his readers. For example, following the vision of the risen Jesus walking amongst the lamp-stands (1:13), we are told that the seven lamp-stands are the seven churches (1:20). So the risen Jesus is to be seen amongst the churches. This is a picture of the promise Jesus gave during his ministry, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt 18:20). The great dragon is clearly identified as the ancient serpent, the Devil and Satan (12:9). There are many explanations in chapter 17, the description of the great whore Babylon, which help us interpret his vision. These explanations should form a foundation for our interpretation of the book. However they are not always given immediately following the first use of the symbol.

Ref Symbol Defined by John
1:20 Seven stars in right hand Angels of the seven churches
1:20 Seven golden lampstands Seven churches
5:6 Seven eyes of the lamb Seven spirits of God sent out into the earth
5:8 Golden bowls of incense Prayers of the saints
7:13f Those clothed in white robes They who come out of the great tribulation, have washed robes white in the blood of the lamb
9:11 Angel of the bottomless pit Abaddon (Hebrew), Apollyon (Greek)
11:4 Two witnesses Two olive trees and two lampstands before Lord
12:9 Great dragon Ancient serpent, devil and Satan, deceiver of the world
12:17 Offspring of the woman Those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus
13:6 God's dwelling Those who dwell in heaven
13:17 The mark of the beast The name of the beast, or the number of its name
14:1 144,000 on Mt Zion The redeemed from the earth
14:12 Saints Those who keep the commandments of God, and hold fast to faith
17:8 Dwellers on earth Those whose names are not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world
17:9 Seven heads Seven mountains woman is seated on, also seven kings
17:12 Ten horns Ten kings
17:15 Waters where whore is seated Peoples, multitudes, nations and tongues
17:18 Woman Great city with dominion over the kings of the earth
19:8 Fine linen Righteous deeds of the saints
20:4 Those who came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years The first resurrection
20:8 Nations at four corners of the earth Gog and Magog to gather them to battle
20:9 Camp of the saints Beloved city
20:15 Lake of fire Second death
21:12 Holy city New Jerusalem prepared as a bride
21:8 Lake burning with fire and sulphur Second death
21:9 Bride Wife of lamb, holy city Jerusalem
21:22 No temple Temple is Lord God Almighty and the Lamb

As we read through the book, we need to remember that John is writing down what he saw (1:11). He was shown a series of visual images which he described in writing. We sometimes get the impression that these images were so dramatic that John was lost for words as he struggled to describe them. These images are not intended to be taken literally. To attempt to do so is to impose a western understanding on the book, and not to appreciate its literary form. Symbolism in apocalyptic literature is often quite fluid, with changes and apparent inconsistencies, so to attempt to take it literally is impossible, and causes the images to become a nonsense. Jesus does not have a literal sword coming out of his mouth (1:16), any more than him being a literal gate (Jn 10:7), with hinges and a lock.

A symbolic understanding in no way diminishes our appreciation of the Bible as the Word of God. In fact, symbols cause us to think, and to see the profound message being communicated through them. It is extremely difficult to express spiritual truths, or to describe God without using figurative language. During his ministry, Jesus frequently used images and figurative language, even though his disciples did not always understand or appreciate them. When people attempted to interpret them literally or physically they misunderstood what Jesus was saying to them (eg. Jn 3:4).

Use of numbers

People are often fascinated by all the numbers in the Book of Revelation and frequently use them as a basis for interpreting the book, attempting to take them literally. However, in apocalyptic literature, numbers had special symbolism, being used as meaningful symbols of spiritual truth. It will be noticed that only certain selected numbers actually appear in the book, particularly four, seven, ten, twelve, and multiples of these. The following are the commonly used numbers in apocalyptic writing, with their meanings: It should be noted that these numbers have the same associations in the Old Testament, as well as in the Book of Revelation.

The number 'one' represents unity, uniqueness, independence and self-existence. The OT repeatedly stated that 'God is one', and there is no other (eg. Deut 6:4). In Revelation, there is one sitting on the throne (4:2).

The number 'two' represents companionship, added courage, increased strength. Two witnesses were required in the OT law (Deut 19:15). In marriage, two are stronger than one (Eccl 4:7-8). Jesus sent out his disciples in twos (Mk 6:7). In Revelation, there are two witnesses (ch 11) making a strong witness, as well as two beasts (ch 13) representing a powerful enemy.

The number 'three' is the divine number. There are three persons in the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Revelation also portrays an evil trinity: the dragon (Satan) and two beasts. This is a false Trinity, who deceives and destroys people.

The number 'four' represents the created world. Even though we now know the world is round, we still speak about the four corners of the earth and there are four points of the compass. In Revelation there are four living creatures (ch 4), four horsemen (6:1), four winds at the four corners of the earth (7:12), and the first four of both the trumpets and the bowls affect the physical world (8:7, 16:2).

The number 'seven' represents God's completion, perfection or totality. Notice that seven is the sum of three and four, so the number of completion is the sum of the divine and the created world. The number seven appears to be built into the physical creation: there are seven colours of rainbow and seven days in the week. Today people still 'sail the seven seas', meaning to sail all round the world. Much of the OT sacrificial system was based on the number seven, with many of the sacrifices, feasts and years being in groups of seven. This is particularly seen in the sacrifices during the Feast of Tabernacles (Num 29), and on the Day of Atonement, when the high priest sprinkled blood seven times onto the mercy seat (Lev 16:14). Both these feasts were in the seventh month. The curse in the law was to be punished seven times for sins (Lev 26:18ff), the same number as the seven trumpets and bowls of judgement in Revelation. Jericho fell after seven priests, blowing seven trumpets, marched around its walls for seven days, then blew their trumpets seven times on the seventh day (Joshua 6:15-16).

Revelation is full of sevens, including: seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven lamp- stands, seven horns, seven thunders, seven heads, seven mountains. There are also significant words or phrases that occur seven times through the book, for example: falling down to worship the Lamb, seven blessings, slaughter (meaning a sacrificial death), and seven doxologies. Less obvious groups of seven include the seven-fold praise (7:12), and seven body parts of the Son of Man (ch 1). A list of the sets of seven in the book are listed below.

The number 'ten' represents human power, or worldly government. We have ten fingers and ten toes, so our numbers work on a decimal system. There were ten commandments. In Revelation, the dragon had ten horns (12:3), the beast out of the sea had ten horns and ten diadems (13:1), the woman on the beast had ten horns (17:3). In apocalyptic writing, when numbers were raised to the cube (ie. n x n x n), the number was made perfect. So the thousand years (Rev 20) is a cube of ten, representing perfect rule or government. This number is associated with the rule of the Messiah.

Through all the Bible, the number 'twelve' is associated with God’s people. In God’s covenant community, there were twelve tribes of Israel, and twelve apostles. Also notice that twelve is the multiple of three and four: the number for God’s people is the multiple of the divine and the created world. In vision of the heavenly city Jerusalem all the numbers are twelve or multiples of twelve: the names of the twelve sons of Israel were on the gates (21:14), the foundations had the names of the twelve apostles (21:24), twelve jewels in the foundations of the walls (21:19-20), the twelve gates were twelve pearls (21:21) and the tree of life had twelve kinds of fruit (22:2). The walls are 144 cubits (21:17). The dimensions of the city are 1500 miles, which is 12,000 stadia in Greek (21:16). It may be significant to note that as the city is cubic (21:16), it has twelve edges, making a total distance all around the cube 144,000 stadia. This may have a connection with the 144,000 sealed servants of Jesus (7:4, 14:1).

The number 'three and a half'. Some numbers divided by two also had significant meanings: Jews thought of the whole of history as seven days, based on the seven days of creation. This was divided into two periods of 3½ years, the times before and after the coming of the Messiah. In apocalyptic writing, it symbolised incompleteness and a yearning for completeness. It had a sense of hope and patient waiting for a better day, the longings of the world for something expected. It was often also the period of God's judgements. There are several significant periods of 3½ years in the Bible, including the ministry of Elijah (James 5:17). The regular sacrifice was removed for three and a half years by Antiochus Epiphanes (Dan 12:7). In Revelation, the beast has authority for forty-two months, which is 3½ years (13:5), the time the woman is nourished in the wilderness (12:14).

For the Jews the number 'six' was a sinister evil number. It had negative associations, rather like the number thirteen today. It signified a falling short of perfection. Perhaps it came from the fact that mankind was created on the sixth day and is fallen. In Revelation there are some interesting groups of six. The mark of the beast is mentioned six times through the book, and always linked with worshipping the beast (13:16, 14:9,11, 15:2, 19:20, 20:4). The whore Babylon, the evil city, is also mentioned six times (14:8, 16:19, 17:5, 18:2,10,21), and six things are 'no more' in the fall of Babylon (18:21-23).

So to appreciate the apocalyptic style of writing, we should resist the pressure to think that all the numbers should be interpreted literally, but need to be thinking what that number represents, and how it is used elsewhere in Scripture.

Use of the Old Testament

Although the Old Testament is never quoted directly, the Book of Revelation is full of allusions to people, events and phrases from the OT. It is almost as if the book is throughly soaked in the thought of the Old Testament. Almost every verse through the book contains one or more such allusions. These come from many of the Old Testament books, including Exodus, the Psalms, and many of the prophets, particularly Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. There are also allusions to Jewish writings from the period between the Old and New Testaments.

Many of the descriptions of God in his heavenly throne room contain cosmic manifestations such as earthquakes, clouds, the blowing of trumpets and rumbles of thunder. These are similar to the descriptions of the manifestations of God in the OT, known as theophanies, particularly the meeting of Moses with God on Mt. Sinai (Ex 19, 24), Isaiah’s vision (Is 6), Ezekiel’s vision of God (Ezek 1) and Daniel’s vision of the exaltation of the Son of Man before the ancient of Days (Dan 7).

The judgement passages in Revelation draw from the descriptions of different acts of judgement in the OT, particularly the plagues of Egypt (Ex 6-10), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19), and Ezekiel’s judgement on Gog and Magog (Ezek 38-39), as well as the covenant curses of Deuteronomy (Deut 28-29). The judgement of Babylon (Rev 18) draws together phrases from Ezekiel’s predictions of doom on Tyre (Ezek 26-28), Jeremiah’s oracles against Babylon (Jer 50-51), and Isaiah’s oracles against Babylon (Is 13-14) and other pagan cities like Edom. Perhaps surprisingly it also includes allusions to judgement oracles against Judah. Even predictions of the judgement of God’s people are combined together with the judgement of pagan nations into a great description of the destruction of the great anti-God city of Babylon. Many of the more apocalyptic descriptions of judgement in Revelation are also found in the OT, like the locusts in the prophet Joel, drinking the cup of wrath (Jer 25), and treading the winepress of God’s wrath (Lam 1).

The description of the heavenly city Jerusalem makes many allusions to Ezekiel’s vision of a great temple in the restored land (Ezek 40-48), as well as to Isaiah’s predictions of a glorious future for Jerusalem and a new heaven and new earth (Is 60 & 65). The new life described in the heavenly Jerusalem is described in similar terms to life in the Garden of Eden (Gen 1-3). The paradise that was lost through the fall is regained in the great hope of heaven promised to the believers.

Instead of giving us completely new information about the future, the Book of Revelation does not really tell us anything that we have not already been told elsewhere in the Bible. It portrays the same Gospel message, the same conflict between good and evil, the same glorious future for the saints, and the same future judgement for the wicked. However these are shown in new dramatic and visual ways, which may initially cause confusion. Therefore, while we read through the book, we should keep the rest of the Bible in our minds, and use both the OT and NT to aid us as we attempt to understand this amazing book.

Sets of seven in the Book of Revelation

Actual use of the number seven

Seven churches in Asia (1:4,11,20)
Seven spirits before the throne (1:4, 3:1, 4:5, 5:6)
Seven golden lampstands (1:12,20, 2:1)
Seven stars in his right hand (1:16,20, 2:1, 3:1)
Seven torches of fire (4:5)
Seven seals on scroll (5:1,5, 6:1)
Lamb with seven horns (5:6)
Lamb with seven eyes (5:6)
Seven trumpets (8:2,6)
Seven angels with seven trumpets (8:2,6)
Seven thunders (10:3,4)
7000 people killed (11:13)
Dragon with seven heads (12:3)
Dragon with seven diadems (12:3)
Beast with seven heads (13:1)
Seven angels with seven plagues (15:1,6,7,8, 16:1, 17:1, 21:9)
Seven plagues (15:1,6,8, 21:9)
Seven golden bowls (15:7, 16:1, 17:1, 21:9)
Woman on beast with seven heads (17:3,9)
Seven mountains (17:9)
Seven kings (17:10,11)

Words or phrases used seven times in the book

Seven blessings to the saints (1:3, 14:13, 16:15, 19:9, 20:6, 22:7,14)
Seven times 'Christ' (Messiah) (1:1,2,5, 11:15, 12:10, 20:4,6)
Seven times God described as 'the one seated on the throne' in heavenly vision (4:2,3,9,10, 5:1,7,13)
Seven times 'elders' (4:4,10, 5:5,6,8,11,14)
Seven times 'living creatures' (4:6,8,9, 5:6,8,11,14)
Seven times call to or mention of 'endurance' (1:9, 2:2,3,19, 3:10, 13:10, 14:12)
Seven times 'every nation, tribe, people and tongue' (5:9, 7:9, 10:11, 11:9, 13:7, 14:6, 17:15)
Seven times 'clothed in white garments' (3:5,18, 4:4, 6:11, 7:9,13, 19:14)
Seven times 'I saw and behold' (Greek = 'eidon, kai idou') (4:1, 6:2,5,8, 7:9, 14:1,14)
Seven times fell down to worship God or Lamb (1:17, 4:10, 5:8,14, 7:11, 11:16, 19:4)
Seven times 'slaughter' - sacrificial death (5:6,9,12, 6:4,9, 13:8, 18:24)
Seven times 'deceived' (12:9, 13:14, 18:23, 19:20, 20:3,8,10)
Seven doxologies - giving glory to God (1:6, 4:9,11, 5:12,13, 7:13, 19:1)
Seven times God described as 'Lord God Almighty' (1:8, 4:8, 11:17, 15:3, 16:7, 19:6, 21:22)
Seven times 'Amen' (1:6,7, 3:14, 5:14, 7:12, 19:4, 22:20)
Seven times 'prophets' (10:7, 11:18, 16:6, 18:20,24, 22:6,9)

Other groups of seven

Seven body parts of Son of Man (1:13-16)
Seven parts to each letter to the churches (ch 2-3)
Seven things or beings 'before the throne' (4:3,4,5,6,6, 5:11,13)
Seven songs of praise in section of seven seals (4:8,10-11, 5:9-10,12,13, 7:10,12)
Seven-fold worship to Lamb (5:12)
Seven aspects of creation removed in sixth seal (6:12-14)
Seven groups of men trying to hide in sixth seal (6:15)
Seven-fold worship to God (7:12)
Seven body parts of locusts described (9:7-10)
Seven sins not repented of (9:20-21)
Idols made out of four things, cannot do three things = seven total (9:20)
Seven angels in section of seven signs (ch 14:6-20)
Seven voices from heaven about fall of Babylon (ch 18 & 19)
Seven kinds of goods traded no more (18:12-13)
Lamb mentioned seven times in vision of heavenly Jerusalem (21:9,14,22,23,27, 22:1,3)
Seven groups of unbelievers outside city (22:15)

Multiples of seven

Fourteen times 'Jesus' (1:1,2,5,9,9, 12:17, 14:12, 17:6, 19:10,10, 20:4, 22:16,20,21)
Fourteen worship songs (4:8,11, 5:9-10,12,13, 7:10,12, 11:17-18, 15:3-4, 19:1-2,3,4,5,6-8)
Twenty-eight times 'Lamb' (5:6,8,12,13, 6:1,16, 7:9,10,14,17, 12:11, 13:8, 14:1,4,4,10, 15:3, 17:14,14, 19:7,9, 21:9,14,22,23,27, 22:1,3)

Related articles

Introduction to the Book of Revelation Four main views of Revelation
Structure of the book Main Characters in the book
Virtual Seven Churches Jesus the Lamb
Allusions to the Old Testament
Millennium Rapture and tribulation

Commentary

I: Prologue (1:1-8) II: Letters to seven churches (1:9 - 3:22)
III: Seven Seals (4:1 - 8:1) IV: Seven trumpets (8:2 - 11:18)
V: Seven signs (11:19 - 15:4) VI: Seven Bowls (15:5 - 16:21)
VII: Prostitute / Babylon (17:1 - 19:10) VIII: Seven judgements (19:11 - 21:8)
IX: Bride / Jerusalem (21:9 - 22:9) X: Epilogue (22:10-21)