The Book of Revelation:
about this article
This article provides background on the book of Revelation. Symbolism and the context of the book is covered, as well as the meanings of the book of Revelation for us today.
The Book of Revelation is not so intimidating once you understand what the author was up to.
Are Catholics afraid of the book of Revelation? Do our minds become confused when we hear all those sevens and l2's, and all those strange titles applied to Jesus--the Alpha and Omega and the bright morning star? Indeed, some might feel Revelation's symbols and metaphors are so confusing that they avoid it.
Yet avoidance is no remedy for confusion. The Book of Revelation is part of the Church's Scriptures. We owe it to ourselves as God's people to become familiar with this part of our religious heritage.
The Book of Revelation reveals how God's salvation has entered the world in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. As Catholics, we reject the approach of those who use this book to guess wildly about the future or to create fear and mistrust among Christians or to support their own political agendas. The last book of the Bible was not intended for any of these purposes, but rather to be a "revelation of Jesus Christ" (Revelation 1:1). In this sense, it is like the Gospels. But the manner of revealing is unlike the Gospels.
The Book of Revelation is a piece of apocalyptic literature, a style very popular between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D., during a great crisis in Israel. The Greek word apocalypse (in English, "revelation") literally means "to draw back the veil." Apocalyptic literature attempts to give assurance that however bad things may be, one need only draw back the veil and see things in the perspective of the great battle against evil. God's victorious power is always at work among us.
Watered down Faith?
The Book of Revelation was written sometime in the late 80's or early 90's of the first century by an author who perceived that some Christians were compromising their faith--giving in to the surrounding culture to avoid persecution. The events leading up to this persecution merits a closer look.
When the early Christian community split with Judaism, they found themselves without the protection of the Roman Empire. It was Roman law that any secret society or religious group that originated after the foundation of the empire was considered a superstition. Such groups could not practice in the empire. Since Judaism had been founded Long before the empire, Jews were free to practice their beliefs. As long as Christianity was under the aegis of Judaism, the Christians were also considered legal. Now that Christianity had split from Judaism, the Christian belief was considered a superstition, a violation of Roman law.
Toward the end of the reign of Emperor Nero, unrest began to mount in the empire. Many historians believe Nero was assassinated as were three of his successors during the next three years. Finally, Vespasian, a general, was called back from Judea where he was trying to put an end to the Zealot revolt that ultimately escalated into the Jewish War.
Vespasian's son, Titus, continued the war in Judea. Vespasian became emperor. During his reign some stability returned to the empire. Titus succeeded his father as emperor and continued the policy of stabilization. Titus's son, Domitian, succeeded Titus.
Vespasian and Titus had brought some stability to Rome after the chaos of the late 60's. Still, there was urgent need for some principle of unity that would bring the empire together. That unity was secured by the army who protected the vast regions of the empire by force.
Domitian realized that military might could never bring lasting unity to his empire. He needed the loyalty of his subjects, a loyalty that arose from moral or religious conviction. As a result, he had himself proclaimed a god (Dominus et Deus Noster--"Our lord and god"). He commanded that all loyal Romans not exempted by law should burn incense before his statue. The penalty for refusing to acknowledge the divinity of the emperor was a prohibition from carrying on commerce or business within the empire.
Most people in the empire did not find this a hardship. There were, however, a few groups who found it unacceptable, particularly the Jews and the Christians. When they protested the requirement, the Jews were exempted because of their position as a legal religion within the empire. The Christians, on the other hand, considered superstitious, were not exempted.
Domitian wanted the Christians to conform to this command since he didn't trust them. Christians in the empire found themselves faced with a dilemma. They wanted to obey the civil mandate. Yet, obedience to it meant violating the covenant they had entered through belief in Jesus as Lord.
Some within the Church took the road of compromise. They thought this would be the greater good. They felt that placing incense before the emperor's statue was a civil act with no bearing on one's commitment to Christ. Thus, it would be legitimate to perform this one simple civil act in order to continue spreading the gospel. The Nicolaitans, mentioned in the second chapter of Revelation, are a group who held this view.
Others in the Christian community saw compromise as totally incompatible with belief in Jesus. The author of Revelation was one of them. He believed there was a necessity for the Christian community to take a stand. Those who believe in Jesus must remain strong in their faith. That would be a sign that the Church is alive and active in the empire. Christians must refuse to follow the command to burn incense before the emperor's statue. Rather, they must speak forcibly the words, "The emperor is not god. The emperor is not lord. Jesus is Lord." The author of Revelation writes to encourage those who might compromise their faith.
Sevens and More Sevens
The overall structure of the Book of Revelation reveals its literary artistry. The author loves the number seven. He first sends seven letters to the Churches of western Asia (1:4–3:22) in which he both praises and blames the individual communities. Then, after a glorious vision of God's heavenly throne and Christ the Lamb (4:1–5:14), the Lamb opens the seven seals (6:1–8:1), and the angels blow on seven trumpets (8:7–11:19) and pour out the seven bowls of wrath (16:1–21). These three septets (sets of seven) constitute punishments for rebelliousness against God and warnings to repent.
The septets are introduced by scenes of the heavenly court (4:1–5:14; 8:2–6; 15:1–8) and punctuated with reports on the faithful and their struggles against the unholy trinity of Satan, the beast and their prophet (13:1–18). The book reaches its climax with God's triumph over Babylon (Rome) in Chapters 17 and 18, and the appearance of the new Jerusalem in Chapters 21 and 22.
It is possible to see the new Jerusalem as the seventh event in another septet: The Parousia of the word of God (19:11–16), the last battle (19:17–21), the binding of Satan (20:1–3), the millennium (20:4–6), the defeat of Satan (20:7–10), the last judgment (2011–15) and the new Jerusalem (21:2). And at seven points in the text we have the beatitude form, "Blessed is the one who..." (1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7; 22:14). Seven letters, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, seven eschatological (end-time) events and seven beatitudes––the basic structure of the book is clear and impressive.
The action of the book's story can be plotted into three basic scenes. The first scene involves John's inaugural vision of the risen Jesus who calls him to deliver a message to the churches by writing seven letters (Chapters 1–3).
The second scene finds John transported to heaven where he observes a divine liturgy that involves opening a scroll sealed with seven seals, followed by seven trumpets, and the announcement: "The kingdom of the world now belongs to our Lord and to his Anointed, and he will reign forever and ever" (11:15).
This scene views the transformation of the age entirely from the heavenly perspective. A scroll is opened, an announcement is made and God's reign is ushered in. There's nothing complicated here.
The third scene opens with the story of the birth of the child destined to "rule all the nations with an iron rod" (12:5), clearly the Messiah (see Psalm 2). John is asking his audience now to imagine figuratively how the kingdom of the world became the kingdom of the Lord. This third scene portrays the earthly conflicts between the people of God (the woman) and the power of evil (the dragon). It is an old story and we already know the child of the woman is going to grow up and kill the dragon, but John tells the story well, with a number of surprising and insightful twists.
With the above in mind, read the Book of Revelation, preferably in its entirety and out loud, trying not to get bogged down in the details, but just tracing the main developments. You will still find a lot of it to be mysterious, perhaps even unintelligible, but you will be able to grasp the larger picture the main course of the action. The more familiar you become with the structure and plot of the book the more fully you will understand the images and action.
A World of Symbolic Images
Apocalyptic writers, like the author of Revelation, drew from a stockpile of apocalyptic images that helped one cope with the immediate crisis. Among the standard images were angels, demons, beasts, stars falling from the sky, the sun and moon darkened, lightning, thunder, dragons, creatures with many eyes, four horsemen, trumpet blasts, water turning to blood, plagues.
To understand the Book of Revelation we need to understand the meaning of its images and symbols. This is not as difficult as it might seem, for there were many books like Revelation written, especially by Jews in the ancient world. These books used many of the same symbols. In several cases the author of Revelation has engaged in wholesale borrowing of earlier symbols, such as in his description of Jesus in Chapter 1. The symbols used there are drawn largely from Daniel (7:9–13) and Ezekiel (1:7). By studying such books we can work out the significance of many of Revelation's symbols.
One obvious set of symbols involves numbers. Numbers in the book are symbols, not meant to be taken literally or arithmetically. A thousand years simply means a long time, and a certain number of months means a short time. They are not quantities; they represent qualities, with each number possessing its own qualitative significance.
The number seven represents wholeness, totality, perfection or universality, not a literal quantity. Seven is the sum of three (which represents heaven) and four (which represents earth). When the author writes letters to seven churches, this is a synonym for writing to the Church universal. When the author says there are "seven spirits before the throne" (1:4), we must understand that he refers to the Holy Spirit who, along with Jesus and "him who is," gives grace and peace to the Church.
Other numbers in Jewish apocalyptic writings have qualitative values; for example, the product of three and four, 12, stands for God's people. Ten and all the multiples of 10 represent totality. Multiples and squares of numbers simply intensify their basic meaning. The number six means incompleteness and meaninglessness.
When 144,000 are marked with a seal (7:4) to protect them from the destruction of the four horsemen, we should understand that it is 12 times 12 (144), times 10 (1,440) times 10 (14,400) times 10 (144,000––meaning all God's people. When the period of tribulation is said to last for three-and-one-half years (see 11:3; 12:6; 12:14) we should interpret this as symbolic of a half-seven, a broken seven, for evil can never be complete. Evil is always a perversion of good. When the beast is referred to as having the number 666, it simply means total incompleteness, meaninglessness or complete inadequacy (13:18).
Many of Revelation's symbols are drawn from the biblical books of Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Zechariah. Beasts, for example, represent the demonic and inhuman character of evil. A lion represents the conquering power of a king; a lamb is the animal of sacrifice; a horse stands for conquest; horns represent power (and sometimes rulers); multiple heads represent multiple rulers. When we encounter a beast with seven heads and 10 horns (12:3; 13:1) we should endeavor to unpack the various symbols, sensing a demonic reality with complete power and perfect rulers (at least they might claim perfection). This demonic beast is the antithesis of the "one like a son of man" that symbolizes Jesus (1:13).
Colors, too, are symbolic: White symbolizes victory (not purity); black signifies suffering (not evil); red is for war; pallor stands for death and decay; purple stands for royalty; white hair is for wisdom. The author consciously informs the audience of the meaning of many of the special symbols he utilizes. He tells us that the stars and lamp-stands represent the churches and their angels (1:20), and that the censer with its smoke represents the prayers of the saints (5:8; 8:3-5).
The meanings of other symbols can be easier to interpret: the lion/lamb of 5:5–6 is definitely Jesus; the earthquake in 6:12 represents judgment; the birth in 12:2 is certainly that of the Messiah.
The way to understand these symbols is not to take them too literally. Always ask, "What does this symbol mean?" Revelation is not a book intended to be taken at face value; its meaning is to be found on a deeper level.
Heaven Above and Earth Below
The Book of Revelation forces the reader to operate on two levels at the same time. On the one level of the story, we move in a fantastic universe of angels and monsters, whores and virgins, stars and temples; dragons and warriors, Christ and Antichrist. Yet, when we consider the author's own interpretation, we find that we are also operating on the level of common ordinary experience.
We are hearing about stars, but we must understand that the real topic is the churches (1:20). John is eating a scroll but the point is that he must prophesy (10:9–11). There is something maliciously appropriate in describing Roman imperial glory as a gaudy prostitute (17:3–14), but we must be clear that we are discussing Roman power, not gaudy prostitutes. We must constantly operate on both the level of symbol and the level of ordinary experience.
And there is another, more important sense in which the hearer is forced to think on two levels. Reality itself--the universe we live in--exists on two levels in this book. Above this world is another that is somehow correlated with it.
Notice, for example, the analogy that exists between the stars and the lamps. Lamps are earthly analogies to stars; they are on earth what the stars are above: givers of light Also, there are angels and churches, an analogy more compelling when we recall that in Greek the word angel means "messenger," for churches, too, are God's messengers.
This can get quite complicated, for it results in four interrelated ideas: stars/lamps/ angels/churches. Two levels of symbolism and two levels of interpretation: Each interacts with the others. Unless we are able to imagine such a two-tiered world, we will never grasp the meaning of much of what is portrayed in the Book of Revelation.
We can gain some insight into how different the author's culture was from our own by considering a major problem addressed in the letters in scene one: eating meat offered to idols (2:14). Such a problem seems strange to us because in our culture, religion and commerce are distinct activities. Not so in the first century, for religion permeated every sphere of life, including commerce, politics, education, sports and entertainment.
One could procure meat offered to idols in at least three ways in John's world. First, one could go to one of the temples on a feast day when sacrifices were made and enjoy a banquet without much cost. Temple sacrifices may well have been the primary source of meat for many of the urban poor who subsisted largely on bread and fish. Second, one could be served meat while visiting another home. If the host was a devotee of the god Apollo, say, the meat would almost certainly have been offered to the god.
Third, one could buy meat at the local market when it was available.
Chances were that it too had already been sacrificed to some divinity. Since nothing valuable was lost in such a sacrifice, all butchered animals were routinely dedicated to a god or goddess. If someone lived in the city and was not wealthy, sacrificial meat was probably the only meat he or she had access to.
Should a Christian eat such meat? The Book of Revelation's answer seems to be a categorical no. Any accommodation to pagan culture would be analogous to ancient Israel's idolatry which the prophets condemned as harlotry. The author of Revelation symbolizes his opponents as "Jezebel" and "Balaam," who were remembered as leading ancient Israel into idolatry through assimilation to pagan culture.
But the problem for Gentile converts to Christianity was enormous. It could easily be a choice between idol-tainted meat or no meat at all. In a similar way, every other aspect of life was tainted: Education involved reading Homer and honoring the heroes and gods; politics involved honoring the emperor and the city deities; sports involved festivals devoted to some divinity; theater was devoted to Dionysus and began with a sacrifice; holidays were almost exclusively religious; trade guilds were devoted to a patron deity viewed as the founder of the craft; the various coins used in commerce were tamped with the images of the gods; both business and social interaction depended on the social amenities of the temples; even family gatherings might be held in a temple.
To the author of the Book of Revelation, it did not appear that one could move in the world without giving some requisite honor to some false deity. Both head (worship) and hand (commerce and daily life) must be stamped with the mark of the beast (13:16-17). Much of what we read in the Book of Revelation is a call to persevere in the face of such pervasive idolatrous encounters.
The Lord's Supper
We often assume that John's audience experienced the Book of Revelation the same way we do--reading it as a book. But this is false. In those days, very few people owned scrolls, for they were expensive. People did not read quietly and privately as we do. Nearly all reading was done out loud, and mostly in groups. This is obviously true with the Book of Revelation since it begins with a blessing on the one who reads it out loud (1:3).
We must imagine, then, that the Book of Revelation was experienced as an oral enactment before a group, in which a public reader presented the words of John to the local churches. The reader stands in John's place, so to speak, and is cautioned not to tamper with the message (22:18-19).
In other words, the Apocalypse would have been originally heard within a service of worship, thus providing the story to set the context for the receiving of the Eucharist--the Lord's supper.
There is a remarkable similarity between the symbolic function of the supper and the story of Revelation. The supper is a meal that exists simultaneously in three times: It is a meal shared in the Spirit with the risen Lord (present); it is a commemoration of the last meal Jesus had with his disciples (past); and it is a celebration of that meal to be eaten in the Kingdom of God, the messianic banquet (future, see Luke 22:14-16). The story in the Book of Revelation also participates in these three times.
The story is past. Clearly Chapter 12 symbolically describes a past event: the birth of the Messiah. While it is a strikingly original Christmas story, it is told from the perspective of apocalyptic thinking. Everything described in Revelation, however, has already occurred. In a variety of ways, Revelation describes the conquest of evil, the overthrow of Satan's kingdom, the triumph of God––all of which happened in the death of Christ in John's view.
"The lion of the tribe of Judah...has triumphed," John proclaims. But when he shows us this lion it turns out to be "a Lamb that seemed to have been slain" (5:6). Even in the climactic scene where Jesus rides in on his white horse and slays all the wicked with his sword, we are told that it is "the sword that came out of the mouth of the one riding the horse" (19:21). It is the word of God that Jesus uses to slay the wicked, and that word is primarily the testimony of his death. Christians believe that everything described in the Book of Revelation has already happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Yet the story is present. Evil was not only overcome when Jesus died; it must also be overcome in the life of each believer. It is their testimony added to his that overthrows Satan (12:11). It is the prayers of the saints that bring judgment to the earth (8:25). In a real sense, the lives of Christians duplicate the life of Jesus so that trio story becomes their own story, too.
It would be foolhardy to suppose John did not intend to speak of the future, too. But given the highly symbolic way he describes the past and present, it would be equally foolhardy to take his symbols of the future at face value. John indeed tells a story of the ultimate and complete triumph of Christ over Satan and the elimination of evil from this world. Yet the symbolic nature of his story gives no warrant for thinking we know any details of that triumph.
It would be a mistake to think that we will see a white horse charging out of the sky some day. Both story and ritual are part of worship, and worship, by its nature, transcends time. John is in the spirit "on the Lord's day." This is a reference to Sunday on which Christian worshipers assembled. But it also refers to the Lord's day (Easter morning, when Christ conquered death, a past event). In addition, it echoes that future "day of the Lord" of which the prophets spoke: "The day of God's coming justice."
Those who read or hear the Book of Revelation experience all three times: Jesus came to them in the past in his life, death and resurrection (5:6;12:5; Chapter 11); Jesus comes to them as prophet and in the meal they share (21; 3.20; 22:17, 20); and Jesus is to come to them for final vindication (6:10–11). John serves the one "who is and who was and who is to come" (1:8).
In brief, the Book of Revelation is truly "the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1:1). It is proclaiming the gospel of Christ no less than the four Gospels. The Gospels use normal language. Revelation uses highly symbolic language, much of which is traditional, some of which the author explains.
Revelation's two-tiered universe reveals the true meaning of Christian existence. John's fantastic journey takes us into another level of existence where we meet the risen Jesus, participate in the heavenly liturgy before the throne of God and witness the attack of the ancient dragon.
We see the cosmic conflict and experience the overthrow of the powers of evil--conquered by the death of Christ and the faithful witness of his servants. John enacts the story of redemption before his people's eyes and ears, and invites them to commune with the risen Lord. As they gather around the Lord's table, resisting the false beauty of idol-worshiping Greco-Roman culture, they experience the coming of Jesus. This coming is already known from the past, anticipated in the future, but also known in the present: It charges their lives with meaning.
When we read the early Church's story in the Book of Revelation, we will do well to try to recapture its experience in our imaginations. The questions we must ask ourselves have nothing to do with whether some contemporary nation or group is represented by the beast in the Apocalypse or when the world will end.
Revelation asks us today: How are we called to witness faithfully to Jesus Christ in our situation? How can our faithfulness match that of these first-century Asian disciples as they struggled to live under the reign of God and not submit to the powers of darkness? How can we avoid compromising our faith to culture's demands? How is Jesus our Lord of Lords and King of Kings?
Responding to these questions will invite us to participate in God's banquet. "Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb" (Revelation 19:9).
Arthur E. Zannoni is a free-lance author, teacher and consultant in biblical studies and Christian-Jewish relations. His books include The Old Testament: A Bibliography (The Liturgical Press), Jews and Christians Speak of Jesus (Fortress Press), and Introduction to Jewish Christian Relations (Paulist Press). His most recent work, now available from Saint Anthony Messenger Press, is Jesus of the Gospels: Teacher, Storyteller, Friend, Messiah.
acknowledgments© Copyright St. Anthony Messenger Press. This article was published with the permission of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, which provides study guides to accompany many of its articles. You can access these guides by going to the magazine's Links for Learners page. Teachers will find a wealth of other resources at the St. Anthony Messenger Press web site by clicking on this link: http://www.americancatholic.org/features/learners/
Published October 1, 1996.