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The Book of Revelation

Paul B. Duff
The George Washington University

Course: Introduction to the New Testament
Syllabus Section: Book of Revelation
Audience: Undergraduate

Course: Introduction to the Bible
Syllabus Section: Book of Revelation
Audience: Undergraduate

Course : World Religion
Syllabus Section: Early Christianity:Apocalypticism

Guide to Lesson Plan

This lesson plan is designed to provide the instructor with tools to present the students with a basic understanding of the book of Revelation. The instructor may consider dedicating two or three sessions to the book in order to explore it in some depth. However, the lesson plan is flexible and can be expanded or contracted to fit individual needs. Although this lesson plan was specifically designed for an undergraduate, introductory New Testament class, it can also be adapted for an introductory Bible course or even a world religions course.


After completing this lesson, a student should be able to:

  • define and identify an apocalypse
  • recognize the social and historical forces that helped shape the book of Revelation; and
  • read the book of Revelation not only as a religious text but also as a social and historical document.

Background Reading for the Instructor

Pre–Class Readings and Assignments for Students

In Class

The material that follows is presented as the basis for a possible lecture; potential student activities are interspersed. The instructor should choose the student activities that are most relevant to his or her students because there is insufficient time for all activities, even if the lesson is extended over more than one class period:

Introduction: The Genre of the Book of Revelation

The label that scholars attach to the genre of literature to which the book of Revelation belongs is Apocalypse. Indeed, the Greek term apokalypsis ("revelation" in English) is the opening word of the book of Revelation. Apocalypses resemble works of prophecy but in the former, a human being narrates dreams, visions, and/or heavenly journeys, often using vivid and sometimes fantastic imagery. The book of Revelation narrates no dreams but it describes both visions seen and a heavenly journey experienced by the author (cf. Rev 4:1). While the book of Revelation is the only apocalypse in the New Testament, the second half of the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament also belongs to the genre as do a number of other Jewish works of the Greco–Roman era, including 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and the Apocalypse of Abraham. Later Christian apocalypses include the Apocalypse of Peter and the Apocalypse of Paul.

Who Wrote the Book of Revelation?

The author calls himself simply John (Rev 1:4).While early Christian tradition identified him with the author of the fourth gospel, that identification is highly unlikely. Although there are a few similarities shared by the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation (e. g., the description of Jesus as a lamb), the differences are nevertheless too great to assume that the author of the one also penned the other. One area in which the two documents differ markedly has to do with eschatology (their understanding of last things, such as the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment).

Optional student exercise to demonstrate the difference between the eschatology of the book of Revelation and the gospel of John. First, have students describe the account(s) of resurrection and judgment that appear in Revelation 20 (especially 20:1–6 and 20:11–15). Then ask students to describe the resurrection as it is depicted by Jesus in the gospel of John 11:17–27; have them do the same for judgment in the gospel of John 3:17–19. With some guidance from the instructor, students should be able to see that the resurrection and judgment envisioned by the author of the book of Revelation represent future events. The gospel of John to the contrary tends toward a realized eschatology. The judgment and resurrection are understood as somehow already present; those who reject Jesus in the present have already been judged (i. e., condemned) whereas those who believe in him already have eternal life (note Jesus' words: "I am the resurrection and the life").

Outline of the Book of Revelation

  • 1:1–8 Introductory material including epistolary address
  • 1:9–10 Initial vision: commission
  • 2:13:22 Messages to the seven communities
  • 4:15:14 Ascent into heaven and vision of throne room
  • 6:18:5 Vision of the opening of the seven seals
  • 8:611:19 Vision of the seven trumpets
  • 12:115:4Various visions of conflict, deliverance, and judgment
  • 15:516:21 Vision of the seven bowls
  • 17:119:10 Vision of the fall of Babylon
  • 19:1121:8 Various visions describing God's defeat of his enemies
  • 21:922:7 Vision of the New Jerusalem
  • 22:8-21 Concluding material including epistolary closing

Some Characteristics of the Book of Revelation

Indirect Communication. John's communication to his readers is often indirect. For instance, he frequently communicates by means of allusion, specifically allusions to the scriptures. Readers familiar with the scriptures can identify an abundance of allusions to Exodus, the Psalms, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, among others.

Optional student exercise to illustrate the author's indebtedness to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Have students compare and contrast John's vision of God's throne room in Rev 45 to Ezekiel's vision of God in Ezekiel 1. They should be able to recognize similarities in the description of the four beasts and the figure seated on the heavenly throne. Consequently, they should be able to easily understand John's clear reliance on the Ezekiel passage to describe his vision of God and the heavenly throne room.

John occasionally uses labels instead of names:the prophetess in Thyatira is "Jezebel " (the name of an ancient Israelite queen who promoted idolatry); he does not give us her real name. Nor does he directly mention Rome; instead he speaks of "Babylon " (the nation that destroyed Jerusalem and carried its people into exile in the sixth century BCE). In both of these cases, John implicitly denigrates his enemies by using labels of evil persons or nations. At times John also uses symbols in lieu of more direct language. For example, a lamb slain but nevertheless standing (5:6) represents Jesus, who had been killed and then raised.

Sometimes John indirectly compares similar characters to one another by means of one or more of their attributes. For example, both "Babylon" and "Jezebel" are connected to illicit sex and defiling food and they both "lead astray" their followers (2:20–22 and 17:1–6; 18:23). Curiously, John sometimes paints contrasting characters similarly : the redeemed (the 144,000 mentioned in 7:3–4) are marked with a seal on their foreheads while the condemned (those connected with the dragon and the two beasts) are also marked on their hand or forehead (13:16). In these examples, good characters resemble one another but good and evil characters can also look alike. Presumably, John intends his readers to determine whether the resemblance is real or superficial. Good and evil, in John's eyes, sometimes look alike.

Numbers in the Book of Revelation. Numbers feature prominently in the book of Revelation. Three suggests the divine:God is described with three attributes: he "who is and who was and who is to come" (1:4). Christ is "the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. " Heavenly hymns also feature threes: "Salvation and glory and power [be] to our God" (19:1) or "Holy, holy, holy" (4:8). Four, on the other hand, represents the created order. The earth has four corners and there are four winds (7:1). Seven is associated with completeness or perfection (i. e., the divine [3] + creation [4]). Sevens pervade the book:the lamb has seven eyes and seven horns (5:6); seven churches receive messages (2:13:22); there are seven seals (6:18:5); seven trumpets (8:611:19); seven bowls of wrath (15:516:21); and so on. Finally, twelve signifies God's people. The 144,000 of those sealed stand for the twelve tribes of Israel, each of which contains 12,000 (7:1–8).

Time in the Book of Revelation. Scholars have debated the way that time works in the book of Revelation. Some have insisted that time should be understood as proceeding in a linear fashion: John expects the opening of the seven seals and then the blowing of the seven trumpets and then the pouring out of the seven bowls and so on. Others, however, contend that time does not proceed linearly. Rather, it stretches, contracts, and folds back on itself. Sometimes later visions or cycles of visions repeat earlier ones but with altered details and from a different perspective. The latter view of time seems more likely because of the difficulty of reading the text in a linear fashion. For example, when the lamb opens the sixth seal (6:13) the stars fall from heaven. But a couple of chapters later, when the fourth angel blows his trumpet, there are still stars in the sky (8:12).

What Gave Rise to the Book of Revelation?

Prior to the late twentieth century, it was assumed that the book of Revelation was written in response to Roman persecution of Christians. Indeed, there seem to be numerous references to persecution throughout the work (e. g., Rev 2:9–10; 2:3; 6:9–11; 7:13–14; 11:3–8; 12:17; 13:7; 17:1–6; and 20:4). In recent years, however, scholars have begun to question the assumption that persecution gave rise to the book of Revelation, primarily because no other historical evidence confirms any empire–wide persecution of Christians in the late first century. But, how can this historical finding be squared with the references to persecution in the book of Revelation? Some scholars have insisted that the book was composed in response not to empire–wide persecution but to localized persecutions like the execution of Christians in Rome by the emperor Nero in the early 60s or the rounding up of Christians in Bithynia in the early second century by the then–governor Pliny (the younger). Other scholars have suggested that a community does not have to actually experience persecution to feel oppressed.

How can one decide between these two alternatives? It is worth noting that almost all of the references to persecution in the book of Revelation appear as predictions (i.e., future events) rather than reports of actual events that have taken place. This means that one cannot merely assume persecution based on those passages. Furthermore, in chapters 2 and 3 of the book , the author has given us with a window into the situation of the different communities, by providing messages to the seven churches (cf. Rev 1:10–20), purportedly delivered by the Son of Man. A close look at these messages provides us with no solid evidence for government persecution of Christians at the time that the book was written.

But a close examination of these messages does indicate divisions in some of the communities. Most noteworthy are the messages to two of the churches. In the communities of Pergamum and Thyatira, the Nicolaitans and the Christian prophet whom John calls "Jezebel" are (respectively) accused of leading some Christians to "practice fornication" and "eat food sacrificed to idols."

Optional student exercise concerning possible persecution and/or divisions in the churches at John's time. Divide the students into seven groups. Have each group examine a message to one of the seven churches. Each group should:

  1. 1. decide whether the speaker has, on the whole, a positive or negative opinion of the community in question;

  2. 2. decide whether or not its message provides any evidence of Roman persecution in that community; and

  3. 3. describe (insofar as it is possible) what is happening within each community. Perhaps with some help from the instructor, the students should be able to determine that the speaker has a positive view of the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia (note that there is no threat directed by the Son of Man in the messages to these communities). John's view of the other churches, however, is either negative or mixed (note that in the communities of Pergamum, Thyatira, and Sardis some are commended while others are threatened).

Regarding persecution, the students should discover that of the seven messages, only a couple give any information that could be construed as evidence that Christians were currently being persecuted by government officials. However, if students look more closely, that should note that the evidence seems to disappear. One message–that to Smyrna–predicts future persecution of Christians; it gives no evidence that it was going on at the time. A second message, that to Pergamum, refers to the death of a " faithful witness" named Antipas. However, neither the cause nor the perpetrators of that death are revealed (it is quite possible that it was a mob action rather than one initiated by the government). Also, the expression, "even in the days of Antipas" suggests that it was an event in the past and possibly the distant past. Finally, while the messages to Smyrna and Philadelphia suggest tension between the "synagogue of Satan" and the churches, there is no intimation of violence nor does the government seem to be involved.

Finally, the students should recognize that there are divisions in a number of these communities. Particularly noteworthy is the information presented about the communities in Pergamum and Thyatira.

When John says that some members of the communities of Pergamum and Thyatira "practice fornication" and "eat foods sacrificed to idols, " what are we to suppose they are doing? The first issue, practicing fornication, is difficult to understand. It is unlikely that Christians in these communities were acting in a sexually promiscuous manner because elsewhere in the book John uses "fornication" metaphorically (14:8; 17:2, 4; 18:3, 9; 19:2). Since the same term is used metaphorically in the LXX to indicate idolatry, John probably meant to indicate some kind of activity that he considered idolatrous. Perhaps it had to do with mixed marriages between Christians and pagans (cf. Tobit 4:12, where the author uses the same terminology to describe mixed marriages between Jews and non–Jews).

On the other hand, the meaning of "eating food sacrificed to idols (i. e., the pagan gods) " is easy to understand. Such food could be encountered in any number of contexts in ancient society: at a pagan temple (following a sacrifice); at a city festival (also following a sacrifice), or even in the meat–market (left over sacrificial meat was sometimes sold there). Since social occasions such as weddings, birthdays, or any kind of formal banquet often featured meat that had been sacrificed to idols, it was often difficult to avoid. Some Christians argued that since the pagan gods did not really exist, then eating meat that had been sacrificed to such non–existent deities would be harmless (1 Cor 8:4). A half–century earlier than John, the apostle Paul's response to a question about such food indicated that even he was somewhat ambivalent about it (1 Cor 8 and 10).

Optional student exercise to illustrate the controversial nature of " food sacrificed to idols" Divide the class into small groups. Have half of the groups look at (1 Cor 8 and the other half look at 10). Ask the groups to determine Paul's views on the subject in the passage that they are examining. Does Paul think that the eating of "food sacrificed to idols" should be allowed? Not allowed? Allowed in some cases and but not in others? Have the different groups summarize their findings for the class. It might be interesting to ask the class to determine if Paul is consistent in his arguments. Students might also want to consider the possibility that the opinions of "Jezebel" and the Nicolaitans might match those of Paul (i. e., such food was acceptable in some circumstances but not others).

The mention of these particular activities that so disturbed John suggests that the Nicolaitans in Pergamum and "Jezebel" and her followers in Thyatira had fewer scruples about their social interactions with the larger society than did John. John viewed the larger Greco–Roman society with disdain. Rome, he believed, had been successful because it had been in league with Satan (Rev 1213). Consequently, John thought that anything having to do with Rome—including the political, religious, and social structures that supported its rule—should be avoided at all costs. John assumed that Christians who believed accommodation to be possible did not really understand the depth of Rome's evil.

Optional student exercise to discover the links that John saw between Rome, Roman religion, and Satan. Divide students into three groups. Ask one of these groups to look at the woman "clothed with the sun, "described throughout chapter12. That same group should also look at her male child (12:4) and the rest of her children (12:17). The second group will focus on the dragon in chapter 12 and the beast from the sea in chapter 13. The third group will look at the beast from the earth, also mentioned in chapter 13. The students should try to determine who or what these characters stand for and what role they play in the story. They should also try to determine who their allies and enemies are in the story. Students should be encouraged to use the annotations in the NOAB to arrive at their conclusions. Although the character of the woman "clothed with the sun" is somewhat ambiguous, students should be able to determine (perhaps with some help) that her male child represents Jesus; her other children stand for Christians; the beast from the sea stands for Rome; and the beast from the earth represents the priests of the imperial cult or possibly priests of Roman religion generally. Once the students understand who the various characters are, they should be able to see the overall story: Rome (the beast from the sea) is clearly in league with Satan (the dragon) as Rev 13:2 clearly shows. The dragon (Satan), and consequently the beast from the sea (Rome) are obviously the enemies of the woman, her child (the Messiah), and her other children (Christians).

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