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The Book of Revelation

Peter S. Perry

The book of Revelation is a complex tapestry of visions woven to persuade first century audiences in Asia Minor to serve God and to resist pressure to eat food sacrificed to idols, to participate in the economy of the Roman Empire, and to view Rome as a non-violent ruler. Six key themes are prophecy, thrones, slaves, wealth, exodus, and persecution.

1. Prophecy

Prophets played an important role in public and private decision making in the first century CE. Local, regional, and imperial leaders (even the emperor himself) sought oracles, visions, and dreams to make decisions, for example, whether to fight a war, marry, or build a building. Jews, Greeks, and Romans looked to prophets for communication with the divine in order to have success and not disaster. Prophecy had persuasive power.

John presents himself as a Jewish prophet, one selected by God to bear a message for God's people in a particular time and place. From the first verse, he establishes that this Revelation comes from God, through Jesus to an angel to him, John. His visions are intelligible to his audiences; they are able to "hear and . . . keep" them (1:3).

He imitates prophets from the Hebrew Bible to present himself with similar authority. Like the prophet Daniel, John sees and hears the message in a vision. Similar to Ezekiel, he eats the message as a scroll (Rev 10). John also freely re-presents prophecy from the Hebrew Bible, for example mixing Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 12:10 in Rev 1:7.

John is one of a group of prophets who are on a par with angels in their function as God's messengers (22:9: "your comrades the prophets"). But not every prophet agrees with John. John competes for his audiences' attention with the Nicolaitans (2:6, 15) and a female prophet he disparages as "Jezebel" (2:20–25), the foreign queen of Israel who opposed the prophet Elijah (esp. 1 Kings 18). In contrast to these prophets, John tries to persuade Christians not to accommodate any idolatry, including joining in social meals where idol meat is consumed and participating in the imperial economy.

2. Thrones

Thrones represent ruling power. Whoever sits on the Emperor's throne in Rome ruled the Empire. The Gemma Augusta , a gem cut around 10–20 CE, displays the Emperor Augustus (27 BCE–14 CE) sitting on a throne shared with Dea Roma, the divinized city of Rome. Divine figures hover around the throne and the nations conquered by Rome lie subjugated underneath. Oikoumenê, a symbol of the inhabited world, holds a wreath over the Emperor's head.

In John's visions, thrones illuminate the contest between God and Satan's forces. The most common title for God is the One-Sitting-on-the-Throne (4:2, etc.). John sees God the Father sharing this throne with Jesus (3:22; 22:1). In opposition to God's rule, Satan also has a throne (13:2; see 2:13) that he shares with the Beast, a symbol of the Roman Empire in the late first century. The city of Babylon (i.e., Rome) sits on the Beast (17:3) and says "I rule as a queen; I am no widow and I will never see grief" (18:7). While Jesus is "the ruler of the kings of the earth" (1:5),Babylon is the one "with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication," that is, idolatry (17:2; 18:9). The kings eventually turn on Babylon and destroy the idolatrous city (17:15–18). In contrast, God's rule is forever in the New Jerusalem (22:5). God's rule is a shared rule not only with Jesus, but with others. Twenty-four elders sit eternally on thrones around God in a divine council (4:4; 5:8). Believers are also promised a place with Jesus on his throne (3:21) and authority in God's court of judgment (2:26–7; 20:4–6).

3. Slaves

Slavery was an integral institution in the Roman Empire. Slaves were most often either captured in Roman conquests, bought in payment of debts, or born in slavery. Some slaves became imperial slaves who were owned by the emperor even though they were far away from Rome. Slaves' treatment and responsibility varied widely, from the elite lifestyle of Cicero's Tiro to the oppressive dehumanizing life of mining slaves (as described in the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan). Slaves could sometimes be marked with a brand or tattoo signaling their status and owner. In some places, slaves could earn money and buy their freedom by going to a temple, making an offering of money, which was then given to the slave master, and becoming a slave to the god, which meant they were free.

Slave language permeates the Book of Revelation. John identifies himself and his audience as God's slaves (1:1; the Greek word is rendered "servant" in most translations; "bondservant" in the NASB). John describes Jesus as the one who "freed us from our sins by his blood" (1:5) and "bought back for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation" (5:9), language that recalls how slaves won their freedom. As slaves of God, they are marked with a seal on their forehead that shows ownership and protection (7:3; 9:4; 14:1; also 3:12).

John implicitly asks the audience: whose slave are you? The opponents of God also seek slaves. The prophetess John calls " Jezebel" seeks to lead astray God's slaves (2:20). As with God's slaves, Babylon also has a name on her forehead (17:5). The false prophet (Beast from the Earth) makes people receive a mark on their forehead or hand in order to participate in commerce (13:16–17; 19:20). God's wrath will be poured on those who receive the mark of the Beast (14:9–11; 16:2), while his slaves will resist worshipping statues and receiving the Beast's mark (15:2; 20:4).

4. Wealth

Using images of luxury and wealth, John also implicitly asks the audience: where will you find treasure? Christians in Smyrna are poor in material wealth but rich because of their relationship with God (2:9). In Laodicea, they were comfortable enough to say, "I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing" (3:17; compare with Babylon's words in 18:7). They have gold, robes, and medical ointments, but Jesus urges them to receive true wealth from him, not from imperial commerce. The symbol of Rome, the idolatrous city, Babylon, described in Rev 17–18, is dressed in luxurious purple and scarlet, gold, jewels, and pearls (17:4; see 18:11–13). But the kings, merchants, shipmasters, and seafarers who seek Babylon's wealth will mourn when it is destroyed.

If John's audiences want real treasure, they are shown wealth beyond their imagination around God's throne (Rev 4) and the New Jerusalem (Rev 21–22). Even God himself looks like precious jewels (4:3). The twenty-four elders serving God have white robes and golden crowns (4:4). The New Jerusalem glows like a rare jewel (21:11): the wall is jasper, the city itself pure gold, and its gates are enormous pearls (21:18). The foundations, each related to one of the twelve apostles, are encrusted with twelve kinds of jewels (21:19–21). While there is a lack of food, water, and medicine in the Roman Empire (e.g., 7:16–17), in the New Jerusalem there is water from the river, food from the tree of life, and healing from its leaves (22:1–2).

5. Exodus

God sent Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Plagues demonstrated God's sovereignty and power over Pharaoh and his prophets. Israelite prophets used the Exodus as a type or model to understand contemporary events, for example, leaving Babylon to return to Judea (e.g., Isaiah 40–66). John invokes the idea of a New Exodus by recalling how at Sinai God made Israel "a priestly kingdom" (Exod 19:6). John writes that Jesus "made us to be a kingdom and priests serving his God and father" (1:6; 5:10). He further reminds them of Israel's encounter with God at Sinai that included lightning, rumblings, and thunder (4:5; 8:5; 11:19; 16:18; see Exod 19:16).

The events following the seven trumpets (Rev 8–9) and the seven bowls (Rev 16) are modeled after the plagues on Egypt. Water to blood, frogs, hail, darkness, locusts, and boils all recall the plagues on the Egyptians. Just as the Israelites were protected from the plagues (e.g., Exod 8:22–23; 9:26), God's people in Revelation are protected (by a seal on the forehead; cf. 7:3; 9:4). Just as the plagues were ineffective for persuading Pharaoh to release the Egyptians, the plagues in Revelation are ineffective for persuading people to repent from their sins (Rev 9:20–21; 16:9, 11). However, the witness of prophets in the midst of disasters is effective. When people witness the resurrection of prophets and an earthquake, they give glory to God (11:13).

The slaughtered Lamb is another connection to the Exodus. The portrayal of the Lamb as slaughtered and the effectiveness of the blood of the Lamb to buy God's people out of slavery recalls the role of the Lamb in the Passover (Exod 12).

As with Isaiah's call for a New Exodus, John hears a voice from heaven calls God's people out of Babylon: "Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues . . . ." (18:4). In Revelation, it is an "exodus" to resist pressure to join in social meals where idol meat is consumed and to participate in the imperial economy; in other words, to "come out" of accommodation of idolatry.

6. Persecution

Revelation does not claim that Christians are undergoing violent persecution. Antipas of Pergamum is the only one in the seven cities described as being killed for his faith, and that was in the past (2:13; perhaps in a similar way as described by Pliny, the governor north of the seven cities). Believers face some public pressure to participate in social meals and the imperial economy, but the problems arise from internal responses to external forces. In Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira (map), the Nicolaitans and "Jezebel" encourage Christians to participate in social meals where idol meat is consumed. Groups labeled "synagogues of Satan" in Smyrna and Philadelphia may refer to a growing division between Jewish believers in Jesus and other Jews.

John sees future violent persecution if Christians resist the idolatrous empire. He foresees many souls under the altar who have been slaughtered for the word of God and their testimony (6:9–11). Believers will receive white robes in heaven only after coming out of a Great Persecution (7:14). John sees Satan making war on believers "who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the witness of Jesus" (12:17). As with Satan, the Beast (i.e., the Roman Empire) will make war on the saints and conquer them (13:7; 11:7). John expects that believers who do not worship the Beast will be killed (13:15), some by beheading (20:4). Those who resist using imperial currency with the "mark" of the beast on it will have difficulty buying and selling (13:16). The city of Babylon (Rome) will be "drunk on the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus" (17:6; see also 18:24).

John uses these visions of future persecution to illustrate that the Pax Romana, Roman Peace, is an illusion. What seems to be a wealthy, prosperous, and peaceful empire will turn on those who do not worship its power. Christians should untangle themselves from its idolatry, and prepare to witness boldly that God is the One-Sitting-on-the-Throne even if it leads to death.

Bibliography

  • Aune, David E. Revelation. 3 Vols. WBC 52a-c. Dallas, Tex.: Word, 1997–98.
  • Beale, G.K. The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text. NIGTC. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999.
  • Blount, Brian K. Revelation: A Commentary. NTL. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2009.
  • Duff, Paul B. Who Rides the Beast? Prophetic Rivalry and the Rhetoric of Crisis in the Churches of the Apocalypse. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Friesen, Steven J. "Satan's Throne, Imperial Cults and the Social Settings of Revelation." Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27.3 (2005): 351–373.
  • Royalty, Robert M. The Streets of Heaven: The Ideology of Wealth in the Apocalypse of John. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1998.
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