THE SOURCE AND SETTING OF THE MESSAGE (1:1-20)
Overview: Revelation 1 sets the context for the book. The prologue (1:1-3) shows that Revelation came from God through Christ, an angel, and John. It also presents the purpose of the book: blessing from hearing and heeding the book’s message. Throughout the book the hidden message of God is centered on the contents of a scroll with seven seals (5:5, 7; 6:1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 12; 8:1). It is the vision of Christ in 1:9-20 and the contents of the scroll that contain the revelation. The vision of Christ for the churches shows that he is at present the awesome and potentially lethal God who will in the future come to judge the world.
The prologue was composed by John after he experienced the visions recorded in the book. He used this prologue to introduce his readers to what the book was about and how they were to respond to it. The book is first of all a revelation concerning Jesus Christ. “Revelation” means “disclosure” or “unveiling.” Jesus is both the source and the subject of the revelation. The message is for his “servants.” The book begins and ends by stressing Christ’s return for his servants (1:1, 3; 22:3, 6-7, 10, 12, 20). For the concept of “soon” (or “quickly”), see Luke 18:8 and Romans 16:20. Also, consider 2 Peter 3:8-13. This is a letter to slaves encouraging them to obey their Master’s commands in light of his expected return.
The message was presented largely in signs and symbols. Signs and symbols teach truth by transference. What is known about the sign in a known realm reveals something about the unknown realm toward which the sign points. Most of the symbols or signs in Revelation are explained in the context or in some other place in Scripture. A blessing is promised for those who read and heed the words of the prophecy.
What is there to “obey” (1:3) in the book of Revelation? Revelation 1:3 is a beatitude promising blessing for those who heed what is in the book. Revelation reveals other blessings in 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14 (cf. Luke 11:28). These blessings form a stark contrast with the curses at the end of the book (22:18-19). The essence of taking the message of the book into one’s life is maintaining love for Christ and one’s family. This will result in overcoming, or “victory” (cf. 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 5:5; 11:7; 13:7; 17:14; 21:7; Matt. 24:13). For seeing the letter as “prophecy” (1:3), see 22:7, 10, 18-19.
As with the prologue in 1:1-3, the greeting was written after John had experienced the visions of the book. It presents the major themes of the book: seven churches, the eternality of God, Jesus the faithful witness, and God’s eternal glory and dominion. These themes will be illustrated throughout the book. John gave a standard blessing: “grace and peace.” Revelation is addressed to the seven churches of Asia. The churches were in cities Paul had visited on his second and third missionary journeys. As elder, or bishop, of Ephesus, the apostle John was responsible for these churches. Note the structure of 1:4-8. It starts and ends with the eternality of God (cf. Exod. 3:14-15). The middle part describes the person and work of Jesus, which results in believers being “priests” (1:6). The servants of God do their priestly ministry in Christ surrounded by the eternal power and nature of the Father.
The “sevenfold Spirit” (1:4) is variously interpreted as referring to: (1) the seven angels (1:16, 20); (2) the fullness of the Holy Spirit in all his ministries (2:7, 11, 17, 29; cf. Isa. 11:2-5; 1 Cor. 12:4, 13); or (3) a heavenly entourage of spirits that have a special ministry in connection with the Lamb. It is always best to see if the book itself can shed light on an issue. In this case 3:1; 4:5; and 5:6 refer to the seven spirits. These verses show that the main emphasis is on the power and presence (“horns and eyes,” 5:6) of God on the earth (cf. Zech. 4:2, 10). The number “seven” appears fifty-four times in Revelation. Throughout the Bible the number seven is associated with the idea of completion and perfection (cf. Gen. 2:2; Exod. 20:10).
Jesus Christ is described as “the faithful witness” (1:5; cf. 2:13; 11:3; 17:6) in order to encourage the same from the readers. This relates to the bookwide theme of “overcoming,” or being “victorious” (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 5:5; 11:7; 13:7; 17:14; 21:7; cf. Matt. 24:13), enduring to the end faithfully. The “first to rise from the dead” (1:5) refers to Christ (cf. Col. 1:15). He was the first to receive an immortal, resurrection body (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20). As such, he is able to resurrect those who die for their faith (cf. 20:6). The term “kingdom” (1:6) reflects the present unity of believers under their King (“the glory and dominion”). The term “priests” (1:6) reflects the service to God by believers (cf. 5:10; Exod. 19:5-6; Isa. 61:6; 1 Pet. 2:5, 9). This service will continue throughout eternity (cf. 22:3).
Revelation 1:7 breaks the flow of the narrative. It is an outburst that clearly presents the theme of the book. Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 12:10 are combined. Their predictions will be fulfilled at Christ’s return (cf. also Matt. 16:27; 24:30; and John 19:37). Note the two “amens” (1:6-7). This glorious picture was needed by those who looked forward to a future filled with uncertainty and tribulation.
God confirmed his eternal sovereignty in 1:8. For Alpha and Omega, see 21:6; 22:13; and Isaiah 41:4. While some take “the Alpha and the Omega” (1:8) to refer to Christ (21:6), in this context it refers to God who is verifying the contents of the prophecy. He is the “A” to “Z,” that is, the complete God. “Almighty” is used only ten times in the New Testament and nine of its appearances are in this book (1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7, 14; 19:6, 15; 21:22; cf. 2 Cor. 6:18). Triumph in tribulation is based on trusting in God to be the most powerful of all.
Prophetic Commissioning (1:9-20)
THE FIRST COMMAND TO WRITE (1:9-11)
The first Roman persecution of Christians was under Nero in a.d. 64-67. He ordered the burning and mutilation of Christians and brought about the deaths of Peter and Paul. The second persecution was under Domitian, around a.d. 95. This persecution brought John to Patmos. At the time of writing Revelation, John was in exile on the island of Patmos, a six by ten mile island in the Aegean Sea about thirty-five miles southwest of Miletus. This island served as a place of banishment during Roman times.
Revelation 1:9 recounts the major themes of the book: suffering, the kingdom, and patient endurance in Jesus (cf. 3:10; 2 Thess. 3:5). The “Lord’s Day” (1:10) may refer to Sunday, the first day of the week (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). If this was the case, John had his vision on the day the seven churches he would address were meeting to worship. It is also possible that the “Lord’s Day” may not refer to Sunday but to the kind of day (that is, a day totally given over to the Lord’s words and acts) on which John received this revelation. For the phrase “in the Spirit” (1:10), see Acts 10:10; 11:5; 22:17; and 2 Corinthians 12:2-4. The loud voice was like a trumpet (1:10; cf. Exod. 19:16, 19; cf. Heb. 12:19; Matt. 24:31; 1 Cor. 15:52; 1 Thess. 4:16). The book was originally written as a prophetic exhortation to seven churches (1:11).
DESCRIPTION OF THE SPEAKER (1:12-16)
John’s vision was of the majestic person of Christ, the risen and glorified Lord, standing among the churches. The vision is similar to that recorded in Daniel 7:9-14. But this picture of the risen Lord is radically different from the picture presented in the Gospels, where the risen Lord was mistaken for a gardener and made breakfast for his disciples by the Sea of Galilee. In Revelation the risen Lord is revealed as the fearsome Judge, first of the churches and then of the world. The Lord is presented in this startling way in order to motivate the readers to pay attention. The “seven gold lampstands” (1:12) are identified in 1:20 as the seven churches. The picture of seven lamps occurs in Exodus 25:37; 37:23; and Zechariah 4:2. The “seven stars” (1:16) are identified in 1:20 as seven “angels.”
There are a variety of opinions regarding the identity of the seven “angels.” Some have understood John to be referring to the human leader or pastor of each local church. Others have viewed them as guardian angels of the churches (1 Cor. 11:10). And others believe the term “angel” should be understood literally as “messenger,” referring to the human messengers sent by the churches to visit John and receive Christ’s letter to their churches (cf. 2:1; for other human messengers in Scripture see Hag. 1:13; Mal. 2:7; Matt. 11:10; Luke 9:52; James 2:25). The order in which the churches are addressed is strictly according to geographical arrangement.
THE SECOND COMMAND TO WRITE (1:17-20)
John revealed his personal response to what he saw (1:17), and by doing this, called believers to share his feelings of awe at the vision of Christ among the churches. Jesus comforts John with his right hand (1:17). His charge of the “keys” (1:18) reveals his full power over death. The risen Lord exhibits his full authority to command (1:19; cf. Dan. 8:18; 10:10, 12). The commission in Revelation 1:19 is often seen as the key to understanding the structure of the entire book: “what you have seen” (referring to Rev. 1), “the things that are now happening” (referring to Rev. 2-3), and “the things that will happen later” (referring to Rev. 4-22). John was being instructed to write down the entirety of what he saw and to leave nothing out.
PRESENT EXHORTATIONS TO THE CHURCHES (2:1-3:22)
Overview: Each message follows a standard format: (1) the charge to write to the angel of the church; (2) identification of Christ in terms of his appearance in Revelation 1; (3) the church’s positive qualities; (4) words of exhortation; (5) a closing with an exhortation to hear and a promise to the “victorious.” The closing to each message broadens the scope to all the churches. All seven messages are to all churches in every age. The impact of this format for the overall message and purpose of the book is that there is a critical need for Christians to endure a future period of terrible persecution. The churches are told to be “victorious” by returning to their original commitment and guarding against cultural conformity.
Each of the churches’ letters begins with a vision or characterization of Christ similar to the vision of 1:9-20. The selection of each reference to the vision of Christ matches the special needs of each of the seven churches. See the accompanying chart on the seven churches.
Each message was intended to deal with the specific internal conditions of each individual church. The churches were commended for their good traits and condemned for their failings.
Ephesus, the foremost city of Asia Minor, was located near the Aegean Sea on the Cayster River and had a population of around 250,000 (see introductory map). The city was the guardian of the temple of Artemis (Diana) and of her image. According to legend, the image fell from heaven (Acts 19:35). The emperor cult flourished at Ephesus, and temples were built there to Claudius, Hadrian, and Severus. The magic arts and mystery cults also flourished there (Acts 19:13-19). Ephesus had a fine harbor, which served as an export center at the west end of the Asiatic caravan route. The city had a fine theater that seated 25,000 people. The church at Ephesus was founded by Aquila, Priscilla, and Paul (Acts 18:18-19). By the time of John’s Revelation, the church had persevered through the trouble of false teachers but had lost its first love.
VISION OF CHRIST: HOLDS AND WALKS (2:1)
The vision of Christ holding and walking (2:1) reinforces his intimate knowledge of their hearts and actions. The picture of Christ with a letter to each church relates to his intimate knowledge of the problems each church faces (cf. 1:12, 16; 2:4).
The Lord praised the Ephesian Christians for their deeds, perseverance, and endurance. Toil and patience characterized their overall lifestyle. They were doctrinally sound and had exposed false teachers (cf. Matt. 7:15; Acts 20:29). They had persevered and endured many trials and hardships.
Although endurance is a key theme throughout the book, it is not the only or final criterion for pleasing Christ. The Lord told these believers that they had left their first love and exhorted them to repent. See Matthew 24:12 for Jesus’ warning that the “love of many will grow cold.” The idea of “love . . . as you did at first” (2:4) is purposely left general to let the readers specify what their own first love for God was (cf. Jer. 2:2; John 13:35; 2 John 1:5). The remedy is to “look,” “turn,” and “work” (2:5). Doctrinal purity and endurance did not guarantee vital inner love for God. The remembrance by believers of their first state of love for Christ is potent for bringing about repentance and action. Christ’s coming to judge (2:5) would be realized by his extinguishing the life of that particular church. There is a close relationship between Christ’s coming to judge the churches (Rev. 2-3) and his coming to judge the world in the day of the Lord (Rev. 4-22).
According to the early church fathers, the Nicolaitans were the followers of Nicolas (cf. Acts 6:5). Others understand the name etymologically to refer to those who “conquer the people,” that is, those who usurped authority and dominated the people. In context, their problem is linked to the teaching of Balaam (2:14-15) and may also be related to the works of 2:20-21 concerning food and idols. This also relates to the Jerusalem council’s decrees in Acts 15:29. These exhortations to the churches of Asia Minor (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22) are applicable to all churches and to individual believers as well (cf. Matt. 11:5). “Victorious” (2:7) is a combination of doctrinal purity, faithful witness, and vital love for Christ. Those who are “victorious” are not a special group of Christians but true believers who persevere faithfully to the end (21:7; 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; cf. 1 John 5:4-5). For the “tree of life,” see Revelation 22:2 and Genesis 2:9; 3:22-24. “Paradise” signifies the place of Edenic fellowship with God.
THE SEVEN CHURCHES OF ASIA
Ephesus (2:1)See 1:12, 16.
Smyrna (2:8)See 1:17-18.
Pergamum (2:12)See 1:16.
Sardis (3:1)See 1:16.
Philadelphia (3:7)See 1:18.
Laodicea (3:14)See 1:5.
Smyrna (modern Ismir) is located about thirty-five miles north of Ephesus (see introductory map). It was an important port city and trade center that also boasted of schools of science and medicine. Smyrna was also a center for the imperial cult of emperor worship. Temples at Smyrna were dedicated to the emperor Tiberius, Zeus, and Cybele. The gospel probably reached Smyrna at an early date, presumably from Ephesus (Acts 19:10). The church at Smyrna suffered from poverty and persecution by the Jews. Polycarp, one of the apostle John’s disciples, served as bishop of Smyrna and was martyred there around a.d. 156 when he refused to recant his faith. He was burned alive on a wooden pyre.
VISION OF CHRIST (2:8)
The vision of Christ’s experience of suffering (2:8) matches the suffering and death that would be faced by the church in Smyrna (2:10; cf. the picture of Christ in 1:17-18).
The church at Smyrna experienced great affliction and poverty. Christ’s words, “I know” (2:9), reveal the heart of the Christians’ comfort. It is far from trite to say that God knows about the needs of his people. The spiritual riches of the believers in Smyrna contrasted with their material poverty. This stands in contrast with the state of the believers in the Laodicean church (3:17). For the concept of real versus false Jews, see Romans 2:28-29 and John 8:31-47. The “synagogue of Satan” referred to those who were Jews by birth but did not share Abraham’s faith (cf. Rom. 2:28-29).
The “ten days” (2:10) refers to a brief period of suffering (Gen. 24:55; Neh. 5:18; Jer. 42:7; Acts 25:6). Satan was behind the suffering and tribulations of the saints throughout the book. Satan’s work serves as a testing (2:10) for the saints (cf. 3:10). Faithfulness results in getting the crown of life, but only after death. The “second death” (2:11) is described in 20:6, 14 and 21:8. The “second death” refers to eternal separation from God in the lake of fire.
THE SEVEN CHURCHES: REAL OR SYMBOLIC?
Some have viewed these churches as picturing seven successive periods of church history. But this view involves considerable speculation and subjectivity. As with any of the letters in the New Testament addressed to particular churches, the churches in Revelation should be understood as real first-century churches, but modern interpreters must also realize that the message is to all of Christ’s churches throughout time. To defend the timelessness of the message is not to withold the original historical reality of the seven churches. The churches are like those addressed in Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, and so forth.
In addition, emphasis needs to be placed on the prophetic nature of the messages to the churches in Revelation. They are more like oracles than letters, and the command to write (repeated in 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14) is used in the Greek Old Testament to announce prophetic messages. Thus, the letters are prophetic messages written to real churches with timeless messages to Christ’s church throughout the centuries.Pergamum (2:12-17)
Pergamum was located about fifty miles north of Smyrna and about fifteen miles from the sea (see introductory map). To reach the city from the coast, one could travel up the Caicus River, which was navigable by small craft. Pergamum had a fine library and was the place where parchment was first used. The city was chiefly noted as the religious center of the province of Asia. It was the center of four of the great pagan cults honoring Zeus, Athena, Dionysus, and Asderius. Each of these deities had a beautiful temple. The first temple dedicated to the imperial cult (in honor of Augustus) was built at Pergamum in 29 B.C. The pagan temples and idolatry undoubtedly led John to refer to the city as the place “where that great throne of Satan is located” (2:13).
VISION OF CHRIST (2:12)
The Lord is pictured as having a two-edged sword (cf. 1:16). This sword is seen in terrible use later (19:15, 21; cf. also Isa. 49:2; Heb. 4:12). The sword is related to the Lord’s impending visit to the church (2:16).
The Lord praised the believers in Pergamum for having kept the faith. Antipas (2:13) is described as being a “faithful witness,” an attribute he shared with Christ (1:5). Satan’s work and throne are seen throughout Revelation 2 (2:9, 10, 13, 24; and also 3:9) and are connected to the Old Testament characters of Balaam (2:14) and Jezebel (2:20). Satan’s work to destroy the church will extend into his terrible deeds recorded in Revelation 4-20.
The Lord pointed out to them that they had allowed immoral teachings to come into their lives. The teachings were not a body of doctrine but a manner of behavior as described by the last part of 2:14. Their problem had two aspects: (1) They were eating food before idols in the temples; and (2) they were engaged in sexual immorality as pagan worship. For Balaam leading the Israelites into immoral activity, see Numbers 25:1-5 in connection with Numbers 31:16. They were involved in worship of false gods, which involved immoral sexual practices. Revelation 2:15 links the above sin to the teachings of the Nicolaitans and sheds light on the teachings of this basically unknown group. The center of their problem was that they were conforming to the ungodly activities of the surrounding society. “Come” (2:16) refers to Christ’s second coming (cf. 3:11; 22:7, 12, 20).
The “victorious” person is promised three things. The “manna that has been hidden” probably refers to the sufficiency of the person of Christ, the bread of life (cf. John 6:31-35). The theme of manna has its roots in the Old Testament. It is also seen in John 6 where Jesus indicated that he was the bread of life. The “hidden” concept may refer to the manna that was placed in the Ark for a memorial (Exod. 16:32-34; cf. Heb. 9:4). Tradition says that it was taken by Jeremiah at the time of captivity and hidden in the ground at Mount Nebo (2 Macc. 2:4-7). It was to remain there until the coming of the Messiah when the Ark would be brought to the new temple. Or it might refer to the “food of angels” (Ps. 78:25) that would descend from heaven during the Millennium to feed the blessed (2 Baruch 29:8; Sibylline Oracles, 7.149). A “white stone” was used in antiquity for voting and signified acquittal or acceptance. A white stone also was used as an admission ticket to a banquet, in this case the Messianic banquet. According to the rabbis, precious stones fell from heaven with manna. Christ received a “new name” after his resurrection (cf. Phil. 2:8-11), and believers will also. The essential contrast in this verse is between God’s “hidden manna” and the unclean food and immorality offered by the false teachers at Pergamum.
This longest letter to the churches is addressed to the least known church. Thyatira was an important manufacturing center located approximately forty miles southeast of Pergamum (see introductory map). The city was situated in a valley on the road from Pergamum to Laodicea. Thyatira was especially noted for its trade guilds, which were more organized than in any other ancient city. Their meetings were bound up with acts of pagan worship and immorality. Dye manufacturing was an important industry in Thyatira. The purple dye was made from a root instead of from shellfish. Garment weaving, pottery making, and brass working were also trades known to have existed in Thyatira. In its early days, Thyatira had a temple dedicated to Tyrimnos, an ancient sun god. The gospel may have been brought to the city by Lydia of Thyatira who was converted under Paul’s ministry in Philippi (Acts 16:14). The city is commended in Revelation for its deeds, love, faith, service, and perseverance, but it is rebuked for tolerating the false prophetess “Jezebel” (2:20).
VISION OF CHRIST (2:18)
The eyes and feet of the Lord are stressed (cf. 1:14-15; 2:23; Dan. 10:6). The image of eyes like “flames of fire” indicates Christ’s ability to search the minds and hearts of believers.
This church is praised for its works, love, faith, and perseverance. They had continued growing and were doing more for God than they had done during the the first days of their faith.
Although this church was given high praise, it also had a problem with immorality. It tolerated immoral teachings. The reference to “Jezebel” (2:20) indicates sins of fornication and eating idol food, sins parallel to those practiced by the Israelites in their worship of Baal (1 Kings 16:29-33; 2 Kings 9:30-37). Again, the church was falling prey to cultural pressure to accommodate the pagan custom of idolatry. This pressure may have had its source in the commitment of trade guilds of that day to their patron deities. “Sickbed” (2:22) is a punishment for sin (cf. 1 Cor. 11:27-30). They will be cast into great tribulation so that the churches will know God as the one who tries hearts (17:2; 18:19; cf. Jer. 17:10; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6).
“Depths of Satan” (2:24) may either be a sarcastic reversal of the claim to know the deep things of God, or a claim to have mystical power over Satan by entering into his realm and showing him powerless. “Until I come” (2:25) refers to Christ’s second coming.
The Lord’s exhortation to this church relates to rule in the Millennium. In 2:26-27 John quoted Psalm 2:9 indicating that “all who are victorious” will be associated with Christ in his kingdom reign (5:10; 12:5; 19:15; 2 Tim. 2:12; 1 Cor. 6:3). The context of Psalm 2 is very important, especially Psalm 2:7. True believers will share in Christ’s rule. The “morning star” (2:28) refers to Christ himself (cf. 22:16). In the Old Testament the concept functions as an allusion to an evil being (Isa. 14:12) and to the immortality of the righteous (Dan. 12:3). Again, “hearing,” and “listening,” and “understanding” mark the end of this and all the letters to the churches. This is also how Jesus ended his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).
Sardis was situated in the western part of the Roman province of Asia about thirty miles southeast of Thyatira (see introductory map). The city stood on the northern slope of a mountain with a river flowing at its base. This setting rendered the city almost impregnable. Sardis was once the capital of the kingdom of Lydia. In a.d. 17 the city was destroyed by a great earthquake. Although rebuilt by Tiberius, Sardis never recovered its former glory and importance. The ancient city was noted for its fruits and wool. The making and dyeing of woolen garments was the chief industry of Sardis (cf. Rev. 3:4-5). Worship at Sardis had a sexual emphasis and focused on Sybele, a goddess similar to Diana in Ephesus. The church was probably founded during the time of Paul’s ministry at Ephesus (Acts 19:10).
VISION OF CHRIST (3:1)
The Lord is pictured as having the seven spirits and the seven stars (cf. 1:16).
The Lord praised the Christians at Sardis for their good deeds (see also 3:4).
The Lord did not find the deeds of this church complete in God’s sight. Although the church had a reputation of being alive, it was dead on the inside. This is similar to the loss of first love for Christ (cf. 2:4). Again, as in 2:5, the remedy was to “go back to” (remember),”hold to” original behavior and teaching, and “turn” to God. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel was also called to “remember” and “return” to God’s redemption and commands. This is the most severe denunciation given to the churches. But this church had no named heresy or outside opposition, only incomplete acts of obedience to Christ (3:2).
The Lord talked about future rewards to be given to “all who are victorious.” The righteousness of the “victorious” will be acknowledged by Christ before the Father (cf. Matt. 10:32). The “Book of Life” (3:5) refers to the book of the redeemed (cf. 20:15; 21:27). The concept of the “Book of Life” is seen in Exodus 32:32-33, Psalm 69:28, and Daniel 12:1. For “clothed in white” (3:5), see 3:18; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9, 13; and 19:14.
Philadelphia, located twenty-eight miles southeast of Sardis, was a wealthy trade center in the wine producing district of Asia (see introductory map). The city was situated on a 650 foot terrace above the banks of the Cogamus River at the threshold of a fertile plateau from which its agricultural prosperity was derived. Philadelphia was called “little Athens” because of the magnificence of its temples and public buildings. Dionysus, the god of wine, was the chief deity of the city. The believers at Philadelphia were commended for their deeds, their obedience to God’s word, and their loyalty to Christ (3:8). It is the only one of the seven churches of Revelation not subject to some measure of condemnation or criticism.
VISION OF CHRIST (3:7)
The Lord is pictured as holy and true and as having the “key of David” (3:7; cf. Isa. 22:15-25). This is a change from the usual reference back to the vision of Christ in Revelation 1:18. The “key of David” refers to Christ’s control over the messianic kingdom. The content of this letter is similar to the one to Smyrna. The readers were assured that Christ could bring them safely through persecution and into God’s kingdom.
The Lord praised the believers at Philadelphia for their deeds. They had an open ministry (3:8) and experienced victory (3:9). They were promised to be kept from the “great time of testing” (3:10) in contrast with “those who belong to this world,” referring to the people who continue to reject the salvation of God (6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 14; 17:8).
The believers are reminded to hold fast until Christ returns (3:11; cf. 6:9-11; John 16:33; 17:15; Rev. 7:1-8; 12:6). Satan is the chief accuser and persecutor of Christ’s children (12:10; 2:9; John 8:44; 17:15; 2 Cor. 11:14-15). “All who are victorious” will gain a place in the new city (cf. 21:1-2). The “pillars” (3:12) may allude to the custom of honoring a magistrate by setting up a pillar in one of the temples of Philadelphia in his name. The writing of the name of God on those who are “victorious” identifies the believer as God’s own possession.
Laodicea was located in the Lycus Valley on an important crossroads forty-five miles southeast of Philadelphia and about ninety miles east of Ephesus (see introductory map). The city prospered in banking, commerce, and the manufacturing of clothing made from the glossy black wool of the sheep raised nearby. It had a medical school and was noted for its production of a salve used to cure eye diseases (cf. 3:18). The church at Laodicea, with the other Lycus Valley churches of Hierapolis and Colosse, was probably established during Paul’s ministry at Ephesus (Acts 19:10), perhaps through the work of Epaphras (Col. 4:12-13).
VISION OF CHRIST (3:14)
The picture of the Lord in 3:14 looks back to that of Revelation 1:5. Christ’s work is certain (“Amen”) and his witness is faithful.
Laodicea (3:16) had no local water supply, so water was brought in by conduit from hot springs some distance away. The water no doubt arrived lukewarm, like the spiritual condition of the Laodiceans. The point is that the cold and pure waters of Colosse and the hot and medicinal waters of Hierapolis both could be put to good use. But lukewarm water was good for nothing.
The Lord invites them to repent (3:20). Christ was depicted as outside the church, inviting the Christians within to receive him. In view is the final invitation to Christ’s messianic banquet (3:21). The believer is promised the privilege of sitting with Christ on his throne and reigning with him throughout eternity (22:5; cf. 2 Tim. 2:12).
FUTURE EXPECTATIONS FOR THE WORLD (4:1-22:5)
Overview: The third section of Revelation looks ahead to the future (cf. 1:19). Revelation 4-5 forms a prologue to this major prophetic section by providing a heavenly perspective for the earthly events to come. These chapters move from earth to heaven to provide a glorious vision of God that will pervade all the following chapters. The source of glory and judgment comes from a God who deserves ceaseless worship. Against the background of the adoration of God in heaven, the awesome events of the last days are revealed.
This section shows the specific challenges involved in following Christ’s call to be “victorious” (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). It provides consolation and courage in the coming tribulation (2:10; 3:10; 7:14). It also gives insight into how history is run—not by human political power but by a God who is active and enthroned. In light of human and satanic persecution, the church appears unable to overcome earthly powers. But the scroll is the key to the end of such injustice and the beginning of God’s unhindered reign.
The Perfect Source of Glory and of Judgment (4:1-5:14)
THE SOURCE OF GLORY AND THE RESPONSE OF CEASELESS PRAISE (4:1-11)
“Then as I looked” (4:1) is a recurring phrase referring to a movement from one vision to another (cf. 9:13; 15:5; “After this,” 7:9; 18:1; 19:1). John was invited to go to heaven for a preview of coming events. He did this by means of a spiritual vision. John was on Patmos but saw the glories of heaven. The “door standing open in heaven” (4:1) was used to show that John was going into a hidden realm to reveal what was unseen. These events are to be viewed from the perspective of heaven, not earth. John was “in the Spirit” (4:2), that is, caught up in a continued ecstatic state.
The vision of God closely resembles the vision of God in Ezekiel 1:22-28. It also has links to Isaiah 6:1-5; Psalms 47:8; 104:2; and 1 Timothy 6:16. All the terrible suffering of the saints is to be viewed through the perspective of this vision of God’s glory and worthiness for worship. The “gemstones” (4:3) signify the first and last tribes of Israel in Exodus 28:17-21. In Ezekiel 28:13 these stones are counted among the treasures of the king of Tyre.
There is considerable debate as to the identity of the twenty-four elders (4:4). Some interpreters regard them as a special order of angels. Others believe they represent the redeemed of all ages— twelve representing Israel and twelve representing the church. Since there were “twenty-four” orders in the Levitical priesthood (1 Chron. 24:4; 25:9-31), some have taken the number to be representative of believer priests. But in 5:9-10 the elders seem to be set off from those redeemed by Christ. In 7:13 one elder equals one being. It is probably best to regard them as human or celestial beings who have some responsibility for leading in heavenly worship (4:9-11; 5:8-12). Whatever their actual identity, their function in the book is clear. They were to reveal to the readers of John’s revelation the proper response to God—ceaseless praise and worship.
For the “seven spirits of God” (4:5), see the note on 1:4. The thunder and lightning were reminders of how God appeared to his people at Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:16-18; cf. Pss. 18:7-14; 77:18). In Revelation the presence of thunder and lightning marks off important events and is always connected with the temple scene in heaven (8:5; 11:19; 16:18). The four creatures also function as leaders in unceasing praise for God as a background for the unfolding of his seven-sealed scroll of judgment (see also 5:9-10, 14; 11:16-18; 19:4). They are related to the cherubim of Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6:2-3. In Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God, he saw four “living beings” (4:6) who were later identified as cherubim (Ezek. 10:15), an order of angelic creatures. These creatures are additional to the traditional orders of heavenly beings. Each of the four creatures had a unique face. One had the face of a lion, another the face of a calf, another the face of an eagle, and the last had a human face. Whether these are to be taken as four actual creatures or as symbols, their function is clear. They were involved in ceaseless praise. The specific focus of praise was needed by the readers of this letter, especially those undergoing difficult times.
The creatures praise God for his holiness (4:8) and the elders praise God for his worthiness as Creator of all things (4:11). Seeing God in his holiness and Creator-sovereignty is indispensable for appreciating the upcoming judgment of the contrasting evil on the earth. The praise of a holy God results in seeing how bad it is on earth and how glorious it is in heaven.
THE SOURCE OF JUDGMENT (5:1-14)
Revelation 5 is a continuation of the heavenly scene. John focuses his attention on a sealed book in the right hand of the one sitting on the throne. The question of worthiness for judgment (5:2) is answered. The fact that the scroll is written on the inside and on the back indicates that there was a lot to say (cf. Ezek. 2:10). The drama of seeking a worthy opener heightens the importance of the sealed scroll. To break the seals was to open the scroll. The function of seals in the ancient world was to protect important documents for private and select viewing. This scroll is so confidential that it has not one, but seven seals. Only when all seven are broken will the contents of the book be revealed. The “strong angel” (5:2) will appear again in 10:1 and 18:21. The one worthy to open the seals would have to match the worthiness of the Father (4:11). The revealing of God’s judgment involves worthiness (5:2), not power. The challenge goes out to heaven above, earth beneath, and underneath the earth (5:3; cf. Exod. 20:4; Phil. 2:10). When the seven seals are broken, the judgments of God are poured out on the earth (cf. 6:1).
The question “Who is worthy to break the seals on this scroll and unroll it?” (5:2) is answered in 5:4-7. Christ conquered (5:5), and his triumph serves as the model for the believers’ “victory.” Christ’s victory is explained in 5:9-10. Jesus the Messiah is the one who overcame death and thus demonstrates his right to open the book. The terms “Lion of the tribe of Judah” (5:5; Gen. 49:8-10) and “heir to David’s throne” (Isa. 11:1, 10; Rom. 15:12) are Messianic. Christ is the royal figure coming from the tribe of Judah and the descendant of King David. His victory, and that of his followers, is victory through righteous suffering, sacrifice, and conflict. The “seven horns” (5:6) are an image of strength (Zech. 1:18). For the “seven spirits of God” (5:6), see note on 1:4. Lamb (5:6) is used of Jesus in Revelation twenty-eight times (cf. Isa. 53:7; “our Passover lamb,” 1 Cor. 5:7).
The worthy one is worshiped (5:8-14). “The prayers of God’s people” (5:8) relate to the prayers for the end of evil and the beginning of God’s kingdom. This is especially true of the prayers noted in the fifth seal (6:9-11). Both Father and Son are praised. For “new song” (5:9), see Psalm 98:1 and Isaiah 42:10. For being made “God’s kingdom and his priests” (5:10), see 1:6 and 20:6. The new song is sung by all heavenly and earthly creation (5:13). The universality of Christ’s work calls for this universal praise.
Seven Seals Broken (6:1-8:1)
Overview: Revelation 6:1-8:1 records the breaking of the seven seals of the scroll (5:2). It is important to realize that breaking only some of the seals does not open the book. The contents of the scroll are not revealed until after the seventh seal is broken. The events associated with the opening of the seals are simply an overture to the dreaded and final judgments of the scroll itself. The first four seals are the beginning of sufferings that lead up to the final great sufferings of the Tribulation and second coming of Christ. The first four seals relate to the events alluded to in Daniel 9, Matthew 24:4-31, Mark 13:4-37, and Luke 21:7-36.
A WHITE HORSE (6:1-2)
The breaking of the first seal marks the coming of the antichrist, the “little horn” of Daniel 7:8 or the “man of lawlessness” of 2 Thessalonians 2:3. The “bow” (6:2) may refer to a rainbow as in Genesis 9:12-17 and symbolize a conquest by peaceful means and diplomacy. There are similarities with Zechariah 1:8-17; 6:1-8. The figures of riders and horses form a stark contrast with Christ on a white horse in Revelation 19:11-16.
A RED HORSE (6:3-4)
This is the horse of war. The breaking of the second seal marks the removal of peace from the earth. The red color of the horse suggests bloodshed, and the “mighty sword” (6:4) confirms it.
A BLACK HORSE (6:5-6)
This is the horse of famine. There is a cause and effect relationship between the taking of peace at the breaking of the second seal and the increase of famine and inflation after the third seal is broken. The “pair of scales” (6:5) symbolizes the coming inflation and famine. A “day’s pay” (6:6; “denarius,” nasb; “penny,” kjv) is literally “a denarius,” which was a Roman monetary unit worth approximately one day’s wage.
A PALE HORSE (6:7-8)
Death results from war and famine. Ezekiel 14:21 is quoted in 6:8. These four seals are separated from the last three. They are preliminary to the opening of the scroll’s contents. The fourth seal reveals an ashen or yellowish-green horse that carries the horseman “Death,” resulting in the destruction of one-fourth of the earth’s population. Being eaten by wild beasts was one of the curses of the Mosaic covenant (Deut. 28:26).
SOULS UNDER THE ALTAR (6:9-11)
The fifth seal is now opened. The location is the temple in heaven (cf. Hab. 2:20). At the opening of this fifth seal the souls of martyred saints are revealed. They represent those who were slain for their faith. Their location under the altar shows that they are seen as a sacrifice. The answer to their question “how long?” (6:10) is that they must wait “until” (6:11) the final number of martyrs have died. At present, they are praying for judgment that has not yet come but will justify God’s reputation (cf. Pss. 79:10; 94:3; Hab. 1:2). The phrase “the people who belong to this world” refers to those who are against God (6:10; cf. 11:10; 13:8, 12; 17:2, 8; 3:10; 8:13). After the devastation accompanied by the first four horsemen (seals 1-4), the martyrs are revealed praying for God’s vengeance (seal 5). The sixth seal begins the vengeance requested by the martyred saints. The seventh seal reveals the scroll’s contents and the heart of God’s judgments. This relates to the purpose of the book by being a word of comfort for the redeemed during this and prior periods. The fifth seal is important because it implies that the first four seals were not divine wrath upon the unrighteous. This wrath would come, however, in the Great Tribulation seen in the sixth and seventh seals.
HEAVENLY CATACLYSM (6:12-7:17)
The breaking of the sixth seal unleashes universal havoc in the heavens and on earth (6:12-7:17). These cosmic disturbances characterize the day of the Lord and are predicted in Isaiah 34:4, Joel 2:30-31, and Matthew 24:29. The imagery used in these verses is from Joel 2:28-32. For the earthquake, see 8:10; 9:1; and Matthew 24:29. For the moon and sun, see Acts 2:20, Joel 2:28-32, Isaiah 34:4, and Mark 13:25-26. For the mountains moving, see Nahum 1:5 and Jeremiah 4:24. Those trying to hide from all this know that the day of God’s wrath has finally come (6:16-17). The term “wrath” (6:16-17) expresses a major characteristic of the day of the Lord (cf. 1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9).
Before the final devastation is unleashed, God sets apart 144,000 sealed ones (7:1-8). Revelation 7 records a parenthesis between the sixth and seventh seals. From the severity of the judgments it would appear that not a single person could be delivered (6:17). The question was “Who will be able to survive?” (6:17). But the God of wrath is also the God of mercy. Revelation 7 records the manifestation of God’s grace in the face of his wrath by giving two visions of the sealed and the slain. This vision is between the breaking of the sixth and seventh seals, a pattern repeated between the sixth and seventh trumpets (10:1-11:13). For the “four winds” (7:1), see Daniel 7:2 and Jeremiah 49:36. There is a direct relationship between the sealing of these “servants” (7:3) and their safety. They are sealed for faithfulness and safety (cf. 9:4). The “seal” is a mark of ownership. It does not have to be visible to be real (Eph. 4:30). The 144,000 (7:4) are identified as coming from the twelve tribes of Israel. The tribe of Dan is missing, and Joseph is included instead of Ephraim. The important thing is that they are drawn from twelve groups. Since John did not reveal the function of the 144,000, any view concerning their role is conjectural. The point is that they and a great multitude will be kept through the Tribulation and will make it safely into the eternal kingdom (7:15-17). This may relate to the prophecy of Joel 2:3 (cf. 14:1, 3-4).
John also sees a great company of Gentiles who were martyred (7:9-17) during the Tribulation (7:14). This is the group referred to in 6:11. In 7:15-17 John records the blessings to be enjoyed by the redeemed during the kingdom and the eternal state. For the Great Tribulation, see 3:10; 6:11; Daniel 12:1; and Mark 13:9. The concept of eternal service (7:15) is completed in 22:3. The tabernacle represents the new heavens and earth. For Jesus as the Lamb and shepherd, see Ezekiel 34:23 and Revelation 2:27; 12:5; 19:15.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE SEALS, TRUMPETS, AND BOWLS
The seven seals build up to the revelation of the scroll’s contents. The seven trumpets reveal God’s judgments. The fifth, sixth, and seventh trumpets are called the “woe” judgments (8:13; 9:12; 11:14). The seven bowls are the terrible exposition of the seventh trumpet (note 10:6-7; 11:15-19; 15:1; 16:17-21). The imagery of seven trumpets relates to the seven trumpets that sounded before Jericho (Josh. 6:4-5). But here when the trumpets blast, the world, not just a city, falls apart. Like the first seven-day creation, another series of seven will precede the new heavens and earth. Like the exodus, bowls of God’s judgment will bring release for God’s people. Like at Mount Sinai, God’s thunder, earthquake, and smoke (8:5) will signal his presence on earth. In the Old Testament, trumpets announced important events (cf. Zeph. 1:14-16). At Jericho, they announced the presence of God (Josh. 6:3). For the altar of incense (8:3), see Exodus 30:1-10; 1 Kings 6:22; and Hebrews 9:4. In Revelation 5:8 incense represents the prayers of the martyred saints for God’s vengeance. There is a direct link with the beginning of the trumpets and the prayers of the saints in Revelation 5. The contents of the scroll are presented as the answer to the martyrs’ prayers.THE SEVENTH SEAL IS OPENED (8:1)
After the interlude of Revelation 7, the seventh seal is broken. The scroll’s contents are now revealed, framed within the seven trumpet judgments of God’s wrath (8:2-11:19).
The First Four Trumpets (8:2-12)
HAIL, FIRE, AND BLOOD (8:2-7)
Casting the incense burner to the earth initiates the next series of judgments. The first trumpet is a judgment of fire. A third of the trees and all of the grass of the earth is destroyed.
FIRE MOUNTAIN (8:8-9)
The second judgment is upon the sea. A huge object is thrown into the sea that destroys one third of the sea life and one third of the ships. The mountain (8:8-9) and star (8:10-11; cf. Exod. 7:20) are from the coals of the altar (cf. Exod. 9:18-26).
FIRE STAR (8:10-11)
The third judgment is on the fresh water. Wormwood is a plant with a strong, bitter taste and is used as a symbol of bitterness and calamity.
God used darkness at several key points in his history of redemption (Exod. 10:21-23; Joel 2:2; Mark 13:24). The first four trumpets systematically unravel God’s work of creation in Genesis 1. The fourth judgment affects the sun and stars. Not only will the light diminish, but it appears that the day and night cycle will be shortened. In Joel 2:10 a plague of locusts darkened the sun and the moon.
The First Two Woes (8:13-9:21)
THREE WOES ANNOUNCED (8:13)
The final three trumpets are trumpets of even greater woe than the first four. These signal the period of the great tribulation (Matt. 24:21-29).
TORMENTING LOCUSTS (9:1-12)
The “bottomless pit” (9:1) is seen again in 9:11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1-3 (cf. Luke 8:31; Rom. 10:7). The fifth trumpet, identified as the first of three woes, is a judgment of locusts. The locusts are not ordinary locusts, for they attack people, not just plants, and their “king” (9:11) is Satan, the ruler of the demons (Matt. 12:24). See Exodus 10:1-20 for the locust plague at the time of the exodus. The prophet Joel drew a close comparison between the locust plague and the day of the Lord (Joel 1:2-2:11). Locusts were referred to as symbols of judgment throughout the Old Testament. Here the locusts torment like scorpions, that is, they are like scorpions in their power, not their appearance. As in the first four seals, the image of horses in battle is used again (9:7; cf. Joel 2:4-5). The locusts are seen as a terrible combination of man and beast. They only hurt those who have not been sealed (9:4). The trumpets are God’s wrath, which falls on none of God’s redeemed community. See Israel’s protection (Exod. 8:22; 9:4, 26; 10:23; 11:7). The locusts have power limited to five months (9:3-6). The point of this limited time is to still offer time for repentance (cf. Luke 21:25-26). Using the known reality of locusts, God has revealed the nature of the torment that is to come. “Abaddon” (9:11; cf. Job 31:12; 28:22) means destroyer. The Greek form of this name is Apollyon. Caligula and Nero claimed identification with Apollo, and Domitian, the persecutor of John, claimed to be his incarnation.
MURDERING HORSES (9:13-21)
The sixth trumpet, and second woe, brings death and destruction to a third of mankind (9:18). The second woe is introduced by the sixth trumpet. It comes as a voice from the altar, the place of the prayers of the martyred souls (6:9-11). The horsemen are described in 9:13-21. They are called plagues in 9:18. The Euphrates functioned as a source of battle and destruction for Israel (Isa. 8:5-8). It was the northern boundary of the Promised Land (Gen. 15:18). Note the lack of repentance in 9:20-21. Believers are spared (cf. 9:4). Under the fourth seal one quarter of the earth’s population had been slain, and here an additional third are to be destroyed. Though one-third of humanity is destroyed, the remainder still does not repent. The point for the readers in the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 is clear. Will Christ’s sacrifice and words of warning be enough to cause them to repent of their sins?
The Little Book and the Two Prophets (10:1-11:14)
Overview: Again, there is an interruption between the sixth and seventh elements in a sequence. Sandwiched between the sixth and seventh trumpets, Revelation 10:1-11:14 shows God’s answer to the lack of repentance mentioned in 9:21. He will no longer delay the end (10:6), and he will force his enemies to give him glory through the resurrection of his two witnesses and the accompanying signs (11:12-13). People may not repent, but they will give God the glory. This section answers two questions. The first concerns how much longer it would be before the judgments were finished (10:6). The second concerns the elaboration of further prophetic details concerning the events of the Tribulation and the kingdom to come (10:11). Although the seventh trumpet marks the end of the Tribulation (cf. 11:15), the book does not conclude there. John is told to prophesy again, focusing this time on the major characters and movements of the tribulation (cf. Rev. 13-19).
DELAY NO LONGER (10:1-7)
The “mighty angel” shows his signs of conquest (10:2-3, 5, 7). The mystery of the seven thunders (10:4) shows that there are still things to come that have not yet been revealed (see also 15:1; 16:17). The angel announces that there will be no further delay in the completion of God’s wrath and the inauguration of God’s kingdom on earth.
THE PROPHECY PASSED TO JOHN (10:8-11)
Eating the little scroll (10:9) was an allusion to Ezekiel 2:8-3:3. The New Testament speaks of other mysteries of God (10:7; Rom. 11:25; 1 Cor. 15:51; Col. 2:2; 2 Thess. 2:7). Here, the mystery has to do with all that is unknown concerning God’s prophecies of how he will triumph over evil and usher in his kingdom. The mystery of God refers to the program of God declared by the prophets that brings about the consummation of human history, specifically, the kingdom (cf. 11:15). Again, this is a message of exhortation to the present churches and an encouragement to those going through the tribulation.
THE TWO PROPHETS (11:1-14)
This vision is given in anticipation of a major construction project during the Tribulation—the building of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem (cf. 2 Thess. 2:4). Reference is made to the Gentile domination (cf. Dan. 8:9-14; Luke 21:24). To measure the temple and its worshipers (11:1) is to claim sovereign ownership and protection of them. Similar measurements take place in Ezekiel 40:5-43:17; Zechariah 2:1-13; and Revelation 21:15-17. Revelation 11:6 describes the power of these witnesses. Links are drawn to Moses (“blood,” Exod. 7:20, and “plague,” Exod. 8:12), Elijah (no rain, 1 Kings 17:1; 18:41-45; 2 Kings 1:10-12) and the witnesses in Zechariah 4:3, 11, 14 (olive trees and lampstands). The actual persons of Moses and Elijah were seen with Christ at his transfiguration (Matt. 17:2-3) and were mentioned in Malachi 4:4-5. The witnesses are protected by God’s power. They are presented as real people, though some interpreters view them as symbolic of the witnessing believers who are martyred during the Tribulation. The point is that God still continues to graciously offer salvation through men who genuinely mourn the evil state of the earth. The months and days mentioned in 11:2-3 may refer to the last three and a half years of the Tribulation. It is during the last half of the Tribulation that the Antichrist will overthrow Jewish worship and establish his own (cf. Dan. 9:27; 2 Thess. 2:4). The “beast” (11:7) refers to the antichrist (cf. 13:1). The names “Sodom and Egypt” (11:8) are used to refer to Jerusalem and suggest the spiritual condition of that city. God’s overall sovereignty is designed to encourage the readers as they go through their own tribulations.
Seventh Angel Sounds (11:15-19)
This trumpet introduces the third woe. With this trumpet, the kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of the Lord. The content of the seventh trumpet is not immediately described. First, comes the great outburst of praise that summarizes the results of God’s final judgments. The covenant (11:19) appears to be the archetype of all God’s earthly covenants; it is the eternal covenant that asserts his right as Creator to be obeyed, to judge, and to redeem. Revelation 11:18 records different aspects of judgment based upon Christ taking his dominion over the nations. The wicked dead will be judged (cf. 20:11-15); the prophets and Old Testament saints will be rewarded (cf. 20:4-6); and the destroyers of the earth will be destroyed (cf. 19:19-21).
The Dragon, the Beasts, and the Lamb (12:1-14:20)
Overview: This section is placed between the seventh trumpet and the execution of the seven bowl judgments. The narrative flow of the book breaks between the sixth and seventh seals (7:1-17), the sixth and seventh trumpets (10:1-11:14), and between the seventh trumpet and the seven bowls (12:1-14:20). The breaks increase in length as the narrative moves closer to the climax of God’s seven bowl judgments. Each break elaborates the nature of the times and how God is punishing evil and preserving his saints even through death (13:10; 14:13).
Revelation 12-14 contains explanatory prophecies and deals with the principle characters and major movements of the Tribulation period. These chapters elaborate the implications of the rage of the nations (11:18) for believers throughout history and especially during the Tribulation. Revelation 12 presents the persecution of Christians (12:17) by Satan. Its point is to stress the ultimate defeat of the devil and the triumph of faithful Christians (12:10-12). Revelation 13 details the persecution of Christians by Satan through his two beasts. Thus, in Revelation 12-13 the focus is on Satan’s war with the saints (12:17; 13:7; cf. 11:7). Revelation 14 proclaims and then illustrates the terrible fate of those who follow the beasts and the triumph of those who follow Jesus.
THE DRAGON AND THE WOMAN (12:1-17)
In Revelation 12 two signs are given. The first is a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon at her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head (12:1; cf. Isa. 66:7-8). The second sign, an enormous red dragon, is given in 12:3. This imagery relates to an age-old desire for salvation. The slain Lamb (12:10-11) has a special place in Revelation 12. The victory is due to Christ alone, who is seen as the fulfillment of all pagan hopes. The conflict in heaven continues on earth. It unveils the activities of Satan and his angels in their attempt to destroy the Messiah and Israel. The woman with child represents Israel who gave Christ to the world (12:5) and will be severely persecuted during the tribulation (12:13). Satan’s ultimate objective is to destroy the woman’s child, Christ (12:4). The son of the woman (12:5) is Christ, as is seen by the fact that he is the ultimate ruler of the nations. Israel’s flight to the wilderness is designed to avoid the persecution of the antichrist during the last three and a half years (1,260 days) of the Tribulation period (Matt. 24:15-21). In Revelation 12:7-12 the scene shifts from earth to heaven. Satan and Michael, the archangel, are involved in a conflict. Satan and his angels are thrown out of heaven and are confined to the earth (12:9) for the rest of the tribulation period. He will now vent his wrath on earth. In 12:13-17, having been cast out of heaven, Satan will center his hostilities on the “woman,” Israel (12:5-6). His goal is to destroy Israel so that Christ will not have a people over whom to rule.
THE TWO BEASTS (13:1-18)
The Beast, or Antichrist, is Satan’s counterpart to what God offers the world in Christ. The Beast is a political figure who arises from the Gentile nations (“the sea,” 13:1; cf. Dan. 7:3) and receives his power and authority from Satan himself (13:2). The miraculous healing of the Beast’s death wound results in amazement and worship (13:3-4). The whole earth worships the dragon and follows the Beast to whom he had given authority (13:3-4). The Beast is given authority to engage in his evil exploits for forty-two months, the last three and a half years of the tribulation period. The “endurance” (13:10) is submission to the sufferings of the Tribulation without submission to Satan and his representatives.
The second beast (13:11-18) functions to witness to the Antichrist (2 Thess. 2:4). He is referred to as the “false prophet” (19:20). This would serve as a warning against false prophets to the original readers of John’s revelation, just as it is for believers today. When God’s purposes are finished through the beast, he will be judged (20:10). The assurance that God will punish evildoers sustains the faith of the persecuted. The number representing the beast is identified as “666” (13:18). Many have sought to identify the Antichrist on the basis of this number, but such attempts will be futile until the Tribulation begins.
THE TRIUMPH OF THE LAMB (14:1-20)
These people, by way of contrast with those in 13:16, have the name of the Lamb and his Father stamped on their foreheads (cf. Joel 2:32). Revelation 14 continues detailing the age-old conflict between Satan and God. Although in Revelation 13 it may look like the corruption of the earth by the Antichrist is out of control, 14:1-5 tells the other side of the story. John tells of the 144,000 who have not defiled themselves with the beast’s religious system. The words “pure as virgins” (14:4) are probably a reference to the Beast’s religious system: the “prostitute” of Revelation 17. They are separated to God as women are separated to their husbands (cf. 2 Cor. 11:2).
The three angels (14:6-12) continue to extend God’s grace for repentance (note Matt. 24:14). John recorded three angelic announcements intended to warn those on earth of God’s impending judgment. The first angel announced the “everlasting Good News” (14:6-7); the second angel announced the doom of Babylon (14:8; cf. Rev. 17-18); and the third angel announced the judgment on those who worship the beast (14:9-13). The fall of Babylon (14:8) is initially described in terms drawn from Isaiah 21:9 and Jeremiah 51:7. Babylon is mentioned throughout the book (Rev. 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21; cf. 1 Pet. 5:13) and seems to stand for the world system that is totally against God and his people.
John next recounts his vision of two judgments by God’s sickles (14:13-20). In the middle of the devastation of the Tribulation period, God gives his verdict concerning the martyrs: they are blessed (14:13). Using the imagery of harvest, the judgment on the earth is detailed. These verses are a preview of the judgment at the Second Coming described in 19:17-21. These two reapings may relate to the two reapings mentioned by Christ in Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43. The “city” (14:20) most likely refers to Jerusalem (Dan. 11:45; Zech. 14:1-5).
THE RELATIONSHIP OF THE SEAL, TRUMPET, AND BOWL JUDGMENTS
The seal and trumpet judgments brought partial destruction and afforded opportunity for repentance. But the seven bowl judgments dispense 100 percent judgment and zero percent opportunity for repentance. All is at an end; the evil are evil and the righteous are righteous (cf. 22:11). There are no pauses for elaboration. The bowls empty in rapid fire. This third series is explicitly called the “wrath of God” (15:7).
The first four bowls are similar to the first four trumpet judgments, but they are more intense and complete the wrath of God. These judgments are poured out during a brief period at the end of the tribulation just prior to Christ’s second coming. The first bowl (16:1-2), like the first trumpet (8:7), is poured out upon the earth. This judgment of malignant sores falls upon the followers of the beast.The First Bowl Emptied (15:1-16:2)
Another sign is now given. The wrath of God is completed in the seven plagues mentioned in 15:1. They are called seven bowls of wrath in Revelation 16. But before the final wrath, God provides a picture of final bliss for those who “had been victorious” (15:2-4). Those earthly saints are now connected with the place of God’s glory mentioned in Revelation 4. Being in the very presence of God is the goal for the exhortations to be “victorious” throughout the book. “God’s Tabernacle” in heaven (15:5) is the true tabernacle after which the earthly one was patterned (Heb. 8:5; 9:23-24). In Revelation 15:5-8 the temple is opened, the four living creatures again appear (cf. 4:6), and the temple becomes unapproachable in God’s judgment glory (cf. Isa. 66:6). Judgment is an expression of God’s righteous character (15:4; 16:7; 19:2). This chapter evokes images from the Exodus: the plagues, the sea, the song of Moses, the tabernacle of testimony, and smoke.
The Second through Seventh Bowls (16:3-21)
SEAS OF BLOOD (16:3)
The second bowl, like the second trumpet (8:8-9), is poured out upon the sea but is more severe. As a result of the judgment, the sea is turned to blood.
RIVERS OF BLOOD (16:4-7)
The martyrs’ prayer of 5:8 is now being answered (16:6-7; cf. 2 Thess. 1:5-6). The third bowl, like the third trumpet (8:10-11) is poured out upon the fresh water so that it becomes blood.
SCORCHING SUN (16:8-9)
The fourth bowl, like the fourth trumpet (8:12), affects the sun. The increased intensity of the sun scorches the inhabitants of earth.
Even at this terrible point, people still resist God (cf. 13:1, 5-6; 10:10-11; 17:3). The fifth plague falls upon the throne of the Beast and brings darkness to his empire.
EUPHRATES DRIED (16:12-16)
The sixth bowl judgment will dry up the Euphrates River to facilitate the crossing of the armies of the kings of the east (cf. Dan. 11:44) as they rush to involve themselves in the campaign of Armageddon. “Armageddon” is literally “the hill of Megiddo,” referring to the hill upon which the ancient city of Megiddo was located. Megiddo was strategically situated at the foot of Mount Carmel to control travel through the Jezreel Valley.
The wrath of God is completed (16:17). The great earthquake (4:5; 8:5; 11:19) destroys the city of Babylon. The city’s downfall is elaborated in Revelation 17-18.
The Woman and the Beast (17:1-18)
Revelation 17 describes the downfall of Babylon (14:8; 16:19) in greater detail. Babylon probably refers to the religious, political, and commercial aspects of the Antichrist’s empire. Revelation 17 focuses on the “prostitute,” the false religious system controlled by the beast of 13:1. Revelation 18 will describe the judgment on the Beast and his empire.
The same angel will show the bride of Christ (17:1; 21:9). The Beast (17:3) appears to represent satanic influence throughout history. Its various heads are its attempts at world rule throughout history. The eighth head is the Antichrist of 13:1-10 (cf. Dan. 7:19-21).
The “prostitute” imagery is seen also in Nahum 3:4 and Isaiah 23:16-17. This woman is to be contrasted with the woman of 12:1-6 and the bride of Christ (21:9). The prostitute is given a name that reveals she is the representative of the false religious system that began in ancient Babylon (cf. Gen. 11:1-9). The name is “mysterious” (17:5), that is, the city of Babylon on the Euphrates is not meant. This is a secret, or symbolic, use of the name, the exact understanding of which remains to be revealed (cf. 14:8; 16:19; 17:6, 18; 18:24). Names on foreheads (17:5) appear throughout the book for evil (13:16; 14:9; 20:4) and for good (7:3; 9:4; 14:1; 22:4). This vision answers a question asked by saints throughout the ages: Why do the enemies of God often seem so victorious instead of being judged? The vision shows that she will indeed be destroyed at God’s chosen time. The Beast and harlot’s descriptions function as guides to interpreting their destruction in 18:1-19:5.
The seven heads, horns, and hills have been variously interpreted as Rome, other countries and kings, or simply as a symbol for all the kingdoms of history. More specifically, the seven heads are seven mountains or kings; five have fallen, one exists, and the other is yet to come. The first five kingdoms would include Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Egypt. The kingdom in existence while John wrote was the Roman Empire (sixth). The kingdom yet to come will be the final form of world government. It is identified in 17:11 with the Beast’s own empire. The idea of “was alive and then died” arises from past and future expressions of Satan through rulers. “Ten kings” (17:12) may mean ten actual nations or may be symbolic for all the nations of the world.
For “waters” (17:15), see Jeremiah 51:13. The destruction of the prostitute is described in images drawn from Ezekiel 23:11-35. Once in power, the beast and his associates will reject the authority of the prostitute’s system and throw off her rule. With that system destroyed, the Beast will then be introduced by the false prophet as the true god (13:12; cf. 2 Thess. 2:4).
Babylon’s Downfall Described (18:1-24)
THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF BABYLON’S DESTRUCTION (18:1-3)
Revelation 18 describes the judgment on the final form of Babylon, the Beast and his empire. The imagery of Babylon falling is taken from Isaiah 21:9, where the ancient city of Babylon was destroyed.
LAMENT OF THE WORLD OVER BABYLON (18:4-20)
Revelation 18:4-20 is a message from “another voice calling from heaven” (18:4). The message begins with a call to separate from the city (18:4) and ends with a call to rejoice (18:20). The heavenly rejoicing forms a stark contrast with the world’s mourning (18:9-19). The prayer of the martyrs (6:10) is answered. The call to separate is to believers living in the Tribulation period who might be tempted to compromise their convictions and become associated with the Beast. The world’s leaders give three laments over fallen Babylon (18:9-10, 11-17a, 17b-19). Compare this with Ezekiel’s lamentation over Tyre (Ezek. 27). Half the commodities mentioned in 18:11-13 are mentioned also in Ezekiel. Mariners, kings, and merchants are also mentioned in the Ezekiel lamentation. The merchants mourn over the long list of commodities rather than their long list of sins. The judgment against Babylon is on behalf of heaven and the saints (18:20).
BABYLON DESTROYED (18:21-24)
The reason for the destruction is Babylon’s deception (18:23) and murder of the saints (18:24).
The Marriage of the Lamb (19:1-21)
THE GLORY OF GOD AND THE MARRIAGE OF THE LAMB (19:1-10)
Revelation 19 begins with rejoicing in heaven by the angels and the redeemed. “Hallelujah” (19:1) is transliterated from Hebrew and means “Praise the Lord!” The Old Testament context of the verse quoted in 19:2 is Deuteronomy 32:34-43. The blood of the saints has been avenged (19:2; cf. 6:10). The Old Testament context of 19:3 is Isaiah 34:10. Many biblical texts describe the relationship between God and his people under the metaphor of marriage (19:9; cf. Isa. 62:4; Hos. 2:19; 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:25-33; Rev. 21:2). Here, John describes the marriage of the Lamb and the marriage supper. The wedding feast (19:7-9) is a reference to the end of the long and sometimes painful engagement between Christ and his saints. It marks the beginning of the eternal unbroken marriage relationship of perfect fellowship and love. This vision is here to encourage the readers through their tribulations with the vision of their ultimate entrance into God’s glory. The study of prophecy should witness to Jesus, giving believers a greater appreciation of his person and work (19:10).
THE WAR OF THE LAMB (19:11-21)
This is the second coming of Christ. Jesus the Messiah returns with his heavenly armies to execute judgment on his enemies and to establish his kingdom (cf. Zech. 14:1-5; Matt. 24:29-30). Jesus is referred to as the “Word” (19:13; cf. John 1:1). There is debate regarding the identification of the “armies of heaven” (19:14). Some interpret them to refer to the saints. More likely, they refer to the angels of heaven who are under God’s command (cf. Mark 8:38; 2 Thess. 1:7). The vision of the great banquet of God (19:17-21) describes the carnage resulting from Christ’s judgment on his enemies. This event is similar to that described in Ezekiel 39:17-20.
A Final Rebellion Is Put Down (20:1-15)
SATAN IS BOUND (20:1-3)
Revelation 20 describes the duration, nature, government, and chronological sequence of events related to the Millennium. There are three main views regarding this chapter: (1) The postmillennial view interprets the chapter figuratively. The thousand years is understood to refer to a period of prosperity that will culminate in the second coming of Christ. (2) The amillennial viewpoint interprets the chapter symbolically. There is no literal period of a thousand years of Christ’s reign after his return because the reign of Christ began in heaven after his ascension. (3) The premillennial viewpoint interprets the chapter as referring to an actual thousand-year period. Christ will return and inaugurate a literal thousand-year earthly reign during which peace and righteousness will prevail.
John observes that Satan is bound for one thousand years (20:1-3). This is so there will be no external source of deceit during the thousand years. Satan, the organizer of opposition against Christ, is removed so that righteousness and peace will flourish (cf. Isa. 11:3-5).
JUDGMENTS FOR ONE THOUSAND YEARS (20:4-6)
The martyred believers and perhaps others (see Dan. 12:2, 13; Matt. 19:27-28; 1 Cor. 6:2; 2 Tim. 2:12) are resurrected to share in Christ’s millennial reign. The rest of the dead are not raised until after the Millennium (cf. 20:11-15). This brief description covers one thousand years but emphasizes the blessedness of those who overcame temptation to give in to the Antichrist and thereby escape the horrors of the second death. Again, this encouraged the original readers of Revelation (and should encourage readers today) to view physical death as less important than risking the second and eternal death.
GOG AND MAGOG DEFEATED (20:7-10)
Satan is released for a final period of deception (20:3), which is magnified by the contrast of its absence during the thousand years (20:4-9). The Old Testament background is Ezekiel 38-39. This event is similar in purpose to the one spoken of in Ezekiel 38-39 and therefore is also called “Gog and Magog.” Satan’s followers are apparently those who were born in the Millennium but did not have true faith in Christ. As a result of this final rebellion, Satan is thrown into the lake of fire where he will stay throughout eternity.
THE GREAT WHITE THRONE JUDGMENT (20:11-15)
The Great White Throne Judgment involves the resurrection and judgment of what 20:5 called “the rest of the dead.” The record books are consulted to demonstrate that the judgment is deserved (20:12), and then the book of life is opened to see if their names are within and their deeds have been covered by faith in the shed blood of Jesus. The absence of one’s name in the book of life indicates that one’s destiny is the lake of fire, the second death.
The Perfection of Creation’s Glory (21:1-22:5)
THE NEW HEAVENS AND EARTH (21:1-8)
The last vision of Revelation describes the new Jerusalem, which will serve as the abode of the saints throughout eternity. John saw the new heaven and earth after the present earth had been purged from the effects of sin by fire (Isa. 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet. 3:10-13). This completes God’s promise to Abraham to give him a land. This does not refer to the partial fulfillment seen in the land of Palestine but to the advent of a new heaven and earth (cf. Heb. 11:10, 16; 13:14). The new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven to settle on the earth (Rev. 21:2). This city is to be occupied by “all those who are victorious” (21:7; cf. 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 1 John 5:4-5). The judgments of the day of the Lord (cf. 2 Pet. 3:10-12) will melt into eternal peace. The glory of God’s children will have released the creation from its futility (Rom. 8:19-22). God’s presence will form the perfect and eternal tabernacle (cf. Lev. 26:11-12; Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 37:27; Zech. 8:8). The transformation of believers from glory to glory will be complete (2 Cor. 3:18; 4:16-18; 5:16-17). This functions as a motivating vision for overcoming the present temptations to deny Christ and his holiness.
THE NEW JERUSALEM (21:9-22:5)
The “bride, the wife of the Lamb” (21:9) is a reference, not to the city itself, but to its inhabitants (21:24, 27; 22:2-5). For the twelve gates (21:12), see Ezekiel 48:30-34. The city is portrayed with equal dimensions like a cube, significant because the holy of holies in the temple was also a cube (cf. 1 Kings 6:20). The image is of the perfect tabernacle of God (21:3), built from the ground up with the most precious of materials. In Revelation 22 the images of Eden return once again; the river and the tree of life (22:1-2; cf. Gen. 2:9; 3:22; Ezek. 47:12) appear once again. The promises to David are fulfilled in the believers (21:7; cf. 2 Sam. 7:14; 2 Cor. 6:18). In the new Jerusalem the faithful will behold what Moses and all people after Adam were denied; they will see the very face of God (cf. Exod. 33:20, 23; Matt. 5:8). Zechariah 14:7 spoke of a time when there would be no night (Rev. 21:25). The awful curse of God that fell upon the earth and humanity in Genesis 3 is now reversed (22:3). God’s bond servants can now perform what God wanted from his people from the beginning; God had created man to serve him for eternity (22:3). Nowhere in Scripture is there a description of the complete details of the believer’s eternal state (cf. 1 Cor. 2:9), but John provides believers with a foretaste of the glories to come. Heaven is in reality a new heaven and earth; it is a beautiful place where believers will enjoy fellowship with Christ, rest, joy, service, and worship.
BLESSINGS AND CURSES (22:6-21)
This epilogue returns to the themes of the prologue (cf. 1:3) and serves as the conclusion of the book. The prophecy was authenticated by the angel (22:6), by Christ (22:7), and by John (22:8-9). John was commanded to leave the book unsealed, for the time was near when people would need understanding of what God was doing (22:10). Revelation 22:11 reveals that when Christ comes, there will be no further opportunities to change one’s destiny. The term “dogs” (22:15) refers to persons of lower character. Jesus himself speaks again in 22:16. He identifies himself as the “heir to David’s throne” (5:5), the one with whom God would fulfill Israel’s covenant promises (Luke 1:32-33). An invitation by the Spirit and the bride was given to all who would thirst for the water of life (22:17; cf. Isa. 55:1). They were offered the free gift of salvation. In 22:18-19 John warned against additions or subtractions from the prophecy (cf. Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:6). The warning of 22:19 assumes that no genuine believer would tamper with the Scripture. For the third time in this chapter (22:7, 12, 20), the Lord said that he would come soon. John’s reply is also that of his readers, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
—Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary