Try out the new BibleStudyTools.com. Click here!

Revelation, Theology of

Revelation, Theology of

The theology of Revelation stands in the mainstream of first-century Christian thought, for it presupposes, with other New Testament books, the message of the crucified and risen Christ ( 1:18 ; 2:8 ; 11:8 ); a two-stage eschatology in which Christ is presently enthroned in heaven ( 3:21 ; chap 5 ; Revelation 12:5 Revelation 12:10 ) and will return to extend God's rule over the earth ( 2:27 ; 11:15 ); and a church in which Gentiles share the covenantal prerogatives of Israel ( 5:9-10 ; cf. Exod 19:6 ). The book's distinctive accents arise from the crisis to which it was addressed.

A Theology for Churches under Pressure. Revelation was written from exile by John ( 1:1 ) as a circular letter to the churches of Asia Minor ( 1:4 ) during the reign of Domitian, when growing persecution had already led to at least one martyrdom, at Pergamum ( 2:12-13 ), portending a worse crisis. Pergamum had been the regional pioneering city for the imperial cult. When a temple was dedicated to Domitian on the western side of the marketplace in Ephesus, the leading city of Asia Minor and the first to be mentioned in John's letters to the churches, other cities of the province followed suit in a wave of popular fervor. Christians, informed against by their Jewish enemies ( 2:9 ; 3:9 ), who were exempt from the requirement to participate, were pressed to join in honoring the Roman emperor divus; refusal could be a capital offense. The choice was between Caesar and Christ. From beginning to end revelation presents itself as an exhortation to endurance. Its large predictive element supports this thrust, a point that is important for its balanced interpretation.

Literary Craft as a Vehicle of Theology. Any synthesis of the theology of Revelation will depend on assumptions about its literary structure. Apart from the epistolary elements ( chap 1 ; 22:6-21 ), the most obvious division is that between the letters (chaps. 2-3) and the visions (4:1-22:5), each introduced by a voice "like a trumpet" ( 1:10 ; 4:1 ). The gist of the book comes in relatively plain language in the letters.

A bifurcation of the visions is indicated by thematic differences between chapters 6-11 and 12-22, as well as by the formal device of two scrolls ( 5:1-9 ; 10:2-11 ). That 11:15-19 marks a terminus, so that what follows is a second prophecy, is stated in the passage introducing the second scroll ( Revelation 10:7 Revelation 10:11 ). Further subdivisions are shown by a complex system of refrains (e.g., 8:5b ; 11:19b ; 16:18 , ending the enumerated seals, trumpets, and bowls, respectively or 19:9b ; 21:5b ; 22:6a , ending Babylon material, dragon-beast material, and Jerusalem material, respectively ), and antitheses of form and substance (respectively e.g., 17:1-3 verses 21:9-10 ; to contrast Babylon and Jerusalem ). The parts are unified by an intricate fabric of foreshadowing and backflashes (e.g., many phrases in chaps. 2-3 recur in chaps. 21-22 motifs in 11:1-13 ; anticipate chaps. 12-20 the bowls in chap. 16 recall the seals and trumpets in chaps. 6-11 ). Reiteration is built into the macrostructure of the book, probably to emphasize the certainty and urgency of the message (cf. Gen 41:32 ).

Near the beginning of each major section stands an affirmation of Christ's authority as the one who has conquered death ( 1:13-18 ; 5:6-14 ; 12:1-11 ). This literary fact indicates the main purpose of the book: to set the sufferings of the church in the perspective of the Lamb's triumph.

The Mutual Relation of Present and Future. We must reckon with florid symbolism in this book. The preface speaks of "showing" and "signifying" (deiknynai, semainein, 1:1 ). Elsewhere we find the term "mystery" to designate symbols ( 1:20 ; Revelation 17:5 Revelation 17:7 ), use of allegory (pneumatikos [pneumatikov"], 11:8 ), invitations to the reader to apply "wisdom" ( 13:18 ; 17:9 ), and specific, interpretative comments, all of which bring out figurative meanings ( 1:20 ; 4:5 ; Revelation 5:6 Revelation 5:8 ; 7:13-14 ; 11:3-4 ; 14:3-4 ; 16:13-14 ; Revelation 17:9 Revelation 17:10 Revelation 17:11 Revelation 17:12 Revelation 17:15 Revelation 17:18 ; 19:8 ; Revelation 20:4-5 Revelation 20:14 ). But the dreamlike character of the language, in places bordering on the bizarre, is on the book's face. Typology, allegory, and myth are tools of biblical prophecy and its offspring, Jewish apocalyptic; in this whole tradition John consciously stands ( 1:3 ; 10:11 ; Revelation 22:7 Revelation 22:9-10 Revelation 22:18-19 ).

Figures can have multiple levels of meaning. The key verse (1:19) suggests that symbols in this book may refer to people and events of John's day (e.g., chaps. 1-3 in the main) or to the time of the end (e.g., the trumpets and bowls the final events in 20:7-22:5), or, possibly, to both at once.

Even the predictions are not straightforward. It is hard to know to what extent the descriptions of the trumpets (8:6-9:21; 11:15-19 ) and bowls (15:5-16:21) look back to the Egyptian plagues as prototypes of whatever signs God will send before the last exodus (cf. Luke 21:25-26 ). Cubical new Jerusalem ( 21:16 ), obviously not a literal city, is an antitype of the inner sanctuary in the temple ( 1 Kings 6:20 ), the place of God's very presence.

Typology of the sort just mentioned talks about future realities in terms projected from the past. John also uses a reversed typology that talks about people and events of his time using pictures retrojected from antitypes in the future. Christ's imminent warning to some at Pergamum, for example, borrows the image of his coming to make war with the sword of his mouth, from eschatology ( Revelation 2:12 Revelation 2:16 ; cf. Revelation 19:15 Revelation 19:21 ; Isa 49:2 ). John explicitly identifies the great harlot as the Rome of his day, which was famous for its "seven hills" ( Revelation 17:9 Revelation 17:18 ), and the beast as the succession of emperors ( 17:10 ), while later he paints the fate of both the harlot and the beast in cosmic size, with apocalyptic colors ( Revelation 19:1-8 Revelation 19:11-21 ). He thus caricatures the emperor as though he were the antichrist who will come. Of course, the emperor was no more the final antichrist than the Lord's "war" against the Nicolaitan element in the church at Pergamum was the second coming. But if the very spiritual forces that will become manifest in that future moment are operative already (cf. 2 Thess 2:7 ; 1 John 2:18 ), both metaphors are intelligible. For reversed typology there are ample precedents in the Old Testament (for example, compare the exaggerated details of David's sufferings in Psalm 22:14-18 ; with Jesus' crucifixion, or note Isaiah's use of the term "day of the Lord" for the downfall of the Babylonian empire: Isa 13:6 ; 13:1 ). If we recognize this phenomenon in blocks of visionary material where the beast is a major character ( 11:1-13 ; chaps 12-14; 17:1-20:6), our interpretation will follow the author's own clues and maintain the book's relevance for its original hearers. Only in this way can we do full justice to both its eschatological tenor and its imminent fulfillment ( 1:3 ; 2:16 ; 3:11 ; Revelation 22:7 Revelation 22:10 Revelation 22:12 Revelation 22:20 ).

The Sovereign God, Christ, and Spirit. Reassurance for persecuted Christians is offered in the picture of God as the one who sits on the throne ( Revelation 4:2-6 Revelation 4:9-10 ; 6:16 ; 12:5 ; 20:11-12 ; Revelation 22:1 Revelation 22:3 ), whose rule is eternal ( Revelation 1:4 Revelation 1:8 ; 4:8-10 ; 21:6 ) and universal (pantokrator [pantokravtwr], "almighty one, " nine times in Revelation, only once elsewhere in New Testament). Nowhere is God a direct participant in the conflicts that rage below. A cosmic dualism in which good and evil oppose each other as equals is not contemplated. God's plan, written on the two scrolls, includes, and is not put in question by, the troubles of the church.

Jesus Christ sits with God on God's single throne ( 3:21 ; 12:5 ; Revelation 22:1 Revelation 22:3 ), shares God's predicates of eternity ( 1:17 ; 2:8 ; 22:13 ), and receives worship ( 5:8-14 ; 7:9-10 ), which is due to God alone ( 15:4 ). The Christian minority in Asia, surrounded by pagans who adored the emperor among other divinities, would have seen in the many worship scenes dotted throughout Revelation a forceful reminder of the true state of affairs in heaven. The most characteristic image for Christ is that of the lamb once slain (chap. 5; 7:14 ; 12:11 ; 13:8 ), now capped with seven horns representing a plenitude of power ( 5:6 ). He is sovereign over earthly kings ( 1:5 ; 17:14 ; 19:16 ). Revelation stands out among the books of the New Testament for its unique visions of Christ in his present state of glory ( 1:13-16 ; chap 5 ; 19:11-16 ).

The Spirit (the author does not use the term "Holy Spirit") is not mentioned in many passages that speak of God and Christ side by side ( 5:13 ; 6:16 ; 7:10 ; 11:15 ; 12:10 ; 14:4 ; 20:6 ; Revelation 21:22 Revelation 21:23 ; Revelation 22:1 Revelation 22:3 ), but appears as seven spirits who wait before God's throne ( 1:4 ; 4:5 ) and serve as the Lamb's intelligence in the world ( 3:1 ; 5:6 ). Most often he is associated with prophetic revelation.

The Opposition. Over against God, his truly divine king, and his prophetic spirit, stands a trio made up of a dragon, a beast, and a false prophet ( 16:13 ). Most fully described is the beast. In contrast to the gentle Lamb, it is a composite of terrifying wild animals ( 13:2 ; cf. Dan 7:4-6 ). It too has been healed of a mortal wound, mimicking the crucified one ( Revelation 13:2 Revelation 13:12 Revelation 13:14 ; Revelation 17:8 Revelation 17:11 ). Instead of the Lamb's seven horns it has a monstrous seven heads and ten horns, with diadems on the horns to rival the Lamb ( 13:1 ; Revelation 17:3 Revelation 17:7 ). It aspires to universal dominion ( 13:7b-8 ; 17:8 ) and receives worship ( Revelation 13:4 Revelation 13:12 ). So the emperor is a parody of Christ. The policy of beheading any who refuse to worship Caesar (20:4) is depicted as a war against Christ and the saints ( 11:7 ; 13:7 ; Revelation 16:14 Revelation 16:16 ; 17:14 ; 19:19 ).

The dragon has the same attributes as the beast, including diadems on its multiple heads, which lend it a political air ( 12:3 with 13:1 ), and it works through and with the beast (12:17-13:2; 13:4 ; 16:13-14 ). It represents Satan ( 12:9 ; Revelation 20:2 Revelation 20:7 ), but not simply. It is the satanic inspiration behind the hubris of the emperor, even as God is the supreme authority who accomplishes his will through Christ as his plenipotentiary. The dragon, like the beast, is violent ( 12:4 ) and makes war on the saints ( 12:17 ; 20:7-9 ).

The false prophet ( 13:11-18 ) almost certainly represents the officers of the state cult. In the provinces, they performed religio-political rites on the emperor's behalf, honoring his effigies, which stood in temples or squares in most cities. From the time of the emperor Gaius they had the technology to produce convincing fire and speech miracles of the sort described in 13:13-15. Their whole enterprise, for John, is deceptive.

The Church in a Hostile World. Revelation, like the Fourth Gospel, splits the human race into those who are for Christ and those who are not. The people of the new Jerusalem keep themselves pure to become the bride of the Lamb ( 14:1-5 ; 19:7-9 ; 21:9-22:5). In contrast, Rome, under the cipher of Babylon, goes whoring after the emperor and prostitutes herself to his wishes, beckoning the nations of the world to join ( 14:8 ; Revelation 17:1-7 Revelation 17:9 Revelation 17:15-18 ; chap 18 ). The latter figure draws on the Old Testament prophetic metaphor of marital unfaithfulness to denote idolatry. Each group has its identifying mark on the forehead: the mark of the beast ( 13:16-17 ) or that of the Lamb ( 14:1 ).

Lax churches are due for a purge if they do not repent (chaps. 2-3, except Smyrna and Philadelphia). General exhortations to purity are concentrated in the letters, but are found in other parts of the book too ( 7:13-14 ; 16:15 ; 18:4-5 ; 19:8 ; Revelation 22:11 Revelation 22:14-15 ). Specific among the temptations mentioned in the letters are eating food that has been sacrificed to idols, and practicing immorality ( Revelation 2:14 Revelation 2:20 ). Elsewhere hearers are warned against, among other things, idolatry ( 9:20 ; 21:8 ) and telling lies ( 14:5 ; Revelation 21:8 Revelation 21:27 ), reminders that were apropos when Christians were induced to honor images of Caesar.

Life and Martyrdom. As in the Fourth Gospel, the dominant soteriological term is "life." The book gives relatively scant space to its free offer ( 21:6 ; 22:17 ), perhaps because John's audience needed encouragement, not to gain spiritual life, but to persevere in it. The verb "believe" (pisteuo [pisteuvw]), frequent in the Fourth Gospel, is absent here; the adjective "faithful" (pistos [a [pisto"]), wanting (in this sense) in the Gospel, occurs eight times in Revelation. Accordingly, stress falls on having works (e.g., 2:23 ; 14:13 ; 20:13 ; 22:12 ). Various salvific benefits are held out to those who "conquer" in the moral and spiritual conflict ( Revelation 2:7 Revelation 2:11 Revelation 2:17 Revelation 2:26 ; Revelation 3:5 Revelation 3:12 Revelation 3:21 ; 21:7 , reflecting a usage characteristic of 1 John). There is no assurance of life except for those who resist the beast (20:4-6); those who worship the beast will receive everlasting torment ( 14:9-11 ).

A unique contribution of Revelation is its rich martyrology. Jesus was the first martyr ( 1:5 ; 3:14 ), and because of his death and resurrection he can promise life to those who, like him, are faithful to death at Roman hands ( Revelation 2:8 Revelation 2:10 ; 11:7-13 ). God has ordained martyrdom for some ( 6:11 ; 13:9-10 ). The trumpets are in part God's answer to their cry for vengeance ( 6:9-10 ; 8:1-6 ), as are the string of judgments that round off the book: of humanity ( 16:5-7 ), of Babylon ( 17:6 ; 18:24-19:2), and of the evil trio ( 19:19-21 ; 20:9-10 ). Far from expressing a sub-Christian vindictiveness, as some have supposed, these passages guarantee to victims of the ultimate injustice that God will right their wrong. Promises of comfort for martyrs abound: They will enjoy the sundry blessings of the age to come ( 7:9-17 ); they will live ( 11:11-12 ); they will rest; and God will remember their deeds ( 14:12-13 ).

However one may interpret the millennial passage ( 20:1-6 ), it surely belongs under this rubric and crowns the martyrology of the book. Flanked by portrayals of God's final judgment of the persecutors ( 19:19-21 ; 20:7-10 ), it holds before the eyes of those threatened with martyrdom ( 20:4 ) a vista of life and glory with the reigning Christ, drawing together graphic images from promises elsewhere ( 2:11 ; 3:21 ; 5:10 ; 7:15 ; 11:11-12 ). Its object is to steel them for their ordeal.

A Theology of History. The triumph of the church is assured by the dual fact that the Lamb "has conquered" (past aorist, 5:5 ; cf. 3:21 ) and "will conquer" his foes (cf. future, 17:14 ).

A spiral of evil turns over more than once before the end. The beast came (probably in Nero, who was the first Roman emperor to persecute Christians), went to the abyss (a lull in persecution for several decades) and will soon come out again (probably in Domitian as Nero redivivus: 11:7 ; Revelation 17:8 Revelation 17:11 ). This pattern recurs on a grander scale: Satan's activity through the Roman emperor (the dragon symbol) will be curtailed, but he will eventually return from the abyss, last of all with Gog ( Revelation 20:1-3 Revelation 20:7-10 ). Persecution of the church must break out, die off, and raise its head againperhaps many timesbefore the very end. Nevertheless, God preserves the church corporate ( 11:1 ; Revelation 12:1-6 Revelation 12:13-15 ; 20:9 ).

Similarly, the final events are doubled. In 19:17-20:6, we see Christ lead a celestial army to eradicate the beasts and the dragon from the earth, raise the martyrs, and (apparently) give the martyrs thrones and authority to judge with him. After the thousand years there is a second worldwide conflict, another resurrection, and another throne scene for judgment ( 20:7-15 ). Indeed, virtually everything that happens after the millennium finds some counterpart beforehand. Even Ezekiel's prophecy of Gog is alluded to, not only in its natural place afterwards ( 20:8-9 ), but also before ( 19:17-18 ; cf. Eze 39:17-20 ). John seems to have looked for two complexes of the last things, with a long interval between them. Either he expected a literal fulfillment of bothwhich would amount to a form of chiliasmor the first complex, in which the objects of Christ's conquest are the beasts and dragon whom John has identified as Roman imperial personnel of his day, is, like the related war metaphor in earlier visions, yet one more bold retrojection of eschatological pictures to events that took place shortly after the book was written.

Eschatology. If we take into account the book's intricate literary structure, and extract from its apocalyptic antitypes the information they yield about John's assumed scheme of strict eschatology, we can, with guidance from more systematic New Testament statements of eschatology (e.g., Mark 13 ; 2 Thess 2 ), tease a simple pattern of events from Revelation. After an increase in natural calamities ( 6:1-11 ), there will be a short period ( 2:10 ; 11:2-3 ; Revelation 12:6 Revelation 12:12 Revelation 12:14 ; 13:5 ; 17:10 ; 20:3 ) when the antichrist will hold sway and trouble God's people ( 11:7 ; 12:13-14:5; the term "antichrist, " however, does not occur in Revelation). Signs of God's wrath ( 6:12-17 ; trumpets; bowls) will precede the return of Christ to dispose of God's enemies ( 2:27 ; 14:14-20 ; 19:17-21 ), followed by a general resurrection and judgment ( 11:18 ; 20:11-15 ), and the eternal kingdom of God and Christ ( 11:15 ; chaps. 21-22). Most of these elements are found in sequence in the futuristic passage (20:7-21:8).

Other points, such as the length of the tribulation period, the time at which Christ will return relative to that period, and the nature of the millennial reign of the martyrs, are still debated in some schools of thought.

Revelation adds little of substance to what other New Testament writings say about eschatology. John probably shares the common schema, but uses it as a reservoir of images to illumine the current situation, scattering them in a literary web that highlights his primary concern: to encourage the church.

Paul Andrew Rainbow

See also Apocalyptic; Persecution; Second Coming of Christ

Bibliography. P. Barnett, JSNT35 (1989): 111-20; G. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible; A. Collins, The Combat Myth in the Book of Revelation; E. Fiorenza, The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters, pp. 407-27; D. Guthrie, The Relevance of John's Apocalypse; C. J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting; R. H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation; S. R. F. Price, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor; S. J. Scherrer, JBL103 (1984): 599-610; L. L. Thompson, The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.


Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Revelation, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.