The book of Revelation is an endless source of fascinating questions for many people. I’ve read millennial and dispensational arguments but somehow I’ve never quite shared an eagerness to decode the book. When I was in high school in the 1970s, barcodes began to appear on grocery products, and I heard someone express concern that barcodes were connected to the Antichrist as predicted in Rev. 13:17. I thought (privately) that was kind of silly.
Then a few years ago, my wife Beth and I led a study on the book of Revelation. We used Bruce Metzger’s Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation, a wonderful book that delves into the Old Testament background and first century roots of the book. The first Sunday, we had a crowd. “I think the Lord has led me to this study,” declared a young woman that first time. During the next few Sundays, our group dwindled down to a faithful core. Where did the others go, including the woman pleased at God’s guidance? Beth and I didn’t attempt to interpret Revelation’s signs and symbols to our contemporary time, and so I’m sure we disappointed folks present at our initial gathering.
The notion that Revelation has a secret meaning about current events, in spite of scriptural caveats about predicting the end (e.g., Matt. 24:36), will always give the book qualities of mystery and urgency. In my experience, though, folks are certain that the book has contemporary meaning, are liable to be angry at you if you imply otherwise, and yet don’t necessarily know what that meaning is. It’s one of those unexamined opinions people swear to.
Of course, many attempts have been made through history to predict the end times via biblical symbols: George Rapp, leader of the Harmonist sect, William Miller, founder of the Millerites, Charles Taze Russell and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. To me, the numerous failed efforts to connect Revelation to contemporary history advises against the effort—as does Jesus’ own caution that only God knows history’s final timetable.
Although Revelation is typical of the apocalyptic genre of writing (there are several such Jewish writings not included in the Old Testament, for instance), Jesus’ own end-time teachings aren’t very typical at all! Certainly Jesus’ words have edges and threats: not all his words are gentle and mild. While concerned about warning people, Jesus isn’t interested in tabulating and predicting the end times in a fanatical, vengeful way. Jesus’ teachings are not focused on divine vengeance of evildoers and Gentiles, but upon God’s salvation, e.g. Luke 4:16ff. So we have to balance the visions of Revelation with the example of Jesus himself.
Here is a very odd pair of books to connect: Deuteronomy and Revelation. Deuteronomy concludes the Torah with a stirring call for Jews to keep faithful to the commandments (reiterated for many chapters) and to remind future generations of God’s mighty works of salvation. Meanwhile Revelation concludes the New Testament with arcane and impenetrable symbols that invite all kinds of wheel-spinning speculation about the end times.
And yet Revelation also calls future generations to faithfulness. Revelation proclaims God’s mighty work of salvation, too (7:10, 11:15, 19:6), and so, in an analogous way to Deuteronomy, we know that there is no ultimate reason for us to lose heart—or to lose our faithfulness. Although Christ’s final victory lies in the future, he already has defeated Satan. In light of that victory, he calls us to follow him with confidence.
1. Points made by Brevard S. Childs in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), page 68.
And now, page 2, as Paul Harvey used to say….. The past couple years I’ve been renewing my personal Bible study, especially focusing upon the Old Testament. Many of us Christians aren’t as literate in the Hebrew traditions of our faith as we might be, and some Christians I’ve met are largely indifferent to the Old Testament.
But the Book of Revelation contains more references to the Old Testament than nearly any other New Testament book: I read that there are nearly 200 references, allusions, and images. As I’ve been renewing my Old Testament reading lately, I returned to Revelation for a few weeks this summer and found my appreciation of the book enriched. I’m still not keen on interpreting its arcane and violent symbolism to gain knowledge of our present times. But I appreciate the book all the more as the concluding portion of Christian scripture, which ties together many theological strands from the whole of the Bible. If you really want to dig into Revelation, you might first spend a year or so reading the Old Testament and books about biblical theology. Then, you can appreciate how Revelation reaches deeply into the Old Testament and connects those scriptures (and therefore the whole of God’s saving activity since ancient times) to Christ and his final victory.
I found an interesting article, “The Old Testament and the Book of Revelation” (linked here) at the StudyJesus.com site. I liked the article because it gave straightforward biblical references without the speculations and polemics that one times in some analyses of Revelation. Perusing that article as well as my notes in my old RSV and the references in my NRSV, I developed a very incomplete list of references to Old Testament passages that one finds in Revelation. These are just my notes from these sources, to set up ongoing studies. That article gives many more references and other research about John’s compelling visions and style of writing.
The image of “the son of man” in Daniel 7:13-14 connects to Rev. 1:7.
The image of “the kingdom of priests” in Exodus 19:6 an Isaiah 61:6 connects to Rev. 1:6.
Ezekiel’s vision of four living creatures and four wheels in chapter 1, and also Isaiah 6:1-4, connect with Revelation chapter 4, wherein the living creatures give God honor and glory.
The dwelling of God in the new heaven and earth in Isaiah 65:17ff connects to Rev 21:1-2. Also, Michael the archangel (Dan. 12:1) connects to Rev. 12:7-12.
The condemnation of Deuteronomy 29:19-20, with the image of being blotted out of the book of life, connects to Rev. 21:19. In fact, that article indicates: “Revelation 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15, 21:27 are based on Exodus 32:32-33; Psalm 69:28; Daniel 12:1,” and also Ps. 56:8 and Malachi 3:16. All these have to do with the them of God writing a book containing the names of the faithful.
The differently colored horses of Zechariah 1:7-17 and 6:1-8 connect to Revelation 6:1-8.
The eating of the scroll in Ezekiel 2:8-3:33 and Jeremiah 15:16 connect to Rev. 10:8-11.
Much of Joel 1-2, with its descriptions of plagues, droughts, and the coming day of the Lord, connects to the various events in Revelation: e.g., the locusts in Rev. 9.
Some of Ezekiel’s images of the restored temple in chapters 40-48, as well as Zechariah chapter 4, connect to Rev. 11:1-6 et al. Also, the restored Jerusalem in Ezekiel 48:30-35 connect to Rev. 21:12-14.
Genesis 49 lists the twelve tribes of Israel, in the context of Jacob’s death: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Gad, Asher, Dan, Naphtali, Joseph, and Benjamin. Jacob adopted Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and thus they became heads of tribes. Rev. 7:1-8 describes how angels sealed the number of God’s servants out of “every tribe of the people of Israel,” and then lists the twelve tribes. Instead of the tribe of Dan we have the tribe of Manasseh, and the tribe of Joseph rather than that of Ephraim is mentioned.
The cities of refuge are described in Numbers 35:9-34. They were places where a person who had accidentally killed someone could flee and when the high priest died they could return home without fear of being killed out of revenge. The cities were Kedesh, Golan, Ramoth Shechem, Bezer, and Hebron. Although Rev. 12:6 doesn’t mention “cities of refuge” per se, the concept of a safe place prepared by God is there: for instance, the woman with child (representing God’s people) flees to a safe place in the wilderness where she will be nourished for 1260 days.
Daniel has a vision of four beasts in Dan. 7:1-8, which connects to Rev. 13:1-7, where beasts emerge from the sea. As that article indicates, the fourth beast represents Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the terrible Greek ruler of the Maccabean period.
Ezekiel 38-39 describes the prince Gog of the land of Magog. In Rev. 20:7-10, Gog and Magog become nations who are enemies of God’s people.
The famous story of Balaam and his donkey (Balaam’s ass, as we Sunday school kids laughed about) is found in Numbers 25:1-9, as well as 31:16. This story is echoed in Rev. 2: 14 where God scolds the church at Pergamum.
Rev. 14:14-20 tells of the angel reaping a grape harvest with a sickle and putting the harvest into the winepress of God’s wrath, producing copious blood. Of course, this is the reference for a line in “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as well as the title of the novel, The Grapes of Wrath. We find the earlier image in Joel 3:13 and Isaiah 63:1-6.
As that article indicates, Isaiah 65:17, 66:22, refer to the blessings of God upon the exiles who return from captivity in Babylon. These promises connect to a passage near the conclusion of Revelations, 21:1.
With that reference, I thought of my other essay on this site, about the biblical theme of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, the Exile, its connection to the land, and the hope of future redemption that the Exile inspires. Although the Bible isn’t exactly “about” the Exile, the Bible is about the history of God’s people on the land in the centuries before the Exile, and then their post-exilic hope in God’s redemption. As I explain there in my notes, the exilic experience pervades the Bible in many unappreciated ways. (The psalms, for instance, which so many of us esteem for our daily faith, deeply reflect the post-exilic hope of God’s people.) For Christians, the New Testament describes the fulfillment of that post-exilic hope, and the Book of Revelation brings together stands of biblical history and theology to show the final consummation of centuries of divine promises.