John: The End and the Beginning
The apostle John’s life was close to its end when he wrote down the content of the book of Revelation. It was around 95 C.E., and John was perhaps again in Ephesus following his exile on the nearby island of Patmos. In the previous two parts in this series, we have covered the opening messages to the seven churches. Before we turn to the remainder of the book, with its powerful apocalyptic images and symbols, let’s remind ourselves of John’s audience, its knowledge and its experience.
The Context of Revelation
After Jesus’ departure, the community of His followers continued in the beliefs and practices of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, empowered with new understanding by the Holy Spirit. They knew that the Hebrew Scriptures were a unified whole. Thus, when the seven churches and subsequently the broader Church read John’s writings, they connected many things he said with that body of Scripture and also with the more recent oral and written teaching they had received. For them the Hebrew Scriptures and the inspired writings that followed represented unified practice and belief.
The only way for the called-out ones to understand Revelation was by the mediation of the Holy Spirit and by contextualizing the lengthy letter in light of the rest of Scripture. When the Bible is read holistically, Revelation is consistent with its other parts. This means that, in particular, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter and Jude all make a significant contribution to the framework and content of Revelation.
For example, the description of God’s throne (Revelation 4) recalls Ezekiel’s similar vision (Ezekiel 1). In the later chapters of his prophecy, Ezekiel writes about the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. This finds parallels in the final chapters of Revelation.
The well-known Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Revelation 6) are reminiscent of the prophet Zechariah’s description of four similar horses (Zechariah 1 and 6) and of Jesus’ private reply to His disciples about the end of the age in Matthew 24. There He also made reference to the book of Daniel and to specific coming events in the Middle East (Matthew 24:15). Further, He mentioned His own return in the kind of language found in Revelation 19.
Daniel’s visions, in which various empires that have ruled the Middle East are represented by a statue of a man and by several animals (see Daniel 2, 7 and 8), are paralleled by John’s visions of composite beasts in Revelation 13 and 17.
The apostle Paul wrote about Christ’s second coming in each of his letters, also to a set of seven local or regional churches—in Thessalonica, Corinth, Galatia, Rome, Colossae, Ephesus and Philippi. Similarly, in personal letters to the small groups of believers in their care, James, Peter and Jude all wrote about the great future event that would eclipse the “present age.” It is in the nature of such messages that they are intended principally for a small part of the whole. For the seven congregations in Asia Minor at the close of the first century, the Scriptures were all background to Revelation’s record of end-time events.
It is clear that so many parts of the Bible are interconnected and consistent with each other. When we connect the dots, it becomes obvious that one day God will intervene to resolve human problems. Through John, the followers of Jesus Christ have been given insights into God’s plan for bringing the kingdom of man to a close and establishing the kingdom of God. What they cannot know ahead of time is precisely how every prophecy will be fulfilled. They can know the outlines of how society will develop until God must intervene. They cannot know the timing of Christ’s return, as Christ Himself does not (Matthew 24:36). But they can be prepared for that day by personal vigilance about their spiritual state and by thus being ready (Matthew 24:44).
Following the messages to the seven congregations, John is taken in vision via an open door to God’s throne. This privileged access will allow him to be shown “what must take place after this” (Revelation 4:1). This section of John’s account continues through chapter 6:17 and is the longest of six throne-room scenes (the others are found in 7:9–17; 11:15–19; 14:1–5; 15:2–8; and 19:1–8). It provides the introduction to all the remaining visions of the book.
In chapter 4, John sees the Father’s heavenly throne with the backdrop of a rainbow that resembles an emerald, resting on a sea of crystal, surrounded by four angelic creatures with the face of a lion, an ox, a man and an eagle. Further, there are 24 more angelic beings, termed “elders,” who worship Him along with the four creatures at the throne. Much of this description of God’s throne is a variation of the visions in Ezekiel 1:4–28 and Isaiah 6, while the heavenly council is indicated in 1 Kings 22 and Job 1 and 2, among other references. John describes the elders as worshiping God and saying, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power” (Revelation 4:11). This is a counter to the adulation offered to the Roman emperors who were also addressed as “our Lord and our God.” But the God of John’s vision is the one who “created all things, and by [His] will they existed and were created”—something the emperors could not claim.
Chapter 5 introduces what John saw and heard next: the Lamb of God (Christ) as the only One who is worthy to break the seven seals of a mysterious scroll in God’s hand, to the praise of all the heavenly beings. This leads to the immediate breaking of six of the seals (Revelation 6:1–17), followed by an interlude (chapter 7) and then the breaking of the seventh seal (Revelation 8:1). Each seal represents a condition or event in God’s eschatological plan. Again, the reason that John is delivering the information is that it is “the revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1).
The Seven Seals
At the breaking of the first four seals by Christ, four horses and their riders (Revelation 6:2–8) are set free to roam the earth. The first is a white horse, its rider carrying a bow and wearing a crown. The rider comes out “conquering, and to conquer.” He would be recognizable to John’s audience as an Apollo-like sun-god figure and stand for politico-religious deception, the archetypical false messiah. Next comes a bright red horse with a rider who carries a great sword, signifying widespread war. He takes “peace from the earth,” causing people to kill each other. The third is a black horse; its rider carries a pair of scales, and a heavenly voice indicates that scarcity and famine follow. The fourth horse is pale (gray or yellowish green) and represents pestilence and disease. Death is its rider, accompanied by the Grave. The apocalyptic sections of the synoptic Gospels provide helpful background in understanding these horses and their riders. Jesus explained that several long-term conditions would precede His return. They include messianic deception, war, famine and pestilence; see, for example, Matthew 24:3–8; Mark 13:5–8; and Luke 21:8–11.
When the fifth seal is broken, the martyrs of God through the ages cry out to be avenged, asking how much longer they must wait. They are told that a little more time must pass until others yet to be persecuted will meet their end (Revelation 6:9–11). The fifth seal, then, corresponds to the persecution of Christ’s followers mentioned in Matthew 24:9–10.
A great earthquake accompanies the opening of the sixth seal (Revelation 6:12–14). There are disturbances in the heavens—the moon turns red like blood, the sun becomes black, the stars fall from the sky, which is rolled up like a scroll. This parallels Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Matthew 24:29).
Before describing the events associated with the breaking of the seventh seal, John tells of two select groups of people (Revelation 7:1–8, 9–17). The first is the 144,000 who are protected by God (with a different kind of seal) from the worst aspects of God’s intervention. This is reminiscent of a passage in the book of Ezekiel, where an angel puts a mark of protection on the forehead of those who are concerned with sin in the city of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 9:4–6). The 144,000 are listed in groups of 12,000 from 12 of the tribes of Israel. The entire group has been explained as 12 tribes x 12 apostles x 1,000—not a literal number but a symbol for the elect of God across time. In Revelation 14:1–5, they appear with Christ on Mount Zion. It is said that they “follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (verse 4). Once again we see that John is writing for the benefit of the Church, encouraging them with a view of their future.
The second group mentioned in this interlude chapter is much larger and is present during the end time “great tribulation” (see Matthew 24:21). This is the means by which they come into an eternal relationship with God.
John’s description of the seventh seal comprises initially chapters 8:1 through 11:19. This length is necessary to describe the sevenfold nature of the seventh seal. Divided into seven separate events heralded by angelic trumpet blasts, the opening of this seal starts the countdown to Christ’s return.
The Seven Trumpets
Seven angels who attend God’s throne are each given a trumpet. The first four trumpets precipitate plagues that fall on the earth. First come hail, fire and blood that devastate one third of the earth’s trees and grass. Next is a plague in what appears to be a burning mountain thrown into the sea and affecting a third of the sea, its creatures and the ships that sail it. When the third angel sounds, a flaming star falls to the earth poisoning a third of rivers and springs. Many people die as a result. The fourth plague strikes the sun, moon and stars, obliterating a third of their light. An eagle flies overhead, warning of the three trumpet blasts to come and crying “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on earth” (Revelation 8:6–13).
The fifth angel’s blast (Revelation 9:1–11) causes a star to fall from heaven and open the Abyss or “bottomless pit,” releasing demonic powers on the earth to torment for five months, but not kill, those who have not been sealed. The demons’ leader is named Abaddon and Apollyon (“destruction” and “the one who destroys”). He is Satan the Devil.
Further devastation awaits with the sixth trumpet plague. Four angels who have been bound at the River Euphrates are released, possibly a symbol of four nations in that region. With a cavalry of 200 million, their task is to destroy one third of mankind. Despite the destruction, “the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts” (verses 20–21).
Before the seventh trumpet sounds, two inset chapters explain that John has a commission to prophesy again “about [or, better translated, “against”] many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (Revelation 10:11), and that two human witnesses will come to warn the world of God’s coming final intervention (Revelation 11:3–12). John’s message comes symbolically in the form of a scroll he must eat, which is both bitter and sweet. Like the prophet Ezekiel who had a similar experience with God’s word (see Ezekiel 2:8–3:3), John tastes the message as sweet. But it is bitter in his stomach because of the bad news it brings for humanity.
The two witnesses, who prophesy in the city of Jerusalem for three and a half years, also bring a message of warning that goes unheeded until after they are killed for their efforts and resurrected. Only then do some repent (Revelation 11:13). This is all preparatory to the third woe and the sounding of the seventh trumpet when loud voices in heaven announce, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (verse 15).
At this point John’s attention is turned to several informative scenes—further insets in the story flow that appear to delay the action but in fact set up the denouement that is coming in human history. What John is asked to write down is nothing less than the explanation of why the world has been so opposed to God and His servants, why with few exceptions it will not repent of its ways, and why the day of God’s wrath has to come before there can be peace on earth.
Chapter 12 contains a history of God’s people, first as the children of Israel, specifically the tribe of Judah among whom Christ first came, and then as the New Covenant Church persecuted through time. The symbol for the congregation of Israel and the Church is a woman, “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1), whose son (Christ) is killed and who must take refuge in the wilderness under God’s protection (verse 6) until He returns.
The same chapter describes war in heaven between Satan and his angels and the forces of God. Satan is defeated and thrown back to the earth. Frustrated in his attempt to destroy the woman who is under God’s protection, he goes to make war on “the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (verse 17). Satan is pictured standing on the seashore as John sees a beast rising out of the sea (verse 17; Revelation 13:1). The two are clearly linked as John confirms: “The beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority” (Revelation 13:2).
What follows is a description of the final manifestation of a politico-religious system that has plagued humanity through the ages, especially the people of God. The prophet Daniel explained to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, that such a system would persist across four empires, from his reign until the end of this age of man (see Daniel 2 and 7). John happened to be living in the days of the fourth major manifestation—the Roman Empire. What he saw in vision was the same system at the end of this age, after it has morphed and renewed itself several times through the centuries. Consistent with the prophecy in Daniel concerning the eclipsing of human forms of government (Daniel 7:13–14 and 2:44–45), John describes the ultimate globalized politico-religious version of the system and its downfall (Revelation 17 and 18). The long history of this world order will be explored in detail under the forthcoming Vision Collections title, Messiahs! Rulers and the Role of Religion.
A further inset in the narrative concerns the 144,000 of chapter 7. Having been sealed for protection, here they are pictured, as previously noted, victorious with the returned Christ on Mount Zion (14:1–5). The inset section continues with the appearance of three angels with three messages (verses 6–11). First is a proclamation of good news to all on earth that the final hour has come. God is about to judge. Second, a statement that the great false system, now identified as “Babylon the Great,” has fallen. Third, a final warning that the punishment of those in league with the system is imminent. Accordingly, the next inset shows the harvesting of the wicked of the earth for the day of God’s intervention.
The Seventh Trumpet
Chapter 15 returns to the story flow with the sounding of the seventh trumpet. This initiates the pouring out of the seven last plagues contained in seven bowls (verses 1–5).
“The angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven and swore . . . that in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.”
A detailed description of these terrible punishments meted out by angels follows in chapter 16. Those who have aligned themselves with the beast’s rule are afflicted with “harmful and painful sores.” The second angel’s bowl is poured out into the sea, and its life forms die. The third angel avenges the blood of the saints by pouring out his bowl on fresh water; it becomes as blood. People are scorched by the sun’s heat and curse God for the fourth plague, but they will not repent. The fifth angel targets the throne of the beast, plunging it into darkness, pain and anguish. They, too, do not change their ways.
In the region of the River Euphrates, three unclean spirits are loosed as the sixth bowl is poured out. They are demonic beings who stir up world leaders to assemble at Armageddon and go out to fight the returning Christ. The seventh bowl produces a great earthquake that shakes the world’s cities, mountains and islands. Huge hailstones fall, and people once more curse God.
John has alluded to the religious aspects of political order in chapter 13, where he introduced a lamb-dragon figure that promotes worship of the governmental beast and obedience to its economic commands (Revelation 13:11–18). This false prophet represents a false religious system, symbolized by a great whore in the inset chapter 17. The whore in turn rides the political beast, being transported by it but guiding its way.
Chapter 18 describes the effect of Babylon’s sudden downfall. The whole world has traded its goods and been dependent on it, acting immorally to gain her favor. But God’s people are to have separated themselves from it. They will be saved at the time of Babylon’s fall.
The people of God will then participate in the marriage celebrations of Christ and His Church, pictured here as bridegroom and bride (Revelation 19:6–9). The inauguration of the kingdom of God, which will span an initial 1,000 years on earth, will coincide with the return of the true Christ as a rider on a white horse (verses 11–16).
The archenemy of humanity will now be restrained: “Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years . . . so that he might not deceive the nations any longer” (Revelation 20:1–3).
The people of God will then join Christ in ruling on the earth. Only after a thousand years will all others come back to life (verse 5). At the close of the millennial period, Satan will be released for a short period. He will again deceive some of the nations and then suffer defeat and eternal punishment (verse 10).
Once Satan is banished, a period of time will be allotted to all who have ever lived and not known and followed God’s way, to make the choice to do so (verses 11–13). If they do, they will be given eternal life. If they choose not to participate, which would mean living contrary to the laws that guarantee happiness, God will mercifully end their existence. In the symbolism of the book of Revelation, a lake of fire consumes all who refuse to follow God. This is known as the second death, from which there is no return.
The New Heavens and the New Earth
The last two chapters in Revelation speak about the time beyond the millennial rule of Christ. Though the book has dealt primarily with the end of the age of humanly devised rule, it now turns to the beginning of a limitless future. This is the time when God the Father will take up residence with His people on the earth. The New Jerusalem, a symbol of God’s throne, will descend to the earth (Revelation 21:1–3). It will be a time when the problems of this present world will be gone forever: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (verse 4).
“God . . . will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
John confirms that the people of God are those who voluntarily choose His way and conquer their own nature and take on God’s character (verse 7). But those who do not, suffer great loss: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (verse 8).
Finally, John is shown the river of the water of life that sustains the tree of life, whose leaves bring healing to all. Night and day are no more, and everyone will see God and live in His light (Revelation 22:1–5).
John completes the record of all that he saw and heard with Christ’s assurance, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (verse 16). He also quotes Christ’s threefold promise that He is coming soon (verses 7, 12 and 20).
John’s own final comment is a warning to preserve the content of the book, to neither add to nor subtract from it: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (verses 18–19).
So ends the last letter of the last surviving first-century apostle of Jesus Christ. Nothing definitive is known about when or how John died, but based on several early traditions it likely occurred around the end of the first century, possibly in Ephesus.
Few written records of the Church survive from the decades preceding and immediately following John’s death, as though a fog enshrouded that period of church history. What is clear, however, is that the church that reappeared, calling itself Christian, was hardly recognizable as the church Christ had founded. It seems that despite the warnings issued by each of the first-century apostles, Gnostics and other false teachers gained an increasing foothold, so that followers of the Way eventually found themselves marginalized and vastly outnumbered.
To the very end of John’s writings, his message remained constant: hold fast till the end, and live according to the way of life that Jesus Christ taught and practiced, never losing sight of His promised return and the establishment of a better world.
Like John, each of the other New Testament authors we’ve considered in this series made important closing comments in their writings. They show consistency of hope, purpose, intent and way of life. There can be no doubt that these first followers held to a common belief and practice. Their assessment of society around was realistic, and their focus was on living in light of the future. The following concluding thoughts provide an appropriate close to this study of their lives and point the way forward for any who would not just listen but also walk in their footsteps.
James tells fellow believers to “be patient . . . until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:7–8).
Jude contrasts the way of the world around with the way of life the believer must live and advises: “You, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 20–21).
Paul, writing a last letter to his helper Timothy, speaks the timeless truth that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
And Peter, having shown the certainty of the coming kingdom of God, instructs, “You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen” (2 Peter 3:17–18).