The Revelation of Jesus was given to John the prophet. In the first part, we explored how John composed this apocalyptic prophecy
As a circular letter to seven churches in Asia Minor to challenge and comfort these Christians suffering from apathy and persecution under the Roman Empire. We also encountered John’s main symbol for Jesus: the slain Lamb who conquered his enemies by dying for them. He is the one who opens up the scroll containing God’s purposes to bring his kingdom on earth as in heaven.
The scroll’s opening brought warning judgments like the plagues of Egypt. And like Pharaoh, the nations do not repent.
Then John introduced the multi-ethnic army of the Lamb and the opened scroll revealed their strange mission:
To follow the Lamb by bearing witness to God’s justice and mercy before the beastly nations, even if it kills them.
They will conquer the beast by laying down their lives, just like the Lamb, which will move the nations to repentance.
In the remainder of the book, John will fill out his portrayal of this beast and his war on God’s people and how the whole story ends.
John’s Sign Visions
After the seven trumpets, John stops the sevens’ drumbeat with a series of visions that he calls “signs.” The word literally means “symbols,” and these chapters are full of them. These visions explore the message of the open scroll in greater depth.
The first one reveals the cosmic spiritual battle that lay behind the seven churches’ suffering under Roman persecution. It’s a manifestation of that ancient conflict that began in Genesis chapter 3.
The serpent, who represents the source of all evil, is depicted here as a dragon. It attacks a woman and her seed. They represent the Messiah and his people. Then the Messiah defeats the dragon through his death and resurrection, and it’s cast to earth. There the dragon inspires hatred and persecution of the Messiah’s people. But they will conquer the dragon by resisting his influence, even if it kills them.
John’s trying to show the churches that neither Rome nor any other nation or human is the real enemy. There are dark spiritual powers at work, and Jesus’ followers will announce Jesus’ victory by remaining faithful and loving their enemies, just like the slain Lamb.
John’s next vision retells the same conflict story, but this time in the earthly symbolism of Daniel’s animal visions. John sees two beasts empowered by the dragon. One of them represents national military power that conquers through violence.
The other beast symbolizes the economic propaganda machine that exalts this power as divine. And these beasts demand full allegiance from the nations, and that’s symbolized by taking the mark of the beast and his number, 666, on the forehead or hand.
Now, this is an infamous image, and you won’t discover its meaning by reading news headlines.
John’s making a clear Hebrew Old Testament reference here. First of all, this mark is anti-Shema. The writing on the forehead in hand, it’s a clear reference to the Shema, an ancient Jewish prayer of allegiance to God that’s found in the Book of Deuteronomy.
This prayer also was written on the forehead and hand as a symbol of devoting all your thoughts and actions to the one true God.
But now, the rebellious nations demand their own allegiance, and they force everyone to decide who they will follow. Then there’s the number of the beast, which has fascinated readers for thousands of years. But this was not a mystery to John. He spoke Hebrew and Greek. And Hebrew letters were also numbers.
If you spell the Greek words “Nero Caesar” and the word “Beast” in Hebrew, each one amounts to 666.
Now, John isn’t saying that Nero was the only fulfillment of this vision. Nero is just a recent example of the ancient pattern set out by Daniel that the nations become beasts when they exalt their own power and economic security as a false god and then demand total allegiance.
So Babylon was the beast in Daniel’s day. But that was followed by Persia, followed by Greece and now Rome in John’s day. And so it goes for any later nation that acts in the same way.
Standing opposed to the beastly nations and the dragon is another king. It’s the slain Lamb. He’s with his army, who have given their lives to follow him. And from the New Jerusalem, their song of victory goes out to the nations and what John calls “the eternal gospel.” And they call everyone to repent and to worship God and to come out of Babylon that will fall. Its days are numbered.
Then John sees a vision of final judgment. Two harvests symbolize it. One is a good harvest of grain as King Jesus comes to gather up his faithful people to himself. The other is a harvest of wine grapes. It represents humanity’s intoxication with evil.
They are taken to the winepress and trampled. Now, throughout all these sign visions, John is placing a stark choice before the seven churches.
Will they resist the lure of Babylon and follow the Lamb? Or will they follow the beast and suffer its defeat?
Now that the choice is clear, John replays a final cycle of seven divine judgments, symbolized as pouring seven bowls.
Now we know from the Lamb’s scroll and the sign visions that many among the nations do repent. But as the Exodus plagues are repeated and poured out through the bowls, many people do not repent. They resist and curse God, just like Pharaoh.
And so it all leads up to the 6th bowl as the dragon and the beast, they gather the nations together to make war against God’s people in a place called Armageddon. This refers to a plain in northern Israel where Israel fought many battles against invading nations.
Some people think that this sixth bowl refers to an actual future battle, while others think that it’s a metaphor for God’s final justice on evil. Either way, John’s clearly taken images from Ezekiel’s book about God’s battle with Gog.
Gog was Ezekiel’s symbol of the rebellious nations gathered before God to face his justice, and that’s what comes in the seventh bowl.
It’s the fourth and final depiction of the day of the Lord when evil is defeated among the nations once and for all.
Now, John has fully unpacked the message of the Lamb’s unsealed scroll, and now he goes back to expand on three key themes that he’s introduced earlier:
- The Fall of Babylon,
- The Final Battle to Defeat Evil
- The Arrival of the New Jerusalem
And each one of these explores the final coming of God’s kingdom from a different angle. So in the first, the fall of Babylon, an angel shows John a stunning woman who’s dressed like a queen, but she’s drunk with the blood of the martyrs and all innocent people. She’s riding the dragon beast from the sign visions. It’s a symbol of the rebellious nations, and she’s called Babylon, the prostitute.
Now, the detailed symbols of this vision would be obvious to John’s first readers. He’s personifying the Roman Empire’s military and economic power, but he’s also doing more.
In this vision, John has blended words and images from every single Old Testament passage about the downfall of ancient Babylon, Tyre, and Edom. John’s showing how Rome is simply the newest version of the Old Testament archetype of humanity in rebellion against God.
They come together and form nations that exalt their own economic and military security into a false god. This isn’t something limited to the past or the future. It’s a portrait of the human condition throughout history, and Babylons will come and go, leading up to the day when Jesus returns to replace Babylon with his kingdom.
How will Jesus’ kingdom come?
Up to this point, the day of the Lord has been depicted as a day of fire or earthquake or harvest, and now it’s depicted as a final battle, and it’s told twice. It results in the vindication of the martyrs. Now John takes us back to the sixth bowl where the nations were gathered together to oppose God, and all of a sudden, Jesus appears.
He’s the great hero. He’s the Word of God riding on a white horse, and he’s ready to conquer the world’s evil, but pay attention!
He’s covered with blood before the battle even begins; that’s because it’s his own, and his only weapon is the sword of his mouth.
It’s an image adapted from Isaiah. John tells us that Armageddon will not be a bloodbath; rather, the same Jesus who shed his own blood for his enemies now comes proclaiming justice. He will hold accountable those who refuse to repent of the ways that they participate in the ruin of God’s good world, and the destructive hellfire that they’ve unleashed in God’s world justly becomes their own God-appointed destiny.
After this, John sees a vision of Jesus’ followers who have been murdered by Babylon, and they’re brought back to life, and they reign with the Messiah for 1,000 years. Then, the dragon who inspired humanity’s rebellion against God rallies the world’s nations together to rebel against God’s kingdom. Still, before God’s throne of justice, they all face the consequences of eternal defeat.
And so the forces of spiritual evil and everyone who doesn’t want to participate in God’s kingdom are destroyed. They’re given what they want: to exist by themselves and for themselves. The dragon and Babylon and all who choose them are eternally quarantined, never again able to corrupt God’s new creation.
There’s a lot of debate about the relationship of the 1,000 years to these two battles. Some think it refers to a literal chronological sequence:
- Jesus’ Return
- Thousand Year Kingdom on earth called the Millennium
- God’s Final Judgment
Other people think that the thousand years are a symbol of Jesus’ and the martyrs’ present victory over spiritual evil and that the two battles depict Jesus’ future return from two different angles.
Whichever view you take, the main point is clear: when Jesus returns as king, he will deal with evil forever, and he’ll vindicate those who have been faithful to him.
The book concludes with a final vision of the marriage of heaven and earth. An angel shows John a stunning bride that symbolizes the new creation that has come forever to join God and his covenant people. God announces that he’s come to live with humanity forever and that he’s making all things new. John’s vision here is a kaleidoscope of Old Testament promises.
This place is a new heaven and earth, a restored creation that’s healed of the pain and evil of human history. It’s also a new Garden of Eden, the paradise of eternal life with God, but it’s not simply a return back to the garden. It’s a step forward into a new Jerusalem, a great city where human cultures and all their diversity work together in peace and harmony before God.
And then, the most surprising twist of all, there’s no temple building in the new creation because the presence of God and the Lamb that was once limited to the temple now permeate every square inch of the new world. And there’s a new humanity there, fulfilling the calling placed on them all the way back on page one of the Bible: to rule as God’s image, to partner together with God in taking this creation into new and uncharted territory.
And so ends John’s apocalypse and the epic storyline of the whole Bible. John did not write this book as a secret code for you to decipher the timetable of Jesus’ return. It’s a symbolic vision that brought hope and challenge to the seven first-century churches and every Christian generation since. It reveals history’s pattern and God’s promise that every human kingdom eventually becomes Babylon and must be resisted in the power of the slain Lamb.
But there’s a promise that Jesus, who loved and died for this world, will not let Babylon go unchecked. He will return one day to remove evil from his good world and make all things new, and that is a promise that should motivate faithfulness in every generation of God’s people until the King returns.
That’s what the book of Revelation is all about.