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New Testament | Revelation | Summary

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Summary

In Chapters 1–3 John the visionary is on the Mediterranean island of Patmos when he has a heavenly vision of Christ enthroned and shares a message of warning and hope with seven churches on the nearby coast in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).

John's visions of heaven and his prophetic visions of the eschaton (end-times) include the destruction of the present earth.

  • In Revelation 4 and 5, John sees Christ enthroned in the heavens, together with 24 elders who worship him and sing.
  • Because he was sacrificed on behalf of people from all over the world, the lamb of God is proclaimed worthy to open a scroll with seven seals.
  • The seven seals unleash eschatological forces (Revelation 6:1–8:1).
  • Although 144,000 believers from the tribes of Israel are sealed with a seal of God, and multitudes from every nation of gentiles join the worship of God, most on earth are suffering from destructive forces such as war, famine, and pestilence.
  • Seven trumpets sound, and each trumpet blast continues the destruction of the present earth, while two witnesses appointed as prophets foretell upcoming woes.
  • A pregnant woman and her child are about to be devoured by a dragon, but God rescues them, and the archangel Michael defeats the dragon.
  • Two frightening beasts gain dominion over the earth. The second beast, whose "number" is 666, probably symbolizing the Roman Emperor Nero, begins to gather power and oppress God's faithful people.
  • The Son of Man (Christ) reaps a harvest from the earth, and an angel with seven bowls of God's wrath pour them out to complete the destruction in process.
  • The Whore of Babylon, representing the city of Rome, is destroyed; merchants who have lost their wealth despair, but there is rejoicing in heaven.
  • The beast and his armies are defeated, and the dragon who is "the Devil and Satan" is imprisoned for 1,000 years and then cast into a lake of fire with others who are judged for their evil works.

The book concludes with a promise of God's victory and a new creation for all those who belong in the book of life. The heavenly Jerusalem is "the bride, the wife of the Lamb" (Revelation 21:9).

Analysis

The book of Revelation, the final book of the canonical New Testament, presents a vision of judgment and destruction intended to comfort a community of Christ-believers who perceive themselves as oppressed and persecuted in the present day. The genre of this text, revealed in the Greek title Apokalypsis, is apocalypse, and apocalyptic texts in both Judaism and Christianity describe the revelation of heavenly realities to intermediary figures or visionaries. The visionary John describes a series of heavenly visions and reveals his special knowledge about future events that will take place at the eschaton, the end of time.

Because these future predictions include punishment for those who have sided against God's faithful and rewards for the faithful who endure persecution, the intended reading audience might take comfort from the text and its claims about theodicy (divine justice). John assures them that although they suffer now, God will eventually enact just judgment for all people.

The book develops a highly negative portrait of earthly powers, setting them up as diametrically opposed to Christ the heavenly King. Merchants and rulers who cooperate with the dragon and the beasts are explicitly identified as evil (Revelation 18). Although the author uses coded language to refer to earthly rulers, perhaps out of a fear of retribution, it does become clear that the text criticizes and demonizes Roman imperial power. The figure of the whore of Babylon seated on a beast with seven heads probably corresponds to 1st-century Roman coins depicting the goddess Roma seated on the seven hills of Rome.

The negative view of Rome may in part be a reaction to specific historical events: Emperor Nero had blamed Christians for a fire in Rome (64 CE) and executed many of them in retaliation. Emperor Trajan had led military forces in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, an event that shook the foundations of Jewish religious life and deeply affected the Christ-believers whose faith was rooted in Judaism. Emperor Domitian had instigated some persecution of Christ-believers during his reign (81–96 CE) and had claimed to be divine, even while he was still alive.

The book of Revelation may also be reacting more generally to Roman claims about the emperors' power; Christ-believers who recognized Jesus as the Son of God would have objected strongly to Roman imperial cult, a set of devotions and sacrifices directed toward the emperors (sometimes identified as divine figures and saviors) or to the gods on behalf of the emperors.
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