Revelation in Context: Letters and Symbols

This is the second entry in a three-part series. Part one is here.

This might come as a surprise to many, but Revelation's interpreters have arrived at a general consensus regarding why John wrote the Apocalypse, particularly the circumstances surrounding Revelation's composition. Two aspects of Revelation provide the primary evidence for our assessment: the letters to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3, and the most prominent symbols scattered throughout the rest of the book.

In Revelation 2-3, the risen Jesus dictates "letters" to seven individual churches clustered in the Roman province of Asia (western Turkey today). These letters provide only sketchy hints regarding those churches, but a few insights do emerge. First, the churches were diverse in social composition, lived experience, and -- according to the letters -- faithfulness to the Gospel. The letters identify some churches as comfortable, others as impoverished; some as persecuted, others as complacent. Revelation was written before "Judaism" and "Christianity" constituted two distinct world religions, and two letters mention tension between churches and their neighboring synagogues.

Perhaps most importantly, the letters reflect conflict within the churches. Using code-names like Balaam, the Nicolaitans and Jezebel, the letters accuse competing Christian prophets of promoting sexual sin (porneia) and eating idol-food. Scholars doubt that John's opponents promoted literal promiscuity, though that it possible. Instead, biblical authors often employed sexual imagery in their condemnations against idolatry. Perhaps porneia and eating idol-food amounted to about the same thing.

Here's one likely scenario: The relationship between religion and culture was vastly different in the ancient world than in our postmodern societies. A walk through the ruins of ancient Ephesus would reveal the thorough implication of religion in public life, with shrines and temples lining the streets. Every institution, from the empire and local governments to trade guilds, burial societies and households honored patron deities. Several of the Asian cities were noted for their high levels of religiosity. Daily household rites, regular social gatherings, and major festivals all included religious observances. Yet Revelation calls believers to "come out" from that cultural environment (18:4), to witness to Jesus (12:11) while keeping their garments clean from corruption (3:4). Most scholars believe that the Nicolaitans, Balaam and Jezebel had convinced many believers that it was OK to participate in social gatherings and public events, including meals, despite their religious dimensions. John strongly disagreed, regarding every trace of pagan religion as idolatrous.

If the letters to the churches condemn participation in common cultural activities, some of Revelation's distinctive symbols may provide a context for John's concerns. To be clear, no one understands all of Revelation's numbers and symbols. Nor should we assume that every symbol points to one and only one meaning. Still, almost all interpreters have come to a common assessment of several key symbols in the Apocalypse: the Lamb, the Beast, the Great Prostitute, the Other Beast and the New Jerusalem.

Revelation describes a conflict between a Lamb and a Beast. The Lamb clearly represents Jesus; it receives worship before God's throne, having already suffered death and redeemed people from every nation (5:6-10). According to Revelation 13, most people worship the Beast. The saints do not; therefore, the Beast makes war against the saints. "Who is like the Beast, and who can make war against it?" cry the masses (13:4).

Revelation poses the Lamb and the Beast as opposites. The Lamb stands before God's throne; the Beast receives its power from Satan (12:9; 13:2). Both receive worship, though the Beast's worship is blasphemous (13:1, 5; 17:3). The Lamb has many eyes; the Beast has many heads. The Lamb has passed through death to glory; one of the Beast's heads has survived a mortal wound. The Lamb's followers receive identifying marks on their foreheads; the Beast's are marked on the hand and the forehead. The Lamb conquers the Beast by its word; the Beast slaughters the Lamb's followers (13:7-8).

We learn more about the Beast from its association with two other symbols, the Great Prostitute (16:17-19:3) and the Other Beast (especially 13:11-17).

The Great Prostitute rides the Beast. Though she is identified with Babylon, we learn that Revelation -- like some other ancient Jewish and Christian texts -- identifies Rome with Babylon. Indeed, Revelation links the Beast's seven heads to Roman's famous seven hills (17:9). What really distinguishes the Prostitute is her opulence. Decked out in luxurious clothing and holding a golden cup, she consorts with kings and merchants to generate enormous wealth by exploiting ordinary people (18:12-13). In short, the Great Prostitute has something to do with the exploitative nature of Roman imperial diplomacy and commerce, which extracted fabulous riches off the backs of farmers, laborers and slaves.

Now that we've identified the Beast with Roman imperialism, the image of the Other Beast comes more clearly into focus. Revelation's first Beast emerges from the sea -- common imagery for western imperial powers in Jewish apocalyptic literature. But the Other Beast emerges from the earth and promotes worship of the first Beast. The Other Beast likely points to indigenous elites of Asia, who promoted worship of the Beast, Caesar. The cities of Roman Asia stood out for their devotion to Rome and its emperor. Much like modern cities compete for the Olympic Games and other events, the Asian cities petitioned the Roman Senate for permission to dedicate shrines and festivals to Rome and to Caesar. The local elites supported these endeavors, even equipping the choirs and other participants in the festivities.

Now we see the source of Revelation's conflict. Modern readers may struggle to imagine it, but ancient people really did worship their rulers. Roman emperors were acclaimed as "son of God," "Lord" and "Savior" -- the same titles Jesus' followers applied to him. From John's point of view, worship of the emperor amounted to idolatry. Just as important, Caesar governed a vast system of violence and exploitation, including the threat of persecution among the churches. In the Beast system, failure to honor Caesar amounted to treason. Indeed, Revelation alludes to believers who have died on account of their witness to Jesus (2:13; 6:9-11).

While other prophets in the Asian churches called for moderation and accommodation, John demanded outright resistance. All tokens of idolatry must be shunned, especially worship of Caesar. We can only imagine how painful these debates must have been for the Asian Christians, who were forced to discern the line between faithful witness to Jesus and securing their families and their lives. We can know one thing: Revelation is the first work to employ the Greek word martys to mean "martyr."

Revelation does not promise believers that they will enter heaven after they die. It promises no rapture, nor escape from any great tribulation. Instead, those who "conquer" the Beast will enter a New Jerusalem, a gleaming city that comes down from heaven to earth. There they will find healing, comfort and joy in the presence of the Lamb.

In a third post, I'll reflect on Revelation's theological and ethical implications.