A Crash Course on the Revelation

A Simplified Apocalypse

This is written to be a fairly brief guide on the Revelation’s images and symbolism. There are two extreme interpretations of the book. On the one side, John’s vision is treated to have dropped straight out of heaven, meant to be read ‘literally’ (which never turns out to be the case), with readers subjecting the book to the whims of their imagination and speculation. On the other, John’s visions are taken as a psychedelic trip thanks to mushrooms or somesuch thing (even though he condemns ‘drug-magic’ in the book) and has no real meaning. Then there’s the handful of major views found between those extremes.

The academic approach is that, as with any book in history, John’s can be understood if we search hard enough in his wider context. In this case, sources or parallels to nearly all of the Revelation’s imagery can be found in Judean and Greco-Roman literature from his time or earlier. The choice of the symbolism is deliberate, top to bottom.

Despite the appearance of this article, this crash course does not set out to explain every single item of the Revelation’s symbolism, but only the most significant or noteworthy parts. It’s not as long as it looks.

Revelation 1

The ‘time is near’ and must ‘soon’ be fulfilled. The book is addressed as a letter to seven nearby church communities. John makes no implication his book is meant to be read in light of events thousands of years later, on the other side of the planet. He emphatically restricts its message to his own era.

God is ‘the one who is and who was and who will come’. The phrasing is similar to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek paraphrases of ‘I am that I am’ in Exo 3.14, such as ‘the one who is’ given in the Septuagint. God is also called ‘Lord Almighty’, John’s Greek analogue to the Hebrew phrase ‘Yahweh of Hosts’.

The alpha and the omega’, also iterated in the book as ‘the first and the last’ and ‘the beginning and the end’, is based on phrasing found throughout Isa 40-55 in order to describe the utter uniqueness of God and his role in establishing and fulfilling promises. John uses the idiom a handful of times, with his referent alternating between God and Jesus; this indicates that John saw Jesus as linked to God’s unique identity.

The seven spirits before the throne most likely comes from the tradition of the seven archangels sometimes seen in apocalyptic literature of the period (cf. 1 Enoch 1-36; Tobit 12.15). When John extends ‘grace and peace’ from God, the seven spirits, and Jesus to the seven churches, this triadic formula is not invoking trinitarian deity, but a royal court with God as king, Jesus as co-regent, and the seven archangels as courtiers (cf. 1 Tim 5.21, ‘In the presence of God, the Anointed Jesus, and the chosen angels’).

John says he is on the island Patmos because of ‘the word of God and the witness of Jesus’. John associates these two phrases, especially the second, with the martyrdom that comes from refusing to participate in idolatry. This suggests John was on Patmos either in escape from Roman authorities, or perhaps in exile by them.

The description of Jesus is borrowed from details used of the Ancient of Days (God) and the human-like figure (a symbol for Israel) in Dan 7, the angelic messenger in Dan 10, and ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Yahweh’ in Ezek 1.

The sword in Jesus’ mouth is the piercing content of his speech, ‘the word of God’, taken from Isa 49.2 (cf. Heb 4.12; Eph 6.17).

The seven stars in his hand is a picture taken from the reverse side of Roman coins printed under Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96), which depict ‘Divine Caesar’ sitting atop the earth with seven stars in his hands. John applies the picture to Jesus, subverting imperial claims of universal authority.

The keys to death and Sheol indicate that Jesus has overcome death by his resurrection. The symbol is based on ‘the key of the house of David’ from Isa 22.22, a symbol for the authority of Israel’s king.

The seven churches’ portrayal as seven lampstands is a loose parallel to the seven-branched menorah of Jerusalem’s temple. The seven angels symbolized by the seven stars seem to be guardians or governors of some sort, though we don’t have much parallel for this in other Judean or Christian texts.

Revelation 2-3

The seven messages extensively borrow images from the Hebrew bible (e.g. the paradise/garden, the manna, Balak, Balaam, Jezebel, the temple) in a roughly chronological order. The descriptions of Jesus at the start of each message are taken from chapter 1, in reverse order, and usually tie into the corresponding message somehow (e.g. Jesus is introduced to Smyrna as the one ‘who was dead and came to life’, and the Smyrnean church is then told to ‘be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life’).

The choice of images and language foreshadows later parts of John’s visions. The garden returns in Revelation 22, while the temple image used to describe the Christian community itself comes back in Revelation 21. The union of Balak and Balaam (a gentile king and his prophet) anticipate the two beasts (one a kingdom, the other its ‘false prophet’) in Revelation 13-20. Jezebel (a pagan queen accused of ‘harlotry’) foreshadows ‘Babylon the Great’ in Revelation 17-19.

Jesus is called the son of God. This is the only time the epithet is used in the Revelation, and it appears alongside imagery John has lifted from Psa 2. In the psalm, the ‘son’ of God is Israel’s king, not a title indicating divinity as usually understood by Christians (cf. 2 Sam 7.14, where Solomon is also called God’s son). John invokes Psa 2 and the ‘son of God’ epithet to contrast Israel’s true king, Jesus, against the corrupt queen ‘Jezebel’.

Revelation 4

The throne scene is built from a combination of Isa 6, Ezek 1, and Dan 7. The temple imagery, begun with the ‘seven lampstands’, continues here. The specific description of God as red in color (jasper and carnelian) seems to have been based on a throne-statue of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome, which was made with red clay, and further painted red. If this is the case, John is once again subverting Roman authority, right up to their chief deity.

The four creatures combine details of the seraphim from Isa 6 and the cherubim from Ezek 1. Sculptures of the cherubim were found in Jerusalem’s temple, and atop the ark of the covenant, and are associated with God’ throne throughout the Hebrew bible. The song here is based on the seraphim’s song in Isa 6.

The twenty-four elders are commonly suggested to represent Israel’s twelve patriarchs, Jesus’ twelve apostles, or Israel’s priesthood (which is divided into twenty-four units in 1 Chron 24.1-19). Exactly who or what John intended for them to represent is unknown.

The seven burning fires, together with the seven lampstands, complete the menorah image. The seven torches are stated to symbolize the seven spirits; they apparently ‘illuminate’ the seven churches.

The sea of glass appears to be parallel to the firmament in Ezek 1.

Revelation 5

The scroll written on inside and out is directly based on the scroll in Ezek 2-3. The following chapters of Ezek demonstrate that the scroll symbolized the penalties for Jerusalem breaking the covenant with God (i.e. conquest of Jerusalem, destruction of the temple, exile to Babylon).

The lion of Judah who is the root of David (Gen 49.8-12; Isa 11.1; Jer 23.5) was an accepted messianic symbol of the era. A Judean apocalypse written circa AD 100, 4 Ezra 11-12, also symbolizes the Messiah as a ‘lion’ and ‘the offspring of David’.

The Lamb reveals the true nature of the Messiah, seemingly in subversion of the image of the majestic, powerful lion just mentioned. All four canonical Gospels place Jesus’ death during Passover, Paul calls Jesus ‘our Passover lamb’, and the Fourth Gospel calls Jesus ‘the lamb of God’. By the time of the Revelation, the image had become a common shorthand symbol for Jesus’ death effecting ‘salvation’. Additionally, the title ‘Messiah’ (‘Christ’, literally ‘Anointed’) is used seven times in the book and the name ‘Jesus’ is used fourteen times (seven doubled), but the symbol of the ‘Lamb’ is used twenty-eight times for Jesus (seven quadrupled), showing how central the symbol was for John in understanding Jesus.

The seven eyes also symbolize the seven spirits, doubling up on the seven burning fires. They are ‘sent into all the earth’. Between the reference to ‘eyes’ which search through ‘all the earth’, the ‘burning fires’, and the ‘lampstands’, it is evident John borrows here from Zech 4. In that chapter the ‘seven eyes’ belong to God and seem to symbolize angels which enact his will in the world (cf. Zech 1.10), supporting the suspicion that the ‘seven spirits’ come from the seven archangels tradition.

Revelation 6

The four horsemen are personifications, not persons. The imagery is directly borrowed from Zech 1 and 6, where men or angels riding horses of varied colors bring judgment against the exiled Judeans’ enemy, Babylon.

From the scroll, the white horse which ‘conquers’ comes first. Through the Revelation the color white always signifies people who are just and moral (contrary to the common view that this white horse is ‘the antichrist’). In Revelation 2-3, the seven churches are told to ‘conquer’ in the same way that Jesus ‘conquered’. The nature of this conquest is clarified in chapter 5: when John is told ‘the lion has conquered’, he instead sees the lamb, slain. This horseman summarizes the activity or intention of the early church in some way.

The red, black, and green horses, which also come from the scroll, exhibit social chaos by means of war, famine, plague, and even wild animal attacks. The imagery ultimately comes from Deut 28, but can be seen in Ezek 2-7 and other books of the prophets, as well as in Jesus’ Olivet prophecy (Mark 13; Matt 24; Luke 21).

The fifth item of the scroll, the martyrs, has loose parallels with Dan 11.35, where ‘the wise’ (non-violent resisters) during the Maccabean Revolt die but must await their justice for a time.

The cosmic decreation and the earthquake are extremely common symbols in the prophets of the Hebrew bible. In every case, the imagery is blatant hyperbole signifying social upheaval, usually when the prophet was predicting the collapse of a kingdom (Babylon, Edom, Egypt, even Israel itself). John’s specific wording here is mostly borrowed from Isa 13 and 34 (stars falling like figs), Hos 10 (‘fall on us’), and Joel 2 (red moon, and ‘who can endure it’).

Revelation 7

The 144,000 Israelites, a number achieved by multiplying twelve times twelve times one thousand, represent the ‘remnant of Israel’, a subject touched on in Isaiah and other prophets, as well as Paul’s theology of salvation in Rom 11.

The countless multitude is plainly representative of gentiles (non-Israelites) joining the 144,000 in worshiping Israel’s God. John anticipates the conversion of the nations, a theme seen across the ancient prophets (in varying degrees).

John is told God will ultimately rescue his followers from hunger, thirst, and burning heat, while the lamb leads them to springs of water. The picture comes from Isa 25.8 and 49.9-10, in context of the Judeans’ return from exile in Babylon.

Revelation 8

The meaning of the half hour of silence is unknown.

The angel offering prayers as incense to God is similar to Tobit 12, where the archangel Raphael receives the prayers of holy people and reads them to God. In Second Temple-era literature, angels are sometimes described in priestly terms and carry out priestly functions in heaven.

The trumpets recycle several ideas present in the seven seals of the scroll from the previous chapters, but wrap them a new theme: the plagues of the exodus. Ideas of a ‘new exodus’ are seen in the prophets (especially Isa 40-55). The first trumpet matches the exodus plague of fire and hail. The second and third trumpets match the exodus plague of the Nile turning to blood. The fourth matches the exodus plague of darkness, as well as reiterating the cosmic decreation in Revelation 6. The fifth trumpet matches the exodus plague of locusts.

The first four trumpets represent universal reach of the judgment: the rivers, the seas, the earth, and even the celestial bodies.

Revelation 9

Most of John’s ‘demon locust’ imagery — locusts, lions’ teeth, appearance of horses, sound of chariots — is simply a combination of metaphors used in Joel 1-2 to describe an invading army (of humans). John expects a foreign army to invade someone, but he sees the invaders’ power as limited.

The falling star is probably based on the description of the king of Babylon in Isa 14; John’s use of the prophets tend to depend more on passages about Babylon. Identifying the star as named Abaddon (Hebrew: ‘destruction’) and Apollyon (Greek: ‘destroyer’) indicate an overtly evil character here. Some think that ‘Apollyon’ is meant to be a pun on the name ‘Apollo’, the Greco-Roman deity that Nero Caesar closely identified with; the implication being the scene depicts Nero (the star) temporarily unleashing Roman forces (the locusts) on Jerusalem. The suggestion is difficult to substantiate, but fits well with the book’s symbolism so far if accurate.

The sixth trumpet doesn’t appear to be based on anything in particular from the Hebrew scriptures. Presumably, the bizarre mixture of details has some source, similar to the locust coming from Joel 1-2.

In biblical tradition, the Euphrates was seen as the utmost northern/eastern edge of the territory promised to Abraham (and allegedly filled that far under King Solomon). However, the picture we see here may instead come from the Nero Redivivus legend. The Roman emperor, Nero Caesar, was reviled in the years after his death. In AD 68 he was declared an enemy of Rome, but between his subsequent suicide and rushed funeral, rumors flew that he had actually escaped east, beyond the Euphrates to dwell among Rome’s most threatening enemy, Parthia. Or perhaps Nero had died, but would come back to life. In either case, it was said Nero would return from across the Euphrates to invade the Roman Empire with an army. This legend persisted for decades, with mixed reception among Christians. John doesn’t reference Nero’s death or alleged escape here, nor Parthia, nor even that the army of his vision is being led by an archetypal evildoer, but the detail of the army invading from across the Euphrates suggests John may have been aware of the Nero Redivivus legend.

Revelation 10

Similar to the intermission between the sixth and seventh seals (Revelation 7), the seventh trumpet is delayed by a vision of an angel. This angel is couched in language suggesting he is meant to be identified with the Messenger of Yahweh (the ‘Angel of the Lord’) seen in Exodus and other parts of the Hebrew bible.

John eats the scroll, described almost identically to Ezek 2-3, and is commanded to ‘prophesy’. Between the scenes in Revelation 5 and 10 — God gives the scroll to Jesus, Jesus opens the scroll and gives it to the angel, the angel gives it to John, John ingests it in order to ‘prophesy’ — we have a dramatic reenactment of the book’s very first two verses.

Revelation 11

Jerusalem’s temple is measured, similar to Ezek 40-48 and Zech 2. Temple symbolism was used to describe the Christian community in Rev 2-3, so this may be a continuation of that.

The two witnesses are overloaded with symbolism. In biblical tradition, ‘two witnesses’ is the minimum necessary to bring justified accusations against a sinner. The two olive trees and two lampstands come directly from Zech 4, where those symbols stood for Jeshua and Zerubbabel, the two leaders in charge of rebuilding Jerusalem’s temple (hence the measuring). The heavenly fire and drought recall Moses (enemy of Balak and Balaam) and Elijah (enemy of Jezebel). Their death in Jerusalem (‘where their Lord was crucified’), and resurrection and ascension to heaven, of course imitate Jesus. The two witnesses symbolize John and his fellow martyrs, as they ‘build the temple’ while suffering oppression from the two beasts and the prostitute Babylon.

The seventh trumpet follows the destruction of ‘the city’, probably again referring to Jerusalem (the only city mentioned thus far). If so, John likely has in mind Rome’s conquest of Jerusalem in AD 70. If this is the case it is interesting that the Revelation was almost certainly written after AD 70 (probably ‘published’ around AD 90-95), yet John sees the manifestation of God’s kingdom occur as a consequence of the city’s destruction.

Revelation 12

The woman is personified Israel. Her sun, moon, and twelve stars come from Gen 37.1-11, where the sun stands for Jacob/Israel, the moon for Joseph’s mother, and eleven stars for Joseph’s brothers. Israel’s pregnancy is drawn from Isa 26.17-18 and 66.7-9; John uses the pregnancy to signify Israel’s anticipation of the Messiah.

The satan’s symbolism as a seven-headed dragon ultimately comes from the ‘Combat Myth’ seen across the ancient Near East, including in the Hebrew bible. In this myth, a god (or multiple) battles against a beast or dragon which embodies chaos and uncreation; this chaos-monster is frequently associated with ‘the sea’ or ‘the deep’, is sometimes specified to have seven heads, and its death marks a major turning point of the setting; in the bible this is usually the creation of the material world, or a metaphor of exodus (cf. Isa 27.1; 51.9-11; Ezek 29.1-6; Psa 74.12-17; Job 26.13). As ‘the dragon’, the satan represents all chaos and disorder in the world.

The dragon’s tail throws one third of the stars to the earth. The picture is taken directly from the Book of Daniel. In that book, a goat throws some of the stars down to the earth and tramples them (Dan 8.10), signifying Antiochus Epiphanes’ religious persecution of Torah-observant Judeans in 167 BC (Dan 8.24). The specific occasion of persecution John has in mind, if any, is unknown.

The male child is a barely-symbolic representation of Jesus. The child’s rod of iron comes from Psa 2.

By this point, we have seen numbers equaling ‘three and a half’ a handful of times: the 42 months and the 1260 days (both 3.5 years) and the 3.5 days of the two witnesses’ deaths in the previous chapter, the 1260 days again here, and the phrase ‘time and times and half a time’ (one, two, and half). As with the appearance of the latter idiom in Dan 7, this period is largely seen as referring to the idea of a period of time cut short (i.e. half of ‘perfect’ seven): the two witnesses’ mission is cut short, their death is cut short, Israel’s period of protection is cut short. In other words, John here sees Israel receiving protection from ‘the dragon’ after Jesus’ ascension, but this protection will soon disappear.

Israel’s eagle-wings, which carry her to a protected place, comes from Exo 19.4.

This whole episode of the pregnant woman and the dragon is widely agreed to have been influenced by the Apollo and Python myth. In that story, the goddess Leto is pregnant with Apollo, and threatened by the dragon Python. Leto is flown to a place of safety to give birth, and Apollo returns to slay the monster. John has shaken out the Greek referents and replaced them with images from the Hebrew bible.

Revelation 13

The dragon summons a beast from the sea, the symbolism of which is a combination of the four monsters in Dan 7. Like the dragon, the beast has seven heads, and one of its heads was killed by a sword. The beast is the Roman Empire, the seven heads are seven of its emperors (cf. Revelation 17.10). The death of one of the heads is the death of Nero Caesar. The beast’s death-wound is restored, again alluding to the Nero Redivivus legend, but perhaps also intending Emperor Vespasian’s rescue of the Roman Empire from its near-collapse after Nero’s suicide.

The beast persecutes the saints, using phrasing taken directly from Dan 7. In parallel with the identical wording in Revelation 11, John probably has in mind the persecution of Christians by Nero first of all in the mid-60s AD, but a new surge in anti-Christian sentiment in Asia (i.e. Turkey) in the early-90s AD.

The second beast, called the first beast’s ‘false prophet’, is Rome’s emperor cult, which was growing rapidly in Asia in John’s time. The second beast directs the world to worship the first beast, which is tantamount to worship of the dragon; John sees Rome as a power of chaos and violence, and sees worship of Rome’s gods and emperors as the height of idolatry.

The mark of the beast is the beast’s name, and the number of that name, six hundred sixty six. This is a textbook case of what Judeans called ‘gematria’. Numerological symbolism of this sort was common in that time and place. John has taken the Greek word for ‘beast’ and the Greek spelling of ‘Nero Caesar’, and calculated each of their values with the Hebrew alphabet. Both equal six hundred sixty six. Although John is writing his book long after AD 70, he sees Nero as emblematic of the Roman Empire’s worst sins. Hence, ‘taking the mark’ is submitting to and becoming complicit in the idolatry of the emperor cult. The letter of a Roman authority who worked near John’s seven churches has survived; the man, Pliny, describes to Emperor Trajan how he executes Christians who refuse to participate in Rome’s religious system.

Revelation 14

Mount Zion, a hyperbolic ‘mountain’ representing Jerusalem and Israel, is found across the old prophets. The 144,000 Israelites which follow Jesus are called ‘firstfruits’; John anticipates more of his fellow Judeans to follow Jesus as the Messiah.

Babylon, which John has alluded to with his dependence on many passages in the Hebrew bible which discuss the ancient kingdom, is now named, but only briefly. ‘Babylon’ is seen as the object of divine punishment along with those complicit in the Roman Empire’s idolatry of the emperors. Despite common interpretation, the language John uses to describe this ‘divine punishment’ is not of eternal torment. He takes his phrasing from Jer 25 (the cup of wrath) and Isa 34 (fire, sulfur, smoke, ‘no rest’, ‘day or night’), two hyperbolic prophecies about God’s judgment on Jerusalem and Edom, respectively. Jerusalem ‘drinking the cup of wrath’ in particular is an explicitly earthly and temporary punishment in Jer 25.

The harvest, carried out by Jesus (as the crowned son of man, having received his kingdom), comes from a common image in the Hebrew bible.

The winepress as an image of divine wrath comes specifically from Lam 1.15, Isa 63.1-6, and Joel 3.11-15. In all three cases it’s an overt metaphor of (once again) a city or nation devastated by their enemies.

Revelation 15

The song of Moses and of the lamb’ is a stealth pun. ‘The lamb’ is Jesus, or in Hebrew ‘Joshua’. Hence, ‘the song of Moses and Joshua’, found in Deut 32. The short song in Revelation 15 is built out of individual lines from songs all across the Hebrew bible, including Deut 32.

Revelation 16

The seven bowls are described less than the seven seals or seven trumpets. The previous chapter states that ‘with [the bowls] the wrath of God is ended’. The seven bowls were limited to ‘fourths’; the seven trumpets in ‘thirds’; there is no such limitation on the seven bowls.

Several of them recycle the seven trumpets, likewise echoing the exodus. The first bowl matches the exodus plague of boils. The second and third bowls (as with the second and third trumpets) match the exodus plague of the Nile turning to blood. The fourth bowl, scorching heat, does not come from the exodus plagues, but does represent the inverse of the promise at the end of Revelation 7. The fifth bowl matches the exodus plague of darkness (like the fourth trumpet). John also identifies the object of these plagues as the beast’s kingdom (the Roman Empire). The sixth bowl matches the exodus plague of frogs. The seventh bowl matches the plague of hail (like the first trumpet).

The sixth bowl also mirrors the sixth trumpet, with armies coming from beyond the Euphrates. This would again recall the Nero Redivivus legend, except that John has the armies summoned by the Roman Empire and the emperor cult (instead of Nero as an enemy of Rome). They convene to battle at ‘Mount Megiddo’ (Hebrew ‘Har-Megiddo’, given in Greek as ‘Harmagedon’), a location which does not exist. It is apparently a mythologized form of the valley of Megiddo, a site of major battles in the Hebrew bible, and the nearby Mount Carmel, where Elijah confronted Jezebel’s prophets of Baal.

After the sixth bowl there is an interruption, as with the seals and trumpets. This one is brief, Jesus interjecting with statements taken from Revelation 2-3.

The seventh bowl completes the scene, bringing judgment on ‘Babylon’. Babylon was already said to have ‘fallen’ in Revelation 14. Here, Babylon falls again. John’s visions are on repeat, not unusual for apocalyptic literature (cf. Dan 7-12; 4 Ezra). John borrows from a handful of texts in the Hebrew bible: the cup of wrath again (Jer), the hyperbolic earthquake (Isa, Hag, etc.), mountains fleeing (Psa 114).

Revelation 17

John’s visions repeat again, now focusing directly on identifying Babylon. John says that Babylon ‘sits on seven hills’, and calls it ‘the great city’ which ‘rules over the kings of the earth’. Rome was known throughout the empire as ‘the city on seven hills’. And because of Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in AD 70, Rome became known as ‘Babylon’ in Judean apocalyptic thinking.

Babylon/Rome is called a ‘prostitute’ which seduces the world’s kings. Eventually, those same kings turn back on Babylon and destroy the city. The crude metaphor used for Jerusalem in Ezek 16 and 23, which John borrows from extensively. Also in the background are Nah 3.1-5 and Isa 23.17, where the powerful cities Nineveh and Tyre are compared to prostitutes.

As mentioned, John specifies that the beast’s seven heads stand for seven of its ‘kings’, the emperors. The first five have fallen, the sixth currently rules, the seventh will rule for a short time, and then an eighth king, ‘which was and is not’, will come and soon after be destroyed. Scholars still are unsure which emperors John has in mind, but it is widely thought this again alludes to the Nero Redivivus legend.

Revelation 18

The mourning for Babylon is heavily inspired by the rebuke-lament for Tyre in Ezek 26-28. Many of the descriptions for Babylon/Rome are adapted from across the prophets, especially the criticism of ancient Babylon by Jer 50-51 and Isa 56-66. Babylon’s self-claim of royalty and power echoes Jesus’ criticism of the seventh church back in Revelation 3. Rome takes on all the guilt for oppression of ‘prophets and saints and all who have been slain on the earth’, a hyperbolic phrase from Jer 51.49.

Revelation 19

Babylon’s downfall is described with the same metaphor in Revelation 14, the smoke rising forever, taken from Isa 34.9-10 and echoing Gen 19.24-28. This is not eternal torment, but the city’s abject destruction.

The wedding is a general idiom found in the prophets, as well as Jesus’ parables, and at least once in Paul’s letters. The ‘bride’ is the universal community of people who follow God, trust in Jesus as the Messiah, and live justly.

The rider of the white horse is introduced in a format similar to the first horseman of Revelation 6 (‘I looked, and behold, a white horse! Its rider ..., and he ...’). This is self-evidently a symbol for Jesus. His burning eyes are associated with divine wisdom and discernment, so that he may render justice against evil (cf. Revelation 2.18,23). The bloodied robe and winepress is again taken from Isa 63, the iron rod from Psa 2, the sword from Revelation 1.

The battle scene is almost identical to the destruction of Gog and Magog in Ezek 38-39, though John curiously avoids using those names.

The defeat of the two beasts is based on Dan 7’s fourth beast, but John has changed the river of fire into a lake, and the two beasts are thrown in alive instead of killed first.

Revelation 20

The dragon’s imprisonment in the abyss for a thousand years is John’s unique twist on the Combat Myth, but it has echoes of the imprisonment of the malicious angel Azael in the shadowy Desert of Dadouel in 1 Enoch or the imprisonment of sinful angels in Tartarus in 2 Pet 2.4.

The dragon’s imprisonment coincides with the two beasts’ punishment, and the dragon is specifically stated to be prevented from deceiving the world as was done before. John sees the downfall of the Roman Empire as, in whatever way, bringing about an age of where the pagan idolatry of the emperor cult is severely limited.

The thrones seated for judgment come from Dan 7.

The first resurrection is described in language taken straight from the Greek translation of Ezek 37’s ‘valley of dry bones’, a metaphoric passage about the return of the Judeans from their exile in Babylon. John’s ‘first resurrection’ is granted exclusively to those martyred by the beast, and their ‘reign with the Messiah’ is reminiscent of Christians co-ruling with Jesus in Eph 2.4-7.

The thousand years is apparently the duration of the ‘messianic kingdom’. Judean authorities at the time debated the length of the Messiah’s rule. Different versions of 4 Ezra state the Messiah would rule either for four hundred years or for one thousand years. Because John’s ‘millennium’ is embedded within his otherwise dense symbolism, it is debated whether he intends the thousand years to be understood ‘literally’ (the chiliast or millennial view) or also symbolically (the non-chiliast or amillennial view). The scene up to this point — multiple thrones for judgment, evil’s imprisonment for a thousand years, martyrs’ reward for a thousand years, followed by a general resurrection of the dead — is also vaguely reminiscent of a Greco-Roman idea of the afterlife promoted by Plato, where the ghosts of the dead stand before three thrones for judgment, with evil people sent to Tartarus for a thousand years, and good people sent to Elysium for a thousand years, after which they are reincarnated.

Gog and Magog from Ezekiel make an appearance here, plainly representing a worldwide opposition to followers of Jesus.

The punishment of the dragon in the lake of fire, along with the two beasts, is stated to be ‘torment, day and night, forever and ever’. This is the same language from Isa 34 John used earlier to signify the complete destruction of Babylon/Rome, but it seems to imply eternal torment here. Such an interpretation, however, is difficult because the two beasts are not persons which can suffer torment, but an empire and its religious cult.

The final judgment (which actually concludes in 21.8, not 20.15) again picks up from Dan 7, and mixes in Dan 12. The picture of the final judgment and the resurrection resulting in the elimination of ‘death and Sheol’ has broad similarities to sayings from Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, but expresses a near-identical theology to 1 Cor 15.21-28.

Judgment according to works is a universal biblical theme. The same or similar phrasing is found in the Gospels and Paul’s letters.

The second death is a phrase that seems to have entered Judean theology in the last couple centuries BC. It is found in Aramaic translation-paraphses of Isa, Jer, and the Psalms. In those texts the phrase is usually interpreted to imply ‘annihilationism’ (with one text implying otherwise), though even that is thrown into doubt in the next chapter.

Revelation 21

The new heavens and earth comes from Isa 65.17.

The disappeared sea is likely an indirect use of the Combat Myth; the chaos-monsters are gone, and now so is the sea they came from.

The new Jerusalem, mentioned briefly in Revelation 2-3, descends from heaven. There is a long tradition in Judean literature of an idealized Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile, possibly originating in Ezekiel 40-48, which John lightly borrows from. In some apocalyptic literature, the ‘true’ Jerusalem was associated with paradise, and was thought to be hidden away in heaven. In Gal 4.21-31, Paul wrote about ‘the Jerusalem above’, and Heb 12.22 mentions the ‘heavenly Jerusalem’. John contrasts this idealized Jerusalem to the corruption of Rome, the ‘bride’ set against the ‘prostitute’. Heb 13.14 does something similar, saying ‘we seek the city that is to come’ (heavenly Jerusalem), as opposed to the ‘lasting city’ people claim to have (a jab at Rome, ‘the eternal city’).

God dwelling among humans’ is an idiom seen throughout the Hebrew bible, used to describe the intimate presence of God with Israel, usually in association with the tabernacle or Jerusalem temple. Early Christians identified their universal community as a spiritualized ‘temple’, and so applied the idiom to their community to indicate that God’s spirit lived in them (cf. 2 Cor 6.16-18; Eph 2.19-22). John here uses the idiom for the new Jerusalem, imposing temple imagery on the city.

The gems which make the city’s foundations are extremely similar to the Greek translation of the gemstones embedded in the high priest’s garb in Exo 28.15-21, again invoking temple-related imagery. The description of a new Jerusalem built out of gold and gemstones is seen in Isa 54.11-12 and Tobit 13.16. The city’s glory is compared to ‘a jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal’, echoing God’s throne-room in Revelation 4.

John breaks with earlier ‘new Jerusalem’ traditions, though, when he explicitly states that there is no temple in his vision.

The kings of the earth’ lead the nations to enter the always-open gates of the city, and darkness never falls on the city. The images all come from Isa 60. John’s specification here of ‘the kings of the earth’ by that exact phrase is noteworthy; he does not get the phrase from Isa 60, but from Psa 2, where they represent the enemies of the king of Israel. John has used Psa 2 throughout the Revelation, and every other instance of the phrase identifies ‘the kings of the earth’ as allies of the beast, or as objects of divine wrath. For John to now describe those same ‘kings of the earth’ which had earlier been punished as enemies, entering a city which requires repentance first, is a genuine twist that implies a possible ‘universalist’ slant to the book’s ending.

Revelation 22

The river and trees come most directly from Ezek 47.1-12, but also echo Zech 14.8 and Joel 3.17-18, and of course Gen 2.

No curse will be found anymore’ is identical to a phrase in the Greek translation of Zech 14.11, though with a more intensive form of the word ‘curse’.

John reiterates the first paragraph of the Revelation: the time is near, the fulfillment is soon, keep the words of the prophecy, God made it known through Jesus by sending an angel to John to tell the saints.

Water as a free gift is based on Isa 55.11.

Come Lord’ was evidently a creedal prayer, inviting Jesus to make his appearance from heaven. John’s phrase comes from the Aramaic term ‘Maranatha’, found in 1 Cor 16.22 and the Didache (a manual for Christian converts that possibly dates to the same time period).