by Ed Gallagher
Revelation can be an intimidating book. In a brief Bible class covering the entire book for a survey of the New Testament, the teacher cannot accomplish much. The main goals, I think, should be to convince the student (1) to read the book, often; (2) that the purpose of the symbols is not to disguise the meaning of the book but to reveal it; and (3) that main point of the book is to get Christians to resist conformity to the world, even at the cost of their lives, and therein to follow Jesus, the Lion of Judah, the slaughtered Lamb.
What is Revelation about? (Students might suggest all kinds of answers to this question. The best sorts of answers revolve around how the book shows that God or Jesus, despite appearances, wins in the end. The worst sorts of answers use newspaper headlines to interpret the book.)
Read 1:1–3. The book identifies itself as a revelation of Jesus Christ. What does that mean? A ‘revelation’ is an ‘unveiling’, like pulling back the curtain to reveal what’s really going on. John wants us to understand that the world has been hoodwinked, that the “man behind the curtain” is a dragon, that the lifestyle promoted by this dragon leads only to the lake of fire, that victory comes in following the lamb. In order to reveal this message, John uses powerful symbols to help his readers recalibrate their vision. We sometimes complain about the symbols because they are difficult to understand, but the symbols are essential to what John is trying to do, because he wants us to understand that the controlling forces in this world are not cute and cuddly but are in fact terrible beasts, and that God’s power is expressed through the slain lamb. These powerful symbols are intended to reshape our understanding of the world. (More reflections on Revelation’s symbolism here.)
Revelation is not about the future, it is not about the past, it is about us, the here-and-now, and our world. Having said that, it was originally meaningful to Christians in Asia Minor in the first century, and keeping that fact in mind will help us follow the plot of the book.
Read 1:12–20. Who is the person John sees? How do you know? The person is obviously Jesus, since he was dead and now lives forever. How does Jesus appear to John? What does he look like? See 1:13–16. We could think about each of the symbols describing his appearance, such as the sword emerging from his mouth (1:16), and what each thing represents. Or we could recognize the impression the appearance makes: Jesus looks intimidating, scary even. Why do you think that is? The goal of this vision is to help Christians realize how powerful Jesus is, and this appearance of Jesus contributes toward that end. Caesar is not nearly as intimidating as Jesus. After all, Jesus is “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). What do the stars and lampstands represent? Jesus says that the stars are the “angels of the seven churches” and the lampstands are the churches. What are “angels of churches? Nobody knows. Maybe a guardian angel for a church? Maybe a messenger for a church? But churches (lampstands) we do understand, and it is significant that Jesus is standing among the lampstands (1:13).
Read the letters to the seven churches (chs. 2–3). What are some common elements from these letters? They all begin similarly and end similarly. The beginning identifies Jesus in some way as the source of the message, and the ending promises blessing to those who “overcome.” What does “overcoming” mean in the context of Revelation? See 2:10. Christians are called to conquer in the same way that Jesus conquered. How did Jesus conquer? He died, and thereby obtained eternal life. And he promises the same to those who follow in his steps. It’s the same message as Mark 8:34–38. Read Rev 5:5–12. How did the lamb conquer?
Read ch. 4. What is the message of this vision? (Students might have different answers.) In heaven, all things praise the one on the throne. Everyone is in harmony. There is no dissent. God’s will is done. (More reflections here.) Is this true on earth? Of course not.
Read 21:1–8. What is happening in this passage? The book of Revelation reveals how what is true in heaven in ch. 4 becomes true on the (new) earth.
Read ch. 13. How many beasts are in this passage? There are two beasts: one from the sea (13:1) and one from the earth (13:11). What is the job of the earth beast? The earth beast gives glory to the sea beast, causing people to worship the sea beast (13:12). Where does the sea beast get its power? From the dragon (= Satan; 13:2; cf. 12:9). What do these beasts represent? Here is where the Old Testament can help us. There is a similar vision in Daniel 7, where an angel tells Daniel that the beasts represent kingdoms or kings (Dan 7:17). Revelation uses the same imagery; the sea beast is a kingdom. What kingdom? Notice that the beast utters haughty and blasphemous words (13:5), it conquers the saints (13:7), it has authority over every nation (13:7), and people think that no one can defeat the beast (13:4). In the first century, only one kingdom fit those descriptions: Rome. And if the sea beast is Rome, then the earth beast, that makes everyone worship Rome, is probably the priesthood of the imperial cult. Roman emperors, especially after their deaths, were considered to be divine and deserving of worship. Worshipping the emperors—perhaps in the form of a libation offering—was considered a part of civic duty, national pride. Sometimes you might even receive a certificate marking you as having performed this civic action.
What is the mark of the beast? It is the sign that the Roman citizen has performed worship of the beast. John says that the number is 666. Using gematria, in which the letters of the alphabet stand for numbers, 666 is the number for Caesar Nero, famous as a cruel tyrant, who was (like Elvis) rumored in the late first century to be not really dead. (That probably explains the references to the mortal wound that’s healed; 13:3, etc.) (For more on the Mark of the Beast, listen to this podcast with Marc Goodacre, and read this brief online article by David deSilva.)
How long will the beast reign? 42 months (13:5). Like everything in Revelation, this is a symbolic number, symbolizing a short period of time. (Remember, in ch. 20, Christ reigns for a thousand years; 42 months is nothing.) The reign of the beast might seem long, especially when he is slaughtering God’s people, but this vision assures John’s readers that it will not last forever. What is of utmost importance is that they not get the beast’s mark, meaning that they refuse to worship the beast, even if it costs them their lives. (See again 2:10.) Those who get the beast’s mark think that they have it made, but the next chapter reveals the truth. Those who refuse the beast’s mark are the 144,000—another symbolic number (12,000 from each tribe)—who represent the army of the Lamb, and they have God’s mark (name) on their foreheads (14:1–2). Though the beast may have killed them, ultimately they win, along with the victorious Lamb.
John’s vision is designed to help us see the world in a new way, sort of like Neo figuring out what Agent Smith really is, and how to defeat him.
What we are supposed to learn is that the kingdoms of the world are not really on our side, they do not offer us protection, and that conformity to their system is rebellion against God. And while it might look like the beast is in control, it really only looks like the beast has all-power in chapter 13. But we have already seen in chapter 4 that the One seated on the throne is really in charge of everything, and we see in chapter 14 and throughout the rest of the book the victory of the Slaughtered Lamb and his army of people who willingly suffer martyrdom rather than receive the Beast’s mark. Revelation is a difficult book, not just because of the symbols, but much more for what it calls on Christians to do: imitate Christ. And in the end, in the new heaven and new earth, “they shall reign with him forever and ever” (22:5).
Additional Questions for Discussion
Why do you think Rome is represented as a beast?
Why do you think Satan is represented as a dragon?
How do these symbols reorient the way readers see the world?
What do you think the effect is of starting this vision in heaven (ch. 4)? How does that vision set the tone for the book?
Reflect on the depictions of Jesus in chapter 5, as a lion and as a lamb. What do these depictions mean? How do they help us understand Jesus?
Since Revelation is often intimidating to teach at church, I have included here more videos than normal, all of which provide quick overviews. You might want to show some of these videos in class. We start with the Bible Project.
The rest of these videos all feature fairly well-known New Testament scholars discussing Revelation. Here’s a 25-min. video with Ian Paul.
This one with Ben Witherington is 6:30-min.
This one has Ben Witherington and Richard Bauckham. Anything Richard Bauckham says is worth hearing, especially on the book of Revelation. The video is 8-min.
And here’s N. T. Wright (you’ve heard of him, haven’t you?) giving a 90-min. lecture on Revelation.