The Apocalypse of John, also known as the Book of Revelation, has confused and confounded Christians since the first century. We can see a surprising example of its somewhat mixed reception through writings of the church father, Eusebius. At the Council of Nicea, Eusebius asked the various bishops present which books made up their canon of Scripture. The books which were unanimously endorsed were put into one category, while the books which were not unanimously accepted were put into another category. Revelation merited a category of its own by being claimed as both canonical and spurious!
In our own time, the mixed reception of Revelation has been testified to by theologians and laypeople, orthodox clergy, and cult leaders alike. One of the reasons why I think the book has received such skepticism and contempt is because the language and imagery are notoriously difficult to comprehend. However, I would also say that one of the ways to begin to unveil the mystery surrounding the book is actually quite simple. This first step is quite plainly to read Revelation in light of the Old Testament.
When Revelation’s words read against their original context, old meaning and new meaning are simultaneously brought to light as language and imagery is translated from the Old Testament to the New.
One of the reasons why there are so many scattered opinions about the book is because readers are not firmly rooted in the language and imagery of the Old Testament. Even though there are no direct quotations from the Old Testament in Revelation itself, almost a fifth of the book’s wording is stolen directly from the first 17 books of the Bible. When Revelation’s words read against their original context, old meaning and new meaning are simultaneously brought to light as language and imagery is translated from the Old Testament to the New.
One of the very first things that we see when Revelation is held up to the Old Testament is it’s genre. Knowing the genre of any given piece of literature helps set expectations for how a work should be read, what statements one can expect to find within, common literary devices to be on the lookout for, etc. The genre of Revelation is twofold.
First, we encounter Revelation with Old Testament eyes as a prophetic book. John follows a long prophetic tradition that encompasses great men like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The readers can expect to see the prophet (John) prophesying to the people of his day (the seven churches of Asia) both the positive and negative judgments of God. The word of God concerning both the present and the future will be declared to the people, usually indicating present woes (the call to repentance) but also future joys (absolution).
A perfect example of John’s continuation of this tradition is his famous oracle against Babylon in chapters 18 and 19, which echoes the oracles against Babylon and Tyre in content, style, and wording that are found in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. One notable difference in the prophetic tradition is that John writes after the coming of Christ and therefore looks forward more directly to the second coming of Christ, judgment day.
A second genre we also recognize from the Old Testament is that of apocalyptic literature. Revelation stands in the tradition of canonical books like Daniel and Ezekiel. By “apocalyptic,” I mean that John is revealing God’s hidden work on earth and in heaven on our behalf and describing ultimate reality. Put another way, John is giving us a “God’s-eye-view” of what is going on and how everything will eventually come to an end. This peeking behind the curtain into the transcendent reality of God is very clearly signaled in Revelation by John’s appearing before the throne room of God - a scene which has its roots in Daniel and Ezekiel where the seer is taken out of his worldview and placed into God’s worldview (Ez 1:26/ Dn 7:9).
Because of the radically new and divine perspective being presented, apocalyptic literature is given to use figures of speech, metaphors, and symbolic language/numbers extremely freely as opposed to literal narrative and should be read with this in mind. In addition to giving the readers a different perspective on their day-to-day experience, apocalyptic literature seeks to answer a question borne from the spiritual attack and suffering experienced in this broken world: who is Lord over the world? This question was painfully present among those who were being exiled to Babylon in Daniel’s day, and this question was equally acute for those Christians in John’s day under the Roman Empire.
These two genres and the Old Testament books that accompany them determine both the broader strokes and the finer details of the book. John has a wealth of images, descriptions, and stories to pull from within the older prophetic and apocalyptic books of Scripture. John even takes imagery from the culture and pagan mythology of his day as the Old Testament prophets did (Is 27:1). The popular mythological figures of the sea serpent or the dragon feature prominently in John’s description of the forces of evil forces and the devil (Rev 12:7). An even greater example of John’s use of the Old Testament and present-day images is his description of the seven trumpets and the seven bowls.
John is giving us a “God’s-eye-view” of what is going on and how everything will eventually come to an end.
In this highly schematized description of destruction and death, John draws together the evocative images of the plagues of Egypt, the Exodus, the fall of Jericho under Joshua, the army of locusts described in Joel, the appearance of God on Mt. Sinai, the contemporary invasion of the Parthian empire, the earthquakes that plagued the cities of Asia Minor, and even the eruption of Vesuvius. Together, these images form the worst fears of the past and the present blown up to apocalyptic proportions to show how great and awesome God’s judgment will be. The bowls and trumpets of judgment end climatically in Revelation with the destruction of Babylon (Rev 20:9) which echoes further the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gn 19:24) so that the final image of judgment and hell is of a city like Sodom sunken in an eternally burning, sulphuric, smoking lake of fire (Rev 20:14).
Reading Revelation in light of the Old Testament has the effect of creating a perpetually new book. Every time you open it, new connections, allusions, and images jump off the page, causing further wonder and appreciation for the book. As that wonder and appreciation grow, so does our hope and trust in God as we see more clearly who is, indeed, Lord over all. We see Christ seated on the throne as Lord (Rev 4:2). He is the lamb who was slain (Rev 5:6), but he is also the lamb who has conquered all our foes by this death. We see the new heavens and the new earth coming soon where God will dwell among men once again (Rev 21:1). He will be their God, and they will be his people. And he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more. There will be no more pain, no more crying for the former things will have passed away (Rev 21:4). And we behold finally that in Christ our King all things are made new.