The Thousand Years in Revelation 20

One of the most peculiar (and controversial) elements of the visions in the book of Revelation is the period of a “thousand years” (xi/lia e&th) in chapter 20, and how it functions within the eschatological framework of the book’s visionary narrative. Unfortunately, this single visionary detail has taken on a life of its own in Christian thought as “the Millennium”, serving as a magnet for all kinds of eschatological ideas and theories, most of which are far-removed from the specific references in Revelation 20. Actually, the visions in chapter 20 really do not describe what is supposed to take place during these “thousand years”; rather, the numerical time-period functions primarily as a chronological delineating point, marking two important events or developments within the narrative:

    1. The time during which the Satan is bound and held in prison-guard beneath the earth (vv. 2-3, 7)
    2. The time during which believers—especially those who were put to death during the period of distress—will reign (as king) with the exalted Christ (vv. 4-6)

What is most curious is the release of the Satan that is to occur at the end of the thousand years (vv. 7ff). Following the defeat of the nations and the forces of evil in the great Judgment, and the establishment of the kingdom of Christ over all the earth, this second defeat/judgment of the nations, etc, is altogether unexpected and difficult to explain. Cf. the recent notes on vv. 7-10ff for further discussion.

Part of the explanation surely has to do with the complex network of images, symbols, and traditions that the visions employ, whereby the same basic event or time-period—such as the end-time period of distress or the Judgment of the nations—is described and depicted multiple times, often with overlapping sets of symbols. In some instances, the nature of the eschatological traditions themselves, and how they are used in the book, results in apparent inconsistencies and tensions within the narrative.

Background of the Motif: Two Lines of Tradition

What of this idea of the “thousand years”? The two specific details associated with it—the binding of the Satan and the reign of believers with Christ—suggest that two lines of tradition inform its meaning and purpose:

    1. The idea of a future ‘Golden Age’ on earth, free from suffering and hardship, etc, and
    2. The restoration of the Israelite kingdom under the Davidic Messiah

Let us consider each of these, in turn.

1. A Future Golden Age

The idea of a “Golden Age” past, and to which humankind might return in the future, is found in many cultures worldwide. It generally reflects the people’s hopes and aspirations for a better future, to see a realization of their finest ideals, throughout society and the world at large. Most systems of eschatology draw upon this religious-cultural tendency, based upon two fundamental premises: (1) the current Age is particularly corrupt and decadent, and (2) the new/coming Age will right these wrongs and bring about (or restore) a time of peace and happiness, etc. This distinction between the current Age and the coming Age may be understood in either a linear or cyclical sense (cf. further below).

In the Old Testament Prophets, and elsewhere in the Scriptures, there is evidence of this “Golden Age” idea—the hope and promise of an idealized time on earth, a period of peace and prosperity, health and long-life, and so forth. Of the many passages and references, we may note the following: Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:6-9; 32:15-20; chap. 35; 65:20-25; 66:12; Hosea 2:18; Amos 9:13-15; Joel 2:22-23ff; 3:18; Jer 31:12ff; Ezek 28:26; 34:25-29. Interestingly, this “Golden Age” imagery is not mentioned in Revelation 20, but is reserved for the depiction of the “New Jerusalem” in chaps. 21-22; however, the fact that the Satan is bound and imprisoned during the “thousand years” suggests, at least, an absence of evil and wickedness.

2. The Restored Israelite Kingdom under the Messiah

Most of the “Golden Age” references in the Prophets (cf. above) relate specifically to the idea of the return of Israel to her land, following the Exile. In their original context, these passages are not eschatological per se, but anticipate a restoration that will take place in the near future. However, as the glories of this return were only partially realized at the time, the prophecies came to be applied to things which were yet to occur, sometime in the more distant future. In turn, this fed into the Jewish eschatology and Messianic expectations of the first centuries B.C./A.D.; particularly important were those ‘restoration’ prophecies that were tied to the idea of a future ruler from the line of David—i.e. the Messianic figure-type of the Davidic ruler (for an extensive discussion on this type, cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). The most significant such prophecies would be: Isaiah 11:1-9; 32:1ff; Amos 9:11-15; Jer 33:15-16; Ezek 34:23-29; Zech 9:9-10—all passages which blend “Golden Age” images with the idea of an Israelite restoration under a (Davidic) king. On the eschatological dimension to the Kingdom-concept, see esp. Part 5 of “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Developments in Jewish Eschatology and Apocalyptic

If the book of Revelation drew upon the two lines of tradition highlighted above, it is not surprising that other Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic writings of the period (i.e. the first centuries B.C./A.D.) did much the same. That the rule established by the Davidic Messiah was to be a “Golden Age” of peace and prosperity (for Israel), following the prophetic traditions of Isa 11:1-9 and Psalm 2, etc, is clear from the famous passage in the Psalms of Solomon 17:21-32 (written in the mid-1st century B.C.).

Probably the earliest systematic treatment of the Golden Age and Messianic Kingdom themes is the so-called “Apocalypse of Weeks” portion of the book of Enoch (1 Enoch 93:3-10; 91:12-17). It presents human and Israelite history as a series of seven “weeks”; beginning with the time of justice and righteousness, each week that follows becomes increasingly corrupt and wicked, until the completely evil and faithless generation of the seventh week (93:9). The eighth week (91:12ff) then will see a restoration of righteousness, with Judgment executed against the wicked, and a time of rule for the righteous/Elect, along with a period of peace and prosperity for humankind (vv. 13-14). Then, in vv. 16-17 there is reference to the creation of a “new heaven and new earth”, just as in Rev 21:1 after the “thousand years”.

In the Enochic work known as 2 Enoch (or “Slavonic Enoch”), perhaps written in the late-first century A.D., human history is divided into a similar “eight-day” sequence, each of which is said to last for a thousand years. The eighth, or last, of these broadens out to become an eternal period of endless/numberless years (32:2-33:1). From roughly same time (and contemporary with the book of Revelation) is the Apocalypse of Baruch (2 Baruch), which has a much more complex and multifaceted eschatology. Like the book of Revelation, 2 Baruch expounds a basic eschatological framework, repeating it, with variations, throughout multiple visions. It is a standard three-part framework: (1) a period of increasing wickedness and distress, culminating in the rise of an evil/demonic tyrant, (2) God’s Judgment on the wicked/nations, and (3) a New Age of peace and prosperity (for the righteous), associated with the reign of the Messiah. Just as in the book of Revelation, the first two parts are presented more frequently, though 2 Baruch describes the future Golden Age in a way that Revelation does not. The main passages are:

    • 29:3-30:1—The time of prosperity is represented by the extraordinary fruitfulness of the earth, with thousand-fold increases on the vine, etc (vv. 5-6). The resurrection of the righteous follows this age of plenty (30:2ff); in the book of Revelation, this precedes the thousand years, though the general resurrection (i.e. of the wicked) follows it (20:11ff).
    • 40:1-4—The reign of the Messiah is described, briefly, in more traditional terms—i.e., the protection and preservation of his people (the righteous of Israel).
    • 72:2-74:3—This is the most extensive description of the Messianic Kingdom, set in the context of the Judgment of the nations (chap. 72). Following this, in chaps. 73-74, an idyllic world of peace and prosperity is described, alluding to a number of the Old Testament traditions and passages cited above.

In the work known as 2 (or 4) Esdras (also referred to as 4 Ezra), the core of which is Jewish and written in the late-1st century A.D., a ‘Messianic Age’ is referenced in a more precise eschatological (and chronological) context. The key passage is 7:26-30, where the Messiah (also called God’s “son”) appears, ushering in a period of joy for the faithful ones of Israel that will last four hundred years (v. 28). As in the “thousand years” of Rev 20, nothing much is said of what occurs during this period; however, what follows it is most striking, as 2/4 Esdras blends together two distinct eschatological events, or themes—(a) the dissolution of the world at the end of the Age (v. 30), and (b) the resurrection of the dead (v. 31). It is a resurrection of righteous and wicked both, followed by the final Judgment (vv. 32-35ff), described in terms similar to Rev 20:11-15. Curiously, after the 400-year Messianic Age, the Messiah himself dies, along with all of humankind (v. 29), part of the complete dissolution of world at the end of the Age (cf. further below).

The Symbolism of a Thousand

The eschatological significance of a thousand, as a symbolic number, was also well-established in Judaism by the time the book of Revelation was composed. As was noted in 2 Enoch 32:2-33:1 above, a thousand years could serve as a way of dividing human history, into periods (“weeks” or “days”), paralleling the seven days of creation. Early Christians came to do much the same thing, utilizing a synchronic principle similar to that expressed in 2 Peter 3:8 (cf. Psalm 90:4), though it is not specifically attested until the second century A.D. (Epistle of Barnabas 15; Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.28.3).

However, more generally in Israelite and Old Testament tradition, a thousand simply represents a large number, as well as symbolizing fullness and completeness—cf. Deut 1:11; 7:9; Psalm 84:10; 105:8; Isa 7:23, etc. Rarely, if ever, in such instances is a “thousand” meant to be taken as an exact number, and, in the book of Revelation, it is unquestionably symbolic, wherever a thousand (or multiples of a thousand) are used (7:3-8; 14:1, 3; 21:16). The use a thousand to represent a long period of time is not at all common in the Old Testament, but is a natural application of the general symbolism, as in Jubilees 23:27 where a thousand years represents the ideal life span (cp. the life-spans approaching 1,000 in Genesis 5; 9:29).

Application in the Book of Revelation

It is clear that the book of Revelation shares many features and traditions in common with other eschatological and apocalyptic works of the period, such as 1 Enoch, 2 Baruch, and 2/4 Esdras (cf. above). The following parallels are especially worth noting:

    • In 1 Enoch 91:12-17, the “eighth week”, a period of peace and rule by the righteous/Elect, is followed by the creation of a “new heaven and new earth” —compare with Rev 20:4-6; 21:1
    • In 2 Baruch 72-74, a Messianic Kingdom follows the Judgment of the nations; while in chap. 30, the resurrection follows this Golden Age—this is generally the same eschatological narrative pattern in Revelation 20.
    • In 2/4 Esdras 7:26-30ff, the appearance of the Messiah ushers in a period of 400 years of joy for the righteous, followed by the resurrection and the final Judgment—compare with Rev 20:4-6, 11-15.

Part of what complicates these eschatological scenarios is that they involve three different (and distinct) conceptions of the future Age to Come:

    • An idealized continuation of the current life on earth (i.e. the Golden Age, cf. above)
    • The blessed/heavenly afterlife for the righteous, having passed through the Judgment, and
    • The dissolution of the world, followed by a new creation.

All of these are attested in Jewish eschatology, as well as in other ancient systems of eschatology. While not necessarily incompatible, they are different enough that, if treated with excessive literalism, they can be almost impossible to harmonize. This is part of the difficulty with interpreting the final chapters of the book of Revelation, as the visions in chaps. 19-22 combine and blend together all three ways of understanding the Age to Come. Even in chapter 20 there is some ambiguity—do the resurrected believers rule on earth, or in heaven? The immediate context of the narrative indicates a location on earth, and yet the parallels with chapter 19 rather suggests they are with the exalted Jesus in heaven. Probably, in terms of the overall visionary symbolism of book, both aspects—earthly and heavenly—are intended.

Consider, for example, the previous scenes where the righteous (believers) gather together with the exalted Jesus, and his kingship/rule is emphasized:

    • In 7:9-17 the multitude of believers (the people of God) stands before the Lamb—this clearly takes place in heaven, before the throne of God, and yet in the earlier vv. 1-8, the emphasis is on believers (the 144,000) on earth during the period of distress.
    • In the vision of 14:1-5, the 144,000 gather with the Lamb on Mount Zion—taken literally, this refers to a location on earth (the ancient Temple site of Jerusalem); however, as a symbol, it more properly represents a heavenly reality (i.e. the ‘Temple’ or dwelling of God in heaven).
    • Again, the vision in 15:2-4 is of the people of God (believers) in heaven, emphasizing that the true location of the Tent/Temple of God (and of Jerusalem/Zion) is heavenly.

In a sense, these two aspects of the people of God, and their place alongside the exalted Jesus, are kept separate (though connected) throughout the visions. However, in chapters 21-22 (to be discussed in detail in the continuing daily notes on Revelation), the heavenly and earthly aspects finally merge together, and are united, beginning with the opening words of 21:1: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth…”. Especially powerful is the unforgettable image of the heavenly city of Jerusalem coming down to earth to become the new Jerusalem (vv. 2ff). The merging/uniting of heavenly and earthly is described in detail, and beautifully, in chapters 21-22, drawing upon a rich array of Old Testament and Jewish traditions.

An Earthly Kingdom?

Many commentators take for granted that the thousand-year period in Revelation 20 refers to an earthly kingdom—that is, to a concrete Messianic kingdom established on earth, in which Christ and the saints govern the nations (20:4-6). As I noted above, the immediate narrative context of the chapter would tend to support this, as do the Jewish traditions regarding the Messianic Kingdom referenced above. However, the precise situation of the visionary narrative in chap. 20 is by no means as clear as many commentators assume.

When we turn to the New Testament as a whole (and its eschatology), there is actually very little evidence supporting the idea of a Messianic kingdom on earth. The question posed by Jesus’ disciples in Acts 1:6 certainly evinces this traditional expectation, as, we may assume, does the response by the crowds in the scene of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem (Mark 11:7-10 par, cp. John 6:15). Moreover, by all accounts, Jesus’ death was based on the charge that he had claimed (and/or was considered by some to be) the “king of the Jews” (Mark 15:2ff, 26 par). However, in Jesus’ response to the aforementioned question by the disciples (Acts 1:7-8), while he does not reject the traditional concept of the Messianic kingdom outright, he clearly points his disciples (and all future believers) in a different direction, a very different way of understanding the Kingdom—one based on the proclamation of the Gospel and the presence and work of the Spirit.

In point of fact, the idea of a Messianic kingdom on earth would seem to be almost entirely absent from the earliest Christian eschatology. I find little or no trace of it in Paul’s letters. In 1 Thess 4:13-18, the scenario he describes is of believers (both those currently alive and those who have died) being gathered to Jesus at his end-time return and taken up with him into heaven. In this regard, he is almost certainly following early Christian (and Gospel) tradition (Mark 13:26-27 par, etc; compare John 14:1-4, and other passages). Within his discussion at 1 Cor 6:1-7ff, Paul does make reference to believers in ruling positions as judges (vv. 2-3), however this seems to be part of the heavenly Judgment scene, and not of a kingdom set up on earth. Some have suggested that 1 Cor 15:24-28 refers to something like Rev 20:4-6, but, apart from the general idea of the supreme rule/authority of the exalted Christ (over all things), I see no real indication that Paul has in mind a specific period of rule on earth.

Outside of Rev 20:4-6 itself, the only other passage, in my view, which could conceivably refer to the traditional idea of a Messianic kingdom on earth, is the saying (or sayings) of Jesus in Matthew 19:28 / Luke 22:28-30, in which he promises his faithful disciples (the Twelve?) that they will sit on thrones judging the tribes of Israel. It is not clear whether these two passages represent separate traditions or variations on the same (historical) tradition, set in different narrative locations. Most critical commentators would opt for the latter view, but the matter is far from certain. The Lukan context of the Last Supper, with its connection to Jesus’ statement in 22:18 par, suggests that the place of Judgment is to be understood as in heaven, not on earth. The context of Matt 19:28, involving the promise of reward in compensation for what the disciples have given up on earth, could more plausibly seen as referring to an earthly kingdom. However, the primary contrast in the passage overall is between earthly things and eternal life (i.e. with God in heaven); moreover, the setting of the saying in v. 28 is clearly that of the resurrection, which, according to most lines of tradition (and certainly in early Christian tradition), involves a transport/translation to heaven. Some commentators, accepting this fact, would claim that, after having been taken up to heaven with Jesus, believers will return with him to earth, where the earthly Messianic Kingdom will be established. Apart from the possible allusion to this in Rev 17:14 (cf. also 19:14), the idea is scarcely to be found in the New Testament, and is more reflective of our desire to harmonize the various eschatological passages.

The book of Revelation does draw upon this same idea of believers acting in positions of rule and judgment; indeed, the statement in 2:26-28 is quite similar in tone and substance to Jesus’ saying in Luke 22:28-30 par (cf. also 3:21). However, in these references, the implication is of a heavenly/eternal (not earthly) reward for believers’ faithfulness. There is similar imagery attached to the “Elders” in 4:4, 10; 11:16; the precise interpretation of this symbolism remains debated, but I understand these “Elders” to represent the People of God in their heavenly aspect, the number 24 perhaps meant to allude to the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles (12 x 12, cp. 21:12-14). In any case, the setting of those visions is in heaven, not on earth. Only in 20:4-6 is there any indication that an earthly kingdom is in view, and that believers will have positions of rule there along with Jesus.

Chiliasm

The term “Chiliasm” derives from the Greek xi/lioi (chílioi, “thousand[s]”), referring specifically to the “thousand years” (xi/lia e&th) in Revelation 20. It has come to be a technical term for those who interpret these “thousand years” in a concrete, literal sense—if not a period of exactly 1,000 years, at least a real (and lengthy) period of time during which the Messianic Kingdom will be established on earth. That Rev 20:4-6 refers to an earthly kingdom would be a basic tenet of Chiliasm.

Throughout history, Christian commentators have been rather evenly divided on whether to understand the “thousand years” (and the Messianic reign) in a literal (i.e. Chiliastic) or figurative sense. That is to say, whether it represents a concrete period of rule on earth, or should be understood in a spiritual sense. The earliest evidence from the second century, what little we have, tends toward Chiliasm. According to Eusebius, in his Church History (3.39.1, 12), Papias (who died c. 130) believed that, after the resurrection, Christ would establish a kingdom that would be characterized by attributes of the “Golden Age” (cf. above), i.e. a time of lavish fruitfulness and prosperity (cp. 2 Baruch 29:5-7). Justin Martyr (writing c. 150-160) appears to have taken the “thousand years” more or less literally, anticipating the ‘Dispensationalist’ line of interpretation by setting the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies (such as Ezek 40-48; Isa 54:11-12; 60:1-3ff; and Zech 14:7-8) in the Millennium (Dialogue with Trypho 80-81). Later in the century, Irenaeus, in his Against Heresies, shows a similar (Chiliastic) view of the thousand years, similarly anticipating Dispensationalist thought in the way he divides history into distinct thousand-year periods (4.20.11; 5.28.3, 30.4; cp. Epistle of Barnabas 15, and the Jewish passages cited above). For a good, convenient survey of the history of interpretation, see Koester, Revelation (Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A), pp. 741-50.

Conclusion

Given the nature of the symbolism in the book of Revelation, the “thousand years” cannot be taken literally as referring to a period of exactly 1,000 years; that is out of the question. However, in the normal and traditional sense of the symbolism, referring simply to a long period of time—and one that is full and complete—it certainly can be understood as a period of rule on earth. The earthly location of 20:4-6 would have to be inferred from the immediate context of chap. 20, and, perhaps, the parallels with similar passages in Jewish writings of the period (cf. above). The main point, however, is not the location of the scene, but the significance of it—the establishment of Christ’s kingdom (and rule) over the world and all of humankind. That believers are to rule with him simply reflects our/their union with him; through our faithfulness, even during the most intense times of suffering and persecution, we will be exalted, even as he was exalted, to a position with him alongside God the Father in heaven. This also means that believers will take part (with Christ) in the Judgment.

Even so, the position of the “thousand year” period in Rev 20 remains somewhat perplexing. Since much, or most, of the imagery associated with the Messianic Kingdom and “Golden Age” of eschatological tradition is found in chapters 21-22, what, precisely, is the point of the separate note in 20:4-6, flanked as it is between the two parallel Judgment scenes (defeat of Satan and the Nations) in vv. 1-3, 7-10? Perhaps the best explanation is, that it was deemed necessary to have a separate scene, however brief, that illustrated Jesus fulfilling the traditional role of the Davidic Messiah. This traditional role involved both the defeat of the nations, and the establishment (or restoration) of a kingdom to rule over them. The early Christian belief in Jesus as the Davidic Messiah was universal, and yet in his lifetime he never fulfilled these traditional expectations. This fulfillment would have to wait until his end-time return.

The two-fold role outlined above appears to be described specifically in chapters 19-20, and enhances the clear parallelism between the two sets of visions (cf. my earlier notes on 20:1-3ff). In 19:11-16ff, we have narrated the defeat of the nations, with the exalted Jesus appearing as a conquering warrior leading the armies of heaven (the holy ones, cf. 17:14). Correspondingly, in 20:4-6, there is a brief description of the establishment of his rule over them; again, the holy ones (the people of God, believers) are alongside of him. Both are key aspects of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, and needed to be included. Indeed, these are essentially the only passages in the New Testament where it is shown that Jesus will finally fulfill these traditional Messianic roles.

Birth of the Messiah: Early Christian Tradition

The final article of this Christmas-season series will examine traditions related to the Birth of Jesus in the late-first and second centuries, insofar as they may reflect earlier or established Jewish tradition regarding the Messiah. This short study will be divided into three sections:

    • Revelation 12 and Early Christian Eschatology
    • The Protevangelium and other early Infancy narratives
    • Justin Martyr & Origen: Second Century Debates with Judaism

Revelation 12 and Early Christian Eschatology

There are only three passages in the New Testament that refer to Jesus’ birth, outside of the Infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. Two of these have already been discussed (Rom 1:3-4 and Gal 4:4-5); the third is the vision of the Woman giving birth in Revelation 12:1-6. I have dealt with this passage in my (ongoing) notes on the book of Revelation (cf. the earlier note). There can be no doubt that, within the context of the visionary narrative, verse 5 refers to the birth, life, and ultimate exaltation to heaven. However, the story-pattern of the vision is wider than this narrow (historical) application. It has legendary, fabulous details common to a number of myths of the time, most notably the tale involving the the Python-serpent, opponent of the god Apollo, which sought to kill his mother Leto (Hyginus, Fabulae 140; Koester, p. 545). Moreover, the brief notice of the child being taken up to heaven does not entirely fit the historical situation of Jesus’ life, which here is compressed to include only the birth and ascension (cp. Justin Martyr First Apology 54.8). This raises the likelihood that an earlier story-pattern has been applied to Jesus, relating to it only those elements of his life which fit the pattern. It is worth considering whether this story-pattern, as adopted in the vision, originally related to the Messiah.

Certainly, Rev 12:1-6 is not simply a story about the birth of Jesus, but of his identity as the Messiah—that is, the Anointed Davidic ruler figure-type. This is especially clear from the wording in verse 5:

“And she produced [e&teken] a male son, who is about to shepherd the nations in [i.e. with] an iron staff. And her offspring [te/knon] was seized/taken (up) toward God and toward His ruling-seat [i.e. throne].”

The words in italics, of course, derive from Psalm 2:9, blended with the Messianic shepherd-imagery taken from passages such as Ezek 34:23. It is possible that Micah 5:2-4 is specifically in mind here, with its combination of elements:

    • The coming forth of God’s chosen ruler (v. 2)
    • The motif of a woman in labor (v. 3)
    • The ruler as a Shepherd who will be great over all the earth (v. 4)

The use of Mic 5:2ff in the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matt 2), with its description of Herod’s attempts to kill off a new-born Messiah, certainly seems relevant as well. However, it is by no means clear that a reference to this specific Gospel tradition is intended. The narrative motif of the wicked ruler seeking to kill a chosen (male) child as soon as he is born, is found in many traditional tales and legends worldwide. It is perhaps enough to view the motif here as indicating that the ‘dragon’ wishes to destroy the child before he can exercise his chosen position of rule; the implication being that the ‘dragon’ is already (currently) exercising rule over the nations, or may have the opportunity to do so.

Is it possible that there was a tradition in existence that the Messiah, following his birth, was taken up into heaven, to be kept hidden away until the moment when he should appear at the end-time? There are, in fact, Jewish traditions suggestive of this idea, however their existence as early as the first century A.D. is quite uncertain. The work known as 2 Enoch (or Slavonic Enoch) has been dated to the late-1st century A.D. by some scholars, based on internal considerations; if correct, it would be roughly contemporary with the book of Revelation. Chapters 71-72 describe the birth of Melchizedek—a miraculous (virgin) birth from the wife of Noah’s brother. To save him from the Flood, he is taken up into God’s heavenly paradise by the angel Gabriel; eventually Melchizedek will return to become the head of all priests that are to come, and will return again (in a second form?) at the end-time. While not referred to by the title “Anointed One” (Messiah), Melchizedek certainly has Messianic characteristics and features, as he does in several of the Qumran texts (cf. the article on 11QMelchizedek), blending elements of the Priest-Messiah and Heavenly Deliverer figure-types (cp. his application to Jesus in Hebrews 5-7).

In the Jerusalem Talmud, there is a tradition regarding the birth of the Messiah (in Berakot 5a, cf. also Midrash Rabbah on Lamentations 1.51 [on Lam 1:16]), which I have previously noted. In this story, a Jewish farmer, at the time the Temple is destroyed, learns that the Messiah (Menahem ben Hezekiah) has been born in the “royal city” Bethlehem. He finds the child’s mother, who expresses her wish to kill the infant, blaming him for the suffering that has come on her people. Eventually, the child is rescued from this threat, by “strong winds” (implying a divine/heavenly source , cp. 2 Kings 2:11) that snatched him from his mother’s arms. The implication is that he will be kept (in heaven) until the time he is to be revealed. There is no way of knowing how old this tradition is. To be sure, the setting of the story is the first century (70 A.D.), but whether it is an authentic tradition from this time is doubtful.

The setting of the Talmudic story (the destruction of the Temple) for the birth of the Messiah likely has some bearing on the traditional expression “birth-pains of the Messiah” (j^yv!M*h^ yl@b=j#), referring to the period of suffering and distress which immediately precedes the Messiah’s appearance. The background for this expression is ancient, as the pain of women in childbirth often was used to symbolize suffering, typically in relation to God’s Judgment—Psalm 48:6; Mic 4:9-10; Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17; 42:14; Jer 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 30:6; 48:41; 49:22, 24; 50:43; Rom 8:22; 1 Thess 5:3. It is used notably in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus, in the context of the destruction of the Temple, for the period of distress that precedes Jesus’ end-time appearance and the coming Judgment (Mark 13:8 par; cf. also Luke 23:28-29). The same image of childbirth can also emphasize deliverance from pain/suffering—Mic 4:10; 5:3; Isa 65:23ff; 66:7-9; cf. also John 16:21. Cf. also the childbirth motifs in Isa 7:14 and 66:7, both passages which have been given a Messianic interpretation.

Even more uncertain is the theory that chapters 11-13 of the book of Revelation were influenced by an apocalyptic writing called the Oracle of Hystaspes. This work, in existence by at least the early 2nd century A.D., is Persian—or, at least, it has a Persian setting and provenance—but also appears to contain elements of Jewish apocalyptic. Unfortunately, its contents are only known from the Institutes of Lactantius (book 7) in the early 4th century, and even then only sketchily presented. The similarities between chapters 11 & 13 of Revelation and what Lactantius provides of the Oracle are clear and striking. Like the book of Revelation, it was a fiercely anti-Roman work, directed against the Roman Empire, and expressing the people’s hopes that God would deliver them from its evil control. It is conceivable that the birth of the “great King” who is to come was part of this Oracle, corresponding to Rev 12:1-6, though no mention is made of it by Lactantius, and the connection remains highly speculative.

The Protevangelium and other early Infancy narratives

Following the composition of the Matthean and Lukan Infancy Narratives (c. 70-80 A.D.), similar works narrating the birth (and childhood) of Jesus came to be produced. For the most part, these are imaginative expansions of the earlier (canonical) Gospel narratives, but they also can include separate traditions which have come down from an early period. It is worth considering whether some of these may reflect Jewish traditions regarding the Messiah.

By far, the oldest and most important extra-canonical Infancy Narrative is that of the so-called “Proto-Gospel” (Protevangelium) of James. Composed sometime during the early 2nd century, it contains at least one significant early tradition—that the birth of Jesus took place in a cave on the desolate outskirts of Bethlehem (17:3-18:1). This detail is attested independently by Justin Martyr in the mid-2nd century (Dialogue with Trypho 78.5, cf. also Origen Against Celsus 1.51). The main additions to the Matthean/Lukan narratives in the Protevangelium involve the role of Mary as the virgin who gives birth to Jesus. Indeed, much of what relates to Jesus as the chosen one (and Messiah) of God extends to include the person of Mary as well. Her birth and childhood (chaps. 1-16), in many ways, parallels that of Jesus himself. This tendency within early Christianity is best described as a strengthening or enhancing of the Messianic and Christological traditions. The following points of emphasis may be noted:

    • The sanctification of Mary and her identity as one specially consecrated to God. This is established two ways:
      • Her association with the Temple (7:1-12:1)—this is an important emphasis in the Lukan narrative as well (1:8-11ff; 2:22-24, 25ff, 41-51)
      • Application to Mary of the traditions regarding the birth and childhood of Samuel (1 Sam 1-3), even as they are used to shape the Lukan narrative of Jesus’ birth and childhood; in the Protevangelium, Mary is raised in the Temple under the guardianship of priests, just as Samuel was.
    • Mary’s Davidic lineage—that she is a descendant of David is specified (chap. 10), leaving no question whatever as to Jesus’ Messianic pedigree as being truly from the line of David. There is no trace of this in the Matthean and Lukan narratives, where Jesus’ descent from David is legal, not biological; the genealogies (Matt 1:2-16; Lk 3:23-38) clearly belong to Joseph, not Mary (cf. also Matt 1:20; Lk 2:4). Indeed, the information in Luke 1:5, 36 indicates that Mary was from the tribe of Levi, not Judah. However, Paul’s wording in Romans 1:3 (compared with Gal 4:4), suggests a biological birth from David, and later Christian tradition followed the Protevangelium in making Mary unequivocally a descendant of David. If nothing else, Protevang. 10 shows how important the association with David remained, among early Christians, for confirming that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah.
    • The virginal conception (and birth) of Jesus. The Protevangelium goes considerably further than the Matthean and Lukan narratives in emphasizing that Mary was a virgin (6:1; 7:2; 8:2ff; 9:1ff; 10; 11:2; 13:1-3; 15:2-3; 16; 19:3-20:4). By the time the Protevangelium was written, this had become more of a matter of Christian apologetic (cf. below), than of the (Messianic) interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 so vital to Matthew’s narrative (1:22-23). However, there are still strong echoes of Isa 7:14 as a Messianic prophecy (see esp. the wording in Protevang. 19:3)

Perhaps the most striking scene in the Protevangelium, for modern readers at least, is in 18:2, where Joseph, while walking outside in search of a midwife, sees all of nature momentarily come completely still. This supernatural intervention in the natural order corresponds with the moment of Jesus’ birth, when a theophanous cloud of glory enters the cave and fills it with light (19:2). Such phenomena are fitting to the traditional identification of Jesus as the Messiah, at his birth, following similar signs and wonders marking his Baptism and Resurrection/Exaltation as the moments when he was ‘born’ as the Messiah and Son of God (for more on this, cf. my recent notes).

Second Century Debates with Judaism

A number of the Christian authors from the second and early-third centuries, whose works have survived, are called “Apologists”, as they sought to provide a proper account or defense (a)pologi/a, “apology”) of the faith, in the face of increasing challenges from Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism alike. At least two of these works contain significant discussions regarding the birth of Jesus as the Messiah.

Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho

Justin’s Dialogue, written sometime after 155 A.D., is presented, as the title indicates, as a dialogue (that is, the literary format, used by Plato, etc) between Justin and a Jew named “Trypho”. To whatever extent this “Trypho” represents a real person, we may safely regard the words placed in his mouth as reflecting the view of Jews at the time—their objections to the Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and the way that the Scriptures are interpreted in support of this belief. His Dialogue is a long and rambling work, awkward and unconvincing in detail, but valuable for the light it sheds on Christian thought (and apologetics) in this early period. The question of Jesus’ birth—and, in particular, the application of Isa 7:14 as a Messianic prophecy—is introduced in chapter/section §43, then after leaving it for a while, Justin picks up the subject again at §66. It remains the point of discussion, off and on, through to §78. The question of Isa 7:14 (and Jesus’ birth) is really part of a wider—and more important—debate regarding how the Old Testament Scriptures are to be interpreted, and whether the Christian approach, advocated by Justin, is reasonable and consistent.

Discussions of this sort, between Christians and Jews, had been going on since the original apostolic mission, as we can see from the numerous references in Luke-Acts regarding the importance of demonstrating from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah (Lk 24:27, 45; Acts 5:42; 9:22; 17:2-3, 11; 18:5, 28; 26:22-23). For the earliest (Jewish) Christians, the main sticking point was the suffering and death of Jesus, since that did not at all fit the general portrait(s) regarding the Messiah, and was an obvious impediment for Jews in accepting Jesus. By Justin’s time, this had evolved into a more general apologetic, covering a wide range of Scriptures, adopted by Christians as referring to Jesus, in a way that many (if not most) Jews would find hard to accept. Isaiah 7:14, as a reference to the miraculous (virginal) birth of Jesus, was one such passage, and, here, the extended discussion about it demonstrates that it remained of considerable significance as a Messianic prophecy (about Jesus). In objecting to the Christian use of the passage, “Trypho” raises certain critical points, including how the Hebrew word hm*l=u^ is to be translated (cf. my earlier study), which Justin is not particularly well-equipped to address. Even so, the dialogue between the two remains interesting and enlightening to read, even today.

Origen’s Against Celsus

Origen’s extensive writing Against Celsus remains one of his most popular and widely-read works. Written in the early-mid 3rd century, toward the end of his life, it addresses the arguments of Celsus, who was perhaps the most formidable Greco-Roman intellectual opponent of Christianity in the second century. Origen’s lengthy apologetic response to Celsus’ book The True Account (a)lhqh\$ lo/go$) continues to be of considerable historical interest today, for several reasons. Most significant, for the purposes of this article, is the fact that The True Account, based on Origen’s references to it, was framed as a dialogue between a Christian and a Jew, and thus Celsus cleverly makes use of Jewish objections to Christianity as a starting-point for his own arguments. Some of these objections centered around Jesus’ birth, and the Christian identification of him as the Messiah (an identification which otherwise would have been of little interest to a pagan like Celsus).

Celsus’ work argued against the deity of Jesus, and made use of the (supposed) facts surrounding his birth and life as a bar against the Christian belief in Jesus’ identity as the incarnate (Son of) God. Celsus was relatively well-informed regarding Christian beliefs, and seems to have had some familiarity with Jewish traditions as well. He attacks the virgin birth as something invented by Christians (comparing it with similar details in Greek myths and legends), and the Jew in Celsus’ Dialogue brings up Jesus’ illegitimate birth (from the adulterous union between Mary and a soldier named Pantera), and his years as a lowly day-laborer in Egypt (where he also learned the magic arts), as all quite contrary to the Gospel record, and unworthy of a belief in Jesus’ deity (I. 28-29ff, 32-33, 69); the Gospel genealogies (including Jesus’ Davidic ancestry) are similarly disregarded as Christian inventions (II. 32).

As it happens, the tradition regarding Jesus’ adulterous birth (as the illegitimate son of the soldier Pantera, ben-Pantera) is known from later Jewish sources (Babylonian Talmud Sabbath 104b, Sanhedrin 67a; Tosephta Hullin 2.22-23; Jerusalem Talmud Aboda Zara 40d, Sabbath 14d, etc). Its inclusion in Celsus’ work (written sometime before 180 A.D.) demonstrates that the tradition was in circulation by the mid-2nd century A.D. Tertullian was similarly aware of the charge that Jesus was the son of a prostitute (De Spectaculis 30.6). Cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 535-6.

It is quite possible that this all traces back to the basic historical traditions, recorded in the Gospel Infancy narratives (Matt 1:18-20), of the unusual (and potentially scandalous) circumstances of Jesus’ conception and birth. Almost certainly, these rumors of illegitimacy, which coalesced in the Pantera-tradition, would have been used by Jews at the time as a strong argument against identifying Jesus as the Messiah. While Jewish sources in this period do not say much regarding how the Messiah’s birth might take place (cf. the earlier articles in this series), the details of Jesus’ birth, according to the Pantera tradition, certainly would not be considered worthy of the Messiah. Celsus develops this further to argue that it is also not worthy of one considered to be the Son of God.

In other references to Jesus’ birth, Celsus draws primarily from the Gospel narratives (i.e. the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke). Interestingly, though he attacks the virgin birth, Celsus apparently made no mention of the prophecy in Isa 7:14 (Matt 1:22-23), nor the Jewish critique of the Christian use of it (cf. above). Even so, Origen feels compelled to introduce the subject (I. 34), touching upon the critical question of translating the Hebrew word hm*l=u^ as parqe/no$ (“virgin”), as well as providing a rudimentary (for the time) historical-critical assessment of the passage (I. 35). While the main issue for Origen is a defense of the Christian belief in the virgin birth, his continued emphasis on Isa 7:14, following that of Justin Martyr decades earlier, illustrates the abiding force of that key Scripture as a Messianic prophecy. It also makes vividly clear the uniquely Christian development of the Messianic idea, whereby the birth of Jesus was regarded as, not only the birth of the Messiah, but also the birth of the Son of God.

“Brown, Birth” refers to Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977, 1993).
“Koester” above refers to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

December 23: Revelation 20:11-15

Revelation 20:11-15

This is the last of the four scenes in chapter 20; like the second scene (vv. 4-6, cf. the prior note), it is centered on the throne of God in heaven, and refers to the heavenly aspect of the great Judgment.

Revelation 20:11

“And I saw a great white ruling-seat [qro/no$], and the (one) sitting upon it, from whose face the earth and the heaven(s) fled (away), and a place was not found for them (any longer).”

The color white, as a divine symbol, indicating both purity/holiness and victory, has been used repeatedly in the book of Revelation (4:4; 6:11; 7:9ff; 19:11, 14, etc). Here it specifically characterizes the qro/no$, or ruling-seat of God in heaven, which features prominently in the visions of chapters 4 and 5, as elsewhere in the book (1:4; 6:16; 7:9-17; 8:3; 12:5, etc). Since the exalted Jesus (the Lamb) rules alongside God the Father (at His right hand), he shares this same throne, and the People of God in heaven—i.e. the raised/exalted believers, and symbolized by the 24 Elders—also sit upon heavenly thrones (4:4; 11:16; 20:4), in the presence of God and Christ.

The reference to the earth and sky (“heaven[s]”) fleeing from God’s face is a traditional apocalyptic motif, indicating that creation itself cannot stand before the manifest presence and power of God. Moreover, here it alludes to the dissolution of the ko/smo$ and the end of the Age. Various upheavals in the natural order would already have taken place during the end-time period of distress, and more so with the return of Jesus and beginning of the Judgment, as depicted vividly in the sixth seal-vision (6:12-17) and all throughout the trumpet- and bowl-vision cycles (chaps. 8-9, 15-16). This corresponds to the more concise reference to the events surrounding the coming of the Son of Man in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus—Mark 13:24-25ff par, drawing upon Old Testament passages such as Isa 13:10; 24:23; 34:4; Ezek 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15. This “Day of YHWH” imagery (cf. Amos 5:20; 8:9; Zeph 1:15, etc) has ancient roots in Near Eastern and Israelite tradition. The difference is that here, as in other apocalyptic Jewish writings of the period, the imagery is unquestionably eschatological—it refers to the end of the current Age (and to the end of the world/universe as we know it).

Revelation 20:12

“And I saw the dead—the great (one)s and small (one)s (alike)—having stood in the sight of the ruling-seat. And the paper-rolls were opened (up), and another paper-roll was (also) opened, which is the (roll) of life, and the dead (one)s were judged out of the (thing)s having been written in the paper-rolls, according to their works.”

This is the heavenly Judgment—that is, the end-time Judgment in its heavenly aspect—which is itself a reflection of the more ancient afterlife Judgment scene, widespread in religious thought throughout the ancient Near East (and in other cultures). Here the afterlife setting is preserved, since it clearly refers to the dead. Presumably it involves all human beings, though believers have already been set aside, having passed through the Judgment, as is indicated by the passing reference to the “roll of life” (3:5; 13:8; 17:8). The idea of election/predestination is strong in the book of Revelation, though this does not preclude the need for believers to remain faithful, nor negate the real danger of being led astray by the evil/wickedness in the world. These bi/blia, or scrolls (lit. paper-rolls), draw upon two lines of tradition: (1) a record of a person’s deeds which will be used in the (afterlife) Judgment, and (2) rolls of citizenship, in which the names of those belonging to a particular city or locale are recorded. The visions in Revelation make use of both images, which are also attested elsewhere in Scripture (Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:28; Isa 4:3; Dan 7:10; 12:1; Mal 3:16; Luke 10:20; Phil 3:20-4:3). Here the former tradition—the record of a persons deeds (e&rga, “works”)—is emphasized.

Revelation 20:13

“And the Sea gave (up) the dead th(at are) in it, and Death and the Unseen realm gave (up) the dead th(at are) in them, and they were judged, each (person), according to their works.”

In the book of Revelation “the sea” (h( qa/lassa) is primarily a symbol, signifying the dark and chaotic domain of evil, especially as it exerts influence over the peoples of the earth (the nations). For more on the ancient roots of this symbolism, cf. my recent article in the “Ancient Parallels” series. Here the “Sea” is fittingly paired with Death and the realm of the dead (the “unseen” realm, a%|dh$, hades). This generally indicates that we are dealing with the Judgment of the wicked, the heavenly Judgment against the nations. While elsewhere in Scripture, believers are also said to have their works judged (Rom 2:15-16; 1 Cor 3:13-15; 4:5; 2 Cor 5:10, etc), here it is primarily, if not exclusively, the wicked (unbelievers) who are being judged by their works.

Revelation 20:14

“And Death and the Unseen realm (of the dead) were thrown into the lake of fire—this is the second death, the lake of fire.”

The fact that Death and Hades (= Hebrew Sheol) are thrown into the lake of fire, just as the Satan was (v. 10), suggests a mythic personification of Death—i.e. Death as a person, ruler over the realm of the dead. This is well-established in Biblical tradition, even if the authors of Scripture did not necessarily take the personification in a literal, concrete sense (cf. Rom 5:14ff; 6:9; 1 Cor 15:26, 54-56; Rev 1:18; 6:8). The idea of a second death reflects the distinction between earthly and heavenly Judgment, especially as it pertains to the wicked—the earthly Judgment results in physical death (19:21, etc), while the heavenly Judgment ends in a final death of the soul. All human beings (including believers) must endure the physical death of the body, but believers are saved from the second death (2:11). Fire is a primary motif of judgment, and especially of the heavenly Judgment (cf. the previous note). While the specific image of a lake (or river) of fire is traditional, stemming from ancient conceptions of death and the underworld, it is possible that, in the book of Revelation, it alludes to the visionary symbolism associated with the Sea.

Revelation 20:15

“And if any (one) was not found (with his name) having been written in the paper-roll of life, he (also) was thrown into the lake of fire.”

This statement is a simple and traditional description of the fate of the wicked in the heavenly (afterlife) Judgment. It serves as a fitting conclusion to the entire complex of visions that depict the end-time Judgment, particularly those spanning chapters 15-20 (cf. also 6:12-17; chaps. 8-9; 11:13ff; 14:6-20).

The final two chapters of the book of Revelation deal specifically with the New Age, the blessed and eternal life of believers, the People of God, in heaven. Before proceeding with a study of chaps. 21-22, it is necessary to attempt a summary of the book’s eschatology, as it pertains to the Last Judgment, and to give further consideration to the traditional background (and meaning) of the “thousand years” in chap. 20, the so-called Millennium. This will be done via a pair of supplemental articles.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2019EschatologyNT_header1a.png

December 22: Revelation 20:7-10

Revelation 20:7-10

This the third of the four visionary scenes in chapter 20; it is parallel to the first scene (vv. 1-3, cf. the earlier note), with its emphasis on Satan and the “thousand years”, as representing the period during which he is bound in prison. Within the structure of the vision-sequence, the heavenly throne scene occurs between these two episodes (vv. 4-6, cf. the previous note).

Revelation 20:7-8

“And when the thousand years are completed, the Satan will be loosed out of his (prison) guard, and he will go out to lead astray the nations th(at) are in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—to bring them together into the war, of whom their number (is) as the sand of the sea.”

This is perhaps the most unusual and difficult portion of the chapter to explain. If we are to view chap. 20 as a continuation of the Judgment visions in chap. 19, then this episode is totally unexpected. After all, the nations have been defeated and judged, Satan bound, and the People of God (believers) ruling alongside the exalted Jesus (in heaven). This would seem to have settled the matter; yet now, apparently, there is another rebellion by the nations and a second Judgment? Here is where viewing chapter 20 as a separate vision sequence, parallel to that of chap. 19, may make better sense of the eschatological framework. With this approach, the assembling of the nations to battle in 20:7-8ff would be seen as a separate depiction of the same event—the Judgment of the Nations—in 19:17-21.

Let us briefly consider each detail in vv. 7-8, depending on whether chap. 20 is viewed as continuous or parallel with chap. 19 (and the earlier visions):

“when the thousand years were completed” —While the actual number of a thousand is certainly symbolic (indicating completeness, etc, 10 x 100), the idea of a period of time that it represents can be understood several ways; limiting this to the immediate interpretive approach (cf. above), there are two possibilities:

    • (Parallel): The “thousand years”, encompassing the defeat/binding of Satan and the rule of believers alongside Christ, reflects the current Age, specifically the time between the exaltation of Jesus and the end-time Judgment.
    • (Continuous): The thousand years, taken in a more literal sense (as a lengthy period of time), represents the Age to Come on earth; that is to say, the current Age has come to an end, and the “thousand years” marks the New Age.

“the Satan will be loosed out of his (prison) guard” —This of course refers to the binding and imprisonment of Satan in vv. 1-3. Ideally, the release of a prisoner should lead to gratitude and obedience in response (cf. Tacitus Annals 12.37; Josephus Antiquities 10.40; Koester, p. 776), but here the Satan continues to rebel against God instead. Keeping with the same dual line of interpretation, there are again two possibilities:

    • (Parallel): The defeat and binding of Satan (vv. 1-3) corresponds with the scene in 12:7-12, and is related to the work of Jesus that culminates in his death and resurrection (vv. 5, 10-11; cf. also Lk 11:17; 1 Jn 3:8, etc). The “loosing” of Satan then would refer to the end-time period of distress, otherwise referenced in the book of Revelation by the symbolic designation of 3½ years; cp. 12:12 with 20:3.
    • (Continuous): Just as there is a brief but intense period of activity by Satan at the end of the current Age, so there will also be at the end of the Age to Come (the “thousand years”). Satan is bound following the Judgment at the end of the current Age, and will be punished again at the end of the Age to Come.

“and he will go out to lead astray the nations th(at are) in the four corners of the earth” —This draws upon the eschatological tradition of the Judgment of the Nations (collectively), which requires that they assemble together so they can all be judged in one place (Joel 3). A development of this motif has the nations gathering together to make war against God and His People (Israel)—cf. especially Zechariah 12:1-9 and Ezekiel 38-39 (discussed below). The nations were similarly gathered together for battle, by Satan (or his representatives), in 16:12-14; 19:17-21 (cf. also 14:17-20). Interpreting this in v. 7 as parallel with 19:19 is obvious; while a continuous interpretation would mean that the same sort of gathering of the nations (along with their subsequent judgment/defeat) is going to take place at the end of the Age to Come (the “thousand years”).

“Gog and Magog” —These two names, presumably derived from the eschatological oracle in Ezekiel 38-39, here represent “the nations in the four corners of the earth”. In the original oracle “Magog” (gogm*) is a territory north of Israel, possibly to be identified with parts of Anatolia (Cappadocia, Scythia) or Armenia and beyond the Caucasus mountains. The name likewise appears as the name of the eponymous ancestor of this (same?) region in Gen 10:2, but its derivation is otherwise quite unknown. “Gog” (goG) is the ruler or commander of the land of Magog, and could conceivably correspond to the Akkadian gûgu (there was an Anatolian [Lydian] ruler with this name in the 7th century B.C.). Probably “Gog” is simply taken from “Magog”, by assonance/wordplay, etc, to create a specially colorful and ominous combination.

“to bring them together into the war” —Here in the book of Revelation, “Gog and Magog” serve as a kind of shorthand for the entire scenario in Ezek 38-39—i.e., of the collection of distant nations who assemble together to attack Israel (cf. also Zech 12:1-9). The same oracle was in view in 19:17-21 (cf. Ezek 39:17-20), which tends to confirm the interpretive view (cf. above) that chaps. 19 and 20 are parallel accounts of the same basic Judgment scene. The Qumran War Scroll also associates Gog and Magog with the wicked nations who are to be defeated in the great end-time battle (1QM 11:6, 16-18; cf. also 4Q161 fr. 8-10 col. iii. 10-21). Now, “the war” takes on more cosmic significance, being waged against God and the People of God (exalted in heaven); it is quite literally the climax of the conflict between God and the forces of evil (cf. below).

“of whom their number (is) as the sand of the sea” —On the one hand, this is simply a picturesque idiom to describe a great multitude, especially when used of an army assembled for battle (Josh 11:4; Judg 7:12; 1 Sam 13:5). However, the association with the sea in the book of Revelation suggests perhaps a deeper allusion—recall that in 12:18, just prior to the rise of the evil Sea-creature, the Dragon (Satan) was standing there “upon the sand of the sea”.

Revelation 20:9

“And they stepped up upon the wide space of the earth and encircled the (gathering) of the holy (one)s (that had) thrown (down) alongside (each other), and (also) the city having been loved, and fire stepped down out of heaven and ate them down.”

The noun parembolh/, difficult to translate literally in English, refers to the idea of military troops thrown together alongside each other, i.e. as in rows or arranged in a camp. It is very much a military battle that is envisioned, with the forces of “Gog and Magog” encircling the group of “holy ones”, as well as the city designated by the perfect participle “having been loved” (vb a)gapa/w). Here “the city” is Jerusalem, or, more properly, the portion of the city where the Temple was located—the old Canaanite fortified hill-site known in tradition as the “City of David” or “Zion” (cf. Psalm 78:68; 87:1-2, etc). This is scarcely the earthly Jerusalem, in its ordinary sense, in spite of the traditions drawn on from Zech 12:1-9, etc. In the book of Revelation, the earthly Jerusalem is not depicted in a positive light, having been overrun by the wicked nations (11:2, 7-10). Only the Temple sanctuary, figuratively speaking, where the faithful ones (believers) gather, truly represents the holy city. Similarly, believers gather around the Lamb on “Zion” in the vision of 14:1-5. The realization of Jerusalem as the true holy city (“the new Jerusalem”) must wait until the visions of chaps. 21-22 (to be discussed).

The punishment and defeat of “Gog and Magog” is accomplished via supernatural means, much as the nations are defeated by the “sword” that comes out of the exalted Jesus’ mouth in the earlier Judgment vision (19:15ff). The image of “fire coming down out of heaven” is a traditional motif of Divine Judgment, on cities and peoples, cf. Gen 19:24; 1 Kings 18:39; 2 Kings 1:10-12; Luke 9:54), which here is used in the eschatological context of the Last Judgment (cp. Luke 10:12 par; 17:29; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7; Rev 11:9). Elsewhere in the book of Revelation fire comes down on the nations as a sign of the great Judgment—8:5, 7-11; 11:5; 15:8; 16:8; 17:16; 18:9; cp. 14:10-11; 19:3. The same imagery was used in the oracle of Ezek 38-39 which inspired this scene (38:22; 39:6).

The imagery of Gog and Magog “stepping up” onto the broad surface of the earth, presumably from somewhere ‘below’, suggests that these are not normal human armies—on this, cf. the notice below.

Revelation 20:10

“And the (One) casting (evil) throughout [dia/bolo$], the (one) leading them (all) astray, he was cast into the lake of fire and sulphur, where also the wild animal and the false foreteller [i.e. False Prophet] (were cast), and they shall be tested (painfully with fire) day and night, into the Ages of Ages.”

This represents the final defeat of the forces of evil, parallel with what was described in 19:20. The idea of the Devil (o( dia/bolo$), or Belial, being punished and devoured by fire is found elsewhere in Jewish tradition (e.g., 1Q13 iii. 7; Testament of Judah 25:3). As for the expression “lake of fire”, it draws upon the more general imagery of fire as a sign (and form) of Divine punishment (cf. above, and note in Isa 30:33; 66:24). The fiery end of the Sea- and Earth-creatures (“wild animal” and “false prophet”) resembles that of the fourth ‘beast’ in Daniel 7:11. The wicked/rebellious Angels could likewise be depicted as being thrown into a fiery abyss (1 Enoch 10:6ff; 21:7-10). The specific combination of fire and a lake probably is derived from common underworld imagery; on such rivers, etc, of fire, see, for example, Plato Phaedo 113ab; Virgil Aeneid 6.550-51). For these and other references, cf. Koester, pp. 761, 779.

The difficulties in explaining the scenario of vv. 7-10 have been noted above, including the wider interpretative question of whether the visions of chap. 20 are best understood as a continuation of chap. 19, or as a separate sequence parallel to it. Complicating the situation is the use of “Gog and Magog” as a symbol. There is some indication that it does not refer simply to the ordinary nations known to readers (such as those of the Roman Empire, etc), but should be regarded as a mythic figure-type for peoples from beyond the recognized boundaries of the earth (“the four corners”). This would make “Gog and Magog” akin to the Sea- and Earth-creatures of chaps. 13ff, who serve as figures of the forces of evil at work in the world. In support of this, I would note:

    • The location of “Gog and Magog” as “in the four corners of the earth”. In the original oracle of Ezekiel 38-39, Gog and Magog are said to come from the remotest parts of the north (38:6, 15); now this conceptual delimitation is given wider cosmic significance. It is a basic point of human religious and cultural psychology, that the boundaries of the known world tend to be regarded as the domain of frightening alien beings.
    • Here Gog and Magog “step up” onto the broad space of the earth’s surface, suggesting that they come up from a location below the earth, much like the hybrid-demon beings in the fifth and sixth trumpet-visions of chapter 9.
    • These strange ‘nations’ are described as a vast multitude, numbering “as the sand of the sea”; the demonic ‘armies’ in 9:16-19 are similarly vast. Moreover, the descriptive expression here likely alludes to the earlier scene of the Dragon standing “upon the sand of the sea” (12:18).
    • The fate of theses ‘nations’ is to be consumed by heavenly fire, just like the Sea- and Earth-creatures, and Satan himself.

Even so, there is clearly an intentional parallel between the Judgment scenes in 19:17-21 and 20:7-10, reflecting, if you will, two stages in the end-time Judgment and final defeat of evil:

    • The immediate nations, influenced by the Sea-creature are defeated and slain in battle
      • The Sea-creature (and his ally) are thrown into the lake of fire
    • The distant nations, influenced by the Satan/Devil himself, are defeated and slain in battle
      • The Satan/Devil is thrown into the lake of fire

These two episodes bracket the scene of the “thousand years”, signifying the resurrection/exaltation of believers, who now rule alongside Jesus—parallel to his own resurrection/exaltation. This may be outlined as:

    • The Judgment in its earthly aspect—the human nations on earth (16:12-16ff; 19:17-21)
    • The Thousand Years—the resurrection/exaltation of believers (20:1-6)
    • The Judgment in its heavenly aspect—the distant nations of the earth, signifying more clearly the forces of evil (20:7-10ff)
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2019EschatologyNT_header1a.png

December 21: Revelation 20:4-6

Revelation 20:4-6

This is the second of the four visionary episodes in chapter 20 (on the first episode, vv. 1-3, cf. the previous note). As I indicated, these visions alternate between two distinct, but related, themes: (1) a thousand-year period during which Satan is imprisoned (vv. 1-3, 7-10), and (2) the heavenly judgment before the throne of God (vv. 4-6, 11-15). Moreover, the visionary scenes of chap. 20 can be understood in two different ways: (a) as the continuation/climax of chap. 19 (and the earlier Judgment-visions), or (b) as a separate/parallel cycle of visions depicting the eschatological scenario from the exaltation of Jesus to the final Judgment.

Revelation 20:4

“And I saw seats of rule [qro/noi], and they sat down upon them and judgment was given to them, and the souls of the (ones) having been struck with an axe [i.e. beheaded] through [i.e. because of] the witness of Yeshua and through the word/account of God, the (one)s who did not kiss toward [i.e. worship] the wild animal and did not (worship) its image, and (also) did not receive the engraved (mark) upon the (space) between (their) eyes and upon their hands—and they (all) lived and ruled as king with the Anointed (One for) a thousand years.”

The ambiguity of the syntax in this description at several points creates some difficulty for interpretation. The first is that the referent for the initial pronoun “they/them” is unclear. There are several possibilities:

    • It refers to the twenty-four Elders (4:4, 10; 11:6, etc), representing the People of God in their heavenly aspect, who pronounce judgment on behalf of the faithful ones (believers) who have come through the period of distress.
    • It anticipates the slain believers (martyrs) mentioned in the next phrases—i.e., the ruling-seats are reserved for them and they sit down on them.
    • It is a general and comprehensive reference to believers as a whole, of whom those slain during the period of distress are especially deserving of mention.

Secondly the precise meaning of the phrase kri/ma e)do/qh au)toi=$ (“judgment was given to them”) is disputed; it could mean either (a) that judgment was given for them (i.e. on their behalf), or (b) that they were given the power to render judgment. The idea of believers serving as judges in heaven (and/or in the Age to Come) is expressed at several points in early Christian tradition (Matt 19:28; par Luke 22:30; 1 Cor 6:1-2); however, in the book of Revelation, judgment is consistently reserved for God and the exalted Jesus (14:7; 16:5, 7; 19:11; 20:12-13). Yet here, if those on the thrones rule together with Jesus, then it is reasonable to assume that they have the power to render judgment along with him as well. I find it difficult to decide which aspect of the phrase is being emphasized, yet I would probably interpret the setting of verse 4 as follows:

The ruling-seats, or thrones, are reserved for all true believers, who, in their exalted status, become part of the People of God in its heavenly aspect. Those who remained faithful during the period of distress are true believers, though they are not the only such ones; the reason why they are mentioned here is two-fold:

(1) they are the focus of the visions of Revelation (esp. chapters 13ff), and
(2) they relate most immediately to the original audience of the book, since, based on the imminent eschatology of early Christians, it was expected that the majority of those first readers would go through the period of distress described in the visions, with many of them suffering and being put to death.

If believers occupy a place of rule along with Jesus, then they also have the power to judge, the phrase kri/ma e)do/qh au)toi=$ probably meaning that this authority for judgment was given to them. Believers are said to rule with Jesus for a “thousand years” (a symbolic number), but it is by no means clear that this is a kingdom on earth (cf. below).

Revelation 20:5

“And the (one)s remaining of the dead did not live (again) until the thousand years were completed, (since) this is the first standing up [i.e. resurrection] (out of the dead).”

Again, there is some uncertainty regarding this scenario: does the “remainder of the dead” refer to (1) all other believers, or (2) all non-believers, or a combination of the two? Most likely this is a roundabout way of making a distinction between the resurrection of dead believers, and all other human beings (non-believers). References to the end-time resurrection are surprisingly rare in the book of Revelation, as are descriptions of the return of Jesus. However, almost certainly, there is an allusion to both in 14:14-16, where the harvest imagery refers to the gathering of believers to Jesus at his end-time return, which would include the resurrection of those who have died (cf. 1 Thess 4:14-17 and the harvest imagery in 1 Cor 15:20-23, 36ff). Thus the “first” resurrection is that of believers, at Jesus’ return, while the rest of humankind is raised at a ‘later’ point (or stage) to face the Judgment in heaven. Here the visionary scene depicts the two events occurring at the beginning and end of a symbolic “thousand year” period. The use of the verb za/w (“live”) in vv. 4-5 has the special connotation of living or coming to life again.

Revelation 20:6

“Happy and holy is the (one) holding a part in the first standing up [i.e. resurrection]—upon these the second death does not hold (any) e)cousi/a [i.e. authority/power], but they will be sacred (servant)s of God and of the Anointed (One), and they will rule as kings with him (for) [the] thousand years.”

The opening adjective maka/rio$ (“happy”) marks this as another beatitude (or macarism) in the book of Revelation (1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; also 22:7, 14). The background of the beatitude form is fundamentally eschatological, originally relating to the idea of the judgment-scene in the afterlife. Those who pass through the judgment (after death) will be worthy of entering into the blessed and divine life (in heaven). Eschatological tradition shifts the focus of the Judgment from the afterlife to the end-time, but the basic concepts and imagery are the same. Here the afterlife setting is retained, since the visionary portrait relates to the resurrection of believers who have died.

There are two aspects for the second adjective, a%gio$ (“holy”)—(1) it indicates the purity of the believers who have remained faithful, especially during the end-time period of distress (cf. 13:7, 10; 14:12), and (2) it signifies their exalted status, sharing in the holiness of God and Christ (3:7; 4:8; 6:10). The designation of believers as priests (i(erei=$, “sacred officials”) and kings, echoes ancient Old Testament tradition regarding Israel as the People of God (Exod 19:6; Isa 61:6, etc). This same language was applied to believers generally in the New Testament (1 Pet 2:5, 9), but its takes on special significance in the book of Revelation, which ultimately depicts the very exaltation of believers, realizing their status as the People of God in heaven, that is anticipated elsewhere in early Christian tradition (cf. 1:6; 5:10).

The expression “the second death” will be discussed in the note on vv. 11-15. Just as there are two resurrections, so there are also two deaths—one related primarily to believers, the other reserved for non-believers. This distinction also runs parallel to the two aspects of the Judgment-setting—earthly and heavenly. The earthly Judgment leads to physical death for the wicked (19:21), while the heavenly Judgment ends in the final death of the soul (20:14).

Does the scene in vv. 4-6 take place on earth or in heaven? Is the thousand year period, etc, symbolic of the blessed life in heaven, or is it meant to depict a span of actual time on earth? The answer to this question depends on how the book of Revelation envisions the Age to Come. It is not a simple answer, since the imagery and symbolism in visions of chapters 20-22, like that elsewhere in the book, is complex and multi-faceted. Moreover, within Jewish tradition there were several different ways of understanding the Age to Come; these generally can be distilled into two main constructs: (1) an idealized form of the current life on earth, emphasizing health and prosperity, long life and security, etc, and (2) the blessed life in heaven with God. These are not incompatible, but it can be difficult to harmonize them. As we proceed through the remaining visions of chaps. 20-22, we should be able to gain a clearer sense of how this is to be understood in the book of Revelation.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2019EschatologyNT_header1a.png

December 17: Revelation 20:1-3

Revelation 20

The four-part vision in chapter 20 may be read two ways: (1) as a continuation of the visions in chap. 19, and (2) as a parallel depiction of the end-time Judgment, emphasizing its heavenly aspect rather than its earthly aspect. In terms of the structure of chapter 20, it contains two alternating visionary themes, each with a pair of related visions:

    1. The period of a thousand years (Millennium)—vv. 1-3, 7-10
    2. The heavenly Judgment before the throne of God—vv. 4-6, 11-15

Each of these four visions will be discussed in a note, along with a short supplemental study on the concept among early Christians of a Messianic Kingdom on earth (and its relation to the “Millennium” in chap. 20).

Revelation 20:1-3

“And I saw a Messenger stepping down out of heaven, holding the (key) closing the (pit) without depth [i.e. bottomless] and a great chain upon his hand. And he took strong hold of the Fabulous Creature [dra/kwn], the Snake of the beginning, which is the (One) casting (evil) throughout [dia/bolo$] and the Satan, and bound him (for) a thousand years, and (then) cast him into the (pit) without depth and closed (it) and sealed (it) up above him, (so) that he should not lead astray the nations any longer, until the thousand years should be completed—with [i.e. after] these (thing)s it is necessary for him to be loosed (for) a little time.”

This vision alludes to the fifth trumpet-vision in 9:1-11, with its reference to the a&busso$ (ábyssos), with literally means “without depth”, i.e., a place without any end to its depth (bottomless, limitless). In the ancient cosmology, this generally refers to the vast space underneath the earth (parallel to the space above). It is largely synonymous with the unseen realm of Death and the dead ( %A[i]dh$,  )Ai+/dh$), though stretching even far below that. Also, in at least one strand of Greek cosmological tradition, this deep abyss (called ta/rtaro$, tártaros, of uncertain derivation) was the location where an earlier generation of divine beings/powers (“Titans”) was imprisoned following the rise of the current generation (led by Zeus)—cf. Hesiod’s Theogony lines 841, 851, note also 119). A similar idea was preserved in Jewish tradition (e.g. 1 Enoch 10:4-6ff; 88:1-3; cf. also 20:2; 53:3-5; 54:1-6; 2 Baruch 56:13), whereby the Angels who rebelled during the early period of Creation were thrown down beneath the earth, into the abyss. In the New Testament, 2 Peter 2:4 expresses this rather clearly, using the denominative verb tartaro/w, essentially meaning “place/consign (someone) into the ta/rtaro$“. According to Theogony 821ff, the multi-headed serpent creature Typhoeus (Tufweu/$) was born from the union of Earth and Tartarus; this mythic being is quite similar in many respects to the Dragon (Dra/kwn) of the book of Revelation (cf. the recent article in the “Ancient Parallels” series).

In the book of Revelation this abyss (a&busso$) under the earth is the place from which evil and demonic beings emerge. The Jewish tradition cited above, of the heavenly beings who rebelled and were thrown down to earth, is referenced in 12:8-13, as also in the context of the fifth trumpet-vision (9:1). The fantastic demon-beings in 9:1-11 emerge from the a&busso$ (v. 2), and are ruled by a “Messenger (Angel) of the a&busso$” (v. 11), presumably to be identified with the Satan. The identity of the Messenger who hold the “key” to the abyss (v. 1) is not as clear; overall the imagery may suggest a demonic figure (cp. 12:4), but the parallel here in 20:1 indicates the control over the abyss by a true Messenger of God. It is also out of the a&busso$ that the “wild animal” (qh/rion), i.e. the Sea-creature of chapters 13ff, emerges (11:7), a point further made in 17:8, where the reference apparently is to a demonic future ruler who will be virtually an incarnation of the evil Sea-creature. According to the Lukan version of the Gerasene exorcism miracle, the demons recognize that their place is in the a&busso$ and hey plead with Jesus not to be sent back there (Lk 8:31). The word a&busso$ occurs in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) some 50 times, usually in a general (cosmological) sense—in Gen 1:2 it is used to translate Hebrew <ohT=, a reference to the dark and chaotic mass of primeval waters (“Sea”) that was thought to precede the Creation proper (according to the ancient Near Eastern cosmology). God establishes the ordered universe in the midst of this a&busso$.

Returning to the vision of Rev 20:1-3, clearly the idea is of the evil Dragon being sent back to the a&busso$ from which it came, and to which it ultimately belongs—i.e., the dark and chaotic realm of evil, symbolized (concretely) in the terms of the ancient cosmology as a space underneath the earth. A Messenger descends from heaven holding a key (klei/$) for this abyss; on the relationship of this Messenger to the figure with the key in 9:1, cf. my earlier note. The noun klei/$ properly refers to something which closes shut (vb klei/w); of course, a key also opens, but here the emphasis is on closing. The Messenger holds both a key and a great chain, indicating two distinct actions to be taken: (a) binding the Dragon (vb de/w), and (b) closing him up within the abyss. The intermediate action of casting/throwing him down into the abyss reflects a subtle wordplay with the title Diabo/lo$ (Diábolos, English “Devil”), which literally means something like “one throwing over, one casting through(out)”—i.e. casting/throwing accusation, slander, and all sorts of evil—based on the verb ba/llw (“throw, cast”). The Fabulous Creature (dra/kwn, English “Dragon”) of chaps. 12-13 is here identified with the ancient cosmological Serpent (and the Serpent of Gen 3), as well as the Satan and the “Devil”—in other words, the primary figure of evil, the Evil One, who is opposed to God (cf. also 12:9).

In the context of the visionary narrative (continuing from chap. 19), following the great battle that symbolized the end-time Judgment on earth (i.e. its earthly aspect), the Sea-creature, together with his ally the Earth-creature (False Prophet), was captured, so as to face the great Judgment in its heavenly aspect—i.e. being thrown into the “lake of fire” (19:20). The Sea-creature ultimately serves the Dragon, whom he so resembles (12:3; 13:1); and now the Dragon also is captured and thrown into place where the heavenly Judgment likewise awaits (20:10, already alluded to in 12:12). This Dragon is the supreme manifestation of the forces of evil, and his punishment will be given a climactic position, centered between the two heavenly Judgment visions in chapter 20. The chain the Messenger holds for binding him is called “great” (mega/lh); according to the law Digest of Justinian, the larger the chain used for binding a prisoner indicated a more severe punishment (48.19.8.6; Koester, p. 769).

The most difficult and problematic detail in this vision, and for chapter 20 as a whole, is the time-span of a thousand (xi/lioi) years. As with all such details in the book of Revelation the number itself is symbolic; however, the idea that an actual period of time is here envisioned, between the earthly and heavenly Judgments, must be taken seriously. This has led many commentators to assume that there will, in fact, be an extensive period of time, after the initial Judgment, during which a Messianic Kingdom (ruled by Jesus) will be established and in force on earth. Certainly, such a Millennial/Messianic Kingdom is indicated by verses 5-6, the language and imagery of which will be discussed in the next daily note. In terms of the vision of vv. 1-3, it must be pointed out that the focus is on the imprisonment of the Dragon (Satan), the “thousand years” being the time of his imprisonment. The purpose of imprisonment is so that the Dragon will “no longer lead the nations astray”, which does suggest a time in which people will be able to follow/worship God without being influenced by the forces of evil. It is unquestionably an ideal for humankind, one which is to be realized in the Age to Come, but we must consider carefully just how the visionary narrative of Revelation understands the place of this ideal within the early Christian eschatology.

The above comments are based on reading 20:1-3ff more or less as a continuation of the visions in chap. 19. However, given the way that the visions (and vision-cycles) in the book of Revelation are interlocking, with a tendency to repeat certain themes and to present the same eschatological event using different imagery, it is worth considering chap. 20 as a separate vision-sequence, depicting the same Judgment scenario in different terms. This will be discussed further in the upcoming notes, but here I will suggest at least one way to interpret chap. 20 as a self-contained set of visions that summarize the early Christian eschatology:

    • Vision 1 (vv. 1-3)—The heavenly defeat of the Dragon (Satan), similar to that described in 12:7-12. There his defeat and downfall corresponded to the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus, and so it perhaps should be understood here as well. According to this line of interpretation, vv. 1-3 are not necessarily connected with the Judgment scene and battle of chap. 19.
    • Vision 2 (vv. 4-6)—The resurrection of believers, which elsewhere in early Christian tradition is tied to the end-time return of Jesus (1 Thess 4:14-17, cp. Mark 13:26-27 par). Though Jesus’ return is not specified here, it is depicted at similar points in the earlier vision-sequences (14:14-16; 19:11-16); the gathering of believers (including the resurrection of the dead?) is certainly described in 14:15-16.
    • Vision 3 (vv. 7-10)—Another vision of the great end-time Judgment on earth, parallel to that in 14:17-20; 19:17-21, involving the judgment/punishment of the nations and the final defeat of Satan.
    • Vision 4 (vv. 11-15)—The final Judgment in its heavenly aspect, taking place before the throne of God.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2019EschatologyNT_header1a.png

December 15: Revelation 19:17-21

Revelation 19:17-21

This is the third of the three visions of chapter 19. It follows upon the vision of the exalted Jesus’ return to earth as a conquering warrior (vv. 11-16), an Anointed (Messianic) ruler leading the heavenly army into battle. Here the end-time Judgment is cast in terms of the defeat of the nations, with the destruction of their kings and armies. It picks up on the unresolved sixth bowl-vision (16:12-16), where the kings of the earth gather for battle on the plain of “Megiddo” (the Har-Megiddo[n], Grk  (Armagedw/n, cf. Zech 12:11). This is the ancient “Day of YHWH” motif from Old Testament Prophetic tradition, as best epitomized by the Judgment-scene in Joel 3. In the sixth bowl-vision, the defeat of the nations is implied but never realized; this occurs here in verses 17-21, an echo of the earlier grape-harvest vision of 14:17-20.

Revelation 19:17-18

“And I saw one Messenger having stood in the sun, and he cried out [in] a great voice, saying to all (the) birds taking wing [i.e. flying] in the middle of (the) heaven(s): ‘Come here! you must be brought together unto the great dinner of God, so that you might eat (the) flesh of kings and (the) flesh of chiefs of a thousand, and (the) flesh of strong (one)s and (the) flesh of horses and the (one)s sitting upon them, and (the) flesh of all free (person)s and also slaves, and of little (one)s and great (one)s (alike)!'”

According to the ancient religious worldview, divine beings were closely associated with the natural phenomena of the universe, and so it is with the heavenly Messengers (Angels) in Old Testament and Jewish tradition. Throughout the book of Revelation, Angels are depicted as controlling the forces of nature, including the elements (fire and water, etc) as well as the specific parts of the cosmos (seas and rivers, the dry land, the sun, etc). At various points, these Messengers are seen standing in connection or contact with the natural features or cosmic regions (7:1; 10:5); here, one particular Messenger is standing “in/on the sun” (e)n tw=| h(li/w|). This makes for a most dramatic and brilliant appearance, as is fitting for such a climactic moment, similar to the Messenger who announces the fall of the Great City in 18:1-2.

The heavenly Messengers are often seen standing or flying in the heavens, giving them much in common with the birds of the sky; indeed, the two ‘heavenly’ motifs were joined together previously in 8:13 (cp. 14:6). Now the Messenger speaks directly to all the birds flying in the heavens, inviting them to come to feast on the flesh of the great multitudes who will be slain in battle. This image echoes 18:2, where it is announced that the Great City (“Babylon”) will become the haunting place for scavenging birds and wild animals—the implication being, in part, that they will be able to feed off of the dead bodies in the desolate and destroyed City. The actual language here in vv. 17-18 alludes to Ezekiel 39:17-18, part of what is surely the most elaborate “Day of YHWH” oracle in the Old Testament Prophets, depicting the Judgment against the Nations (and their defeat in battle) on the grandest scale. This is the so-called “Gog and Magog” prophecy in Ezek 38-39, and reflects an extensive development of the Judgment scene in Joel 3, where a vast confederation of nations comes together for battle against God and His People. Imagery and symbolism from this same oracle will continue into the visions of chapter 20.

Here, a multitude even more vast is indicated—the nation’s armies being made up from every part of society: free and slave, small and great, alike. Thus, the scene truly represents God’s Judgment against the nations as a whole, not just their leaders.

Revelation 19:19

“And I saw the wild animal, and the kings of the earth and their (group)s (of) armed soldiers, having been brought together to make war with the (one) sitting upon the (white) horse and with his (own group of) armed soldiers.”

This “wild animal” (qh/rion) is the same Sea-creature of chapter 13, whose presence has remained all through the visions of chap. 14, the bowl-visions of chaps. 15-16, and on into the climactic visions of chaps. 19-20. In the sixth-bowl vision (16:12-16), the Sea-creature (along with his evil ally, the Earth-creature or ‘False Prophet’) drew all the kings of the earth to this location, in order to do battle. What was implied there is now made explicit: their purpose is to make war with God’s Anointed (Jesus) and the People of God (Believers). This was already stated clearly enough in the visions of chapters 12 and 13 (see esp. 13:7), but now it is expressed in terms of the Last Judgment itself, through the image of a great battle.

It was a basic principle of Apocalyptic tradition that the nations, in their wickedness, were influenced and guided, in a very real sense, by the forces of evil. In many Jewish writings of the time, these evil forces were personified in the figure of Belial—a figure largely synonymous (but not necessarily identical) with the Satan/Devil. The demonic powers, led by Belial, join with the wicked human forces of the nations, much as the holy Angels join together with the People of God (the righteous/Elect). This is perhaps best expressed in the famous Qumran War Scroll (1QM, and related texts), anticipating a great end-time war between “the sons of light” and “the sons of darkness” (cf. 1QM 1:1-7; 11:6-7; 13:10; 15:2; 17:6-7, etc). The idea of an end-time attack by the nations and their armies, with their subsequent defeat by the Messiah, was a staple of Jewish eschatology (e.g. 2 Baruch 70:2-10; 72:1-6; 2/4 Esdras 13:5-11; Sibylline Oracles 3:657-68; for an earlier manifestation, cf. Psalms of Solomon 17-18). It was, of course preceded by Ezekiel 38-39 and other nation-oracle passages in the Prophets. For these and other references, cf. Koester, p. 760.

Revelation 19:20

“And the wild animal was seized, and with him the ‘False Foreteller’, the (one) (hav)ing done the signs in his sight, (and) in which he led astray the (one)s (hav)ing received the engraved (mark) of the wild animal and the (one)s kissing toward [i.e. worshiping] his image—the(se) two were thrown, (still) living, into the lake of fire, the (place of) burning in sulphur.”

While all of the human beings are slain (v. 21), the two figures representing or embodying the forces of evil—the Sea-creature and Earth-creature (called False Prophet)—are captured alive. Since these two are symbolic of evil demonic powers, their fate belongs to the Judgment in its heavenly, not earthly, aspect. The heavenly aspect of the Judgment was alluded to, though only briefly, in 14:9-11; it will come into focus only in the visions of chapter 20. There, too, mention was made specifically of the heavenly punishment that awaits those who worshiped the Sea-creature and received its engraved mark (xa/ragma), indicating that such persons belong to the creature. The motif of the “lake of fire” as a punishment will be discussed in the upcoming notes on 20:7-14. There I will also summarize again the symbolism of the Sea-creature within the overall context of the book of Revelation.

Revelation 19:21

“And the (one)s remaining were killed off in [i.e. by] the sword of the (one) sitting upon the (white) horse, the (sword hav)ing come out of his mouth, and the birds fed (as they would on green grass) out of their flesh.”

In verses 20-21, the figure of the conquering warrior (Jesus) is referenced simply as “the (one) sitting upon the (white) horse”, the emphasis thus being on the victorious power he possesses (the white horse signifying victory). It is by the sword (r(omfai/a) coming out of the exalted Jesus’ mouth that the people are slain. As discussed in the previous note, this “sword” is best understood as the Word of God, which is also to be identified with the Spirit of God (cf. the LXX of Isa 11:4). The exalted Jesus, as God’s representative (Anointed One and Son of God), himself possesses this Word, so that he even may be called “the Word of God” (v. 13).

As in the oracle of Ezek 38-39, the result of the great battle is a scene of total destruction and carnage. Ordinarily birds would come down onto the green grass to feed; now, these scavenging birds of prey come down onto the battlefield to feed on the flesh of the dead bodies. The verb xorta/zw alludes, literally, to animals grazing on lush green grass (xo/rto$); this came to be a common idiom for eating (or enjoying oneself) so as to be fully satisfied. Here the idiom (taken rather more literally), creates a grimly ironic scene—birds flocking to enjoy themselves on the flesh of slain human beings. There is irony in another sense as well: in verse 17, the Messenger called the birds to gather to a great dinner (dei=pnon) of God. This same word was used earlier in verse 9 for the dinner celebrating the marriage of believers (the bride) with the Lamb (the groom, Jesus). There, heavenly beings (human and angelic) were invited to a great feast signifying salvation; here, the birds are invited to a similar feast signifying judgment.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2019EschatologyNT_header1a.png

December 14: Revelation 19:14-16

Revelation 19:11-16, continued

In the previous note, we examined the first portion of this vision of the exalted Jesus’ end-time appearance, in the form of a conquering warrior, a ruler on horseback, corresponding to the traditional Messianic figure of the Davidic Ruler type, who will defeat and subdue the nations. Verses 14-16 bring out this military aspect more clearly, in preparation for the battle imagery in the vision of vv. 17-21.

Revelation 19:14

“And the armed soldiers in the heaven(s) followed him upon white horses, having been sunk in(to) [i.e. clothed in] clean white (fine) linen (garments).”

Here both aspects of the white color-symbolism are combined: (1) victory, and (2) purity/holiness. It also draws clearly upon the first vision in vv. 1-10, of the pure and exalted believers who join the heavenly multitude to form the People of God in their fullness. The fine white linen garments, while generally representing heavenly garb, were specifically applied to believers (as the “bride” of the Lamb) in verse 8. Thus, however incongruous it may seem, here believers are part of the heavenly army (“armed soldiers in the heaven”) that the exalted Jesus leads. That they also ride white horses indicates that they are part of the same victorious power that the exalted Jesus possesses. The motif of “following” Jesus (the Lamb) may be a specific allusion to the beautiful image in 14:4.

While not emphasized in the New Testament, the idea that Angels and the Elect of Israel might join forces together in the end-time judgment (and battle) against the wicked was part of Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic tradition (e.g., Ascension of Isaiah 4:14-17, and see esp. the Qumran War Scroll [1QM, and related documents]). Military imagery is applied to believers in the New Testament, but in a different (ethical and spiritual) sense, though still not without eschatological implications (1 Thess 5:8; Eph 6:10-17, etc).

Revelation 19:15

“And out of his mouth travels out a sharp sword, (so) that in [i.e. with] it he should hit the nations (hard), and he shall herd them (together) in [i.e. with] an iron staff, and (it is) he (that) treads the trough of the wine of the impulse of the anger of God the All-mighty…”

Three different strands of eschatological and Messianic tradition are combined here, drawing upon three principal Scripture passages:

    • Isaiah 11:1-4 (v. 4)—As indicated in the previous note (on verse 11), this is one of the key passages viewed as a prophecy of the (Davidic) Messiah’s defeat of the nations. Naturally, such military imagery was ill-suited to Jesus’ earthly career, but it was an established part of Jewish Messianic tradition (Psalms of Solomon 17:24, 35; 4Q161 8-10 iii, 15-19ff; 1 Enoch 62:2; 2/4 Esdras 13:9-11, 37-38). The “rod” or “sword” that comes out of the Messiah’s mouth was reinterpreted as his “word” (parallel to his “breath”) that slays the wicked (on the LXX reading, cf. below); this may relate to the identification of the returning Jesus as the word of God. A similar eschatological use of Isa 11:4 can be found in 2 Thess 2:8.
    • Psalm 2 (v. 9)—The “iron staff” is derived from Psalm 2:9, an even more famous Messianic passage, and one used more frequently by early Christians. This rod/staff blends together with the “rod” of Isa 11:4, creating a second motif of a tool or weapon by which the Messiah subdues the nations. Kings in the ancient Near East were often referred to with Shepherd symbolism, and no more so than a ruler from the line of David (the shepherd). The 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon is probably the best-known Jewish text that combines Psalm 2 and Isa 11:1-4 within a Messianic interpretation (cf. 17:21-35ff, note also 18:6-8). The rod or staff indicates the authority of the ruler, both in the sense of (a) guiding the herd or flock, and (b) protecting it from predators (i.e. enemies).
    • Isaiah 63:1-3 (v. 3, cf. also Joel 3:13)—This is a classic description of the “day of YHWH” (the “day of vengeance” <q*n` <oy, v. 4), presented in terms similar to that in Joel 3:11-13—the judgment of the nations depicted by the imagery of the grape harvest (v. 13). Here it is God’s Anointed representative (Messiah) who comes in His place, as a Messenger of the Judgment. The enemies of God are “trampled” underfoot, just as the grapes are trodden down after the harvest to produce the wine (cf. Isa 25:10; Zech 10:5; Lam 1:15). The flowing red juice was a natural symbol for blood, as in Rev 14:17-20. It is only in Isa 63:1-3 that this imagery is tied to God (or His representative) in the figure of a conquering warrior; the description in our passage generally follows that of Isaiah—(1) his splendid apparel (v. 1), its red color, stained with blood (vv. 2-3), and (3) the act of defeating/punishing the wicked by “trampling the (grapes in the) wine-trough” (v. 3). The extended expression “the wine of the impulse [qu/mo$] of the anger of God” builds on earlier usage in chaps. 14-18.
Revelation 19:16

“And he holds upon his garment and upon his thigh a name having been written: King of kings and Lord of lords.”

The final detail of the visionary description is another name—the third in the passage and the second name that is written. The significance of the thigh (mhro/$) is that is the area of the clothing where the sword would be located. However, since the conquering figure’s sword comes out of his mouth, it is not located in the normal position on the thigh; instead, a name is written in that place. It is unquestionably a divine title, since God (YHWH) was called both “King of kings” (2 Macc 13:4; 3 Macc 5:35) and “Lord of lords” (Deut 10:17; Ps 136:3), and these could also be combined (Dan 4:37 LXX; 11:36; 1 Enoch 9:4; 63:2ff). These titles were previously used of the exalted Jesus (the Lamb) in 17:14 (cf. also 1:5). Rulers in both the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world could be called “King of kings”, as the Scriptures themselves attest (Ezra 7:12; Ezek 26:7; Dan 2:37); like YHWH, Zeus also could be called by this title (Dio Chrysostom Oration 2.75). With regard to the motif of a name written on the thigh, it is worth nothing that there were statues in the Greek world that could be inscribed on the thigh with the dedication “To Zeus, king of the gods”, or something similar (Pausanias Description of Greece 5.27.12). For references, see Koester, p. 759.

The significance of these titles, as applied to the exalted Jesus, is well expressed by the notice in 1:5, which contains imagery foreshadowing that of 19:11-16:

    • “the trust(worthy) witness” —in 19:11 he is also called “trust(worthy)” (pisto/$), and the designation “word/account (lo/go$) of God” very much suggests his role as God’s witness (ma/rtu$), one who speaks on God’s behalf, communicating His word and will.
    • “the first-produced of the dead” —this emphasizes that Jesus’ exalted (and divine) status is understood primarily through his resurrection, by which God raised him to the exalted position at His right hand; there is likewise an allusion to harvest imagery (i.e. Jesus as the ‘first fruits’).
    • “the chief (ruler) [a&rxwn] of the kings of the earth” —here the exalted Jesus is accorded a position above all earthly rulers and kings, because he is God’s Anointed, ruling in heaven at His right hand. At the end-time Judgment, this authority he possesses will be realized and demonstrated, in concrete terms, over all the kingdoms on earth.
    • “the (one) washing us…in his blood” —this is one aspect of the motif in v. 13 of Jesus’ garment “dipped in blood”; similarly, believers who remain faithful are said to have washed their own garments in his blood (7:14).

Given the bloody carnage that will come upon the nations in battle (vv. 17-21, to be discussed in the next note), we might well envision a traditional military conflict, especially with the heavenly army that accompanies the exalted Jesus. However, there can be no doubt that the defeat of the nations is accomplished, not with physical force of arms, but by the sword that comes out of the Messiah’s mouth. As noted above, this image comes primarily from Isaiah 11:4:

“And he will judge the low(ly one)s with justice,
and will make (the) decision in a straight way for the oppressed of the earth;
and he will strike the earth with the staff [fb#v#] of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he will put the wicked to death.”

Here is the same combination of trustworthy judgment and punishment/defeat of the wicked. In the original Hebrew, it is a staff (fb#v#) that comes out of the ruler’s mouth; however, in the Greek version (LXX) it is a word (lo/go$): “…and he will strike the earth with the word of his mouth”. In the fragmentary Qumran commentary (pesher) on Isaiah, discussing 11:1-3, it is stated that the Messiah (“Branch of David”) would judge all the peoples with his sword (4Q161 fr. 8-10, col iii. line 22). Thus there is some precedent for interpreting the “rod” out of the Messiah’s mouth as a sword, which is the more natural weapon for slaying an enemy. For Christians, a more spiritual interpretation was readily at hand, which would depict the Word of God or the Spirit of God as a sword. Note, for example, the statement in Hebrews 4:12:

“For the Word [lo/go$] of God (is) living, and (has power) at work in (it) and (is) able to cut over [i.e. more than] every two-mouthed [i.e. two-edged] sword, reaching through even to (the) parting of soul and spirit…”

In Rev 1:16 (and 2:12, 16) it is similarly a “two-edged” sword that comes out of the exalted Jesus’ mouth, indicating that this “sword” is the Word of God. Note also the famous reference in Ephesians 6:17: “…and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God”. This statement is misread and misunderstood by many Christians, reversing the word order to make the equation that the Word of God (identified as the Bible) is the sword. A careful reading of the actual Greek shows something quite different. The relative pronoun is neuter, which matches pneu=ma (“Spirit”), not ma/xaira (“sword”)—which is to say that the Spirit is identified as the Word of God. Moreover the Spirit (not Scripture) is the sword, just as salvation is the helmet, etc. In any case, all of this gives added meaning to the identification of the conquering figure in Rev 19 (the exalted Jesus) as the Word of God. He himself possesses that Word, which comes as a sword out of his own mouth, according to the imagery of Isa 11:4 LXX. Similarly, in 2 Thess 2:8, Jesus at his return will slay (lit. “take up”, “take away”) the wicked “Lawless One” with the Spirit (pneu=ma) coming out of his mouth (another allusion to Isa 11:4, “the breath of his lips”). Thus the conquering power is spiritual, and the sword that slays the wicked is the Word/Spirit of God.

In conclusion, I would suggest that the expression “Word of God” in verse 13 has three basic levels or aspects of meaning:

    • The exalted Jesus functions as God’s witness, speaking on God the Father’s behalf, communicating His word and will to believers.
    • The idea that believers in Christ are victorious over the forces of evil through their own witness (following that of Jesus himself). This is expressed precisely in 12:11 (“and they were victorious over him [i.e. the Dragon/Satan] through the blood of the Lamb and through the word [lo/go$] of their witness”), but is implicit throughout the entire book as well.
    • It is also through the Word of God that Jesus achieves the final victory over the wicked and the forces of evil; the exalted Jesus himself functions as that Word, wielding it (as a sword) out of his own mouth.

References marked “Koester” in these notes are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2019EschatologyNT_header1a.png

December 13: Revelation 19:11-13

Revelation 19:11-16

I previously noted how chapters 14 and 19 have the same basic three-part structure, with a sequence of three visions that follow a common outline:

    • Vision of the People of God (believers), alluding to their faithfulness during the period of distress; they give praise to God and/or the exalted Jesus (the Lamb), and anticipate the final establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth.
    • Vision of the end-time coming (return) of the Exalted Jesus, as a conquering warrior, drawing upon Messianic imagery.
    • Vision of the Judgment of the Nations, their defeat and destruction in a bloody battle.

The first of these visions in chapter 19 occurred in verses 1-10, discussed in the previous notes. The second vision, of the return of Jesus to earth, is presented in verses 11-16. It is rather interesting that the return of Jesus, so central to early Christian eschatology, is so rarely referenced directly in the book of Revelation, being described only briefly in the visions of 14:14-16 and here in 19:11-16 (cf. also 1:7). By comparison, the end-time period of distress and the great Judgment upon the earth are given extensive and detailed treatment across the three major vision-cycles, along with other intervening visions. The simple sequence in chapters 14 and 19 more accurately reflects the basic eschatological outlook of early Christians, with a very simple chronology:

    • The period of distress (qli/yi$), during which believers were already living, and which would continue, becoming much more intense and severe, for an indeterminate (but relatively short) length of time.
    • The return of Jesus, as the Anointed One of God, to deliver the righteous (believers) and usher in the Judgment
    • The Judgment upon the wicked and the nations of earth
Revelation 19:11

“And I saw the heaven having been opened, and see—! a white horse, and the (one) sitting upon it [being called] trust(worthy) and true, and in justice he judges and makes war.”

The primary image here is of a conquering warrior—a ruler on horseback leading his army into battle. The color white, though it may also represent purity and holiness in the book of Revelation, here more properly signifies victory, as in the white horse of the seal-visions (6:2). There the rider on the white horse was a negative image, depicting the suffering associated with the period of distress; here, it is a positive image of the exalted Jesus’ return. In Greco-Roman tradition, victorious military leaders sometimes rode white horses (Herodotus 7.40; 9.63; Dio Cassius 43.14.3; Koester, p. 753).

This conquering-warrior imagery is joined to the idea of God judging the world. As His Anointed One (Messiah), Jesus acts as God’s representative, inaugurating the end-time Judgment and overseeing it. He acts according to God’s own justice, and does so faithfully; this is why he is called “trustworthy and true” (pisto\$ kai\ a)lhqino/$, also in 3:14), it reflects his character as God’s Anointed representative. The main Messianic aspect here involves the Davidic Ruler figure-type (on which, cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). The description alludes specifically to Isaiah 11:1-4, a key passage for the tradition of the defeat of the nations by God’s Messiah, functioning as a conquering military hero. This is an aspect of the Davidic Messiah which Jesus clearly did not fulfill in his lifetime, and could only be realized upon his return to earth at the end-time.

The visionary detail of the heaven “having been opened” foreshadows the action of God in bringing the Judgment, a sign that it was about to begin (cf. 11:19; 15:5; Isa 64:1; 3 Macc 6:18-19); moreover, the manifestation of ‘armies’ marching in heaven (its sound, etc) was traditionally viewed as a sign of corresponding conflict that would take place on earth (Josephus, War 6.298-9; Tacitus Histories 5.13, etc; Koester, p. 752).

Revelation 19:12-13

“And his eyes (were) [as] a flame of fire, and upon his head (were) many strips bound around, holding a name having been written (on them) that no one has seen, if not he (him)self, and having thrown about (him) a garment having been dipped in blood, and his name has been called: The Lo/go$ of God.”

The features of this conquering figure represent a combination of Divine and Messianic/Christological details:

    • “eyes as a flame of fire” —a symbol of divine, heavenly power (e.g. Dan 10:6), which also was an attribute of the exalted Jesus in the introductory vision (1:14)
    • “many strips bound round (his head)” —these diadh/mata were honorific strips of cloth, worn around the head by kings and rulers (a common feature in the Greco-Roman tradition).
      • “holding a name having been written (on them)” —i.e., the name is written on the cloth bands; there is a clear parallel with the Dragon and Sea-Creature of the chapter 12-13 visions, who also had diadems or crowns on their heads/horns, along with names insulting to God (12:3; 13:1).
    • “a garment thrown about him having been dipped in blood” —royal figures often wore purple-dyed garments, but the garment of this ruler was been dyed with blood (like the reddish purple ‘blood’ of grapes). Here the symbolism is two-fold: (1) the blood refers to Jesus’ sacrificial death (as well as the death of believers who follow his example), and (2) it prefigures the blood of those to be slain in the coming Judgment. Both aspects are emphasized throughout the book of Revelation (1:5; 5:9; 6:10-12; 7:14; 12:11; 16:3-6, etc), but the immediate reference is to the vision of 14:17-20, where the Judgment on the Nations is symbolized by the ‘blood’ of the grape-harvest (cf. Joel 3:13; Isa 63:1-3).

Of special interest are the two names mentioned in these verses:

    • The first name was, apparently, written on the bands (diadems) around his head; the syntax is unclear, and it is possible that the name was written in a different (unspecified) location, but throughout the book of Revelation we find the motif of a name written on the (fore)head. It is said that no one has seen (or known) this name, except for this ruler (Jesus) himself. There is a long (and ancient) religious tradition involving hidden or secret names—including hidden names of God. Just as the Sea-creature held names insulting to God on his head(s) (13:1), so the exalted Jesus holds a name honoring to God, which is itself a Divine name, indicating his divine status and position. In the Johannine Last Discourse (the great Prayer-Discourse of chap. 17), Jesus is the one who makes the name of the Father known to humankind (believers), and he, the Son, is the only one who knows it (17:6, 11-12, 25-26). Closer to the sense of our passage here is the Christ-Hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, where the exalted Jesus is given “the name th(at is) over every name” (v. 9).
    • The second name is not written, but called—i.e. it is spoken, or said, of the exalted Jesus. Here this name is stated: “the Lo/go$ of God”. The noun lo/go$ is notoriously difficult to translate consistently in English, especially when applied in a Christological context (“word” fits as good as anything). The usage in the Gospel of John (esp. 1:1, 14) could be seen as confirming the traditional Johannine character of the book of Revelation (i.e., in relation to the Gospel and Letters). Here, lo/go$ is unquestionably used as a divine title. I would suggest that its significance must be understood in the context of the book, where, as outlined especially in the opening verses (1:1-2), we have the important idea of Jesus as God’s witness. He speaks on God the Father’s behalf, as His representative, and thus embodies God’s word, the prophetic account (lo/go$) of the Divine will and purpose which is given out to the People of God. It may also signify the word of God’s judgment.

The remainder of this vision (vv. 14-16) will be discussed in the next daily note.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2019EschatologyNT_header1a.png

December 9: Revelation 19:9-10

Revelation 19:1-10, continued

Revelation 19:9-10

“And he says to me, ‘You must write (this): Happy (are) the (one)s having been called into the marriage supper of the Lamb’. And he says to me, ‘These are the true accounts [i.e. words/sayings] of God’.” (v. 9)

The subject of “he says” is not immediately clear; there is certainly a Messenger present with the seer in v. 10, perhaps to be identified with one of the two mentioned in chapter 18 (v. 1, 21). At the beginning of the book, the seer (John) was commanded to write down the things he would see in the visions (1:11, 19), a command which effectively runs through the letters to the seven cities (2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). A closer parallel is found in 14:13, where what he is told to write is a beatitude, likewise beginning “happy (are) the ones…” (maka/rioi oi(…):

    • “Happy (are) the dead, the (one)s dying away in the Lord from now (on).” (14:13)
    • “Happy (are) the (one)s having been called into the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (19:9)

On the beatitude form itself, see my earlier study series on the Beatitudes of Jesus, esp. the introductory article on the contextual and historical background of the form, and the concluding article on the other beatitudes in the New Testament. The context of these beatitudes is fundamentally eschatological—that is, they relate to the blessed state of the righteous in the afterlife (or, in the Age to Come), following the Judgment. In Christian terms, the righteous and faithful ones (believers) will join in the heavenly, divine life, in the presence of the exalted Jesus (the Lamb) and God the Father. From the standpoint of the symbolism in the book of Revelation, this refers to the People of God in their heavenly aspect.

In this instance, the blessed life is expressed by the motif of a marriage and its wedding festivities (cf. the previous note). In Jesus’ parable of Matthew 22:1-10, the invitation to a wedding feast serves as a figure for the calling of believers and the proclamation of the Gospel. The meaning is comparable here, only the setting is that of the exalted condition of those believers who have remained faithful. There is actually a blending of images here, since believers represent both the bride and the wedding guests. As it happens, a number of written wedding-feast invitations, that are roughly contemporary, are preserved in the surviving ancient Greek papyri (e.g., P.Fay. 132, P.Oxy. 1579, 3313; Koester, p. 731).

The second declaration by the Angel (“these are the true words/accounts of God”) affirms the promise of salvation and the blessed future life for believers in Christ. Even as God Himself is true (a)lhqino/$, 3:7, 14; 6:10; 15:3; 16:7; 19:2), so also are all His words and promises. This also confirms the inspired character of the visionary message (cf. on verse 10 below). One is reminded of the Johannine emphasis that identifies truth (a)lh/qeia) with the Holy Spirit (Jn 4:23-24; 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 Jn 4:6; 5:6).

“And I fell (down) in front of his feet to kiss toward [i.e. worship] him, and he said to me, ‘See (that) you do not (do that)! I am a slave together with you and all your brothers, (all) the (one)s holding the witness of Yeshua; (it is) God (that) you must kiss toward [i.e. worship]. For the witness of Yeshua is the Spirit of profhtei/a.'” (v. 10)

In previous notes, I have mentioned how there is a close relationship between believers and the heavenly beings (i.e. Messengers/Angels), both essentially making up (together) the People of God. This is expressed various ways throughout the book, and is emphasized again here in chapter 19, as exalted believers blend into the heavenly multitude (vv. 1-3, 6-8). The conjunction is also represented by the twenty-four Elders alongside the four Living beings (v. 4f). Perhaps nowhere is this relationship expressed more clearly than here in verse 10, where the Messenger (heavenly being) declares that he is “a slave together with” all human believers. The main thing they have in common is that they hold (vb e&xw) “the witness of Yeshua”. The directive by the Angel that the seer not give homage to (lit. “kiss toward”, i.e. worship) him, is found in other apocalyptic writings (e.g., Ascension of Isaiah 7:21) of the period, and so may have been something a standard traditional detail. It of course reflects the fundamental idea that worship belongs to God alone.

The expression “witness of Yeshua” (h( marturi/a  )Ihsou=) is central to the book of Revelation, which makes extensive use of the nouns marturi/a (9 times), ma/rtu$ (5 times), and the related verb marture/w (4 times)—the verb and noun marturi/a also occur frequently in the Johannine Gospel and Letters. The specific expression “witness of Yeshua” occurs four other times in the book of Revelation (1:2, 9; 12:17; 20:4). The genitival relationship can be understood two ways: either as a subjective genitive, i.e. Jesus is the one witnessing, or an objective genitive, in which case it is a witness about Jesus. Both are entirely valid, and each fits well in the overall outlook of Revelation. However, given the way that the book begins (cf. the initial note on 1:1), the subjective aspect should be given priority. Jesus is the one who gives witness, and believers reproduce Jesus’ own witness, both by word (preaching/proclamation) and example. This is beautifully expressed by the idea of believers following the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4).

The concluding declaration by the Angel states that “the witness of Yeshua is the Spirit of profhtei/a“. The relationship of this statement with the rest of vv. 9-10 is not immediately apparent. Normally, I would translate the noun profhtei/a rather literally as “foretelling”; however, this can be misleading, as it suggests that the word refers merely to predicting the future. Certainly, the visions in the book of Revelation are to be taken as prophetic in that sense (1:1, etc), and yet early Christian use of the Greek word-group is better understood in light of the corresponding Hebrew root abn. A ayb!n`, in the religious sense, functions as a spokesperson for God—i.e., one who speaks on God’s behalf, communicating His word and will to the people. This is fundamentally the significance of a profh/th$ (foreteller, prophet) in early Christianity as well. Such divine communication was considered to inspired by the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of God and Christ. Here, the statement confirms still further the close relationship between heavenly Messenger (Angel) and believer. Just as the Angel conveys the word and will of God, so also do believers through the Spirit. The basic message both groups convey can be defined as “the witness of Jesus”, and what unites believers (especially those gifted as prophets) with the heavenly beings—as messengers—is the guiding presence and activity of the Spirit. There are relatively few references to the Spirit in the book of Revelation, apart from the letters to the seven congregations in chaps. 2-3 (once in each letter). The seer (John) is said to be “in the Spirit” on several occasions, indicating the inspired and prophetic character of the visions (1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10); however, the closest parallel to the statement here is perhaps found at 22:17, in the concluding words of the book.

Some commentators would treat verse 10 as the end of a major section, thus separating it from the remainder of chapter 19. The declaration regarding the prophetic Spirit would certainly fit such a climactic position. However, I do not believe this way of dividing the book is correct; in my view, it is much preferable to retain the integrity of chapter 19 as a distinct unit, a set of three visions similar in structure and theme to those of chapter 14. Indeed, it is the sequence of visions in chaps. 14 and 19, rather than the more elaborate seven-vision cycles, which best encapsulates the traditional early Christian eschatology. This will be discussed further in the next daily note (on vv. 11-16).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2019EschatologyNT_header1a.png