The Book of Revelation
We have reached the end of this series based on Jesus’ words in John 6:63: “The utterances [i.e. words] which I have spoken to you are Spirit and are Life”. The notes in this series have focused on the use of the words “spirit” (pneu=ma) and “life” (zwh/), especially in the Johannine writings—the Gospel and Letters of John. The Book of Revelation is usually regarded as a Johannine work as well, derived from the same general church environment, timeframe and setting. Many commentators feel that the Johannine congregations were centered around Ephesus, and that certainly fits the book of Revelation; the letters in chaps. 2-3 are addressed to Christians in Asia Minor, beginning with Ephesus. Of course, tradition attributes the Gospel, Letters, and the book of Revelation to John the apostle, but authorship is indicated only in the book of Revelation. Even so, it is far from certain that the “John” in Rev 1:1, 9 is John the apostle.
Most scholars believe that the author of the book of Revelation is not the same person as either the Gospel writer or the author of the letters. While certain ideas and expressions are similar between the works, the language and style of the book of Revelation is markedly different. As we shall see, even the sense of the words pneu=ma (“spirit”) and zwh/ (“life”) has a different orientation and emphasis than in the Gospel or Letters. Let us begin with the word pneu=ma. Apart from several occurrences of the plural, which refer to “unclean/evil spirits” (16:13-14; 18:2), it is always the Spirit of God which is in view, much as we find in the other Johannine writings. However, it is used in two distinctive ways which differ markedly from the Gospel and Letters: (1) references to “seven Spirits” of God, and (2) the prophetic role and work of the Spirit.
“Spirit” in the Book of Revelation
Four times in the book (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6), we read of “seven Spirits”, an idea that is unique to the book of Revelation among the New Testament writings. Christians have variously sought to associate this number seven with the Holy Spirit, often in terms of seven “gifts” or “attributes”, such as the traits listed in Isa 11:2-3. However, it would seem that these seven “Spirits” should be considered as distinct from the Holy Spirit, and identified instead with heavenly beings (i.e. “angels”). The evidence for this is:
- Psalm 104:4 refers to God’s Messengers (“angels”) as “Spirits” and also as “flames of fire” (much like the seven Spirits in 4:5)
- These “Spirits” are located in heaven, surrounding the throne of God, similar to the fiery/heavenly beings in Isa 6:1ff and Ezek 1:4-28, as well as the “living creatures” elsewhere in the book of Revelation. The image seems to be drawn most directly from Zech 4:2, 10, where the the seven lamps are said to function as God’s “eyes” (Rev 5:6, messengers sent out into the world). The idea of seven angels surrounding God’s throne generally follows Jewish tradition (cf. Tobit 12:15; 1 Enoch 20:1-7, etc).
- These “Spirits” are treated as distinct from Jesus Christ in a way that would be most unusual if it were meant to refer to the Holy Spirit (cf. 1:4)
- They are clearly connected with the “seven congregations” of chaps. 2-3, each of which has a Messenger (“Angel”) associated with it. In Israelite/Jewish tradition, certain heavenly Messengers were assigned to particular nations, groups or individuals (for protection, etc). This interpretation is more or less made explicit in 2:20.
In the remainder of the book, pneu=ma specifically refers to the activity and role of the Spirit (of God) in prophecy—the revealing of God’s word and will, to be communicated to God’s people (believers) by a chosen representative. This is expressed several different ways:
1. e)n pneu/mati (“in the Spirit”). This expression occurs first in Rev 1:10, which sets the scene for the prophetic visions described in the book:
“I came to be in the Spirit in/on the lordly day [i.e. Lord’s day], and I heard behind me a great voice…”
This is the basis of the visionary experience which comes to the prophet “John”; it reflects the older, traditional aspect of the prophetic figure being “in the Spirit” (Ezek 3:12; Luke 2:27, etc). Even among Christians, who experience the Spirit in a new way—as the permanent, abiding presence of Christ (and God the Father)—certain believers could still be gifted and inspired specially as prophets (cf. below).
The next occurrence of the expression is in 4:2, where the prophetic inspiration now takes the form of a heavenly vision—i.e., the ability to see things in heaven, a ‘spiritual’ dimension above (cf. Ezek 8:3-4; 11:5). There are numerous accounts in Jewish tradition of visionary travels through the heavenly realms (e.g., the Enoch literature, the Ascension of Isaiah, etc). Paul may have experienced something of this sort, according to his statement in 2 Cor 12:1-4. The remaining two occurrences take place later in the book, where the seer states that the heavenly Messenger “led me away in the Spirit” (17:3; 21:10). In each instance, he is transported into a visionary landscape (desert, high mountain), to a symbolic and undefined ‘spiritual’ location, similar to those in many mystical and ascetic religious experiences.
2. The Spirit speaks to/through the visionary. This is the core manifestation and dynamic of the prophetic experience. Through the prophet, the Spirit (of God) speaks to the wider Community. This takes place in the “letters” to the seven congregations in chaps. 2-3, each of which concludes with a common refrain:
“The one holding [i.e. possessing] an ear must hear what the Spirit says to the congregations” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22)
The first phrase follows wording used by Jesus (Mark 4:9 par, etc), especially in relation to his making known “secrets” to his followers, through the use of parables, etc. In speaking to these congregations, the Spirit essentially represents the risen Jesus, communicating his words to the believers in Asia Minor. As in other portions of the New Testament, prophecy is viewed as the work of the Spirit, in a uniquely Christian sense. There are two aspects to the fundamental meaning of the word profhtei/a (lit. speaking before):
- The Spirit presents God’s message (His word and will) before the people (that is, to them, in front of them), through the inspired believer (prophet) as a spokesperson
- He also announces things beforehand (i.e., foretells), indicated here by the eschatological orientation of the book
There is a specific association with prophecy in two additional passages:
- 19:10—the expression “the Spirit of foretelling [i.e. prophecy]”, where the Spirit expressly conveys the word of the risen Jesus to the people; here the Spirit is identified as “the witness of Jesus”. This is also an important aspect of the Johannine view of the Spirit in the Gospel and Letters.
- 22:6—the expression “the spirits of the foretellers [i.e. prophets]”; this refers to the (human) spirit of the prophet which is touched and inspired by the Spirit of God. In this way, the gifted believer, when speaking, is governed by the Spirit. Cf. 1 Cor 14:32, and also note 1 Jn 4:1-3.
3. The Spirit speaks directly. Twice in the book of Revelation we find the Spirit speaking directly, responding to a heavenly voice. In 14:13, the response echoes a command to write (v. 12); this solemn refrain is appropriate to the context of believers who are put to death for their faithfulness to Jesus. In 22:17, at the close of the book, it follows the announcement of Jesus’ imminent coming (vv. 7, 12). The Spirit responds along with the “Bride” (believers collectively), as well as “the one who hears” (i.e. hears the visions of the book read out). This reflects the work of the Spirit in and among believers, witnessing together with them (cf. John 15:26-27).
“Spirit” and “Life”
At several points in the book of Revelation, both the words “spirit” and “life” are used in the general sense of ordinary physical/biological (human) life. This life is given by God (11:11, cf. Gen 2:7; and note also 8:9; 16:3), and it plays on the dual meaning of pneu=ma as both “breath” and “spirit”. It is particularly associated with the idea of resurrection (2:8; 20:4-5), as we see also in the Gospel of John (5:19-29; chap. 11). Only here it is the traditional, eschatological understanding of resurrection, rather than the spiritual sense of “realized” eschatology which dominates the Gospel. The giving of “life” is also presented as part of the false/evil work performed by the forces of ‘antichrist’, in imitation of God’s work of creation (13:15).
“Life” in the Book of Revelation
The words zwh/ (“life”) and the related verb za/w (“live”) are used primarily in three different senses in the book of Revelation:
1. Traditional references to God as “living” (7:2) or as “the one who lives (forever)” (4:9-10; 10:6; cf. Dan 4:34; 12:7; Sirach 18:1, etc). Particularly important in this regard is the fact that Jesus identifies himself with this Divine title/attribute in 1:17-18; the declaration takes the form of an “I Am” saying similar to those we see throughout the Gospel of John:
“I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the first and the last, and the living one [o( zw=n]…”
However, this is not necessarily an absolute statement of deity; it relates specifically to the resurrection and the risen Jesus:
“…I came to be dead, and see! I am living [zw=n ei)mi] into the Ages of the Ages, and I hold the keys of death and of Hades” (v. 18b)
2. Repeated references to “living (creature)s” (zw=|a) in heaven (i.e. heavenly beings) surrounding the throne of God (cf. Ezek 1:4-10ff)—4:6-7; 5:6, 8, 11, 14; 6:1, 3, 5-7; 7:11; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4. These are parallel, in certain respects, to the “seven Spirits” which surround the throne (cf. above). This Old Testament motif follows ancient Near Eastern religious imagery and iconography; it was revived in Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic tradition in the first centuries B.C./A.D.
3. There are a series of expressions with the genitive zwh=$ (“…of life”). Here we are closest to the meaning of the word zwh/ in the Gospel and Letters of John—as the divine/eternal Life which believers come to possess through faith in Christ and the presence of the Spirit. In the Gospel, we find similar expressions: “Bread of Life”, “Light of Life”, etc. In the book of Revelation, these are as follows:
a. “Paper-roll of Life” (h( bi/blo$ th=$ zwh=$, or to\ bibli/on th=$ zwh=$)—3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27. The words bi/blo$ (bíblos) and bibli/on (biblíon) have essentially the same meaning. They are typically translated as “book”, but this is often somewhat misleading, especially in the current context. More properly, it refers to a paper (papyrus) roll or scroll; and here it is simply a roll on which names are recorded—the names of those persons (believers) who will come to inherit the divine/eternal Life. This is tied to the ancient (Near Eastern) scene of Judgment, envisioned as occurring after death. Jewish tradition came to apply it within an eschatological setting—i.e., of the Judgment which will take place at the end time. The specific image used in the book of Revelation has an Old Testament background (Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:28; Isa 4:3; Dan 12:1), which continued and developed in Jewish tradition (4Q524; Jubilees 30:22; 1 Enoch 108:3, etc), and into early Christianity (Luke 10:20; Phil 3:20; 4:3).
The concept draws upon Greco-Roman practice as well—lists of registered citizens, who receive the rights and benefits of citizenship. For believers in Christ, this is a heavenly citizenship in the “New Jerusalem” (chaps. 21-22). Sinning can cause a person’s name to be “wiped out” (erased) from the roll (3:5); however, the names of (true) believers have been inscribed from before the time of creation (17:8). These believers belong to the Lamb (Jesus Christ, 13:8) and have been destined to inherit Life. Even so, according to the view of the book of Revelation, this is not absolutely unconditional; rather, only the believers who endure faithfully to the end will receive the promised Life.
b. “Tree of Life” (to\ cu/lon th=$ zwh=$)—2:7; 22:2, 14, 19. The expression relates to an ancient Near Eastern religious and mythological image with parallels in many cultures worldwide. Here it derives primarily from Old Testament tradition, with the setting of the “garden of God” (Gen 2:9; 3:22ff; cf. also Ezek 28:13ff; 31:9; Isa 51:3). Conceivably, there could also be an allusion to Greco-Roman tree-shrines, since, at many points in the book of Revelation, true worship of God is contrasted with false/evil pagan (Greco-Roman) practices. There is a close eschatological association with the “Water of Life” motif (cf. below); both are part of the Paradise-Garden landscape utilized in closing visions of chap. 21-22, and were also preserved in Christian thought through Jewish wisdom traditions (Prov 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4; 2 Esdras 2:12; 8:52). The reward for believers is to eat of the fruit from the Tree, which also provides life-giving healing through its leaves (20:2, taken from Psalm 1:3).
c. “Water of Life” (to\ u%dwr th=$ zwh=$)—21:6; 22:1, 17. There is a similar expression, “living water” (cf. 7:17), which, in the Old Testament originally referred to naturally flowing water (from a stream or spring), but which came to be applied in a symbolic, spiritual sense (Song 4:5; Jer 2:13; 17:13; cf. Isa 49:10, etc). Such expressions are used by Jesus in the Gospel of John (4:10-11, 14; 7:38), which I have discussed in earlier notes in this series; there, water is primarily used as a symbol of the Spirit (cf. also Jn 3:3-8; 19:30, 34).
d. “Crown/Wreath of Life” (o( ste/fano$ th=$ zwh=$)—2:10 (cf. also 3:11; 4:4, 10). A circular wreath (ste/fano$), given as a sign of honor, was especially common in Greco-Roman culture. It was given to victors in athletic events and other competitions, for military service and triumphs, as well as for important public/civic service (see Koester, pp. 277-8 for a summary of examples from Classical literature). The primary association is that of victory (6:2). For believers in Christ, the honor (‘glory’) relates to faithfulness and endurance (against sin, evil, and apostasy [falling away]) during the time of testing and persecution. Paul uses much the same motif in 1 Cor 9:25, and alludes to it also in 1 Thess 2:19; Phil 4:1. The specific expression (“crown/wreath of Life”) is found in the letter of James (1:12), and 1 Peter 5:4 has “crown/wreath of honor [do/ca] without (any) fading” which is very close in meaning.
This study in the book of Revelation concludes the current series and also provides an introduction for the next (already being posted on this site), which deals with the subject of eschatology and prophecy in the New Testament. Parallel to the articles in this series, a running set of daily notes will work through the book of Revelation in more detail, focusing specifically on the background of the visionary language and symbolism in the book, as it would have been understood by the author and his original audience. I hope that you will join me for this exciting study.
References marked “Koester” above are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014). This is a most valuable modern critical treatment of the book, with many relevant citations from Classical works.