Glossary of Key Words and Phrases Used in Revelation

Lesson ▪ 2009-2011
Tags: Revelation; Language
Excerpted from Notes on Revelation

144,000 »» Chapters 7 and 14 of Revelation refer to a group of 144,000 “servants of God” (7:3) who represent “every tribe of the sons of Israel” (7:4-8). They are sealed with the name of God/the Lamb on their foreheads—a sign of divine acceptance and deliverance (7:3-4; 14:1). They have been redeemed: “from the earth” (14:3) and “from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (14:4). They are people of high integrity, spoken of as being blameless, honest, and pure (14:4-5). They follow the Lamb (14:1, 4) and are uniquely able to learn “a new song” that is sung before the throne (14:3).

These pieces of information—the overt biblical data regarding the 144,000—have given rise to a variety of interpretations. Commentators differ in their conclusions in at least three key areas:

  • The significance of the number: The number 144,000 most likely conveys symbolic meaning. But what is the extent of this symbolism? Does the number have a literal significance as well?
  • The significance of the group’s identification with the twelve tribes: Are the 144,000 literally “sons of Israel,” or is this characterization to be taken figuratively in reference to the church?
  • The timing of the group’s appearance: Have the 144,000 already appeared on the scene? If so, when? If not, when can they be expected to appear?

»» “The number 144,000 represents completeness, twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes (v. 4)” (Elwell, “Revelation” 1211).

»» According to Michaels, “there are clues within the text that a symbolic interpretation [of the number] is required. The number 144,000 is something John says he heard (v. 4), not something he saw or was permitted to count” (notes on 7:1-17).

»» Johnson surveys the use of the numbers twelve and 1,000 in Revelation, leading him to espouse “the view that John intends the number twelve to be taken symbolically and not literally. By 144,000, he signifies the sealing of all or the total number of God’s servants who will face the Great Tribulation” (notes on 7:4).

»» Walvoord appears to favor the view that, while the figure of 144,000 conveys symbolism, it is nonetheless to be taken as a literal number (143).

»» “Bauckham . . . has argued convincingly that in Rev. 7:4-8 those numbered are God’s eschatological army—not a literal army of Israelites, but a symbol of the ‘church militant,’ which wages war against its spiritual foes and overcomes the devil through faithful witness to Jesus” (Beale and McDonough 1107).

»» “Though the Bible distinguishes true Israelites from those who have forsaken their heritage, the term ‘Israel’ is never used outside the descendants of Jacob himself. The remnant of Israel as portrayed here in the book of Revelation should not therefore be taken as meaning the church. It would be rather ridiculous to carry the typology of Israel representing the church to the extent of dividing them up into twelve tribes as was done here, if it was the intent of the writer to describe the church” (Walvoord 143).

»» Ladd observes that the list of the tribes does not coincide with any other list in the Bible, but rather differs in three respects. Therefore, he views the twelve tribes as a figure representing the church—“the true Israel, the elect of God whether Jew or Gentile” (“Revelation” 175).

»» According to Gregg, preterists and futurists are inclined to take the 144,000 as a group of ethnic Israelites (though some futurists dissent). The former view the 144,000 as “a symbolic number representing the full number of Jewish Christians who escaped the doomed city [of Jerusalem] before its destruction [in 70 AD]” (130). Futurists understand the 144,000 to be a group of believers alive during the Tribulation period, whether ethnic Israelites (as in dispensationalism) or the church (other forms of futurism). Historicists and spiritualists tend to identify the group with the church—whether at a focused point in history or throughout the church age (130-33).

according to your works / for her deeds / according to what they had done »» The phrase katà tà érga (lit., “according to the works”) appears four times in Revelation (2:23; 18:6; 20:12; 20:13). The same phrase appears elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., 2 Cor. 11:15; 2 Tim. 1:9; 4:14) and has precedents in the Old (e.g., Jer. 25:14). Similar phrases appear in Matthew 16:27 (katà tèn prãxin [“according to what he has done”]) and Revelation 22:12 (hos tò érgon estìn autoû [“for what he has done”]). The phrase is used to express two concepts: that God offers us salvation without regard for any works that we have done, and that he will repay each person justly in accordance with his works. In Revelation it is one of many constructions that connect the letters to the churches of Asia with the prophecies of the final chapters.

[the] Almighty »» 1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7; 16:14; 19:6; 19:15; 21:22

the Alpha and the Omega »» 1:8; 21:6; 22:13

the altar »» Two altars are mentioned in Revelation. The altar located in the Jerusalem temple is referred to only once (11:1). All other references describe an altar located near God’s throne (8:1, 3) in a heavenly temple. Like the altar of incense described in Exodus 30:1-10, it is made of gold (8:3; 9:13) and has horns (9:13).

The altar is a place where incense is burned (8:3). The incense is, or at least bears relation to, “the prayers of [all] the saints” (8:3; cf. 5:8). Oversight of the altar’s fire appears to be the province of angels, or possibly of a single angel (14:18; comp. 8:5). An angel throws fire from the altar to the earth, leading to the display of nature’s fury (8:5).

The altar seems to have a special connection with those martyred for their belief in God and Christ. It affirms the fact that they are vindicated through divine judgment (16:5-7). Furthermore, the souls of the (Tribulation?) martyrs are pictured as being under the altar (6:9); indeed, the altar may be a place of rest (6:11).

A voice is said to emanate from the altar area on three occasions: The first case plainly describes the voice as that of the martyrs crying out for justice (6:9-10). This description probably provides the key to interpreting the other two instances of speech proceeding from the altar, which are more cryptic. In the second case, a voice from the altar’s horns calls on an angel to launch the sixth trumpet judgment (9:13). Finally, the altar is said to speak, affirming God’s judgment on those who have slain the saints and prophets (16:5-7).

»» “There seems . . . to be no altar in the New Jerusalem, just as there is no temple, for the Lamb is enthroned, and there is no need for a place of sacrifice” (Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman 21).

»» According to the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, references to incense in the Scriptures convey images of worship—especially prayer—as well as “reverence, a pledge of allegiance, and, finally, a desire to please a deity and curry favor” (Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman 419).

angel[s] of the . . . church[es] »» The angels of the churches are first mentioned in 1:20. Thereafter each church’s “angel” is named as the addressee of the letters that John is instructed to write (2:1; 2:8; 2:12; 2:18; 3:1; 3:7; 3:14).

»» “Whether the ‘angel’ of each church refers to a heavenly being, like a guardian angel, or to an earthly messenger (Gr. angelos simply means messenger), like a pastor or bishop, has been disputed. In each of the letters that follow, the angel of each church is addressed as the recipient. Since these angels no doubt are expected to pass along to the churches the information communicated to them by Christ, many commentators feel they must be visible, human messengers in contact with the congregations” (Gregg 61-62).

“A strong objection to the human messenger sense here is the fact that the word is not used that way anywhere else in apocalyptic literature” (Johnson, notes on 1:20).

Babylon / Babylon the great / Babylon the great city »» Revelation applies the name “Babylon” to an entity that it describes both as a city (e.g., 18:10; 18:21) and a prostitute (e.g., 17:5). As a city Babylon is noted for her greatness (16:19; 17:18; 18:2; 18:10; 18:16; 18:18-19; 18:21) and her “dominion over the kings of the earth” (17:18). As a prostitute she is connected with people groups worldwide (17:15; cf. 17:1). Indeed, she is said to have liaised with all nations in her immorality (14:8; 17:2; 18:3; cf. 18:23). Furthermore, Babylon has a special relationship with the beast (17:3), such that the prostitute-city’s mystery is one with that of the beast (17:7).

Babylon’s imminent destruction is announced when she is first named (14:8). The city is not only a hub of economic activity (18:3; 18:11-19; 18:23), but an icon of luxurious living (18:3; 18:7; 18:9; 18:11-19; cf. 17:4). She is guilty of a great number of sins (18:4-5) and, not surprisingly, receives swift retributive justice for them (18:6ff, esp. vv. 10, 19). Indeed, the city is named as the object of God’s wrath (16:17-21, esp. v. 19). The prostitute is referred to as the source of the earth’s abominations (17:5). In addition, she is responsible for martyring the saints (17:6; 18:24).

Ironically, Babylon’s destruction comes at the hand of the beast with which she was once in alliance. This relationship apparently deteriorates, and the beast, with help from ten kings, turns on and destroys her (17:16-17). This destruction is carried out at God’s decree (17:17) and is final (18:20-24). Her demise is mourned by the earth’s kings, merchants, and seamen (18:9-19). Nevertheless, the martyred are vindicated by her judgment and the saints lift up a hymn of praise when she succumbs to God’s judgment (18:20).

»» “Babylon was the great enemy of Israel in Old Testament times (Isa. 21:9; Jer. 50:2; 51:8) and here stands for the capital city of the final apostate civilization, the symbol of human society organized politically, economically, and religiously in opposition to and defiance of God” (Ladd, Commentary 194). Mounce emphasizes that John’s use of the name “Babylon” implicitly conveys the assurance that the end-time city will come to destruction like its ancient namesake (325). Given the different emphases of chapters 17 and 18, some futurists regard “Babylon” to refer to different things—a religious system in chapter 17, and a political-economic entity in chapter 18 (Gregg 425, 427).

the beast »» The Greek word rendered “beast” in Revelation is therion. This word denotes an animal—especially a wild animal—and, by extension, a savage being. Revelation uses therion in its natural sense once (6:8). All 30 or so other uses of the word are figurative, referring to one or another agent empowered by Satan to oppose God, the Lamb, and the saints.

Most occurrences of therion are found in chapters 13 and 17, which refer to “a beast rising out of the sea” (13:1), “another beast rising out of the earth” (13:11), and “a scarlet beast that [. . .] had seven heads and ten horns” (17:3). The second of these beasts, which is described in detail in 13:11-18, is apparently the same as the false prophet (comp. 13:11-14; 19:20).

At first glance 13:1 and 17:3 might seem to describe two distinct beasts. However, the overall context of the second half of Revelation implies that they are a single entity. The first symbolic use of therion is found in 11:7; the description found there (“the beast that rises from the bottomless pit”) matches one that is attributed to the scarlet beast in 17:7-8 (“The beast that you saw [. . .] is about to rise from the bottomless pit [. . .]”). In addition, both the scarlet beast and the beast that rises from the sea are described as having seven heads and ten horns, and both are associated with blasphemy (13:1; 17:3).

Many uses of therion in chapters 11-20 are generic; that is, they simply make a statement about “the beast.” This serves to convey that, with the exception of the false prophet’s description as a beast in chapter 13, a single beast is in view throughout the book. The various descriptions cohere even more if one takes “the sea” (13:1) to be a symbol of the bottomless pit (11:7), as Johnson suggests (notes on 13:1b-2).

Assuming that a single beast is in view, the key facts about the beast are as follows:

  • He derives power from the dragon, Satan (13:2).
  • He exerts worldwide authority for forty-two months (13:3-5, 7; 17:8-13).
  • He receives near universal admiration and worship through the deceptive influence of the false prophet (13:3-4, 8, 11-14).
  • Worship of the beast is symbolized by possession of a mark on the forehead or right hand (13:16-18).
  • He and his followers are subject to the wrath of God (16:1-2, 10).
  • He blasphemes God and makes war on the saints, who overcome and refuse to worship him (13:6-7; 15:2ff; 20:4).
  • He is ultimately consigned to the lake of fire along with the dragon, the false prophet, and their followers (14:9-11; 19:19-20; 20:10).

Commentators almost universally recognize a connection between the beast and the Roman Empire: “That the beast from the sea [. . .] is closely identified with Rome will scarcely be disputed by members of most interpretive schools” (Gregg 276). The primary basis for this association is the fact that 13:1-2 describe the beast using imagery from Daniel 7, which refers to a succession of world empires understood to culminate with Roman dominance (Beale and McDonough 1127-28). Gregg observes that “the beast [. . .] has seven heads, which are later explained to represent ‘the seven mountains’ upon which the harlot sits (Rev. 17:9). Probably no commentator in history has failed to point out Rome’s well-known reputation as ‘the city upon seven hills’” (278).

Interpreters take the beast’s association with Rome in a variety of ways. Protestant historicists identify the first beast with the papacy. Preterists see it as the Roman Empire, probably in the period leading up to 70 AD. Futurists take various interpretive approaches. Some view the beast’s connection with Rome as being grounded in the Empire’s historic opposition to the worship of God, while dispensationalists await the reestablishment of the Empire in the last days. Some futurists equate the beast with a person (the Antichrist), others with a secularizing authority, and some with both simultaneously (Gregg 276-83).

Johnson sees a much looser connection between the beast and Rome. He explains that early in the history of the church, two major views of the Antichrist arose. The first view was that of the Antichrist as an individual—“the personal counterpart to the personal Christ” (cf. Dan. 7:8, 24-25; 2 Thess. 2:3-4). The second view is that of the Antichrist as a heretical threat that persists throughout the church’s earthly existence. It emphasizes texts such as 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; and 2 John 7 (notes on 13:1-18). Johnson’s preference for the latter position is reflected in the following statement: “The description John gives of the beast from the sea does not describe a mere human political entity such as Rome. Rather, it describes in archetypal language the hideous, Satan-backed system of deception and idolatry that may at any time express itself in human systems of various kinds, such as Rome. Yet at the same time John also seems to be saying that this blasphemous, blaspheming, and blasphemy-producing reality will have a final, intense, and, for the saints, utterly devastating manifestation” (notes on 13:1b-2).

blessed is / blessed are »» The pronouncement of blessedness (makários) occurs nine times in Revelation (1:3 [2x]; 14:13 [2x]; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7; 22:14). It is conferred on six groups of people that surely overlap to a significant (if not total) extent. Blessed are those who read, hear, and obey John’s prophecy (1:3; 22:7); who maintain fidelity to Christ to the point of death (14:13); who are ready for the coming of Christ (16:15); who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb (19:9); who take part in the first resurrection, escape the second death, and are ushered into the kingdom (20:6); and who are purified and given the right to enter the New Jerusalem (22:14).

book of life / Lamb’s book of life / book of life of the Lamb »» The book of life is referred to six times in Revelation. Given its occurrence throughout the book (3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12; 20:15; 21:27), it is one of the elements that ties the whole together. The phrase has Old Testament precedents (e.g., Ps. 69:28 [‘the book of the living’]) and is further developed in the New Testament.

According to Davis, the book of life is essentially a register of the names of the righteous. “In the Old Testament . . . the blessed on the list receive their blessings here and now.” By contrast, “[t]he New Testament transforms this balance book into an eternal ledger of heavenly citizenship. Within the classical world, citizenship was not an automatic right, but a strictly protected honor. Citizens were specifically enrolled, and the franchise was strictly limited” (74; see also Smith; and Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman 114).

In Revelation the book of life is identified with Jesus Christ, the Lamb (13:8; 21:27) and is said to reflect divine predestination (13:8; 17:8). The presence of one’s name in the book guarantees entrance into heaven (3:5; 21:27). By contrast, those whose names are not written in the book of life worship the beast (13:8) and ultimately are condemned to the lake of fire (20:12ff).

the bottomless pit »» Four chapters in Revelation make reference to “the bottomless pit” (he ábyssos [9:11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1, 3]). In addition, one of these chapters refers to “the shaft of the bottomless pit” (to phrear tes abyssou [9:1; 9:2]).

Ábyssos is used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew tehom, which properly denotes the primeval deep (Gen. 1:2), and subsequently is applied to life-threatening troubles (Ps. 71:20; Jon. 2:5). In the New Testament, it occurs only two times outside of Revelation: Luke 8:31 and Romans 10:7. In the first of these references it denotes the abode of evil spirits; in the second, the abode of the dead—that is, Hades.

The term takes on a more explicit meaning in Revelation. The abyss has a key and is presumably kept locked (9:1). The key is apparently in the possession of an angel (20:1); however, a star fallen from heaven is given the key and opens it (9:2). Fire seems to burn within it, for abundant, dark smoke rises from the shaft when it is opened (9:2). Locusts apparently emanate from it along with the smoke (9:3ff).

The bottomless pit has a king who rules over the locusts; his name is “Destroyer” (9:11). The beast rises from it to attack the two witnesses (11:7) and to wage war against the Lamb (17:8ff). The abyss serves as a prison for the dragon (i.e., Satan) for 1,000 years (20:3, 7) before he is released and then consigned to the lake of fire (Jeremias, “ábyssos [abyss]”; Lewis).

But I have this against you / But I have a few things against you »» Christ pronounced this statement in three of the letters to the churches found in chapters 2-3 (2:4; 2:14; 2:20).

the dragon / the great dragon / a great red dragon »» In chapter 12 John first mentions “a great red dragon” (v. 3). This character is explicitly identified as “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan” (v. 9; cf. 20:2). The dragon plays a prominent role in chapters 12, 13, and 20, and is mentioned briefly in chapter 16.

The dragon seeks to destroy a newborn child (12:4)—likely a reference to Christ. His purpose is thwarted and, following a defeat by Michael and his angels (12:7), the dragon and his angels are cast down from heaven to earth (12:9). Thereafter he takes up warfare with the woman who bore the child and with the rest of her offspring (12:13-17).

In a successive vision the dragon confers his power on a beast that rises out of the sea (13:2). A second beast, who is possibly to be equated with the false prophet, is said to speak “like a dragon” (13:11). The dragon, the beast, and the false prophet take their place as an evil triumvirate in the chapters that follow (16:13). Both the dragon and the beast are the recipients of human worship (13:4).

As the end times progress, the dragon is shut up in the abyss for a thousand years (20:2) before being released for a brief time. Ultimately, he is consigned to the lake of fire (20:10), joining the beast and the false prophet there (19:19-20).

eyes . . . like a flame of fire »» 1:14; 2:18; 19:12

face . . . like the sun »» 1:16; 10:1

feet . . . like burnished bronze »» 1:15; 2:18

fire and [. . .] sulfur / fire that burns with sulfur »» Fire and sulfur are combined in the prophecy of the sixth trumpet (9:17, 18) and in references to eternal judgment in the lake of fire (14:10; 19:20; 20:10; 21:8). Smoke is sometimes mentioned along with these two elements (9:17, 18; 14:11).

“In the OT the metaphor of ‘fire and sulphur,’ sometimes together with ‘smoke,’ indicates a fatal judgment (Gen. 19:24, 28; Deut. 29:23; 2 Sam. 22:9; Isa. 34:9-10; Ezek. 38:22)” (Beale and McDonough 1115).

»» Sulfur—traditionally referred to as brimstone—is a “combustible . . . known to most ancient Near Eastern peoples from mineral deposits . . . . Once one of these deposits took fire it would melt and run in burning streams down the ravines spreading everywhere suffocating fumes such as come from the ordinary brimstone match. No more realistic figure could be chosen to depict terrible suffering and destruction” (Patch 457).

the first and the last »» This phrase occurs three times in Revelation (1:17; 2:8; 22:13), each referring to Jesus Christ. The title is one that Jehovah attributed to Himself several times in the book of Isaiah (41:4; 44:6; and 48:12). Notably, the LORD used this self-description in passages where He called attention to his uniqueness as Lord of creation (40:12; 48:14), sovereign (40:13), omniscient (40:14), Lord of the nations (40:15ff), majestic (40:21), etc. By attributing the same self-description to Jesus, John is making a strong case for his equality with Jehovah.

»» “The title . . . shows that in John’s Christology Christ is identified with the Deity” (Johnson, notes on 1:17-18).

flashes of lightning . . . rumblings . . . peals of thunder . . . [earthquake] »» Three physical phenomena—lightning, rumbling, and thunder—appear together four times in Revelation (4:5; 8:5; 11:19; 16:18). A fourth phenomenon—an earthquake—is combined with the other three in 8:5; 11:19; and 16:18. Two of the scenes also contain a reference to hail (11:19; 16:18, 21).

The phenomena are clearly associated with the throne/temple area (8:2-5; 11:16, 19; 16:17-18); indeed, they emanate from it (4:4-6). Nevertheless, their influence extends beyond heaven to earth. This fact is most clearly seen in the seventh bowl, where an unprecedented earthquake and a terrible hailstorm bring great destruction upon humankind (16:17-21).

»» Johnson identifies these phenomena as the setting of a theophany: “The language, reminiscent of Sinai with its thunder, lightning, and earthquake, indicates that God has come to vindicate his saints (Exod 19:16-19; Rev 4:5; 11:19; 16:18)” (notes on 8:5).

»» “The fire [from the censer mentioned in 8:3-5] results in ‘thunders and sounds and lightnings and quaking,’ which is an almost identical expression for a description of consummate judgment in 11:19; 16:18. This fourfold metaphorical chain of cosmic disturbance has a precedent in the OT, where also it refers to divine judgment (e.g., esp. Exod. 19:16, 18 . . .). . . . Not only are all the virtually identical phrases in 4:5; 8:5; 11:19; 16:18-21 all Sinai allusions, but also they are linked together by the theme of final judgment” (Beale and McDonough 1111). Elwell corroborates this view, noting the similarities between 11:19 and Isaiah 29:6.

the four living creatures »» Twenty references to four living creatures occur in chapters 4, 5, 6, 7, 14, 15, and 19—each time in a throne room scene. They dwell in the presence of God and the Lamb (4:6; 5:6; 14:3; etc.). Physically, they are described as being full of eyes (4:6; 4:8) and having six wings (4:8). Each one has a distinctive appearance, whether of a lion, an ox, a man’s face, and an eagle in flight (4:7). They are said to be constantly engaged in proclaiming the holiness of God (4:8). Their description is similar to that of the beings described in Isaiah 6:2-3 and Ezekiel 1:5-11.

The four living creatures are distinct from the mass of angels who also praise the Lamb (5:11ff; 7:11-12). Along with the twenty-four elders, they bow before the Lamb, singing of the worthiness of his sacrifice (5:8ff). They lead in worship of God and the Lamb, evoking a response from the twenty-four elders and the angels (4:9-10). They affirm humans for their worship of God (19:1-4) and the Lamb (5:13-14). They are present when the 144,000 sing a new song (14:2-3), and they join the throng of the redeemed and the angels in worship of God and the Lamb (7:9-12). While their primary function seems to be worship, they are present for the Lamb’s opening of the seals on the scroll (6:1; 6:3; 6:5-6; 6:7) and aid the angels in carrying out God’s wrath (15:7).

»» “The various portraits of the living creatures in Revelation and within the OT (cf. 1 Kings 6:24-28; 2 Chron. 3:13; Ezek. 1:6) argue against a strictly literal understanding of these beings. They likely are heavenly angelic representatives of the created order that continually give praise to God . . .” (Beale and McDonough 1100).

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches »» This statement appears toward the end of each of the letters to the churches in chapters 2-3 (2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:29; 3:6; 3:13; 3:22). An abbreviated form occurs in 13:9: “If anyone has an ear, let him hear.”

»» “Each letter ends with a command to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches and an encouraging promise to those who ‘overcome.’ The order of these two elements is inexplicably reversed in the last four letters” (Gregg 63).

»» “Though each church received its own personalized letter from the Lord, the message of the Spirit is directed to the churches collectively. The Spirit of God still has relevant warnings in these letters to churches in every place and time” (Gregg 65).

»» “Seven exactly identical exhortations occur with only the position in the letter as a variable. The words of the Spirit are the words of Christ (cf. 19:10). Actually, the commands of Christ in the letters are somewhat ambiguous. Therefore, they require the individual and the congregation to listen also to the Spirit’s voice that accompanies the words of Jesus if they are truly to realize the victory he considers appropriate for them” (Johnson, notes on 2:1-7).

[him] who is and who was and who is to come »» This phrase occurs in 1:4 and 1:8. The subject is identified as “the Lord God” and “the Almighty” in 1:8. A similar form, “who was and is and is to come,” is applied to “the Lord God Almighty” in 4:8. In 11:17, and again in 16:5, God is referred to simply as the one “who is and who was.” Elwell attributes this change in verbiage to the fact that God “has begun his reign. [. . .] He is no longer the one who is to come, but the one who has arrived” (“Revelation” 1215).

[him] who lives forever and ever »» This phrase occurs in 4:9; 4:10; 10:6; and 15:7. Related references include “the living one” (1:18), “alive forevermore” (1:18), and “the living God” (7:2).

I know your works »» Jesus issues this statement toward the beginning of five of the letters to the churches in chapters 2-3 (2:2; 2:19; 3:1; 3:8; 3:15). Statements of similar import appear in the other two letters: “I know your tribulation and your poverty” (2:9) and “I know where you dwell” (2:13). The thrust of these pronouncements is that Jesus sees each church’s works (good and bad), and that he is aware of the trying circumstances under which they are called to labor and persevere. His knowledge will ultimately the basis on which he will reward believers for their deeds.

“Jesus’ first message to each church is: ‘I know your works.’ The churches’ works are sometimes commendable, sometimes requiring censure” (Gregg 63).

“His is a divine knowledge. He knows intimately the works of the churches and the reality of their loyalty to him despite outward appearances” (Johnson, notes on 2:1-7).

in the Spirit »» The phrase en pneumati (“in the Spirit,” or more literally, “in Spirit”) occurs four times in Revelation (1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10). Each time it refers to a revelatory vision that John experienced.

»» “The words imply being transported into the world of prophetic visions by the Spirit of God” (Johnson, notes on 1:10).

the kings of the earth/kings on earth »» The kings of the earth are the leaders of the earth-dwellers—that is, those who enter compromising liaisons with the great prostitute (17:2; 18:3; 18:9). In fact, they are subjects in her “dominion” (basileia [17:18]) and they weep when she is destroyed (18:9).

The kings of the earth exhibit their rebellion against God by arraying themselves against the Lamb in a great end-time battle (19:19). Though they hold superior status in the world’s eyes, it is clear that Christ rules over them (1:5; cf. 17:14; 19:16). They are subject to the wrath of God and the Lamb no less than the humblest members of humankind (6:12-17, esp. v. 15). They will experience total defeat at the hands of Christ (19:15-21). Given their recalcitrance, the fact that they will “bring their glory” into the New Jerusalem (21:24) can hardly signify their eternal blessedness.

A similar phrase, “the kings of the whole world [oikoumene],” occurs in 16:14. Since this phrase also refers to leaders who join in battle against God under demonic influence, it is likely equivalent to “the kings of the earth.”

the lake of fire »» 19:20; 20:10; 20:14-15

like the roar of many waters »» 1:15; 14:2; 19:6

[the] Lord God »» This term occurs eight times in Revelation (1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7; 18:8; 21:22; 22:5). It is typically associated with the fact of God’s supreme power.

loud voice / loud voices / mighty voice / voice like thunder »» In the accounts of his visions John repeatedly refers to loud voices, and on a few occasions he likens them to thunder (6:1; 14:2; 19:6). Individual angels are most often the speakers (5:2; 7:2; 10:3; 14:7; 14:9; 14:15; 14:18; 18:2; 19:17). Multitudes in heaven cry out loud several times (5:12; 6:10; 7:10; 11:15; 14:2; 19:1; 19:6). Some of the voices are difficult to identify (8:13; 11:12; 12:10), while in other cases it is one of the four living creatures (6:1), Jesus Christ (1:10) or, implicitly, God (16:1; 16:17; 21:3).

Individual angels and living creatures emit loud voices to announce a variety of eschatological developments, whether as catalyst (e.g., 14:15; 19:17) or narrator (e.g., 14:7; 18:2). The same is true of those few instances where God himself speaks with a loud voice. The multitudes in heaven address God and Christ with loud voices, whether through expressions of praise (5:12; 7:10; 11:15; 19:1) or petitions for justice (6:10).

make war on . . . two witnesses / the woman’s offspring / the saints »» The beast and the dragon are said to make war (polemos) on God’s followers in the end times. The objects of these assaults will include the two witnesses (11:7), the rest of the woman’s offspring (12:17), and the saints (13:7). John probably borrowed this military language from Daniel 7:21.

mighty angel / powerful angel »» References to a mighty angel (angelon ischuron) occur in 5:2; 10:1; and 18:21.

name / mark / seal . . . on . . . forehead[s] »» The book of Revelation constructs an intriguing contrast between the righteous and the unrighteous by employing imagery related to seals and foreheads. From ancient times, and thus in both the Old and New Testaments, seals have conveyed notions of authority, authenticity, identity, ownership, mystery, worthiness, and preservation (Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman 766). Furthermore, the Scriptures refer to the forehead most often “as a place where one wears an identifying mark, either literal or figurative. . . . In apocalyptic visions, people’s foreheads receive marks of identity, either good (sometimes for purposes of protection) or bad . . .” (299).

Revelation 7:3 introduces a group of righteous people—144,000 “servants of God”—who are described as being “sealed [. . .] on their foreheads.” The mark that they bear is said to be “[the Lamb’s] name and his Father’s name” (14:1); this is probably equivalent to the “new name” referred to in 2:17. They appear to be spared certain judgments that befall others (9:4) and are ultimately admitted to the New Jerusalem (22:4). According to Johnson, “the ‘sealed’ are the people of God and . . . their sealing must be related to their salvation as in the comparable figure used by Paul (2Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:30; cf. 4 Ezra 6:5)” (notes on 7:1-3).

Revelation 13:16-17 introduces a second group of people—apparently the majority—who are said to bear a different kind of mark—the mark of the beast—either on their right hand or their forehead. Wearing the mark of the beast is synonymous with worshiping him (14:9, 11; 20:4). Those who wear it suffer divine judgment, both in the end times (9:4; 16:2) and throughout eternity (14:10-11).

There is reason to believe that these two groups are mutually exclusive. Those who refuse to worship the beast or wear his mark are identified with those who are martyred on account of their testimony. They are ushered into Christ’s millennial kingdom (20:4).

The concept of being sealed in one’s forehead in a way that signifies divine acceptance and deliverance from judgment does not originate in Revelation. Rather, it borrows from Ezekiel 9 (esp. v. 4), where the inhabitants of Jerusalem who lament its spiritual corruption are said to be marked on their foreheads and are spared divine judgment.

the Nicolaitans »» New Testament references to the Nicolaitans occur only in 2:6 and 2:15.

»» “The Nicolaitans were a sect (sometimes associated with Nicolaus, one of the seven original deacons in the church in Jerusalem according to Acts 6:5) that apparently taught that Christians could engage in immoral behavior with impunity” (NET Bible, fn to 2:6).

“Any assessment of the nature of the Nicolaitan deviance must begin with Rev. 2:14f., where the teaching of Balaam is described as advocating the eating of ‘food offered to idols’ (eidolóthyta) and sexual immorality. . . . The passage has several hints that the antinomian practice of the Nicolaitans might have been the fruit of a deeper doctrinal deviancy. The emphasis on ‘teaching,’ together with their claim to ‘know the deep things of Satan’ (v. 24), suggests that Irenaeus was correct in characterising the Nicolaitans as a proto-Gnostic group (Adv. haer. iii.11.1)” (Donaldson 534).

one like a son of man »» 1:13; 14:14

According to Johnson, “it is quite appropriate for John to use the term Son of Man [in reference to Christ], since in the Gospels that term is most frequently associated with the Messiah’s suffering and the glory of the Second Advent as well as with his right to judge the world (Matt 26:64; John 5:27). Both themes are present in the context of Revelation” (notes on 14:14-16).

the one who conquers »» This phrase occurs eight times in Revelation (2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:26; 3:5; 3:12; 3:21; 21:7). Its underlying Greek verb, nikao, is common in John’s writings. In Revelation it is associated with persistent fidelity to Christ in the face of opposition (e.g., 2:26; 12:11; 15:2). Conquerors ultimately become heirs of God’s blessings in the New Jerusalem (21:7).

In other of his writings John employs nikao to denote victory over the world (John 16:33; 1 John 4:4; 5:4), the evil one (1 John 2:13, 14), and the spirits that oppose Christ and propagate deceit (1 John 4:4). John’s teachings describe spiritual conquest in the following terms:

  • peace in the midst of suffering (John 16:33)
  • knowledge of God (1 John 2:13, 14)
  • spiritual strength (1 John 2:14)
  • ability to discern truth from falsehood (1 John 4:1-4)
  • belief in Jesus as the Son of God (1 John 5:4-5)

»» “[E]ach letter [in chaps. 2-3] contains a victor’s promise of reward. These promises are often the most metaphorical and symbolic portions of the letters and thus in some cases present interpretative difficulties. Each is eschatological and is correlated with the last two chapters of the book . . . . Probably we are to understand the multiple promises as different facets that combine to make up one great promise to believers, that wherever Christ is, there will the overcomers be. Who are the ‘overcomers’? Certainly it is those who are fully loyal to Christ as his true disciples, those who are identified with him in his suffering and death (1 John 5:4-5)” (Johnson, notes on 2:1-7).

right hand »» The image of the right hand is used eight times in Revelation—in reference to Jesus (1:16; 1:17; 1:20; 2:1), God (5:1; 5:7), angels (10:5), and humans (13:16).

»» “Two domains of imagery emerge. The first is one of prominence or favored position. . . . [T]o have extended the right hand was an indication of specification and favor (Gal 2:9; Rev 1:17). . . . The second domain of ‘right hand’ portrays an image of intense power and strength. Most frequently it is used by the psalmists of the Lord as a God who rescues and sustains by means of his mighty ‘right hand’ . . . . The conquering Jesus is portrayed as holding the seven stars in his ‘right hand’ (Rev 1:16; cf. 1:20; 2:1)” (Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman 361).

the second death »» This phrase occurs in 2:11; 20:6; 20:14; and 21:8. It refers to the condemnation of the unrighteous—those who do not conquer—in the lake of fire (20:14-15; 21:7-8). Those who conquer will not experience the second death (2:11).

seven angels »» Revelation 8 introduces seven angels who stand before God and are called on to blow seven trumpets that signal judgment (vv. 2, 6). Similarly, Revelation 15 refers to seven angels who pour out God’s wrath in the form of seven plagues (vv. 1, 6, 7, 8). The latter seven angels are also mentioned in subsequent chapters (16:1; 17:1; 21:9). John’s prophecy does not state overtly whether the second cadre is the same as the first, but this certainly seems plausible, as both occupy space in the heavenly temple/throne area (8:2, 6; 15:6)

seven churches »» References to seven churches occur in 1:4; 1:11; and 1:20 (2x).

»» “There were at least three other churches in Asia at this time [i.e., in Colosse, Hierapolis, and Troas], but the number may here have been limited to seven because of the symbolic value of that number. Seven, being the number of completeness, could suggest that the message to the seven churches is applicable to the total church throughout the world” (Gregg 59).

»» “The reason seven churches were chosen and were placed in this order seems to be that seven was simply the number of completeness, and here it rounds out the literary pattern of the other sevens in the book” (Johnson, notes on 1:4).

[seven golden] lampstands »» References to seven golden lampstands occur in 1:12; 1:13; 1:20 (2x); and 2:1. They are explicitly identified as representing the seven churches of Asia to whom Jesus directed John to address the book of Revelation (1:20). The symbolism of a lampstand as a local church also occurs in 2:5, though in this case only one church is in view.

»» “The lamps in the opening chapter of Revelation symbolize the divine presence with the seven churches. Christ’s warning that the lamp could be withdrawn connotes God’s removing his active presence from them” (Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman 486).

»» “Zechariah had a vision of a seven-branched golden lampstand fed by seven pipes—explained to him as the ‘eyes of the Lord, which range through the earth’ (4:10). . . . If Zechariah’s imagery was in John’s mind, it might mean that the churches, which correspond to the people of God today, are light bearers only because of their intimate connection with Christ, the source of the light, through the power of the Holy Spirit (1:4b; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6)” (Johnson, notes on 1:12).

seven spirits »» References to seven spirits occur in 1:4; 3:1; 4:5; and 5:6.

»» Johnson takes the “seven spirits” as a reference to the Holy Spirit, against those who identify the spirits as angels (e.g., Mounce). He finds it absurd that an angelic greeting would appear in the midst of a benediction involving two persons of the Godhead (notes on 1:4).

»» “The Spirit is symbolized as seven, reminiscent of the sevenfold ministry mentioned in Isaiah 11:2 (wisdom, understanding, counsel, power, knowledge, fear of the Lord, delight)” (Elwell, “Revelation” 1204).

seven stars [in his right hand] »» The imagery of seven stars is referred to five times in the first three chapters (1:16; 1:20 (2x); 2:1; 3:1). The stars are said to represent “the angels of the seven churches” (1:20), but the meaning of this phrase is subject to debate (see Glossary).

a sharp [two-edged] sword »» Four times the book of Revelation refers to Christ as wielding a sword (2:16), a sharp sword (19:15), or a sharp two-edged sword (1:16; 2:12). In three of these cases the sword is said to be in his mouth. The metaphor conveys Christ’s ability to pronounce and/or carry out judgment on those who deserve it (2:16; 19:15).

»» “The sword . . . symbolizes divine judgment. . . . Jesus is depicted as bearing a sharp, two-edged sword in his mouth (Rev 1:16), which he will use ‘to strike down the nations’ (Rev 19:15 NRSV) at the consummation” (Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman 835).

»» Walvoord argues that the sword in Christ’s mouth is not to be equated with the sword of Hebrews 4:12. Different Greek words underlie the two, and “[t]he sword mentioned in Revelation has the character of a sword of devastating judgment rather than a sword uncovering unbelief” (46).

synagogue of Satan »» This phrase occurs in the letters to the churches in Smyrna (2:9) and Philadelphia (3:9). It has been interpreted in various ways, as illustrated in the quotes below.

»» “As in the case of the Philadelphian church (3:9), the troublers of the church in Smyrna were those who say they are Jews and are not (v. 9)—in other words, unbelieving Jews, whom Jesus here considers to be a synagogue of Satan . . .” (Gregg 67).

»» “‘Synagogue of Satan’ refers, then, to certain Jews in ancient Smyrna who, motivated by Satan, slandered the church there. The term should never be indiscriminately applied to all Jewish synagogues” (Johnson, notes on 2:9).

»» “A true Jew in the view of Jews like John and Paul is one who has found forgiveness and life in Jesus the Messiah, while a false Jew is one who rejects those who believe in Jesus and openly persecutes them; such a one is an antichrist (1 John 2:22)” (Johnson, notes on 3:9).

»» “A better interpretation is that the synagogue of Satan consisted of Gentile Christians who had ‘Judaized,’ that is, who adopted Jewish ways or even converted to Judaism, perhaps in order to avoid persecution by the Romans . . . . Judaism was an ancient religion, largely tolerated in Roman Asia, while Christianity, being relatively new, was regarded with suspicion by many Asians as an erratic and possibly subversive cult. Judaism may have seemed to some Christians in Smyrna a tempting haven of safety” (Michaels, notes on 2:8-11).

the temple / God’s temple / his temple / the sanctuary . . . [in heaven] »» Revelation makes one reference to what appears to be a literal temple located in Jerusalem (11:1-2). However, John most of John’s temple references occur in chapters 11, 14, 15 and 16, describing his visions of heaven after the blowing of the seventh trumpet. The disclosure of the temple in heaven was accompanied twice by lightning and other phenomena reminiscent of the giving of the Law at Sinai (11:19; 16:18).

The context reveals several features of the heavenly temple. It seems to be the site where the altar (16:1, 4-7) and the throne (16:17) are located (cf. Isa. 6:1, 6). The redeemed who come out of the great tribulation are said to dwell before God’s throne, continually serving “in his temple” (7:15). The emphasis here is on the presence and worship of God. The heavenly temple is said to contain “the ark of his covenant” (11:19); furthermore, it is referred to as “the tent of witness” (15:5), presumably denoting its function as the repository of divine law.

On two occasions a loud voice—presumably that of God—emanates from the temple (16:1, 17). Angels are present within it (14:15, 17; 15:5-6). Some seem to have specific responsibilities there, such as care of “the fire” (14:18) or the execution of divine judgment (14:17-20; 15:1, 5-7). Smoke representing God’s glory made it impossible to enter the temple for a time (15:8).

Given the use of temple references in reference to the dwelling of God, John’s statement that he saw no temple in the New Jerusalem (21:22) may seem unexpected.

those who dwell on earth »» “Those who dwell on the earth” are apparently the mass of the world’s inhabitants who are not followers of the Lamb (3:10; 13:8; 17:8). They will marvel at the beast’s appearance (17:8) and will be deceived into worshiping him (13:8, 12, 14). Furthermore, they will liaise with the great prostitute (17:2). Unlike the spiritually victorious of Philadelphia, and presumably other conquerors, they are destined for “trial” (peirasmós) (3:10). They will be judged for martyring Christ’s followers (6:9-10) and will be subject to the trumpet judgments (8:13). They will endure torments inflicted by the two witnesses, and will celebrate when the latter die (11:9-10).

All of the references just mentioned use a form of the word katoikeo (“to dwell”). The phrase “those who dwell on earth” also occurs in 14:6. The Greek text in this verse is uncertain, with some manuscripts substituting kathemai (“to sit”) for katoikeo (“to dwell, live, settle”). This verse foretells the proclamation of a gospel message to the earth’s residents, and it stresses that the audience will include all demographic groups.

the throne »» The book of Revelation contains some 40 references to the throne of God or of Christ. Nearly half of those references occur in chapters 4 and 5. Several terms are used to denote the divine throne. The most common is simply “the throne” (e.g., 4:3; 5:1; 6:16; 7:9; 14:3). It is also spoken of as “his [i.e., God’s] throne” (1:4; 3:21; 12:5), “my [i.e., Christ’s] throne” (3:21), “a throne . . . in heaven” (4:2), “the throne of God” (7:15), “a great white throne” (20:11), and “the throne of God and of the Lamb” (22:1; 22:3). The throne is an image of God’s sovereign rule and prerogatives as supreme judge. It is collocated with the heavenly temple (16:17).

According to the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, “the most common biblical reference to a throne . . . is to God’s throne (close to 60 percent). God’s kingship is affirmed many times in Scripture, and his throne is a visible proof of his sovereign rule. The Lord presides from his throne, surrounded variously by all the host of heaven (1 Kings 22:19; 2 Chron 18:18), a rainbow like emeralds (Rev 4:3), twenty-four other thrones (Rev 4:4), a crystal-clear sea of glass (Rev 4:6) and countless numbers of angels (Rev 5:11). . . . References to God’s throne are found most often in the book of Revelation, appropriately enough, since this book describes God’s final victory over Satan and the forces of evil” (Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman 869).

tree of life »» This phrase occurs four times in Revelation (2:7; 22:2; 22:14; 22:19). The Scriptures first make reference to a tree of life in Genesis 2 and 3. Figurative references appear in the book of Proverbs (3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4).

»» “In Revelation the tree of life is the supreme image of future splendor and paradise regained. Its final appearance in the Bible occurs in the last chapter, as part of the combined city and garden that climaxes the heavenly vision . . .” (Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman 890).

[every] tribe and language and people and nation »» The terms “tribe” (phulé), “language” (glóssa), “people” (laós), and “nation” (éthnos) occur together five times in Revelation (5:9; 7:9; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6). In each text they occur in a slightly different order, and in all but one case (11:9) they are modified by “every” (pás). Revelation 17:15 substitutes “multitudes” (ochlos) for phulé. In addition, 10:11 associates three of the terms (all but phulé) with “kings” (basileus).

This combination of terms serves to emphasize that the book’s prophecies—whether pertaining to the outpouring of divine wrath or the conferral of eternal salvation—will come to pass so as to affect every segment of humanity. The Lamb’s sacrifice will lead to redemption—not in some exclusive fashion, but in a way that includes diverse representatives of the human race (5:9-10; 7:9-10). The judgments that God metes out will be experienced widely. Various classes of people will witness the death of the two prophets (11:9-10). The beast will receive authority to conquer without sociopolitical boundaries (13:5-8). And all people who inhabit the earth will be called to fear God in the face of the judgment of Babylon (14:6-7).

the [twenty-four] elders »» Twelve times Revelation makes reference to twenty-four elders (4:4; 4:10; 5:5; 5:6; 5:8; 5:11; 5:14; 7:11; 7:13; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4). Seven of these references are concentrated in the throne room narratives of chapters 4 and 5.

The elders sit on thrones in a circle around God’s throne (4:4). They are dressed in white clothing and wear gold crowns (4:4). They are present in the throne room along with the four living creatures. They are distinct from distinct from at least some angels (5:2, 4; 5:11; 11:15-16).

The elders are aware of Christ’s worthiness (5:4-5) and the identity of those delivered from the great tribulation (7:13ff). They are depicted consistently as worshiping God and the Lamb along with the four living creatures, the angels, and the redeemed of mankind (4:9-11; 5:8ff; 7:9ff; 11:15ff; 19:1ff). They seem to represent the saints by offering their prayers as incense (5:8).

According to Elwell, “[s]ome scholars interpret the elders to be angelic beings, but more likely, they are representatives of all the redeemed of the earth” (“Revelation” 1207). Gregg summarizes the significance that various interpreters have attached to the reference to twenty-four elders (86-89):

  • angels, with the number mirroring the twenty-four Levitical orders (1 Chron. 24:4; 25:9-13)
  • New Testament believers, with the number possibly symbolizing the twenty-four priestly orders (Ezek. 8:16; 11:1)
  • the redeemed of the Old and New Testaments, with the number twenty-four incorporating Old Testament patriarchs and apostles—twelve each; these two groups are associated with each other in Revelation 21:12-14

The view that the elders represent the New Testament saints is supported by contextual cues. The description of the elders’ appearance—“clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads”—seems consistent with the promises extended to the conquerors in Smyrna (2:10), Sardis (3:4-5; cf. 3:18), and Philadelphia (3:11). Johnson argues that since individual elders twice address John (5:5; 7:13), they can hardly be viewed as “a symbolic group representing the church” (notes on 7:13-14). One (admittedly speculative) way to reconcile these facts would be to view the elders as individual believers from the church age selected to sit before the throne of God and the Lamb.

the word of God . . . the testimony of Jesus [Christ] / the witness they had borne »» These two concepts are frequently associated with each other in Revelation (1:2; 1:9; 6:9; 20:4). A related combination, “the commandments of God and . . . the testimony of Jesus,” occurs in 12:17. Similarly, 14:12 speaks of the saints’ persistent obedience to God’s commands and faith toward Jesus. In 19:10, “the testimony of Jesus” appears without a correlate. Finally, believers achieve victory over Satan “by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (12:11).

The revelation of truth—as embodied by terms such as “the word of God” and “the testimony of Jesus”—originates in God and is mediated through Jesus Christ (1:1-2). This includes prophecy such as John’s visions (1:1-2; 19:10), but refers more generally to the whole body of Christian truth (1:9). Believers identify with the truth and become witnesses to it (1:2; 6:9; 12:11). Under the influence of Satan, the world’s powers oppose believers for their testimony and persecute many of them to the point of death (6:9; 12:17). However, this is not a sign of perdition, but of ultimate victory (12:11; 14:12-13; 20:4).