We 21st Century Gentiles have over-complicated the Book of Revelation. In the First Century, it was so easily understood by its original Jewish audience that even a teenager would have understood it.
The Lost Key
One on-line encyclopaedia succinctly describes our predicament:
In communicating to his fellow Christians ‘what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter’ (Rev 1:19), the author deliberately chose a literary vehicle that would tend to conceal his message from the enemies of the church. This vehicle was the apocalypse, a Jewish literary form characterized by an often elaborately symbolic interpretation and prediction of events. The apocalyptic symbols of Revelation are derived from prophetic books of the Old Testament and from the common Christian tradition.
No doubt the earliest readers of the book understood its visions and imagery, but in the centuries since Revelation was written, the key to the original meaning of its symbolism was lost. Efforts to recover it have produced widely divergent systems of interpretation but no general recognition of any one system as nearest to the author’s meaning. Apart from its religious message, Revelation continues to be valued today for its magnificent literary qualities and for its historical depiction of a crisis in Christianity.1
The Unsealed Scroll
There is indeed ‘no doubt the earliest readers of the book understood its visions and imagery’. When Daniel did not understand the timing and meaning of several of his visions in the 6th Century BC, he was told that “these words are concealed and sealed up until the end time”2 but John was told the exact opposite:
And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.”3
‘Books’ in those days were, of course, scrolls and if rolled up and sealed, they were ‘concealed’ and so could not be read and understood. Several of Daniel’s visions were therefore not to be understood in his time, even by Daniel – they were for ‘the end time’. John, however, was to understand and to speak out about his visions because they were immediately relevant. When John needed explanations, he was given them4 and the answers satisfied him.
This has led many today to believe as above, that ‘in the centuries since Revelation was written, the key to the original meaning of its symbolism was lost’. However, as the writer also notes:
…the apocalyptic symbols of Revelation are derived from prophetic books of the Old Testament and from the common Christian tradition.
This is actually the key and it has never been lost – we still have the ‘prophetic books of the Old Testament’ and all essential ‘common Christian tradition’ was recorded for us in the New Testament. The key has simply not been recognised or applied sufficiently.
What then is the key? Its Jewishness:
…the author deliberately chose a literary vehicle… the apocalypse, a Jewish literary form.
John was Jewish and his Revelation’s original audience were the seven nearby churches in Asia Minor,5 all founded by Jewish apostles Paul and Barnabas,6 and led by Jewish leaders such as Apollos, Aquila and Priscilla,7 and Timothy8 or Gentile leaders taught by these Jewish leaders. Paul spent years in Ephesus:
…reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. This took place for two years, so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.9
These churches in Asia Minor were therefore well-grounded in 1st Century Jewish understanding of the ‘prophetic books of the Old Testament and… the common Christian tradition’.
In other words, if you were a 1st Century Jewish disciple or a Gentile taught by a 1st Century Jewish apostle, the scroll was unsealed.
This is the lost key and, as you will see, it can still unseal Revelation for all for us today.
Paul tried to explain it to the Gentiles in Rome:
- Then what advantage [Grk, perissos] has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? 2. Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.10
‘The oracles of God’ (v. 2) are the Old Testament Scriptures, the primary source of ‘the apocalyptic symbols of Revelation’. Writing to Timothy, Paul knew that:
…from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.11
This ‘advantage’, the Greek perissos means ‘an abundance’, Paul describes as ‘great in every respect’ because Jewish children learned ‘the sacred writings’ as soon as they could speak.
This meant 1st Century Jews had ‘from childhood’ a 1,500 year head-start on Gentiles in learning the mind of God, His reasoning, feelings, and choices from His actions regarding their nation from its formation in the wilderness. However, this advantage may be limited to 1st Century Jewish believers because, ironically, our present-day misunderstandings have come from Gentile leaders who have taught most, as far as I can ascertain, 20th and 21st Century Jewish or Messianic believers and teachers.
Happily, we can all catch up but, when it comes to Revelation, we also have to unlearn most of what we have been taught about the imagery and metaphors to learn instead what was already well known by John and his original audience. We have also over-complicated it all – as I will demonstrate, even 1st Century Jewish teenagers could have understood it.
Sinking in the Marsh
Still, changing metaphors, understanding Revelation can be like traversing a marsh via stepping stones. If we fail to properly establish the reliability of each stepping stone, we may stay above the mud for one or two paces but we will eventually sink into the marsh. At this point, many lose heart and, instead of retracing their steps to solid rock and trying again, they abandon the attempt altogether.
What I have found is that we can all do it, that there are stepping stones of solid rock – solid rock because they are words of God on which we can easily stand and even rest before we press on.
The Seven Kings
One of the major metaphors of Revelation is the seven horns, first seen on the dragon in Chapter 1212 but then on the first beast of Chapter 13,13 which is the beast of Chapter 1114 and Chapter 17.15 By the third appearance of these horns, John is wondering so the angel explains:
“Why do you wonder? I will tell you the mystery… of the beast… which has the seven heads… they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while.”16
His explanation has been completely lost on most scholars today, choosing as they do to look for its fulfilment in Roman history. For example, in The New Oxford Annotated Bible:
Seven kings = Roman emperors which interpreters have sought to identify with emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian.17
They have sought in vain because, between Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) and Domitian (51-96 AD), there had been twelve emperors so, for their interpretation to work, they have to lose five. Some try removing three short-lived emperors who were deposed in the civil war of 69 AD18 but Laurie Guy concludes in Regent’s Study Guides that there are:
…insurmountable problems preventing an identification of John’s allusions… Clear identification of John’s seven kings is simply not possible.19
If you and I follow these scholars on to the Roman historical stepping stone, it is indeed ‘simply not possible’ and you end up in the marsh.
Merrill C. Tenney therefore briefly considers a broader historical approach:
Various attempts have been made to identify these with world empires or with the emperors of Rome… None of these is completely successful; for there had not been five complete world empires which had fallen prior to the writing of Revelation, nor can these kings be identified with the line of emperors…20
Accordingly, N.T. Wright suggests a metaphorical approach to the Roman interpretation:
The seven kings stand for the apparent perfection of the monstrous kingdom… In other words, don’t try to match up emperors precisely. What matters is that the monster’s kingdom looks perfect and impregnable, but forces from within its own ranks will destroy it.21
Craig R. Koester does too.22 However, this isn’t ‘what matters’ and instead of staying there in the marsh, they could have reconsidered if Roman history was a stepping stone in the first place.
We Need ‘Wisdom’
Dr Tenney almost found the stone in considering ‘world empires’ but all of these scholarly attempts overlook the angel’s admonition before his explanation:
- “Here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are…”23
“The mind” required was not today’s English or American, or ancient Roman, or Greek, but 1st Century Jewish wisdom – the explanation was given to a Jewish apostle and his original audience in the seven churches, all led by Jewish leaders or Gentiles taught by Jewish leaders.
John needed no further explanation and he did not ask for one. All John and his original audience are told to do is to apply “wisdom”, i.e. what they already knew. So what would these 1st Century Jewish disciples have already known about the seven heads?
What seems hard to us today would have been easy even for a 1st Century Jewish teenager because this was Jewish History 101. The seven kings are indeed empires but specifically the Gentile empires that have ruled, are ruling, and will rule over Israel, as described:
“…five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come”24
How would they know the seven ‘kings’ are Gentile kingdoms and empires instead of Roman kings and emperors? Because in their Hebrew Bible, Daniel had a vision which is the basis for the composite beast of Revelation 13 and his vision was divinely interpreted:
“These great beasts, which are four in number, are four kings who will arise from the earth.”25
These four ‘kings’ were the empires of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome.26
Who then are John’s seven kings? Besides Daniel’s four, as every Jewish teenager knew, there had been two earlier empires that had ruled over them, Egypt and Assyria, The ‘five (that) have fallen’ by the 1st Century are therefore:
(i) Egypt (ruled over Israel 1876-1446 BC)
(ii) Assyria (ruled over Israel 740-606 BC)
(iii) Babylon (ruled over Israel 586-539 BC)
(iv) Medo-Persia (ruled over Israel 539-330 BC)
(v) Greece (ruled over Israel 330-178 BC)
In John’s day, the one that “is”, the sixth, is Rome which has conquered Israel in 63 BC, leaving one to come.27
The First Century Jewish Teenager Approach
Throughout Israel’s long and storied history, every year every Jewish child learned about these empires in their annual festivals and commemorations. The Scriptures recorded their history; their annual festivals re-enacted and celebrated it. They still do today.
When John wrote Revelation in 96 A.D., these empires were the villains of their nation’s stories and one empire, the Assyrians, had left a hated people-group, the Samaritans, in their midst for the last seven hundred years. By the time a Jewish child reached the teen years, he or she would have heard about each of these empires’ attacks and celebrated Israel’s remarkable survival a dozen times.
Three of Israel’s festivals (Passover, Purim, and Hanukkah) were divinely instituted to help them always remember and celebrate their deliverances from genocide while two commemorations mourned the destruction of Jerusalem and its two Temples. In other words, to never forget these six Gentile empires.
Let us therefore catch up with these teenagers.
(i) Egypt – Feast of Pesach (i.e. Passover)
When God instituted Passover in 1446 BC, He commanded Israel:
“Now this day will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance… And you shall observe this event as an ordinance for you and your children forever.”28
To this day, every Passover begins with the youngest child asking the question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”29 This ensures that every Jew, even the youngest child, remembers their escape from the killing of every Jewish baby boy30 and four hundred and thirty years of harsh slavery in Egypt,31 which dated back to the 20th Century BC.
(ii) Assyria – the Samaritans
From approximately 740 BC,32 the Assyrians tried to destroy Israel by assimilating them, sending ten of the twelve tribes into exile throughout the Assyrian Empire and replacing them in the land of Israel with Gentiles:
The king of Assyria brought men from Babylon and from [Syria] and settled them in the cities of Samaria in place of the sons of Israel. So they possessed Samaria and lived in its cities.33
Their descendants were called Samaritans, a constant and much resented reminder of the Assyrian Empire to every 1st Century Jew:
Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)34
(iii) Babylon – Tish’a B’av (i.e. 9th Aviv)
(iv) Medo-Persia – Feast of Purim (i.e. Lots)
In about 460 BC, after escaping Haman’s planned genocide, the Jews instituted a festival named after the lots Haman cast to ascertain when to strike them:
- Therefore they called these days Purim after the name of Pur. And because of… what had happened to them,
- the Jews established and made a custom for themselves and for their descendants and for all those who allied themselves with them, so that they would not fail to celebrate these two days according to their regulation and according to their appointed time annually.
- So these days were to be remembered and celebrated throughout every generation, every family, every province and every city; and these days of Purim were not to fail from among the Jews, or their memory fade from their descendants.37
Annual festivals are a very effective way of ensuring everyone remembers their nation’s history.
(v) Greece – Feast of Hanukkah (i.e. Dedication)
The Jews regained their land but in 168 BC, Antiochus Epiphanes IV invaded and desecrated the Second Temple. Three years later, in 165 BC, Judas Maccabee (The Hammer) led the Jews to defeat the Greek army and rededicate the Temple:
There was very great joy among the people, and the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed. Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev.38
Jesus celebrated this39 and two thousand years later, this is still one of the happiest celebrations in the Jewish calendar. The Jews love to sum up their festivals in the phrase: “They tried to kill us; they failed; let’s eat!”
(vi) Rome – Tish’a B’av (i.e. 9th Av).
In 70 AD, Titus and the Roman legions captured Jerusalem and the Second Temple and razed them to the ground. Astonishingly, this occurred on the 9th of Av, the same day as the Babylonians had razed the First Temple, 556 years earlier.
We know, therefore, that when John was writing Revelation in about 96 AD, every Jewish teenager knew exactly who the five kings were that had fallen and who the sixth king was. To this day, the major events of the 4,000 years of their nation’s history are remembered in their annual festivals.
21st Century Gentile Teenager
To gain perspective, consider our national holidays and what we teach our children today, even though not as religiously as the Jews have done for 3,500 years. In New Zealand, we annually celebrate events in our nation’s history. From most recent to oldest:
(i) 1953 (Queen’s Birthday – 6th June)
(ii) 1917 (ANZAC Day – 25th April)
(iii) 1890 (Labour Day – 4th Monday in October)
(iv) 1840 (Waitangi Day – 6th February)
(v) 1605 (Guy Fawkes Day – 5th November),
(vi) 30 AD (Easter – March or April)
(vii) 5-6 BC (Christmas Day – 25th December)
New Zealand’s holidays and celebrations were created to remind us of events throughout 2,000 years of our history. Similarly, the United States annually celebrates events in their history:
(i) 1929 (Martin Luther King’s Birthday – 3rd Monday in January)
(ii) 1868 (Memorial Day – last Monday in May)
(iii) 1776 (Independence Day – 4th July)
(iv) 1621 (Thanksgiving – 4th Thursday in November)
(v) 1492 (Columbus Day – 2nd Monday in October)
(vi) 30 AD (Easter – March or April)
(vii) 5-6 BC (Christmas Day – 25th December)
American holidays and commemorations remind young Americans of events throughout 2,000 years of their history, the last two common to us all in the Anglo-American world.
The KJV calls John’s book ‘The Apocalypse’, an Anglicisation of the Greek, apokalupsis, which means literally, an uncovering or unveiling40 and we see it very dramatically here. John’s visions of the dragon and the beast with their seven heads pull back the curtains for him and his Jewish-taught audience to reveal what the dragon and the beast had been doing behind the scenes throughout the previous 2,000 years of Israel’s history, what they were doing in the 1st Century, and what they would be doing right up until the Lord returns. Of their seven heads, ‘five have fallen, one is, and one is yet to come’.
For us today, we get to see what they have been doing for the last 4,000 years and are about to do.41 This is not a mere academic exercise – as we will see, working with the second beast of Revelation 13, they will initiate the Battle of Har-Magedon (Rev 16:13-16) and destroy Babylon the Great (Rev 17:11) before meeting their own end at the Lord’s return (Rev 19:20, 20:10). Accordingly, we need to know exactly who they are rather than incorrect Roman historical figures or vague symbols of evil.
We will, I believe, also be equipped to see these prophecies being fulfilled in our daily news.
(i) The ‘lost key’ to understanding Revelation is not lost but simply insufficiently recognised – it is its Jewishness. It was an open book to John and his original audience because of their advantage, ‘great in every respect’, in already knowing their nation’s ‘sacred writings’, history, festivals, metaphors, and symbols.
(ii) Let’s therefore adopt the First Century Jewish Teenager‘s approach (FCJT, for short). It was easy for them and we can catch up.
(iii) Centuries of church tradition and faulty exegesis have turned Revelation into a marsh for us today but there are stepping stones. We just have to establish each step as rock-solid revelation before pressing on to the next.
(iv) We need to stop superimposing our misunderstandings over Revelation’s images and metaphors such as the seven heads. Assuming these refer to Roman history, we’ve failed to see their significance in four major visions – the dragon of Chapter 12 and the beast of Revelation 11, 13, and 17 – and wandered off into the marsh.
(v) John and his audience knew the seven heads described Jewish History 101: they are the seven Gentile empires that had ruled, are ruling, and will rule over Israel: “five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come”. This is a rock-solid stepping stone and even a teenager would have understood it then.
(vi) John’s visions were to pull back the curtain on what the dragon and the beast had been doing for the previous 2,000 years of Jewish history, were doing in the 1st Century, and would be doing for at least the next 2,000 years until the Lord returns.
(vii) Today these visions are supposed to help us understand the last 4,000 years of Jewish history, what is happening in all the nations in our time, and what is about to happen. So what is that?
Scroll: By “Boekrol Esther 18de eeuw uit een sefardische synagoge in Sevilla” (Text from pic website) – http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afbeelding:Scroll.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3758954
Papyrus: By Mediatus/Kopie eines Originalbriefes; Kopist unbekannt – Original in der Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5298242
Daniel: By After Briton Rivière – Manchester City Art Gallery [sic!], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50214
Bread: By Jonathunder – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6637978
Samaritans: By Edkaprov (Edward Kaprov). – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32494306
Babylonian Exile: By James Tissot – https://thejewishmuseum.org/collection/26577-the-flight-of-the-prisoners Jacques Joseph Tissot, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8860276
Purim: By צילום:ד”ר אבישי טייכר, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14722555
Antiochus Epiphanes 1V: By © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62549846
Queen Elizabeth II: By Presidencia de la República Mexicana – https://www.flickr.com/photos/presidenciamx/16523829239/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61584019
ANZAC: By Mike Subritzky – I Mike Subritzky created this work entirely by myself., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17004411
- Encarta 96, emphasis added.
- Dan 12:9
- Rev 22:10
- Rev 7:13-14, 17:6-7
- Rev 1:11
- Acts 13:1-14:26, 18:18-20, 19:1-10
- Acts 18:24-26
- 1 Tim 1:3
- Act 19:9-10
- Rom 3:1-2, emphasis added.
- 2 Tim 3:15
- Rev 12:3
- Rev 13:1
- Rev 11:7
- Rev 17:3 & 7. See my first three books in the Revelation series.
- Rev 17:7-10
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible, p. 442 N.T. Also, for example, IVP’s New Bible Commentary: Third Edition, p. 1300, and David Stern, Jewish NT Commentary, p. 836.
- Emperors Galba, Otho, and Vitellus.
- Regent’s Study Guides, pp. 140-141.
- Interpreting Revelation, p. 84, emphasis added.
- Revelation for Everyone, p. 155.
- ‘No enumeration of Roman emperors fully suits Revelation 17, despite many creative attempts in this direction. A more helpful way to read the text is to recognise that John uses evocative imagery that resists decoding… Identifying the seven heads with seven kings seems to point to the totality of the beast’s power… Despite the ambiguity in its details, the end of the story is clear. Evil self-destructs. (Revelation and the End of All Things, p. 161.)
- Rev 17:9
- Rev 17:10
- Dan 7:17, emphasis added
- To make matters worse, many scholars today have decided that the Book of Daniel cannot be supernatural or predictive so they explain away its accuracy as an unknown scribe’s rewriting of history as prophecy. For example, The New Oxford Annotated Bible: ‘The history recorded in these visions suggest that they were composed sometime before 164 BCE, when Judas Maccabeus purified the Temple that Antiochus IV Epiphanes had profaned in 167’ (p. 1267 Hebrew Bible). This, despite Jesus telling the disciples to watch for an event predicted by “Daniel the prophet” (Matt 24:15). The scholars then have to exclude Rome from the four kingdoms of Daniel 2 and 7 because that would be predictive, so they separate the Medes and the Persians into two empires, despite Daniel 5:28 and 8:20 explicitly describing them as one (also Daniel 6:8, 12 and 15). The scholars then have to set aside Jesus’ claim to be fulfilling Daniel 7 as ‘the Son of Man’ (Matt 26:64) and Daniel 2 with His ‘stone kingdom’ (Matt 21:43-44) during the Roman era instead of the Greek era!
- Michael Wilcock acknowledges this as an ‘alternative suggestion (which) harks back to the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream… which represented four successive world empires from Babylon to Rome; if the list were begun from the start of Israel’s history, Egypt and Assyria would precede Babylon, and make Rome not the fourth, but the sixth, with Rome’s successors (whatever that may be) as the seventh.’ (The Message of Revelation, p. 163-164). Leon Morris also writes that ‘either interpretation is possible. Both remind us of the continuing power of the beast’ (Revelation: Tyndale NT Commentaries, p. 210). See too John F. Walvoord quoting Joseph A. Seiss, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, pp. 251-254.
- Ex 12:14 & 24
- www.jewfaq.org/holidaya.htm, 4 Jul, 2019.
- Gen 1:16 & 22
- Ex 1:9-11
- 2 Kin 15:29
- 2 Kin 17:24
- John 4:9, emphasis added.
- Av is their fifth month, around July-August in the Gregorian calendar.
- 2 Kin 25:8-9
- Est 9:26-28, emphasis added.
- Late December in the Gregorian calendar. 1 Macc 4:58-59, emphasis added.
- John 10:22
- Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (abridged), p. 407.
- See my four books on Revelation.