Genesis to Revelation
In this article, we will be looking at how the Book of Revelation fits in with the rest of the Bible. That is a crucial question, the answer to which will influence how we interpret the book. It is also an issue that has many other questions nested in it – how one views the overall direction or “movement” of the Bible; what specific principles of interpretation one accepts; how one sees the OT and NT connecting; and even what date one accepts for the book. It is no wonder that there are so many different interpretations of Revelation. It sometimes seems that there are as many interpretations as there are Christians!
In this article, I am not planning to give the definitive answer on the various issues that arise in connection with this Book. I do intend to show how much it relies upon the Old Testament – upon various symbols and apocalyptic passages from the OT. I would suggest that the reason for this is that these OT passages dealt with attacks upon the church of the Old Testament. They demonstrated how the Lord protected His people and dealt with His enemies at that time. These passages, and symbols derived from them, therefore suit the purpose of the visions of Revelation very well. The less one sees those connections to the Old Testament, the more likely it is that fanciful interpretations will be forthcoming.
Of course, every NT Book has quotes from and allusions to, the OT. But the extent to which Revelation relies upon OT symbols and themes has probably been underestimated in the past. More recently, G.K. Beale’s excellent commentary, The Book of Revelation – originally published in 1999 – has provided extensive cross-referencing to the OT, making these connections clear.
It would take too long to list all the OT passages that inform Revelation. However, I will mention some of the main ones.
The description of paradise
Some elements from the description of the Garden in Gen. 1-2 are found in Revelation’s description of Paradise-Restored. The abundance of water (Gen. 2:6, 10-14), implying life, is picked up in Rev. 22:1-2. Likewise the Tree of Life (Gen. 2:9/Rev. 22:2). The precious stones of the Garden also re-appear, in greater variety, indicating great wealth and value (Gen. 2:11-2 and Ezek. 28:13, with Rev. 21:11, 18-21). Paradise-Restored is put in terms of a New Jerusalem, building on the theme of God’s holy city, which runs through the whole OT. The City is a symbol of His Presence. The OT Temple is also brought into the picture. In Ezek. 40, the prophet has a vision of a man measuring the Temple. But in Rev. 21:15-17, it is the New Jerusalem being measured. The whole City/Paradise becomes a “temple” where God dwells. The Lord knows its “measurements” well – He has it all under His care. His whole church, OT and NT, is represented by the 24 elders, who are seen constantly praising God with the angels (Rev. 4, 7 etc).
Several passages from Isaiah also feed into Revelation’s description of the new world. Is. 52:1, 61:10, 62:1-5 and 65:17-18 are picked up in Rev. 21:2f. This includes the picture of the church as a bride (Is. 61:10, 62:5).
The description of the Son of Man
Revelation 1:12-16 gives a symbolic description of Christ, as “One like a Son of Man,” This description draws from the prophecy of Dan. 7:9-10, 13-14, 10:5-6, and Ezek. 1:26-28. This Son of Man stands between 7 golden lampstands, a reference to the universal church. The symbolism is drawn from the golden lampstand of the Tabernacle/Temple (Ex. 25:31f), which is also picked up in the vision of Zech. 4:1ff. The Son of Man has a sword coming from His mouth – He comes in judgement – fulfilling Is. 49:2. The Lord Jesus appears again at the end of the Book, where He describes Himself as the “root and descendant of David, and the bright morning star” (Rev. 22:16). These terms are taken from Is. 11:1 and Num. 24:17, respectively.
The Lord Jesus Christ is also depicted in Revelation as both a lion and a lamb (Rev. 5:5-6). As a lamb, there is the background in the Passover Lamb. As a lion, there is a connection to Gen. 49:9 – the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.
The believer’s “name”
Revelation speaks of believers being given a “name,” sometimes referred to as being written on a white stone (Rev. 2:17), or marking their foreheads (7:3, 14:1) – as opposed to having the “mark of the beast.” This indicates that God knows intimately those who are His, and guards their holy character. Believers are God’s bond-slaves, branded with His Name/character. This symbol draws on passages like Is. 56:5, 62:2, 65:15 and Ezek. 9f. The contrast between those with Christ’s name upon them, and those bearing the number 666, indicates that the latter is not referring to barcodes, social security numbers and the like, but is a symbol of the allegiance of unbelieving men, ultimately to Satan.
The Book of Life
Believers also have their names recorded in the “Book of Life” (Rev. 3:5, 20:12, 15, 21:37. This has an OT background in Ex. 32:32-33, Is. 4:3, Dan. 12:1 and Mal. 3:16. The point is that the Lord does not forget those who belong to Him and fear Him.
The sealed books
A “seal” represents something either concealed or guaranteed as authentic. When they are opened, mysteries are revealed. We find this picture in Rev. 5, 6, 8, 10:4 and 22:10. The OT background is found in Is. 29:11 and Dan. 12:9-10. Ezek. 2-3 is similar, where the scroll is eaten rather than sealed up.
Measuring and numbering
Taking measurements of things or numbering them is a way of showing that the Lord knows all about us and has everything under control. He has infinite ability to provide for us and protect us. We find examples of this in Rev. 21:15 17 and 11:1, correlating with Num. 1, Ezek. 40 and 42:20.
Signs of God’s presence
The OT often describes theophanies – visible manifestations of God’s glory. For example, when God’s Presence rests on Mt. Sinai, the people see fire, smoke/cloud, and lightning; they hear loud noises like the blast of many horns; they feel tremors (Ex. 19:16f). Thus the holiness and glory of the Lord are represented, reminding us that we must fear Him. Revelation draws frequently upon these theophanic symbols (Rev. 1:10, 14-15; 4:1, 5, 11:19, 16:18 etc). This also reminds us that the Lord rules the world from heaven, with infinite power and glory, judging those who oppose Him and saving His people.
By the sea of crystal
Revelation mentions something that resembles a “sea of crystal” beneath God’s heavenly throne (4:6; 15:2). Rev. 21:1 states that in the New Creation, “there is no longer any sea.” Many regard the sea as a symbol of chaotic rebellion against God by the nations, and argue that this means there will no longer be any opposition to God in that Day. Others regard the sea as an allusion to the bronze laver of the OT Tabernacle/Temple. The sea mixed with fire in Rev. 15:2 is thought by some to draw on imagery from Ex. 14, where God destroyed the Egyptians pursuing Israel. Though the jury is still out on this one, it seems to me that there is a link with the expanse of crystal which Ezek. 1:22 sees overhead. Ezekiel’s vision is a view from below, whereas John is taken in the spirit and given a view from heaven looking down. One sees the sea of crystal from above, one from below. Perhaps the crystal expanse/sea refers to the separation between heaven and earth, that must remain in place until sin is utterly removed from Creation. Then there will be no more “sea,” no more barrier. In the meantime, this barrier is, of course, transparent to God.
The living creatures
Revelation’s heavenly scenes often involve “living creatures” that appear as hybrids of various creatures of power or influence (4:6-9, 5:6, 8, 11 and 14, 6:1, 6, 7:11, 14:3, 15:7 and 19:4). These creatures represent the Lord’s control over all aspects of creation, even those of greatest power. We find a similar image in Ezek. 1:5-14 and chapter 10. In Ezek. 10, they are identified as cherubim, which were also represented in the Most Holy Place of the OT Tabernacle/Temple. Cherubim are associated with God’s heavenly throne (Ps. 80:1, 99:1).
Revelation shows how the Lord not only saves His people, He also judges His enemies. The judgements upon those who have persecuted His people and rejected His Word are put in a series of roughly parallel visions, using such images as the four horsemen, the four winds, the seven seals, the 7 trumpets and the seven bowls of wrath. On the four horsemen, compare the four chariots of Zech. 6:1-8, each one pulled by horses of different colour. On the four (whirl) winds, see Is. 66:15-16. There may also be a connection between the four “spirits” of Zech. 6:5 and the four winds of Revelation. Mt. 24:30 quotes Dan. 7:13 concerning the Son of Man coming on the clouds with judgement – referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The image is one of God’s stormy winds of judgement driving the clouds. These passages are all basically depicting God’s judgement by means of war, plague, storm, death and such terrors.
In these judgements, the sun, moon and stars are sometimes blotted out or darkened, much as we find in Mt. 24:29. See, for example, Rev.6:12-13 and 8:12. This is also the language of judgement, often used to describe the way the Lord used the armies of the nations to visit His wrath on cities by laying siege to them (Ezek. 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31, 3:15; Amos 8:9; Zeph. 1:15).
The plagues that are mentioned in some of these passages often sound very much like the plagues upon Egypt at the time of the Exodus – as, for example, in Rev. 8.
In the day of judgement, people will seek to hide from God’s wrath, but they will not be able to. They will wish the mountains would fall on them and hide them (Rev. 6:16-17). This kind of language is found in the OT, in such passages as Is. 2:19 and Hos. 10:8.
Rev. 13 describes the beast from the sea and the beast from the earth. These appear to represent Satan’s use of political power and false religion, respectively, to persecute God’s people. The background is found especially in the four beasts of Dan. 7, which represent particular kingdoms or empires. Like the beasts of Rev. 13, those of Dan. 7 possess a number of horns, as Dan. 8 goes on to explain further. The horn is a symbol of power in the Bible – think of a bull’s horn, especially. When Ps. 89:17 says that God exalts the “horn” of His people, it means He provides us with strength.
The 144, 000
Rev. 7 speaks of God’s servants receiving His seal on their foreheads. The number of those sealed is said to be 144, 000 (7:4, 14:1, 3). This is a symbolic number, rather than literal. It is also referred to as a “great multitude which no one could count” (7:9). The symbolic number probably comes from 12 (tribes of Israel, the OT church) X 12 (apostles of the NT church) X 1, 000 (a great number). The idea of a great multitude ties in with the covenant promise that Abraham’s descendants would be too numerous to count (Gen. 15:5, 17:4 etc.).
Revelation makes use of a number of time-segments, such as 1, 260 days (12:6), 42 months (11:2, 13:5) and 31/2 years (12:14). These numbers are not to be taken literally. They represents the time during which the church will be persecuted, but when the Lord will protect her. This connects with Dan. 7:25 and 12:7, which states that God’s people will suffer for “a time, times and half a time,” which is a way of saying 31/2 years. In fact, all these numbers refer to the same period of time, for 31/2 years is 42 months or 1, 260 days. The time of persecution is actually this entire age, until the Lord Jesus returns. So these symbolic numbers cover the whole “millennium” of Revelation 20:2-7.
The great tribulation
Rev. 7:13-17 mentions those who have come out of the Great Tribulation. Similarly, Dan. 12:1 speaks of an unprecedented time of distress for God’s people. Mt. 24:21 and parallel passages use similar language in respect of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Many see this as a “double prophecy,” pointing to a Great Tribulation to come, shortly before the Lord returns. I am not convinced that the Scripture teaches that, though it certainly does indicate that this entire age will include tribulation, sometimes of a very high degree.
The woman and the dragon
Rev. 12 describes the pursuit of the woman by the red dragon. The woman gives birth to a child. She flees to the wilderness, where she is nourished for – guess how long? – 1, 260 days! The woman represents the church. The Child is Christ. The red dragon is Satan. The fact that the church is protected by the Lord for 1, 260 days is good evidence that this period represents the entire time before the Lord returns, for that is, in fact, the measure of His protection of His people – He never deserts us! This chapter relies upon a great deal of OT background. The dragon reminds us of the serpent in the Garden, only revealed here as very fierce in his wrath, instead of subtle in his approach (in the Garden) – here he has seven heads and ten horns. He sweeps away a third of the stars of heaven, much as in Dan. 8:10. This probably indicates that Satan is permitted to do some limited harm to the church, though ultimately he does not prevail. The church as a woman in labour is found, for example, in Is. 54:1 and 66:7. Her flight to the wilderness is reminiscent of Israel’s flight from Egypt, where the Lord sustained His people and delivered them by taking them through the wilderness.
In Rev. 12:10, Satan is described as the “accuser of our brethren ... who accuses them before our God day and night.” We readily think of Job 1:6-11. We may also consider Zech. 3:1, where the prophet is given a vision of Satan accusing Joshua the high priest in God’s presence. On both cases, the Lord preserves His servant despite these accusations – as He does for us, through the merits of His Son.
Revelation is a “Tale of Two Cities” – Babylon, representing the world, and Jerusalem, representing the church (Rev. 17-18). Babylon is wealthy and supported by powerful regimes. She seeks to seduce God’s people with her wealth and power. She seeks, ultimately, the destruction of the church. However, in the end it is she who is destroyed – to the great grief of all those who have invested their lives in her (the “merchants”). In the OT, a similar picture is painted of some of the wealthy, powerful cities of the time: Ezek. 26-28 (Tyre), Is. 23 (Tyre), and Jer. 51 (Babylon).
Rev. 16:13-16 speaks of the final battle, in which the kings of the earth gather at Armageddon and wage war against the Lord, and by implication, against His people. “Armageddon” is derived from the Hebrew for “the hill of Megiddo,” a site famous in the OT for great battles in which Israel fought against their enemies (2 Kings. 23:29f, 2 Chron. 35:22) – but where they also experienced great deliverances by the Lord (Judg. 4-5). Ezek. 38-39 is, perhaps, speaking of the same area, when it tells of how “Gog of the land of Magog” would attack Israel in the future. Rev. 20:7-10 speaks of Satan freed at the end of the “thousand years” to deceive the nations once more and gather the ends of the earth, “Gog and Magog,” to surround the camp of the saints and the beloved city. But the Lord delivers His people and throws the devil and his allies into the lake of fire. Zech. 12 also foretells a day when the Lord would deliver Jerusalem from all the nations that come against her. Zech. 12:11 mentions that the mourning that will be like that on the plain of Megiddo. Many take all this as an indication that there will be a literal gathering of armies against Jerusalem just before the end. Those who believe that Israel, as a geographic location, no longer holds any special place in God’s plan, take this as a symbol of the fierce opposition that the church will experience in the last days. Some still expect that opposition to increase just before the Lord returns. Others take it to mean that opposition will be there throughout the last days, and will still be fierce when the Lord returns.
The new song
Revelation provides us with several “songs,” which are Psalm-like in style and content – though with their Christ-centredness made more overt (Rev. 4:8, 11, 5:12, 13, 14:3, 15:3, 4). Hence, the “Song of Moses” is also the “song of the Lamb” (15:3). These songs are sometimes called “new” (14:3), a term that also comes from the Psalms (Pss. 33:3, 40:3, 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, 149:1), meaning that God’s people are called to praise God anew each day, as they become more aware of the extent of His mighty works and grace. In terms of content, these songs and ascriptions of praise draw from a number of Psalms, such as 33, 40, 47, 89, and 139. Looking at the songs individually, they do not always seem to quote from just one Psalm, but are more of a medley derived from several Psalms. Perhaps this is a reminder that any hymns or spiritual songs sung by the NT church should be more closely modelled upon the psalms than is often the case today!
The covenant fulfilled
Revelation contains many references to the covenant, both its promised blessings and its curses. Compare Rev. 21:8, 22:14-15, 19 with Dt. 23:18, 27:15f, 4:2 and 12:32. God is seen to be with His people in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:3), fulfilling the Abrahamic promise that lies at the heart of the covenant (Gen. 17:7) – God will be our God and we His people. The Davidic covenant of 2 Sam. 7 and Ezek. 37:24ff. is also fulfilled in Christ (Rev. 22:16, 3:7, 5:5).
What I have drawn to our attention here is just a scratching of the surface. As we have seen, Revelation draws heavily on the visions of Daniel 7 and 12, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. It uses images of judgement, blessing, and the promised new creation, from the prophets – especially Isaiah and Jeremiah. It models its songs upon the Psalms. It links with Genesis 1-3 to enclose the Bible in a movement from Paradise to Paradise-Restored. The main symbols that have so perplexed believers for centuries – the dragon, the beasts, Babylon, the Four Horsemen, Armageddon, etc. – these are all derived from the OT. This makes it very clear that if you want to interpret Revelation correctly, you have to be familiar with the OT. Even then, there will still no doubt be questions, and disagreements too. But at least it is a start.