Breaking the code

Easter 2 – 2016


Marian Free


In the name of God, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, who was and who is and who is to come. Amen.

Images such as “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” and “the mark of the beast” have become part of our cultural heritage. Even the word apocalypse is widely understood to mean the violent end of the world. I wonder if people who use such terminology understand that the images come from the book of Revelation or the Apocalypse. This is such a complex and controversial book of the bible, that it was not formally included in the canon of the New Testament until the fourth century. Even now, it is often regarded as too difficult and unorthodox to be included regularly in our diet of Sunday readings.

Of all the books of the Bible, Revelation is the one most open to misunderstanding and abuse. It is difficult to read and its meaning is so obscure that it is often avoided. This is unfortunate for two reasons: one is that it means that we fail to appreciate it and the second is that it leaves us unprepared to challenge the dangerous results of misinterpretation[1].

As the introduction suggests, Revelation is written (as a letter?) to seven churches in Asia Minor. The context suggests that church members are feeling under threat. As there was no official persecution at that time we can only guess that their conversion to Christianity had led to social exclusion and financial hardship. Being a Christian meant that they could no longer associate with the local Temples. This meant a form of voluntary social ostracism. Temples were places for meeting and eating and what is more they were closely associated with the various trade guilds. Not being able to visit the Temple mean isolation from the community at large and it also made it almost impossible to ply one’s trade.

When a community feels under threat, it is not unusual for those people to envision a future in which everything will be put to right – the righteous rewarded and the wicked punished. It is in this context that we need to read the book of Revelation. The colourful, and in places lurid imagery is intended to give hope and encouragement to those who (at some considerable cost to themselves are refusing to conform to the society around them.

Understanding Revelation requires making sense of the symbolism, breaking the code as it were. For example, numbers and colours take on specific meanings. Seven is the number for perfection, which means that 3½ or 1,260 days is the number for imperfection. We see that the work is written to seven churches, there are four sets of seven – seven seals, seven trumpets, seven visions and seven bowls. There are also seven churches, seven unnumbered visions and seven beatitudes Twelve is another significant number – 12 tribes of Israel and 12 disciples. 666 (of 616, “the mark of the beast”) may have no more significance than that it refers to Nero the letters of whose name add up to that number. The use of colour is also of significance. The four horses are white, red, black and pale (or green). It is believe that these symbolize conquest, war, famine and death.

The author is heavily reliant on the OT and it is easy for example to find images from Isaiah – the angels before the throne saying “holy, holy, holy” and the idea that God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Imagery of the Son of Man coming on the clouds is straight out of the book of Daniel and so on. At the same time, the book is not written in isolation, but is a product of the times. Nero was a particularly erratic and violent Emperor who was condemned to death. Before the execution could take place, Nero disappeared – this lead to a rumour that he would return one day. When Revelation refers to an army gathered in the east, it is possible that it refers to the return of Nero.

Not only is the book filled with symbolism, it is made up of repeated patterns. For example, each of the letters to the churches follows the same pattern and each of the seven plagues follows a pattern of persecution (of the righteousness), punishment (of the nations) and the triumph of God. Another aspect to note is that the writing is concentric or cyclic rather than linear, that is the events repeat themselves, each time becoming a little more dramatic or more destructive. It is impossible for the earth and all who live on it to be destroyed over and over again. Rather the pattern is repeated for emphasis, describing the wrath of God on three levels – the individual, humanity as a whole and the cosmos. The violence and the heavenly portents are not intended to be descriptions of what is to happen, they are pictorial images presented with a degree of exaggeration to make a point. Each builds on the last, but that does not mean that the events as described are meant to occur sequentially. A world without God is destined to self-destruct, but in the final analysis, God will make all things right.

The writer obviously had a sense of drama. Michael Fallon believes that the book can be divided as if into scenes in a play, with moments of high drama[2] – such as the dramatic pause before the opening of the seventh seal. The first five scenes are followed by glimpses of heaven – a vision of what life will be for those who hold on to the end.

The book of Revelation does not describe actual events, nor does it provide as some sort of road map for the present and future. It is an imaginative picture of a time of future judgement when the righteous will be rewarded and the unrighteous punished. It is written to give the recipients a cause for hope and the courage to hold on – even in the most difficult circumstances. When this life has done its worst, “those who conquer will inherit a new heaven and a new earth”[3] and having faith in the face of great opposition will be seen to have been worth it.

For all its difficulties, it is worth breaking the code and trying to understand the book of Revelation. It is a book of hope for the hopeless, a reassurance that all things are in God’s hands and at the end God will be seen to be the victor.







[1] Think Jonestown and other millennial movements that have convinced people that the world is so corrupt that the only solution is withdrawal and even suicide.

[2] a. Introduction                                                                         1:1-3

  1. Opening liturgical dialogue                                1:4-8
  2. Prophetic commission                                         1:9-11


Scene 1 Letters to the 7 churches                                    2:1-3:22

Heaven                                                               4:1-5:14

Scene 2 Six seals are broken                                            6:1-7:9

Heaven                                                               7:9-8:6

Scene 3 The sounding of six  trumpets                          8:7-11:14

Heaven                                                             11:15-12:12

Scene 4 Forces for good and for evil                            12:13-14:20

Heaven                                                             15:1-8

Scene 5 The seven bowls                                                 16:1-18:24

Heaven                                                              19:1-10

Scene 6 The final struggle, victory                                19:11-20:15

and judgement

Scene 7 The Church of God on earth                            21:1-22:5

  1. Guarantee of prophecy                                         22:6-7
  2. Concluding liturgical dialogue                            22:8-17
  3. Conclusion                                                              22:18-21


[3] 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them as their God;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

4                   he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

5   And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.



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