REVELATION: Let the Games Begin

Instead of going through Revelation 8 and 9 like a broken record, it might be the perfect time to break up the monotony and point out other very important cultural parallels John is employing. These parallels revolve around the Olympic games.

Started by the ancient Greeks, Olympic Games were a celebration of the Greek Olympiad (mythology of gods) and the power of the Greek empire. Even as the world was Romanized, these tenets carried through, although they became much more imperially minded. One of the things the games celebrated was the place of the gods. As you ran in the games, you were running to extol the glory of whatever god was being represented. Later, in the Roman world, this was applied to your city and country; you ran to prove to the world the greatness of the god of your city. It cannot be overstated that your performance was tied to the god you represented — not your individual talent, as we are used to today.

From what evidence we have about the games, we can piece together a pretty good picture of how things went down. Though it’s certainly been done with some liberty to make the most sense of history (it’s not like we found an ancient program hiding under the bleachers), the picture with its many parts is all there. I originally heard this lesson from my teacher, Ray Vander Laan, and many of those pieces can be found in the works mentioned at the beginning of our Revelation series (authors like Stauffer, Worth, and others).

What follows is a general outline of how they would open the Olympic Games:

1) Presentation of the Emperor — Caesar enters to the acclaim of all those who are gathered in the stands.
2) Herald’s Announcements — The emperor was almost always introduced by the recitation of his mighty deeds and accomplishments.
3) Caesar’s Pronouncements — Caesar would take the opportunity to speak to the cities and regions that were represented. The pronouncements often followed a typical outline: “I’ve heard of your [positive traits], … but I have this against you [negative traits and warnings].”
4) Chorus Sings Imperial Praise — The crowd, dressed in white robes (the accepted attire to attend the games), would sing, led by the 24 priests of the 24 legal Roman religions we’ve discussed before.
5) Games Opened — Another herald would read a scroll, again extolling the greatness of the gods and Caesar, king of kings and god most high; this ushered in the beginning of the competition.
6) Chariot Races — As far as we can tell, the first event was always the same and served as more of a ritual or ceremonial event to kick off the games — the chariot races. The colors of the horses appear to be consistent for each event: black, white, red, and spotted/pale.
7) Trumpets — Trumpets sound and the opening ceremonies are complete.

Let the games begin!

For our astute readers, you have probably already noticed that the opening nine chapters of Revelation are laid out by John exactly like the opening to the Olympic Games. Follow me back through the steps:

1) Presentation of the Emperor — (Revelation 1a) God is presented as the Alpha and Omega, the Almighty.
2) Herald’s Announcements — (Revelation 1b) John hears a voice telling him to write down what he sees: the greatness of God.
3) Caesar’s Pronouncements — (Revelation 2-3) The seven letters to the seven churches, following the “I’ve heard about your [positive traits], … but I have this against you” format.
4) Chorus Sings Imperial Praise — (Revelation 4 & 7) The crowd in Revelation, dressed in white robes, sings, led by the 24 elders.
5) Games Opened — (Revelation 5) The slain lamb is found worthy to open the scroll with seven seals, a scroll with writing on both sides.
6) Chariot Races — (Revelation 6) The horses and chariots appear, with all the colors to match.
7) Trumpets — Trumpets sound and the games begin.

What does all of this mean? It means John is writing his apocalyptic vision against the backdrop of the Olympic Games. In a very real sense, the reader who sees this would understand what John is saying: “We find ourselves in a great olympic competition! Who is going to win?” Throughout his writing, it seems the enemy (Rome, Babylon, the beast, the dragon, etc.) has the upper hand. The book does not dance around the very real persecution and apparent defeat that the original readers are struggling through.

But just as my teacher told me, I think John is saying something more.

He’s saying the way we conduct ourselves in the world is how we tell the world what our God is like. If the games were an opportunity to put your god on display, then the struggle we endure is our opportunity to do the same. The way we persevere, and the way we overcome — the way we run — is what will tell the world who our God is. May we be reminded of the words we studied back in Hebrews:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.


REVELATION: Multitudes upon Multitudes

As we go through Revelation 7, let’s spend our time focusing on Text. As Western readers, understanding the importance of cultural context comes more easily, but realizing the prevalence and significance of the Textual remezes is much more difficult.
After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.
From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed,
from the tribe of Reuben 12,000,
from the tribe of Gad 12,000,
from the tribe of Asher 12,000,
from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000,
from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000,
from the tribe of Simeon 12,000,
from the tribe of Levi 12,000,
from the tribe of Issachar 12,000,
from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000,
from the tribe of Joseph 12,000,
from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000.
One quick, unavoidable note about the numbers in John’s reference here: If you’ve been following along, you might remember us talking about the significance of numbers and their qualitative, symbolic properties for Jewish readers. In that discussion we noted 12 is always the number of God’s people (in reference to the 12 tribes of Israel). So, when each tribe in this passage has 12,000 people, you see the statement that there is all of the community of each tribe there (12 x 1000, or God’s people multiplied by absolute, complete community) — not one is missing. This group of 144,000 is the exact number John can use to demonstrate that each and every one of God’s people is present; no one is missing and no one is left out. More could be said here, but I want to move on to Text as I mentioned above.

But where is John getting his material? In order to cinch this up tight, you would have to jump to the end of Revelation, as well, but you can begin to see what John is building toward by reading Ezekiel 45 — another apocalyptic vision of a world restored. Ezekiel uses communal numbers (multiples of 1000) and speaks of each and every tribe getting their land. He also speaks of a temple, just as John will later, but we’ll spend more time on this when we come to it at the end of our study.
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
Not only did John just hearken to the conclusion of the vision of Ezekiel, but to speak of a great multitude holding palm branches would also bring a fitting conclusion to mind. One of the few places where a multitude gathers with palm branches in the Hebrew Scriptures is at the celebration of Sukkoth (the Festival of Tabernacles). If one reads the last chapter of Zechariah, his apocalyptic vision concludes with the picture of all the nations streaming toward Jerusalem to celebrate the great Festival of Tabernacles together. If Zechariah’s vision found its fulfillment, you would have a large multitude holding palm branches and singing Psalms to God.
All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”
I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore,
“they are before the throne of God
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.
‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ ”
The picture of God wiping away every tear is not a new one to Scripture — not even close (to my own surprise many years ago). The picture is put forth in the prophets time and time again. This picture, as well as the picture of the ransomed people of God gathering for songs of deliverance, can be seen all throughout Isaiah, in chapters 25, 35, 51, and 65, for example (not to mention other prophets). These are all pre-painted pictures, centuries old, that serve as the foundation John builds his writing on. When the original hearers heard his words, they would have immediately had an understanding to start building his teaching on.
They would have started with their history and gone backwards to remember the things they had learned in the past. In this, they would have found hope and progress, even in their extremely hard circumstances. Ironically, we read Revelation and look forward into the future and find anxiety, false pride, and self-righteousness.
I don’t want to be a broken record, but I don’t feel like the horse is truly dead yet (sorry for mixing the metaphors there). I just don’t think we grasp the significance of our Bibles putting Text to context. I fear that if we don’t truly appreciate this fact, we continue to misread, misunderstand, and — most importantly — misapply what the writings of our God-breathed, authoritative pages try to inspire in us.


REVELATION: Seals from Scripture

I’m confident we can jump right in to the sixth chapter of Revelation as we’ve learned some of the most common questions to ask. As usual, we will be looking for insight in the culture (of the first-century Greco-Roman world) and the quoted Text (Hebrew Scriptures) within the teaching. First, let’s take a cursory look at the culture sitting just under the surface of this chapter:
I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
This talk about conquest would ring loud in the ears of the early readers. A Roman conquest was built upon the words of Julius Ceasar: “Veni, vidi, vici.” — “I came. I saw. I conquered.” And a later Roman slogan was similar: “Piety. War. Victory. Peace.” This narrative of conquest would be known well by the original recipients of John’s letter.
When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.
As the Lamb (see the discussion on the prior chapter of Revelation) continues to break open the seven seals on this scroll, the situation in the world progresses. The next horse is the red horse representing blood and the slaughter of mankind, one to another. Whether it’s the slaughter of war, the entertainment of the Romans (i.e., gladiators, the arena or colosseum, etc.), or the art that surrounds them, this is a fitting reference to the culture at large.
When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
As we discussed with Philadelphia, this is a reference that matches (exactly) the records we’ve found in biblical Asia. Building an empire is always done at a cost, and the price is often steep. The grain shortage felt throughout the Roman Empire was staggering.
When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
The reign of Rome — for people like the original hearers of Revelation — obviously culminates in death and what appears to be the victory of evil. John makes the fourth horse out to represent Death itself, and then tags on the Greek idea of Hades. This belief in the underworld and spawning place of evil would not only be a perfect cultural play, but would also serve as a fitting picture for this empire that bears down on the people who hear John’s message.
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.
Like we just said above, this Roman ideal leads to death — the slaughter of thousands upon thousands of believers. These are people who were unwilling to bend the knee to the emperor’s demands for worship — people who claimed to stand for a better gospel. 
I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
What discussion in this series hasn’t included a discussion about the major earthquakes that ravaged the region?
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”
For the original readers, I believe the thing that would have stuck out to them about this paragraph is not the theological judgment of God, but the fact that this is a reality for all people — kings, princes, generals, the rich, the mighty, slave, free, and everyone else. In a world where it seems like judgment is reserved for the oppressed and wielded by the powerful, John writes about a greater truth that applies to all people, no matter who they are.

But now we must look for insight in our second source: Where is John getting his material?

Without a doubt, the chapter is built upon the image of Zechariah 6, written centuries earlier, with horses that match the same colorful descriptions. I’ve already used a lot of Text in this passage, but it would serve you well to read how Zechariah 6 ends. The message of Zechariah 6 is a stunning reference to followers of Jesus who are wondering if they should give up hope. They would hear a passage written to their ancestors — ancestors who made it through great persecution and found the rescue and redemption of God. And this is all before we mention the obvious implications of Jesus being “the Branch” talked about there.

When it comes to the talk about death, famine, and pestilence, would the readers immediately think of Hosea 13:24, Jeremiah 15:2–3, 24:10, or Ezekiel 5:17? It might be fitting if they did, since these references all come from apocalyptic encouragement, just like the passage above.

And when the slain martyrs of Revelation 6 cry out, do the readers think of Psalm 79 or Psalm 114 (particularly around verse 84)? Although we already gave references with Sardis to the great earthquake alluded to here, do the listeners also think of Isaiah 29 or Ezekiel 38 (see verse 19, specifically)? Doesn’t the context of Revelation 6 make so much more sense if we realize and remember that the Jewish listeners had Isaiah 34 memorized? (Compare Isaiah 34 with Revelation 6:12–14.)

My point is this: These people were not baffled by the contents of Revelation. The people there understood the immediate application to their immediate context. The Jewish listeners in their midst were equipped to expound on the teaching of John deliberately buried in his letter as a source of encouragement and exhortation. Please understand that the original readers would certainly not have projected these pictures and ideas into the future. These references were about their own brothers and sisters, uncles and cousins. The “souls of those who had been slain” were people they knew by name.

I believe one of the reasons you and I have a hard time interpreting and understanding the book of Revelation — the reason we immediately project its meaning into the future — is because we don’t know what it’s like to be on the side of true persecution. We don’t know what it’s like to sit on the other side of the Roman sword. We don’t know what it’s like to watch the systemic and premeditated pursuit and extermination of our fellowship. And it affects our ability to understand an apocalyptic letter written to a group of people who fear for their lives; we don’t know how to hear its message of perseverance and the call to remain vigilant and steadfast, even to the point of death.

Quite frankly, as a whole (I realize there are individuals in our midst who have endured great suffering; I have no intent to downplay that), we have spent most of our time at the handle end of the sword of oppression. We have fought for our own rights instead of pursuing the self-sacrificial way of Jesus. We’ve been more concerned with Starbucks cups, bathroom signs, and wedding cakes than we have been with anything that would have ever occupied the thoughts of those people who preserved the faith we too often misinterpret.

We have mistaken the loss of privilege for persecution.

There is a host of people slain under the altar in the book of Revelation who cry out for us to remember what they signed up for — what they gave their lives for. They didn’t give their lives so we could live comfortable American dreams and protect our privilege. They laid their lives down because it’s what their Rabbi did. He taught them how to trust in and live out a narrative of self-sacrifice.

It’s the story we’re invited to trust, too. May we honor their memory. More importantly, may we kiddush HaShem (“hallow the Name”).



The pictures and images that drive the fifth chapter of Revelation follow in step with the parousia we described in the fourth chapter. We’ll continue to see a parallel in cultural context, as well as references to the Hebrew Scriptures in a way that preaches a sermon within the letter.
Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Many of the pronouncements we’ve referenced in Roman settings (and will continue to reference) were made from scrolls. History would indicate that these scrolls were often made quite large to impact the listener visually; the scroll often contained the greatness and achievements of the Emperor. Some have suggested a tongue-in-cheek reference to “a scroll with writing on both sides” — meaning that the greatness of this King is so great, you couldn’t fit it all on one side.

However, one of the things we can make a direct tie to in the culture is the reference about worthiness. You might remember our discussion about the synagogue in Sardis; one of the finds in the ruins there was a plaque that sat over the Moses Seat: “Only he who is worthy. Take. Open. Read.” The audience of Revelation seems to be familiar with the idea that the scrolls of God should only be read by the person who walks in faithful righteousness. So who would be worthy to open this scroll?
At the synagogue in Sardis; Moses seat on the left, Torah closet on the right.

It should be noted that the references to things like “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” or “the Root of David” are more than just passing references to Jesus. They are intentional quotations of the Hebrew Scriptures that are intended to speak to the readers about the current situation. But this discussion will already be long enough without covering that here. Continuing in Revelation 5:
Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. 
John references this ruler who is worthy to open the scroll, but the reference is a deliberate play on the Exodus — fitting for a group of people crying out for deliverance from Roman persecution. This ruler looks like a slain lamb. For the Jewish people, the slain lamb had become the symbol of revolution, calling them back to the great story of God’s deliverance. Add to this John’s reference to the elders, the very people Exodus describes as needing to examine and identify the Pesach lamb in Exodus 12.

And the references don’t stop here — “… which are the prayers of God’s people” appear to be drawn from Psalm 141:2 and Psalm 16:3. The context of those Psalms would also speak to the audience, crying out to God for refuge and deliverance. Back to Revelation 5:
And they sang a new song, saying:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
    and they will reign on the earth.”
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
    to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
    and honor and glory and praise!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
    be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”
The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
One of the songs that will continue to make an appearance in the Revelation of John, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, is the song of Moses. When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, they found themselves rescued on the other side, dancing along to the song of Moses. While the closing of that song (Exodus 15) seems to have a loose connection here, the possibility is bolstered by John’s Passover/Exodus references throughout the chapter.
One final idea that has always jumped out to me is the commissioning of Isaiah in Isaiah 6. Not only is the song from Isaiah mentioned just prior in Revelation 4, but the entirety of Revelation 5 is about worthiness, draped in a context of flying figures with many wings encircling the throne. This reaches back into our previous discussion, but the image clearly carries itself through chapter 5, as well.