Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation

Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation

by Bruce M. Metzger


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780687492008
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 08/01/2006
Pages: 111
Sales rank: 224,592
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

One of the world's best-known scholars on the text of the New Testament - has taught for many years at Princeton Theological Seminary - The author or editor of thirty-five books - served as General Editor of the Reader's Digest Condensed Bible - Chairman of the NRSV Translation Committee.

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Breaking the Code

Understanding the Book of Revelation

By Bruce M. Metzger

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 1993 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-08999-4


Introducing the Book of Revelation

The entire Bible is a library, containing different types of books. Now different types of literature make their appeal to the reader through different avenues. For example, the Psalms of David touch one 's emotions: "Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name" (Ps. 103:1). In the Bible are also books of law that involve commands: "Do this! "Don't do that!" Such books speak to our will, requiring us to respond positively or negatively. Still other biblical writings, such as Paul's Letter to the Romans, appeal primarily to our intellect. We need to think carefully an d patiently as we seek to follow the apostle's theological reasoning.

The book of Revelation is unique in appealing primarily to our imagination—not, however, a freewheeling imagination, but a disciplined imagination. This book contains a series of word pictures, as though a number of slides were being shown upon a great screen. As we watch we allow ourselves to be carried along by impressions created by these pictures. Many of the details of the pictures are intended to contribute to the total impression, and are not to be isolated and interpreted with wooden literalism.

Preliminary Considerations

In order to become oriented to the book of Revelation one must take seriously what the author says happened. John tells us that he had a series of visions. He says that he "heard" certain words and "saw" certain visions. Over the centuries there have been occasional individuals with the gift of being susceptible to visionary experiences. The author of Revelation seems to have been such a person.

In order to understand what is involved in a visionary experience we may consider Ezekiel's vision of a valley full of dry bones (Ezek. 37:1-4). In this vision the prophet saw the assembling of the bones into skeletons and the coming of sinews and flesh, climaxed by restoration to life, so that "they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude" (Ezek. 37:10). We are not to understand that bones were actually scattered around in a valley; the account is purely symbolic. The prophet's visionary experience pictured the revival of the dead nation of Israel, hopelessly scattered in exile. Through this vision Ezekiel was assured that the dispersed Israelites, living as exiles in foreign lands, would be reestablished as a nation in their own land.

The Acts of the Apostles reports several instances of visionary experiences (9:10; 10:11; 16:9; 18:9; 22:17; cf. 27:23). One of the most significant was the apostle Peter's experience at the house of Simon, a tanner, in Joppa. In this case a natural cause cooperated in producing the vision. Hungry, and waiting for a meal to be prepared, Peter fell into a trance and saw "something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners" (Acts 10:11). In it were all kinds of quadrupeds, reptiles, and birds, both fit and unfit for food according to Jewish law and custom. The vision was accompanied by a heavenly voice bidding Peter to slaughter and eat what was provided (Acts 10:13). This vision taught Peter that, as a Jewish Christian, he need no longer restrict his diet to kosher foods only, but was permitted to visit and even to reside at the home of Gentiles. We are not to think that there was literally a sheet filled with various creatures.

Similarly, when the book of Revelation reports that John "saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads" (13:1), there is no reason to imagine that such a creature actually existed. Nevertheless, the vision had profound significance for John— and still has for the reader today (see pp. 75-77 below). Such accounts combine cognitive insight with emotional response. They invite the reader or listener to enter into the experience being recounted and to participate in it, triggering mental images of that which is described.

John's Symbolic Language

In reporting his visionary experiences John frequently uses symbolic language. Sometimes he explains the meaning of the symbols. Other symbols really need no explanation; for example, the number seven. Everyone knows that there are seven days in a week; then another week begins. And so seven means completion or perfection. Other symbols in Revelation can be understood in the light of the symbolism used in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah. It is clear that John had studied the Old Testament very thoroughly. Of the 404 verses that comprise the 22 chapters of the book of Revelation, 278 verses contain one or more allusions to an Old Testament passage. John had so thoroughly pondered the Old Testament that when it came to recording the import of his visions of God and of heaven, he expressed himself by using phrases borrowed from the prophets of Israel. Therefore, in attempting to understand John's symbolism, we must consider not only the book itself, but also his use of the Old Testament.

No doubt some of John's symbols seem exceedingly strange to readers today. For example, the Roman Empire is symbolized as a beast like a leopard with feet like a bear's and a mouth like a lion's mouth (13:2)—all very horrible indeed, as those who were being persecuted by Rome knew well. Such strange beasts were more or less commonplace features in apocalyptic literature—and the book of Revelation is a notable example of that literary genre. More will be said later about such literature, but for the moment it is sufficient to remind ourselves that we too make use of animals as symbols of nations and groups: the British lion, the Russian bear, the American eagle, the Democratic donkey, the Republican elephant. A newspaper cartoonist may show a donkey tugging at one end of a rope and an elephant tugging at the other. Young children or new immigrants may not understand that symbolism. Later, they will recognize the competition within a two-party system. In the same way, some of the imagery in Revelation may seem unusual or even bizarre, but on further reflection, and with the use of a disciplined imagination, the meaning will usually become clear. In any case, it is important to recognize that the descriptions are descriptions of symbols, not of the reality conveyed by the symbols.

Identity of the Author

The author four times calls himself "John" (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8). This name was common among Jews from the time of the Exile onward and among the early Christians. Four persons are mentioned in the New Testament who bore this name. Which of these is intended, or whether the author was some other early Christian leader with this name, has been extensively debated. The absence of any specific data in the book itself makes it difficult to come to a firm decision. Since there is no qualifying identification (such as "John the elder" or "John Mark"), it is probable that the author intends his readers to understand that he is the John, who was so well known that he needed no titles or credentials. Certainly from the mid-second century onward the book was widely, though not universally, ascribed to the apostle John, the son of Zebedee. This attribution was accepted in the West beginning with Justin Martyr of Rome (A.D. 150), Irenaeus of Gaul (180), and Tertullian of North Africa (200).

In the East, however, apostolic authorship was sometimes rejected, notably by the so-called Alogi (a group of heretics in Asia Minor, about A.D. 170), as well as by Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria (after 247). Dionysius argued on the basis of differences of vocabulary and grammatical style between the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse and believed the latter to be the work of another person named John, who, however, he was prepared to say, was "holy and inspired."

From this point on, the apostolic origin of Revelation was frequently disputed in the East. Eusebius (A.D. 325) wavered between regarding the book as "recognized" or as "spurious." But after Athanasius of Alexandria (A.D. 367) and the Latin church under the influence of Augustine toward the end of the fourth century had accepted Revelation in their lists of the canon, the book was no longer officially contested as part of the New Testament. Even though the precise identity of "John" is still debated today, interpretation of the book does not depend on certainty concerning this matter.

Time of Writing of Revelation

The book of Revelation was composed and sent to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia at some point between A.D. 69 and 96 in order to encourage them with the assurance that, despite all the forces marshalled against them, victory was theirs if they remained loyal to Christ. Although some scholars have identified the persecutions alluded to in the book as originating from the Emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68), it is more likely that the book reflects the conditions prevailing during the latter years of the Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96).

Prior to Domitian the state religion had not discriminated against the Christian faith. Nero's mad acts against Christians were restricted to Rome (see pp. 85-86 below) and had nothing to do with the issue of worship. The first emperor who tried to compel Christians to participate in Caesar worship was Domitian. Toward the close of his reign he became so overweeningly proud and arrogant that he demanded people address him as "our lord and god" (dominus et deus noster in Latin). Of course, faithful Christians would not address any human being as lord and god or participate in offering incense to him in temples built in his honor. The Jews had earlier been granted immunity from such requirements, and could legally abstain from pagan worship. At first the Roman authorities regarded the Christians as a sect within Judaism. But toward the close of the first century it became clear that the church was separate from the synagogue; therefore, Christians who refused to participate in emperor worship exposed themselves to the charge not only of being unpatriotic, but also of being subversive and enemies of the state. Consequently, at various times and places they suffered persecution because of their faith.

Also favoring the close of the first century as the time of the composition of Revelation is the fact that, according to 2:8-11, the church in Smyrna had been persevering under trials for a long time, whereas according to Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna in the first half of the second century, the church there did not yet exist until after the time of Paul (that is, in the 60s). Furthermore, in 3:17 the church in Laodicea is described as rich, though this city had been almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in A.D. 61 (see p. 43 below).

One may conclude, therefore, that the book of Revelation was written toward the end of Domitian's reign, about A.D. 90-95. This date is corroborated by the testimony of early church fathers, such as Irenaeus (A.D. 180), Clement of Alexandria (200), Origen (254), and Eusebius (325).

Literary Genre of the Book

John called his book an "Apocalypse," meaning an unveiling, a disclosure. This alerts us at once to pay attention to the special characteristics of this book, so different from other types of literature. During the two centuries before and after Christ a considerable number of Jewish and Christian writings appeared that belong to the category of apocalyptic literature. Jewish apocalyptic literature begins with the book of Daniel, though apocalyptic tendencies can be seen in Isaiah 24-27, Ezekiel 38-39, and Zechariah 9-14, where there are frequent references to the approaching "day of the LORD."

Important apocalyptic writings outside the Old Testament are the book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Baruch, the Fourth Book of Ezra, the Ascension of Isaiah, the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, and parts of the Sibylline Oracles. The apocalyptists receive their revelations in ecstatic or dream visions, which are reported with the stylistic features typical of apocalyptic literature. Persons are represented in the likeness of animals, and historical events in the form of natural phenomena. Colors and numbers have secret meanings. The images themselves often have a history behind them and originate from astrological, cosmological, and mythological tradition of antiquity.

Although there are no formal laws that are applicable to all apocalypses, most of these books have the following basic features:

1. The authors of such books view the universe as divided into two camps, one good and the other evil. These camps are engaged in a long and fearful struggle. Behind the conflict are supernatural powers (God and Satan) at work among people and institutions. In everyday life it is not always easy to distinguish clearly the works of the two, but at the end of time every human being will be found to be on one side or the other. The final separation of the two is the meaning of judgment.

2. Apocalypses usually contain predictions about the final outcome of human affairs, focusing on the last age of the world, when good will triumph and evil will be judged. Present troubles are represented as "birth pangs" that will usher in the End. God has set a limit to the era of wickedness and will intervene at the appointed time to execute judgment. In the final battle the powers of evil, together with the evil nations they represent, will be utterly destroyed. Then a new order will be established, when the End will be as the Beginning, and Paradise will be restored.


The focus of the book of Revelation is the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and the definitive establishment of God's kingdom at the end of time. Corresponding to this, the structure of the book involves a series of parallel yet ever-progressing sections. These bring before the reader, over and over again, but in climacteric form, the struggle of the church and its victory over the world in the providence of God. There are probably seven of these sections, though only five are clearly marked. The plan of the whole, then, can be divided as follows: Prologue (1:1-8); seven parallel sections divided at 3:22; 8:2; 11:19; 14:20; 16:21; and 19:21; Epilogue (22:6-21).

Here and there in John's account of his visionary experiences he uses the word then. There is, however, no reason to assume that the order in which John received his visions must be the order in which the contents of the visions are to be fulfilled. In chapter 12, for example, we will find a vision that takes us back to the time of the birth of Jesus. Such features in the book should make us wary of turning Revelation into a kind of almanac or time chart of the last days based on the sequence of the visions that John experienced. Like any good teacher, he knows that repetition is a helpful learning device, and so he repeats his messages more than once from differing points of view.



(Revelation 1:1-20)

THE PROLOGUE (1: 1- 3)

In the opening sentence of the prologue John discloses to the reader the origin and content of his book: "The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John" (1:1). The source of the revelation is God, who speaks through the Son, who shows to God's people the things that are to be. This revelation is the revelation "of Jesus Christ," which can mean either that the revelation was made by Jesus Christ or that it was made about him or that it belongs to him. In a sense all three are true: the revelation comes from God through Jesus Christ, who communicates it to John by an angel. The revelation is Jesus Christ's and the chain of communication is God—Jesus Christ — angel— John—to the churches. The purpose of the revelation is to show "what must soon take place." Here the sense of "must" is not the necessity imposed by Fate, but the sure fulfillment of the purpose of God. The word soon indicates that John intended his message for his own generation.

The material in the book of Revelation is so important that a blessing is promised to the one who reads it aloud, and to those who hear and who keep what is written in the the prophecy (1:3). The word aloud is not in the Greek, but is implied. In New Testament times reading was usually a group activity, with one person reading to others. Not all people, of course, could read; furthermore, manuscripts of books were expensive, and few Christians could afford them. In the absence of printed books, great emphasis was laid in the early church on the public reading of handwritten copies of communications to congregations (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; cf. 1 Tim. 4:13). John calls his book prophecy, it has the weight of the words of the prophets of the Old Testament. For this reason, therefore, a divine blessing can be pronounced on those who read and who hear the book.


Excerpted from Breaking the Code by Bruce M. Metzger. Copyright © 1993 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Introducing the Book of Revelation,
2. John's Vision of the Heavenly Christ (1:1-20),
3. Letters to Churches (2:1-29),
4. More Letters to Churches (3:1-22),
5. John's Vision of God and the Lamb (4:1-5:14),
6. Opening the Seven Seals of God's Scroll (6:1-8:2),
7. Sounding the Seven Trumpets (8:3-11:19),
8. The Satanic Trinity: The Dragon and the Two Beasts (12:1-14:20),
9. The Seven Bowls of God's Wrath (15:1-18:24),
10. The Final Victory and the Last Judgment (19:1-20:15),
11. John's Vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem (21:1-22:21),
For Further Reading,
Subject Index,
Leader's Guide,

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Breaking the Code; Understanding the Book of Revelation 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Book of Revelation from the New Testament is, at best, enigmatic, and often frightening. Many readers are put off by its apocolyptic visions and are puzzled or stupefied by its imagery. Bruce M. Metzger manages with clarity and accuracy to demystify much of this puzzling work. In addition to clarifying the rich symbolism, he manages to take away some of the "fear factor" which one frequently encounters when reading this book. At the same time, he doesn't preach; he simply states in clear terms, an acceptable explanation and interpretation of this intriguing set of "prophetic visions." As chair of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation committee of the Bible, he could easily have chosen to give an expansive and footnote filled explication of the text. Instead, he presents in straightforward language a commentary designed for the average layperson. Is is the kind of work which can be read by scholars, or by "the uninitiated." Perhaps, it may even clarify some of the debates which often surround this section of the New Testament. It may, perhaps, cause some to rethink their positions or at least bring them into clearer focus. This short volume is both informative, edifying, and inspirational. It's easily worth both the price and the reading.
deusvitae on LibraryThing 25 days ago
Metzger's book is a short commentary attempting to establish the basic flow of what Revelation is about. He accepts and defends the position that the book is written between 69-96, likely between 91-96, and involves a series of visions, many of which tell the same story, telling in apocalyptic imagery the "things that are" (Jesus' birth, establishment of His Kingdom, cruelty of Rome) and "the things that are to come" (Jesus' victory over Rome, the Judgment).I would have liked some more detail in parts, and better explanations in many areas. Whenever he arrived at difficulties in synthesizing a various part of the picture with his story, he would either neglect it, do just a ground-level explanation and move on, or just provide various possibilities. I do not think that this negates any of Metzger's conclusions, but it certainly doesn't help in understanding Revelation. Overall, however, the book is quite good.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the many, very good.