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  • Writer's pictureBrett Bonecutter

Coffee Talk and the book of Revelation - part 4

I hope that in the previous three blogs we have successfully made the point that Revelation is a book steeped in biblical symbols and should be read accordingly. The apocalyptic visions point to realities beyond themselves. So as we noted, Jesus "coming with clouds" in Rev 1:7 is a common biblical reference to divine judgment from heaven, not necessarily a reference to Jesus coming on a literal cloud. Our project of interpreting Revelation is to understand these symbolic-pictures in the most biblical way possible.

Speaking of pictures, I want to compare interpreting Revelation as akin to approaching a large jigsaw puzzle. One common strategy for putting the puzzle together is to find the edge pieces and easier visual clusters to start building a framework in order to work towards the harder details. We can approach Revelation in a like manner. There are some edge pieces and image groups that are easier to work with and starting with those will help us put the puzzle together. It is important to work through Revelation in a linear step-by-step way as well, but identifying the low-hanging fruit throughout the book can give us a better way of putting the whole together.

Chapter 17 is a great place to see how this works. The symbols are given just enough explanation for us to deduce their meaning. Here are the symbols - John says, "So he carried me away in the Spirit into the wilderness. And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold, and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication. And on her forehead a name was written: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. I saw the woman, drunk with blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus..."

That's quite a set of images! It is almost like we're reading Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy! But let's keep reading. An angel gives interpretation of the symbols by telling John,

"Here is the mind which has wisdom:

The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits.

There are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, and the other has not yet come. And when he comes, he must continue a short time. The beast that was, and is not, is himself also the eighth, and is of the seven, and is going to perdition. The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with the beast. These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast. These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them...

The waters which you saw, where the harlot sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues.

And the ten horns which you saw on the beast, these will hate the harlot, make her desolate and naked, eat her flesh and burn her with fire...

And the woman whom you saw is that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth." (Rev 17:9-14a, 15-16)

To sum up the angel's interpretation of the symbols:

  • Beast with Seven Heads --> Power/Authority with Seven Mountains

  • Beast with Seven Heads --> Power/Authority with Seven (+1) Kings

  • Beast with Ten Horns --> Power/Authority with Ten Kings

  • Waters --> People of the world (Gentiles)

  • Harlot --> Great City reigning over the kings of the earth

That still leaves us with interpreting to do, but we have enough to work with. Let's start with an easy one. It is a widely acknowledged historical fact that Rome is the ancient city built on "seven hills." Google it. Look it up. This was well known to people in the ancient world. It would be almost like talking about, "The City by the Bay," to people in modern America. We would immediately know they are talking about San Francisco. If I say I'm going to the, "Windy City," you know I'm going to Chicago. In the same way, it would have been immediately intuitive to people living under rule of the Roman empire to realize that the Power/Authority set on seven mountains was the Rome - thus the Beast is the Roman empire. There aren't a lot of no-brainers in Revelation, but this one rises to the level of conviction for me, personally. But again, without a basic knowledge of ancient history, it's easy to miss.

Throughout Revelation, the Beast can be identified in a corporate and individual sense. In the same way that "the body of Christ" can refer to the actual individual body of Christ, it can also point to the corporate body of believers. The Beast as the Roman empire works the same way - sometimes it is the empire collectively speaking, and sometimes it is identified as an individual ruler as we shall see below.

The next relatively easy one is the woman sitting on the beast. Let's notice how the woman is described.

  • First, "she" is a city riding upon "the beast" of the Roman empire. So it is a city riding on the power and largesse of Rome that would later be betrayed and destroyed by Rome. Let's keep going...

  • Second, "she" is arrayed in particular clothing - clothing that precisely mirrors the clothing of the Jewish priesthood (check out Exodus 28).

  • Third, "she" has a name on her forehead. The name is that of an arch-enemy of God's people (Babylon). But this city is also the "mother of harlots." It is spiritually adulterous. You know who else had a name on their forehead? The high priest of Israel (again, read Exodus 28). The name on their forehead was "Holiness to the Lord." So think about it. What city in all the world had special spiritual obligations to God as a covenant spouse - arrayed in fine garments with a name on its forehead, as it were? Jerusalem.

  • Fourth, "she" was drunk with the blood of saints and martyrs. Now what city would that be? If you read the book of Acts, you know that the persecutions started in Jerusalem.

  • Fifth, "she" sits on the "waters" of many peoples, nations, and tongues. This one isn't as difficult as it appears. Jerusalem was uniquely placed at the geographical crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa. One historian quipped that Israel lie "between the hammer and the anvil." It was and continues to be a very strategic piece of land at the epicenter of much of the world.

  • But wait - what about the phrase about "reigns over the kings of the earth?" Jerusalem never reigned over them, did it? Yes and no. From a political standpoint, no, that was not the case. But from a spiritual standpoint, it did. We forget that in the Old Covenant, there was a geographical center of spiritual action - and that was Jerusalem. If you wanted to worship God fully, you had to make a pilgrimage there. And again, we know that this city had special spiritual obligations to God - otherwise it would not have been a "harlot." So the reigning in view is not political, but spiritual.

So in my strong opinion, these two puzzle pieces of the Beast (Roman Empire) and the Woman (Jerusalem) are fairly easy to identify. But what about the horns and the kings? Who are they? This becomes a bit more tricky, but not impossible.

I believe the best explanation is that these are the line of Caesars that align with a pre-70 A.D. writing of Revelation. During the time of the writing of Revelation, Nero was Caesar - and he was the sixth of the Caesars. Here is a partial list of Caesars from the beginning:

1. Julius Caesar (49-44 B.C.)

2. Augustus Caesar (31 B.C.-A.D. 14)

3. Tiberius Caesar (A.D. 14-37)

4. Gaius Caesar, also called “Caligula” (A.D. 37-41)

5. Claudius Caesar (A.D. 41-54)

6. Nero Caesar (A.D. 54-A.D. 68)

7. Galba Caesar (June, A.D. 68 to January 15, A.D. 69)

So if we look at this timeline and Revelation 17, we see that five "have been" (Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius), one "is" (Nero), and one is "yet to come" for a "short time" (Galba). After Galba, the Roman empire was in chaos and some thought it might come to an end, ala Rev 17:7,8. However, the Beast revived and under the tenth "horn" of Caesar, Vespasian - the Beast fully turned on the woman (Jerusalem) and destroyed the temple in 70 A.D.

This is further corroborated by identifying Nero Caesar as the beast-horn-king bearing the mark of - six-hundred and sixty-six, in Revelation 13. As in Revelation 17:9, We are given an interpretive clue in Revelation 13:18, "Here is the mind of wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the name of the beast." So here again, we are told that wisdom sees a symbol that needs interpreting - and in this case, it is "calculating" a name that equals to six-hundred and sixty-six. Not 6,6,6, but 666. What does that possibly mean? During the first century, the Arabic numbering system we currently use had not been fully developed/adopted. In fact, alphabets did double-duty as numbering systems - as we know from looking at "Roman numerals." It takes a little work, but in Hebrew, Nero's name is NRON QSRN, which adds up to six-hundred and sixty-six using the numeric values of the Hebrew alphabet. Does it require calculation? Yes. Were we instructed to do so? Yes.

So we have a few big visual clusters of the puzzle put together now. I believe this continues to make the case for Revelation being a near-term prophecy for the people who initially received it. The judgments in view were not placed in a long-term time capsule to be opened hundreds of years later. Quite the contrary, they were judgments happening within a generation of Christ's prophecies of judgment on Jerusalem of His day. But as a message of hope to Christians, Revelation revealed that both of their Jewish and Roman oppressors would be judged and Christ's kingdom would indeed come. The wicked woman - the mother of harlots drunk on the blood of the saints - would be replaced by the heavenly Jerusalem - a new woman. The bride of Christ, the church. Revelation is a message of hope, not doom.

As we observed during the last blog, Revelation is not "code," but it is shrouded in Biblical symbols to protect the audience it was designed to encourage. It would have done little good to distribute a letter naming the Roman empire and Nero directly during the time of his reign. That would have only resulted in squelching the distribution of the book and persecuting Christians even more. As a friend of mine recently reminded me, this parallels Christ's pattern of speaking in parables. He didn't do this to confuse people per se, but to subtly camouflage his message to avoid immediate confrontation with his adversaries. The time to be direct would come, but there was a season of speaking in a more cryptic way to protect Himself and His followers.

In summary:

  1. Some symbols in Revelation are easier than others to interpret - in part, b/c certain passages give us explicit keys to interpret with.

  2. We can approach the symbols of Revelation in a non-linear way, like a jigsaw puzzle, and look at easier to interpret symbols first.

  3. The symbol of a woman sitting atop the Beast was a city and the description of that city is consistent with Jerusalem.

  4. The symbol of the Beast of Revelation is identifiable as the Roman empire corporately and certain Caesars, individually. Nero Caesar is the name that calculates to six-hundred and sixty-six.

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Jun 16

Good. But in the Bible, where else is 666 mentioned? 1 Kings 10:14. Grist for the mill.

Brett Bonecutter
Brett Bonecutter
Jun 17
Replying to

Sure, but what is the connection?

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