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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Context of Genre, Revelation, by Craig S. Keener

Jewish writers in John’s day who imitated the writing style of Old Testament prophets (writing a form of literature later called apocalyptic) frequently used symbolism as well (for example, 1 Enoch portrays angels impregnating women as stars impregnating cows). Just as Jewish teachers often used riddles to provoke thought, apocalyptic writings used enigmatic prophecies to challenge the hearers. Even if we had only the Old Testament as background for Revelation, however, we would expect an abundance of prophetic symbolism (for example, see especially Zechariah, Ezekiel, and many prophecies in Daniel and Isaiah).


Whole-Book Context

Revelation offers a running contrast between two cities: Babylon and the New Jerusalem. Babylon is a prostitute (17:5); the New Jerusalem a bride (21:2). Babylon is decked out with gold and pearls (17:4), like a prostitute seeking to allure us with its offer of sinful, temporary gratification. The New Jerusalem is built of gold and its gates are pearls (21:18, 21). No one with any sense would prefer Babylon to the New Jerusalem; but only those with faith in God’s promise wait for the city from above and resist present temptation.

In the days of Augustine (a North African theologian, AD 354-430), Rome fell to northern barbarian invaders, and Christians were dismayed. Augustine contrasted Rome with the City of God; earthly cities and empires decked with splendor will perish, but God’s city is eternal, and his promise to us will never fail. The world demands that one take the mark of the beast, if one wishes to buy or sell (13:17). But for those who refuse to compromise with the world’s kind of food (2:14, 20), God offers a promise of eternal food (2:7, 17) and manna even when the world persecutes them (12:6). Those who think themselves rich may be poor in what matters (3:17), just as those who seem to be poor may be rich in what matters (2:9). Jesus offers the true gold of the New Jerusalem to those who trust him rather than in their worldly wealth (3:18).

What can we learn about the New Jerusalem? Some translations explain that the New Jerusalem is 1500 miles in every direction, including high (21:16); this would make it about 1495 miles higher than the world’s tallest mountain, where the air is already thin hence difficult to breathe. Admittedly, God could change the laws of physics if he wanted to, but there is another clue that the specific measure given for the New Jerusalem offers a symbolic point: in a city 1500 miles (about 2400 km.), the wall is only 72 yards (about 80 meters).

The first audience of Revelation would have found its warning about worshiping the image of the beast relevant for their own day!

The answer to the significance of these apparently disproportionate measurements comes when we read the verse in Greek, or in a very literal translation, or in the footnote in most other translations: the New Jerusalem is 12,000 stadia cubed, with a wall of 144 cubits. By the time a reader of the book of Revelation gets to chapter 21, they have seen these numbers before. Revelation 7:4-8 and 14:1-5 speak of 144,000 chaste male Jews, 12,000 from each tribe. Because “Jerusalem” in the Bible referred to the people (Jerusalemites) as well as the place, the connection here makes sense: here are the New Jerusalemites who stand on Mount Zion (14:1), the people who will live in the New Jerusalem! The city belongs to those who endured for it, those who were “chaste” (14:4) and did not sleep with the prostitute Babylon. Does this mean that only male Jews will live in the New Jerusalem? (If the numbers are literal, each of them would get over 15 square miles on the city’s ground floor.) Will Gentile Christians have no home there? Quite the contrary!

The list of tribes in 7:4-8 resembles military census lists in the Old Testament, suggesting an end-time army here. Jewish armies were male, and many Jewish people expected an end-time army; some also expected this army to be chaste before the battle. Not surprisingly, Revelation speaks of this group having “overcome” or “triumphed” (15:2-4; cf. 14:3); the beast might overcome God’s servants on a human level (11:7; 13:7), but they overcame by refusing to disobey the Lord who holds the final victory (12:11). But does Revelation mean a literal army of 144,000 Jews? One can interpret it this way, and it would make sense; after all, the Bible does speak of Jewish people turning to the Lord in the end-time (Rom 11:26). But in the context of Revelation, I believe that another interpretation fits better.

Revelation elsewhere speaks of those who are spiritually Jewish (2:9; 3:9). Likewise, in the ancient world lampstands (John’s symbol for the churches in 1:20) are symbolic for Jewish faith. Sometimes a second vision or dream repeated the point of the first one (e.g., Gen 37:7, 9; 40:1-7), and the same is probably true here: in the next paragraph, this triumphant army of 144,000 Israelites turns out to be a numberless crowd from all nations (7:9-17). The promises given to this crowd in 7:15-17 are promises God made to Israel in the Old Testament; but by following Israel’s king these Gentiles have been grafted into Israel’s heritage and promises, hence are spiritually Jewish. Whole-book context clarifies the connection between these two paragraphs. Two chapters earlier, John “hears” about the lion from the tribe of Judah, a symbol Judaism used for the warrior Messiah. But when John turns, what he “sees” is a slain lamb—one who conquered by his own death (5:5-6). Now John “hears” about 144,000 (7:4), but when he turns what he “sees” is a numberless multitude (7:9), possibly of martyrs who have shared Christ’s suffering.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Winter 2006

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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