Of all the many and various obstacles that stand in the way of people reading and profiting from the book of Revelation, perhaps one of the greatest is the bizarre, head-scratching imagery of the book. But there is a key that will unlock this closed door—and it’s a key you’ve had in your pocket all along. It’s called the Old Testament.
There are more OT references in Revelation than in any other NT book. Just how many there are exactly depends on how you count them and what you regard as an OT reference. The of range estimates varies from 394 up to more than 1,200. Whatever the precise number, you can’t go more than couple of verses without finding an allusion or an echo or a quotation from the OT.
So if the imagery in Revelation seems strange to us, I think it’s mainly because we don’t know the OT well enough. One like a son of man among the lampstands, the four horsemen riding different coloured horses, the mark of the beast, seven trumpets, seven plagues, the new heavens and earth, a great red dragon, the new Jerusalem adorned with precious stones… The OT must be the first place we look for help in interpreting this imagery.
Perhaps a few examples will help to illustrate this.
- The woman in chapter 12 is given the two wings of a great eagle and she is carried to a place of safety. Is this a prophecy (as has been suggested) of an airlift by US forces (the eagle is the symbol of the USA after all!) of Israelis being evacuated to the desert city of Petra? Or is it more likely that it’s referring back to the OT account of the Exodus: how God carried the church ‘on eagles’ wings’ through the wilderness, protecting and providing for them in the face of their monstrous enemy, Pharaoh, who was pursuing them? What would John’s first readers have thought?
- In Rv 8.10-11 a huge mountain, all ablaze, is cast into the sea, causing one third of the sea to turn to blood, one third of its living creatures to die, and one third of ships on it to be destroyed. I suppose it could be describing an asteroid that will smash into the sea, devastating one third of the world. But isn’t it more likely that the picture comes from Jer 51.25 (describing judgment of Babylon): "I am against you, O destroying mountain, you who destroy the whole earth," declares the LORD. "I will stretch out my hand against you, roll you off the cliffs, and make you a burned-out mountain. It’s not an asteroid in Jer 51, but a symbol of a kingdom. So why read it differently here? John sees the fall of a mighty kingdom. In his day the Roman empire was the mountain dominating the Mediterranean world. But it would fall like a great mountain being hurled into the sea. Just try to imagine shockwaves of such a thing! Tidal waves, destruction, plague, disease: it represents the complete meltdown of government, law and order, trade and economy (fleets of trading ships are destroyed).
- What about this strange notion of the mark of the beast in Rv 13? Is this some kind of tattoo or a universal barcode that will be imposed on all citizens? We first come across the idea of people receiving a mark on their forehead in Rv 7.3, where the people of God are marked with a seal on their foreheads so they will be protected in the midst of the judgment being brought on the earth by the four horsemen of chapter 6. But the background for this picture of sealing comes from the OT, and especially from Ezk 9. In that chapter, God tells his angel to put a mark on all true believers that will keep them safe from God’s judgment coming in the shape of Babylonian invaders. Like everythingl else in Revelation, Satan has his own counterfeit version of whatever God does. So he too has a mark that he puts on the foreheads of those who are his. So everyone has a mark and everyone faces wrath, one way or another. Either we have God’s mark and we face Satan’s wrath, or we have Satan’s mark and we face God’s wrath.
- Have a look at the measurements of the New Jerusalem (Rv 21.15-17). Why is so much time given over to measuring? It’s because measuring is a symbol of protection. It carries the idea of cordoning off a safe area. We find it in Ezk 40-48 and in Zechariah. We meet it earlier in Revelation in 11.1-2, where the part not measured is exposed to enemy attack and trampled underfoot. But in the New Jerusalem everything is measured: the whole city is a safe zone. God’s people are protected in every possible way, spiritually and physically. More than that, the measurements themselves are significant too. The new Jerusalem is an enormous cube, 12,000 stadia in its length, breadth and height. Where in the OT do we find a cube? There is only one: the most holy place in the tabernacle and the temple. In the OT God’s presence dwelt symbolically in the most holy place. Only one man was ever allowed in: the height priest, once a year on the day of Atonement, just briefly, amidst clouds of incense from the incense altar so that he couldn’t see anything clearly, while all the rest of the people waited outside. But in the new Jerusalem that tiny cube in the temple of the old Jerusalem expands so that the whole earth is inside it, so that all the people of God now dwell in the most holy place, in the immediate presence of God!
Those are just a few examples to prime the pump and get you started. I hope that reading Revelation with an eye to the the Old Testament will cast a flood of light on this part of Scripture that is, just as much as the rest of the Bible, God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training you in righteousness so that you may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.