Volume 47 - Issue 1

Wisdom and Hope in Difficult Days: Reading Revelation in 2022

By Brian J. Tabb

“This calls for a mind with wisdom….” (Rev 17:9)

In these difficult days marked by deep divisions, deadly diseases, and societal decay, we need discerning wisdom and dogged hope. There is often more heat than light in our social media feeds and regular news cycles, which offer vast oceans of drama and worry but with tiny islands of wisdom and hope. As Jeffrey Bilbro writes, “We don’t just need the media to cast a more piercing light; … we need to reevaluate the light we rely on to understand our times and discern how to respond.”1 To that end, let’s reflect together on the Bible’s last word in the Revelation of Jesus Christ. My claim, as suggested in the title, is that Revelation offers God’s people wisdom and hope in difficult days. I’ll begin with some orientating comments about reading this magnificent yet mysterious book, then reflect on the need to hear and heed Revelation’s offer of true wisdom and lasting happiness, and finally conclude with several pastoral appeals for wise, hopeful living.

1. How to Read Revelation

For many Christians, Revelation is a fascinating yet frustrating puzzle.2 Interpreters have proposed different keys to unlock this enigmatic book. Many popular authors and speakers commend reading Revelation in the light of current world events. One recent book discusses “the countdown to the End of the Age.”3 Another elucidates “ten prophetic issues as current as the morning news,” explaining to readers “where we are, what it means, and where we go from here.”4 Yet the confident analysis from so-called “prophecy experts” often misses the mark and seems far removed from Christ’s revelation to John and the seven churches. Alternatively, biblical scholars typically stress that it is important to understand the situation of Revelation’s first readers in the late first century AD. So, “the beast” is not a future antichrist arising from the European Union or the UN but the Roman Empire with its idolatrous emperor worship and economic oppression. While rightly seeking to understand the historical-cultural context of the book, many scholarly treatments fail to read Revelation as the capstone of Christian Scripture for the enduring benefit of the church in each generation.

Revelation is unique among the NT Scriptures, and the book’s opening verses signal that it is an apocalyptic prophecy packaged as a letter to be read in corporate worship.5 “The revelation of Jesus Christ” (Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ) serves as a title or summary of the book while clueing readers in to its genre. In the NT, the term ἀποκάλυψις (the basis for “apocalypse” in English) consistently refers to divine revelation or disclosure of hidden or unseen realities.6 Revelation resembles biblical and extrabiblical apocalyptic writings in at least three ways: (1) it discloses God’s ultimate purposes in salvation and judgment, (2) it presents a transcendent, God-centered perspective on reality, and (3) it challenges the people of God to evaluate their troubles in light of God’s present rule and future triumph. Revelation is also “a book of prophecy” to be heeded by God’s people (1:3; 22:7). John receives this genuine prophecy “in the Spirit” and writes what he sees and hears about “what must soon take place” (22:6) in order to comfort struggling saints and warn those who are in spiritual danger. This apocalyptic prophecy comes in the form of an ancient letter addressed to seven churches with a greeting and benediction resembling many NT epistles. Douglas Webster aptly calls Revelation a “prison epistle,” penned by a prophet, poet, pastor, and political prisoner who was immersed in the prophetic Scriptures.7

I argue that Revelation’s canonical context—not current events or ancient history—is the most decisive for understanding its mysterious and magisterial visions. As Dennis Johnson states, “Revelation makes sense only in light of the Old Testament.”8 John stands in the line of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and other faithful prophets as he writes down the divine visions and messages he has received. But John also uniquely receives a “revelation from Jesus Christ” (1:1) and is commanded not to “seal up the words of the prophecy of this book” (22:10), reversing the command to Daniel to “seal up” his prophecy until the end of days (Dan 8:26; 12:4, 9). Thus, John is a true prophet writing at the culmination of redemptive history. This book reveals how Christ has begun to fulfill the prophetic hopes through his death, resurrection, and heavenly reign, and how he will soon return to consummate God’s purposes to judge evil, save his people, and restore all things.

Revelation’s remarkable and perplexing prophetic pictures of a diabolical dragon, a seven-headed sea monster, a seven-horned lamb, a sealed scroll, a lake of fire, and a happily-ever-after paradise stretch our minds and stir our hearts. These visions should make us hate what is evil and love what is true, good, and beautiful according to God’s perfect standards, beckoning us to live counterculturally as faithful witnesses who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev 14:4).9 While many seek to decode Revelation’s riddles with the key of current events or ancient history, we must remember that God has given us this book with its apocalyptic imagery in order to decode our reality, to capture our imaginations, and to guide our way in this world.

Revelation is written for embattled Christians who need endurance, wisdom, and hope.10 The messages to the seven churches present various threats facing God’s people. Christ calls believers in Smyrna to “be faithful unto death” (2:10), and he refers to the martyrdom of Antipas “where Satan dwells” (2:13).11 There are also more subtle and insidious dangers: the Ephesian church loses her first love (2:4), false teaching exerts its seductive appeal in Pergamum and Thyatira (2:20), Sardis is spiritually sleep-walking (3:1–3), and Laodicea is proudly self-reliant (3:17). The risen Christ urges his church to remember, to repent, and to remain steadfast that we may receive all that he has promised. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7).

2. Hear and Heed Wisdom

Those who hear and heed the revelation of Jesus Christ are counted truly happy. The book contains seven beatitudes or macarisms, statements featuring the Greek term μακάριος usually translated “blessed,” “happy,” or “favored.”12 These sayings summon us to wise living and lasting joy. The beatitude in Revelation 1:3 sets the tone for the whole book:

Blessed [μακάριος] is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.

A similar saying in Revelation 22:7 calls believers to obey God’s revealed message:

Blessed [μακάριος] is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.

These foundational beatitudes offer timely wisdom and call for obedient action motivated by confident hope. Revelation calls us to seek true wisdom and happiness, to keep Christ’s words, and to read the time correctly.

2.1. Seeking True Wisdom and Lasting Happiness

In my title, “Wisdom and Hope in Difficult Days,” the stress on hope may seem obvious since Revelation has much to say about the return of Christ and the restoration of all things. But you may wonder what the apocalyptic visions of this book have to do with wisdom. What is wisdom? According to Scripture, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 1:7). More than book smarts, wisdom is true understanding that enables us to navigate life in this world.13

Before examining explicit references to “wisdom” (σοφία) in Revelation, let’s first consider how the book’s beatitudes hold out true wisdom and happiness. The book opens by ascribing divine favor or blessing to “the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy” and “those who hear, and who keep what is written in it,” much like the first two psalms introduce the whole Psalter:14

Blessed [אַשְׁרֵי] is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked …

but his delight is in the law of the Lord. (Ps 1:1–2)

Blessed [אַשְׁרֵי] are all who take refuge in him [the Son]. (2:12)

Commentators rightly classify Psalm 1 as a Torah psalm and Psalm 2 as a royal psalm. But the beatitudes “blessed is the man…” and “blessed are all…” are proverbial expressions of true wisdom and happiness, contrasted with the folly and ruin of wickedness.15 In other words, those who experience God’s favor rightly respond to God’s word and his Son, while the wicked fail to heed God’s law or serve his King. The beatitudes in Psalms 1–2 “serve as a paradigm” for the Psalter’s two dozen other uses of the Hebrew term אַשְׁרֵי (“blessed” or “happy”).16 The stakes could not be higher in this contrast between wisdom and folly:

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish. (1:6)

Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.

Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (2:12)

The OT Poetic Books include many beatitudes using the same terminology, אַשְׁרֵי in Hebrew and μακάριος in Greek translation. Consider, for example, Proverbs 3:13, 18:

Blessed [אַשְׁרֵי] is the one who finds wisdom,
and the one who gets understanding….

She [wisdom] is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called blessed [מְאֻשָּׁר].

Other psalms and proverbs ascribe blessedness to those who fear, trust, seek, and hope in the Lord, who delight in God’s instruction, who experience forgiveness of sins, and who walk according to God’s ways.17 These macarisms are invitations to learn true wisdom and thus experience true life with God.

There are also a few beatitudes in the OT Prophetic Books. Consider three examples:18

Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.

For the Lord is a God of justice;
[אַשְׁרֵי] are all those who wait for him. (Isa 30:18)

Thus says the Lord:

“Keep justice, and do righteousness,

for soon my salvation will come,
and my righteousness be revealed.

Blessed [אַשְׁרֵי] is the man who does this,
and the son of man who holds it fast….” (Isa 56:1–2)

Blessed [אַשְׁרֵי] is he who waits and arrives at the 1,335 days. (Dan 12:12)

These prophetic sayings are noteworthy parallels with the beatitudes in Revelation because they commend wisdom and waiting for the Lord’s promises to be realized. Said another way, these expressions of present happiness have an eschatological emphasis.

The most well-known biblical beatitudes are found in the Sermon on the Mount, where Christ presents the poor in spirit, mourners, the meek, those who long for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted and reviled as truly “happy” (μακάριος). As in the first two psalms and the prophetic blessing statements, Jesus’s Beatitudes have an eschatological thrust, ascribing present blessedness to disciples based on their coming reward and reversal of circumstances. Consider one example:

Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted. (Matt 5:4)

It seems paradoxical to present mourners as “blessed” or “happy.” Yet this counter-intuitive claim is based on the sure hope that God will one day comfort his sad, suffering servants (cf. Isa 60:20; 61:2–3). This is the very hope vividly expressed in Revelation:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (21:4; cf. 7:17; Isa 25:8).

The beatitudes in Revelation point to comprehensive eschatological blessing, “to a joy that overflows and satisfies,”19 which contrasts sharply with the ruin of Christ’s adversaries who align with the beast and share its fate. This eschatological expectation fosters wise living and patient endurance in the present.

Consider Revelation 14:8–13, which begins with the angelic announcement, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great” (v. 8). Another angel warns of the eternal consequences of worshipping the beast and receiving its mark (vv. 9–11). Then the prophet writes, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus” (v. 12). This sober appeal is followed by a word from heaven in v. 13: “Write this: Blessed [μακάριοι] are the dead who die in the Lord from now on, for their deeds follow them.” I’ll say more about Babylon and the beast a bit later. For now, note that as Psalm 1 contrasts the ways of the righteous and the wicked, so Revelation 14 presents the sure demise of Babylon, the beast and its devotees alongside the joyful bliss of those “who die in the Lord.” The deceased saints are happy “because [γάρ] their works [ἔργα] follow them.” Jesus asserts earlier, “I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (κατὰ τὰ ἔργα ὑμῶν, Rev 2:23; cf. 20:12–13; 22:12). Christ will judge or reward people in accordance with their deeds, which demonstrate the true nature of their faith.20 This is why the saints must persevere with wisdom and hope, no matter the cost.

Let’s turn now to the four explicit references to “wisdom” (σοφία) in the book of Revelation. In 5:12, the heavenly multitude exclaims that the Lamb is worthy to receive power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing. Then in 7:12, the angels, elders, and living creatures worship God saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Wisdom fittingly appears among seven divine attributes ascribed to the Lamb and the Almighty, since according to Daniel 2:20–21 God is praiseworthy because “wisdom and might” belong to him and because he “gives wisdom to the wise.” The wisdom of God and his servant Daniel contrast with the king and sages of Babylon, who cannot comprehend the king’s revelatory dream. In Revelation, the power, honor, and wisdom of Jesus the slain Lamb and God on his throne are at odds with worldly expressions of power, glory-seeking, and pseudo-wisdom.21

Later John makes explicit readers’ need for “wisdom” (σοφία) and “understanding” (νοῦν) to grasp important spiritual truths about “the beast” who wars against God’s people (13:18; 17:9). The point of the first call for wisdom is not only to decode the beast’s symbolic number (666) or the meaning of its seven heads but also to show the way for the saints to conquer the dragon and the beast in the end: “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (12:11; 15:2).

The next summons for “a mind having wisdom” (17:9) comes after John receives a shocking vision of the harlot Babylon seated on the seven-headed beast. When John marvels at this woman, the angel responds, “Why do you marvel?” (17:6–7). John’s initial response of marveling is misguided,22 as when he twice falls down before a revealing angel but is told to worship God alone (19:10; 22:8–9). Even if the whole earth marvels at the beast and its signs (13:3; 17:8), those with God-given wisdom grasp that Babylon the great is “fallen” and that the beast goes to destruction” (14:8; 17:8). Daniel similarly stresses the saints’ need for spiritual insight in difficult days, lest they be led astray:23

Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. (Dan 11:33 NIV)

Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand. (Dan 12:10 NIV)

God’s people need the wisdom that God and the Lamb reveal, that we might rightly understand our situation and faithfully follow our Savior to the end.

2.2. Keeping Christ’s Words

Second, rightly “hearing” the revelation of Jesus Christ entails obedient action, not mere audition. If a father instructs his children to come to dinner and they say, “I hear you,” yet continue playing as before, their response shows that they have not really heard in the way that their father expects. In the language of speech act theory, the father’s words (the locution) reflect an intention (an illocution) to produce a particular response (a perlocution). “Wash up for dinner” is not just a suggestion for those with no other plans; it is a summons to action: “Stop what you’re doing and come to the table right away.” Likewise, Kevin Vanhoozer explains that every biblical text “contains not merely information but an implicit call, ‘Follow me.’”24 Or as John Frame says, “God’s word is authoritative” in that “the speech of an absolute authority [the Lord] creates absolute obligation.”25

Returning to Revelation 1:3, it is noteworthy that one Greek article governs “those who hear” and “those who keep” (οἱ ἀκούοντεςκαὶ τηροῦντες),26 signaling that there is only one group of people in view: hearers who heed. Said another way, to “keep” (ESV) or “take to heart” (NIV) or “heed” (NASB) what is written is the proof of true listening and the path of life-giving wisdom. Deuteronomy 4:6 summons Israel to “keep” the Lord’s commandments “for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples.” Similarly in Revelation, keeping God’s commands is an essential characteristic of Christ’s followers. In 12:17, the dragon furiously wars against “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus,” and 14:12 calls for endurance for the saints “who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” While this book reveals “the things that must soon take place” (1:1), true favor is promised not to those who crack its code but to hearers who heed (1:3). Revelation thus has “has an ultimate ethical aim,”27 summoning the saints to respond wisely to the trustworthy words of God.

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” is a repeated refrain in Revelation (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; cf. 13:9). This echoes Christ’s call in the Gospels: “He who has ears, let him hear” (ὁ ἔχων ὦτα ἀκουέτω; Matt 11:15; 13:9, 43). Jesus speaks in parables to the crowds, “because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (13:13). But Jesus also says to his disciples, “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (13:16). Isaiah and other OT prophets similarly speak God’s word to a people without seeing eyes, hearing ears, or tender hearts. These probing metaphors express their spiritual inability to respond properly to the prophetic word and reflect the biblical principle that we resemble what we revere (cf. Ps 115:8).28 Those who cling to idols that cannot see, hear, or save will become themselves spiritually dull and lifeless.29 Jesus addresses the seven churches in Revelation with words of confrontation and consolation. To the conceited, complacent, and compromising, Christ says: “remember” (Rev 2:5; 3:3), “repent” (2:5, 16; 3:3, 19), “wake up” (3:2). To suffering, struggling saints he says, “Do not fear” (2:10); “I have loved you … I will keep you … hold fast” (3:9–11). Thus, “If anyone has an ear, let him hear” functions as “a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (13:9–10). Revelation’s hearing formula summons all Christians to see our true spiritual situation, to recognize the supreme danger of false worship and worldly compromise, and to take to heart the trustworthy word of God, that we may lay hold of God’s enduring blessing.30

2.3. Reading the Time

Third, we heed the revelation of Jesus Christ because of what time it is. There is a consistent eschatological orientation to this book’s blessing statements. In 1:3, “for the time is near” (ὁ γὰρ καιρὸς ἐγγύς) explains why those who obediently hear this prophecy are blessed. This same rationale—the time is near—supports the later command, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book” (22:10). Daniel’s prophecy was “shut up and sealed until the time of the end” such that he could not understand when or how God’s words would be realized in the distant future (Dan 12:8–9; cf. 12:4), but John’s prophecy is not a sealed book since “the time is near.”31 This claim parallels Jesus’s message in the Gospels: “The time [ὁ καιρός] is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near [ἤγγικεν]” (Mark 1:15 CSB).32 Revelation goes further because it discloses “the things that must soon take place” (1:1), revealing what was previously concealed. The earlier prophecies of Daniel and others have begun to be fulfilled, the end times have already begun with Christ’s triumphant resurrection and ascension, and Revelation unveils the glorious future awaiting God’s people. “The time” to which John refers is the time of Christ’s coming—the central hope for God’s people that will usher in lasting justice, comfort, and joy. Later in the book, the link between eschatological blessing and Christ’s return is explicit:

Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed [μακάριος] is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed! (Rev 16:15)

And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed [μακάριος] is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book. (22:6–7)

Thus, our Lord promises consummate happiness for those who heed his words and are ready for his return.

3. Appeals for Wisdom and Hope

So far, I’ve argued that we should read Revelation as the culmination of biblical prophecy, which stirs our hearts and shines much-needed light on our world so that we can live wise, faithful, hope-filled lives until Christ comes again. I now offer three specific appeals for wisdom and hope in difficult days: beware the beast, follow the Lamb, and long for home.

3.1. Beware the Beast

Revelation calls for “wisdom” (σοφία) and “understanding” (νοῦν) regarding “the beast” battling against the saints (13:18; 17:9). “The beast” (τὸ θηρίον) makes a brief appearance in 11:7, rising from the abyss to fight against and slay Christ’s “two witnesses” (whom I take to represent the church).33 Revelation 13:1–4 more fully describes this monstrous foe, which John sees “rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads.” The diabolical dragon invests power and authority in this beast, and the world marvels, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” This beast breathes out blasphemies and even wars against and conquers the saints (v. 7; cf. Dan 7:21).34 John exhorts the saints to show spiritual discernment and steadfastness in suffering:

If anyone has an ear, let him hear:

If anyone is to be taken captive,
to captivity he goes;

if anyone is to be slain with the sword,
with the sword must he be slain.

Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (vv. 9–10)

So what (or who) is this beast? Its seven heads, ten horns, and resemblance to a leopard, a bear, and a lion sound like a magical creature out of J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The beast sits on the dragon’s throne (13:2), and Revelation elsewhere portrays the harlot Babylon riding on the red beast, whose seven heads signify Babylon’s “seven mountains” or “hills” as well as “seven kings” (17:7–10). Since Rome was widely known as “the city on seven hills,”35 Craig Koester explains, “The dual imagery of mountains and kings underscores the beast embodying the power of both the city of Rome and its emperors.’36 Many readers understand the “seven kings” to be Roman emperors, though there is debate about which seven.37

However, while Rome was certainly the dominant world power of the first century, not all readers are persuaded that “the beast” refers to Roman rule. For example, Robert Thomas understands the beast to be “the false Christ of the last times,” who leads the last world empire and deceives the earth, yet he acknowledges that “no historical situation can fully satisfy all the criteria regarding the beast.38 This exclusively futurist reading also fails to seriously address John’s urgent appeal for “the endurance and faith of the saints” (13:10), which was presumably relevant for Revelation’s first readers.

Alternatively, G. K. Beale stresses “the temporal transcendence of the oppressive beast,” claiming that the beast includes “world empires of the past and the present and potentially of the future.”39 In this approach the beast’s “seven kings” (17:10) express the fullness of the beast’s power, rather than a precise list of rulers.

Thus, I take “the beast” to refer to political and military might that demands people’s complete allegiance and even worship, and I understand “Babylon the great” as the state’s cultural and economic system.40 In John’s vision, Babylon rides the beast, suggesting that the state’s coercive power supports its seductive prosperity. Rome fits this beastly bill for Revelation’s first readers, who faced political and cultural pressures to show their devotion to the emperor.41 The Roman people considered the Caesars to have authority derived from the gods,42 and the emperor Domitian expected to be referred to as “our master and god.”43 Some tyrants today make similar claims.44

Yet Rome does not exhaust the meaning of “Babylon” and “the beast.” Babylon is rich with biblical associations harkening back to the tower of Babel in Genesis 11 and extending to the mighty, proud nation that sacked Jerusalem and sent the people of Judah into exile. Likewise, the vision of terrifying sea monsters in Daniel 7 suggests that first-century Rome is just the latest beastly power to coerce people into worshipping the state-sponsored image (cf. Dan 3:5). For a time, Babylon controls and cons the nations (17:15, 18; 18:3), but its authority is derivative (“given”) and subject to God’s sovereign will (cf. Dan 4:17).

Therefore, the saints must not be deceived by the beast’s sinister schemes. Dennis Johnson writes, “Followers of the Lamb, who will rule the nations with justice and his rod of iron, must not be duped into worshiping state power as though it holds the keys to salvation. Neither should we quake in terror before a godless state.”45

According to a 2017 Washington Post article, Communist officials in China warned villagers that they “should no longer rely on Jesus, but on the party for help.”46 Officials have forcibly removed crosses and destroyed church buildings and other religious sites.47 Hundreds of Christian religious posters were replaced by images of President Xi Jinping, recalling the personality cult surrounding China’s longtime chairman Mao Zedong. China’s policies call for “belief” in the values, ethics, and goals of Marxism as interpreted by Xi Jinping.48

In December 2018, a prominent Reformed pastor in Chengdu, China was arrested along with his wife and other members of the church. A year later, Pastor Wang Yi was sentenced to nine years in prison on dubious charges including “inciting to subvert state power.”49 After his arrest, the church posted a public letter in which Wang Yi declared,

I accept and respect the fact that this Communist regime has been allowed by God to rule temporarily…. At the same time, I believe that this Communist regime’s persecution against the church is a greatly wicked, unlawful action. As a pastor of a Christian church, I must denounce this wickedness openly and severely…. I firmly believe that Christ has called me to carry out this faithful disobedience through a life of service, under this regime that opposes the gospel and persecutes the church. This is the means by which I preach the gospel, and it is the mystery of the gospel which I preach.50

This persecuted pastor sees through the beastly intimidation and coercion of the state and embraces Revelation’s “call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (13:10) even at significant personal cost. Christians in the West may not yet face such steep penalties for faithfulness to the gospel, but we must still exercise wisdom and remain vigilant lest we hope in the state for salvation or be captivated by its sweet-sounding siren songs. This calls for wisdom: beware the beast.

3.2. Follow the Lamb

The Apocalypse also urges us to follow the Lamb. “The Lamb” (ἀρνίον) is Revelation’s favorite title for Christ (29x in the book). In ch. 5, John hears an angel announce that “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered,” then he sees “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.” This vision of the slain Lamb (v. 6) recasts Israel’s hopes of a powerful king descended from Judah and David: Jesus ironically conquers (νικάω) at his first coming, not by subjugating his foes, but through his sacrificial suffering.51 The slain Lamb saves people by his shed blood and also shepherds them in the new creation (5:9; 7:14, 17).

Each of the seven messages to the churches concludes with a glorious promise to “the one who conquers” (ESV) or “to the one who is victorious” (NIV), translating the Greek verb νικάω.52 In the Apocalypse, this “victory” motif powerfully expresses the tension between the earthly and heavenly perspectives on the church’s situation in the world. On the one hand, Jesus’s followers face “tribulation” of various sorts (1:9), including exile (1:9), poverty and slander (2:9), incarceration (2:10), weakness (3:8), and even death “for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (6:9; cf. 2:10, 13; 20:4). Moreover, the beast is allowed to conquer (νικῆσαι) Christians for a time (13:7; cf. 11:7). On the other hand, the eschatological blessings of the new creation are reserved for Christ’s victorious people. As the Almighty declares, “The one who conquers [ὁ νικῶν] will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be my son” (21:7).

Thus, God’s people are, in a sense, conquered conquerors, achieving true victory through apparent defeat. Believers ultimately conquer the dragon and the beast “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev 12:11; 15:2). While Christians’ sufferings may look like Satan’s triumph in this age, they signal both his demise and our share in Christ’s victory through the cross.53 Our Lord has conquered as the slain Lamb, and he sets the course for his people, who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4). The book of Revelation redefines “victory” in terms of faithfulness to Christ, the slain and risen Lamb, who is seated on heaven’s throne and promises his people a portion in his eschatological kingdom (3:21). The church should expect troubles in this life, yet God’s word summons God’s people to faithful endurance—no matter what—and resilient confidence in the Lamb’s sure victory (17:14). This is a call for wisdom and hope: follow the Lamb.

3.3. Long for Home

This brings us to our final appeal for wisdom and hope in these difficult days. The daily news cycle reminds us that all is not right in our city, our country, and our world. The Lord Jesus warns, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven” (Luke 21:10–11). And when the Lamb opens the fourth seal in Revelation 6:7–8, John describes a pale horse with a rider named Death, followed by Hades. “And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.” Reading these words in 2022, we think of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that has claimed many lives, forced millions of people to flee their homes, and caused shortages of food, water, and other supplies. We think of the nations gathering recently for the Winter Olympics in Beijing, even as China is accused of brutal atrocities against the Uygur people.54 We think of the wearying toll of the COVID-19 pandemic that, according to the World Health Organization, has led to over six million deaths worldwide—more than the total population of Minnesota.55 The nations continue to rage. The plague continues to spread. The wicked prosper and the righteous languish. Day after day, we pray, “Lord, have mercy!” and “How long, Oh Lord?” But we also say with tears in our eyes and hope in our hearts, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

Revelation offers us a God-centered perspective on our situation. It reveals what is true, good, and valuable in a world full of falsehoods. It gives us needed spiritual discernment and steadfast hope to stand firm in the evil day (Eph 6:13) as we resist the beast and follow the Lamb. These strange and wonderful apocalyptic visions also stir in us a deep longing for our eternal home.

Revelation presents an extended contrast between two cities: Babylon the great and the new Jerusalem. One is a harlot; the other, a bride (17:1; 21:9). One is infamous for iniquity; the other, arrayed with righteousness (18:4–6; 19:8). One is the great city of this world (17:18); the other, the holy city kept for the new world (21:2, 10). One poisons the nations with lies, the other heals the nations with the tree of life (18:23; 22:2). The wise should “come out” of Babylon and “enter” Jerusalem’s gates (18:4; 22:14).

Revelation’s “Babylon” is not a particular place on the map (though Google Maps could direct you to Babylon, New York). As mentioned earlier, it refers to the state’s cultural and commercial system, the city of man that stands opposed to God and his people. Babylon evokes strong biblical-theological associations from the ancient tower of ambition to Nebuchadnezzar’s beautiful yet brutal kingdom to the vast Roman empire in the first century. John sees the woman Babylon decked out in purple and scarlet, gold and jewelry, while also drunk on the martyrs’ blood (17:4, 6). Her name is a “mystery” (17:5)—a spiritual reality that is hidden until God chooses to reveal it (cf. Dan 2:29). Babylon’s bright lights may look marvelous, but she is really “the engine of economic oppression”56 whose bill is coming due and whose destruction is sure.

Revelation challenges the church to see our location rightly. Christians may be residents of the great city of man, but we are citizens of God’s holy city. Peter calls the church in Rome, “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen,” which captures this dual reality well: Chosen in Christ, sojourning in Babylon (1 Pet 5:13; cf. 1:2). How then should we as residents of Babylon and citizens of heaven heed the call, “Come out of her, my people lest you take part in her sins” (18:4; cf. Isa 48:20; Jer 51:45)? To “come out” of Babylon does not require us to relocate to another town or withdraw from the world but to take refuge in Christ where we reside (cf. Ps 2:12).57 Christians live in Babylon, but are not of Babylon. Revelation pictures the church as lampstands shining gospel light in a dark world (e.g., 1:20; 11:4). We seek the welfare of Babylon while remembering that we are sojourners awaiting a better city (Jer 29:7; Heb 11:16). “Come out” summons us to remain spiritually vigilant, refusing to share in Babylon’s folly so we may avoid her fate.

After Babylon’s judgment, Revelation unveils “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (21:2). The description of this city suggests that it represents God’s people (the bride of the Lamb) and the glorious place where God dwells with us forever. The contrasting visions of the repulsive harlot and the radiant bride motivate us to remain true to our betrothed as we long for our better home. From God’s perspective, Babylon’s booming economy and alluring affluence is nothing more than a fancy house of cards. Conversely, the humble “holy city,” whose light flickers at present, will someday shine like the sun with the radiant glory of God and the Lamb (21:23). The new Jerusalem offers “an alternative and greater attraction” over Babylon; though it “belongs to the future,” the city of God “exercises its attraction already.”58 We cannot yet pass through its pearly gates (22:14) but we already belong to this city and eagerly await our full inheritance (3:12; 11:2). We have not yet experienced the full splendor of the wedding day but have been saved by sacrificial love and betrothed to the Lamb (1:5; 19:7), and the suffering, embattled church must earnestly “cultivate … an aching longing for the Bridegroom to come to her, to take her in his arms … and to be held there forever” (22:17).59

The saints may live in Babylon’s hostile territory, but we belong to the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven. As Augustine wrote,

Who can measure the happiness of heaven … where there will be no weariness to call for rest, no need to call for toil, no place for any energy but praise…. On that day we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise—for this is to be the end without the end of all our living, that Kingdom without end, the real goal of our present life.60

4. Conclusion

The Revelation of Jesus Christ summons us to live with wisdom and hope in these difficult days as the nations rage, as wars are waged, as a pandemic persists, as we are reminded daily that all is not right in our city and our world. Revelation reminds us that God is on his throne even as society seems to be spiraling out of control. It reminds us that the Lamb has conquered through apparent defeat. It reminds us that the Spirit reveals a better future than this shallow world can offer. It reminds us that all tyrants will one day be toppled, that the kingdoms of this world cannot deliver lasting security and satisfaction, and that God is “making all things new” (Rev 21:5). We don’t read the news to decode Revelation’s mysteries. It’s the other way around: Revelation gives us profound resources to make sense of our world and live with wisdom and hope through difficult days. So beware the beast, follow the Lamb, and long for home. Come, Lord Jesus!

[1] Jeffrey Bilbro, Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 1.

[2] This paragraph adapts material from Brian J. Tabb, All Things New: Revelation as Canonical Capstone, NSBT 48 (London: Apollos, 2019), 1–2.

[3] John Hagee, The End of the Age: The Countdown Has Begun (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2021), 134.

[4] David Jeremiah, Where Do We Go from Here? How Tomorrow’s Prophecies Foreshadow Today’s Problems (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2021), vii.

[5] Here I adapt material from Tabb, All Things New, 4–7.

[6] Cf. Moisés Silva, "καλύπτω," NIDNTTE 2:615–16.

[7] Douglas D. Webster, Follow the Lamb: A Pastoral Approach to The Revelation (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014), 3.

[8] Dennis E. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 22.

[9] This is adapted from Tabb, All Things New, 2.

[10] Cf. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, 334.

[11] Satan’s throne may refer specifically to the prominent practice of emperor worship in Pergamum—considered the keeper of Caesar’s temple—or more generally to increased Roman opposition to believers in that city For discussion, see Jeffrey A. D. Weima, The Sermons to the Seven Churches of Revelation: A Commentary and Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), 95–99.

[12] The uses of μακάριος in Revelation fall under the second definition in BDAG 611: “pert[aining] to being esp[ecially] favored, blessed, fortunate, happy, privileged, fr[om] a transcendent perspective.”

[13] Similarly Tremper Longman III, How to Read Proverbs (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 15.

[14] On Psalms 1–2 as the introduction to the collection of Psalms, see Robert L. Cole, Psalms 1–2: Gateway to the Psalter, Hebrew Bible Monographs 37 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2013); O. Palmer Robertson, The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015), 13; James M. Hamilton, Jr., Psalms, 2 vols., Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2021), 1:3, 89–90.

[15] “Beatitudes occur in a variety of literary contexts, and amidst diverse genres, but their home lies in wisdom discourse.” Greg Carey, “Finding Happiness in Apocalyptic Literature,” in The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us about the Good Life, ed. Brent A. Strawn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 209.

[16] Michael L. Brown, “אַשְׁרֵי,” NIDOTTE 1:564.

[17] For example, Pss 32:1–2; 40:4; 84:12; 112:1; 119:2; 128:1; 146:5; Prov 16:20; 28:14.

[18] The well-known statement in Jeremiah 17:7—“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord”—has the Hebrew term בָּרוּךְ (“blessed”) rather than אַשְׁרֵי.

[19] Thomas R. Schreiner, The Joy of Hearing: A Theology of the Book of Revelation, New Testament Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 48.

[20] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 768.

[21] Loren T. Stuckenbruck, “The Book of Revelation as a Disclosure of Wisdom,” in The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of New Testament Thought, ed. Benjamin Reynolds and Loren T. Stuckenbruck (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017), 349–50.

[22] Stuckenbruck, “The Book of Revelation as a Disclosure of Wisdom,” 358.

[23] On this Danielic background, see Beale, Revelation, 725. Cf. 2 Esdras 12:38: “you shall teach them to the wise among your people, whose hearts you know are able to comprehend and keep these secrets.”

[24] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 202.

[25] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 5, emphasis added.

[26] Cf. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 283; David Mathewson, Revelation: A Handbook on the Greek Text, Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), 3.

[27] Beale, Revelation, 184; cf. David A. deSilva, Seeing Things John’s Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 10–11.

[28] For a book-length treatment of this biblical theme, see G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008).

[29] See Isa 6:9–10; Deut 29:4; Jer 5:21; Ezek 12:2.

[30] See further Tabb, All Things New, 80–82.

[31] For further discussion see Tabb, All Things New, 213–15.

[32] This parallel with Mark 1:15 is also noted by Beale, Revelation, 185; Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 31.

[33] Tabb, All Things New, 98–101.

[34] The passive construction ἐδόθη αὐτῷ (13:7) signals that God permits the beast’s assault on the saints. While God does not directly will evil, “evil exists within the circumference of God’s sovereign will,” according to Schreiner, The Joy of Hearing, 69.

[35] Cf. Cicero, Letters to Atticus 6.5; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 3.9, Virgil, Aeneid 6.782–85; Georgica 2.534–35.

[36] Craig R. Koester, Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 38A (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 677.

[37] Ian Boxall, The Revelation of Saint John, BNTC 18 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006), 246–47. The sixth king in 17:10 (“one is”) is identified as Nero by Bruce W. Winter, Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Christians’ Responses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 289–96.

[38] Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 8–22: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1995), 152–54.

[39] Beale, Revelation, 685.

[40] For expanded discussion, see Tabb, All Things New, 124–27.

[41] On the Roman imperial cult, see Winter, Divine Honours for the Caesars, 286–306.

[42] Koester, Revelation, 570. Cf. Pliny the Younger, Epistle 10.102; Horace, Odes 1.12.49–52.

[43] Suetonius, Domitian 13.2 (dominus et deus noster).

[44] Christopher Richardson, “North Korea’s Kim Dynasty: The Making of a Personality Cult,” 16 February 2015, The Guardian,

[45] Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, 337.

[46] Simon Denyer, “Jesus Won’t Save You — President Xi Jinping Will, Chinese Christians Told,” The Washington Post, 14 November 2017,

[47] For example, see Russell Goldman, “Chinese Police Dynamite Christian Megachurch,” The New York Times, 12 January 2018,

[48] William Nee, “In China, ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ Is the Only Accepted Religion,” The Diplomat, 17 August 2021,

[49] “A Statement from Early Rain Covenant Church Regarding the Severe Sentencing of Pastor Wang Yi,” 30 December 2019,

[50] Wang Yi, “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience,” 12 December 2018,

[51] Cf. Tabb, All Things New, 59; Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, NTT (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 74.

[52] The next two paragraphs adapt material in Tabb, All Things New, 108–9.

[53] Cf. Beale, Revelation, 663.

[54] Joel Gunter, “China Committed Genocide against Uyghurs, Independent Tribunal Rules,” BBC News, 9 December 2021,

[55] Roughly 465 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 6,062,536 million deaths globally as of 18 March 2022, According to 2020 census data, the population of Minnesota was approximately 5.7 million, just behind Wisconsin (5.9 million) and Colorado (5.8 million).

[56] Schreiner, The Joy of Hearing, 40.

[57] Cf. Augustine, The City of God 18.18.

[58] Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 129.

[59] Raymond C. Ortlund, God’s Unfaithful Wife: A Biblical Theology of Spiritual Adultery, NSBT 2 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 168.

[60] Augustine, The City of God, ed. Hermigild Dressler, trans. Gerald G. Walsh and Daniel J. Honan, The Fathers of the Church 24 (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1954), 22.30 (pp. 505, 510–11).

Brian J. Tabb

Brian Tabb is interim president and professor of biblical studies at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis and general editor of Themelios.

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