Dr. Richard S. Hess

Old Testament Questions from the desk of Dr. Richard S. Hess

How Important is the Old Testament to the Book of Revelation?

It is very important. Some would say that the Old Testament appears in imagery as well as quotation and allusion more in the book of Revelation than in any other book in the Bible. Many think that the apostle John wrote both the Gospel of John and Revelation. In John 1:1 the apostle begin his epistle by developing Genesis 1:1, and this correlation continues in the subsequent verses. John loved the Old Testament and made it a part of his presentation of Jesus. The same is true of the book of Revelation.

What kind of book is Revelation? It is a book of prophecy “gone crazy.” The prophets began by preaching and affecting what would happen – Elijah foretells the drought in his time (1 Kgs. 17-18). He is divinely directly to choose Elisha as his successor who anoints the kings of Israel (Jehu) and of Damascus (Hazael), and thereby affects the future of the kingdom of Israel. With many of the writing prophets however, there was a sense that sin had become so much a part of the world, that this world would need to be turned upside down to be redeemed and restored. This is the form that Revelation shares in. It is called apocalyptic, which is the synonym for the name of the book, Revelation.

To understand the connection of Revelation with the Old Testament and its foundation there, look at the overall form of many prophetic books and of Revelation, we will look at the model prophet Isaiah and the general threefold form that he inaugurates and that is found in many of the Writing Prophets.

This form begins with judgment against the people of God, a point made by Peter regarding its application to the New Testament people of God, the Church (1 Peter 4:17). Isaiah 1-12 describes this judgment against Israel, just as Revelation 1-3 begins with judgment of the churches that make up the people of God. Embedded into this judgment section is the call of John with a vision of God and a divine command to relate what he has seen and heard (Rev. 1:9-20). The same is true of the call of Isaiah (Isaiah 6) with a vision of God and command to preach what God gives to him.

The second part of the prophetic forms involves judgment against the nations of the World. Isaiah 13-39 begin with words against Babylon and move to touch on many of the nations of the known world. In the same way Revelation 4-20 moves through judgment upon the world. Both of these texts end with a murderous assault upon Jerusalem, God’s people, and God’s ruler; and its complete defeat by divine interaction. See Isaiah 36-37 and Revelation 19-20.

The third and final part of many prophetic books moves forward to blessing and redemption for God’s People and the World. This is found in Isaiah 40-66 and in Revelation 21-22.

There are many Old Testament themes and images that further shed light on Revelation. Here are a few:

Revelation depicts six seals (Rev. 6), trumpets (Rev. 8:6-9:21), and bowls (Rev. 16), all followed by a climactic seventh. In the first case the first six seals are followed by a silence (Rev. 8:1-5), in the case of the trumpets the first six lead to the worship of God (Rev. 11:15-19). With the bowls there is a gathering for Armageddon (Rev. 16). The seventh brings forth the final severe judgment. Compare this with the 6 +1 days of creation in Gen. 1:1-2:4 and the way Revelation is a reversal of creation into destruction and death. These judgments sometimes match the plagues where God first delivered his people from persecution in Egypt (hail – Rev. 8:7 (+ fire); 11:19; 16:21; Ex. 9:22-25; water becomes blood – Rev 8:8-11; 16:3-4; Ex. 7:22-25; darkness – Rev. 8:12; 9:2; Ex. 10:21-23; locusts Rev. 9:1-11; Ex. 10:12-15).

A second example deals with the dragon of Rev. 12:9 who seeks to destroy the woman (sometimes understood to represent Israel, or the church, or Mary the mother of Jesus) and the serpent who seeks to destroy the seed of the woman in Gen 3:1-14 and especially v. 15. At the center of the judgments in Rev. the dragon (who is the snake) goes after the Messiah/Christ child and seems to be succeeding in his death. However, the dragon fails.

A third example take us to Revelation 21 and the new Jerusalem. God and specifically Christ replace temple. There is a focus on the gates, as a means of access to this place where God (= Christ) uniquely appears. The city itself is a giant cube shape of huge size (12,000 stadia = 1,400 miles) that may be likened to the size of the Roman empire. The cube is the Holy of Holies, the Most Holy place as in Ezek. 45:2 and the original temple of 1 Kgs. 6:20. The redeemed are in this cube where the fullness of God is found more than any other place on earth. God will become everything to everyone (1 Cor. 15:20-28), fulfilling the deepest needs and desires for which we were created.

A final example takes us to the last chapter in the book. Revelation 22’s abundant waters flow from God’s throne. The tree of life appears on both sides of this river and gives healing (salvation). There is abundance of life everywhere. All this is foreseen in Ezekiel 47 where the ever deepening review flows from the temple, gives life to many kinds of fish and creates the Garden of Eden in the Dead Sea. Such imagery brings us back to Gen. 2:8-14 where Eden (well-watered place) is the source of four rivers and gives those who live in it life, beauty, and food.

Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah are the major books with teachings and images the illuminate the book of Revelation.

The purpose of Revelation, similar to that of the prophets before it, is not to predict the future but to live in the present. Just as the Law/Instruction and texts like Lev. 19:1-2, 18, command holiness and love; so Rev. 1:3; 22:17, challenge John and all who read his account to live in the free gift of life:

1:3 (NIV): Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

22:17 (NIV): The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.

For further reading, see:

Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation. NIGTC. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

Hess, Richard S. “The Future Written in the Past:  The Old Testament and the Millennium.” Pages 23-36 in A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology. Edited by C. L. Blomberg and S. W. Chung. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.

McDonough, Sean. “Revelation, Book of.” Pages 698-704 in Dictionary of the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Edited by G. K. Beale, D. A. Carson, Benjamin L. Glass, and Andrew David Naselli. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2023

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