Series: “Little Gems from Our Study of the Book of Revelation”
What point(s) did John, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wish to get across to his initial readers when he distributed the book of Revelation to seven churches in first century Asia Minor? What themes are weaved through the book? In considering these questions, keep in mind that the full title of the book is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Proposal: One of the Holy Spirit’s aims in Revelation is to guide the early church in navigating the transition period from one covenant (the old) to the next (the new), especially as that period was drawing to a close. This period lasted roughly 40 years (30 AD – 70 AD), parallel to the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness.
Basis (one of several): The same imagery that was present at the giving of the law, the old covenant, is echoed several times in the book of Revelation (4:5, 8:5, 11:19, and 16:18). This post will highlight these passages and their significance.
Parallel Scripture Passage: “In that He says, ‘a new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13, 1st century AD).
Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai
Just before examining these passages in Revelation, let’s look at Exodus 19, the passage I believe they echo:
In the third month after the children of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on the same day, they came to the Wilderness of Sinai. For they had departed from Rephidim, had come to the Wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness. So Israel camped there before the mountain. And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”
…Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly (Exodus 19:1-18).
So we see that God reminded them of how He bore the people of Israel “on eagles’ wings”* out of Egypt and to Himself. God was establishing a covenant with them at this time, and He called them to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”** This gathering was marked by thundering and lightning, the sound of a loud trumpet, thick smoke, and the whole mountain quaking greatly.
*Compare to Revelation 12:13-14, where the persecuted woman “was given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness to her place, where she is nourished for a time and times and half a time, from the presence of the serpent.”
**Compare this with John’s opening greeting to the seven churches, where he says that Jesus “has made us kings and priests to His God and Father” (Revelation 1:6).
Four Passages That Echo Mount Sinai in Revelation
1. Revelation 4:4-5
“Around the throne were 24 thrones, and on the thrones I saw 24 elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads. And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices. Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.”
As we noted in our study of Revelation 4, the 24 elders may very well “depict the 12 patriarchs of Israel and the 12 apostles, who represent the redeemed of both covenants now united in Christ.” This seems to be substantiated by the names of the 12 tribes and the 12 apostles found written on the gates and walls of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:12-14). So it appears that this covenant-establishing imagery takes place in the presence of elders representing both the old and the new covenant ages.
2. Revelation 8:4-6
“And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and threw it to the earth. And there were noises, thunderings, lightnings, and an earthquake. So the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.”
This scene takes place at the opening of the seventh and final seal (Rev. 8:1). An angel with a golden censer offers the prayers of the saints, along with incense, upon the altar before God’s throne (verse 3). We proposed in our study of Rev. 8 that these prayers are linked to the cries of the martyrs for God to avenge their “blood on those who dwell on the earth” – Rev. 6:10 (see this post for a more complete study on this subject). It seems likely that the seal judgments are poured out in response to the prayers of God’s people. Therefore, the covenant-establishing imagery of Mount Sinai appears here because the prayers of the new covenant community were about to result in the old covenant system reaching its demise.
3. Revelation 11:19
“Then the temple of God was opened in heaven, and the ark of His covenant was seen in His temple. And there were lightnings, noises, thunderings, an earthquake, and great hail.“
Just as the scene we examined in Rev. 8 takes place at the opening of the seventh seal, this scene takes place at the sounding of the seventh trumpet. Loud voices declare, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!” The 24 elders are present at this scene (Rev. 11:15-16).
In verse 19 we see probably the most explicit reference connecting the old covenant to the prophecies in the book of Revelation. John sees a vision of God’s temple housing “the ark of His covenant.” In ancient Israel, the ark of the covenant was a centerpiece of the temple and the old covenant. Located in the Most Holy Place, it represented God’s presence: “You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the Testimony that I will give you. And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony, about everything which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel” (Exodus 25:21-22). For further significance, see Numbers 7:89, 10:33-35; Joshua 3:13, 7:6-11; Judges 20:27; II Samuel 6:2; II Kings 19:15; Psalm 28:2, 80:1.
When the dust settles from the barrage of judgments in Revelation, what does heaven shout? “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev. 21:3). This did not suddenly become true because some buildings fell in 70 AD. Remember that Paul told the Corinthian church this was already their reality and that they were “the temple of the living God“ (II Cor. 6:16). The downfall of Israel, Jerusalem, and the temple in 70 AD, however, did remove the far less glorious old covenant system which competed against, and greatly opposed, this reality. It was a stunning and vivid demonstration that God had chosen the glorious new covenant over the inferior old covenant (see Hebrews 8). This was the time for rewarding God’s “servants the prophets and the saints, and those who fear [His] name, small and great” (Rev. 11:18).
Several verses earlier, John witnesses an actual earthquake that kills 7000 people in“the city” (Rev. 11:13), already identified in verse 8 as Jerusalem (“the great city…where also our Lord was crucified“). As we noted in our study of Revelation 11, Josephus records one awful night in early 68 AD when “a prodigious storm” took place in Jerusalem, marked by “the largest showers of rain, with continued lightnings, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake.” Josephus adds that the Jewish zealots allowed the Idumaeans to come in and help them slaughter some of their fellow Jews who opposed their rebellion against the Romans. Between this slaughter and the earthquake, 8500 people died that night (Josephus, Wars 4:4:5, 4:4:7-4:5:1).
4. Revelation 16:17-21
“Then the seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, ‘It is done!’ And there were noises and thunderings and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such a mighty and great earthquake as had not occurred since men were on the earth. Now the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. And great Babylon was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of His wrath. Then every island fled away, and the mountains were not found. And great hail from heaven fell upon men, each hailstone about the weight of a talent. Men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail, since that plague was exceedingly great. “
Just as the scene we examined in Rev. 8 takes place at the opening of the seventh seal, and the scene in Rev. 11 takes place at the sounding of the seventh trumpet, this scene takes place at the pouring out of the seventh bowl.
John sees the great city, Jerusalem, divided into three parts. As we noted in our study of Revelation 16, this is a flashback to Ezekiel 5:1-12, when the prophet was required to shave his head and divide it into three parts, and was told by God: “This is Jerusalem” (Ezek 5:5). One third of his hair was burned, one third was chopped up by the sword, and the last third was scattered into the wind. This was fulfilled when Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 B.C. at the hands of Babylon, and Josephus records the same tragedies in 70 AD at the hands of Rome (1.1 million Jews killed by the sword or by fire, and all the survivors exiled or sold into slavery). Jerusalem was also divided between 67-70 AD into three warring factions:  the Zealots, led by Eleazar  the Galileans, led by John of Gischala, and  the Idumeans, led by Simon.
Just as an actual deadly earthquake took place as foretold in Rev. 11, actual hail – “about the weight of a talent” (i.e. 75 – 100 pounds) – also fell as foretold in Rev. 16. Josephus wrote of large stones shot from catapults by the Roman armies into the temple complex in Jerusalem, which the watchmen in the city reported as appearing white in the sky:
“Now the stones that were cast were of the weight of a talent, and were carried two furlongs and further. The blow they gave was no way to be sustained, not only by those that stood first in the way, but by those that were beyond them for a great space. As for the Jews, they at first watched the coming of the stone, for it was of a white color, and could therefore not only be perceived by the great noise it made, but could be seen also before it came by its brightness” (Josephus, Wars 5:6:3).
Josephus also records that the watchmen on the wall, when they saw the stones coming, would shout, “The Son cometh!” After a while the Romans learned to blacken the stones so that they couldn’t as easily be detected, and many more were crushed by these stones. J. Stuart Russell, in his 1878 book titled The Parousia, offers this explanation for the words of the watchmen (p. 482):
“It could not but be well known to the Jews that the great hope and faith of the Christians was the speedy coming of the Son. It was about this very time, according to Hegesippus [110-180 AD], that St. James, the brother of our Lord, publicly testified in the temple that ‘the Son of man was about to come in the clouds of heaven,’ and then sealed his testimony with his blood [in 62 AD]. It seems highly probable that the Jews, in their defiant and desperate blasphemy, when they saw the white mass hurtling though the air, raised the ribald cry, ‘The Son is coming,’ in mockery of the Christian hope of the Parousia.”
In his book, “Revelation: Four Views (A Parallel Commentary),” Steve Gregg also sees the connection between Mount Sinai and Revelation, as he shares concerning Rev. 4 (p. 88):
“The lightnings, thundering and voices (v. 5) recall Mount Sinai, where God first established His covenant with Israel [Exodus 19:16; cf. Rev. 8:5, 11:19]. Similar phenomena are mentioned here to suggest the end of that covenant and its replacement with another. The writer of Hebrews (citing Hag. 2) likened the overthrow of the first covenant (publicly demonstrated by the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70) to the time of its establishment at Sinai, but the latter would be accompanied by even more fearful phenomena (Heb. 12:18-29).”
Steve Gregg also shares David Chilton’s comparison of Revelation 19:1-6 with Revelation 11:15-19 (which we have already examined). Chilton indicates that very similar subject matter is established “in the two passages which represent the closing visions of the two major sections of the book” (p. 440):
1. loud voices…in heaven (11:15; 19:1);
2. the declaration of the commencement of the reign of God (11:15, 17; 19:1, 6);
3. the twenty-four elders fall on their faces and worship (11:16; 19:4);
4. the avenging of the blood of His servants is announced (11:18; 18:24; 19:2);
5. reference to God’s servants…who fear Him, small and great (11:18; 19:5);
6. loud noises, including thunderings (11:19; 19:6).
Check out the first two posts in this mini-series: