Revelation: Its Central Theme Illuminated
THESIS: The central theme of Revelation is a story of two women—the harlot Babylon who is judged/divorced (Revelation 17:1, 5, 15; 18:9, 21; 19:2) and God’s new bride the New Jerusalem (Revelation 19:7; 21:2, 9). Old Covenant Israel is the faithless harlot. Christ’s church is the bride. Herein lies the message of salvation through the victory of Jesus Christ, the mediator of the New Covenant.
The book of Revelation is easier to understand than many assume. While the book’s symbolism leaves many details debatable, the overarching themes are clear. Yet, Christians often misunderstand Bible prophecy for at least five reasons: (1) they fail to see how Revelation ties to the rest of Scripture, (2) they are unfamiliar with the Old Testament, (3) they are ignorant of Hebraic apocalyptic language, (4) they literalize things that were meant to be symbolic, and (5) they are reading ancient literature through the lens of the daily newspaper, when they should be reading it through the lens of the original audience. I have spoken to numerous seminary-trained pastors that have no idea how to deal with this book!
We must understand, as David Chilton said, “The Bible is a book about the Covenant. The Bible is not an Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Nor is it a collection of moral tales.”  In this article, I will briefly give some critical highlights that puts these things into perspective.
WHEN WRITTEN. The evidence is strong that the book was written in the mid-60’s AD, prior to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Here are some important clues, among many others: It was written during the tribulation (Revelation 1:9; 2:9), which Jesus time-restricted to his own generation (Matthew 24:9, 21, 29, 34). (Note: The same Greek word for tribulation, Greek “thlipsis,” is used in Matthew 24 and Revelation.) It was written while the temple was still standing (Revelation 11:1). It was written during the reign of Nero, the sixth emperor of Rome (Revelation 17:10 “now is”) who ruled from AD 54 to AD 68. There is no mention in the book of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 as a past event. (Over 130 theologians have been identified as holding to this early dating of Revelation.)
WHEN FULFILLED. Revelation contains over 30 passages that demand its imminent, i.e. soon, fulfillment. We see such statements as “MUST SHORTLY TAKE PLACE,” “SOON,” “NEAR,” and “ABOUT TO HAPPEN” (Revelation 1:1-3; 22:6-20; etc.). Interestingly, there are 70 such statements in the rest of the New Testament that confirm this time-line for fulfillment of most, if not all, prophecy. While many Christians read thousands of years later into these words, this does violence to the text. Words mean something and God repeatedly used intelligible words of imminent fulfillment that can be clearly understood—as long as your mind is not cluttered with futurist presuppositions. God does not deceive. It is illegitimate to pour unbiblical or non-dictionary meanings into plain words. While Revelation is a timeless book with universal application (Revelation 5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 13:7; 14:6), the fulfillment of prophecy was AT HAND when the Bible was being penned (Matthew 10:23; 16:27-28; 24:29-34; 26:64; 1 Corinthians 7:29; 10:11; Hebrews 1:2; 10:37; James 5:7-9; 1 Peter 4:7, 17; 1 John 2:17-18; etc.).
MAJOR THEME. Scholars agree that the major theme of Revelation is the defeat of “Babylon,” but disagree on what Babylon represents. Babylon was an historic enemy of God’s people, and it is used symbolically in Revelation to represent Old Covenant Israel/Jerusalem who had become unfaithful. This is prominent in chapters 16-19. Jesus’ wrath, promised in Revelation, would come against “the great city Babylon” (Revelation 18:21-24) which is clearly identified as the “city where the Lord was slain” (Revelation 11:8-9). This unambiguously confirms that the Great Judgment was against Jerusalem. There is an abundance of additional proof:
The great city is described as “Sodom and Egypt” in Revelation 11:8. The only city referred symbolically in the Bible as Sodom is old covenant Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 32:28-33; Isaiah 1:9-10; 3:8-9; Jeremiah 23:14; Lamentations 4:6; Ezekiel 16:46-57; Amos 4:11).
Babylon is described as a harlot (Revelation 17:1, 5, 15; 19:2). Throughout the Bible, Israel’s relationship with God is portrayed as a marriage (Isaiah 54:5; 62:4; Jeremiah 2:2; 3:1, 14, 20; 31:32; Ezekiel 16:8, 32, 38; Hosea 2:2, 7, 16; Malachi 2:14). Whenever Israel was unfaithful, she is characterized as a harlot or adulterer (Deuteronomy 31:16-18; Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 2:20; 3:1-10; Ezekiel 6:8-9; 16:15, 25, 26, 28; Hosea 1:2; 6:10; 9:1). Further evidence is that the harlot is adorned in purple and scarlet (Revelation 17:4), which are the colors of the ritual dress of the high priest and the colors that adorn the temple (Exodus 27:16; 28:5, 6, 8, 15, 33; 35:6, 23, 25, 35; 36:8, 35; 38:18; 39:1, 2; 2 Chronicles 3:14).
Revelation is about God’s covenant lawsuit against Israel. In Jeremiah 3:8, we specifically see the word “divorce” as it relates to God’s judgment against the northern kingdom of Israel. This happened in 722 BC. Indeed, Israel was conquered and sent into exile by God’s instrument of judgment, Assyria. The northern tribes never recovered from this exile. They were scattered and disintegrated.
The southern kingdom of Judah was punished in 586 BC, being conquered and exiled by Babylon—but ultimately spared because this was necessary to carry on the genealogical line to Jesus. In Revelation, we find a reiteration of the biblical theme of God’s final wrath upon unfaithful Israel—this being the remains of the Jewish heritage, that is, Judah.
This theme began all the way back in Deuteronomy 28-32 where we see a discussion about God’s covenant with Israel (29:1), which could be sustained only IF the Israelites were obedient. The passage in Deuteronomy intimates that at some time in the future—at the “end” (32:20), further described as the “latter days” (32:29)—Israel would break their side of the covenant (31:16) and be destroyed (28:20, 24, 33, 45, 48, 61, 64; 32:23, 26). This fits perfectly with what happened in AD 70—when the ancient custom of temple sacrifices for sin ended forever and the priesthood was dissolved.
This same theme is portrayed by other Old Testament prophets. For example, Daniel 12 prophesied that the “time of the end” (Daniel 12:6) would happen when the “power of the holy people comes to an end” (Daniel 12:7), and when “the regular burnt offering is taken away” (Daniel 12:11)—which would be the time of the “abomination of desolation” (Daniel 12:11). Jesus confirmed Daniel’s time-line in the Olivet Discourse (Abomination of Desolation, Matthew 24:15), which would close out the END OF THE AGE (Matthew 24:3, 13) while some of those living in the first century were still alive (Matthew 24:34)—all coincident with the destruction of the temple (Matthew 24:2). This was clearly the culminating end of the Old Covenant Age, which was just in front of the biblical writers (Hebrews 8:13). It was never to be the “end of time,” as many Christians think, but rather the “time of the end”—the end of the Old Covenant Age, which ended in finality in AD 70.
In Matthew 21:33-45 Jesus told the Jews that the kingdom would be taken from them and given to another group, obviously the Christian church. In John 8:44 we find that the Jews to whom Jesus was speaking were not from Abraham but from the devil. In Matthew 23:29-39 Jesus told the Jews of his day that THEY were the target of his wrath. Judgment for the blood of all the prophets EVER SHED IN HISTORY would befall THEM, fulfilling the prophecy from Deuteronomy 32:43 and echoed by the other Old Testament prophets! This is an astounding prophecy which we cannot legitimately assign to any other group of people. Revelation has several DIRECT REFERENCES to Matthew 23—Revelation 16:6; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2.
It is irrefutably clear that the wrath upon Jerusalem in Matthew 23 (and elsewhere) would be fulfilled in Jesus’ generation per Matthew 23:36. The Great Judgment of which the Bible frequently speaks was directed squarely at the generation of Jews living in the first century. While each person is judged when he dies per Hebrews 9:27 and other passages, the overwhelming number of judgment passages in the New Testament are about AD 70.
As put by Reformed scholar Kenneth Gentry, “Christ’s tender calling to Israel falls upon deaf ears, so that He deems first century Israel — like her Old Testament fathers — ‘an adulterous generation’ (Mt 12:38–39; 16:4; Mk 8:38). Thus, in John a common theme in 2:1–4:42 is Jesus’ teaching on the ‘replacement of the old with the new,’ the replacement of Israel’s story with that which Christ brings about: Israel’s water is replaced with Christianity’s wine (Jn 2:1–11), the temple is replaced by Christ himself (Jn 2:14–19; Revelation 21:2), the old birth into Israel with the new birth (Jn 3:1–21), the old well water with the new living water (Jn 4:7–15), and finally the replacement of Zion as the place of worship with universal worship in Christ (Jn 4:16–26).”
Jesus tied the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy to his own generation multiple other times. For example, the time of VENGEANCE from Deuteronomy 32:35, 41, 43 (cf. Isaiah 34:8; 35:4; 61:2; 63:4) was the first-century generation. Jesus said, “THESE are the days of VENGEANCE to fulfill all that is written” (Luke 21:22, 32). Jesus also echoed the Deuteronomy prophecy about a “perverse generation” (Deuteronomy 32:20), telling the Jews of his day that THEY were that generation (Matthew 12:38, 39, 42; 16:4; 17:17; Luke 9:41; 11:29-32). Peter and Paul both echoed the theme of the perverse, crooked, and twisted generation (Acts 2:40; Philippians 2:14). The only place in the Bible that we find the fulfillment of the perverse/twisted generation is in the New Testament as applied to the first century generation of people, namely the Jews of that day.
Revelation, we should note, is part of the Bible. It does not introduce totally new concepts from the rest of Scripture; rather, it elaborates on them. John’s gospel, interestingly, does not contain the Olivet Discourse as do the other three gospels (Matthew 24/25, Mark 13, Luke 21). So, Revelation can easily be understood to be John’s expanded version of Jesus’ Olivet sermon. In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus’ emphatically prophesied that his own generation would not pass away until all was fulfilled (Matthew 24:29-34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32). There is no mistaking its meaning of “this generation,” by the way, as this expression is used fourteen times outside of the Olivet Discourse and always clearly means the generation of people living in the first century (Matthew 11:16-24; 12:38-45; 16:4; 17:17; 23:36; Mark 8:12; 8:38-9:1; 9:19; Luke 7:31; 9:41; 11:29-32, 49-51; 17:25; Acts 2:40).
Thus, Revelation and the Olivet Discourse are thematically the same—the vengeance against Old Covenant Israel. So, why would Jesus have been so upset with the Jews of the first century? Well, (1) they were indeed evil (Luke 11:29; Matthew 23:1-33), and (2) they refused to accept Him as Savior (Matthew 21:33-46; 22:1-14; 23:37). The destruction of the temple, and along with it the end of Jewish temple rituals, is theologically very important. No longer could anyone legitimately think they were saved through the temple sacrificial system. Jesus became the new temple (Revelation 21:22) and the sole source of our salvation.
As put by Gentry, “God is not simply abandoning Israel without warrant. He is suing her in “court” with just cause, proper witnesses, and legal evidence.”
God divorced Old Covenant Israel, taking on a new bride—the church. Most Christians will acknowledge that the church is the bride of Christ (John 3:29; 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:25-27, 32). If the church is already married, then the wedding ceremony happened in the past. The church was betrothed in AD 30 per Matthew 25:1-13—and married in AD 70 to the new bride—the New Jerusalem—of Revelation 19:7; 21:2, 9. That the church is the New Jerusalem is confirmed by her description as being built on the foundation of the twelve apostles. What else could be built on the foundation of the apostles?! (Also, compare to Galatians 4:21-31 and Hebrews 12:22-29.)
Revelation is part of the Bible! It does not introduce strange and fanciful new concepts foreign to the rest of Scripture. The central theme of Revelation is the coming judgment against Old Covenant Israel in AD 70, allowing the New Covenant in Christ to flourish. It is the same judgment—and predicted change of the covenants—spoken of throughout the Old and New Testaments (Deuteronomy 32:5; Jeremiah 31:31; Matthew 21:43; 22:7-8; 23:29-39; Hebrews 8:13; etc.).
Now, I anticipate that you will ask some questions: What does the Bible teach about the nature and timing of the Second Coming? What is the New Heaven and New Earth? What is the New Jerusalem? Who is the Beast of Revelation? What is the Day of the Lord? What is the Great Tribulation? What is the rapture?
I hope you will examine these things with an open mind. Test all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Begin here, then continue to the Index of Topics listed at the top right:
 David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation, pg. 10.
 Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation, pgs. 30-38.