New Testament Sunday School Lesson 45: Revelation

MsAs with other Sunday School lesson notes, these are intended primarily to help people study for the lesson, not as lesson preparation materials. Of course, anything one uses for study can also be used to help one prepare a lesson. But study rather than lesson preparation is the main purpose of these notes.


The article on Revelation in the LDS Bible Dictionary is excellent. You should read it before you read the lesson material. In addition, here are some things that may be helpful:

So far in our New Testament study this year we have seen three kinds of writings in the New Testament: the gospels, which bear testimony of Christ and his life; letters to congregations of early Saints preaching the Gospel, often in the context of dealing with problems in those congregations; and doctrinal expositions (Romans and Hebrews). Revelation is unlike any of those. Apocalyptic revelations like the book of Revelation were not uncommon in the early Church. Several others are still extant. But Revelation was the only one of them canonized.

We know that we do not have a record of everything taught either in Jesus’ Palestinian or in his American ministry. For example, we don’t have a record of his teachings during the forty days after his resurrection and the Book of Mormon tells us explicitly that it doesn’t include everything he said (3 Nephi 19:32; 26:6, 16; 28:13-14). In the New Testament, Jesus says that he holds some teachings back from those outside his inner circle (Mark 4:10-11), and the early Christian Church knows of this practice. In addition to the many documents that were simply lost because of the problems of preserving writing before the invention of the printing press—probably a majority of them—early Christians believed that some things were held back, kept secret and not committed to writing.

For example, Clement of Alexandria (late 2nd century A.D.) says that he knows teachings that Jesus revealed to his disciples but that were handed down orally rather than in writing (Miscellanies 5.10; 6.7). In the early third century, Origen, also of Alexandria (early 3rd century), argues that the prophets and apostles knew more than could be written down (Against Celsus 6.6). He says that Jesus knew divine secrets “and made them known to a few” (Against Celsus 3.37). Origen seems at least to have in mind Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 2:7: “we speak the wisdom of God in a secret, even the hidden wisdom that God decreed for our glory before the world” (translation revised).

This reservation of some things from wide distribution was not unique to the Savior’s time or to his disciples immediately after him. 1 Nephi 14:25 shows us one example of the Lord forbidding that the prophet write some things, and Ezekiel 3:1-3, where the prophet is given a roll (scroll) to eat and then told to speak, may be meant to indicate that some things can be taught orally but not written down.

Ignatius of Antioch (also of the 2nd century) wrote that the Father had entrusted only Jesus with the Holy of Holies and with the secrets of God (To the Philadelphians 9). By writing of the secrets of God at the same time he writes of the Holy of Holies, Ignatius suggests that the secret teachings had to do with the temple, which seems also to have been the tradition among early Christians. For example, the early church historian, Eusebius (2nd half of the 3rd century, first half of the 4th), says that both James the brother of Christ and John the apostle were high priests (History 2.23, 3.31), and Eusebius clearly understands the high priest as a person officiating in the temple. Revelation, therefore, seems to be, like Ezekiel, at least partly a revelation about the temple. Thus, as you read it, you may understand it better if you watch for temple symbolism. Keep in mind, however, that the temple used for the symbols was the temple in Jerusalem rather than a modern temple. Of course the two are related, but the structure and the rituals conducted in each were different from one another.

Perhaps the most important symbol of that early temple was the entry of the high priest into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. The Holy of Holies represented the divine world, and presumably the court outside the Holy of Holies represented this world. Part of the difficulty we have reading Revelation may twofold: (1) it assumes that its readers are part of an audience which knows that there are secret—“private” might be better—teachings and that this book is like many other books that deal with those teachings; (2) it makes its points using symbolism from the Jerusalem Temple and we are not familiar with that symbolism. Understanding Revelation requires understanding the Jerusalem Temple better.

Revelation was written at a time when the early Church was suffering persecution and when it expected the Second Coming soon. In fact, early Christians often spoke of the Second Coming as “The Revelation,” using the same Greek word used as the name of this book: apokalypsis, from which we get our word “apocalypse” and meaning “the revelation of something hidden or secret.” Christ’s Second Coming would reveal something that the world did not know, a secret, namely that Jesus, whom the world crucified, is Creator, King, and Judge. The book of Revelation tells us that in it we can find “hidden secrets,” things not known by those outside the Church and, perhaps, not by all of those within the Church.

However, the “secrets” of Revelation are not matters of arcane symbolism or things that require special knowledge or education, any more than the “secret” of the Second Coming is. Many non-believers have heard of the Second Coming, but it remains a mystery or secret to them anyway because they do not believe it or understand it. So it is important not to think that we cannot understand the book of Revelation without special knowledge or training. Remember, an angel told Nephi that the things John wrote are “plain and pure, and most precious and easy to the understanding of all men” (1 Nephi 14:23)—though it may also be important to remember that the angel was speaking to someone who said something similar of Isaiah (2 Nephi 25:4).

Speaking of the symbols in Revelation, Joseph Smith said:

Whenever God gives a vision of an image, or beast, or figure of any kind, He always holds Himself responsible to give a revelation or interpretation of the meaning thereof [e.g. D&C 77 and D&C 130], otherwise we are not responsible or accountable for our belief in it (Teachings 291).
It is not very essential for the elders to have knowledge in relation to the meaning of beasts, and heads and horns, and other figures made use of in the revelations; still, it may be necessary, to prevent contention and division and do away with suspense. If we get puffed up by thinking that we have much knowledge, we are apt to get a contentious spirit, and correct knowledge is necessary to cast out that spirit.
[However,] the evil of being puffed up with correct (though useless) knowledge is not so great as the evil of contention. (Teachings 287).

Even though we know by revelation what some of the figures or symbols in the book of Revelation mean, that knowledge is generally useless, but given to us so that we won’t contend over them. It appears that the better approach to Revelation would be not to worry about those symbols, to learn what it teaches without concern for them.

It may help you keep track of what you are reading if you notice that Revelation is arranged in seven groups of seven, with an introduction and a conclusion. (I have used the arrangement by J. M. Ford, The Anchor Bible Commentary on Revelation [1975], though the idea that Revelation is arranged in seven groups of seven, with an introduction and a summary, is not original with her and though I have felt free to change her outline somewhat.)

1. Introduction to the book as a whole (1:1-8)
2. Seven prophecies to the seven churches
Introduction (1:9-20) Ephesus (2:1-7)
Smyrna (2:8-11) Sardis (3:1-6)
Pergamum (2:12-17) Philadelphia (3:7-13)
Thyatira (2:18-29) Laodocia (3:14-22)
3. The seven seals
The Heavenly Court (4:1-11) The souls under the altar (6:9-11)
The book with seven seals and the lamb (5:1-14) The earthquake (6:12-17)
The white horse (6:1-2) The Church on earth preserved by God (7:1-8)
The red horse (6:3-4) The Church in heaven glorifies God (7:9-17)
The black horse (6:5-6) The seventh seal (8:1)
4. The seven trumpets
Introduction (8:2-6) The locusts (9:1-12)
The earth is set on fire (8:7) The horsemen (9:13-11:14)
The sea turns to blood (8:8-9) The seventh, encompassing trumpet
The rivers and springs become bitter (8:10-12) The angel with a small open scroll (10:1-11)
The heavenly bodies are darkened (8:13) The measuring of the Temple and the two witnesses (11:1-14)
5. The Dragon and the Lamb
The woman with child (12:1-2) The Lamb and the virgins (14:1-5)
The dragon (12:3-6) The seven angels, one of them the Son of Man (14:6-16)
The beast rising out of the sea (13:1-10) The seventh, encompassing sign (14:17)
The second beast: the false prophet rising out of the earth (13:11-18)
6. The seven bowls of wrath are poured out
Introduction: those who have conquered the Anti-Christ sing the Song of Moses and the Lamb (15:1-16:1) On the waters (16:4-7)On the sun (16:8-9)On the throne of the beast (16:10-11)

On the Euphrates (16:12-16)

On the earth (16:2) The seventh, encompassing bowl (16:17)
On the sea (16:3)
7. Babylon
Introduction (16:18-21) The mourning for Babylon (18:9-20)
The description of Babylon (17:1-6) The final ruin of Babylon (18:21-24)
The explanation of Babylon (17:7-18) The song of praise at her fall (19:1-5)
The fall of Babylon (18:1-8) The seventh, encompassing stage (19:6)
8. The Second Coming and the end of history
Introduction (19:6-10) The millenial first resurrection and victory over Satan (20:4-10)
The rider on the white horse (19:11-16) The judgment (20:11-15)
The supper of God (19:17-18) The New Jerusalem (21:1-22:5)
The angel of the abyss (20:1-3)
9. Recapitulation (22:6-21)
The witness of the angel (22:6-9) The witness of Jesus (22:16-20)
The time of retribution is at hand (22:10-15) Closing (22:21)

This framework may help you read Revelation, by helping you see how its parts relate to one another. But it is only a framework. Additional elements are placed on it, for example, 1:9-3:22, where we have a vision of the resurrected Christ. And almost anyone trying to outline the book is likely to outline it at least somewhat differently.

Notice also that this outline doesn’t take account of Joseph Smith’s inspired rewriting of parts, especially of chapter 12. Those inspired changes make quite a difference in places. Thus, this outline has its limitations, but it may be helpful in spite of them.

There is considerable scholarly disagreement about the dates for this book. Because I accept the belief that the apostle John is its author, I assume that he wrote Revelation in 95-96 while on the isle of Patmos, a very small island off of what is now the Turkish coast. Tradition says that he was banished there by the Roman governor. If so, he may have been the only prisoner on the island because, though we have records of banishments to other islands in the area, there are no records of banishments to Patmos. It also is possible that he went to Patmos for refuge rather than because he was officially banished.

Study Questions (I have used study notes produced by Arthur Bassett as the foundation for my questions.)

Chapter 1:1-8 (Use the JST in the Appendix of your LDS Bible)

Verses 1-2: Why was the revelation given? Why is it important for us to know that? The word “of” in the phrase “of Jesus Christ” can be read in several ways: “about,” “from,” and “belonging to.” Which do you think most likely? Can it mean all three?

One tradition is that the substance of this revelation was first given to Christ in the wilderness and then subsequently repeated, with changes, to John. True or not, why do you think readers of this book would think that?

What do “things which must shortly come to pass” (verse 1) and “the time of the coming of the Lord draweth nigh” (verse 3) tell us about when the early Christians expected the Second Coming?

Verse 3: Why is the book, Revelation, as important in our day as it was in John’s? Why is it fitting that it ended up as the last book in the Bible, although it probably was written before the Gospel of John?

Verses 4-5: What addition does Joseph Smith make to in verse 4? What does he change in identifying the faithful witness? Why is that important?

Verse 6: In what sense can we become kings and priests—and queens and priestesses—to God through his atonement? Why is it important for us to realize this? What does it mean to be a king or queen and priest or priestess to God?

Verses 7-8: What does the prophet add about the Savior’s entourage at his Second Coming? In what way is Jesus the beginning and the end in the history of this world? (Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the language in which the New Testament was originally written.)

Chapter 1:9-20

Verses 9-10: What does John tell us about the occasion for Revelation? Why is it instructive that the revelation came on Sunday? Does this have any meaning for our own Sabbath worship?

Verses 11: All of these churches (except Thyatira) are located on one of the Bible maps in the LDS edition. Ephesus is the only city we have discussed earlier in the New Testament (although Laodicea is mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Colossians). Might their location signify anything in particular? In other words, why these churches rather than others?

Verses 2-16: It is interesting to compare John’s description of the Savior with Joseph Smith’s description in D&C 110:1-4. How are they alike? How different? What do the seven golden candlesticks and the seven stars signify? (See verse 20, and footnote 20b.) Why might the Lord appear in this manner? What is added to the account by the use of symbolism? Where is Christ in relationship to the seven candlesticks? What does this tell us? How is he still in the midst of his church today?

Verse 17: Considering what we understand of John’s previous acquaintance with the Lord, what is interesting about John’s reaction to his appearance? How do you explain his reaction?

Chapters 2-3

As you read through these condemnations and promises held out for the future of these churches, ask, first, how early Saints might have understood what they meant. Then aks yourself how each relates to us today.

2:1-7 (to Ephesus): What does the Lord praise in Ephesus (verses 2, 3, and 6)? The Nicolaitans may have been a group of Gnostics. They seem to have approved of eating meat offered to idols—in direct contradiction to the decree of the Jerusalem Council—and perhaps even to have believed that immorality was not sinful because what one does with one’s body doesn’t matter. What might they appeal to in Christian belief or practice to try to justify these beliefs and practices?

For what does Christ chastize the Ephesians? (“First love” may refer to their feelings for each other, or for the Savior.)

What is interesting about the reference to the tree of life? Is this the same tree of life mentioned in Genesis 2-3? Does this add more light to the Lord’s instructions in Genesis 3:22-24? What insight does the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 11:21-22) add to our understanding of the term?

2:8-11 (to Smyrna): What does the Lord foretell for the saints in this city? Tradition has it that the Jews of Smyrna were aggressive in their persecution of the Christians. Why would the Lord say they were not Jews? (How does Paul define a Jew [Romans 2:28-29]?)

The crown is one made from laurel leaves for the winners of athletic contests. How is this an appropriate symbol?

In what way were these saints poverty-stricken? In what way were they rich?

What promise is given to them for their own futures?

What is meant by the second death (Alma 12:16, 32; Helaman 14:18)? Who participates in the second death?

2:12-17 (to Pergamos): Pergamos or Pergamum was the ancient capital of Asia, built on a cone-shaped hill rising 1,000 feet above the surrounding valley. Its name in Greek means “citadel.” The Lord speaks of Satan ruling from there probably because it was the center of emperor worship in Asia. One of the most outstanding constructions of the ancient world, the altar of Zeus, was there, and may be what verse 13 calls “Satan’s seat” (verse 13) because of its shape.

What heresy had arisen in this city?

What was the original purpose of manna in the Old Testament? What is probably meant then by hidden (sacred) manna?

In context, what is meant by the white stone and the new name (D&C 130:4-11)?

2:18: (to Thyatira): Founded initially as a military outpost, Thyatira was noted for its many trade guilds. It is reputed to have been the original home of Lydia, the woman who traded in purple cloth, who joined the church in Philippi, and housed Paul and his companions in her home.

What problem had crept into the church in Thyatira? (“Jezebel” is probably a nick-name referring to a prominent woman in the congregation, who was leading them astray, as Queen Jezebel did Israel during the days of Elijah. Note the JST in ftn. 22a.)

What is the promise given to those who overcome (JST Rev. 2:26-27).

The reference to the “morning star” is a reference to Christ (2 Peter 1:19; Revelation 22:16.) Why would he be called the “morning star”—a term used today for the planet Venus that appears in the east, early in the morning?

3:1-6 (to Sardis): Sardis was a city of great wealth and fame, the capital of ancient Lydia. Twice before in its history it had been conquered because of its lack of watchfulness. How does John use their past history to warn them of their future?

What does it mean to think one lives, and yet is dead? Are we guilty of this?

What promise is given to those in Sardis? Why should we care what promise they receive?

3:7-13 (to Philadelphia): What does Jesus mean by the “key of David?” What does he open that no man can shut, or shut that no man can open? (This appears to be a reference to Isaiah 22:21-15.) What is signified by the name written upon the Christians? How do we take upon ourselves the name of Christ? This is the first reference in Revelation to the “new Jerusalem.” In this context what is meant by this term? What does it mean to be a pillar in the temple?

3:14-22 (to the Laodiceans): Laodicea was one of the wealthiest cities in the Roman empire, known for its banking establishments, medical school, and textile industry. All of these are reflected in Christ’s rebuke (verses 17-18).

Why would Christ be called the great Amen?

The lukewarm water may refer to a water system that originated in hot springs in Hierapolis, a distance from the city, which, by the time it arrived in Laodicea was tepid, and of little use for medicinal purposes. Why is it so difficult to work with one who is lukewarm (apathetic)? How do we often manifest apathy our religious life? How is rebuking and chastening a sign of love?

JST Revelation 12

The Prophet Joseph revamped the entire twelfth chapter of Revelation, even changing the sequence of verses. Use his translation in the appendix. Much of the symbolism in this chapter is unclear, but we can sort enough to make some intelligent conjectures.

Verses 1-5: Who is the woman depicted in verse 1? (See verse 7.)

What does the number 12 refer to in the Old Testament? In the New?

What is the child that the woman brings into existence with great travail (verse 7)? Who is the man child? What is the travail involved in bringing forth the man child?

What is the rod of iron? Is it the same as in 1 Nephi 15:23-24? If you think the answer is yes, why?

When was the man child caught up to God and his throne? How does this give us a time frame for what follows?

Who is represented by the red dragon? Why do you answer as you do?

Verses 6-11: This introduces a reference to the pre-mortal existence and the defeat of Lucifer in the war in heaven. Who is Michael?

The word “Satan” in Hebrew means “the accuser.” We usually think of Satan as our tempter. How is he our accuser? How does understanding him as our accuser change the way we see our relation to God?

How is Satan to be overcome eventually (verse 11)? Why are both aspects—the atonement and our testimony of the atonement—needed for his defeat?

Verses 12-17: Look at these verses in general terms rather than at their specifics. What does the future hold for God’s people? at John’s time? in our own?

Please respond to these notes at Feast upon the Word.