Most imagery in Revelation has a range of possible connotations. We should not insist on wringing a meaning from every detail in John's vision; sometimes he seems to intend for us to get an overall effect rather than a very specific breakdown of meaning. With that in mind, here is a thumbnail sketch of some possible meanings for the most prominent symbols:

LAMB. The early church understood the phrase "like a lamb that is led to the slaughter" (Isa. 53:7) as a reference to Jesus (Acts 8:32). The death of Jesus on the cross was the definitive Passover offering that made temple sacrifices no longer necessary (Heb. 9). Lamb imagery in Revelation should not be interpreted as passive or wimpy: other apocalyptic writings sometimes depicted a Warrior-Lamb who would conquer and destroy wild beasts that attacked the flock of God's people (see Testament of Joseph 19:8). The Lamb in Revelation has seven horns (symbols of power) along with the vulnerability of having been wounded.

HORN. The Lamb in Revelation has seven horns and the Beast has ten. In apocalyptic writings, a horn typically represents either political power in general or a specific ruler. Judas Maccabeus, leader of the 167 B.C. revolt against foreign Greek oppressors, was referred to as "one great horn" among six others on the head of a lamb (1 Enoch 90:9). Daniel 7:8–11 uses the image of an arrogant "horn" to describe the blasphemous Greek ruler (Antiochus IV) against whom Judas Maccabeus rebelled.

BEAST. Daniel 7:1–8 describes four beasts: a lion (Babylon?), a bear (Me dia?), a leopard (Persia?), and a ten-headed creature (Alexander the Great?). Daniel (7:23) is clear that the four beasts are kingdoms. John of Patmos (Rev. 13:1–10) combines characteristics of the four beasts of Daniel to make one mongrel monster for his portrayal of Rome. About the same time Revelation was written, another Christian visionary used beast imagery: "There came up from the sea an eagle that had twelve feathered wings and three heads" (2 Esdras 11:1). The beastly bird in 2 Esdras also probably is Rome; an eagle appeared on the standards of Roman legions.

DRAGON. "That ancient serpent" (Rev. 12:9) probably refers back to the beguiling role of the serpent in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3). Among many peoples of the ancient world there were myths of cosmic struggle between a monster (usually a dragon representing chaos) and a divine opponent (representing order). In Jewish tradition, the monster was called Leviathan (Ps. 74:14; Is. 27:1). It represented the spiritual or physical world in rebellion against God or not yet subject to God. John names the dragon of Revelation as "the Devil and Satan" (Rev. 12:9). He sees the dragon as the power behind the throne of Babylon (that is, Rome; 13:2).

BABYLON. A psalmist wrote of Babylon, "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!" (Ps. 137:9). Because it destroyed the temple of Solomon in 587 B.C., imperial Babylon became a standard target of loathing among devout Jews. Rome (in A.D. 70) became the second foreign power to destroy the Jerusalem temple, prompting some devout Jews and Christians to call Rome "Babylon" (1 Pet. 5:13). A Jewish apocalypse contemporary to Revelation refers to Em per or Nero, who will "flee from Babylon [Rome]" (Sibylline Oracles 5:143).

EXODUS. Exodus was a favorite theme among Jewish apocalyptic leaders and writers. The apocalyptic War Scroll from Qumran (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) compares the time of that community in the desert to the time Moses spent with the children of Israel preparing to enter the Promised Land. At various points in Revelation there are also allusions to the story of the Exodus. Some plagues of Revelation seem to match those of Exodus (hail, fire, sea turned to blood, locusts). The children of Israel defied Pharaoh and were delivered by God through the Red Sea. Now followers of Jesus defy the Beast and will also be taken through a sea (death? Rev. 15:2) to a place of safety in the presence of God. Those who have "conquered the beast" sing the "song of Moses" (15:3)—a reference to the triumphant song the Israelites sang after God destroyed the army of Pharaoh (Ex. 15:1–18).

666. Letters of both the Hebrew and the Greek alphabets were commonly used as numbers in the ancient world. The first nine letters of the alphabet each represented single digits. Remaining letters stood for tens and hundreds. By this system, the name Jesus in Greek is 888 (Sibylline Oracles 1:327). The name Nero in Greek adds up to 1005—no help for interpreting Revelation! But John thought in both Greek and Hebrew (see Rev. 9:11; 16:16); so with the title of Nero's office—Nero[n] Caesar—the emperor's name in Hebrew adds up to 666 (Rev. 13:18). Even though John wrote Revelation in Greek, there may have been enough people among the seven churches who knew Hebrew for John to expect they would decipher the riddle.

ARMAGEDDON. This is Hebrew for "Mount Megiddo." In Revelation 16:16 it is possibly a reference to the plain of Megiddo, site of numerous decisive battles in the history of the Middle East—including a pivotal battle in which Pharaoh Neco killed the good king Josiah (2 Chron. 35:22). No other ancient writings refer to Armageddon. It seems to be a symbolic place representing terrible warfare for which nations of the earth will prepare. But in John's vision, the cataclysmic final battle never happens: as nations array themselves for battle, an angel announces that the end has come (Rev. 16:17).

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NEW JERUSALEM. Ezekiel's vision for Jewish exiles in Babylon ended with a magnificent restoration of the temple destroyed by Babylon in 587 B.C. (Ezek. 40–48). There are numerous parallels between Ezekiel and Revelation, so it's not surprising that John's vision also ends with a gloriously restored Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1–22:5). Both visions depict the restored faith community as a place of healing, but Ezekiel's Jerusalem would not admit foreigners (Ezek. 44:6–7). The New Jerusalem of Revelation, centered on Jesus Christ rather than on the geographic Jerusalem, incorporates even the Gentile "kings of the earth" (Rev. 21:24).

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