The Church in the Book of Revelation

December 15, 2017

by Gregory Beale

Another important piece of evidence for the New Testament use of ἐκκλησία against an Old Testament background is the range of uses of ἐκκλησία in Revelation, which are also directly linked to Old Testament allusions and not to Greco-Roman civil assembly uses. Out of eighteen uses of ἐκκλησία in the book, at least eleven are directly linked in the same verse to clear Old Testament allusions. These Old Testament allusions are not greatly debated, so here we can merely give the references and a summary of their content:

1. In Revelation 1:20, the “lampstands” of Zechariah 4:2, 11 (on which see Rev. 1:12) are equated with “the seven churches [ἐκκλησίαι].” Even if this verse were not a specific allusion to Zechariah 4:2, 11, it is still an obvious reference to the temple lampstand in the Old Testament (e.g., see Exodus 25 and 37). Thus, the churches are equated with a feature of Israel’s temple.

2. In Revelation 2:1, “to the angel of the church [ἐκκλησία] in Ephesus” directly associates the “church” with the “lampstands,” which Revelation 1:20 has equated with “the seven churches.” Christ is the Lord, who “walks” as the sovereign Priest among these lampstands. The reference to “golden lampstands” more precisely identifies these with the lampstand of the Old Testament temple, as in Revelation 1:12, based again on Zechariah 4:2, 11 (and, more generally, Exodus 25 and 37).

3. In Revelation 2:7, the one among “the churches” (dative ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις) “who overcomes” will “eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God,” the latter expression based on Genesis 2:8–9 and 3:2–3, 22, 24 (LXX).

4. In Revelation 2:12, “the church [ἐκκλησία] in Pergamum” is directly related to Christ, who is portrayed as having “the sharp twoedged sword.” This refers back to Revelation 1:16, which says that “out of his mouth came a sharp twoedged sword.” It is a clear allusion to Isaiah 49:2, where God makes the servant’s “mouth like a sharp sword.” Thus, Christ stands over the church as their kingly Lord, who threatens them with judgment (cf. Rev. 2:16), just as was the case with God’s former relationship to the assembly of Israel.

To say the least, the church is seen to be inextricably linked with Israel of the Old Testament.

5. In Revelation 2:17, the one “who overcomes” among “the churches [ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις]” will be given “the hidden manna,” a partial allusion to the manna given to Israel in the wilderness, which is given eschatological significance. Furthermore, any “who overcomes” will also receive “a new name,” an allusion to Isaiah’s prophecy that end-time Israel would be given a “new name,” indicating a new married status of Israel with her God (Isa. 62:2; 65:15). Thus, “the church” is identified directly with Old Testament allusions about Israel’s messianic servant and Israel’s end-time rewards, respectively, at the beginning and end of the letter to Pergamum.

6. In Revelation 2:18, the “church [ἐκκλησία] in Thyatira” is directly associated with the “Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and his feet are like burnished bronze.” “Son of God” likely comes from the messianic reference to God’s Son in Psalm 2, which anticipates the full quotation from Psalm 2:8–9 at the end of the letter to this church (Rev. 2:26–27). The reference to the Son’s fiery eyes and feet like bronze comes from Daniel 10:6, which describes an angel. Christ again is portrayed with Old Testament ascriptions of the Messiah and the Danielic angel of God in addressing the church.

7. In Revelation 2:26–27, Christ promises the one “who overcomes” a share in the messianic kingdom prophesied in Psalm 2:8–9, the authority of which he himself has already received: “to him I will give authority over the nations; and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces.” The reference to the “morning star” at the end of Revelation 2:28 is also another Old Testament allusion, this time to Numbers 24:17 (where the future end-time ruler of Israel is called a rising “star”). That believers would be identified with this star enhances further their identification with the messianic kingdom in Revelation 2:26–27. Then, directly after these Old Testament allusions identifying believers with the messianic kingdom, there follows the exhortation, the one “who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches [ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις]” (Rev. 2:29). This directly identifies those who “overcome” among the churches with the messianic kingdom.

8. In Revelation 3:7, “the church [ἐκκλησία] in Philadelphia” is addressed by Christ, “who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens.” This is a quotation from Isaiah 22:22, which is a description of Eliakim, who was in charge of the Israelite king’s court. Now Christ is a greater Eliakim in his address to the church.

9. Revelation 3:12 is more saturated with the Old Testament than many other passages in Revelation. There are at least three allusions here: (a) “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God, and he will not go out from it anymore” is a clear allusion generally to the Old Testament temple; (b) “and I will write on him . . . the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem” is a clear reference to the Old Testament city of Jerusalem; and (c) “My new name,” as we saw in Revelation 2:17, is a specific allusion to Isaiah 62:2; 65:15, Isaiah’s prophecy that end-time Israel would be given a “new name” as an indication of a new eschatological relationship with her God. The first two allusions refer to Old Testament realities that are eschatologically escalated to apply to Christians, so that they are identified with these heightened realities. The “new name” from Isaiah is a prophecy first fulfilled by Christ (note “My new name”) and then identified with Christians, who thus also are part of its fulfillment. Then immediately in Revelation 3:13 those in “the churches [ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις]” are exhorted to “hear” and identify with the realities described in verse 12, as well as to pay heed to the earlier parts of the letter.

10. Revelation 3:14 says, “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this.” There is general consensus that “the Amen” is an allusion to Isaiah 65:16, where Yahweh is twice called “the God of Amen.” Now Christ is identified with Yahweh of the Isaiah text. Once again Christ addresses the “church” (ἐκκλησία) as her sovereign Lord, just as Yahweh addressed Israel as her sovereign Lord in Isaiah 65:16.

11. In Revelation 22:16 we read: “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” Jesus “testifies” through his angel to the “churches” (ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις). To state his credentials in doing so, he identifies himself as a “descendant of David” and “the bright morning star,” a repeated allusion to the messianic prophecy of Numbers 24:17, which has already been made at Revelation 2:18 (discussed above). Thus in speaking to the “churches,” he identifies himself with the fulfillment of the hopes of David and of the prophecy in Numbers.

So What? 

In all of the above Revelation texts, two observations can be made: (a) the “church” (or “churches”) is directly addressed by Christ, who is identified with Old Testament realities and prophecies, and this indicates that the church now stands as the eschatological Israel who is addressed by her Messiah, who is sometimes identified with Yahweh; (b) the “church” (or “churches”) is identified with Old Testament realities or is seen as part of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, further identifying them with the end-time hopes of Israel. To say the least, the “church” is seen to be inextricably linked with Israel of the Old Testament.

This piece is adapted from G. K. Beale, “The New Testament Background of ἐκκλησία Revisited Yet Again,” in Redeeming the Life of the Mind: Essays in Honor of Vern Poythress, ed. John Frame, Wayne Grudem, and John J. Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 55–59. Used with permission of the publisher.

Gregory Beale

Dr. Beale (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of New Testament and biblical theology at WTS.

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