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The Second Rule of Revelation: Pay Attention to Old Testament Usage


Sabbath school commentary for discussion alongside the Adult Bible Study Guide for April 15, 2023.

Editor’s note: To accompany the Sabbath school lesson’s focus this quarter on the three angels’ messages, Spectrum is publishing “Adventist Identity and the Three Angels’ Messages,” a serialized in-depth focus on Revelation by Sigve Tonstad.

Last week’s installment introduced the first of three rules derived from how the book of Revelation is put together: become a re-reader. The second:

2. Pay attention to Revelation’s use of the Old Testament

I mentioned this already, with Richard Bauckham as the lead witness. Let me add an example that illuminates the first “rule,” as well. The passage that describes the crisis in the heavenly council (5:1-6) contains an allusion to a passage in Isaiah (Isa. 11:1-10). “And one of the elders said to me,” John says, and then he repeats what the elder said, 

“Do not weep!


The lion of the tribe of Judah,

   the root of David,

has won the war,

   so that he can open the scroll

   and its seven seals!” (5:5)

For “the root of David,” the Old Testament text is Isaiah 11:1-10, called a “pearl of Hebrew poetry.” Twice in Isaiah’s poem, we have “the stump of Jesse” or “the root of Jesse.” This is the original source of Revelation’s “root of David,” and the context that Revelation’s allusion nudges us to explore. I will reproduce the first and last verse of the passage here, in Hans Wildberger’s exquisite translation.[1]

A shoot shall come out

   from the stump of Jesse,

and a sprig will “sprout forth”

   from his roots (Isa. 11:1).

And it will happen on that day:

Toward the root of Jesse,

   which stands there

   like a signal for the nations,

the nations will all turn


and its resting place shall be glory. (Isa. 11:10)

This text also echoes toward the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans, making it one of the most influential Old Testament passages from the point of view of the New Testament. Few things have given me as much joy as my work on this passage when I wrote my commentary on Romans and then had to return to it for my Revelation commentary.[2] The figure in Isaiah is a Revealer and one who makes right what has gone wrong. When his work is done, “the leopard will lie down with the kid” (Isa. 11:6), and “no one shall do anything evil or anything destructive upon my entire holy mountain” (Isa. 11:9). Why the dramatic change? What made the difference? Revelation—the disclosure of things not known and the corrective to entrenched misconceptions—that is the difference. Wildberger’s translation captures the impact well, an impact also felt in Revelation: “The root of Jesse” will stand as a beacon, “like a signal for the nations,” and “the nations will turn—inquisitively”: they are drawn to the revelation like a magnet while also moved by a sense of need. 

The crisis in the heavenly council (5:1-5) and the war in heaven (12:7-12) are linked in Revelation, a connection now evident to the re-readers. The Revealer in Isaiah solves the crisis in the heaven, and Isaiah also supplies the key passage for the war in heaven with another poem said to be the pinnacle of biblical poetry.[3]

How you are fallen [exepesen] from heaven,

   O Most Brilliant Star, son of the Morning!

How you are cut down [synetribē] to the ground,

   you who weakened the nations!

You said in your heart,

“I will ascend to heaven;

   I will raise my throne above the stars of God;

I will sit on the mount of the heavenly council

   on the heights of the Far North;

I will rise up to the tops of the clouds,

   I will make myself like the Most High.”

But you are brought down to Hades,

   to the utmost depths of the Death Hole. (Isa. 14:12–15, my translation)

On this logic, we need Revelation 12 to understand chapter 5, and we need chapter 5 to understand how God wins the war. Likewise, we need Isaiah 11 to understand Revelation 5, and we need Isaiah 14 to understand Revelation 12 (see figure). Welcome to the table! If we wish to sort out these matters, it will not work to leave the office early. It is better to call home, saying, “I am exploring Revelation. Expect me to be late.”

3. God is not the only one who is at work in the world.

God “is not the only one who is at work in this world—as the Apocalypse makes so abundantly clear,” wrote the German scholar Anton Vögtle.[4] This is the third commitment in the “how to” column. It should not be necessary to say it, but the track record of interpretations proves otherwise. Time and again, such as in the trumpet sequence, interpreters ascribe Revelation’s calamities to God even though the agent behind the actions is clearly demonic.[5] The result is disastrous for Revelation’s theology. What can be worse than to ascribe to God what God’s enemy is doing?

Vögtle’s claim that “God is not the only one” must be complemented by an observation almost like it: we are not the only ones. The former refers to what is happening in the book and who is doing it. The latter refers to the audience: to whom are these revelations given? Who is the primary audience? Or, like this: Does Revelation have another audience than us—to prove that we are not the only ones? The answer must be “yes”: we are not the only ones. The illustrator of the Cambrai Anglo-French apocalypse from about 1260 perceived clearly what eludes later readers. He or she shows John looking at the proceedings in the heavenly council through heaven’s open door (4:1-2). Two audiences are in view, with the heavenly council as the primary audience. John—and we—are the secondary audience whether the story told is the seven seals (4:1-8:1), the seven trumpets (8:2-11:19), or the seven bowls (15:1-22:5).

Given the importance of “the three angels’ messages” to Adventist identity and sense of mission, it is surprising that it got so little attention at the Conference on Adventist Identity in 2022. Moreover, the attention it received was mostly by way of history, not fresh exploration of the book where the three angels are found.[6] I wish to center my meditation on the text, with this introduction as a starting point. One more passage from Richard Bauckham could be our incentive that a fresh reading of Revelation will be worth it. “The Apocalypse of John is a work of immense learning, astonishingly meticulous literary artistry, remarkable creative imagination, radical political critique, and profound theology.”[7]


Notes & References:

[1] Hans Wildberger, Isaiah 1–12, trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 460-61, 465.

[2] Tonstad, Romans, 370-379.

[3] Sigve K. Tonstad, Saving God’s Reputation: The Theological Function of Pistis Iesou in the Cosmic Narratives of Revelation (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), 65-77, 89-102.

[4] Anton Vögtle, “Der Gott der Apocalypse,” in La Notion biblique de Dieu, ed. J. Coppens (Gembloux: Duculot, 1976), 377-398; see also Tonstad, Revelation, 38-41. 

[5] For examples, see Tonstad, Revelation, 145-156.

[6] Clinton Wahlen, “Development of Adventist Apocalyptic Eschatology and Seventh-day Adventist Identity, 1844-1863,” Paper presented at the Conference on Adventist Identity, Andrews University, October 2022. 

[7] Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy, ix.

Previously in this series:

The First Rule of Revelation: Be a Re-Reader (April 5, 2023).

Adventist Identity and the Three Angels’ Messages: Part 1 (March 29, 2023).


Sigve Tonstad is an assistant professor in the School of Medicine and research professor in the School of Religion at Loma Lind University. Born and raised in Norway, he completed a BA in theology at Middle East College in Lebanon and Andrews University (1974), his MD from Loma Linda University (1979), an MA in biblical studies at LLU (1990), and a PhD in New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews (2005).

Title image: Cambrai Anglo-French apocalypse, c. 1260.

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