“Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.”[i]
The book of Revelation recounts the great culmination of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. In its pages we see the promise of the Atonement completely fulfilled. Both sin and death are finally conquered and “cast into the lake of fire.” Heaven and earth are made new. And in the most intimate moment of “at-one-ment,” Jesus Christ takes each one of His saints into His arms and “wipes away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.”[ii]
Can a greater blessing than this be conceived of? Who would exchange this moment of Atonement –when we are finally “encircled in the arms of his love”[iii]—for anything else?
The Revelation of the apostle John is a grand “apocalypse”—a Greek term for “opening of the veil”—in which the entire plan of salvation is laid out from beginning to end , culminating in the exaltation of the saints in the celestial kingdom of God. Many prophets have been privileged to receive the “apocalyptic vision,” such as the dispensational prophets Enoch, Abraham, Moses, and Joseph Smith, along with Isaiah, Ezekiel, Nephi, and others such as John.[iv]
In these apocalyptic visions, the veil is opened and the prophets are allowed to view the pre-mortal council and war in heaven, the creation, the telestial drama that constitutes our mortal probation, and the final judgment—in short, the entire plan of the Lord is laid out in detail. John was privileged to see it all. As Joseph Smith observed: “John had the curtains of heaven withdrawn, and by vision looked through the dark vista of future ages, and contemplated events that should transpire throughout every subsequent period of time, until the final winding up scene.”[v]
The singular mission of recording for us this great unfolding of the plan of salvation came to John, the beloved disciple, to give hope to the saints of former days and to help us prepare for the day when we will come into the embrace of our Savior. As Nephi envisioned:
“I looked and beheld a man, and he was dressed in a white robe. And the angel said unto me: Behold one of the twelve apostles of the Lamb . . . he shall write concerning the end of the world . . . . [and] the things that were written were plain and pure, and most precious and easy to the understanding of all men. . . . the name of the apostle of the Lamb was John, according to the word of the angel.”[vi]
Of course, to 21st-century readers, the book of Revelation is anything but “plain” and “easy to understand” because many of the archaic literary devices and images John used, which his contemporaries apparently understood, are strange and unfamiliar to us. For example, a Jew of John’s time would have recognized the significance of the many references to temple rites. Still, John’s Revelation remains “most precious” to us because it is a handbook to our future filled with enlightenment about our times and directions on how to prepare for the day of Atonement.
Because John’s literary approach is not easily decoded, we have to rely on other scriptures, the explanations of prophets, the insights of scholars, and the Spirit of the Lord to understand it. It is well worth the effort; in a sense, it provides the great explanation of everything in the Bible that precedes it.
The opening of the veil of the temple
John’s vision of heaven begins with the opening of the veil: “I looked, and behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard . . . said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.” John then enters heaven, which corresponds to the Holy of Holies in the temple containing the throne of God. In a circle about the throne/altar he sees “four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.”[vii] These elders represent the royal priesthood who are “faithful in the work of the ministry” and who reign in the celestial kingdom of God.[viii] (They stand for the 24 courses, or quorums, of priests in the temple of Jerusalem.) Here John sees the seven-branched lamp, or menorah, that burned in the temple before the veil. In ancient times, this lamp represented the light of heaven; also, it was like a tree in shape, thus standing for the tree of life and its luminous fruit.[ix]
“Before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal.” Joseph Smith explained that this sea of glass is “the earth, in its sanctified, immortal, and eternal state.”[x] The throne is guarded by four beasts, which are “figurative expressions” of the “glory of the classes of beings” in heaven. Their many eyes represent intelligence, for they are full of light and knowledge; and their wings represent power. One beast stands sentinel at each of the four cardinal points of the compass;[xi] we are reminded of the cherubim that guard the way of the tree of life in Eden.[xii] Now we can see that John is standing inside the heavenly temple, and that the great drama he is about to see is a temple drama.
The seven seals are broken
A book sealed with seven seals is brought to the altar. According to Joseph Smith, the book “contains the revealed will, mysteries, and the works of God; the hidden things of his economy concerning this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance or its temporal existence.” In other words, the book contains the Lord’s plan in its exquisite detail—in a sense, the explanation for everything that we undergo in this world.
The first seal “contains the things of the first thousand years, and the second also of the second thousand years,” [xiii] and so forth. Only Jesus, the “Lion of Judah,” can unlock this sealed book—in other words, only in Christ is the meaning of this world accessible to us. He stands in the midst of the prayer circle, “a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes” that signify His perfected power and intelligence. (The number seven symbolizes perfection; the horn is authority, and the eye, as we have seen, is light and knowledge). As He opens the seals, we will at last understand the meaning of our lives, of the hardships we undergo, the adversities we face, the tests by which we are proved.
As the seals are opened, we get a glimpse of each millennium of the plan’s continuance. Each millennium has its theme: (1) the white horse, conquest; (2) the red horse, war; (3) the black horse, famine; (4) the pale horse, disease; (5) the martyrdom of the saints, possibly signifying the forces of apostasy that overtook the church of Christ in both the eastern and western hemispheres; and (6) the turbulent time we live in, characterized by universal tumult (earth, sun, moon, and stars all in turmoil).[xiv] These themes are the difficulties we all encounter in our telestial sphere—oppression, conflict, hunger, sickness, persecution, and commotion.
These are the conditions of the test we are taking.
But the Revelation assures us that every aspect of this ordeal is completely in the Lord’s control. He and His angels are ever watchful. Like Abraham and other prophets before him, John used astronomical symbols to signify spiritual realities. Anciently, the “horsemen” represented important stars that marked the four cardinal directions on the compass. Additionally, these stars represented the four archangels that stand guard on the four sides of the heavenly throne, overseeing the doings of mankind and acting as God’s agents
As Latter-day Saints, we know that Michael is Adam, the prophet of the first dispensation[xv]; Raphael may well be Enoch, prophet of the second dispensation[xvi]; Gabriel is Noah, prophet of the third dispensation.[xvii] Jewish tradition identifies the angel Uriel with Jacob, or Israel, patriarch of the Mosaic dispensation.[xviii]
Thus, the equation of the four horsemen with the angel-patriarchs supports the revelation of Joseph Smith in D&C 77:6-7. As God’s agents, these angels administer His plan—and part of their role is to administer justice to a corrupt world. In the last days they will do so, just as they have done before.
In ancient Asia, when a new king took the throne, he would send ceremonial horse guards in the four directions of the compass to announce his accession to the throne, to break the seals of the old ruler, and to issue new seals in the name of the new ruler. Each point of the compass had its own horse guards distinguished by color: white, red, black, and gray.[xix]
In John’s vision, these angel-horsemen go forth to declare the end of the rule of the “kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the mighty men”—“for the great day of his wrath is come.”[xx] But these powers are only the agents of Satan, their king. Up to this point the earth has been under the sway of the great usurper. “All authority was given him over every tribe, tongue, and nation. All who dwell on the earth shall worship him.”[xxi] This counterfeit god has many worshipers and his own false “temple,” which stands in insolent opposition to the heavenly temple of the true God.
Satan’s counterfeit temple falls
According to Nephi, “a great and a terrible gulf” divides the true temple from the counterfeit temple of Satan. In both John and 1 Nephi, the counterfeit temple is figured as a “large and spacious building,” a competing “great city which reigns over the kings of the earth.”[xxii] Nephi describes it as “filled with people . . . and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers toward those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.”[xxiii]
For John the vision is identical. The “great city” is “Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth.” An alternative symbol for the great and spacious building is the woman “sitting on a scarlet beast . . . arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication.”[xxiv] In other words, Babylon has its sacraments too—counterfeits of the Lord’s cup of salvation. The woman is a symbol; she “is that great city” Babylon, which according to Nephi stands for the “pride of the world” . . . the “vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men.”[xxv] She contrasts starkly with the humble, redeemed “bride of Christ”—“the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”[xxvi]
At length both John and Nephi see the fall of Babylon. John declares: “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and has become a dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit.”[xxvii] The saints rejoice at the fall of Babylon; interestingly, the only people who mourn the fall of Babylon are “the kings of the earth who committed fornication with her” and “the merchants of the earth [who] have become rich through the abundance of her luxury.” Who will be sad to see Babylon go? The political powers (kings) and the money powers (merchants)—“ the merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her, for no one buys their merchandise anymore.”[xxviii]
“And it fell, and the fall thereof was exceedingly great,” Nephi reports of the large and spacious building. “And the angel of the Lord spake unto me again, saying, Thus shall be the destruction of all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, that shall fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”[xxix]
The ruler of the fallen city, “that old serpent, which is the devil, and Satan” is now bound for a thousand years by an angel “having the key of the bottomless pit, and a great chain in his hand.”[xxx] Those who have not received the mark of the adversary are resurrected, “but the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished.” In the original Greek, they stay in their graves until “ta khilia eti telesthe”—the thousand years end. The Greek verb “telesthe” might well be the basis of the English word “telestial,” the kingdom to which these souls will be assigned.[xxxi]
During this millennium, the resurrected souls will reign with Christ upon thrones. These “have part in the first resurrection; on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.”[xxxii] They are “before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple.”[xxxiii] What priesthood service do these “priests of God and of Christ” perform during this lengthy period? Clearly, they are engaged in some kind of temple work. President Joseph Fielding Smith explained:
“The great work of the Millennium shall be performed in temples . . . . Those who have passed through the resurrection, and who know all about the people and conditions on the other side, will place in the hands of those who are in mortality, the necessary information by and through which the great work of salvation for every worthy soul shall be performed.”[xxxiv]
The true temple of God is established
After Satan is loosed and finally vanquished, the true temple of God will be established.
The latter days will see the restoration of the city of Zion to the earth—a city which is a temple because the Savior dwells there. John records: “I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. . . . Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people.”[xxxv]
The new city is a perfect temple, with every symbolic feature restored.
Like the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple, the city is a perfect cube representing exactness and flawlessness: “Its length, breadth, and height are equal.”[xxxvi] The entire city is a Holy of Holies because the Lord dwells there. In the city the “tree of life”—symbolized in Solomon’s temple by the branched candlestick—“bare twelve manner of fruits. . . . and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”[xxxvii] And near the tree flows “a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal.”
From Nephi we learn the meaning of the light-filled, fruitful tree: it is “the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men.” The river, or “fountain of living waters,” next to the tree is also a representation of the love of God.[xxxviii]
Why two symbols—a tree and water—to stand for the same thing? In ancient Middle Eastern temple decoration, the Tree of Life symbolized the king as the savior of his people, and a “divine stream” usually emanated from the tree to give life to the nation.[xxxix] Therefore, for us, the tree and the water represent the flesh and blood of the Savior, who in His love for us gave Himself for us.
In these symbols, we should realize that we don’t need to wait until the Lord comes to have our tears wiped away. Whenever we take the sacrament, we have the opportunity of accepting His invitation to have our tears—of guilt, pain, depression, loneliness, discouragement—wiped away: “I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.”[xl]
“He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. . . . And they shall reign forever and ever.[xli] There is no greater promise than to be owned as a child of God, to be His heir, and to reign with Him forever. This is the very definition of exaltation, the promise with which the Bible closes.
As we end this course of study of the New Testament, I bear you my testimony that I know Jesus Christ is my Savior. He saves me every moment of every day, and I am grateful to Him. Everything starts with Him and ends with Him. He is, as John says, “the Alpha and the Omega.”
I pray that one day for us the veil will part; and you and I will—as John did, as Joseph Smith did, as so many of the prophets did—see His face.
[i] Rev. 21:3.
[ii] Rev. 21:4.
[iii] 2 Nephi 1:15.
[iv] See for example Moses 1:27-35; 7:21-67; Abr.3-4; D&C 76; Isa. 6; Ezek. 40-48; 1 Ne. 11-14.
[v] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 247.
[vi] 1 Ne. 14:19-20, 22-23, 27.
[vii] Rev. 4:1-4.
[viii] D&C 77:5.
[ix] Rev. 4:5; Exod. 25:31-40.
[x] D&C 77:1.
[xi] See Abr. 3, Facsimile 2, Figure 6.
[xii] Gen. 3:24.
[xiii] D&C 77:6-7.
[xiv] Rev. 6:1-13.
[xv] D&C 27:11; 29:26; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 158.
[xvi] Bruce R. McConkie, “The Final Glorious Gospel Dispensation,” Ensign, Apr. 1980, pp. 21-25
[xvii] History of the Church 3:386.
[xviii]“Prayer of Joseph, Fragment 1,” cited in James L. Kugel, Traditions of the Bible, Harvard University Press, 1998, p. 398.
[xix] Helmut Nickel, “And Behold, A White Horse: Observations on the Colors of the Horses of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 12 (1977): 179-183.
[xx] Rev. 6:15, 17.
[xxi] Rev. 13:7-8.
[xxii] See 1 Ne. 11:36, 12:18; Rev. 17:18.
[xxiii] 1 Ne. 8:27.
[xxiv] Rev. 17:3-5.
[xxv] 1 Ne. 11:38; 12:18.
[xxvi] Rev. 21:2.
[xxvii] Rev. 18:2.
[xxviii] Rev. 18:3, 9, 11.
[xxix] 1 Ne. 11:36.
[xxx] Rev. 20:1.
[xxxi] Rev. 20:5.
[xxxii] Rev. 20:6.
[xxxiii] Rev. 7:15.
[xxxiv] Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 2:251.
[xxxv] Rev. 21:2-3.
[xxxvi] Rev. 21:16.
[xxxvii] Rev. 22:2.
[xxxviii] 1 Ne. 11:22, 25.
[xxxix] Simo Parpola, “The Assyrian Tree of Life,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 52:3 (July 1993), 161-208.
[xl] Rev. 21:4, 6.
[xli] Rev. 21:7; 22:5.