Biblical Studies (NT)/I. Introduction to Revelation


Lesson 14


I. Introduction

NOTE: Revelation is an enigmatic work which presents a challenge for interpreters. While most of the ideas presented in these lessons can easily be found in numerous published works, they are not presented here as definitive, but as a starting point for further analysis and discussion.

The Angel Appears to John. The book of Revelation. 13th century manuscript. British Library, London.

A Dramatic Conclusion to the Bible StoryEdit

It may seem strange that this course devotes five lessons to Revelation, but given Revelation's structure, the five-lesson arrangement works well. Revelation requires a fairly comprehensive analysis to assist the beginning student in making sense of it. Even then, much of what can be said is tentative, given the extensive use of symbolism and the cryptic nature of the book in general. These lessons, together with their assignments, will enable the student to discuss the book in an intelligent and knowledgeable way.

Revelation is a fitting climax to the Bible story. We see the final and decisive confrontation of the forces of good and evil. It is a battle like none before it, and it takes place on an astonishingly grand scale. We see the final triumph of light over darkness, the redemption of the people of God, and the damnation of the wicked. We see “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (21:1). Genesis opens the Bible story with Earth’s creation; Revelation ends it with Earth’s destruction.

Revelation, sometimes known as The Apocalypse, is the best example of a genre known as apocalyptic literature, which is a prophetic style of literature which concerns itself with future events, especially those pertaining to such things as the coming of the Messiah, divine judgement, the end of the age, or the end of the world. There are numerous examples of apocalyptic literature both in and outside of the Bible. In the Bible, good examples can be found in chapters 7-12 of Daniel and chapter 24 of Matthew. Revelation takes its name from the first word of the book, apokalypsis, which is Greek for revelation.

The AuthorEdit

The document opens with these words: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants - things which must shortly take place. And he sent and signified it by his angel to his servant John” (1:1). Thus, in the opening sentence, we are made aware that we are about to hear a message which was given: a) from God, b) to Jesus, c) to an angel, d) to John, e) to the servants of God. Apart from a few exceptions where Jesus speaks directly to John, John is guided through the vision by the angel. Revelation, therefore, purports to be a message from God himself, though it comes by way of an angel and John.

The traditional view is that the person named as “his servant John” (1:1) is the apostle John, who was the author, not only of Revelation, but also of the gospel and the epistles which bear his name. This position is supported by the writings of Irenaeus, who lived within a generation of John and had mutual acquaintances with him. In recent years, especially since World War II, some scholars have objected to this view on the basis that there are marked differences in style between Revelation, John's gospel, and the epistles of John. Furthermore, Revelation does not specify that the John who wrote it is the apostle of the same name. Those who defend the traditional view have countered that these works represent three different genres; were written at different times, under different circumstances, and possibly with the assistance of different amanuenses; and that there is no likely alternative in that time period by the name of John who has the necessary background. Where dissenters see differences in style, supporters of apostolic authorship claim that there are significant similarities between Revelation and the other Johannine works.

It has also been suggested that Revelation was not written by just one author, but by several, and that possibly an original Jewish apocalypse was later updated by a Christian writer. The main objection to this hypothesis is that Revelation displays a clearly-defined structure and an overall unity of form and style which make multiple authors unlikely.

Date and LocationEdit

According to the second century church leader and historian, Irenaeus, John received the Revelation towards the end of Emperor Domitian’s reign, which would place it around 95 A.D. (Some modern scholars dispute this date. For further discussion, see the Wikipedia article entitled Book of Revelation.) If we accept the words of Irenaeus, the period from the angel’s announcement of the births of John and Jesus until the writing of Revelation is approximately (perhaps even exactly) one hundred years, spanning the whole of the first century.

The location of writing was the island of Patmos, which was one of several islands in the Aegean which were used as penal colonies or places of exile by the Roman authorities. If one looks at a modern map, one finds Patmos in the southern Aegean, less than forty miles from the Turkish mainland. However, like most of the numerous islands in the Aegean, it is actually within the boundaries of Greece. It is about sixty miles southwest of the site of Ephesus and about a hundred and fifty miles east of Athens. It is of volcanic origin and is barren and rocky. It is about ten miles by six, but due to its irregular shape, it has a total area of only about twenty-five square miles, rising to about eight hundred feet at its highest point. Today, there are about three thousand inhabitants, who are centered around the main town of Scala. Near the town, there is a cave in which John is believed to have lived, and there is also a monastery named after him.

The Roman Empire and Religious PersecutionEdit

Religious persecution had traditionally not been a practice of the Roman Empire. On the contrary, Rome had been extremely tolerant of different faiths until the time of Nero, who ruled from 54 to 68 A.D. Nero himself did not persecute Christians until 64 A.D. when, according to the Roman senator and historian Tacitus (56-117 AD), they became the scapegoat for the Great Fire of Rome (Annals 15.44). According to the Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible (Westminster, 1956):

The Roman policy concerning religion was to maintain the ancestral worship of the gods of Rome and at the same time show tolerance toward the deities of other peoples in the empire. Even the Jews, who insisted on a monotheistic faith and would join in no pagan rites, found tolerance, especially from the time of Julius Caesar on, and received special privileges which protected them in the exercise of their worship.

A significant development, however, was the practice of emperor worship. The seeds were being sown as early as the time of Julius Caesar, who after his death in 44 B.C. was declared a god. In 29 B.C., the time of Augustus, a temple for the worship of the emperor was erected at Pergamos. Caligula (37-41 A.D.) sought to have his statue erected in the temple at Jerusalem. Domitian (81-96 A.D.) openly claimed to be “lord and god” and demanded that residents of the empire worship him as such. In his commentary on Revelation (Cambridge University Press, 1965), T.F. Glasson writes:

The poet Juvenal said that to talk with Domitian about the weather was to risk your life. He took much more seriously than his predecessors the issue of emperor worship. He ordered all official proclamations to begin with formulae recognizing his deity: ‘Our lord and god orders this to be done.’ To refuse to worship the emperor was treason.

The demand of Domitian to be worshiped as a god led to a second persecution of Christians. John was one of those who fell victim to the persecutors, and he was banished to the island of Patmos. In the Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (Garland, 1990), Michael McHugh writes:

Under Domitian, persecutions of Christians occurred at Rome and particularly in [the Roman province of] Asia, but there is not sufficient evidence to show that a decision was made to attack them throughout the empire as a matter of policy. The emperor's increasing suspicion and intolerance certainly played a role, and his assumption of the title "Lord and God" with the accompanying demand for divine homage was bound to bring him into conflict with the new religion (cf. Rev. 13:4; 14:9-11; 16:2). According to tradition, (Irenaeus, Haer. 5.30.3) it was in Domitian's reign that John, the writer of the Book of Revelation, was exiled to Patmos, where he received his apocalyptic visions; in the same book [i.e. Revelation], mention is made of a martyrdom in Pergamum (2:13). (273)

When the persecution broke out, John was living in Ephesus and was the overseer of the seven regional churches of "Asia" (in western Turkey today) to whom the Revelation is addressed. Tourists in Patmos today can go to see a cave where John is said to have lived during his time of exile there.

Major CharactersEdit

There are a number of players in the drama which is the Revelation, and some of these are quite dramatic in and of themselves. Of these characters, some are earthly, some are spiritual, and some are clearly symbolic and not intended to be understood as individual personalities, earthly or otherwise. The main character is Christ, represented through most of Revelation as “the Lamb.” Other noteworthy characters are the two witnesses, Satan (represented by a dragon), the archangel Michael, the antichrist and the false prophet (represented by two beasts), the woman Babylon (representing a combined political and religious system), and the angel who led John through the vision. We are told almost nothing about this angel. We only know that he considers himself a servant of God, differing from God’s earthly servants only in the place of his service. At the end of Revelation, in response to John’s inclination to worship him, he says, “See that you do not do that. For I am your fellow servant, and of your brethren the prophets, and of those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (22:9).

Ways of Interpreting RevelationEdit

In the first chapter of Revelation, John has a vision of Christ who tells him, "Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this" (1:19). This commission identifies the three major divisions of the book:

a) Chapter 1 forms the introduction of the book and includes the "things which you have seen," i.e. John's vision of Christ.
b) Chapters 2-3 contain the messages to the seven churches in the Roman province of Asia -- "the things which are."
c) Chapters 4-22 describe the “things which will take place after this," though whether the entire section, or indeed any of it, refers to future events is a matter for interpretation.

Due to Revelation’s cryptic nature, there have been many interpretations, but generally they fit into one, or a combination, of the following categories:

The Preterist Interpretation: The word preterist comes from the Latin praeteritus meaning gone by. According to this interpretation, Revelation is chiefly referring to the events of the apostolic era (essentially, the first century). Proponents see in Revelation the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD; the first-century persecutions of Christianity; and the expansion of Christianity from a Jewish sect to a major religion. Those who hold this view often equate the Roman emperor and empire with Revelation's "beast" and "Babylon," respectively.

The Historicist Interpretation: The historicist interpretation holds that Revelation presents us with the major events in the history of Israel and the Church from the time of Christ until the end of the world. Its proponents claim to see in Revelation the foretelling of such events as the fall of imperial Rome, the rise of the Papacy, and the Reformation. The beast has been equated to various historical personalities.

The Futurist Interpretation: The futurist interpretation says that, while parallels may be drawn with historical events, Revelation is chiefly referring to events which as yet have not come to pass, but which will come to pass at the end of the age when Christ returns to establish his kingdom. Futurists point out that there has been no complete fulfillment of the prophecies of Revelation up until this time, and many questions concerning its contents remain unanswered.

The Symbolic Interpretation: In the symbolic method of interpretation, also known as idealist or spiritualist, the events described in Revelation are neither past, present, nor future. Revelation is purely symbolic, dealing with the ongoing struggle of the forces of light and darkness, and with the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Revelation is an allegory of the spiritual path which is equally relevant in all ages and for all people.

The Literary Approach: The above interpretations represent the four traditional approaches to Revelation. However, in more recent times, many critics have taken a purely literary approach. (Textual criticism, which is often applied to the Bible, is one branch of literary studies). The literary approach sets aside the issues of divine inspiration and predictive prophecy and approaches the book as it would any other piece of literature. It still concerns itself with factors such as authorship, historical and social background, and meaning, but it also evaluates the book in terms of style, plot, structure, characterization, themes, unifying elements, and other literary considerations.

NOTE: It should be remembered that these approaches are not mutually exclusive. While it is useful to have a conceptual grasp of them, in practice they all work together as we seek a more complete understanding of this complex and fascinating document.

John’s CommissionEdit

John writes that he was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (1:10) when he heard a voice speaking to him, saying, “I am the alpha and the omega, the first and the last. What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia” (1:11). John says of the speaker, “His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength” (1:16). John is apparently having a vision of Christ in heaven, who instructs him to write down what he sees. In the vision, Jesus describes himself in this way: “I am the first and the last. I am he who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death” (1:17:18).

Outline of RevelationEdit

The outline is a reference tool for use while working through the lessons on Revelation. It does not interpret Revelation, but merely presents the details of the book in the manner, and in the order, that they appear. Some words (e.g. "locusts") are placed in parentheses to indicate that their description in the text does not match our normal conception of them. Each of the seven churches is listed with the opening words of the message to that church.

  1. Introduction
    1. John identifies himself, his addressees, and the divine source of his visions. (1:1-8)
  2. Messages to the Seven Asian Churches
    1. Description of the "Son of Man" as John sees him in his vision. (1:9-20)
    2. Ephesus: "I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil." (2:1-7)
    3. Smyrna: "I know your works, tribulation, and poverty – but you are rich." (2:8-11)
    4. Pergamos: "I know your works, and where you live, where Satan's throne is." (2:12-17)
    5. Thyatira: "I know your works, love, service, faith, and your patience." (2:18-29)
    6. Sardis: "I know your works, that you have a name that your are alive, but you are dead." (3:1-6)
    7. Philadelphia: "I know your works. I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it." (3:7-13)
    8. Laodicea: "I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot... Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth." (3:14-22)
  3. The Throne of God
    1. John comes before the throne of God. (4:1-3)
    2. John sees twenty-four elders and four "living creatures" praising God. (4:4-11)
    3. Only the "Lamb" is found worthy to take the judgment scroll from God and break the seals. (5:1-7)
    4. The creatures in heaven give praise. (5:8-14)
  4. The Lamb Breaks the Seals
    1. First Seal: One who is both a king and a conqueror rides forth on a white horse. (6:1-2)
    2. Second Seal: A rider on a red horse brings war. (6:3-4)
    3. Third Seal: A rider on a black horse brings famine. (6:5-6)
    4. Fourth Seal: A rider on a pale horse brings death. (6:7-8)
    5. Fifth Seal: The martyrs in heaven cry out for vengeance. (6:9-11)
    6. Sixth Seal: There are earthquakes and natural disasters. (6:12-17)
      1. 144,000 of "all the tribes of Israel" are "sealed." (7:1-8)
      2. A great multitude is saved from the Tribulation. (7:9-17)
    7. Seventh Seal: The breaking of the seventh seal begins another series: the seven trumpets. (8:1-5)
  5. The Angels Sound the Trumpets
    1. First Trumpet: Hail and fire destroy a third of the trees and grass. (8:6-7)
    2. Second Trumpet: A third of the oceans are destroyed. (8:8-9)
    3. Third Trumpet: A third of the rivers and springs are poisoned. (8:10-11)
    4. Fourth Trumpet: A third of the sky is darkened. (8:12-13)
    5. Fifth Trumpet: A plague of "locusts" terrorize the Earth for five months. (9:1-12)
    6. Sixth Trumpet: An army of 200 million kills a third of Earth's population. (9:13-21)
      1. John eats a little book which is sweet in his mouth, but bitter in his stomach. (10:1-11)
      2. Two witnesses prophesy for 3½ years, are killed, and come back to life. (11:1-14)
    7. Seventh Trumpet: The ark of the covenant appears in the heavenly temple. (11:15-19)
      1. John sees a woman clothed with the sun, the moon, and the stars. (12:1-6)
      2. Satan is cast down to the Earth. (12:7-12)
      3. The dragon persecutes the people of God. (12:13-17)
      4. The beast from the sea makes war with the people of God. (13:1-10)
      5. The beast from the land forces people to worship the beast from the sea. (13:11-18)
      6. John sees 144,000, "having his Father's name written on their foreheads," with the Lamb on Mount Zion. (14:1-5)
      7. Three angels proclaim judgment. (14:6-13)
      8. The angels reap the harvest. (14:14-20)
  6. The Angels Pour Out Their Bowls on the Earth
    1. Seven angels are given golden bowls containing of the wrath of God. (15:1-8)
    2. First Bowl: A "foul and loathsome sore" afflicts the followers of the beast. (16:1-2)
    3. Second Bowl: The sea turns to blood and everything within it dies. (16:3)
    4. Third Bowl: All fresh water turns to blood. (16:4-7)
    5. Fourth Bowl: The sun scorches the Earth with intense heat. (16:8-9)
    6. Fifth Bowl: There is total darkness and great pain. (16:10-11)
    7. Sixth Bowl: Preparations are made for the final battle between the forces of good and evil. (16:12-16)
    8. Seventh Bowl: A great earthquake: "every island fled away and the mountains were not found." (16:17-21)
  7. Babylon the Great
    1. The great harlot who sits on many waters: Babylon the Great. (17:1-18)
    2. Babylon is destroyed. (18:1-8)
    3. The people of the earth mourn Babylon's destruction. (18:9-19)
    4. The permanence of Babylon's destruction. (18:20-24)
  8. The Marriage Supper of the Lamb
    1. A great multitude praises God. (19:1-6)
    2. The marriage supper of the Lamb. (19:7-10)
  9. The Millennium
    1. The beast and the false prophet are cast into the lake of fire. (19:11-21)
    2. Satan is imprisoned in the bottomless pit for a thousand years. (20:1-3)
    3. The people of God live and reign with Christ for a thousand years. (20:4-6)
  10. After the Millennium
    1. Satan is released and makes war against the people of God, but is defeated. (20:7-9)
    2. Satan is cast into the lake of fire. (20:10)
    3. The Last Judgment: the wicked, along with death and Hades, are cast into the lake of fire. (20:11-15)
  11. The New Heaven and Earth
    1. The Earth is replaced with a new, heavenly world where there is no more suffering or death. (21:1-8)
    2. The people of God dwell with Christ in the New Jerusalem. (21:2-8)
    3. The New Jerusalem described. (21:9-27)
    4. The tree of life (from Eden) reappears. The curse is ended. (22:1-5)
  12. Conclusion
    1. Christ's reassurance that he will come. Final admonitions. (22:6-21)

Test Your KnowledgeEdit

1 Which of the following is included in apocalyptic literature?

The end of the world
Divine judgment
The return of Christ
All of the above

2 Which of the following is true?

Genesis begins with the creation of the world
Revelation ends with the destruction of the world
Genesis and Revelation were both written in the first century AD
a and b

3 According to the traditional view, who wrote Revelation?

John the apostle
John the Baptist

4 According to the 2nd century author, Irenaeus, when was Revelation written?

When Christ was crucified in about 30 AD
When the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 AD
Towards the end of Emperor Domitian’s reign, around 95 AD
During the persecution under Nero, around 65 AD

5 Where was the author when he wrote Revelation?

On vacation in Athens
Exiled to the Greek isle of Patmos
At the Pentecost festival in Jerusalem
Staying with the emperor Domitian as his personal guest

6 What is the probable reason for Domitian's persecution of Christians?

They refused to worship him as a god
He was an atheist
He was anti-semitic and most of the leading Christians were Jewish
He was insane and making erratic decisions

7 What is the nature of the characters in Revelation?

All of the above

8 Given that there are several ways to interpret Revelation, which is the best approach?

To decide on one preferred method and stick with it
To decide on one method, but use one other for the sake of comparison
To take all approaches into account for the most complete understanding
None of the above

9 What was the chain of communication through which Revelation was passed?

From God to Christ
From Christ to an angel
From an angel to John
All of the above

10 To whom was the author instructed to send the vision after he had written it down?

The churches in Palestine
The churches in the province of Asia
The church in Rome
The emperor Domitian

Read Revelation, Chapter 1

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