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Revelation

Introduction to Revelation

AUTHOR: John, identified as one "who bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ" (1:1-2). While debated by some, he was most likely the apostle John, brother of James, and author of the gospel of John and three epistles. His authorship of this book is supported by the testimony of Justin Martyr (165 A.D.), Clement of Alexandria (220 A.D.), Hippolytus (236 A.D.), and Origen (254 A.D.).

THE UNIQUE NATURE OF THE BOOK: Revelation is certainly different from other books of the New Testament. It is also very different from any kind of writing that is familiar to most people today. Unfortunately, this has caused some people to shy away from the book; or on the other hand, to misuse it in propagating wild and fanciful theories. Most people conclude it is just too mysterious to understand. But it was actually written to make things clearer! The word "revelation" in the Greek is apokalupsis, which means "an uncovering" or "unveiling." It is therefore a book designed to uncover or unveil, not conceal.

Part of the challenge in understanding the book is that it is written in a style not familiar to modern man. It is an example of what is called "apocalyptic literature" which was quite popular from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. As such, it was a type of literature well known to the Jews and Christians of the first century church. Features of apocalyptic literature include the use of highly symbolic or figurative language (cf. "signified", 1:1). It was normally written in times of persecution, usually depicting the conflict between good and evil.

There are other examples of apocalyptic literature in the Bible. In the Old Testament, for example, the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah each contain elements of this style of writing. In the New Testament, Matthew 24 contains apocalyptic elements.

THE DIFFICULTY IN UNDERSTANDING THE BOOK: The early church likely did not have the problem understanding the book we do today. They were well acquainted with the style of apocalyptic literature. They were living at a time when the symbols of the book were likely familiar to them (similar to how a picture of a donkey fighting an elephant would be understood by us as depicting conflict between the Democratic and Republican parties). In fact, I believe the book was originally intended to be understood by a casual hearing, as implied by the opening beatitude:

"Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near." (1:3)

This verse suggests a setting in which one is reading while others listen. The listeners were expected to understand enough to be blessed by what they heard.

Our difficulty with this book is due to our unfamiliarity with apocalyptic literature as a method of communicating a message. We are also far removed from the historical and cultural context of the times which would make the symbolism easier to understand. To properly interpret the book, we must try to understand the historical context in which it was written. We must also interpret it in a manner that would have been meaningful to those to whom it was first addressed.

DIFFERENT VIEWS OF INTERPRETATION: Different views of interpreting the book generally fall into four categories:

The "preterist" view - The book refers to events that were fulfilled in the first century A.D., or shortly thereafter. It was written primarily to encourage the original readers. Its value for today would therefore be didactic (teaching the value of faithfulness to God).
The "historicist" view - The book provides a panoramic view of the future of the church from as it goes through history. This view finds in the book such events as the rise of Catholicism, Islam, the Protestant reformation, world wars, etc., ending with the return of Christ. As such it would encourage Christians no matter when they lived.
The "futurist" view - Apart from the first few chapters, the book depicts events which immediately precede the second coming of Christ. Therefore most of the book has yet to be fulfilled (or is being fulfilled now), and its value is primarily for Christians who will be living at the time Jesus returns.
The "idealist" view - The book does not deal with any specific historical situation. Instead, it is simply enforcing the principle that good will ultimately triumph over evil. As such the book is applicable to any age.

PREFERRED METHOD OF INTERPRETATION: I believe a proper interpretation of the book incorporates some of all these views. In my estimation, the "preterist" view has the most merit for the following reasons:

  • The book was written specifically to seven churches in Asia (modern Turkey) - 1:4
  • Its purpose was to uncover or reveal "things which must shortly come to pass" - 1:1, 3; 22:6,10
  • John was told, "Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand" - 22:10

Compare the last two points with Daniel 8:26, where Daniel was told to "seal up" his vision, "for it refers to many days in the future". Yet we know that his vision was fulfilled within several hundred years. John, however, was told "do not seal" what he had seen, "for the time is at hand". How could this be, if the bulk of Revelation refers to what has yet to occur almost two thousands later? This is a problem I see with the "futurist" view, which places primary fulfillment of the book thousands of years since its completion.

Place yourself in the position of those Christians in the churches of Asia in the first century. They were told that the things described in the Revelation would "shortly come to pass", which should comfort them. But according to the "futurist" view, it has been nearly 2000 years and much of the book has yet to be fulfilled! That would be like someone today writing that something is soon coming to pass, when in reality it will be 4000 A.D. before it does! How would a book depicting events to occur thousands of years in the future comfort those who were suffering in the first century A.D.?

This is not to say there are no "futurist" elements in the book. I understand chapters 20-22 to deal with the ultimate destiny of the redeemed, which would have been of great interest and comfort to the Christians suffering in the first century.

My approach to the book, therefore, will be primarily from the "preterist" viewpoint, with occasional elements from other viewpoints.

THE DATE OF THE BOOK: Dating when the book was written is not without controversy. When one dates the book will certainly have a bearing upon one's interpretation of the book, especially if one follows the "preterist" view. Two dates are usually proposed:

  • An "early date", around 64-68 A.D., during the reign of the Roman emperor, Nero.
  • A "late date", around 95-96 A.D., during the reign of emperor Domitian

The "external evidence" (evidence outside the book itself) is inconclusive. In support for the late date, appeal is often made to a statement of Iraneaus who lived in the late 2nd century A.D. His statement is rather ambiguous, however, and can be understood in several ways (see Redating The New Testament, by John A. T. Robinson, for a detailed examination of Iraneaus' quotation).

In support of the early date, the Syriac version of the New Testament (dating back to the 2nd century A.D.) says the book was written during the reign of Nero. The Muratorian Fragment (170-190 A.D.) and the Monarchian Prologues (250-350 A.D.) claim that Paul wrote to seven churches following the pattern of John's example in Revelation, placing the book of Revelation even before some of the Pauline epistles (cf. Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 12; p. 406).

Because of the contradictory nature of the "external evidence", I place more weight on the "internal evidence" (evidence from within the book itself). I believe the book itself supports a date of 70 A.D., before the destruction of Jerusalem and during the reign of Vespasian. This evidence includes the following:

  • In 11:1-14 the temple, which was demolished in August of 70 A.D., is still standing. Advocates of the "late date" naturally understand this passage in a strictly figurative sense. While somewhat figurative, the allusion to the crucifixion of our Lord (11:8) compel us to think of the historical Jerusalem (Philip Schaff).
  • In 17:9-11, we find mention of EIGHT "kings". If these "kings" are emperors of Rome, then starting with Augustus the first FIVE were: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero (who died June 9, 68 A.D.). Nero's death left the empire in an uproar. This may be the "deadly wound" in 13:3,12,14. Three men (Galba, Otho, and Vitellius) tried vainly to consolidate power over the empire, but it was Vespasian who restored order in 70 A.D. Thus, the "deadly wound" was healed, and Vespasian would be the SIXTH "king" (or the "one is" in 17:10). This would make Titus the SEVENTH emperor and Domitian the EIGHTH.
  • Notice carefully, that in 17:8,11 John was told that the beast "is not". It "was", and "is about to come" (ASV), but at the time the Revelation was being given, the beast "IS NOT"! If we understand (as I do) that the "beast" represents imperial Rome as personified in its emperors Nero and Domitian, then Revelation could NOT have been written during the reigns of either Nero or Domitian!
  • The condition of persecution that had been experienced already by those in the book are similar to that mentioned by Peter. He wrote to the Christians in Asia Minor also, just a few years before (cf. 1 Pe 1:1). They were undergoing persecution similar to that described in Re 2 & 3 (cf. 1 Pe 1:6; 4:12; 5:9); i.e., persecution by the Jews with the help of Roman authorities, something that had been going on since the days of Paul's first missionary journey.

Therefore I suggest that the internal evidence indicates that the Revelation was given during the reign of VESPASIAN, the SIXTH emperor, while the "beast is not". This would place the date of the book around the spring of 70 A.D. (as suggested by Philip Schaff, History Of The Church, Vol. I). Referring to Philip Schaff, who at one time held the "late date", I find his following quotation to be of interest:

"The early date is best suited for the nature and object of the Apocalypse, and facilitates its historical understanding. Christ pointed in his eschatological discourses to the destruction of Jerusalem and the preceding tribulation as the great crisis in the history of the theocracy and the type of the judgment of the world. And there never was a more alarming state of society."
"The horrors of the French Revolution were confined to one country, but the tribulation of the six years preceding the destruction of Jerusalem extended over the whole Roman empire and embraced wars and rebellions, frequent and unusual conflagrations, earthquakes and famines and plagues, and all sorts of public calamities and miseries untold. It seemed, indeed, that the world, shaken to its very center, was coming to a close, and every Christian must have felt that the prophecies of Christ were being fulfilled before his eyes."
"It was at this unique juncture in the history of mankind that St. John, with the consuming fire in Rome and the infernal spectacle of the Neronian persecution behind him, the terrors of the Jewish war and the Roman interregnum around him, and the catastrophe of Jerusalem and the Jewish theocracy before him, received those wonderful visions of the impending conflicts and final triumphs of the Christian church. His was truly a book of the times and for the times, and administered to the persecuted brethren the one but all-sufficient consolation: Maranatha! Maranatha!" (History of The Christian Church, Vol. I, pp. 836-837)

THE PURPOSE OF THE BOOK: Its purpose is clearly stated at the beginning and end of the book (cf. 1:1,3; 22:10,16):

TO REVEAL "THINGS WHICH MUST SHORTLY COME TO PASS"

In particular, it is a revelation from Christ Himself of the judgment to come upon those who were persecuting His people (cf. 6:9-11; 16:5-7). This judgment was directed especially toward two enemies:

  • "Babylon, the harlot" (cf. 17:6; 18;20,24; 19:2) - Many think the harlot is the city Rome, but I lean toward the view it was Jerusalem. If so, then Revelation describes the fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy found in Mt 23:29-39; Lk 21:20-22.
  • The "beast" which supported the harlot (cf. 17:7-13) - I take the beast to be the Roman empire when led by her persecuting emperors (e.g., Nero, Domitian), which at first supported the "harlot" in her persecution of God's people, then turned on her (cf. the destruction of Jerusalem, 70 A.D.).

Again, I would suggest that the purpose of the book is to reveal how Christ was going to bring judgment on Jerusalem and Rome for rejecting God and persecuting His people. This judgment occurred with the destruction of Jerusalem in the fall of 70 A.D., and with the final cessation of persecution by Rome in 313 A.D. when Constantine became an emperor supportive of Christianity. As stated by Philip Schaff:

"Undoubtedly he had in view primarily the overthrow of Jerusalem and heathen Rome, the two great foes of Christianity at that time."

In fulfilling this purpose, the book is designed to warn and comfort. For erring disciples, it is a book of warning ("repent" or else, cf. 2:5,16). For faithful disciples, it is a book of comfort ("blessed" are those who "overcome", cf. 1:3; 2:7; 3:21; 14:13; 22:14).

KEY VERSE: Revelation 17:14

"These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings; and those who are with Him are called, chosen, and faithful."
Outline

INTRODUCTION (1:1-20)

  1. Introduction and benediction (1-3)
  2. Greetings to the seven churches of Asia (4-6)
  3. Announcement of Christ's coming (7)
  4. The Lord's self-designation (8)
  1. A GENERAL OVERVIEW OF THE CONFLICT (1:9-11:19)
    1. VISION OF CHRIST AMONG THE LAMPSTANDS (1:9-20)
    2. LETTERS TO THE SEVEN CHURCHES (2:1-3:22)
      1. The church at Ephesus (2:1-7)
      2. The church at Smyrna (2:8-11)
      3. The church at Pergamos (2:12-17)
      4. The church at Thyatira (2:18-29)
      5. The church at Sardis (3:1-6)
      6. The church at Philadelphia (3:7-13)
      7. The church at Laodicea (3:14-22)
    3. THE THRONE SCENE (4:1-5:11)
      1. God on the throne (4:1-11)
      2. The Lamb worthy to open the seven-sealed scroll (5:1-14)
    4. THE OPENING OF THE SEVEN SEALS (6:1-8:1)
      1. First seal: The white horse and its rider (6:1-2)
      2. Second seal: The red horse and its rider (6:3-4)
      3. Third seal: The black horse and its rider (6:5-6)
      4. Fourth seal: The pale horse and its rider(s) (6:7-8)
      5. Fifth seal: The martyrs under the altar (6:9-11)
      6. Sixth seal: Cataclysmic disturbances (6:12-17)
      7. Interlude: Sealing of the 144,000 on earth, and the great multitude in heaven (7:1-17)
      8. Seventh seal: Silence in heaven (8:1)
    5. THE SOUNDING OF SEVEN TRUMPETS (8:2-11:19)
      1. Seven angels prepare to sound their trumpets (8:2-6)
      2. First trumpet: Third of vegetation destroyed (8:7)
      3. Second trumpet: Third of sea creatures and ships destroyed (8:8-9)
      4. Third trumpet: Third of rivers and springs become bitter, many men die (8:10-11)
      5. Fourth trumpet: Third of sun, moon, and stars struck, affecting day and night (8:12)
      6. Three-fold woe announced (8:13)
      7. Fifth trumpet (first woe): Locusts from the bottomless pit, sent to torment men (9:1-12)
      8. Sixth trumpet (second woe): Four angels with an army of two hundred million, killing a third of mankind (9:13-21)
      9. Another interlude (10:1-11:14)
        1. The angel with the little book (10:1-11)
        2. The two witnesses (11:1-13)
      10. Seventh trumpet (third woe): The victory of Christ and His kingdom proclaimed (11:14-19)
  2. A CLOSER LOOK AT THE CONFLICT (12:1-22:5)
    1. THE GREAT CONFLICT (12:1-14:20)
      1. The Woman, the Child, the Dragon, and the rest of the Woman's offspring (12:1-17)
      2. The beast from the sea (13:1-10)
      3. The beast from the land (13:11-18)
      4. The Lamb and the 144,000 on Mount Zion (14:1-5)
      5. Proclamations of three angels (14:6-13)
      6. Reaping the earth's harvest, and the grapes of wrath (14:14-20)
    2. THE SEVEN BOWLS OF WRATH (15:1-16:21)
      1. Prelude to pouring out the seven bowls of wrath (15:1-8)
      2. First bowl: Sores on those who worshipped the beast and his image (16:1-2)
      3. Second bowl: Sea turns to blood, all sea creatures die (16:3)
      4. Third bowl: Rivers and springs turn to blood (16:4-7)
      5. Fourth bowl: Men are scorched by the sun (16:8-9)
      6. Fifth bowl: Pain and darkness upon the beast and his kingdom (16:10-11)
      7. Sixth bowl: Euphrates dried up, three unclean spirits gather the kingdoms of the earth for the battle at Armageddon (16:12-16)
      8. Seventh bowl: Great earthquake, the great city divided, Babylon is remembered, cataclysmic events (16:17-21)
    3. THE FALL OF BABYLON, THE HARLOT (17:1-19:10)
      1. The scarlet woman and the scarlet beast (17:1-6)
      2. The mystery of the woman and beast explained (17:7-18)
      3. The fall of Babylon the great proclaimed and mourned (18:1-24)
      4. The exaltation in heaven over the fall of the great harlot (19:1-5)
      5. The announcement of the marriage supper of the Lamb (19:6-10)
    4. THE DEFEAT OF THE LAMB'S ENEMIES (19:11-20:15)
      1. Christ the victorious warrior and King of kings (19:11-16)
      2. The beast, his armies, and the false prophet (land beast) are defeated (19:17-21)
      3. Satan is bound for a thousand years, while those martyred reign with Christ (20:1-6)
      4. Satan released to deceive the nations once more, but is finally defeated once for all (20:7-10)
      5. The final judgment (20:11-15)
    5. THE ETERNAL DESTINY OF THE REDEEMED (21:1-22:5)
      1. The new heaven and new earth, the New Jerusalem, God dwelling with His people (21:1-8)
      2. The New Jerusalem described (21:9-27)
      3. The water of life, the tree of life, and the throne of God and the Lamb (22:1-5)

CONCLUSION (22:6-21)

  1. The time is near, do not seal up the book (22:6-11)
  2. The testimony of Jesus, the Spirit, and the bride (22:12-17)
  3. Warning not to tamper with the book, and closing prayers (22:18-21)
Review Questions for the Introduction
  1. What is this book called? (1:1)
    • The Revelation of Jesus Christ
  2. Who is the author of this book? (1:1-2)
    • John, who had born witness to the word of God and testimony of Jesus Christ
  3. What is the meaning of the Greek word (apokalupsis) translated "revelation"?
    • An uncovering, an unveiling
  4. What style of literature is the book of Revelation?
    • Apocalyptic literature
  5. What are some of the typical features of such literature?
    • Highly symbolic; depicting conflict between good and evil
  6. What is important to know to properly interpret the book?
    • The historical context in which it was written
  7. What are the four major views of interpreting the book?
    • The preterist
    • The historicist
    • The futurist
    • The idealist
  8. Which view is suggested in this introduction?
    • The preterist, with a little borrowed from the other views as well
  9. What dates are usually suggested for the book?
    • An early date (64-68 A.D.), during the reign of Nero
    • A late date (95-96 A.D.), during the reign of Domitian
  10. Which date is suggested in this introduction? (and by Schaff, McGuiggan, and others)
    • The spring of 70 A.D., during the reign of Vespasian
  11. What is the purpose of the book? (1:13; 22:10,16)
    • To reveal things which must shortly come to pass
  12. Who do I propose to be the two major enemies used by Satan as described in this book?
    • Jerusalem (i.e., Babylon, the harlot)
    • Rome (i.e., the beast which supported the harlot)
  13. What is the key verse which summarizes the book?
Bibliography
The Avenging Of The Apostles & Prophets, Arthur Ogden (Ogden Publications, 1985). The Book Of Revelation, Jim McGuiggan (Montex, 1976). The Book Of Revelation, Foy E. Wallace, Jr. (Wallace Publications, 1966). History Of The Christian Church, Vol. I, Philip Schaff (Eerdmans, 1910, 1985). Interpreting Revelation, Merill C. Tenney (Eerdmans, 1957). The Lamb And His Enemies, Rubel Shelly (20th Century, 1985). More Than Conquerors, William Hendricksen (Baker Book House, 1971). Revelation, Alan Johnson (Expositor's Bible Commentary, Zondervan, 1981). Revelation, Leon Morris (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Eerdmans, 1984). Revelation: An Introduction And Commentary, Homer Hailey (Baker, 1979). Worthy Is The Lamb, Ray Summers (Broadman Press, 1951).
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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