The book of Revelation belongs to a genre that originated about 200 BC and was popular among Jews and Christians till 2nd century after Christ. This type of literature is called “apocalypse”.
An apocalypse typically explains unseen spiritual realities behind human events or look forward to history’s end. It is characterised by dreams, visions, and other symbolic ways of communicating.
Today, we know of several non canonical apocalypse prior or contemporary with Revelation - 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and the apocalypse of Abraham .
The author refers himself to John (1:1,4,9; 22:8). But which John?
John the apostle - support of Justin Martyr (165 AD), Tertulian (220), Irenaeus (180), Origen (254), Athanasius (350);
John, the elder - Dionysius, bp of Alexandria (3rd century AD). Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom either did not consider apostle John its author or did not consider this book as part of canon of Scripture.
Today, the scholarship favours the second option.
The author presents himself as a Christian prophet. His native language had to be Hebrew or Aramaic and he is extraordinary familiar with the Old Testament, which would indicate that he was a Jewish Christian.
When it was written?
In the mid-to late 60s of the first century during the reign of Nero (AD 54–68);
In the mid–90s, during the reign of emperor Domitian (81–96) - St. Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius and modern scholars support this option.
Seven churches in the Roman province of Asia (today southwestern part of Turkey).
Ephesus was the chief city of the province, and its church was the leading church, due to both the city’s prominence and its very successful evangelisation by the apostle Paul and his coworkers in the mid–50s (see Acts 19:10, 26; 20:17–38).
Revelation manifests faith in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus and in his divine status.
It hopes in Jesus’ future glorious return;
It anticipates times of trial and persecution for Christians during the time of their testimony to the gospel;
The symbols of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet are rooted in Jewish apocalyptic writings and in early Christian understanding regarding Satan and eschatological opposition to God (Dan 7; 2 Thess 2; 1 John 2:18).
Revelation provides a narrative that progresses toward the consumption of history by a circular (circular repetitions) rather than by a direct route.
John presents his book as a vision shown to him on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9–11).
He had seen “what is happening (present of John’s day) and what will happen afterwards - the future” (Rev 1:19) and he is ordered by the risen Jesus to write about it.
The messages to the seven churches (Rev 2:1–3:22) reveal “what is happening” - the condition of the churches in Asia during John’s day.
The transition to the second part - about the future - takes place in Rev 4:1. John enters heaven and sees the scroll that contains God’s plan for the world. As the Lamb opens the seven seals, human history unfolds, directed from the heavenly throne.
This unfolding of history is depicted in Rev 6:1–22:11.
Another feature of Revelation is the alternation between fearsome visions of judgment on earth and consoling visions of God’s throne in heaven. It serves two purposes.
Very important: the plot in Revelation does not advance chronologically.
Although the visions unfolds one after another in an orderly manner; the story advances by a spiral rather than a straight path. The story is also disrupted by flashback, such as those that recall the birth and exaltation of the Messiah (Rev 5:5,9; 12:5) and by temporal visions of heavenly worship in which God’s victory is celebrated as already achieved (Rev 7:9–17; 11:15–18; 15:2–4; 19:5–8).
The plot advances from the vision of the risen Christ (Rev 1–3), to the vision of heavenly throne room (Rev 4–5), through the increasingly severe chastisement of the world and trials for the Church during her testimony (Rev 6–20), to the return of Christ (Rev 19) and the full arrival of God’s kingdom in the final two chapters.
Repetition of the same theme in revelation often adds new information.
In Rev 12:6 there is the theme of a woman representing God’s people; then it is continued in Rev 12:7–18 - the warfare, then in Rev 13, - the warfare is further explained - the dragon uses two beasts to deceive the world and fight against the Church.
Revelation has the greatest number of biblical allusions among all the books of the New Testament. But the author seldom explicitly quotes the Old Testament as other New Testament authors do (for example Matt 1:22–23; Rom 8:36). Instead, he weaves them into the story. John’s knowledge of the Jewish Scripture is extraordinary.
Revelation interprets the Old Testament prophets in light of what God has done in Christ. It confirms that their eschatological prophecies of judgement, salvation, and a transformed world began to be fulfilled through Christ’s death and resurrection (Rev 5:9; 12:5) and will be completely fulfilled when Christ returns.
For example, the new Jerusalem fulfils and surpasses Ezekiel’s prophecy of a future temple (Ezek 40–48; Rev 21:10–27). Revelation also shows that many prophecies that originally applied to Israel now apply to eschatological Israel, the Church, which includes people from every tribe, tongue, language, and nation.
However, in each case it is necessary to discern, by the content and context of the allusion, whether John is saying, “this is what Ezekiel prophesied” (e.g the new Jerusalem is the new temple) or “this is like what Ezekiel prophesied” (e.g. John’s prophetic commission in chap. 10 is similar to Ezek 3:1–4), or simply reusing biblical language and imagery to add solemnity to his message.
One of the ways Revelation alludes to the Old Testament is by using names from Israel’s past, such as Balaam (2:14) or Jezebel (2:20–23) to refer to people at the time of his writing. At another times it names Old Testament places, such as Babylon, Sodom or Egypt (Rev 11:8), to refer to spiritual realities.
Revelation uses symbolic language - similes, metaphors, and symbols.
Simile compares two unlike things by the use of “like” or “as” - “one like a son of man” (Rev 1:10, 13–16);
Metaphor attributes the qualities of one thing to another without using “like” or “as” - the church in Laodicea is “lukewarm, poor, blind, and makes” (Rev 3:16–17).
A symbol is something that stands for something else - the harlot Babylon stands for every proud civilisation that resists God, persecutes his people, and idolises wealth and pleasure.
John draws comparisons from nature, ordinary life and social interactions known to his readers.
For example - the sky, sun, moon, stars, land and sea refer to transcendent realities, whether good or evil. The face of the risen Christ shines “like the sun at its brightest” (Rev 1:16); the sea represents the world of chaos and evil (Rev 13:1; 20:1).
The animals of Revelation act and speaks as personal beings, whether good or evil - the Lamb, the lion, the four living creature, the dragon, the beasts, the eagle, the locusts, the horses. All these animals represents superhuman entities.
Powerful disruptions of nature - earthquakes, the sun ceasing to shine (Rev 9:2), and the moon turning to blood (Rev 6:12), indicate the intervention of God, who controls the elements of nature.
Items of clothing reveal the status and nature of the figures in John’s visions.
Activities such as harvesting, winemaking, shepherding, and buying and selling are given metaphorical meanings.
Colors indicate the qualities of a person or thing, although the meaning varies with the context. Riding a white horse signified military victory in the Greco-Roman world, but the red colour of the second horse in Rev 6:1 and of the dragon in Rev 12:3 indicates their readiness to shed blood.
White garments of saints and angels emphasise their participation in the resurrection or eternal life.
Revelation uses numbers symbolically - seven and ten normally represent completeness.
Three and half - half of seven - represents partiality and incompleteness.
Four represents the world - the four winds and four points of compass - what is universal.
Twelve is the number of the people of God and twenty four (12+12) represents God’s people under both covenants.
A thousand, and multiple of a thousand indicates a very large number.
Certain important words are used with significant numbers. “Lord God almighty”, “the one who sits on the throne”, “Christ” - all are used seven times;
“Jesus” and “the Spirit” - fourteen (7+7) times; “Lamb” - twenty-eight times (4x7).
But, John avoids multiples of seven in using words that refer to Satan (eight times), the dragon (thirteen times); the beast (thirty-eight times), and Babylon (six times).
John often combines multiple symbols in his description of a single figure. For example , the Lamb (Jesus) is described as standing (resurrection) as though it had been slain (the crucifixion), having seven horns (signifying fullness of power) and seven eyes (fulness of knowledge).
Descriptions in Revelation, whether of individuals or of events, are description of the symbols rather than of the realities themselves. Each symbolic element needs to be thought rather than taken as literal description.
For example, the feast of the vultures in 19:17–18 is a biblical allusion likely indicating that Christ’s victory at the end of history will fulfil Ezekiel’s prophecy about the utter destruction of those who oppose God (Ezek 39:17–20), not a prophecy of a literal battlefield scene.
The historicist view holds that Revelation foretells in a linear way the history of Christianity. The problem with this view is the difficulty of a mapping church history onto the narrative of Revelation in a convincing manner.
The preterist view holds the revelation speaks primarily if not exclusively, of events in the first century A.D. Here we have a problem, the revelation presents the fall of Babylon at or near the end of history (Rev 16:17–21; 17:16–18–24) and the defeat of the beast as brought about by the second coming of Christ (Rev 19:11–21).
If the beast or Babylon simply referred to the Roman empire or Jerusalem, as some preterists maintain, how is it that Christ has not yet returned?
The futurist view is that most of the book of Revelation (chaps. 4–19) pertains to the last few years of human history before the return of Christ. But why would God reveal this information to the seven churches of Asia in the first century?
Finally the idealist view holds that Revelation provides images and narratives of the struggle between good and evil that have no specific relation to history; they are intended to encourage and comfort Christians engaged in the struggle.
Perhaps the best approach to Revelation is to draw insights from all these views. The Holy Spirit intends to speak to the Christian people throughout the ages through the Sacred Scriptures. It is therefore important to be able to understand Revelation in relation to three periods of time: the time of its writing in the first century, the end of history, and the time of the church that lies in between.
Understanding the book’s first-century historical context is essential for interpreting it correctly. However, it is also clear that Revelation claims to depict the church’s trails leading up to the return of Christ. In John’s view, the spiritual dynamics of the final trial are already present in the temptations and persecution that confront the church in his day.
The principle of biblical interpretation that links the past, the present, and the ultimate future is typology.
Typology recognizes that God works in the recognizable patterns throughout history and that those who oppose God follow predictable patterns.
History may not repeat itself, but often it rhymes. Persons, events, places, and institutions of an earlier stage in salvation history foreshadow those in a later stage.
Biblical prophets often understand the trials and crisis of their day in relationship to analogous crisis in the past: they envision the salvation that God will bring us as resembling his famous acts of salvation known from the historical or prophetic Scriptures.
So we can say that when individuals, governments, and cultures behave like the enemies of God’s people depicted in Revelation, readers can recognize the resemblance and respond accordingly.
However in addition to a general application of Revelation to trials that arise in the history of the church, revelation awaits definitive fulfillment at the end of history. However, we do not know when it will happen (Matt 24:36). Not only has God reserve to himself the timing of the end; he also has not revealed precisely how he will accomplish his plan, even in Revelation.
It is therefore wise both to do our best to discern what is happening around us in the light of biblical prophecy and to respond faithfully, while at the same time remaining modest about our understanding of exactly how God will accomplish his purposes.
The content of the book can be summarized as revelation about four things:
(1) The condition of the churches of Asia;
In each message, the Lord knows well what is going on in each churches. Often, what appears on the surface is different from the church’s actual condition. Today, each church’s community should discern their own condition in light of these messages.
(2) God sovereignty in Christ’s lordship over history;
The Christians to whom John addressed his book were a small minority living in a time and place in which the social, cultural, religious, economic, and political forces that oppose them seemed overwhelming. The world around them was saying “who can compare with the beast or who can find against it?” (Rev 13:4). But Revelation declares that God and his Messiah are completely in control. The true throne from which human history is determined is not the throne of any king on earth but God’s throne in heaven.
(3) The conflict and tribulation before Christ’s returns;
The Church consists of the faithful people of God of the Old and New Testament, they are depicted corporately as a woman. The Church has many opponents: the dragon, two beasts, and the harlot city Babylon. The challenge that the Church is facing is to bear witness to Jesus and remain faithful in the face of persecution and temptation. But at the end of the book Christ appears as the victorious “King of kings and Lord of lords”, to destroy the adversaries of God’s people (Rev 19:11–21)
(4) Preview in general terms of how God will fulfill his promises, defeat evil, and save his people.
The gospel and other New Testament writings show how Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures in his birth, life, death, and resurrection. Then Jesus made a promise about his second coming. However, he also said that before his second coming there will be a period of time during which the gospel is to be preached to all the nations (Matt 24:14; Luke 19:11–12; Acts 1:6–8). Revelation is the only book in the New Testament that shows how the scriptures will be fulfilled in regards to Jesus’ second coming.
Revelation teaches that God will establish his kingdom as a new paradise in a new creation free from evil and defilement. It also shows that the covenant between God and his people is fulfilled in the marriage of the Lamb and his Bride.
Throughout the unveiling of these realities, John weaves exhortation summoning his readers to an appropriate response.
One thing that we can learn from Revelation today is that despite appearances to the contrary Jesus Christ is Lord of history. God is seated on his throne, directing history towards the goal he intends.
In the midst of conflict and temptation, every Christian is summon to be “the victor” who will eat of the tree of life, avoid the second death, and receive a new name and all the other eschatological rewards promised in this book.