As its title suggests, the book of Revelation reveals things that might otherwise remain unknown. The revelation came from God and the risen Christ by way of the book’s writer to first century Christians, and it concerned things that were soon to take place (Rev 1:1). The traditional view is that the person named John who wrote the book was the apostle John, though no statement in the book makes this identification certain.
Background to the book
The church of the first century was persecuted almost from the beginning. Persecution at first came mainly from the Jews, but as the century progressed, civil authorities also turned against the Christians. The two main periods of persecution from the Roman Emperors came in the sixties under Nero and in the nineties under Domitian. It was during this latter period that John, having been imprisoned for his Christian testimony, received the revelation recorded in this book (Rev 1:9-10). Patmos, the place of John’s imprisonment, was an island off the coast from Ephesus in the west of Asia Minor. Upon receiving the revelation, John wrote it in a book, then sent it with a messenger to the mainland to deliver to a group of seven churches in Asia Minor.
The order in which the churches are listed probably represents the order in which they were visited by the messenger who delivered the letters. From these centres the message would no doubt spread to other churches of the region (Rev 1:11; for map see ASIA). By this time the government was enforcing Emperor worship as a settled policy, with the result that Christians were being imprisoned, tortured and even killed (Rev 2:10,13; 6:9-11). People in general were becoming anti-Christian. To make matters worse, false teachers were troubling the churches by encouraging Christians to participate in pagan religious practices (Rev 2:14,20-21). Some Christians were renouncing their faith, others losing heart. Many were confused, for it seemed that Jesus Christ, the almighty king whom they expected to return in triumph, was either unable or unwilling to save them from the power of Rome. Through John, Jesus reassured the suffering Christians that he was still in control, though he did not want them to build up any false hopes. He gave no guarantee of quick relief. Rather he prepared them for greater endurance, by revealing the extent of the troubles yet to come and the eternal reward for those who stood firm for him. In God’s time he would return to punish all enemies, save his people, and bring in a new and eternal era.
Interpretation of the book
The book of Revelation belongs to a category of literature known as apocalyptic. (The name comes from the Greek apokalypsis, the word translated ‘revelation’ in Rev 1:1.) In apocalyptic literature God gives revelations to people by means of strange visions explained by angels. The visions often feature fearsome beasts and mysterious numbers, and are usually concerned with great conflicts out of which God and his people triumph (see APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE). Because Christians of the first century were familiar with apocalyptic literature, they would have readily understood Revelation, but Christians of a different era and culture usually find the book difficult to interpret. Some interpret it as applying wholly to the time of John; others interpret it as applying wholly to the future, when God will bring the world’s history to an end.
Some see the book as a continuous history of the world from John’s time to the end; others see it not as a record of historical events but as a presentation of the victory of the gospel in symbolic pictures. There are countless variations in the interpretation of the book, both as a whole and in its details. In an attempt to solve the difficulties of the book of Revelation, some people simply choose the scheme of interpretation that suits them and reject the rest. But this is not the best way to understand the book’s message. The book is not a collection of puzzles designed to amuse Christians in their spare time by giving them mysteries to solve. It is a book given to strengthen and guide Christians in a time of persecution. The pictures are taken from life under Roman rule as the Christians of John’s time knew it, but the principles are applicable in any era. Anti-Christian persecutions and divine judgments have been repeated throughout the church’s history, from John’s time to the present. But in every era Christians have triumphed through their troubles because of Christ’s victory on the cross (Rev 12:11). Opposition will continue till the world’s last great crisis comes and Jesus Christ returns. In that day the triumphant Saviour will banish evil, save his people, and bring in a new age of peace and joy (Rev 19:13-16; 22:1-5).
Contents of the book
John begins by greeting the seven churches to whom the book is sent (1:1-8), then describes his vision of the risen and exalted Christ, who is Lord of all the churches (1:9-20). Then follow the seven letters. Each of the letters consists of a greeting from the risen Christ, a statement concerning the state of the church, a warning, an instruction and a promise (2:1-3:22). John then has two visions. In the first the Almighty is seated upon his throne and is worshipped as the Creator (4:1-11). In the second the Lamb is victorious out of death and is worshipped as the Redeemer (5:1-14). After this are three series of judgments, each based on the symbolic number seven. In the first series a seven-section scroll is unrolled section by section by breaking one seal for each section. As the scroll is unrolled, each section reveals a vision relating to some aspect of suffering and judgment. There is an interval before the breaking of the final seal, when further visions reassure the faithful.
No matter what they suffer, God will preserve them for his heavenly kingdom (6:1-8:5). In the second series of judgments, each of the seven visions is announced by the blowing of a trumpet. Again there is an interval before the final vision, when further visions reassure the faithful of victory. They may suffer persecution, and perhaps martyrdom, but because of Christ’s victory they are triumphant (8:6-11:19). Before the third series of judgments, John receives a number of visions to show the conflict and ultimate triumph that God’s people can expect. One vision is of a dragon that tries to destroy a woman and her child (12:1-17); another is of a beast that rises out of the sea to fight against God and his people (13:1-10); and a third is of a beast that rises out of the earth in support of the previous beast (13:11-18). However, the redeemed, not the beasts, are the victors (14:1-5), while the wicked suffer destruction (14:6- 20). The third series of judgments then follows, with seven angels pouring out seven bowls of God’s anger upon a rebellious world (15:1-16:21). The overthrow of this rebellious world is then pictured in the destruction of a prostitute (17:1-18) and the burning of Babylon (18:1-19:5). The triumph of God and his people is pictured in a wedding feast, the victorious reign of Jesus Christ, the defeat of Satan and the last great judgment (19:6-20:15). Finally, John has a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, where God dwells with his people in a new order of existence (21:1-22:5). In view of the salvation and judgments that lie ahead, the book urges Christians to be faithful to God, and urges others to accept God’s offered mercy (22:6-21).