As its name indicates, the book of Revelation reveals things that otherwise would remain unknown. The revelation originated in God and came from the risen Christ to the writer John, who then passed it on to a group of churches in the Roman province of Asia (in western Asia Minor). It was given towards the end of the first century and concerned things that were soon to happen (Rev 1:1,11).
The traditional view is that the person named John who wrote the book was the apostle John, though the book contains no statement that makes this identification certain. The writer had been arrested for his Christian faith and at the time of writing was imprisoned on the island of Patmos, off the coast from Ephesus (Rev 1:9-10). John the apostle seems to have lived in Ephesus during the latter part of the first century, and while there wrote his Gospel and letters (see background notes to 1 John). The churches with which John was concerned in his Gospel and letters were in the same region as those to whom the book of Revelation was sent.
By this time the churches of the region were well established. In fact, about forty years had passed since the region had been first evangelized (cf. Acts 16:6-10; 18:19,20-28; 19:1,8-10). Those parts of the book that are addressed to specific churches give us a picture of conditions in Asia Minor at the end of the first century.
The troubled church
Almost from its beginning, the church of the first century was persecuted. In the early days persecution came mainly from the Jews, but as the decades passed, government authorities also turned against the Christians. The main periods of official persecution came in the AD 60s under the Emperor Nero and in the AD 90s during the time of the Emperor Domitian. This latter period was the time of the revelation that the writer John has recorded in this book.
It was a testing time for Christians. Thousands were imprisoned, tortured, killed or put to work as slaves. Oppression increased, people in general became more anti-Christian, and the government enforced Emperor worship as a regular policy. To make matters worse, false teachers created trouble within the churches by encouraging Christians to cooperate with the pagan religions of the state by joining in practices that were idolatrous and immoral (Rev 2:10,13-14,20; 6:9-11).
Many Christians were discouraged and confused, and some had even renounced their faith. It seemed to them that Jesus Christ, the king they had expected to return in power, was either unable or unwilling to save them from the evil forces that were working against them. The real power appeared to be not in the hands of the Almighty God, but in the hands of the Roman Emperor.
Through John, Jesus reassured his suffering people that he was still in control, though he did not give them false hopes by promising them quick relief. On the contrary he prepared them for greater endurance, by revealing both the extent of the troubles yet to come and the eternal reward that awaited those who stood firm for him. He was still the ruler of the world and he was still in control. In God’s time Jesus would return to punish his enemies, save his people, and bring in an age of eternal peace and joy (Rev 1:5; 12:10-11; 19:15-16; 21:1-4; 22:7).
Style of the book
The book of Revelation belongs to a category of literature known as apocalyptic that was common at that time. (The name comes from the Greek apokalypsis, the word translated ‘revelation’ in Revelation 1:1.)
In apocalyptic literature God gives revelations to people by means of strange visions that are usually explained by angels. These visions often feature fearsome beasts and mysterious numbers, and are mostly concerned with God’s conquest of evil and deliverance of his people. God intervenes in world affairs to overthrow the wicked, give victory to the righteous, establish his kingdom, and introduce the era of the new heavens and new earth.
It is difficult to form mental pictures of these strange visions, even more difficult to draw them on paper, and impossible to join them all together in a continuous picture-story. But they were not intended for that purpose. The modern reader should not think of the visions as if they are photographs or videos of future events that the biblical writer has seen in advance. Details within the visions, whether in relation to times, places, objects or living beings, should not be understood as if they are descriptions taken from a news report or historical account. They are stylized and symbolic, and are often inconsistent with the realities of the natural world.
Features that have a particular meaning in one vision may or may not have the same meaning in another vision. Similarly, a particular truth may be symbolized by certain features in one vision, and by entirely different features in another.
Interpretation of the book
These characteristics make apocalyptic literature difficult for people of a different culture and era to interpret. Over the centuries various schemes of interpretation have appeared. Some people interpret Revelation as applying solely to the time of John, while others interpret it as applying solely to a time in the future when God will bring the present age to an end. Some interpret the book as a continuous history of the world from the time of John to the coming eternal age, while others see the book not as a description of historical events but as a presentation of the victory of the gospel in symbolic pictures. The variations in interpretation, whether of the book as a whole or of its separate parts and details, are considerable.
Some people attempt to solve the difficulties by choosing one scheme of interpretation and rejecting all the others. But this is not the best way to understand the book’s message. Undoubtedly, the book had a meaning for the people of John’s day, as it has for people today, and as it will have for those on earth at the end of the age. Readers should therefore be careful not to restrict the book’s message or mould its meaning to fit their favourite scheme of interpretation.
A further precaution for readers is not to treat the book as a collection of puzzles. It was not given to amuse Christians in their spare time by giving them mysteries to work out. It was given to strengthen and guide Christians who were suffering intense persecution. There is little spiritual profit in finding the meanings of symbols while ignoring their relevance to personal experience.
The symbolic pictures in the book are taken mainly from life under Roman rule as John knew it, but the principles apply to Christians everywhere. In every era and nation those who suffer persecution for Christ’s sake can find strength and encouragement as they see the relevance of the visions to their own experiences.
Anti-Christian persecutions and divine judgments on the persecutors have occurred repeatedly throughout the church’s history, and they will continue to be repeated till Jesus Christ returns. From the first century to the present, Christians have triumphed over the forces of the antichrist through Christ’s victory on the cross (Rev 12:11). But the ultimate victory will be when Christ returns to banish evil, save his people and bring in the eternal age of peace and joy (Rev 1:5-7; 19:13-16; 22:1-5,12-14).