Introduction to Revelation

The book of Revelation is an account of the visions received by John while in exile on the Isle of Patmos - “on account of the testimony of Jesus.” The document was addressed to first-century Christian congregations located in seven cities of the Roman province of Asia, and most likely, it was penned in the late first century when Domitian was emperor (A.D. 81-96).

In the opening sentence, the first word of the book is the Greek noun apokalypsis (Strong’s - #G602), meaning, “revelation” or “unveiling.” The English term ‘apocalypse’ is derived from it.

Blueprint - Photo by Evgeniy Surzhan on Unsplash
[Photo by Evgeniy Surzhan on Unsplash]

As originally written, the word was not the title of the book but the designation of what it is:  A “
revelation” from Jesus Christ. It is placed in the first position of the sentence, and of the book, for emphasis.

APOCALYPSE


In popular culture, the term ‘apocalypse’ is associated with the end of human civilization and global destruction. But the Greek term does not mean “destruction” or signify the end of the Cosmos.

Quite simply, it means “revelation, an unveiling” of previously hidden information (Wesley Perschbacher, New Analytical Greek Lexicon [Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 1990], p. 42.).

In the Bible, apokalypsis often refers to a “revelation” from God of something unknown, for example:

  • (Luke 2:30-32) - “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”
  • (Romans 16:25-26) - “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages, but now is manifested.”

The term indicates the nature of the book, its purpose, which is an unveiling of new information by Jesus Christ to his church. What was hidden in earlier eras is now disclosed in, and by, Jesus Christ.

PURPOSE


The book is intended “to show to his servants those THINGS NECESSARY TO COME TO PASS SHORTLY.” The purpose and the stated timeframe are elaborated in verse 19, and repeated in chapter 4 and in the conclusion of the book:

  • (Revelation 1:19) - Write, therefore, what you saw and what they are and WHAT THINGS ARE ABOUT TO COME TO PASS after these things.”
  • (Revelation 4:1) - “The first voice which I heard…said, Come up here and I will show you WHAT MUST TAKE PLACE AFTER THESE THINGS.”
  • (Revelation 22:6) - “These words are faithful and true, and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel TO POINT OUT TO HIS BOND-SERVANTS THE THINGS WHICH MUST COME TO PASS SHORTLY.”
  • (Revelation 22:16) - “I, Jesus, have sent my angel TO TESTIFY TO YOU OF THESE THINGS FOR THE ASSEMBLIES.”

AUTHOR


Traditionally, the Apostle John is identified as the author of the book, an ancient tradition that dates to the first half of the second century - approximately A.D. 135.

Revelation names “John” as its author.  However, it never specifies which John is meant. It never identifies him as the son of Zebedee or the brother of James, and never calls him an “apostle.”

Because of these omissions, some commentators question whether this ‘John’ is the same person as the apostle who penned the gospel of John and the three epistles that bear his name.

The book identifies him as a “servant” of Jesus Christ, a “brother” and a “fellow participant” in the tribulation and kingdom, and numbers him among the “prophets.” Other factors related to his identity include:

  • His writings demonstrate he was a Jew familiar with both the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament, and possibly was of Palestinian origin.
  • Greek was not his primary language. His syntax indicates it was a second language to him.
  • John was familiar with the seven “churches” of Asia, and their conditions in their respective cities.
  • John was exiled to Patmos.  Only Roman provincial authorities could order a sentence of exile.  This suggests he was a person of some standing within and without the churches of Asia (banishment was normally employed for individuals of some importance).

The Author refers to himself simply as “John” without further elaboration, and his authority is recognized by the churches. Therefore, he is a known quantity to the congregations in Asia.

Strong church traditions place him in the city of Ephesus at the end of the first century. The strongest evidence for authorship by the Apostle comes from a church father, Irenaeus of Lyon.

As a young Christian, Irenaeus lived in Asia and was a pupil of Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna.  Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John.  According to Irenaeus, Polycarp claimed the Apostle wrote the book of Revelation (Against Heresies, 4.20.11.).  Justin Martyr, writing around A.D. 135, also identified the “John” of Revelation to be the Apostle John - (Dialogue with Trypho, 81.4).

‘John’ was a common enough name. But there is no other John from this period associated with Ephesus and known to Church History who would have been recognized by a group of first-century churches simply by the designation “John.”  All in all, the evidence is strong that the author of Revelation was the Apostle John, an eyewitness of Jesus Christ, the brother of James, and son of Zebedee.

DATE OF COMPOSITION


Proposed dates for the book are based on historical settings gleaned from its contents.  The exile of John, for example, indicates a time of persecution by Roman authorities.

In chapters 2-3, there are hints of social tension between the churches of Asia and the surrounding society, including conflicts with local Jewish synagogues.

There are two primary date ranges proposed for the book.  First, A.D. 65-70, during or shortly after the reign of the emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68).

Second, A.D. 90-95, during the reign of Domitian. Since Domitian died in A.D. 96, it was not written later than A.D. 95.

Nero targeted Christians in the city of Rome as scapegoats for the great fire that destroyed much of the city in A.D. 64. Consequently, he implemented the first organized persecution of Christians by the Roman government.

Since the book indicates a time of persecution, the late 60s A.D. is proposed by some commentators for the date of composition. But there are several problems with this date:

  • The book is addressed to Christians in the Province of Asia, not Rome.  Nero’s persecution was localized in Rome.
  • In Revelation, the conflict between Rome and Christians involved emperor worship, a practice not widespread at the time of Nero.  Domitian, on the other hand, promoted the practice.
  • Nero’s persecution was extremely violent. Christian leaders were put to death, not exiled. Banishment to a remote island like Patmos hundreds of kilometers from Rome would be unlikely.
  • Christians from Asia are portrayed as persecuted because they refused to participate in emperor worship.  Nero did not persecute Christians for refusing him worship, but instead, he blamed them for the conflagration in Rome.

The primary arguments for the later date include:

  • Strong church tradition associates the book of Revelation with the reign of Domitian (Against Heresies, 5.30.3.).
  • Revelation was addressed to churches located in the Roman province of Asia, not Rome.
  • John wrote from the Isle of Patmos around 60 kilometers off the west coast of Asia Minor.  He was familiar with the churches and cities of that province.  The focus is on events in Asia, not Rome.
  • The persecution of Christians in Asia became pronounced in the late first century under the reign of Domitian.  There is no existing evidence for organized Roman persecution in Asia in the late 60s A.D.
  • Only Roman authorities could order John’s banishment to Patmos, indicating a time of official persecution.  This fits the reign of Domitian, not Nero.
  • Patmos was within the administrative and judicial boundaries of the province of Asia during the reign of Domitian.  The provincial governor had the authority to banish someone to locations within his jurisdiction.

WHAT ABOUT THE TEMPLE?


Because the book employs language from the ancient sanctuary of Israel, it is argued that the Temple must have been standing in Jerusalem when it was written. And since the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, the book was composed prior to this date.

However, the imagery in Revelation is derived from the much older Tabernacle in the wilderness, not the later temple structure in Jerusalem built by Solomon and rebuilt after the Babylonian Captivity.

Tent under stars - Photo by Patrick Schneider on Unsplash
[Photo by Patrick Schneider on Unsplash]

The structure is explicitly designated the “
Tabernacle” or “tent” in Revelation 13:6 and in 15:5. The symbolism from the Exodus story is deliberate and integral to the narrative of the book - (Revelation 7:15, 21:3).

LITERARY FORM


John defined his vision as a “revelation” and labeled its contents “prophecy.” But its epistolary aspects demonstrate it was also a circular letter addressed to seven Christian congregations (Ian Boxall, The Revelation of Saint John [Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2006], p. 1.).

The book includes a summary statement, an epistolary opening, the body of the vision, and a concluding section or epilogue with final salutations - (Revelation 1:1-8, 22:8-21).

John was commanded to record and send what he saw to the “seven churches of Asia.”  It includes features common to formal letters of the period, including greetings, the naming of the sender, the naming of the addressees, a summary statement about its contents, the body of the letter, and concluding statements followed by final greetings and salutations.

The epistolary form, the stated destinations, and the intended audience must be given their proper weight when interpreting the book.

RECIPIENTS


The book is addressed to God’s “servants,” a group identified with the seven churches in Asia. In chapters 2-3, seven messages are addressed to each of the seven churches; however, they are not separate letters, and collectively, they are integral to the message of the entire book.

GEOGRAPHIC SETTING


John was exiled on the isle of Patmos, where he received his visions for the churches of Asia. The province included the western coastal regions of Asia Minor. Patmos was a small island approximately 60 kilometers from the west coast of Asia, and 90 kilometers from the city of Ephesus.

The order in which the seven churches are listed is arranged geographically. Ephesus was a leading city and port in the province.  It was the first city where a messenger from Patmos would arrive by ship. Beginning in Ephesus, a messenger would travel in a circuitous route to Smyrna, then to Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and finally, to Laodicea.

Three times the book refers to the “inhabited earth” or oikoumen√©.  The term describes the parts of the earth ruled by Rome.  In view is not the entire globe, but the “civilized” world in distinction from “barbarian” lands outside of the jurisdiction of the empire - (Revelation 3:10, 12:9, 16:14).

The initial geographic focus is regional: the province of Asia. However, in places, the entire Roman world, and even the Cosmos, is in included. Thus, Revelation has both local and universal aspects.

UNITY OF THE BOOK


The book is presented as a single work.  It is not “the revelations,” plural, but the “revelation,” singular.

Likewise, John refers to the contents of the entire book as “the prophecy,” once again, singular. The book was composed as a single document intended to be sent in its entirety to the addressed churches - (Revelation 1:3, 22:7, 22:10, 22:18-19).

OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND


Revelation includes more allusions to the Old Testament than any other New Testament document, but it never uses a citation formula such as “it is written,” nor does it quote any scriptural passages directly.  Instead, clauses from the Hebrew Bible are alluded to and woven into the fabric of the narrative.

Although Revelation alludes to passages from many Old Testament books, over half of the allusions are from the books of DanielEzekielIsaiah, and the Psalms, and the book is especially dependent on Daniel. The very first verse includes a clause from it that is repeated several times in Revelation - (Daniel 2:28-30 - “What things must come to pass.” Revelation 1:1, 1:19, 4:1).

But the book does more than use Old Testament verbiage to paint its picture of “what things must come to pass.”  Undoubtedly, it intends to call to mind the original contexts of key Old Testament passages to shed further light on its visions.

The book reinterprets and reapplies Old Testament passages in new and unexpected ways.  For example, the original prophecy from Daniel 2:28-30 concerned things that would come to pass “in later days.” But in Revelation, “latter days” becomes “soon,” indicating that the time of fulfillment was at hand.

Similarly, the prophet Daniel was commanded to “seal the words” of his prophecy until a “later time.” In contrast, John is commanded NOT to seal his prophecy because “the appointed time is near.” What was sealed in Daniel’s day was unsealed and revealed in the visions of John - (Daniel 12:4, Revelation 1:3, 22:10).

STRUCTURE


The book of Revelation is comprised of a prologue, the vision proper, and an epilogue. The vision falls into four recognizable divisions, each starting when John finds himself “in the spirit” in a specific location where he receives further revelation:

  1. (1:9-3:22) – John “came to be in the spirit in the Lord’s Day.”
  2. (4:1-16:21) – John “came to be in the spirit” and found himself before the Heavenly Throne.
  3. (17:1-21:8) – John was “carried away in the spirit” into the Wilderness by one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls of wrath.
  4. (21:9-22:7) – John was “carried away in the spirit” to a great and high mountain by one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls of wrath.

There are conceptual and literary parallels between the first two divisions, as well as the last two. For example, the third division begins with a description of a female figure, the “Great Harlot,” and focuses on the city where she resides - “Mystery Babylon.”

Likewise, the fourth division begins with a female figure, the “Bride of the Lamb,” and focuses on the city in which she resides – “New Jerusalem.”



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