A Brief Introduction to the Book of Revelation

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The book of Revelation records a vision received by the Apostle John while on the Isle of Patmos.  He was there “on account of the testimony of Jesus.” It was originally addressed and presumably delivered to seven Christian congregations located in key cities of the Roman province of Asia. Most likely it was penned in the late first century when Domitian was emperor in Rome (A.D. 81-96).
“A Revelation”
The first word of the book is the Greek noun apokalypsis (αποκαλυψις) or “revelation,” from which is derived the English term ‘apocalypse’ and the title commonly used for the book (‘Revelation’).  As originally written this word was not the book’s title but designated what it is, namely, a “revelation” from Jesus Christ. It is placed in the first position for emphasis.
In popular culture, ‘apocalypse’ is a term associated with the end of the world.  Its adjectival form or ‘apocalyptic’ conjures images of global catastrophes, earthquakes, tsunamis, warfare, and the like.
But the Greek word does not mean “destruction” or signify the end of the cosmos.  It means simply a “revelation, disclosure, an unveiling” (Wesley Perschbacher, New Analytical Greek Lexicon [Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 1990], p. 42.).  In the Bible, it often describes a revelation from God of something previously 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.”
‘Revelation’ indicates the nature of the book.  It is an unveiling of information previously unknown.  What was hidden in the Old Testament is now disclosed in and by Jesus Christ.
The Purpose
The stated purpose of the book is to “show to his servants those THINGS NECESSARY TO COME TO PASS SHORTLY” (Revelation 1:1). This purpose is further elaborated in 1:19 (“write, therefore, what you saw and what they are and WHAT THINGS ARE ABOUT TO COME TO PASS after these things)” and repeated in 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”). The purpose is reiterated in the concluding section of the book as follows:
·    (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.”
·   (22:16) - “I, Jesus, have sent my angel TO TESTIFY TO YOU OF THESE THINGS FOR THE ASSEMBLIES.”
Authorship and Identity of John
The Apostle John, the brother of James and son of Zebedee, has traditionally been recognized as the author of Revelation.  The tradition is old dating back at least to the first half of the Second Century (A.D. 135).
Revelation names “John” as author (Revelation 1:1, 1:4, 1:9, 22:8).  However, it never specifies which “John” is meant; he is never identified as a son of Zebedee or brother of James, and never called an apostle. Because of such omissions some question whether this ‘John’ is the same as John the Apostle.
Revelation does identify John as a “servant” of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:1), a “brother” and a fellow participant in the “tribulation and kingdom and endurance in Jesus” (1:9), and as numbered among the “prophets” (22:9).  Other factors related to his identity include:
·    His language demonstrates 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 conditions in those cities.
·   This John was exiled to Patmos.  Only Roman provincial authorities could have ordered this.  This infers he was a person of recognizable standing both within and without the churches of Asia (banishment was normally employed for individuals of some importance).
That the Author can refer to himself simply as “John” and have his authority recognized demonstrates he was a known quantity, at least among the Christians of Asia.  He must have been a person of some prominence in the Church.
Strong church traditions place John the son of Zebedee in Ephesus at the end of the first century.  Possibly he moved to the area following the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.  The strongest evidence for the authorship of John the Apostle comes from a church father, Irenaeus of Lyon (in modern France).  As a young Christian Irenaeus lived in Asia and was a pupil of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna.  Polycarp had been a disciple of the Apostle John.  According to Irenaeus Polycarp claimed the Apostle wrote Revelation (Against Heresies, 4.20.11.).  Justin Martyr writing around A.D. 135 also identified the John of Revelation as the Apostle (Dialogue with Trypho, 81.4.).
‘John’ was a common name at the time and there is no other John from this period associated with Ephesus and known to Church History who could be recognized simply by the designation “John.”  All in all, the evidence is strong that the author of Revelation was none other than the Apostle John, an eyewitness of Jesus Christ, brother of James and son of Zebedee.
Date of Writing
Proposed dates for the composition of Revelation are based on the historical settings inferred from the contents of the book.  John’s exile to Patmos, for example, indicates a time of persecution by Roman officialdom, at least at a regional level.  Particularly in chapters 2-3 there are hints of social tension between the churches of Asia and the surrounding society, as well as conflict with local Jewish synagogues.
There are two main proposed dates for the book.  First, John composed it around A.D. 65-70. during or shortly after Emperor Nero’s reign (A.D. 54-68).  Second, it was written around A.D. 90-95. during the reign of Emperor Domitian. Based on the latter assumption and since Domitian died in A.D. 96, the book of Revelation could not have been written later than A.D. 95.
The Emperor Nero blamed Christians for the great fire in the city of Rome in A.D. 64 and implemented the first organized persecution of Christians by the Roman government.  Since the book indicates a time of persecution, the late 60s is sometimes proposed for its date. However, key problems with this early date include:
·   The book is addressed to Christians in the Province of Asia not Rome.  Nero’s persecution was short and localized in Rome.  There is no evidence that it spread beyond Rome. 
·   In Revelation the conflict between Rome and Christians to some extent involves emperor worship, a practice not widespread or well developed at the time of Nero.  Domitian, on the other hand, promoted this 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 is unlikely.
·    Christians from Asia are portrayed as persecuted because they refused to participate in emperor worship (Revelation 13:4-813:15-16, 14:9-11, 15:2, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4).  Nero did not persecute Christians for refusing him worship, but because he (falsely) blamed them for the conflagration in Rome.
The primary arguments for the later date (A.D. 90-95) include:
·  Strong church tradition associates Revelation with the reign of Domitian (Against Heresies, 5.30.3.).
·    Revelation was addressed to churches located in the Roman province of Asia (western Turkey or Asia Minor), 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 in much of Revelation is on events in Asia rather than Rome.
·  Persecution of Christians in Asia was pronounced in the late first century under the reign of Domitian.  There is no existing evidence for organized or official Roman persecution in Asia in the late 60s A.D.
· Only Roman authorities could have ordered John’s banishment to Patmos, indicating a time of official persecution, at least in the region.  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.
Literary Form
John defines his vision as a “revelation” and describes its contents to be “prophecy” (Revelation 1:1-3). But the book’s epistolary aspects show 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 or superscription (1:1-3), an epistolary opening and address (1:4-8), the body of the vision (1:9-22:7), and a concluding section or epilogue with final salutations and exhortations (22:8-21).
John was commanded to record and send what he saw to the Seven Churches of Asia (1:11).  The book includes features common to formal letters of the period. This includes greetings, the naming of the sender, the naming of the addressees, a summary statement about its contents and purpose, the body of the letter, and concluding statements followed by final greetings and salutations.  The epistolary form and stated destinations of Revelation need to be given their proper weight when interpreting it.
Destination/Recipients of the Letter
The book is first addressed to God’s “servants” (Revelation 1:1).  This group is defined further as the Seven Churches or “assemblies” located in key cities of the Roman proconsular province of Asia (1:41:11).  The Seven Churches are dominant in chapters 1, 2 and 3, but they are kept in view in later chapters (e.g., 11:413:7-10) and are referred to again in its conclusion (22:16, “I Jesus have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches”).
In chapters 2-3, seven messages are addressed to each of Seven Churches, but these messages are not separate letters and collectively are integral to Revelation as a whole.  The book in its entirety is addressed to all Seven Churches and presumably was relevant to the churches of Asia.
When interpreting Revelation, one needs to consider seriously that the entire book was addressed to seven Christian congregations located in Asia in the first century.  Interpretations that render the book irrelevant to the situation of those Christians ignore the book’s historical and literary contexts.
Geographic Setting(s) of Revelation
John was on the Isle of Patmos when he received his vision, including its commands to record and send via letter what he saw to the churches of Asia.  While not explicitly stated, the presumption is that John did send copies of the book from Patmos to the Seven Churches.
‘Asia’ was the name given by Rome to the province in which the Seven Churches and their respective cities were located.  It consisted of a major portion of what is today western Turkey or Asia Minor. It included the western coastal region (Patmos likely was part of the province of Asia). 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 in Revelation 1:11, as well as the order of the seven messages in chapters 2-3, is most easily explained geographically.  Ephesus was a leading city and port in Asia.  It was the first city where a messenger from Patmos would arrive by ship on the mainland.  Beginning in Ephesus, a messenger carrying a letter would then travel in a circuitous route to Smyrna, then to Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and finally Laodicea.
Three times Revelation mentions the “inhabited earth” or oikoumené (Revelation 3:1012:916:14).  In the first century, this term most often referred to the Roman Empire.  In view was not the entire globe but the Roman “civilized” world as distinct from “barbarian” lands outside the bounds of the Empire. 
In Revelation 11:15, the Greek term kosmos (κοσμος) refers to the “kingdoms of the world.”  Over fifty times the term “earth” or  (γη) appears to refer to the entire earth (e.g., Revelation 1:5, 5:10, 6:412:9). 
The initial geographic focus of Revelation was regional, the province of Asia. But in places it seems the entire Roman world was in view.  Thus, in addition to its localized concerns, there were wider geographic implications to John’s vision.
The Unity of the Book
Although John may have received the contents of Revelation as a series of visions, the book is presented as a unity.  It is not “the revelations, plural,” but “revelation,” singular (Revelation 1:1).  Similarly, John refers to the contents of the entire book as “the prophecy,” again singular (1:3, 22:7, 22:10, 22:18-19). The book was composed as a single document intended in its entirety to be sent to each of the addressed churches of Asia.
The Old Testament Background
Revelation includes more allusions to and echoes of Old Testament scriptures than any other New Testament book.  But it never uses a citation formula like “it is written” or directly quotes scripture.  Instead, clauses from key Old Testament passages have been woven into the fabric of its narrative. 
Though Revelation alludes to passages from most books of the Old Testament, over half are from the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah and the Psalms. The book is particularly dependent on Daniel. Revelation’s very first verse includes a clause from Daniel 2:28-30, “what things must come to pass,” a clause used again in Revelation 1:19 and 4:1.
But Revelation does more than simply use Old Testament verbiage to paint its picture of “what things must come to pass.”  It undoubtedly intends to call to mind the original context of key Old Testament passages to shed further light on a described visionary event or image.  Revelation’s scriptural allusions have been carefully selected and placed.
Revelation also reinterprets and reapplies Old Testament passages in new and often unexpected ways.  For example, and again in Revelation 1:1, the original prophecy from Daniel 2:28-30 concerned things that would come to pass “in latter days.” But Revelation changes Daniel’s “latter days” to read “soon,” indicating the time of fulfillment is at hand. 
This understanding is confirmed in Revelation 1:3 where the churches are exhorted to “keep the words of the prophecy, because the appointed time is near.” The latter clause is derived from Daniel 12:4 where the prophet was commanded to “shut up the words and seal the book until the appointed time of the end.” What was sealed in Daniel’s day is unsealed and revealed in Revelation (Revelation 22:10).
The book of Revelation with its message to the churches is not entirely new or unique, though its form sets it apart from other New Testament books.  It portrays the implementation and eventual consummation of God’s redemptive plan that began in Genesis and culminated in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.
A primary subject is the unfolding of God’s kingdom rule; how His reign is to spread throughout the entire Cosmos, supplant all hostile powers and principalities, and inaugurate the New Creation. What the ancient prophets only anticipated and saw in part (Hebrews 1:1-2), has been and is being unveiled by Jesus Christ.
Basic Structure and Outline of Revelation
Revelation consists of a Prologue (Revelation 1:1-8), the Vision itself (1:9-22:7) and an Epilogue (22:8-21). The Vision falls into four easily recognized divisions, each starting with an episode in which John came to be “in the spirit” where he found himself in a specific location and then received further revelation. The divisions are:
·      (1:9-3:22) – John “came to be in the spirit in the Lord’s Day.”
·     (4:1-16:21) – John “came to be in the spirit” and found himself before the Heavenly Throne.
·    (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.
·   (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.
Furthermore, there are conceptual and literary parallels between the first two divisions (Revelation 1:9-3:22 and 4:1-16:21), as well as the last two (17:1-21:8 and 21:9-22:7). For example, the third division (17:1-21:8) begins with a description of a female figure, the “Great Harlot,” and focuses on the city wherein she resides, “Mystery Babylon.”  Likewise, the next section (21:9-22:7) begins with a female figure, the Bride of Christ, and describes the city in which she will reside forever, New Jerusalem.


Prologue (1:1-8):
The Purpose of the Revelation (1:1-3)
John’s Salutation to the Seven Churches (1:4-9)

Division I – Inaugural Vision of the Risen Christ (1:8-3:22):
Jesus in the Midst of the Churches (1:10-20)
Seven Messages for Seven Churches (2:1-3:22)

Division II – The Church in Hostile Territory (4:1-16:21):
The Divine Throne and the Sealed Scroll (4:1-5:14)
The Seven Seals (6:1-8:5):
The First Six Seals (6:1-17)
The Sealing & Numbering of God’s Servants (7:1-8)
The Innumerable Company of the Redeemed (7:9-17)
The Seventh Seal (8:1-5)
The Seven Trumpets (8:6-11:19):
The First Six Trumpets (8:6-9:21)
The Opened Scroll & Commissioning of the Church (10:1-11)
The Measuring of the Sanctuary (11:1-2)
The Two Witnesses (11:3-13)
The Seventh Trumpet (11:14-19)
God’s Victorious People vs. Satanic Forces (12:1-14:20):
The Son’s Victory over the Dragon (12:1-11)
The Defeated Dragon Pursues the Woman & her Seed (12:12-17)
The Beast from the Sea (13:1-10)
The Beast from the Land (13:11-18)
The Firstfruits & the Harvest (14:1-20)
The Seven Bowls of Wrath Culminate in Final Judgment (15:1-16:21)

Division III – The Destruction of Gods’ Cosmic Enemies (17:1-21:8):
The Fall of Babylon, the Great Whore (17:1-19:10)
The Destruction of the Beast & False Prophet (19:11-21)
The Binding, Release and Judgment of Satan (20:1-10)
The Great White Throne of Judgment (20:11-15)
Transitional Passage: The Descent of New Jerusalem (21:1-8)

Division IV – New Jerusalem:  Bride of Christ & City of God (21:9-22:7)

Epilogue – Final Warnings, Exhortations and Salutations (22:8-21)