An Introduction to Revelation
The book of Revelation has always appealed to people. There is something about a good mystery that stirs the heart and Revelation is certainly mysterious. The reason is that the book is full of vivid images, but with little explanation as to what the images mean. It is as if the author assumes the reader of the book is familiar with the interpretation of these symbols, so no explanation is needed.
The result has been that the book of Revelation has become the proof text for many false doctrines. After all, if I say that the images mean “X,” how can you possibly disagree? And therein lies the difficulty for Christians. Most of us recognize that the book is difficult because of its heavy use of symbols, so we put off studying it. However, our unfamiliarity with the book causes us to let many erroneous statements to go unchallenged.
I doubt that I can explain everything that the book of Revelation discusses. Many great scholars have stated their confusion over different sections of the text. I doubt I can do any better. However, I think enough of Revelation is clear that we can understand its message. One rule that any student of the Bible must always keep in mind is that God is not the author of confusion (I Corinthians 14:33). The Bible has one source (God) and that source does not contradict itself. Anything we glean from the pages of Revelation must agree with the rest of the Bible. If it contradicts what the rest of the Bible states, then we must have misunderstood the symbolism of Revelation.
Let’s begin by looking at the book as a whole and address some basic questions.
Who wrote the book?
The book is often called the Revelation of John, but notice the statement in verse 1. The source of the book is Jesus Christ himself. The words were given to an angel who in turn gave them to John. John simply wrote down the things that were revealed to him (Revelation 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8).
There is almost no doubt that the Apostle John is the writer of Revelation – the same author of John, I John, II John, and III John. Early Christians stated that the Apostle John was the author in their own writings, as attested to by: Justin Martyr, the Shepherd of Hermas, Melito, Irenaeus, the Muratorian canon, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, etc.. But we also have the book’s own testimony. In Revelation 1:2, the author calls himself a witness. It is the same type of designation that John makes in I John 1:1-4. One of the prime duties of an apostle was to serve as a witness (Luke 24:48, I Corinthians 9:1). We can be confident that the Apostle John gave his testimony in the book of Revelation.
When was the book written?
There are usually two dates ascribed to the book. The first is between AD 64 and AD 68, during the reign of Nero. The second date is between AD 91 and AD 96 during the reign of Domitian. Both eras were times of persecution against the church. Nero’s persecution of Christians was limited to those who lived in Rome. However, those who ascribe to the earlier date believe that the persecutions mentioned in Revelation were those conducted by the Jews. Those who ascribe to the earlier date also believe that the city prophesied to be destroyed was the city of Jerusalem. The emperor Domitian had the greater reign of terror that lasted many years and was conducted across the entire Roman empire. Those who ascribe to the latter date believe the city prophesied to be destroyed was Rome.
Evidence for an early date
Revelation mentions that hostilities by Rome were becoming difficult (Revelation 1:9; 2:10,13). Typical evidence cited that this is Nero’s persecution in A.D. 64 are:
- Muratorian Canon which comes down to us from AD 170–210 states, "Paul, following the order of his own predecessor John, writes to no more than seven churches by name." The claim is that John wrote to seven churches prior to Paul writing to seven churches. If this were true, then Revelation would have to have been written in the 40's or early 50's – earlier than anyone claims Revelation was written. But note that the Muratiorian Canon does not state that John wrote before Paul, only that John was an apostle before Paul.
- Alex Ogden claims “The Syriac Version of the New Testament, which is the oldest version of the New Testament, dating all the way back to the second century, places the Revelation in the period of Nero, 68 A.D.” The statement is misleading because the oldest surviving Syriac translation, the Peschito, does not contain Revelation. This is the manuscript that dates to the second century. Later Syriac translations do have Revelation, but it isn’t until the Syriac Vulgate Bible of the sixth century do we find a comment inserted that Revelation was written when John was sent to Patmos by Nero.
- Clement (A.D. 150–215) makes the following statement supporting an early dating: "For the teaching of our Lord at His advent, beginning with Augustus and Tiberius, was completed in the middle of the times of Tiberius. And that of the apostles, embracing the ministry of Paul, end with Nero" [Miscellanies 7:17]. However, this says that Jesus taught from Augustus to Tiberius and that Paul’s ministry ended with Nero. It says nothing about when the entire New Testament was completed.
- A common argument is to note that Revelation does not mention Jerusalem’s destruction. Thus, it is argued that Revelation must have been written before AD 70. But notice this is an argument from a lack of evidence, which is not really an argument at all. If Revelation was written in A.D. 96, there would be no need to mention a historical fact from a quarter century prior that doesn’t factor into the future events discussed.
- There is mention of Jerusalem in Revelation 11:8. But notice that Jerusalem is compared to Sodom, a city destroyed in the past for its evil. If Jerusalem was already destroyed, then further illustrates the point.
Evidence for a later date
The alternative is Domitian’s persecution, who reigned from A.D. 81-96. The evidence cited to support that Revelation was written during Domitian’s persecution are:
- Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, a disciple of John. Irenaeus in A.D. 180 said, "For that (the apocalyptic vision) was seen not a very long time since, but almost in our own day, toward the end of Domitian's reign." [Against Heresies, V, xxx, iii, ANF, I, 559-560.] Domitian died while serving as emperor in A.D. 96.
- Eusebius was a fourth century historian who preserved many early writings. Eusebius records that John was banished to Patmos during Domitian’s 15th year of reign (A.D. 96) [Ecclesiastical History , III, xx,103]. He also records that John returned from Patmos after the death of Domitian (A.D. 96) [Ecclesiastical History , III, xxiii, 104].
- “Eusebius quoted also Hegesippus’ testimony [abt. 150 A.D.] that John returned to Ephesus upon being released from exile after the accession of Nerva in A. D. 96 (HE III. xx).” Nerva was the successor to Domitian and served as the Roman Emperor from A.D. 96 to A.D. 98.
- “Apart from quoting Irenaeus, he [Eusebius] refers to ‘the record of our ancient men’ (i.e. in all probability the Memoirs of Hegesippus) for the tradition that ‘the apostle John also took up his abode once more at Ephesus after his exile’ under Domitian’s successor Nerva.” [John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, p. 223].
- Victorinus (late 3rd century) wrote, “He says this, because when John said these things he was in the island of Patmos, condemned to the labour of the mines by Cæsar Domitian. There, therefore, he saw the Apocalypse; and when grown old, he thought that he should at length receive his quittance by suffering, Domitian being killed, all his judgments were discharged. And John being dismissed from the mines, thus subsequently delivered the same Apocalypse which he had received from God.” [Commentary on the Apocalypse, 10.11].
- Jerome (late 4th century) wrote, “In the fourteenth year then after Nero Domitian having raised a second persecution he was banished to the island of Patmos, and wrote the Apocalypse, on which Justin Martyr and Irenæus afterwards wrote commentaries. But Domitian having been put to death and his acts, on account of his excessive cruelty, having been annulled by the senate, he returned to Ephesus under Pertinax and continuing there until the time of the Emperor Trajan, founded and built churches throughout all Asia, and, worn out by old age, died in the sixty-eighth year after our Lord's passion and was buried near the same city.” [De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men), Chapter 9]. Note Jerome’s use of the fuller name, “Nero Domitian.” This may be a source of confusion between which emperor was reigning when Revelation was written.
- Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 155-215) wrote, “And that you may be still more confident, that repenting thus truly there remains for you a sure hope of salvation, listen to a tale, which is not a tale but a narrative, handed down and committed to the custody of memory, about the Apostle John. For when, on the tyrant's death, he returned to Ephesus from the isle of Patmos, he went away, being invited, to the contiguous territories of the nations, here to appoint bishops, there to set in order whole Churches, there to ordain such as were marked out by the Spirit.” [Who Is the Rich Man?, 42]. Later Clement mentions John as being an old man. Eusebius identifies the “tyrant” as Domitian [Ecclesiastical History III.23].
- Nero killed both Peter and Paul [Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, III.18; II.25]. If he was killing apostles, why would he banish John to Patmos? But history tells us that Domitian frequently banished people he disliked.
- The church in Ephesus was started by Paul (Acts 19) in the later part of Claudius’ reign. In Ephesians 1:15, written around A.D. 61 during Paul’s first imprisonment, they are commended for their faith and love. But in Revelation 2:4, the Ephesians had left their first love. This indicates some time has passed.
- Revelation 3:17 mentions that Laodicea was a wealthy city. In A.D. 60, Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake. It would have taken a while to restore Laodicea to its former state of glory.
- Nero’s persecution was mostly confined to Rome and it was not religiously motivated. But Revelation 2:13 mentions that Antipas is killed at Pergamum.
The weight of evidence favors the later date. In fact, some of the early Christian’s writings state that the book was written during Domitian’s reign. As I studied the book, I found that the imagery does not fit well with the destruction of Jerusalem, so I lean toward the later date.
What is being revealed?
Regardless of when the book was written, we can understand the purpose for writing the book. One of the greatest errors people make in regards to understanding Revelation is to ignore several statements in the book that the things described in the book would shortly take place (Revelation 1:1,3; 22:6,10). Any view that does not give meaning to the symbols in Revelation as occurring in the first or second century is wrong. In other words, the Mormon’s claim that parts of Revelation predict the book of Mormon is wrong. 1800 years later is not near to the time of John’s writing. Something that happens 1800 years later is not something that would take place shortly. Popular claims by the Prophecy Club that Revelation talks about one world order, the destruction of the world by Russia or the Middle East, or any similar claim is also wrong. We do not live in a time near to John’s. Events in our future will not occur shortly after John recorded Revelation.
Now, this does not mean that everything recorded in Revelation deals with events in the first and second century. There can be, and I believe there are, events discussed which deals with the second coming of Jesus Christ, especially Revelation 20:11 to 22:5. But any view that states the bulk of the book is about the second coming of Jesus cannot be correct because John said very clearly that the events would come soon after he wrote them.
The purpose of Revelation is to give encouragement to Christians (Revelation 1:3). Throughout the book there is a portrayal of great tribulations which are overcome by God. (In fact, the word “overcome” is used 17 times in the book of Revelation – see Revelation 12:11 and 21:7 for examples). Wars are conducted, but victory is assured. Full triumph over the enemies of God will be had. We see throughout the book that God is in control even when things look bleak. It echos the same theme Paul makes in I Corinthians 15:54-57.
Like other books of the New Testament, the book of Revelation is written to the Christians who lived at the time of its writing, but what it teaches is applicable to all Christians who learn from its principles. History has a tendency to repeat itself.
How was the message revealed?
John stated that the message given to him was “signified” (Revelation 1:1). This just means that the message was written down in signs or symbols. A quick reading of the book shows that is obvious, but why use symbols instead of plain text? First, the use of symbols limits who can understand its meaning. Like Jesus’ use of parables, the symbols would have meaning to Christians and would be gibberish to those not inclined to follow God (Matthew 13:10-17). Notice that John said the book was written to show God’s servants the things that would shortly take place (Revelation 1:1). The use of symbols limits that revelation to only God’s servants. Second, the use of symbols give greater illustration. Great pageantry and glory is described with vivid symbols. Things too great and marvelous to understand are compared to familiar ideas. For example, heaven is described as having streets paved with gold. Yet heaven is a spiritual realm and gold is physical. Are the streets actually gold lined, or is the author describing a place so beautiful and valuable that the most precious metal in our world is considered cheap paving material in heaven? Finally, the use of symbols dramatizes the events. The scenes are so vividly portrayed that they are locked into our memory. Readers of Revelation do not quickly forget its message.
To whom is the book written?
Revelation 1:4 says the book was written to the seven churches in Asia. The area then known as Asia is now called Asia Minor. Chapters two and three list the names of the churches, but why was the book written to these particular churches? We know that there were more than seven churches in Asia from a reading of the New Testament. For example, there was a church in Colosse (Colossians 1:2), Hierapolis (Colossians 4:13), Troas (Acts 20:5), and Miletus (Acts 20:17). This apparent conflict gives us a hint that the seven churches are not literal but figurative.
Seven is regarded in Hebrew literature as the perfect number. For example, when Solomon described the perfection of his new wife, he listed seven attributes of her features (Song of Solomon 4:1-7). The number seven is used 54 times in the book of Revelation, giving credence that it is not a literal value but a representation of an idea. The seven churches in Asia is a perfect representation of the Lord’s church as a whole. The seven churches were selected because their attributes represent the attitudes and conditions of all churches.
From whom does the book come?
John tells us in Revelation 1:4-5 that the words come from the eternal God (“Him who is, and who was, and who is to come”). This echos God’s statement in Exodus 3:14 that His name is “I Am.” God is eternal. He has always existed, He continues to exist, and He will always exist. (See also Isaiah 43:12-13).
The book is also from the Seven Spirits. Again we have an apparent conflict. Paul said in Ephesians 4:4-6 that there is only one Spirit. Since Paul’s writing is plain and John’s revelation is in symbols we understand that once again the number seven is a representation of perfection. This is the complete and perfect Spirit, the Holy Spirit. It is possible that John is alluding to Zechariah 4:10 which mentions the seven eyes of the Lord. The Spirit of God sees all things perfectly. Nothing is hidden from His sight.
And finally, the book is from Jesus Christ, of which John has much to say so I will save that for another chapter.