Content of this Study (top)
It is said that no NT book has a stronger or earlier tradition about its authorship than the Revelation of John (Carson/Moo/Morris, p.468) - and not without good reason: Justin, Melito (bishop of Sardis), Irenaeus and the Muratorian canon, all from the early and mid-2nd Century ascribe Revelation to the Apostle John. There is also evidence that Papias, a man who personally knew John the Apostle attributed it to him as well (see C/M/M, p.468). In fact, there is no evidence that anyone doubted this claim until Dionysius, a 3rd Century bishop of Alexandria.
Dionysius and almost all who share his doubt, base their concerns on the content of the text, arguing that 1) if John the Apostle were the author he would have mentioned his apostolic standing somewhere in the letter; 2) the author of Revelation could not be the same as the author of the fourth gospel or the first epistle of John, due to a) theological and b) stylistic differences between the texts.
In answer to the first, it is often pointed out that there is little reason for the author, if John the Apostle, to mention his apostolicity: he was well-known to his intended audience already, and there doesn't appear to be any other likely well-known "John"s in that part of the church at the time from which he has to distinguish himself (C/M/M p.472). Guthrie also asks, "Was the Asiatic church overrun by brilliant Christians by the name of John, who would only need to announce their name for the Christians to know which was meant?" (Guthrie p.946).
In answer to the second, the theology of Revelation does differ in focus from that of the Fourth Gospel certainly, as does the style; however, these both are adequately accounted for when the purpose of each is taken into account: while the Gospel was written as a record of the life of Christ, the Revelation is a complex letter to churches, first calling them into account and encouraging them, then moving into a record of a vision of the times to come and the coming of "The New Jerusalem" - a difference in focus of theology, and a difference in style would be expected I should think!
It seems foolhardy to neglect the early church witness to the authorship of Revelation by John the Apostle. There is no strong case against this claim, even though many contemporary scholars are persuaded by the case that exists. For a full discussion on the authorship of John, see Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, pp.932 ff. and C/M/M, An Introduction to the New Testament, pp.468-473.
There is a very large time-frame in which it is possible to date Revelation (approx. early 50's to early 2nd Century). It seems most likely, however, that it was written during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD), most likely in the final years of his reign.
- 1:1-8 Introduction
- 1:1-3 The Revelation of Jesus Christ is introduced by John.
- 1:4-8 John greets the seven churches and gives praise to God.
- 1:9-3:22 The First Vision
- 1:9-20 John sees "one like a Son of Man", who explains that He is the First and the Last - He was dead, but is alive for ever and ever, and tells John to write what he sees.
- 2:1-7 The Church in Ephesus, who had "forsaken their first love", is first encouraged then called into repentance, and then encouraged again.
- 2:8-11 The Church in Smyrna is first encouraged, then told of future suffering and is further encouraged to continue faithful in order to receive the crown of life.
- 2:12-17 The Church in Pergamum is commended for its faith, but is called into repentance after some members followed false teaching.
- 2:18-29 The Church in Thyatira is first encouraged, then warned of associating with "the woman, Jezebel".
- 3:1-6 The Church in Sardis is warned to "wake up", strengthen their faith and repent.
- 3:7-13 The Church in Philadelphia is encouraged for keeping the word of Christ even though they have little strength.
- 3:14-22 The Church in Laodicea is rebuked for being "lukewarm", and is reassured of Christ's love.
- 4:1-22:6 The Second Vision
- 4:1-11 John sees a vision of a throne room in heaven, where many creatures give glory to God.
- 5:1-14 "The lamb who was slain" alone is found worthy to take up the sealed scroll from Him who sits on the throne, for with his blood he had purchased men for God. Then every creature in heaven and earth gives glory, praise and honour to Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.
- 6:1-8 John watches as the lamb opens the first four of seven seals on the scroll. After the first is removed, bloody conquest is set upon the earth; and after the second, war; after the third, famine, and; after the fourth, pestilence.
- 6:9-14 As the 5th seal is removed, the souls of Christian martyrs are revealed calling for judgement of the earth; and as the sixth seal is removed, much great and cosmic calamity occurs, and the inhabitants of the earth fear the judgement to come.
- 7:1-8 A "seal" is put "on the foreheads of 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel".
- 7:9-17 A great multitude of those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb are seen by John standing before the throne giving praise to God and the lamb.
- 8:1-5 After the seventh seal is opened, there is first silence, then an angel hurls a censer filled with fire on the earth.
- 8:6-13 The first four of seven angels sound their trumpets one at a time. After each, much destruction is set upon the earth. Then John sees an eagle that warns of even greater woe following the blasts of the other three angels' trumpets.
- 9:1-12 After the fifth angel sounds his trumpet, locusts are released with power to torment for five months those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.
- 9:13-19 After the sixth angel sounds his trumpet, "four angels bound at the great river Euphrates" are released to kill a third of mankind by spreading fire, smoke and sulfur.
- 9:20-21 Those still alive do not repent of their sins but continue worshipping demons and idols and committing sins.
- 10:1-11 John sees another mighty angel holding a little scroll who speaks, but John is commanded not to write what he said. Then John is told to eat the little scroll, which will be sweet in his mouth, but sour in his stomach.
- 11:1-14 John is told of God's two witnesses, who would prophecy with power on the earth for 1,260 days. The beast from the abyss will then kill them and their bodies will lie for 31/2 days. Then God will breathe life into them again and call them to Him. An earthquake will then kill 7,000, and the survivors will be terrified and give glory to God.
- 11:15-19 After the seventh angel sounded his trumpet, loud voices in heaven said, "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ". The 24 elders before God gave Him thanks and praise, and God's temple in heaven was opened.
- 12:1-13:1a John then sees a vision of a woman and a dragon. The woman gives birth and the son she bears is "snatched up to heaven". John reports that there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels overpowered the dragon (Satan) and hurled him down to earth. After initially going after the woman, the dragon "went off to make war" against those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.
- 13:1b-10 John then sees a vision of a beast given power by the dragon and worshipped by all on earth who do not have their names in the book of life. John concludes that this calls for patient endurance.
- 13:11-18 John then sees another beast exercising the authority of the first on his behalf, performing miraculous signs and deceiving the inhabitants of the earth. He also caused everyone to receive the "mark of the beast" (666) so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark. John concludes that this calls for wisdom.
- 14:1-5 John then sees the lamb, standing on Mt Zion, with 144,000 who had His and His Father's name written on their foreheads. John then hears a sound like harpists playing their harps, and they sang a new song before the throne.
- 14:6-13 John then sees three angels. The first proclaims the gospel, the second proclaims the fall of Babylon, and the third proclaims God's judgement on those who worshipped the beast and received his mark. Then John hears a voice from heaven say: "Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on".
- 14:14-20 John then sees "one like a son of man" seated on a cloud with a crown of gold on his head and a sickle in his hand. He swung his sickle over the earth and the earth was harvested.
- 15:1-8 John then sees seven angels with the seven last plagues. They held harps and sang praises to God. The angels were given bowls filled with the wrath of God and the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from His power.
- 16:1-12 The first six angels "pour out the wrath of God" on the earth causing much pain and suffering amongst those there who cursed the name of the Lord and refused to repent.
- 16:13-16 John then sees three evil spirits come out of the mouth of the dragon, the beast and the false prophet. Jesus proclaims that He will come "like a thief". The evil spirits gather the kings of the earth to the place called "Armageddon".
- 16:17-21 The seventh angel pours out his bowl and a voice from the throne says "It is done" - then there came lightning, thunder and an earthquake. The great city split into three parts. Again much calamity fell upon men and they cursed God.
- 17:1-18 John then sees a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was drunk with the blood of the saints. An angel then explains to John the meaning of what he sees.
- 18:1-24 John then sees an angel with great authority proclaiming the fall of Babylon.
- 19:1-10 John hears what sounds like the roar of a great multitude shouting praises to God for His salvation.
- 19:11-21 John then sees a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True and named "the Word of God", and the armies of heaven were following Him. John then sees the beast and followers come together to make war against the rider and his army. But the beast and the false prophet were captured and thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, and the rest were killed.
- 20:1-10 John then sees an angel seize the dragon and bind him for a thousand years. He also saw the souls of those who had died for Christ - they came to life and reigned with him for one thousand years. When the one thousand years are over, Satan will be released to gather an army against God, but will be thrown into the lake of burning sulfur where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown.
- 20:11-15 John then sees the great judgement. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
- 21:1-22:6 Then John sees the coming of "The New Jerusalem". He who was seated on the throne said: "I am making everything new".
- 22:7-21 Close
- 22:7-21 John closes the book with two recordings of Jesus' promise to return, as well as a call to take the free gift of eternal life and a warning not to change any of the words in his book. He concludes with Jesus' promise again that he is coming soon, calls for Christ to come, and for grace to be with God's people.
Reading Revelation (top)
Most who have any acquaintance with the Revelation of John view its contents as somewhat incomprehensible - having too much symbolism and hidden meanings to be applicable, or even understandable today. For this reason study of Revelation will often be shied away from by the modern reader. This is a shame, as Revelation can be an amazingly rewarding book to read if approached in the right way: much of the customs, symbolisms, allusions and history, which the original readers would have understood a great deal easier than we, is lost on the modern reader; however, understanding can be gained through an appreciation of the extent to which this prophecy should be interpreted, the layout of the text, and certain meanings and symbolisms.
The extent of necessary interpretation (top)
Some students of Revelation will demand an absolutely literal interpretation of the events described in Revelation. (In fact, a great deal of sites on the Internet are dedicated to end-time prophecy based on this kind of literal interpretation.) Examples of the results of this type of approach can be found in groups or individuals who believe they know the date and time of the return of Christ (but cf. Matt. 24:36), or those who attempt to predict major world events or catastrophes.
Others claim that John was writing of events immediately following or pertaining to his time. It is indeed easy to see a Roman Emperor persecuting Christians as "the beast" (chapter 13), and it is similarly easy to tie in other events that occurred in the immediate post-history of John with events described in His revelation.
However, we must ascertain that John's text had immediate relevance to those of his time, as well as continued relevance to readers throughout history. While it may have been necessary for John to use symbols (which were readily understandable to the immediate recipients) in order to mask his pro-Christian (and somewhat anti-Roman) message, the use of symbols also indicates the possibility that John was referring to events right throughout world history - perhaps even one symbolic reference of John refers to multiple events of a similar type.
Discussion on the extent of necessary interpretation remains undecided (although I am persuaded that a completely literal interpretation is out of the question!). It seems, however, that the importance of John's message is not in conveying or predicting the events of the future (be it immediate or continuing future) as many assume it to be. Rather it is important how events and beings of a certain nature interact with mankind, God and Christ, how they work according to the will of God, and where they fit in, in the playing out of world history. For example, it seems that it is not so important who 'the beast' is, as the fact that he misleads the inhabitants of the earth to turn away from God and as a result will be dealt with according to God's will. From this we should learn to watch for, and be wary of, those who would turn our attention from God towards a false god. Similarly, John recorded Christ's promise to return not so that we could try and establish the exact time He will return, but so that we can live expecting His return at any time, and so be prepared for it.
Therefore, in this study I will not focus on "who" or "what" specifically is represented by some of the more ambiguous symbols, but the meaning behind them and the application to us today. Below (under the heading "Symbols and meanings") are listed some of the more obvious meanings of the symbolic language of John.
Reading Revelation closely, we see that John had two visions incorporated into the text, the first beginning in Chapter 1 and the second in Chapter 4. All content in Chapters 2-3 relate to the first vision, and all content in the remainder of the book relates to the second. The first vision relates to the seven Churches in Asia-minor, the second to the path of God's people through the coming time (4-20), before "the New Jerusalem" comes (21-22).
We also note that chapters 6-16 describe four 'episodes', the first being seven seals depicting tyranny; the second being seven trumpets depicting chaos; the third being seven signs depicting persecution of Christians, and the fourth being seven plagues depicting destruction. It is tempting and often assumed that these episodes should be viewed as occurring one after another as they appear in the text - first tyranny, then chaos, then persecution and then destruction. However, it seems more likely that these episodes are simply the result of John focusing on four different facets of the one time period, and should be understood to be occurring simultaneously.
Therefore, we can see that the layout of the text appears to deal with time in the following way:
- 1-3 Introduction and the first vision
- 2-3 The (then) current Church in Asia-minor.
- 4-22 The second vision
- 6:1-8:5 The time from John to the coming of "The New Jerusalem" focusing on the tyranny of the age.
- 8:6-11:19 The time from John to the coming of "The New Jerusalem" focusing on the chaos of the age.
- 12:1-14:20 The time from John to the coming of "The New Jerusalem" focusing on the persecution of Christians.
- 15:1-16:21 The time from John to the coming of "The New Jerusalem" focusing on the destruction of the age.
- 17:1-20:15 The time from John to the coming of "The New Jerusalem" and the great judgment.
- 21:1-22:6 The time of the coming of "The New Jerusalem".
Symbols and meanings (top)
- White: Refers to kingly rule, but also cleanliness - as in righteousness, freedom from stain or blemish - to be "washed in the blood of the lamb" (7:14).
- Scarlet/Red will remind us of blood and can be meant as a contrast to the white, and therefore its opposite.
- Throne: Conquest and rule
- Crown: Conquest and rule
- Horn: Power
- Eye: Knowledge
- Right hand: Authority
- One thousand: A large number (or long time)
- Twenty-four: Leaders from old and new covenants
- Twelve: Leaders of the redeemed
- Ten: A round number
- Seven: God's perfect number; symbolises eternity
- Six: Satan's representative number (Satan falls short of God's perfection though claims to be God, just as six falls short of seven)
- Three and a half years or forty-two months: A period in human history which will come to an end.
- Lion: Nobility
- Ox: Strength
- Eagle: Speed
- Man: Wisdom
- Lamb: Helplessness
(Most of this taken from Paul Barnett's Apocalypse Now and Then: Reading Revelation Today, Appendix.)
The Message of Revelation (top)
Utilising the basic knowledge of layout and symbolism as above, the message of Revelation can become clear, applicable and helpful. I especially noted the continuous presence of the gospel in Revelation, as well as its dealing with the issues of Christ's triumph, sin and the devil; and the book's overall encouragement for the Christian to persevere in his or her faith.
The gospel in Revelation (top)
First, we may see that the gospel is a constant theme throughout the book: Christ, the Son of God (2:18), the "lamb who was slain" (5:6), purchased men for God with his blood (5:9), has received authority to rule (12:10), and will come again in judgement at the end of the world (22:7,12).
Issues of Christ's triumph, sin and the devil (top)
We can also see clearly that while Christ has secured a permanent victory (5:5,9), Satan has been hurled to the earth to tempt mankind in his limited time left (12:1-13:1) yet is also in a sense chained and kept under lock and key (20:1-2). But Christ will come again (22:7,12) and the New Jerusalem will come upon earth, where there will be no suffering or pain, no sin, and where God will live with His people (21:1-5).
Encouragement to persevere (top)
Understanding the victory won by Christ (5:5,9) and the "chained" and temporary power of Satan (20:1-2), as well as the views John gives us of the "souls of those who died for Christ" in heaven already (6:9 & 20:4), the "great multitude" of those who are in Christ in heaven (7:9-10) and the comforting and amazing view of heaven in (21:1-5), can only be an encouragement for the Christian to persevere in his or her faith. While Satan can tempt us, Christ has won - those "in Him" will go to live with Him forever and Satan will receive eternal justice (20:10).
Further Reading (top)
For further reading on the subject of Revelation, I recommend Leon Morris' commentary on Revelation in the Tyndale Commentary series, and Paul Barnett's excellent study guide, "Apocalypse Now and Then: Reading Revelation Today".