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Introduction to the Book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ

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General Info

The title of the book is taken from the opening phrase, “The revelation of Jesus Christ” (Greek Apokalypsis Iēsou Christou).  The first word, from which we get our English word “apocalypse”, refers to a disclosure, an unveiling, or a revelation.  In this case we’re actually witnessing a divine revelation.  Of course, all books of the Bible are divinely inspired and thus a self-revelation from God, but here we have it stated most plainly.  Verses 1:1 and 22:16 reveal that we can also interpret the opening phrase “the revelation about Jesus Christ” and/or “the revelation from Jesus Christ”.  Jesus sent His angel to relay His message to the Apostle John.  Thus the message is both from Christ and about Christ.

The book of Revelation is a fitting entry to wrap up the divinely inspired story that began in Genesis and runs throughout the Bible.  God used a number of diverse human authors over a period of about 1500 years in getting his self-revelation to us.  Many scholars during this time have referred to Genesis and Revelation as bookends of the Bible.  The major themes and doctrines that were introduced in Genesis are fulfilled / consummated in Revelation.  For example, Genesis begins with the original Creation of the heavens and the earth, and Revelation ends with their destruction and the re-creation of the New Heavens and the New Earth.  In Genesis, we witness the initial triumph of Satan over the first Adam in which sin came into the world.  In Revelation, we see the final defeat of Satan by the second Adam, Jesus Christ, who cast Satan into the Lake of Fire (Hell), and did away with sin forever.

Some scholars have noted that, for a book that claims to be an unveiling, many things within it appear to be veiled, and we certainly agree to a point.  Although the major purposes and themes of the book are abundantly clear, many of the details surrounding the events will continue to be debated until they actually occur.  In addition, proponents of some interpretive views contend that all or most of the events depicted in the book have already been fulfilled.  In this article, we primarily examine the plain reading of the text (interpret literal as literal when the literal makes sense, symbolism as symbolism etc, according to the original author’s intention).  That is, we take the view that in the first 3 chapters, John is speaking of his past and present times, while chapters 4-22 refer to things that must be fulfilled in our future.  See the “Interpretation Hints and Challenges” section below for additional info.

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Brief Survey

The prologue reveals that the Apostle John receives a revelation (unveiling) from the Lord Jesus Christ and is instructed to record the things that he had seen, the things that are, and the things that must take place in the future.  John then sees a vision of the risen Christ, not as he was when he was on the earth, but in His glory.  In chapters 2 and 3, John is instructed to compose a letter to seven churches in Asia, commending them for their good and reprimanding them for their failures.

Beginning in chapter 4, the scene shifts to the future for the remainder of the book.  John first sees a vision of God’s heavenly throne, along with twenty-four elders (possible representing the church) and four winged creatures constantly worshiping the One sitting on the throne.  In chapter 5, John sees the scroll with seven seals (representing the title to the earth) in God’s right hand, but no one was found worthy to open the scroll.  John then saw a Lamb (Jesus Christ) standing in the middle of the throne and an innumerable number of angel surrounded the throne, singing and worshipping the One who alone was worthy of opening the seals and scroll.

Thus in chapters 6 and 7, John witnesses the beginning of the Tribulation period that will last through chapter 19.  The period can be broken down into three series of seven judgments (Seven Seals, Seven Trumpets, and Seven Bowls), with a short interlude between the sixth and seventh Seal and a longer one between the sixth and seventh Trumpet.  It is thought by many that the first six seals are opened during the first half of the seven-year Tribulation and the remainder are opened during the last half (the Great Tribulation).  Opening each of the first four seals unleashes a rider on a different colored horse, the first representing a conqueror (possibly the Antichrist).  The other three represent warfare, famine, and death, having the power to kill a fourth of the earth’s population.  The fifth seal is the souls of the martyrs crying out for justice and a promise from God to avenge them.  The sixth seal is a great earthquake, after which we’re introduced to the 144,000 Jewish servants  that will witness to the Gentiles during the Great Tribulation.  The seventh represents the beginning of the seven trumpet judgments.

In chapters 8 and 9, we see the first six trumpet judgments, beginning with hail and fire, mixed with blood, that burned up a third of the earth.  A mountain of fire is then thrown into the sea, turning a third of the sea to blood, killing a third of its creatures, and destroying a third of all ships at sea.  Next, a blazing star falls from the sky, polluting a third of all fresh water and killing many people.  Then, darkness results when a third of the sun, moon and stars are darkened.  Another star then falls from the sky, opening an abyss that produces locusts to attach and torture earth’s occupants for months.  Finally, the sixth trumpet ushers in a war in which a third of the remaining people of earth are killed.

In chapters 10-14, we receive a temporary break from the judgments as John records a series of visions of things that are to come later in the book.  John first relates the vision of the Angel with the little scroll that is both bitter and sweet, like the word of God.  We're then told of the two witnesses that would be killed, but would be resurrected after three and a half days.  In chapter 12, we see the Woman (Israel) with child (Christ) and the Dragon (Satan), depicting the cosmic battle between good and evil, ending with Satan’s banishment from Heaven.  In chapter 13, we're introduced to two other beasts, the beast from the sea (Antichrist) and the beast from the earth (the false prophet), and the mark of the beast.  Finally in chapter 14, we witness three angels delivering the message of the final defeat of Satan that will take place in chapter 20.

In chapter 15 and 16, the longer interlude ends with the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb, and with the sounding of the seventh trumpet, heralding the beginning of the Seven Bowl judgments.  Unlike the other judgments, these final seven appear to come in rapid succession.  We first see horrible and painful sores breaking out on all who have taken the mark of the beast.  Then, the sea becomes like blood and all remaining sea creatures die, and likewise, all remaining inland water bodies become blood, thus eliminating amy remaining drinkable water.  The kingdom of the beast is plunged into darkness, and the great river Euphrates dries up, allowing the vast armies of the east to march westward on dry ground to Megiddo for the battle of Armageddon.  Finally, the outpouring of the seventh bowl results in a greatest earthquake ever, along with one hundred pound hailstorms that will destroy all islands, flatten the mountains, and permanently alter the earth’s topography.  Yet, people will still choose to curse God rather than repent.

In chapter 17 and 18, John is shown the punishment of the great prostitute, portrayed as the woman on the Beast, representing Babylon the Great, that is, the one-world government system with one false religion that is aligned against the true God.  The world will mourn her destruction, but all heaven and the people of God will rejoice in chapter 19 at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.

Chapter 19 concludes with the Second Coming of the King of kings and Lord of lords to the Battle of Armageddon.  After their swift defeat, the beast and false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire.  In chapter 20, an angel binds Satan with a great chain and throws him into the Abyss for a thousand years, thus ushering in the Millennial Reign of Christ.  After a thousand years, Satan is released, deceives the nations, gathers a vast army, and surrounds God’s people.  His army is devoured by fire from heaven, and Satan is thrown into the lake of fire to join the beast and false prophet.  The books are then opened for the Great White Judgment of unbelievers and those whose name was not found in the Book of Life are cast into the lake of fire.

Finally in chapter 21, John gives us a marvelous picture of the New Heaven and the New Earth, along with the new Holy City of Jerusalem.  John also records a voice promising that dwelling of God is now with man.  He goes on to give further descriptions of the Holy City.  In the final chapter 22, John is given a vision of the river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God.  The Spirit and the church invites all readers to come and receive the water of life for free.  John also includes a final quote from Jesus, “Yes, I am coming soon”.  The book (and thus the Bible) ends with the prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

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Key Verses

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.  He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw--that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.  Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. (1:1-3)

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”  I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.  On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”  I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me.  And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest...  When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.  Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last.  I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!  And I hold the keys of death and Hades.  Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.” (1:8-19)

Key Chapters: 2&3 - Christ’s Messages to the Churches

“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty--yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.” (2:8-11)

“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation.  I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish you were either one or the other!  So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth...  Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.  So be earnest, and repent.  Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.  To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”  (3:14-22)

After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven.  And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”  At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it...  From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder...  In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures...  Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings.  Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”  (4:1-8)

Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals.  And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?”  But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it.  I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.  Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep!  See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed.  He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”  Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders.  He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.  He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne.  And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb.  Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.  And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.  You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”  Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand.  They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders.  In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”  Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”  (5:1-13)

I watched as he opened the sixth seal.  There was a great earthquake.  The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind.  The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.  Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains.  They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!  For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (6:12-17)

After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.  They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.  And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”  ...Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes--who are they, and where did they come from?”  I answered, “Sir, you know.”  And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.  Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst.  The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat.  For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water.  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”  (7:9-17)

The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.”  (11:15)

And there was war in heaven.  Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.  But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven.  The great dragon was hurled down--that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray.  He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.  Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ.  For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down.  They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.  Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them!  But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.”  (12:7-12)

The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise his authority for forty-two months.  He opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven.  He was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them.  And he was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation.  All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast--all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world. (13:5-8)

Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth...  He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed...  Because of the signs he was given power to do on behalf of the first beast, he deceived the inhabitants of the earth.  He ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived.  He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed.  He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name.  This calls for wisdom.  If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number.  His number is 666. (13:11-18)

Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. (14:1)

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.  Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory!  For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.  Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” Then the angel said to me, “Write: ’Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’”  And he added, “These are the true words of God.” (19"6-9)

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True.  With justice he judges and makes war.  His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns.  He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself.  He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.  The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean.  Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.”  He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.  On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. (19:11-16)

Key Chapter: 20 - The Thousand Year Reign of Christ, the Doom of Satan, and the Final Judgment

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it.  Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them.  And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened.  Another book was opened, which is the book of life.  The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.  The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done.  Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.  The lake of fire is the second death.  If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (20:11-15)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  (21:1-4)

“Behold, I am coming soon!  Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.”  (22:7)

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book.  And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.  He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”  Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people.  Amen. (22:18-21)

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Author and Date

The author of Revelation identifies himself as “John” (1:1,4,9; 22:8) who was exiled on the Island of Patmos due to his faith (1:9).  The question is, which John?   The overwhelming consensus of the early church fathers is that the author is none other than John the Apostle, the son of Zebedee, and brother of the Apostle James. 

About 140 AD, Justin Martyr wrote “there was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that thereafter the general, and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all men would likewise take place” (Dialogue with Trypho, ch 81).  The historian Eusebius (~170 AD) noted that Melito, Bishop of Sardis', wrote essays on “the devil and on the Apocalypse of John”.  Other second century advocates for John the Apostle’s authorship include the brilliant North-African theologian Turtullian, Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus of Rome (prominent theologian), Apollonius, and Irenaeus, who was acquainted with Polycarp, a well-known disciple of the Apostle John.

In the 1700s, a Latin list of New Testament writings that were considered canonical by early Christians was discovered.  The fragment / manuscript was a eighth-century Latin translation of a Greek list written in Rome in the late second century AD, making it the oldest known known list of NT books.  It became known as the Muratorian fragment (aka Muratorian Canon or Canon Muratori), named after its modern Italian discoverer and publisher.  Quotes from the manuscripts indicate that the Apostle John was believed to be author.

In the third century, Bishop Victorinus of Pettau (Poetovio), who was later martyred during the persecutions of Roman Emperor Diocletian, wrote the first known commentary on the book of Revelation.  In his commentary, he plainly states that the Apostle John is the Author.  Other third century proponents of the Apostle John as author include Origen and Hippolytus, Bishop of Rome.  Fourth century proponents include Augustine of Hippo, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, and Ephrem the Syrian, a prominent theologian and hymn writer.

We could go on, but we'll stop here.  The Apostle’s authorship went virtually undisputed until challenges emerged from some of the usual liberal interpreters of the past few centuries.  Most evangelical scholars today, like most of the church fathers, affirm that Revelation was written by John the Apostle.

Regarding the date of writing for the Book of the Revelation, the two proposed first century AD dates are the late 60s and the mid-to-mid 90s.  The mid-90s view is probably the stronger of the two and was held by almost all interpreters though the first six centuries.  By the 1800s, as Preterism was gaining popularity, many began suggesting the late 60s date. Preterism comes from the Latin word praeter, meaning “past”.  Preterists believe that the events in Revelation have already been fulfilled in our past, primarily with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70AD, and therefore, John must have written the book before that event.

Based on the many accounts from the early church fathers and early historians, the Apostle John wrote the Revelation while exiled on the tiny Island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea during the reign of Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD).  An early church father Papias stated that the Apostle was martyred prior to 70 AD, but this has been seriously challenged by statements by Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, and others who affirm that the book was written by John on Patmos in 95 or 96 AD.  See the “Historical Background” section below for further discussion.

The initial recipients of John’s letter were the persecuted Christians living in seven cities within the Roman province of Asia Minor (western part of modern Turkey).  Interpreters should also take into consideration that, while John was addressing the immediate and future concerns of the first century church, there is much application for all future generations of Christians as well.

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Historical Background

In the first chapter of Revelation, John is instructed to “Write what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later”.  Chapter 1 is what he had just seen, chapters 2 and 3 are what is now, and the remaining chapters 4-22 are what will take place later.  Thus, the historical background for Revelation pertains to the first three chapters only.  The key question regarding the historical timeline is whether the “what is now” occurred during the mid 60s or the late 90s AD?  Did the events occur during the reign of Roman Emperor Nero (54-68 AD) or the reign of Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD)? 

Before we get to an additional comparison of the two proposed dates, we again mention that a minority group of interpreters (Preterists) believe “what is now” occurred the mid to late 60s AD during the reign of Roman Emperor Nero (54-68 AD), and that chapters 4-22 were fulfilled in 70AD.  Other Preterists / Partial-Preterists see additional fulfillment with the Jewish Bar-Kokhba Revolt in 135 AD and/or the Fall of Rome in the late fourth century AD.  For historical backgrounds relating to the Nero era, see the Historical Backgrounds for the Gospels, 1st Peter, and 2nd Peter.

That said, the evidence for the later time under Domitian is much stronger for a number of reasons.  First, we have the testimony of the writings of many aforementioned church fathers such as Irenaeus, Victorinus of Pettau, and Jerome, a Latin priest and historian in the early fifth century, among many others.  Irenaeus wrote that John’s visions occurred near the end of Domitian’s reign, and the writings of Eusebius likewise place John’s exile to Patmos in the same time frame.  Eusebius, Bishop of Rome in the early fourth century and often called the “Father of Church History”, was no stranger to times of persecution.  He was an eyewitness to the “Great Persecution” under Roman Emperor Diocletian (303-311 AD), the conversion of Emperor Constantine (312 AD), and the council of Nicea (325 AD).  Unlike the many early writings that substantiate the events occurring during Domitian’s reign, we find no writings supporting the Nero era prior to the middle of the sixth century AD.

Next, the fact that John was exiled to the Island of Patmos in the Mediterranean Sea argues for the later Domitian era.  There is no known evidence that Nero ever exiled John or any other Christian.  To save himself after he was accused of burning Rome, Nero accused the local Christians, and launched an attempted purge against them.  Thousands were martyred by the most inhuman methods imaginable, such as crucifixion, being sewn into animal skins and torn apart by wild dogs.  Others were covered with tar, hung on poles and set on fire as lights for Nero’s evening festivities.  The bottom line is that Nero did not exile believers, he simply killed them (he also killed his mother and two wives).  On the other hand, Domitian created a state policy of exile and made a deliberate attempt to banish Christian believers from the empire.  Thus, it is much more likely that John was exiled during Domitian’s rather than Nero’s reign.

Finally, the description of the state of the churches in chapters 2 and 3 appear to argue for the later date.  Jesus’ descriptions of the state of the churches appears to give the indication that each have been in existence for several decades, a significant difference as compared with Paul’s descriptions of the earlier churches of his day.  Since the original Apostles ministered primarily to the Jews, it’s also highly unlikely that the Apostles other than Paul would have developed significant authority over the churches outside of Israel until they were forced out of Jerusalem in the late 60s.

Domitian, whose full name was Titus Flavius Domitianus, took the royal name Caesar Domitianus Augustus during his reign from 80-96 AD.  He was the son of Vespasian and the younger brother of Titus, the Roman general that destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD.  Although he was fairly popular among the citizens, and particularly among the military, he was constantly at  odds with the Roman Senate, whose powers he drastically curtailed under his authoritative rule.  He greatly increased army wages and instituted a massive building program, inevitably leading to financial difficulties.  He likely only avoided bankruptcy by regularly confiscating the properties of many of his enemies.  Most of Domitian’s cruelty sprang from his extreme paranoia.  He regularly employed secret informants and even executed a number of his household members.

Regarding religious tolerance during most of Roman history, conquered people were usually free to worship their own gods and conduct their own rituals, but there was one stipulation.  They also had to proclaim Caesar (the current reigning Roman Emperor) as “Lord”.  For almost all religions throughout the various provinces, this did not present a problem.  Most religions were polytheistic, so they just added Caesar to their list of official gods.  With Christianity however, this was not an option.  A true Christian can’t address anyone other than Jesus Christ as “Lord and Savior”.  Thus, many Christians were killed or exiled during this era.

We wrap up with a quick historical overview.  In our Historical Background for 1st John, we noted among other information that, due to mounting persecution and the coming Roman siege, John and the other apostles were forced to flee Jerusalem about 67-68 AD.  Shortly thereafter, John migrated to the Roman province of Asia (modern day western Turkey), where Paul had planted several churches including the one in Ephesus which became John’s home church.  While ministering in the area for about three decades, he wrote his gospel, followed by his three epistles.  Shortly afterward came the Patmos exile and the writing of the Revelation about 95 or 96 AD.  Early church fathers and historians have stated that John was allowed to return to Ephesus after the death of Domitian in 96 AD.

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Timeline

The Book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ was written near the end of the first century AD.

27 or 30 (1) John called to be a Disciple of Jesus
30 or 33 (1) Last Supper (Passover), Passion Week, Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection
30 or 33 (1) Pentecost (birth of the Church in Jerusalem)
~ 49 - 50 Birth of the Jerusalem Church with James, the brother of Jesus and Jude, as leader
~ 67 The Jerusalem Church flees to Pella
~ 70 John settles in Asia Minor (modern day western Turkey)
70 Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem
~ 80 - 90 Gospel of John Written
~ 85 - 90 John writes his 3 Epistles (probably from Ephesus)
~ 95-96 John writes the Book of Revelation from Isle of Patmos
~ 100 Death of the Apostle John

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

~ Dates are approximated.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The author’s stated purpose and overriding theme is the revelation of Jesus Christ, and to show his followers what must take place in the end times, so that they, and those that would follow throughout history, would be better prepared to deal with adversity and persecution.  The churches of the first century were increasingly experiencing persecution, and John himself had been exiled, but he brought a message of hope via his letter, that God is in sovereign control of all events throughout history.  Because of God’s sovereignty over all of history, John’s letter provided, and still provides, great comfort to know that even though evil might flourish for certain periods of time, Jesus, and his followers by extension, will ultimately triumph in the end.

A related prophetical purpose for the Revelation was undoubtedly to consolidate and complete many of the various prophecies that had been given by other inspired authors throughout the Scriptures.  Revelation helps us somewhat to tie up many of the loose ends.  Although we still debate many of the prophecies of the Bible yet to be fulfilled, we would have many more unanswered questions if we didn’t have John’s final letter.  As we mentioned in our Intro section, many of the major themes and doctrines that were introduced in other books are fulfilled / consummated in Revelation.

As with most other books of the Bible, the theological themes are closely related to the book’s purposes.  Thus, in the Revelation about Jesus Christ, we no longer see an emphasis on His humanity, we now see Jesus Christ portrayed as the risen, glorified Son of God.  Even though John walked with him for three years, when he beheld Christ in His glory, he fell at His feet as if dead.  The following is a sampling of the descriptions of Christ given in the text:

the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth... him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood (1:5)

“the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” (1:8)

“Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!  And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (1:17-18)

the Son of God (2:18)

the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation (3:14)

the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David (5:5)

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise” (5:12)

the Lamb at the center of the throne (7:17)

the Word of God (19:13)

King of kings and Lord of lords (19:16)

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (22:12)

“I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star” (22:16)

In addition to the book’s rich Christological themes, we also find many doctrines related to Eschatology (study of the end times).  Revelation contributes a vast amount of information on many topics such as the final political system, the Return of Christ, the final historic battle of Armageddon, the rise and fall of the Antichrist and his allies, Christ’s millennial earthly kingdom, God’s righteous judgment, the final fate of believers and unbelievers, and the glory of the New Heavens and New Earth.

Finally, the Book of Revelation answers the question asked by the Jewish prophet Habakkuk (and millions of other folks throughout history), “Why do the wicked seem to prosper while the faithful suffer in this life”.  Revelation gives us assurance that the all-wise righteous God will set everything straight for all eternity.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

To properly interpret the book of Revelation, we must first recognize and understand the two basic types of  literary genre employed by the author.  The first three chapters are historical narratives that are not only meant to give us information about the first century churches, but also to convey guidance to us for our present times.  Many interpreters believe that these churches also symbolize the spiritual conditions of various churches throughout history.

In chapter four however, the author switches primarily to apocalyptic language for the remainder of the book.  In the Bible, only Daniel utilized apocalyptic language to a similar extent, although Ezekiel and Zechariah both contain apocalyptic literature to a lesser degree.   Apocalyptic literature is characterized by its frequent use of visions and symbolism, primarily to reveal the mysteries of God and His sovereignty over all things.  The narratives within this genre often portray history in advance, are periodically narrated by angelic beings, and are sometimes even accompanied by the author being caught up into the heavenly realm.  By using symbolic language, John makes it easier for us to apply the lessons of the text to our own situations.  For example, when he speaks of Babylon as symbolizing ancient Rome and the other worldly systems aligned against God, we can easily draw lessons relating to America and other modern-day nations as well.  See our Prophecy and Apocalyptic Literature article for more info on this genre.

Some scholars have proposed that John used frequent symbolism to disguise the true meaning of Revelation in order to help protect Christians living under Roman rule.  Others have proposed that the symbolism was meant to reinforce the opinion that most Christians were just crazy rather than dangerous to the empire.  Indeed, the playwright George Bernard Shaw once mocked the book as “a curious record of a drug addict’s visions”.  Most scholars however, reject these theories.  John’s purpose in writing was to reveal the truth rather than cover it up.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge to perspective interpreters of Revelation is, how to approach the book.  When and how are the visions to be fulfilled, or have some or all already been fulfilled?  Will the future events be fulfilled literally or symbolically?  In addition, what are we to think about all of the various symbolism?  How we answer one of these questions will actually determine, to an extent, how we’ll answer the others since they are interrelated.  To adequately address these questions is beyond the scope of this page, but we’ll offer a brief overview of the various approaches, or schools of thought, and include links to additional articles containing more information.

The study of Revelation throughout the church age has produced four primary schools of interpretive thought.  Even within each approach, various scholars sometimes have different opinions on some the finer points of interpretation.  Those who hold to the first three views employ an essentially symbolic or allegorical approach in their interpretation, while the fourth employs an essentially literal (plain) reading of the text.  In addition, some interpreters favor approaching the book by taking some principles from more than one viewpoint.  The following is a brief description of each.

We've already mentioned Preterism (or the Preterist view), the belief that the events prophesized in Revelation have already been fulfilled in our past.  Some view everything as fulfilled with the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70AD.  Others see additional fulfillment with the Jewish Bar-Kokhba Revolt in 135 AD and/or the Fall of Rome in the late fourth century AD.  Most Partial-Preterists also allow for some additional fulfillments in the end times.

Next, we have the Historicist approach.  Proponents of this school interprets Revelation as a broad sweeping view of church history from John’s day until the end of the present earth.  In this view, Revelation is seen as symbolically predicting such coming events as the Fall of Rome, the rise of the Roman Catholic Church (and predictions about the papacy), the rise of Islam, eventual evangelism of the world (final victory of the church), and other past, present and future events.  Due to the frequent use of symbolism, advocates of this view often disagree on the exact interpretation of individual events. 

The third and last of the allegorical approaches is most frequently referred to as the Idealist view, although it is also often called the Symbolic or Spiritual view.  In this view, the interpretations of the book of Revelation are in effect, divorced from almost all past, present and future historical events.  In this view, the purpose of the book is to illustrate, in highly figurative language, certain spiritual truths such as God’s sovereignty, true and false religion, the ultimate triumph of good over evil, the relationship of Christ and His church, and many others.

Finally, the Futurist view is based on a literal interpretation of the book (interpreting the book as written and intended by the author).  Proponents of this view understand chapters 4 though 22 to reveal events that are still unfulfilled in our day, but will occur at some time in the future.  Although the book describes future people, institutes and events in both literal and symbolic language, the author is describing real people, institutes and events of the end times.  This view is probably the most popular among modern evangelicals, and the primary view that we have taken throughout this article.

Some scholars have suggested a fifth interpretive view, one that has been called the Canonical approach.  From this perspective, the book should be interpreted based on the canonical intent of all Scripture, in particular, the Gospel thread that runs throughout the entire Bible.  We actually see this view not so much as a separate standalone approach, but as a sub-approach that should be applied to any or all of the other approaches.

We have an additional article containing much more info on each of the interpretative approaches in progress and hope to finish in the next few weeks.  See our Four Interpretive Views of Revelation for additional info on the views, including how proponents of each view generally interpret various portions of the book.

Another particular challenge interrelated with the various interpretive approaches is the different views on the Millennium, or the Millennial Reign or Christ.  The Millennium (thousand year reign of Christ on earth) is mentioned in Chapter 20 and there are three main views regarding the nature and duration of this event.  In addition, there are also disagreements among interpreters about the relation between the Millennium, the Rapture, the Tribulation, and the Second Coming of Christ.  The views are Premillennialism (Second Coming before the Millennial Reign of Christ on the Earth), Postmillennialism (Second Coming after Christ establishes peace on earth through the work of the church), and Amillennialism (literally “No Millennial” - Christ reigns spiritually through His people until His return).

After the two world wars of the twentieth century, Postmillennialism has been virtually abandoned, and its proponents have almost all converted to Amillennialism.  In addition, Premillennialists are often divided into two camps, known as Historical Premillennialism and Dispensational Premillennialism.  See our article, Views of the Millennium / Millennial Kingdom for additional discussion on the various views, including their relationship to the other events in Revelation.

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Outline

The Revelation can be divided into two basic sections.  The first three chapters contain messages to the churches in John’s day (first century AD).  The remaining nineteen chapters (4-22) contains John’s visions of the future.

1:1 - 1:20 John’s Greeting to the Churches, and Vision of the Son of Man (Christ)
2:1 - 3:22 Messages to the Seven Churches
4:1 - 4:11 Vision of the Throne in Heaven
5:1 - 6:15 The Lamb and the Scroll with Seven Seals
7:1 - 8:5 The 144,000 Jewish Believers and the Faithful Multitude
8:6 - 9:21 The First Six Trumpet Judgments
10:1 - 10:11 The Angel and the Little Scroll
11:1 - 11:19 The Two Witnesses and the Seventh Trumpet Judgment
12:1 - 14:20 The Seven Signs (the Woman and the Dragon; Satan Expelled; Beasts from Sea and Earth; Lamb on Mt Zion; Judgment)
15:1 - 16:21 The Seven Bowl Judgments (Water turned to Blood; Scorched Earth; Darkness; Great Earthquake etc)
17:1 - 18:24 Fall and Destruction of Babylon
19:1 - 19:21 Marriage Supper of the Lamb; The Second Coming of Christ
20:1 - 20:15 The Millennium; Final Fate of Satan; Final Judgment of Unbelievers
21:1 - 21:22 New Heavens and New Earth / New Jerusalem
22:1 - 22:21 The River of Life; Jesus is Coming Soon

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