The nature of the book
Discussion on Revelation has often been dominated by four traditional modes of approaching it. The so-called ‘Preterite’ method relates the book solely to the circumstances of the writer’s age and discounts applications to future developments of history. The ‘Futurist’ view, by contrast, relates the book solely to the last generation of history, when its prophecies will find fulfilment. The ‘Historical’ interpretation sees Revelation as an outline of the ages between the incarnation of Christ and his final coming. The ‘Symbolic’ or ‘Poetic’ view emphasizes the pictorial element in the book and declines to make specific application of the prophecies to any one era; it views the book as revealing the general principles of God’s work in history.
These modes of interpreting Revelation are all unsatisfactory. No-one would dream of applying them to the prophetic works of the OT. It is because Revelation has been interpreted in isolation from the rest of the biblical books, and from other words of a similar literary type outside the Bible, that it has been possible to treat it in this manner. The introduction to the book itself indicates that it belongs to three kinds of literary works, namely apocalypse, prophecy and letter (see the appropriate general articles in this commentary).
1. Apocalypse. The first word in the book is ‘revelation.’ The Greek term it translates has entered the English language as ‘apocalypse’. To modern readers that conveys a quite special meaning, even having menacing overtones. In the author’s day it simply meant the removal of a cover from something hidden, and so an unveiling of that which is concealed, as when a portrait is unveiled by pulling back a curtain (or even doing the same to reveal a stage on which a drama is about to be played). The term has become virtually a technical term for a class of writings, mainly Jewish, which appeared during the two centuries prior to the birth of Christ and continued through the first Christian century. Their chief concern was to reveal God’s purpose in history, notably in bringing judgment on the wicked of the earth and his kingdom for the righteous. There is little doubt that the model for these works was the book of Daniel. Its style was imitated in them, and they were usually issued in the name of a famous saint (e.g. the three books ascribed to Enoch, an Apocalypse of Abraham, the Assumption of Moses, Apocalypse of Elijah, Apocalypse of Ezra, etc.).
These books freely use symbols to set forth their messages, though none of them to the extent that the Revelation of John does. Some of the symbols became standard, like the monster of the ocean to denote oppressive political powers, which appears in various guises in Dn. 7 and in Rev. 11:7, and chs. 13 and 17. The closest modern parallel to these figures and their use is the representation of nations and their leaders in political cartoons. A further characteristic feature of apocalypses is their frequent employment of earlier prophecies, both from the OT and later works. This was due not to lack of originality but to the conviction that God’s word had yet further fulfilment, and so the apocalyptic writers combined earlier prophetic oracles, rewrote them and applied them to situations in their own times. This is done by John frequently, both in fresh usage of OT prophecies and in applying in a wholly new way prophecies of his contemporaries (see e.g. chs. 7, 11, 12).
2. Prophecy. The second sentence of Revelation invokes a blessing on the one who reads and on those who hear and give heed to ‘the words of this prophecy.’ John thereby numbers himself with the prophets of the OT and also of the new covenant (cf. Eph. 2:20). It is generally recognized that the former addressed their contemporaries in relation to their own situation, i.e. they gave God’s word for their own day. The uniqueness of their ministry lay in the way they set their people in the context of God’s dealings with them in the past and in the light of God’s purpose for them in the future. Prophecy in the NT can be described as the words of Spirit-guided preachers for the world, and the church through which God’s revealed purpose for the world and his will for humankind are revealed. That would be an adequate description of Revelation. It conveys the assurance that the opposition of human beings and of all the powers of evil cannot frustrate God’s purpose for the world that he has made, and in the light of this the call goes out for persistence in faith and obedience to the Lord on the part of his people.
3. Letter. The introductory paragraph of John’s book is followed by a typical greeting such as we find in the letters of the NT: ‘John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you … ’. Strangely, it has not been commonly recognized that Revelation is fundamentally a ‘letter’ addressed to churches for which John was concerned and for which he had special responsibility. The implications of this fact are clear: the book was as truly directed to the situation and needs of the churches mentioned in its greeting as, for example, Paul’s letter to the church in Colosse (which lay in the neighbourhood of the seven churches of Revelation), or the letter to the Galatian churches (which were not far east of them). All Christians agree that the letters to the Colossians, Galatians and Romans convey the word of God to Christ’s people in all subsequent ages, but the messages of those letters reach us most effectively as we grasp their intention for the churches to which they were originally addressed. That holds good for the Revelation of John equally as for the rest of the NT letters. It is only as we relate its pictorial unveiling of God’s word to the situation of the seven churches of Asia Minor that we can understand the revelation for the churches of all generations, including the last generation of history.
It is likely that the tradition, current in the early church, is correct, that the book was written towards the close of the first century of our era, when the emperor Domitian was commencing his persecution of the church. It is unlikely that the persecution had been long under way, for current martyrdoms had as yet been few (2:13). But the fact that John had been exiled to a penal island reflects a beginning of active opposition to the Christian church on the part of the authorities. Domitian was more insistent on pressing his claims to divinity than any of his predecessors; his favourite title was Dominus et Deus noster (‘our Lord and God’). Nowhere in the empire were there more enthusiastic supporters of such adulation of the emperor than the priests of the shrines devoted to his worship in Roman Asia. But no Christian who acknowledged Jesus as Lord and God could possibly assent to such an acknowledgment of the emperor. In this situation John was given to see the principles at work and their issue in an antichrist who would proclaim war on the only group in the world who would resist him to the death. The end, however, was to be the victory of the Christ of God over the satanic imitation, and the kingdom of the world becoming the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (11:15). It is in this setting that the symbols and the parabolic visions yield their meaning and their message is grasped.
This is summed up in the saying of E. F. Scott, who called Revelation ‘a trumpet call to faith’ (The Book of Revelation [SCM, 1939], p. 174). The book was written to strengthen the faith and courage of John’s fellow-believers in Christ, to nerve them for battle with antichristian forces in the world, and to help them bear witness to the one true Lord and Saviour of the world. This end was achieved by emphasizing the following themes:
1. The sovereignty of God in Christ, in that time as in all times. Just as Jesus made known the advent of the kingdom of God in his ministry, death, resurrection and coming again (Mk. 1:14–15; 8:31; 10:45; 14:62), so that theme is central to Revelation from beginning to end (1:8; 5:5–14; 12:10–12; 19:11–21:5). No wonder, for the book is none other than ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ’ (1:2)!
2. The satanic nature of the contemporary adulation of the Roman emperor. In Rome itself the claim of the emperor to be ‘Lord and God’ was something of a joke—privately, of course! In the area of the churches to which Revelation was addressed it was taken with deadly seriousness. For Caesar to demand what belonged to God alone indicated that ‘the secret power of lawlessness’ was ‘already at work’ (2 Thes. 2:7), and it was to reach its climax in the manifestation of the final antichrist. Even so, God is never more sovereign than in the frantic reign of antichrist (13:5).
3. The inescapable judgments of the Lord upon those who submit to the pseudo-Christ rather than God’s Christ. It is significant that the second and third series of the Messianic judgments of this book are reminiscent of the plagues on Pharaoh and the Egyptians, who resisted the word of God through Moses. Revelation bids us ‘consider the kindness and sternness of God’ (Rom. 11:22).
4. The sure issue of the conflict between the church and the oppressive powers in the world in the manifestation of Christ and the glory of his kingdom. The victory is ‘sure’, for the devil is a defeated foe already in the death and resurrection of Jesus (cf. Jn. 12:31–32 with Rev. 12:9–12), which anticipates the ultimate completion of God’s purpose of good for the world he has made and redeemed (21:9–22:5).
The four issues discussed above have characterized history from the first century of our era to the present, and doubtless will continue to do so till the Lord comes. It is significant, however, that the last two thirds of the twentieth century have been characterized by two contrasting phenomena. On the one hand, the most intense opposition to the gospel and the church since the writing of the book of Revelation and on the other, an unprecedented spread of the gospel and growth of the church. The former has been directed by antichristian secular powers, claiming as theirs what belongs to God alone and launching untold suffering on the world through oppression and wars; the latter advancing perpetually, often in spite of cruel opposition, suffering and poverty. The collapse of many political powers opposed to the gospel illustrates the reality of the sovereignty of God in the contemporary world. The changing patterns of opposition to the gospel and the confused political situation of old and new worlds, with increasing rather than diminishing suffering of multitudes, calls for Christian witness to the gospel of the order of Rev. 11:3–11; 12:11 and 14:2–7, and faith to believe in the song of Moses and the Lamb (15:3–4). Not for nothing has the book of Revelation been the favourite book of the Bible for Christians under oppression in our time. The ‘trumpet call to faith’ inspires endurance in the kingdom of God living in the spirit of Christ’s bearing his cross and the power of his resurrection, and in the light of the revelation of the kingdom of glory at his coming.
The author announces himself in the opening sentence of the book as ‘his [God’s] servant John’. He frequently refers to himself in the work, most commonly as a prophet (1:2–3, 9–11; 10:11; 19:10; 22:8–9) but never as an apostle. In this respect he differs markedly from Paul (cf. e.g. Rom. 1:1; 11:13; 1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:1). From the latter part of the second century it was assumed that the fourth gospel, the letters of John and Revelation were written by one man, John the son of Zebedee. There are, however, difficulties in this assumption, which were recognized from early times. Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria in the third century, was especially impressed by the differences in style and language between Revelation and the other works attributed to John. It has been suggested that these differences may be accounted for by the differences in subject matter and nature of Revelation and the fourth gospel; or by the possibility that Revelation was written a generation before the gospel (at the end of Nero’s reign), so giving time for the writer to have improved his style. More plausibly, John may have written the book in his own language (Aramaic), and someone else translated it into very literal Greek out of reverence for its content. If that were the case, the linguistic differences would fall to the ground. On the other hand, if, as some think, John the prophet thought in Aramaic and wrote in Greek, the differences would be insuperable, for that was not so with the author of the gospel and the letters.
Interestingly, the glimpses in the synoptic gospels of John the son of Zebedee are strikingly consistent with the kind of person who could have written Revelation: he and his brother were named by Jesus ‘Sons of Thunder’ (Mk. 3:17); he forbade one who was not a member of the apostolic group to do miracles (Lk. 9:49–50); he wanted to call down fire from heaven on hostile Samaritans (Lk. 9:52–54); he was a witness of the transfiguration of Jesus and his resurrection. The possible existence of a ‘school of John’, from which issued the various books later ascribed to the apostle, could be of help here, for this would explain the positive relationship between the books and also their differences. If we are unable to achieve certainty in this matter, it remains that in no other book in the Bible is the identity of the author of so little importance. The book is not ‘the revelation of John,’ but ‘the revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him [John]’ (1:1), and its content is further described as ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ’ (1:2). The authenticity of that claim is settled not by the name of the person who wrote it, but by the nature of his work, which in the providence of God completes the Scriptures as its crown.
The book opens with a prologue (1:1–8), stating its title and address, followed by a vision of the Son of Man, in which John is commissioned to write what he sees and to send the book to the seven churches of the Roman province of Asia (1:9–20). Letters to the seven churches then follow (chs. 2–3). A vision of God and the Lamb is recorded (chs. 4–5), which both provides the key to understanding Revelation and forms the fulcrum of its structure inasmuch as it indicates the process of events which lead to the final kingdom of God (chs. 6–19). Prominent among these are three series of judgments, presented under the figures of the opening of seven seals of God’s book of destiny (6:1–8:5), seven trumpets (8:6–11:19), and seven cups of wrath (chs. 15–16). It appears that these three series are not to be viewed as occurring successively, but as basically three presentations of one period of judgment, since the last member of each series leads to the end of history. The outcome of the Messianic judgments is the fall of the godless empire (‘Babylon’) and the advent of Christ (chs. 17–19). The book is brought to a climax in its vision of the triumphant kingdom of God (20:1–22:5), and an epilogue concludes it (22:6–21).
M. Wilcock, The Message of Revelation, BST (IVP, 1975).
L. Morris, The Revelation of St John, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1969).
F. F. Bruce, The Revelation to John, in G. C. D. Howley, F. F. Bruce and H. L. Ellison (eds.) A Bible Commentary for Today (Pickering and Inglis, 1979).
G. R. Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation, NCB (Eerdmans, 1974).
R. H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1977).
BNTC Black’s New Testament Commentaries
TBC Torch Bible Commentaries
TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary
WBC Word Biblical Commentary