The book of Revelation records a vision received by the Apostle John while he was exiled on the Isle of Patmos. He was there “on account of the testimony of Jesus.” It was originally addressed and presumably delivered to seven Christian congregations located in key cities of the Roman province of Asia. Most likely it was penned in the late first century when Domitian was emperor in Rome (A.D. 81-96).
The first word of the book is the Greek noun apokalypsis (Strong’s #G602), a “revelation.” The English term ‘apocalypse’ is derived from it, a title commonly assigned to the book. As originally written, the word was not the title of the book but, instead, it designated what it is, namely, a “revelation” from Jesus Christ. It is placed in the first position for emphasis.
In popular culture, ‘apocalypse’ is a term associated with the end of the world. The adjectival form of ‘apocalyptic’ conjures images of global catastrophes, earthquakes, tsunamis, warfare, and the like. But the Greek word does not mean “destruction,” nor does it signify the end of the cosmos. It means, simply, a “revelation, a disclosure, an unveiling” of previously hidden information (Wesley Perschbacher, New Analytical Greek Lexicon [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1990], p. 42.). In the Bible, it often describes a “revelation” from God of something unknown, for example:
(Luke 2:30-32) – “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”
(Romans 16:25-26) – “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages, but now is manifested.”
The term, ‘revelation,’ indicates the nature of the book, its purpose. It is an unveiling by Jesus Christ of new information. What was hidden in the Old Testament is now disclosed in and by Jesus Christ.
The stated purpose of the book is, “to show to his servants those THINGS NECESSARY TO COME TO PASS SHORTLY” (Revelation 1:1). This purpose and timeframe are elaborated in Verse 19 and repeated in Chapter 4 and in the conclusion at the end of the book:
(Revelation 1:19) – Write, therefore, what you saw and what they are and WHAT THINGS ARE ABOUT TO COME TO PASS after these things.”
(Revelation 4:1) – “The first voice which I heard…said, Come up here and I will show you WHAT MUST TAKE PLACE AFTER THESE THINGS.”
(Revelation 22:6) – “These words are faithful and true, and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel TO POINT OUT TO HIS BOND-SERVANTS THE THINGS WHICH MUST COME TO PASS SHORTLY.”
(Revelation 22:16) – “I, Jesus, have sent my angel TO TESTIFY TO YOU OF THESE THINGS FOR THE ASSEMBLIES.”
Authorship and Identity of John
Traditionally, the Apostle John, the brother of James and son of Zebedee has been recognized as the author of the book. The tradition is old, dating back to the first half of the second century, approximately A.D. 135.
The book of Revelation names “John” as its author. However, it never specifies which “John” is meant. He is never identified as a son of Zebedee or the brother of James, and he is never called an “apostle.” Because of such omissions, some commentators question whether this ‘John’ is the same as the apostle who penned the Gospel of John and three epistles bearing his name.
Revelation identifies John as a “servant” of Jesus Christ, a “brother” and a fellow participant in the “tribulation and kingdom and endurance in Jesus,” and he is numbered among the “prophets” (Revelation 1:1, 1:9, 22:9).
Other factors related to his identity include:
- His language demonstrates he was a Jew familiar with both the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament, and possibly was of Palestinian origin.
- Greek was not his primary language. His syntax indicates it was a second language to him.
- John was familiar with the seven “churches” of Asia and conditions in those cities.
- This John was exiled to Patmos. Only Roman provincial authorities could have ordered this. This infers he was a person of recognizable standing both within and without the churches of Asia (banishment was normally employed for individuals of some importance).
Since the Author refers to himself simply as “John” without further elaboration and, apparently, he has authority recognized by the churches of Asia demonstrate he is a known quantity to the Christians of Asia. He must have been a person of some prominence in the Church.
Strong church traditions place John the son of Zebedee in the city of Ephesus at the end of the first century. Possibly, he moved to the region following the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The strongest evidence for the authorship by John the Apostle comes from a church father, Irenaeus of Lyon (in modern France). As a young Christian, Irenaeus lived in Asia and was a pupil of Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John. According to Irenaeus, Polycarp claimed the Apostle wrote the book of Revelation (Against Heresies, 4.20.11.). Justin Martyr, writing around A.D. 135, also identified the John of Revelation to be the Apostle (Dialogue with Trypho, 81.4).
‘John’ was a common enough name at the time, and there is no other John from this period associated with Ephesus and known to Church History who could be recognized by a group of churches simply by the designation “John.” All in all, the evidence is strong that the author of the book of Revelation was none other than the Apostle John, an eyewitness of Jesus Christ, the brother of James, and a son of Zebedee.
Date of Composition
Proposed dates for the composition of Revelation are based on the historical settings inferred from its contents. The exile of John to Patmos, for example, indicates a time of persecution by Roman authorities, at least, at a regional level. Especially in chapters 2-3, there are hints of social tension between the churches of Asia and the surrounding society, including conflict with local Jewish synagogues.
There are two main dates proposed for the writing of the book. First, John composed it around A.D. 65-70, during or shortly after the reign of Emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68). Second, around A.D. 90-95 in the reign of Domitian. Since Domitian died in A.D. 96, and if the latter setting is correct, the book could not have been written later than A.D. 95.
Nero targeted Christians in the city of Rome as scapegoats for the great fire that destroyed much of the city in A.D. 64. Consequently, he implemented the first organized persecution of Christians by the Roman government. Since the book indicates a time of persecution, therefore, the late 60s is sometimes proposed for the date of composition. However, there are several problems with this proposed date, including:
- The book is addressed to Christians in the Province of Asia, not Rome. Nero’s persecution was localized in Rome.
- In Revelation, the conflict between Rome and Christians involved emperor worship, a practice not widespread at the time of Nero. Domitian, on the other hand, promoted this practice.
- Nero’s persecution was extremely violent. Christian leaders were put to death, not exiled. Banishment to a remote island like Patmos hundreds of kilometers from Rome would be unlikely.
- Christians from Asia are portrayed as persecuted because they refused to participate in emperor worship. Nero did not persecute Christians for refusing him worship but, instead, because he blamed them for the conflagration in Rome.
The primary arguments for the later date (A.D. 90-95) include:
- Strong church tradition associates the book of Revelation with the reign of Domitian (Against Heresies, 5.30.3.).
- Revelation was addressed to churches located in the Roman province of Asia, not Rome.
- John wrote from the Isle of Patmos around 60 kilometers off the west coast of Asia Minor. He was familiar with the churches and cities of that province. The focus is on events in Asia, not Rome.
- The persecution of Christians in Asia became pronounced in the late first century under the reign of Domitian. There is no existing evidence for organized Roman persecution in Asia in the late 60s A.D.
- Only Roman authorities could order John’s banishment to Patmos, indicating a time of official persecution. This fits the reign of Domitian, not Nero.
- Patmos was within the administrative and judicial boundaries of the province of Asia during the reign of Domitian. The provincial governor had the authority to banish someone to locations within his jurisdiction.
What About the “Temple”?
Because the book of Revelation employs imagery and language from the “temple,” it is argued that the Temple must have been standing in Jerusalem when it was written. And, since the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, therefore, the book was composed prior to this date.
The problem with this argument is that the imagery in the book is drawn from the much older Tabernacle, especially from the story of Israel’s transit from Egypt to the land of Canaan. This structure is explicitly designated as the “Tabernacle” or “tent” in Revelation 13:6 and 15:5. The symbolism from the Exodus story employed by Revelation is deliberate and integral to its narrative (compare Revelation 7:15, 21:3).
John defines his vision as a “revelation” and calls its contents “prophecy.” But its epistolary aspects demonstrate it was also a circular letter addressed to seven Christian congregations (Ian Boxall, The Revelation of Saint John [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006], p. 1.). The book includes a summary statement or superscription, an epistolary opening and address, the body of the vision, and a concluding section or epilogue with final salutations (Revelation 1:1-8, 22:8-21).
John was commanded to record and send what he saw to the Seven Churches of Asia. The book includes features common to formal letters of the period, including greetings, the naming of the sender, the naming of the addressees, a summary statement about its contents and purpose, the body of the letter, and concluding statements followed by final greetings and salutations. The epistolary form and stated destinations of the document must be given their proper weight when interpreting the book.
Destination/Recipients of the Letter
The book is addressed to God’s “servants,” a group identified with the seven churches or “assemblies” located in key cities of the province of Asia. The churches are dominant in chapters 1, 2, and 3 but, also, remain in view in later chapters, and they are referenced again in the book’s conclusion (Revelation 11:4, 13:7-10, 22:16).
In chapters 2-3, the seven messages are addressed to each of the seven churches; however, they are not separate letters, and, collectively, they are integral to the message of the whole book. In its entirety, the book of Revelation is addressed to all seven churches and, presumably, was relevant to the members of each one.
When interpreting Revelation, one needs to consider seriously that the book is addressed to seven Christian congregations located in Asia in the first century. Interpretations that render the book irrelevant to them ignore its historical and literary settings.
Geographic Setting(s) of Revelation
John was exiled on the Isle of Patmos when he received his vision, including its command to send via letter what he saw to the churches of Asia. While not explicitly stated, presumably, John did just that.
‘Asia’ was the name given by Rome to the province in which the seven churches and their respective cities were located. It consisted of a major portion of what is today western Turkey or Asia Minor. It included the western coastal region. Patmos was a small island approximately 60 kilometers from the west coast of Asia and 90 kilometers from the city of Ephesus.
The order in which the Seven Churches are listed, as well as the order of the seven messages in chapters 2-3, is best explained geographically. Ephesus was a leading city and port in the province. It was the first city where a messenger from Patmos would arrive by ship on the mainland. Beginning in Ephesus, a messenger carrying a letter would then travel in a circuitous route to Smyrna, then to Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and, finally, Laodicea.
Three times the book of Revelation mentions the “inhabited earth” or oikoumené. In the first century, the term referred to the parts of the earth ruled over by Rome. In view was not the entire globe but the Roman “civilized” world, in distinction from “barbarian” lands outside the bounds of the Empire (Revelation 3:10, 12:9, 16:14).
In the Seventh Trumpet, the Greek term kosmos refers to the “kingdoms of the world” (Strong’s #G2889). Over fifty times in the book, the term “earth” or gé appears to refer to the entire earth (e.g., Revelation 1:5, 5:10, 6:4, 12:9, 11:15).
Thus, the initial geographic focus is regional, the province of Asia. However, in places, the entire Roman world and, even the Cosmos, is in included in events. The book of Revelation has both local and universal aspects.
The Unity of the Book
Although John may have received the contents of Revelation as a series of individual visions, the book is presented as a single work. It is not, “the revelations,” plural, but “revelation,” singular (Revelation 1:1).
Likewise, John refers to the contents of the entire book as “the prophecy,” again singular. The book was composed as a single document intended to be sent in its entirety to each of the addressed churches (Revelation 1:3, 22:7, 22:10, 22:18-19).
The Old Testament Background
The Book of Revelation includes more allusions to the Old Testament than any other New Testament book. But it never uses a citation formula like, “it is written,” nor does it directly quote scriptural passages. Instead, clauses from Old Testament passages are alluded to and woven into the fabric of its narrative.
Although Revelation alludes to passages from many Old Testament books, over half are from the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Psalms. The book is especially dependent on the book of Daniel. The first verse of the book includes a clause from Daniel that is repeated several times (Daniel 2:28-30 – “What things must come to pass.” Revelation 1:1, 1:19, 4:1).
But the book does more than use Old Testament verbiage to paint its picture of “what things must come to pass.” Undoubtedly, it intends to call to mind the original contexts of key Old Testament passages to shed further light on its visions.
The book of Revelation reinterprets and reapplies Old Testament passages in new and unexpected ways. For example, the original prophecy from Daniel 2:28-30 was concerning things that would come to pass “in latter days.” However, in Revelation, “latter days” is changed to “soon,” presumably, to indicate that the time of fulfillment is now at hand.
Similarly, the prophet Daniel was commanded to seal the words of his prophecy until a “later time.” In contrast, John is commanded NOT to seal his prophecy because “the appointed time is near.” What was sealed in Daniel’s day is unsealed and revealed in the visions of John (Daniel 12:4, Revelation 1:3, 22:10).
Basic Structure and Outline
Revelation consists of a Prologue, the Vision proper, and an Epilogue. The Vision falls into four recognizable divisions, each starting with an episode in which John came to be “in the spirit” and found himself in a specific location where he received further revelation. The four divisions are:
- (1:9-3:22) – John “came to be in the spirit in the Lord’s Day.”
- (4:1-16:21) – John “came to be in the spirit” and found himself before the Heavenly Throne.
- (17:1-21:8) – John was “carried away in the spirit” into the Wilderness by one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls of wrath.
- (21:9-22:7) – John was “carried away in the spirit” to a great and high mountain by one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls of wrath.
There are conceptual and literary parallels between the first two divisions, as well as the last two. For example, the third division begins with a description of a female figure, the “Great Harlot,” and focuses on the city wherein she resides, “Mystery Babylon.” Likewise, the fourth division begins with a female figure, the Bride of Christ, and focuses on the city in which she resides, New Jerusalem.
The Purpose of the Revelation (1:1-3)
John’s Salutation to the Seven Churches (1:4-9)
Division I – Inaugural Vision of the Risen Christ (1:8-3:22):
Jesus in the Midst of the Churches (1:10-20)
Seven Messages for Seven Churches (2:1-3:22)
Division II – The Church in Hostile Territory (4:1-16:21):
The Divine Throne and the Sealed Scroll (4:1-5:14)
The Seven Seals (6:1-8:5):
The First Six Seals (6:1-17)
The Sealing and Numbering of God’s Servants (7:1-8)
The Innumerable Company of the Redeemed (7:9-17)
The Seventh Seal (8:1-5)
The Seven Trumpets (8:6-11:19):
The First Six Trumpets (8:6-9:21)
The Opened Scroll and Commissioning of the Church (10:1-11)
The Measuring of the Sanctuary (11:1-2)
The Two Witnesses (11:3-13)
The Seventh Trumpet (11:14-19)
God’s Victorious People vs. Satanic Forces (12:1-14:20):
The Son’s Victory over the Dragon (12:1-11)
The Defeated Dragon Pursues the Woman & her Seed (12:12-17)
The Beast from the Sea (13:1-10)
The Beast from the Land (13:11-18)
The Firstfruits and the Harvest (14:1-20)
The Seven Bowls of Wrath Culminate in Final Judgment (15:1-16:21)
Division III – The Destruction of Gods’ Cosmic Enemies (17:1-21:8):
The Fall of Babylon, the Great Whore (17:1-19:10)
The Destruction of the Beast & False Prophet (19:11-21)
The Binding, Release, and Judgment of Satan (20:1-10)
The Great White Throne of Judgment (20:11-15)
Transitional Passage: The Descent of New Jerusalem (21:1-8)
Division IV – New Jerusalem: Bride of Christ and City of God (21:9-22:7)
Epilogue – Final Warnings, Exhortations, and Salutations (22:8-21)