Background Notes on Revelation

Introduction

Revelation is a unique and important book in the Bible. Just as Genesis gives us a glimpse at the beginning of all things and lays a crucial foundation, Revelation gives a glimpse of the end and serves as a capstone on God’s plan of the ages. Its ominous events and symbolic language arrest our interest and pique our curiosity. So, sometimes we follow a random teacher on YouTube who presents us with all sorts of charts and who claims to have all kinds of deep insights. Other times we just back away from the book completely since it seems too bizarre and complicated.

Believers should be just as familiar with Revelation as they are with any other book of the Bible, but in a thoughtful and responsible way that resists the urge to be sensational or scared. Understood properly, this book should inspire comfort, confidence, hope, and peace in difficult, uncertain times. It should motivate nonbelievers to turn to Christ as Lord and Savior, while motivating believers to persevere in faith, overcoming spiritual challenges and knowing that Christ will be victorious in the end.

Authorship
The apostle John wrote this final book of the New Testament (NT). (He also wrote the Gospel of John and the three epistles of John.) Leaders from the earliest centuries of church history widely recognized John as the author, agreeing with the multiple internal references to his name at the start and end of the book (Rev 1:1, 4, 9; 21:2; 22:8).

We often study Revelation as a stand-alone book. Yet just as we study Acts in light of Luke’s Gospel, so we should study Revelation against the background and in connection with John’s former writings as well. For instance, many similarities exist between John’s Gospel and Revelation. Both call Christ “the Word.” Both speak of “the lamb,” “the water of life,” “he who overcomes,” and “keeping the commandments.” Both quote from Zech 12:10, give an invitation to those who are thirsty, describe angels with white clothing, contrast good and evil sharply, and emphasize being a witness and keeping God’s commandments. Many other similarities also appear.[1]

John was one of Christ’s original, core team of twelve disciples and was part of the inner circle of three disciples (Peter, James, and John, Matt 17:1). He was also “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” which indicates an especially close relationship with Christ during his earthly ministry, perhaps closer than the rest (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20). Though Christ had nicknamed John and his brother James the “sons of thunder” due to their outspoken, assertive, and intolerant manner, his mentorship of John transformed him so completely that he entrusted the care of his widowed mother, Mary, to John at the Crucifixion (Mark 3:17; Luke 9:54-56; John 19:25-27). In fact, church history describes John as the “apostle of love” and he went on to have a significant influence in Jerusalem, Samaria, Asia Minor (esp. in Ephesus), and beyond.

This transformation from a “son of thunder” to an “apostle of love” is one of the special storylines of the NT. Knowing about this transformation in John’s life helps us read Revelation with the proper mindset, for he didn’t write this as a “son of thunder,” but with the loving heart of a shepherd of God’s sheep.

Date and Historical Setting

John likely wrote this book about A.D. 95., which places the book near the end of Domitian’s reign as Roman emperor. Archaeological and historical evidence indicates that the persecution of Christians at this time was less brutal or systemic than it had been during Nero’s prior reign. Still, Christians faced general disapproval and harassment from society for their refusal to cooperate with accepted cultural and religious practices related to idolatry and also for their unwillingness to embrace social, political, and materialistic norms (not to mention the immoral lifestyle) that pervaded society at large. This historical scenario resembles the growing experience of Christians in the West today, free but marginalized and unfavored.

Sometimes this marginalization spurred localized, sporadic cases of economic or social resistance against them, or in some cases even to imprisonment or death.[2] It seems that a reputable Christian leader named Antipas had already been martyred (Rev 2:13) and the believers in Smyrna were warned of pending persecution as well (Rev 2:10).[3] Even John’s banishment to Patmos Island (which is when he wrote this book) was another prominent example of this kind of selective action by the Roman government towards an influential Christian leader. Patmos was a small, rocky, volcanic island off the southwest coast of Asia Minor (Turkey). John’s exile there does not appear to have been an incarceration as such, but rather a temporary relocation designed to reduce John’s influence and dishearten those who looked to him for Christian leadership.

Though the all-out-assault on Christianity by emperors like Nero had passed, believers lived marginalized lives and feared what might happen to them next. Would persecutions return, reminiscent of Nero? Would marginalization increase? How long would their suffering go on? As disciples of Christ, what would the future hold as they followed him?

Audience

John wrote this book as a circular letter, which means he intended for it to be circulated among multiple churches to read it (Rev 1:8). In particular, he wrote to seven churches located in seven cities of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). These churches are Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. It’s fascinating to observe that John listed these cities in a geographic sequence. The carrier would have traveled to the hub city, Ephesus, then to Smyrna, Pergamos, etc. in a clockwise route.

From these central cities, then, this book would have been copied and circulated more widely. This is a strategic perspective, since John evidently intended for this book to reach many churches throughout the Roman Empire. We get a hint at this goal in the conclusions of the seven smaller, internal letters he wrote to the first recipient congregations (Rev 2-3). To each church he said, “Hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (notice the plural).[4]

Type of Book

Though the Old Testament (OT) includes numerous books of prophecy, Revelation is the only NT book described as “prophecy” (Rev 1:3, 6; 22:7, 10, 18-19). As prophecy, it extensively quotes from and expands on the OT prophets, esp. Daniel and Ezekiel. Like these prior prophetic books, it does more than unveil juicy details about future, end-time events – it reveals God’s divine perspective about the present and future political, social, religious, and economic situation in the world, much like the prophets did in the OT.

The title Revelation helps us further understand the nature of this book. Apocalypse (the Greek word translation as “revelation”) means “a disclosure, revelation, manifestation, appearance.”[5] It describes “uncovering” something so that we can see what was previously hidden from view.
 In a certain way, this book is a further disclosure of things which had been concealed by God, things pertaining to the completion of God’s plans and purposes for people and the world (Dan 12:8-9). Yet there is an even more important way this book provides us with a full disclosure because it is ultimately a manifestation of Christ himself (Rev 1:1).

Revelation, then, is a manifestation of Jesus Christ in two ways. First, it is revelation that has him as the object – in other words, his person, character, and actions are what’s being revealed. So, Jesus is the primary focal point of all that’s revealed (Rev 19:10). Second, it is a message that Jesus Christ himself revealed to John personally. So, Jesus himself is not just the object of this revelation, but the source of it as well (Rev 1:2).

Purpose and Response

John wrote revelation to inspire joy and perseverance in the hearts of believers who were allured by a pagan world, marginalized or persecuted for their faith, or afraid of the future. From the outset, he makes it clear that believers who would hear and keep the message of this book would enjoy God’s blessing (Rev 1:3). Note, however, that this doesn’t guarantee some kind of mystical blessing (like “extra credit”) just from studying and understanding this book in an academic sense or from having a strong curiosity about it.

The blessing of Revelation refers to both the reader and audience (in a public Scripture reading format) if they would also “keep” the message.[6] This means that God expects us to allow the message of this book to influence our lives so significantly that it impacts our mindset and daily lives in a definite and distinct way. The blessing that this book provides occurs as a result of putting its teaching into practice, not just knowing about it.

Content and Structure

The structure for this book follows a three-part format which Christ summarized to John at the beginning (Rev 1:19): “Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this.” The things “which you have seen” refers to John’s opening interaction with Christ (Rev 1), the things “which are” refers to the letters to seven churches in Asia Minor and the present condition of churches at that time (Rev 2-3), and the things “which will take place after this” refers to the climactic events of the future revealed through the remainder of the book (Rev 4-22).

The following outline reflects this threefold format and provides some basic subdivisions for the content of each section[7]:

I.  The Things Which You Have Seen (1:1-20)
A.  The Prologue (1:1-8)
B.  The Vision of the Glorified Christ (1:9-18)
C.  John’s Commission to Write (1:19-20)

II.  The Things Which Are (2:1-3:22)
Letters portraying the spiritual condition of seven churches

III.  The Things Which Will Take Place After This (4:1-22:21)
A.  Worship Before God’s Heavenly Throne (4:1-5:14)
B.  The Tribulation (6:1-18:24)
C.  The Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ (19:1-21)
D.  The Millennium (20:1-10)
E.  The Great White Throne Judgment (20:11-15)
F.  The Eternal State (21:1-22:21)

In future lessons, we’ll expand his outline further and explore more details, especially in the Tribulation section. But this outline is a good overview to memorize and a helpful paradigm to keep in mind as we read and study the book.

Key Concepts

Study Revelation in a Christ-centered way.

Consider the classic story, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Throughout this riveting tale, we encounter some charming characters, mysterious ghosts, and an unmistakable emphasis on Christmas. Yet this isn’t a story about any of these characters or ghosts, or even ultimately about Christmas. Though all these details play an important role in the story, the story itself is about the importance of those who have resources and influence learning to help those who are less fortunate.

We must keep Christ as the focus of our heart when we read and study Revelation. We should not allow our fascination with sensational events, cryptic symbols, and frightening elements distract us from what Christ reveals to us through this book about himself – his person, his nature, his authority, his power, his longsuffering, his justice, and his faithfulness to his people. Christ wins and we win with him in the end.

Study Revelation in a chronological way.

Commentators and teachers suggest a variety of ways to interpret the events which are described in Revelation. These include:
 
  • Preterist: this view suggests that Revelation only describes historical events that occurred in John’s lifetime. According to this view, Revelation does not foretell future, end-time events. It only describes what was happening in the first-century world from God’s perspective.
  • Historical: this view suggests that the events of Revelation correspond with actual historical events and developments in history from the first century to eternity. This view would attempt, for instance, to connect the various judgments, plagues, and natural disasters mentioned in the book with equivalent occurrences in history.
  • Idealist: this view suggests that Revelation does not portray actual events, but instead portrays the ongoing struggle between good and evil, God and Satan, believers and the world, truth and error, and so on. This view therefore interprets the book of Revelation as nothing more than an allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress.
  • Futurist: this view interprets Revelation (esp. Rev 4-22) as a prophecy of actual future events that will occur both in heaven and on Earth. This view is the most normal, straightforward way to understand this book as a distinctly prophetic message. This view reads the events of Revelation in a chronological, sequential way.

Study Revelation in a pastoral way.

By pastoral, I mean that we should study Revelation with a profound awareness of its purpose, written by a man transformed by the Gospel with a heart of love and care for God’s people who were suffering for their faith. We should not study this book out of mere curiosity or out of fascination with end times events, nor should we study the book to feed conspiracy theories and pessimistic perspectives about our world.

Consider these words which John the Apostle wrote in a separate letter to the believers he cared for: “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love him because he first loved us” (1 John 4:17-19).

If a person does not follow Christ, this book should persuade such a person to put their trust in him as God and Savior. For those who are following Christ in this godless world, as the believers in Asia Minor were doing, Revelation should give us a grander view of Christ our Lord, a greater resolve to follow him through difficult times, and a deeper peace and comfort that comes from knowing that our God has all things under his sovereign control. Christ will be victorious in the end and we will be victorious with him forever.

*****
[1] Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1-7: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1992), 11-17.
[2] Buist M. Fanning, Revelation, ed. Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 30.
[3] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 129.
[4] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 85.
[5] William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 1092.
[6] Buist M. Fanning, Revelation, ed. Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 78.
[7] John F. MacArthur Jr., Revelation 1-11, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1999), 11.

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