Some see Revelation as a book predicting when Jesus will return in wrath and judgment. Although it does clearly expect Jesus to return, the mood is joyful anticipation: "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus." Yet, when Jesus left this world, his disciples asked: "Lord, is this time when will you restore the kingdom to Israel?" Jesus responded: "It not for you to know the times" but "You will receive power… to be my witnesses…" (Acts 1:6-8). That is the purpose of Revelation: Not to predict when Jesus will come again, but to prepare us to witness to Jesus who is coming. That witness includes who Jesus is, who God is, what Jesus accomplished by dying on the cross, the context and protection for witness, the evil forces arrayed against our witness, and the reward for faithful witness. These are all communicated in the powerful symbolic language of metaphor and simile interspersed with joyous worship.
Author and Date
Revelation was written in a time of actual tribulation or the threat of persecution. A few commentators insist that this best fits Nero's rule in the AD 60s. Yet, the focus of so much of Revelation's beastly symbolism upon the empire of Rome best fits a period after Rome destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70. Indeed, Irenaeus in the second century, Victorinus in the third century, and Eusebius in the fourth all assumed that Revelation was written during the reign of Domitian in the AD 90s. Therefore, the vast majority of commentators agree that Revelation was written during the threat of persecution under Domitian.
Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, who both lived in the century after Revelation was written, identify John the disciple as its author. Yet, Revelation's language is so different from the Gospel and Epistles of John that it is difficult to believe that same person wrote them all at about the same time. Nevertheless, the inspiration of the Book of Revelation is in the vision of Christ, not the human author.
Form and Rhetoric
Revelation 1:4-6 has the form of a letter and then chapters 2-3 are a series of letters to seven churches in Asia Minor. Moreover, the book ends with an epistolary conclusion: "The grace of the Lord Jesus be with the saints" (22:21). John himself calls Revelation a prophecy in both the introduction (1:3) and the conclusion (22:19). Yet, the first word of the Book of Revelation is apocalypsis, which came to identify a common genre of literature.
Apocalyptic literature is characterized by visions, angels and demons, otherworldly journeys, and secret books. Yet, its most important quality is the use of symbolic language. The reason for using symbols is to effectively communicate truths about God and Jesus, Satan and his demons, heaven and hell. Such truths cannot be effectively stated in descriptive language. Therefore, John used symbols to communicate such realities more powerfully and effectively.
Summary and Comment
The Vision of Christ: (1:1-20): In the first vision of Revelation, Jesus is described with grand symbolic language. Jesus wears the long robe of the High Priest and the golden belt of the king. He is endowed with the mature wisdom that accompanies white hair and with the stability of bronzed feet. The sword from his mouth is the word of God with which he destroys his adversaries. He holds the churches in the protection of his right hand, and his face shines with the glory of God. In response to this fantastic symbolic vision, John falls on his face in worship of Christ, who is also the focus of our witness.
The Letters to the Churches (2:1–3:22): These specific addresses to each of seven churches in Asia Minor indicate that Christ knows those churches intimately. Yet, the number seven suggests that the message is for the complete church that bears witness to Christ in all times and places.
The Vision of God (4:1-11): Revelation calls us to bear witness to God who is described in the symbolism of precious stones. The jasper, clear as crystal, speaks of the purity of God, and the fiery carnelian symbolizes the purifying judgment of God, but they are both encircled by the emerald-green rainbow of God's mercy. All of heaven worships this holy and merciful God.
The Redemption of Christ (5:1-14): To complement the powerful vision of Christ in chapter 1, this vision presents the redemption that Christ brought on the cross. Jesus appears to open the sealed scroll and accomplish God's plan for the redemption of our universe and the salvation of all humanity through his suffering and death on the cross. This vision is the centerpiece of Revelation and focus of our witness. Again the response in heaven is jubilant worship of the slaughtered Lamb.
The Context of Witness (6:1-16): Witnesses in all times and places face the four horsemen of the apocalypse – war, bloodshed, famine, and death. In response to this tribulation, the voices of those who follow the slaughtered Lamb and are martyred for this faithfulness cry out for God's justice to make sense of their suffering. The answer comes in God's cataclysmic judgment of the sixth seal directed at those who persecuted his witnesses.
The Sealing of the Witness (7:1-16): In the midst of suffering, Jesus's witnesses are marked for protection. The 144,000 represent the witnesses facing tribulation. Although they suffer even to the point of death, they are ultimately sealed and promised that they will join the great multitude before the throne worshipping God. This vast multitude is the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham that his seed would be innumerable.
The New Exodus (8:1–9:21; 15:1–16:21): The trumpet and bowl judgments parallel the plagues of the Exodus. Indeed, these chapters describe the eschatological exodus of God's people from this world. In answer to the prayers of these faithful witnesses, God brings judgment on those who have persecuted them and ultimately exalts the faithful to a place with God in heaven.
The Call of the Witnesses (10:1–11:19): Like Christ who opened the sealed scroll to accomplish God's plan of redemption, human witnesses take the little scroll that is open to them and symbolizes their to task to bear faithful witness through their death, resurrection and ascension to heaven. The scroll is sweet to their mouth because it symbolizes salvation, but bitter to their stomach because they realize that it involves suffering along with their Lord Jesus Christ who suffered on the cross for their salvation.
The Great Enemies of God's Witnesses (12:1–13:18): The great adversaries of faithful witnesses form a trinity of evil. The great red dragon Satan is defeated in a war in heaven, but remains alive to continue to attack God's people. That attack is waged by Satan's cohorts the political beast from the sea, who is elsewhere called the anti-Christ, and the religious beast from the earth, whom Revelation calls the false prophet. Although this trinity of evil continues to wage war on earth, faithful witnesses know that Satan's defeat in heaven assures them of the final defeat on earth of Satan and his two beastly cohorts.
The Separation of the Faithful from the Wicked (14:1-20): An angel from heaven separates those who wear the mark of Satan and his beast from those who bear the seal of the slain Lamb. The Lamb's faithful witnesses are portrayed as a wheat harvest and Satan's followers are like grapes thrown into the great winepress of the wrath of God.
The Defeat of the Enemies of Christ's Witnesses (17:1–18:24): The Fall of Babylon symbolizes the fall of Rome and all of empires that persecute Christ's witnesses. Babylon's defeat is described in both narrative and poetic form. What brings her downfall is her oppressive and wanton luxury, which also characterizes the great empires throughout history and even those in our day.
Christ's Final Victory (19:1-21): Christ wins the final battle with the sword from his mouth, which is the word of God. This brings the celebration of the marriage supper of the Lamb and the devastation of the wicked portrayed as a gruesome meal of dead flesh. This final battle, like the other wars of Revelation are won not with military might, but with the sword of the word of the Lamb that was slain.
The Kingdom of God (20:1-15): God's kingdom on earth is ruled by those who bear witness in great tribulation. Satan and his evil cohorts are destroyed, and all humanity is resurrected to be judged on the basis of what they have done in faithful witness to Christ.
The Reward of the Witnesses (21:1–22:21): The faithful witnesses are rewarded with the bliss of the New Heaven and New Earth, but the sea, the abode of Satan and his beast, is destroyed. The reward for witness is portrayed symbolically in the vision of the New Jerusalem, which is magnificent beyond what words can describe. Then Revelation ends in the jubilant expectation of the coming of the Lord Jesus to inaugurate the kingdom of God.
Conclusion and the Anabaptist Tradition
Revelation was not written to tell us when Jesus will come again, but to give us truths to bear witness to the one who is to come – our Lord Jesus. Revelation is a powerful symbolic presentation of the nature of Jesus and God, the atonement Jesus accomplished, the reality of Satan, and the reward of the faithful witnesses. This is all interspersed with jubilant worship of the almighty God on the throne and the Lamb that was slain for our salvation and who rose from the dead to conquer death. (See the essay, "Anabaptist Interpretation of Revelation.")
Recommended Essays in the Commentary
Anabaptist Interpretation of Revelation
Canonicity and Acceptance of Revelation
Christology of Revelation
Emperors and Emperor Worship
The Influence of Revelation
Persecution in Revelation
The Structure of Revelation
Worship in Revelation
- Aune, David E. Revelation. Word Biblical Commentary. 3 vols. Nashville, TN: Word, 1997, 1998.
- Barr, David L. Tales of the End: Narrative Commentary on the Book of Revelation. 2nd ed. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2011.
- Bauckham, Richard J. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. New Testament Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
- Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999.
- deSilva, David A. Seeing Things John's Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009.
- Reddish, Mitchell G. Revelation. Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2001.
Invitation to Comment
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|—John R. Yeatts|