The author identifies himself as “John” (Rev. 1:1,4,9; 21:2; 22:8), a “servant” or slave of Jesus Christ (1:1) and “brother” and “companion in tribulation” to his readers. The name John was common among first-century Jews (Matt. 3:1; Acts 4:6; 12:12), being a form of the Hebrew name Johanan, meaning, “the Lord is gracious” (2 Kings 25:23; 1 Chron. 3:15; Jer. 40:8, etc.).
Various scholars have argued that this John is not the apostle known to us in the Gospels and Acts. Some reasons given for this view are: (1) Eusebius wrote (c. AD 325) that an early writer named Papias spoke of two Johns, one the apostle and the other John the elder (cf. 2 John 1; 3 John 1). (2) Revelation is an apocalyptic writing, and such were commonly presented under the pseudonym (false name) of a famous person of a previous age. (3) The Greek grammar of Revelation is much rougher than that of the Gospel of John or the epistles of John.
In reply, we may observe: (1) We know little of Papias, having only fragments of his writings quoted by Irenaeus and Eusebius. Even if this is the correct interpretation of his words (which some scholars dispute), Papias does not say anything directly about the authorship of Revelation. (2) Revelation does not fit the pattern of Jewish apocalyptic books written under the pseudonym of a figure from a previous age because the apostle John was a person of the same era when Revelation was written. Revelation follows the pattern of a prophetic apocalyptic such as Daniel, which identifies its true author (see the Introduction to Daniel). (3) It is possible that John used a secretary who influenced his style in the Gospel of John and his epistles. It may also be that John’s grammar in Revelation was affected by the harsh conditions he had endured.
A strong argument may be made that John the apostle wrote Revelation. (1) The author identified himself simply as “John” when addressing Christians in seven locations in Asia Minor (Rev. 1:11). This implies that he was well known in the churches and needed no title. (2) Scholars note the Semitic style of the Greek and the many allusions to the Old Testament that imply that the writer was a Jew from Palestine. (3) He claimed to be the writer of a “prophecy” (Rev. 1:3; 22:7-8) by supernatural revelation from Jesus Christ (Rev. 1:1; 22:16), a message of divine authority (2:18-19) binding whole churches (Rev. 1:7), thus placing himself on the level of the prophets and apostles. (4) He used expressions also found in the Gospel of John, such as identifying Christ as “the Word” (John 1:1; Rev. 19:13) and “the Lamb” (John 1:29; Rev. 5:6), and offering the water of life to those who thirst (John 7:37; Rev. 22:17). (5) Justin Martyr (writing c. AD 155), identified the author of Revelation as the apostle John, and later writers in the second century, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria, agreed. Therefore, we conclude that the author of Revelation is the apostle John, the son of Zebedee and brother of James.
John wrote during a period of persecution against Christians, being banished to the island of Patmos (Rev. 1:9). Two main dates have been proposed, one shortly after the fire of Rome in the reign of Emperor Nero (AD 64), and another at the end of the reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 95). Most scholars over the last century have favored the later date.
The victory of Jesus Christ over the powers of evil.
To strengthen Christ’s churches facing persecution and temptation in this world.
Major Problems of Interpretation:
General Approaches to Revelation’s Symbolism
The Apocalypse, or book of Revelation, is a book of symbols and has evoked very different interpretations, depending on how one approaches it. The preterist approach interprets the book almost entirely in reference to the events of John’s time in the first century AD. Thus Revelation is taken to be a book about past events in the Roman Empire, except perhaps for the last chapters. The historicist approach reads Revelation as a chart of church history, tracing the works of Christ from His first coming through His return and the challenges to the true church from such movements as the Roman papacy and Islam. The futurist approach is almost the opposite of the preterist, seeing Revelation as a timeline of future events in the years just before Christ comes in glory. The idealist approach understands John’s vision to reveal general spiritual principles that are always true and are not limited to a particular event in history.
Each view has weaknesses. Both the preterist and idealist approaches tend to neglect Revelation’s strong expectation of Christ’s total victory over evil at His future, glorious coming in human history. The historicist and futurist approaches tend to arbitrarily assign fulfillment of Revelation’s symbols to events that would have meant nothing to John’s original audience, whether European politics or modern technology and warfare.
However, each view also has strengths from which we can learn. With the preterists, we should interpret the symbols of Revelation according to the first-century historical and cultural context, that is to say in light of the church’s persecution in the Roman Empire. With the historicists, we should recognize that cataclysmic symbols in Scripture may be at least partially fulfilled in the ordinary events of history. With the futurists, we must see Revelation presenting us with a hope that is to be ultimately fulfilled only in the second coming of Christ. And with the idealists, we gain much by recognizing that John unveils principles of spiritual warfare that guide the church through the centuries until her Lord returns.
Therefore, the best interpretation of Revelation arises from an eclectic approach that brings together insights from all four viewpoints. This fits with the use of symbolic language and stories in other parts of Scripture. The parables of our Lord give us examples of symbolic teaching that may be fulfilled in ordinary historical events in the near future (Matt. 21:33-46) or Christ’s coming in glory (Matt. 25:14-30). Other parables simply describe spiritual truths applicable to many periods of time (Mark 4:1-9; Luke 10:30-37). Symbols of cataclysmic events sometimes represent ordinary human victories in Scripture (Ps. 18).
One must be cautious in interpreting such a symbolic book. The Bible sometimes uses elaborate imagery where the message is not found in each detail so much as in the whole picture (Ezek. 16). Even the language of Christ coming to judge may not always refer to the second coming so much as to His providence in history (Rev. 2:5,16,22-23; 3:3). Numbers in Revelation often have symbolic value; one sees many instances of seven (for perfection, Gen. 2:1-3), ten (for completeness, Job 19:3; Eccl. 7:19), twelve (for God’s people, Gen. 49:28; Matt. 10:2), and their fractions (3 ½) and multiples (twenty-four, a thousand, 12,000, and 144,000). Other numbers without much symbolic value such as five, eight, nine, and eleven rarely appear.
Questions of Ganre
The interpretation of Revelation is also complicated by the fact that it is a blend of three genres or literary styles. (1) It is prophecy (Rev. 1:3; 10:11; 22:7,10,18-19). Though we often think of prophecy as prediction, most biblical prophecy consists of exhortation and comfort (1 Cor. 14:3), calling people to covenant faithfulness to the Lord in light of His faithfulness to His promises and threats. This prophecy revolves around calling people to persevere in glorifying God and the Lamb (Rev. 4-5) instead of any man or idol. It is a prophetic call to follow Jesus to the end, “for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10).
Revelation, almost by definition, is apocalyptic. (The Greek word for “revelation” in Rev. 1:1 is apokalupsis.) The book comes in the form of symbolic visions somewhat similar to writings of various Jewish authors between 200 BC–AD 100 describing the battle and ultimate victory of God against evil. However, the apocalyptic form of Revelation is rooted most directly in the divinely inspired dreams and visions found in the book of Daniel. We may also see something of a precedent in the dreams associated with the patriarch Joseph (Gen. 37:5-11; 40:5-19; 41:1-32).
In such visions, the Lord reveals the secrets of His future dealings with the nations of the world (Gen. 40:8; 41:16,25,28; Dan. 2:19-23,28). God also unveils a heavenly world of angelic activity and messages (Rev. 4:13; 7:16; 8:13,16-17; 9:21; 10:5-6,12-14,20-21; 12:1). He makes known His sovereign control over earthly events to bring His kingdom for His people (Gen. 41:32; Dan. 2:37,44; 4:17,25; 7:13-14,22,27; 9:24-27). All of these elements appear in Revelation. Whereas Jewish apocalyptic literature was pessimistic as the remnant passively waited until the final cataclysm, Revelation is optimistic, for believers are already now overcoming by the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 12:11), and the gospel is saving many people from every nation (7:9,14). As a result, Revelation calls the church to active perseverance in its costly witness to Christ (Rev. 1:2,9,13; 6:9; 11:3,7; 12:11,17; 17:6; 19:10; 20:4), who is the Faithful Witness (Rev. 1:5; 3:14; 22:16-20).
(3) Revelation is an epistle or letter. Like Paul’s epistles, it begins with an identification of its author and intended recipients and a blessing of “grace” and “peace” from God (Rev. 1:1-5), and it ends with a blessing of “grace” (Rev. 22:21). It addresses seven actual churches located near Ephesus in western Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Like Jeremiah’s prophetic letter to the exiles in Babylon (Jer. 29:1-23), it brings the word of the Lord to a specific group of people and addresses their conditions (Rev. 2-3). Therefore, though Revelation is a message for all Christians of all ages, its contents must be understood in a manner relevant to those churches in their historical and cultural situation. It is a personal book, written for suffering saints (Rev. 1:9) and intended to be read in the churches for their blessing (Rev. 1:3).
Structure and Flow
Some interpreters read the book of Revelation as a continuous story presented in chronological order, almost as if it were a graphic novel or an historical documentary in video form. However, Revelation presents itself in the form of cycles, often appearing in lists of seven: seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls.
One way that the cycles are evident is that Revelation repeatedly takes the reader to the return of Christ. Consider how the following visions are parallel to each other.
- The opening of the sixth seal brings cosmic disturbances, a massive earthquake that overthrows every mountain and island, the rolling up of the heavens like a scroll, and terror at the coming wrath of the Lord Jesus (Rev. 6:12-17).
- The seventh trumpet heralds the coming of God’s reign to this world and judgment day for the righteous and the wicked (Rev. 11:15-19).
- The seventh bowl brings a hailstorm and earthquake that destroys the cities and every island and mountain (like the sixth seal) as God causes Babylon to drink the cup of His wrath (Rev. 16:17-21). The events of this bowl match Ezekiel’s vision of God’s judgment against Gog (Ezek. 38:2,18-22). They are also preceded in the vision by the gathering of world powers for “the battle [or war] of that great day of God Almighty” (Rev. 16:14).
- The vision of Christ coming on the white horse also alludes to the vision of Ezekiel against Gog with its invitation for birds to feast on the bodies of all His enemies (Rev. 19:17-18; Ezek. 39:1,11,17-20). This allusion to the judgment on Gog, together with the gathering of the world’s armies “to make war against him that sat on the horse” (Rev. 19:19), parallels this vision with the seventh bowl.
- Revelation explicitly names the “Gog and Magog” of Ezekiel when the nations gather for battle after the “thousand years” (Rev. 20:7-8), referring to the same battle as in the seventh bowl and the vision of Christ on the white horse. The same Greek phrase, literally, “to gather them for war,” is used of Satan’s activity in both the sixth seal and the rebellion after the thousand years (Rev. 16:14; 20:8). Just as in the sixth seal and the seventh bowl, God’s presence causes “the earth and the heaven [to flee] away” (Rev. 20:11). Like the seventh trumpet, judgment day arrives (Rev. 20:12-13).
The strong parallels between these events indicate that Revelation is structured in cycles. After the introduction and initial messages to the seven churches (Revelation 1-3), each cycle describes from a different perspective the church’s conflict and ultimate victory at Christ’s return. The outline below reflects these seven major cycles.
The millennium (“thousand years”) of ch. 20 has been interpreted in widely different ways. The premillennial view holds that Christ will return before ( pre-) He will institute a golden age of peace lasting until a final rebellion and judgment day. Dispensationalists understand this period to revolve around the elevation of physical Israel over the nations. The postmillennial view holds that Christ will return after (post-) the church has enjoyed a golden age of success in missions and transforming society. The amillennial view holds that the millennium does not (a-) refer to a physical kingdom in the future but symbolizes the spiritual kingdom of God present now in the church’s missionary advance and heavenly reign, even as it suffers persecution and waits for Christ’s return and judgment day. All these views have advocates among evangelical Christians.
With all due respect to Christians who hold differing views, the notes at ch. 20 present an amillennial interpretation, supported by the following reasons:
- The New Testament teaches that God’s promises to Israel have already begun to come true in a spiritual, international kingdom and will yet be fulfilled in ultimate glory, not in a nationalistic, earthly reign (Matt. 12:28; Luke 17:20-21; John 18:36-37; Acts 15:13-18; Rom. 2:28-29; 4:16; 14:17; Gal. 3:28-29; 4:26; Heb. 12:22-24,28).
- Scripture indicates that Christ’s coming in glory, the resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked, judgment day, and the end of this age all take place together in history, as opposed to being dispersed over a thousand years (Dan. 12:2; Matt. 13:39-43; 16:27; 24:29-31; 25:31-46; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; 1 Thess. 4:13-5:11).
- The premillennial view would mingle together earthly people and a kingdom in this fallen world with the presence of the heavenly Lord and His glorified, resurrected people—an apparently incompatible mixture (1 Cor. 15:42-44,50).
- The postmillennial view pictures this age as a time of growing righteousness and peace, but the Bible forecasts growing sin in society and trouble for the church (Matt. 24:7-12,21-24; 2 Thess. 2:1-12; 2 Tim. 3:1-3).
- Revelation is a book of symbolic visions, and therefore one must interpret the numbers (thousand) and images (binding with a chain and sealing in a pit) of ch. 20 in a similar manner to the symbols used elsewhere in the book. This is not inconsistent with a literal interpretation of God’s Word but a recognition that parts of the Scriptures communicate with metaphors and symbols.
- Revelation follows a cyclic structure, repeatedly bringing the reader at the end of each cycle to the return of Christ (see Structure and Flow, above). Chapter 19 ends the cycle of the conquest of Babylon (Rev. 17-19) with the victorious return of Christ. Chapter 20, like ch. 12, steps back to consider the whole era between Christ’s first and second comings before moving ahead to symbolically reveal judgment day and eternity.
- The picture of Satan being bound and sealed in the abyss in the present time is sometimes objected to because he remains active in the world. However, other Scriptures use just as absolute language to testify to Christ’s conquest of the Devil at His first coming. As a result of Christ’s death, “now shall the prince of this world be cast out” (John 12:31); he is “judged” (John 16:11). Christ came to “bind” him (Matt. 12:29) and has “spoiled” him (Col. 2:15), having died in order to “destroy him” (Heb. 2:14). Such absolute language does not mean that Satan no longer has any influence, but it does teach that Christ’s victory is complete and that the Devil cannot stop the Lord Jesus from saving lost sinners among the nations.
The Contribution of Revelation to Redemptive Revelation
The message of Revelation is rich and complex, but we may summarize it with four key words that appear through the book: throne, Lamb, testimony, and overcome, representing the themes of kingdom, Christ, gospel proclamation, and perseverance.
First, Revelation announces the kingdom or reign of God (Rev. 1:9; 11:15,17; 12:10; 19:6). It presents history as two kingdoms at war (Rev. 11:7; 12:7,17; 13:7; 16:14; 20:8), a battle over who has the authority and power to reign. The Greek word for throne (sometimes translated “seat” in the KJV) appears about four dozen times in Revelation, more than in any other book in the Bible. Evil powers sit on thrones as they claim sovereignty and use their strength to propagate evil in the world. Satan’s throne on earth threatens the church with suffering and martyrdom (Rev. 2:13), and he shares his demonic power with the wicked rulers of mankind (Rev. 13:2). But the throne that dominates the perspective of Revelation is the throne of God, who is called simply “Him that sat on the throne” (Rev. 4:2-6,9-10; 5:1,7,13; 6:16; 7:10,15; 11:16; 19:4; 20:11; 21:5). In other words, by nature God reigns with absolute power. His decree (Rev. 5:1) will prevail to punish His enemies with His wrath (Rev. 6:16) and overthrow the thrones of evil (Rev. 16:10). Satan’s forces have only limited power granted to them by God (Rev. 9:1,4-5), and even in their rebellion they do His sovereign will (Rev. 17:17). God is also sovereign in judgment. He is the Judge who will summon all mankind, living and dead, before His throne to give an account for their works (Rev. 20:11-12).
God’s sovereignty is sweet to the saints. God’s throne is the source of saving grace for His people (Rev. 1:4) and a sign of Christ’s saving power and victory (Rev. 7:17; 12:5). Remarkably, God’s throne becomes a symbol of His sharing His power and reign with the saints by their union with Christ (Rev. 3:21). Even now the people of God are enthroned in heaven (Rev. 4:4; 11:16; 20:4). His reigning power guarantees that He will bring all His own into the blessings of the new creation (Rev. 21:5). The symbol of a river flowing from a throne shows that God’s very reign over His people will be their life and joy. To be ruled by Him who sits on the throne is no curse, but salvation from the curse (Rev. 22:3). Therefore, the throne of God is the symbolic focal point of the glad worship of the saints and angels (Rev. 4:9-11; 5:11-14; 7:9-12,15; 14:3; 19:4; 22:3).
Second, at the center of Revelation stands the Lord Jesus Christ as the Mediator of salvation and judgment from the enthroned God. Revelation adorns Christ with many titles and symbols of majesty (especially chs. 1,19), but He is preeminently the Lamb (twenty-seven times in Revelation). This image of His priestly self-sacrifice (Rev. 5:6) grounds salvation in Christ’s redeeming death for our sins (“blood,” Rev. 5:9; 7:14; 12:11; cf. 1:5). His violent death like a lamb fulfilled God’s eternal decree of salvation for His elect people (Rev. 13:8; 21:27). To them He is betrothed, and they await the wedding and marriage feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7,9; 21:9), an image of His love for the church and union with it.
Yet this title of Lamb is associated not just with His death but also with His victory, power, and glory (Rev. 5:6; 7:10,17; 14:1; 17:14). It even appears in the striking phrase “the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16; cf. Rev. 14:10). Over a quarter of the references to the Lamb (seven times) appear in the glorious depiction of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:9,14,22,23,27; 22:1,3; cf. Rev. 7:17). There He is the church’s heavenly husband, eternal temple, radiant light, sovereign king, fountain of life, and blessed vision of glory. In eternity Christ will be everything to believers, and all because He died like a lamb to take away their sins.
Third, God calls the church to serve and suffer as prophetic witnesses to Christ in the world. The language of testimony, including words such as testify and witness (sometimes translated “martyr”), appears sixteen times in Revelation. The background of this idea lies in Isaiah, where the Lord conducts a court case against the nations and calls His people as witnesses that He alone is the Lord and Savior (Isa. 43:9-13). The Word of God is “the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:2,9; 12:17; cf. 19:10; 20:4), and Christ is the preeminent “faithful witness” (Rev. 1:5; 3:14; cf. 22:16,20) whom believers imitate even to the point of death (Rev. 2:13; 6:9; 12:11; 17:6; 20:4). Holding to the testimony of Jesus and obeying the laws of God are defining marks of the true church (Rev. 12:17). The church’s prophet-like ministry engages divine power and yet earthly sufferings (Rev. 11:3,7). Thus Revelation is a book of missions and martyrdom.
Fourth, the main thrust of Revelation’s message is to call the church to persevere in its faith, obedience, and mission by its confident expectation of Christ’s coming. This theme appears prominently in the use of the word overcome (also translated “conquer,” “prevail,” or “gotten the victory”) seventeen times in Revelation. Again Christ is central to this theme, for He alone has overcome such that He is worthy to execute God’s decree and bring salvation and judgment (Rev. 5:5). Even now He is conquering the world, riding forth into the nations as the divine Warrior to bring truth and righteousness through the gospel (Rev. 6:2).
By their union with Christ in God’s eternal election and their effectual calling, the faithful share in Christ’s victory (Rev. 17:14). The Devil and his evil servants overcome the church physically (Rev. 11:7; 13:7), but believers overcome the world spiritually by clinging to the gospel testimony and taking up their crosses (Rev. 12:11), sharing in the suffering of the Lion who overcame by dying as the Lamb (Rev. 5:5-6). Therefore, the church can persevere in joyful hope, knowing that those who overcome the world through faith in Christ will also share in all the delights of the new creation (Rev. 2:7,11,17,26; 3:5,12,21)—the pleasures of childlike intimacy with the covenant God (Rev. 21:7). The visions of Revelation are very practical, giving experiential comfort and endurance for spiritual warriors fleeing the city of destruction and fighting their way to the celestial city.
- The Son of Man and the Seven Churches (Rev. 1:1-3:22)
- Greetings, Blessing, and Doxology (Rev. 1:1-8)
- Vision of the Glorious Son of Man (Rev. 1:9-20)
- Messages for the Churches (Rev. 2:1-3:22)
- To the Church of Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7)
- To the Church of Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11)
- To the Church of Pergamos (Rev. 2:12-17)
- To the Church of Thyatira (Rev. 2:18-29)
- To the Church of Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6)
- To the Church of Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13)
- To the Church of Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22)
- The Lamb and the Seven Seals of God’s Scroll (Rev. 4:1-8:1)
- Heavenly Vision of God on the Throne (Rev. 4:1-11)
- The Scroll and the Lamb that Was Slain (Rev. 5:1-14)
- The Opening of the Six Seals (Rev. 6:1-17)
- Visions of the Sealed, Washed, and Victorious Church (Rev. 7:1-17)
- The Seventh Seal: Silence (Rev. 8:1)
- The Seven Trumpets (Rev. 8:2-11:19)
- The Saints’ Prayers and the First Four Trumpets (Rev. 8:2-13)
- The First Two Woes: The Fifth and Sixth Trumpets (Rev. 9:1-21)
- The Mighty Angel and the Little Scroll (Rev. 10:1-11)
- The Two Witnesses (Rev. 11:1-14)
- The Seventh Trumpet: The Kingdom and the Judgment (Rev. 11:15-19)
- The War with the Dragon (Rev. 12:1-14:20)
- The Woman, the Child, and the Dragon (Rev. 12:1-17)
- The Beast with Seven Heads (Rev. 13:1-10)
- The Beast with Horns Like a Lamb (Rev. 13:11-18)
- The Lamb and the Redeemed (Rev. 14:1-5)
- Three Angels of Gospel and Judgment (Rev. 14:6-13)
- The Two Harvests (Rev. 14:14-20)
- The Seven Bowls of Wrath (Rev. 15:1-16:21)
- The Heavenly Temple Full of Worship and Wrath (Rev. 15:1-8)
- The Seven Bowls of Wrath Poured Out (Rev. 16:1-21)
- The Fall of Babylon the Whore (Rev. 17:1-19:21)
- The Vision of the Whore (Rev. 17:1-18)
- The Fall of the City (Rev. 18:1-24)
- The Worship of God (Rev. 19:1-10)
- The King on the White Horse (Rev. 19:11-21)
- The Victory of Jerusalem the Bride (Rev. 20:1-22:21)
- The Binding of Satan, the Last Battle, and the Judgment (Rev. 20:1-15)
- The Promise of All Things New (Rev. 21:1-8)
- The Vision of the Bride-City (Rev. 21:9-22:5)
- Concluding Promises, Warnings, and Grace (Rev. 22:6-21)
Extracted from: Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible Notes(Beeke, Joel R. 2015. Reformation Heritage Books).