|REVELATION, THE BOOK OF |
The last book of the Bible, an apocalyptic work pointing to future hope and calling for present faithfulness. Revelation is a work of intensity, forged in the flames of the author's personal tribulation. It employs the language of biblical allusion and apocalyptic symbolism to express the heights and depths of the author's visionary experience.
To encourage Christian faithfulness, the Revelation points to the glorious world to come (a world of “no more death or mourning or crying or pain,”
Revelation 21:4 NIV; compare
Revelation 7:16) at the reappearing of the crucified and risen Jesus. This now enthroned Lord will return to conclude world history (and the tribulations of the readers) with the destruction of God's enemies, the final salvation of His own people, and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. The intensity of the prophet's experience is matched only by the richness of the apocalyptic symbolism he employed to warn his readers of the impending disasters and temptations which would require their steadfast allegiance to the risen Lord. To be sure, the Lord will come in power and majesty, but not before His enemies have exercised a terrible (albeit limited by the divine mercy) attack upon those who “hold to the testimony of Jesus.”
Author According to early Christian traditions, the Gospel of John, the three Epistles of John, and the Revelation were all written by the apostle John. The Revelation is the only one of these books that claims to be written by someone named John. Though the author does not claim to be the apostle John, it seems unlikely that any other first-century Christian leader was associated closely enough with the churches of Asia Minor to have referred to himself simply as John. There are certainly some differences in style and language between the fourth Gospel and the Revelation, but, regardless of the problems related to the authorship of the fourth Gospel, it is not implausible to assume that the John of the Revelation was in fact John the apostle, son of Zebedee. See John.
Setting The author's situation was one of suffering. He was a “fellow partaker in the tribulation” which is “in Jesus,” who, because of his testimony to Jesus, was exiled to the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9 NAS). The situation of the recipients seemed not yet so dire. To be sure, a faithful Christian in Pergamum had suffered death (Revelation 2:13), and the church in Smyrna was warned of a time of impending persecution (Revelation 2:10); but the persecutions described in the Revelation were still largely anticipated at the time of John's writing.
Date Scholars have traditionally suggested two dates for the writing of the Revelation based upon the repeated references to persecution (Revelation 1:9;
Revelation 2:2-3,Revelation 2:10,Revelation 2:13;
Revelation 21:4). From about A.D. 150, Christian authors usually referred to Domitian's reign (A.D. 81-96) as the time of John's writing, but there is no historical consensus supporting a persecution of Christians under Domitian while hard evidence does exist for a persecution under Nero (A.D. 54-68). In this century, most New Testament scholars have opted for the later date under Domitian (about A.D. 95), though there has been a resurgence of opinion (including this author's) arguing for a setting just following the reign of Nero (about A.D. 68). Whichever date is chosen, however, the setting must be closely related to a time of persecution for the author and an anticipated expansion of persecution for the original audience.
Type of Literature The Revelation has traditionally been called an apocalypse. Although the genre itself was not literally acknowledged in the first century, what we now call “apocalyptic literature” certainly existed. In any case, John called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3;
Revelation 22:10,Revelation 22:19), but also gave it some features of an epistle (Revelation 1:4-7;
I. Introduction (Revelation 1:1-8)
II. John's Vision on the Island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9-20)
III. Letters to the Seven Churches (Revelation 2:1-3:22)
IV. The Sovereignty of the Creator God Committed to the Crucified and Now Enthroned Lamb (Revelation 4:1-5:14)
V. The Enthroned Lamb's Judgments Via the Seven Seals (Revelation 6:1-8:5)
VI. The Enthroned Lamb's Judgments Via the Seven Trumpets (Revelation 8:6-11:19)
VII. The Dragon's Persecution of the Righteous (Revelation 12:1-13:18)
VIII. A Summary of Triumph, Warning, and Judgment (Revelation 14:1-20)
IX. The Enthroned Lamb's Judgments Via the Seven Cups (Revelation 15:1-16:21)
X. The Fall and Ruin of the Immoral City of the Beast (Revelation 17:1-18:24)
XI. The Rejoicing of Heaven and the Revelation of the Lamb, Bringing Judgment and the Advent of the Bride, the Holy City (Revelation 19:1-22:5)
XII. Conclusion (Revelation 22:6-21)
Introduction (1:1-8) Written to “the seven churches” of the Roman province of Asia, John's work is a “revelation” of “the things which must shortly take place.” The theme of John's work is clear: the Lord God Himself has guaranteed the final vindication of the crucified Jesus before all the earth (Revelation 1:7-8).
John's Vision on the Island of Patmos (1:9-20) While in exile on Patmos, John saw the risen Lord (Revelation 1:9-20). Appearing in the dress of power and majesty (Revelation 1:9-20), the Living One revealed Himself as Lord of the churches, to whom He instructed John to send not only the seven letters, but also an account of the things which he both had seen and would see, that is, a revelation of “the things which shall be hereafter” (Revelation 1:19).
Letters to the Seven Churches (2:1–3:22) The letters to the churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea have a fairly consistent format. First, after designating the recipients, the risen Lord as Sender describes Himself using a portion of the visionary description of Him in
Revelation 1:9-20. There follows an “I know” section of either commendation or criticism. Next appears typically some form of exhortation: to those who received criticism, the usual exhortation is to repent; however, to the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia, for whom the Lord had only praise, the exhortation is one of assurance (compare
Revelation 3:10-13). Each letter concludes, though the order may vary, with both an exhortation to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (NAS) and a promise of reward to the “overcomer,” that is, the one who conquers by persevering in the cause of Christ.
The church at Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7) is told to return to her first love; the church at Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11), to be faithful unto death; the churches of Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17) and Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29) must beware of false teaching and the immoral deeds that so often accompany erroneous theology. The church at Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6) is told to wake up and complete her works of obedience. The church at Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13) is promised, in the face of persecution by the local synagogue, that faith in Jesus will assure access into the eternal kingdom; and the church at Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22) is told to turn from her self-deception and repent of her lukewarmness.
The Sovereignty of the Creator God Committed to the Crucified and Now Enthroned Lamb (4:1–5:14)
Revelation 4:1 and
Revelation 5:1 represent the pivot point of the book, tying the risen Lord's opening exhortations to the churches (Revelation 2-3) to the judgments and final triumph of the Lamb (Revelation 6-22). These chapters also provide the historical and theological basis of the risen Lord's authority over both the church and the world by depicting His enthronement and empowering to carry out the judging and saving purposes of God.
Revelation 4:1 asserts the sovereign authority of the Creator God.
Revelation 5:1 depicts the delegation of the divine authority to the risen Lord by introducing a sequence of events reminiscent of
Daniel 7:1. In
Daniel 7:1, the people of God were oppressed by four terrible beasts, symbolic of evil empires and kings; similarly, the Revelation is written to people who either are, or soon will be, experiencing persecution from powers of evil. Similar to
Daniel 7:1, in
Revelation 5:1, we see both a book of judgment—and a glorious, redemptive agent of God. Instead of an unidentified human figure, we learn that the exalted agent of God is none other than the crucified Jesus, the Lamb and Lion of God, now enthroned and therefore worthy to take the book and break the seals.
The events portrayed here are highly symbolic, but are not a historical myth. The scene readily suggests an otherwise well-known and important historical and theological moment within biblical history, namely, the ascension of Jesus. His redemptive death, that is, His obedience to the will of God (see also
Hebrews 10:9-10), qualified Him for the role of Lord. He has “overcome” (Revelation 5:5), a word which for John refers to Jesus' triumphal suffering and subsequent enthronement (see
Revelation 3:21), and may therefore now as the heavenly Lord assume the role of divine agent.
The Enthroned Lamb's Judgments Via the Seven Seals (6:1–8:5) The breaking of the first four seals brings forth four differently colored horsemen (Revelation 6:1-8). These riders, paralleling the chaos predicted in
Mark 13:1, represent God's judgments through the upheavals of war and its devastating social consequences (violence, famine, pestilence, and death). The fifth seal (Mark 6:9-11) is the plea of martyred saints for divine justice upon their oppressors. For now, they must wait.
A careful look at the sixth seal is important for understanding the literary structure and episodic sequence of the Revelation. When broken, it brings forth the typical signs of the end: a great earthquake, the blackening of the sun, the ensanguining of the moon, and the falling of the stars of heaven (compare
Matthew 24:29). Though the Revelation is but a few chapters old, we are brought to the end of world history. The mighty as well as the lowly of the earth realize that the great day of God's (and the Lamb's) wrath has come, and nothing can save them (Revelation 6:14-17). The description of the judgments initiated by the first six seals would no doubt tend to overwhelm John's audience, so he interrupted the sequence leading to the seventh seal to remind us that the people of God need not despair, for, as the “bond-servants of God” (Revelation 7:3 NAS), they have the promise of heaven.
Revelation 7:1 is actually two visions (Revelation 7:1-8,Revelation 7:9-17), with the second both interpreting and concluding the first. The sealing of the 144,000 (Revelation 7:1-8) employs Jewish symbols to describe those who know God through Jesus Christ. Clearly, John is referring to Christians as the 144,000 for
Revelation 7:3 refers to the “bond-servants” of God, a term consistently used throughout the Revelation (Revelation 1:1;
Revelation 19:2,Revelation 19:5;
Revelation 22:3,Revelation 22:6) to refer either to Christians in general or the Christian prophet, but never to the non-Christian Jew (or Gentile). Language employed in the Old Testament to refer to the Jews is characteristically used in the New Testament to refer to those who know God through Jesus Christ (see
2 Corinthians 6:16-18;
1 Peter 2:9-10; and
Revelation 1:6). The number 144,000 is an intensification (12 12 10 10 10) of the original number twelve (itself an obvious allusion to the twelve tribes, the Old Testament people of God), which indicates that the 144,000 comprise the full number of God's people, God's people now being all (Jew or Gentile) who are followers of Jesus.
In the second vision (Revelation 7:9-17), the 144,000 have become “a great multitude, which no one could count” (NAS). Who are they? Using his favorite descriptions of heaven (see
Revelation 21:3-4,Revelation 21:23;
Revelation 22:1-5), John tells us that they are those who have “come out of the great tribulation” (NAS), now to experience the joys of heaven and relief from the tribulations they have endured (compare
Revelation 7:14-17 with
Revelation 22:1-5). To “come out of the great tribulation” (Revelation 7:14) does not mean that they have exited the earth before the hour of tribulation. To the contrary, they have indeed experienced the tribulations of this evil age, but now in heaven they enjoy the presence of God (Revelation 7:15;
Revelation 21:3). As the true Israel of God, Christians (“the bond-servants of our God,”
Revelation 7:3, NAS) have the seal of God. Refusing the mark of the beast (Revelation 13:16-17;
Revelation 14:11), they hold to the testimony of Jesus (Revelation 14:12) in spite of persecution (Revelation 12:17;
Revelation 13:7) and therefore have the promise of final deliverance in heaven from this evil age of great tribulation (Revelation 7:14).
Revelation 8:1-5 gives us the seventh seal and again the traditional signs of the very end of human history and the coming of the Lord, but the prophet is not yet ready to describe the Lord's return. He still has too much to say about the nature of judgment, the mission of the church, and the persecutions of the beast to bring his prophecy to an end. Therefore, before describing fully the end, John must start over. Now, using the symbolic vehicle of the seven trumpets, he declared that the judgments of God also have a redemptive purpose.
The Enthroned Lamb's Judgments Via the Seven Trumpets (8:6–11:19) The first four trumpets describe partial judgments (“one-third”) upon the earth's vegetation, the oceans, fresh waters, and the heavenly lights (Revelation 8:6-13). The last three trumpets are grouped together and also described as three “woes” upon the earth, emphasizing God's judgment upon mankind. All these judgments have no redemptive effect, for the “rest of mankind” who are not killed by these plagues do not repent of their immoralities (Revelation 9:20-21 NAS).
Just as the interlude between the sixth and seventh seals reminded us that the people of God are safe from the eternally destructive effects of God's wrath, so also between the sixth and seventh trumpets we are reminded of God's protective hand on His people (Revelation 10:1-11:14). In the trumpet interlude we also learn that God's protection during these days of tribulation does not mean isolation, for the people of God must bear a prophetic witness to the world.
Revelation 10:1-8, John's call (after the pattern of
Ezekiel 2:1-3:11) is reaffirmed. The note of protection and witness is again struck in
Revelation 11:1-13 where the measuring of the temple of God (Revelation 11:1-2) alludes to God's protective hand upon His people during the hour of turmoil (Revelation 11:2). Persecutions will last for “forty-two months,” but His people cannot be destroyed, for the “two witnesses” (Revelation 11:3-13) must bear witness to the mercy and judgment of God. The “two witnesses” (“two” suggests a confirmed, legal testimony) are also called “two lampstands” (Revelation 11:4), terminology already interpreted in
Revelation 1:20 to mean the church. Though engaged in great spiritual warfare, the church, like Moses and Elijah of old, must maintain a faithfully prophetic witness to the world, a witness even unto death. Though the earth rejoices that the testimony of the church is in the end apparently snuffed out, the temporary triumph of evil (“three-and-a-half days,”
Revelation 11:9,Revelation 11:11) will turn to heavenly vindication as the two witnesses (the people of God) are raised from the dead (Revelation 11:11-12).
With the seventh trumpet (and third woe) the end of history has come, the time “for the dead to be judged” and the saints to be rewarded (Revelation 11:18 NAS). The coming of the reign of God (and Christ), as well as the day of judgment, are past events (Revelation 11:17-18). John is not yet ready to describe the actual coming of the King of kings and Lord of lords. Sadly, he has more to relate regarding “the beast that comes up out of the abyss” to “make war” with the people of God (Revelation 11:7, NAS). It is that “42 months,” the period of persecution (and protection/witness), that John now unfolds.
The Dragon's Persecution of the Righteous (12:1–13:18)
Revelation 12:1 is crucial for understanding John's view of the sequence of history. The number “three-and-a-half” was associated by Christians and Jews with times of evil and judgment. John variously referred to the three-and-a-half years as either “forty-two months,” or “1,260 days,” or “a time, times, and half a time.” For John, it was the period of time when the powers of evil will do their works. During this time, God will protect His people (Revelation 12:6,Revelation 12:14) while they both bear witness to their faith (Revelation 11:3) and simultaneously suffer at the hands of these evil powers (Revelation 11:2,Revelation 11:7;
Revelation 13:5-7). Commentators agree that this terrible period of tribulation will be brought to an end with the coming of the Lord. The critical question, however, is when the three-and-a-half year period of persecution and witness begins. Though some scholars have relegated the “three-and-a-half years” to some as-yet-unbegun moment in the future,
Revelation 12:1 unmistakably pinpoints its beginning with the ascension and enthronement of Christ (Revelation 12:5). When the woman's (Israel's) offspring is “caught up to God and to His throne” (Revelation 12:5, NAS, author's italics), there is war in heaven, and the dragon is cast down to the earth.
Heaven rejoices because it has been rescued from Satan, but the earth must now mourn, because the devil has been cast down to earth, and his anger is great. He knows that he has been defeated by the enthronement of Christ and that he has but a short time (Revelation 12:12). The woman, who (as Israel) brought forth the Christ (Revelation 12:1-2) and also “other offspring,” those who “hold to the testimony of Jesus,” now received the brunt of the frustrated dragon's wrath (Revelation 12:17). As the enraged dragon now seeks to vent his wrath upon the woman, she is nonetheless nourished and protected for “1,260 days” (Revelation 12:6), for a “time, times, and half a time” (Revelation 12:14).
The dragon then brings forth two henchmen (Revelation 13:1) to help him in his pursuit of those who believe in Jesus. Satan is thus embodied in a political ruler, the beast from the sea (Revelation 13:1), who will speak blasphemies for “forty-two months” (Revelation 13:5). He will “make war with the saints” (Revelation 13:7 NAS), while the second beast (or false prophet,
Revelation 19:20), who comes up from the earth (Revelation 13:11), seeks to deceive the earth so that its inhabitants worship the first beast.
Revelation 12:1 and
Revelation 13:1, each of the various ways of referring to the three-and-a-half years is a reference to a single period of time that began with the enthronement of Christ and will conclude with His return. The time period is not a literal three-and-a-half years, but the entire time between the ascension and return of Christ which will be permitted the dragon to execute his evil work upon the earth (compare
Ephesians 2:2). Almost two thousand years have elapsed since our Lord ascended to the right hand of God, but the “three-and-a-half years” still continues. Satan still rages; but his time is short, and his evil will cease at the return of Christ.
A Summary of Triumph, Warning, and Judgment (14:1-20) After the depressing news of the ongoing persecutions of the unholy trinity, John's readers need another word of encouragement and warning.
Revelation 14:1 therefore employs seven “voices” to relate again the hopes and warnings of heaven. First is another vision of the 144,000, the full number of the people of God (Revelation 14:4). Faithful in their worship of the one true God through Jesus Christ and not seduced by the satanic deceptions of the first beast and his ally, the false prophet, they will be rescued and taken to heaven's throne (Revelation 14:1-5).
An angel announces the eternal gospel and warns the earth of coming judgment (Revelation 14:6-7). The remaining “voices” (or oracles) follow in rapid succession. The fall of “Babylon the Great,” an Old Testament symbol for a nation opposed to the people of God, is announced (Revelation 14:8). The people of God are warned not to follow the beast or else those who follow him suffer separation from God (Revelation 14:9-12). Finally, two voices call for harvest (Revelation 14:14-20).
The Enthroned Lamb's Judgments Via the Seven Cups (15:1–16:21) Another dimension of His judgment must be revealed. The seven cups of wrath are similar to the seven trumpets and the seven seals, but also different. The wrath of God is no longer partial or temporary, but complete and everlasting, final and irrevocable. The partial judgments (“one-third”) of the trumpets suggest that God uses the sufferings and evils of this life to draw mankind toward repentance and faith; but such tribulations also foreshadow the final hour of judgment when God's wrath is finished.
The seven cups have no break between the sixth and seventh outpourings of judgment. Only wrath is left with no more delay. Babylon the Great, the symbol for all who have vaunted themselves against the most high God, will fall. The end has come (Revelation 16:18).
The Fall and Ruin of the Immoral City of the Beast (17:1–18:24)
Revelation 17:1 retells the sixth cup, the fall of Babylon the Great, and
Revelation 18:1 gives a moving lament for the great city.
The Rejoicing of Heaven and the Revelation of the Lamb Bringing Judgment and the Advent of the Bride, the Holy City (19:1–22:25) Although John has withheld a description of the coming of the Lord on at least three earlier occasions (Revelation 8:5;
Revelation 16:17-21; compare also
Revelation 14:14-16), John is now prepared to describe the glories of the Lord's appearance. All of heaven rejoices over the righteous judgment of God upon evil (Revelation 19:1-6). The Lamb's bride, the people of God, has made herself ready by her faithfulness to her Lord through the hour of suffering (see
Heaven is opened, and the One whose coming has been faithfully petitioned from ages past appears to battle the enemies of God, a conflict whose outcome is not in doubt (Revelation 19:11-16). The first beast and the second beast are thrown into the lake of fire from which there is no return (Revelation 19:20). The dragon—Satan—is cast into a hellish abyss which is shut and sealed for a thousand years (Revelation 20:1-3). Since the powers of evil reigned for “three-and-a-half years” (the period of time between the ascension and return of our Lord), Christ will reign for a “thousand years.” The dead in Christ are raised to govern with Him (Revelation 20:4-6), and God's rightful rule over the earth is vindicated.
At the end of Christ's reign, the final disposition of Satan will occur (Revelation 20:7-10). Though John predicted that Satan will have one last hurrah of deception, his final insurrection will be short-lived. In one final battle, Satan and his followers are overcome, and the devil joins the beast and the false prophet in the lake of fire where “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10 NAS). Then the final judgment takes place, at which all not included in “the book of life” are thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15 NAS).
Revelation 21:1 is often thought to refer to the period following the 1,000-year reign, but it is more probably a retelling of the return of Christ from the viewpoint of the bride. Just as
Revelation 17:1 was a recapitulation of the seventh cup and the fall of the harlot, Babylon the Great (compare the language of
Revelation 17:1-3, which clearly introduces a “retelling,” with the language of
Revelation 21:9-10), so
Revelation 21:1 recapitulates the glorification of the bride of the Lamb (Revelation 21:1-22:5). To be the bride is to be the holy city, the New Jerusalem, to live in the presence of God and the Lamb, and to experience protection, joy, and the everlasting, life-giving light of God (Revelation 21:9-27). The throne of God and of the Lamb is there, and there His bond servants shall serve Him and reign with Him forever and ever (Revelation 21:1-5).
Conclusion (22:6-21) John concluded his prophecy by declaring the utter faithfulness of his words. Those who heed his prophecy will receive the blessings of God. Those who ignore the warnings will be left outside the gates of God's presence (Revelation 22:6-15). Solemnly and hopefully praying for the Lord to come, John closed his book (Revelation 22:17,Revelation 22:20). The churches must have ears to hear what the Spirit has said (Revelation 22:16). The people of God must, by His grace (Revelation 22:21), persevere in the hour of tribulation, knowing that their enthroned Lord will return in triumph.
Robert B. Sloan