Revelation (Part 1)

By Mary Jane Chaignot

It probably goes without saying that this book has been profoundly influential throughout the ages. Unfortunately, scholars have yet to come to a consensus about what it really means. There are several overall issues: the use of symbolism, the basic structure of the book, and the dispute among scholars as to its interpretation. We'll discuss the interpretation problem first. There are basically four options. Some people fall into the "non-historical, idealist" category. Their position is that Revelation is not attached to history but is comprised of timeless truths. It uses symbols to address issues that are universally human and ignores the fact that it was written as a real letter. Another category is the "historical" approach. This one assumes that the prophecies are real and predictors of the end of time. Obviously, each interpreter is convinced that he is, in fact, living in those last days. The problem with this is that it again overlooks the fact that John's first century audience would have had to wait for centuries to figure things out. 

The third is known as the "futurist" interpretation. It assumes that all these events are still waiting to happen in the future. This is very popular among evangelical churches. Primarily, it suggests that this is the time just before everything ends. Again, it denies any real connection to the first century readers. The last category is known as "preterist" (meaning past tense). It tries to determine what the text might have meant in its original context, what it meant to those first readers. After figuring that out, then scholars look to a contemporary meaning. This method presumes that John was addressing real issues in that first century church and that he thought this letter would be helpful to them. We need to keep that in mind.

As it is, this was a real letter, written to real churches. John obviously felt some pastoral responsibility for these communities and this letter was supposed to comfort and encourage them. It probably would have been read in its entirety during a worship service. And we can only assume that they would have been familiar with its symbolism. For them, these weren't timeless truths; the letter addressed their specific situation. What might that have been?

Most scholars think the book was written about 95-96 C.E. to people living in Asia (though dates from 41-177 C.E. have also been suggested). These churches were probably founded by Paul during the 50s and, by this time, were mostly comprised of Gentiles. In the beginning, all Christians were Jews and were afforded the same protections by Rome. But for decades, relations between Jews and Christians had become increasingly hostile, exacerbated by the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. By the 90s, the Jews were doing their best to separate themselves from the troubles surrounding the Christians. (Nero, for example, had blamed Christians for the fire in Rome in 64 CE.) In general, people were living through difficult times. Globally, there had been famines and earthquakes; 79 marked the eruption of Vesuvius. After Nero's death, there were three Roman Emperors in the space of three years. The current Emperor was Domitian (81-96CE), who was wrapped up in the Emperor cult. He believed he was one of the gods of Rome and insisted people greet him with "Our Lord and God," or "All hail to our Lord and to his Lady." People who did not comply were executed or banished. He had the clout to enforce this, claiming that those who refused were, in fact, dishonoring the goddess Roma. He felt that it was the least people could do to show their gratitude to Rome and their solidarity with the state. Obviously this posed a problem for Christians.

But this was only one among many problems facing Christians. As a stand alone religion, Christianity had no long history of traditions. Members met in homes and had no public holidays. Rumors about them were rampant (they drink "blood"; their leader was crucified as a criminal). They preferred to keep separate from society, and were generally of the lower classes. They were thought to be unpatriotic and were frequently targeted as scapegoats for whatever bad things were happening. Persecuting them was easy because no one stood up on their behalf; there was no public outcry. For their part, Christians desperately needed a word from the Lord to help them in these new circumstances. John provided that by giving meaning to these historical events. Yet his message was stern. Rather than avoid persecution by recanting, they should use the persecutions as opportunities to bear witness to the reality of faith in the one God and in Jesus as Lord. Their only responsibility was to remain faithful, even if it meant their own death.

The Book of Revelation, then, is the account of the triumphant finale of the last battle at the end of days. This is the moment at which time God will intervene and bring history to its worthy conclusion. John provides images of the end of time through the use of symbols and pictorial language. The pictures he presents attempt to portray the ultimate reality as well as tell us something about God. God is simply sovereign. This book is filled with confessional language, filled with prayer and praise. The symbols were used to communicate, not to conceal. He follows a rather typical pattern. First, he describes how bad things are, they will get worse before the "end", but ultimately God's victory will be complete. Evil will be destroyed forever. This is what was revealed to him.

In his attempt to share his visions, John used all the sources at his disposal. This included the Old Testament. In fact, though he never actually quotes from the Old Testament, there are more than 500 allusions to it – more than any other book. He reworks these familiar words for their new situation. In this he shares much with other apocalyptic writers. The word "apocalypse" literally means "removing the veil." But a fuller definition of apocalyptic was proposed by "J.J. Collins, who chaired the Apocalypse Group of the SBL Genres Project in 1979:

'Apocalypse' is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.1

Most scholars accept that Revelation is written in the apocalyptic genre. But M. Eugene Boring offers a helpful "oversimplification": "Apocalyptic is a particular kind of eschatology, which in turn is a particular understanding of the doctrine of providence."2 The "doctrine of providence" means that we believe our lives and everyone else's are under God's control. God is literally in the driver's seat. "Eschatology" is one type of "providence." "Eschatology" maintains that God is driving history to a particular goal, an end. While "providence," then, means that God is involved in history, "eschatology" claims that that history is coming to an end. "Apocalyptic" means that God is bringing history to the end "which God himself will bring about in the near future, in a particular way that is already revealed."3 While some might think the end will be all doom and gloom, Revelation anticipates the end joyfully because it will be the fulfillment of God's grand plan, the culmination of everything. The world that we now live in is not that world.

With those definitions in mind, let us remember that the author stands at the beginning of the journey. The book is divided into three main divisions. Chapters 1-3 describe the world of John and his readers. Into this world comes a vision of the exalted Christ who brings a message from God. Chapters 4-18 describe the time of eschatological distress through a series of visions – the throne room, the seven seals, and trumpets and bowls. All this leads to the end of Babylon. Chapters 19-22 describe the final victory at which point John is given a vision of the "Holy City", heavenly New Jerusalem.

The main premise of the book is essentially about making choices. Do the people described in the first three chapters belong to the world described in chapters 4-18 or 19-22? It's a choice they get to make. John lays it all out for them, notwithstanding the fact that scholars are mixed as to whether or not they were being actively persecuted at this point, or if John was simply anticipating future events. Nonetheless, their theology was at risk. God had promised to bless his people – they would be blessed to be a blessing to others. Everyone knew that the Israelites had been unfaithful early on, which led to the exile. That made sense. But here, people are being faithful, and they are being persecuted for that. That did not make sense. Traditional theology would claim that either God broke His promise to be faithful to them, or He is powerless to do anything about the evil that rages against them. Neither option is acceptable for people of faith. Apocalyptists claim that God is both faithful and able. The evil in this world stands over against God's faithfulness and His plan. It is so great that God must intervene – because no one else can. It is a battle that must take place, but the outcome is not in any doubt. Until that moment, however, evil will wreak as much havoc as possible. Indeed, the fact that evil is increasing in their lives is a sign that the end is near. Throughout all, God remains in control and will bring all evil to account. Their persecutions are part of this struggle, part of the larger picture. It's just a matter of time.

Obviously, this is a challenging book for modern readers. We don't share the first century world view; we don't understand some of the symbolism; we aren't a powerless people. So why should we even bother with this book? Why don't we use Luther's approach (who basically ignored it saying it was too hard to understand)? The best reason is that it's in the Bible; it's canonical. If we don't try to understand it responsibly, others will interpret it irresponsibly. It's a whole lot better to be part of that conversation. The people who received this letter were not Bible scholars. They did not spend their days trying to figure out what the book meant. Their job was to figure out how to respond in life or death situations.

This is also a very political book that deals with the realities of society. It is concerned with the fate of the earth and puts those concerns in a faith context. It has something to say about the meaning of life and its values. That does give it a timeless appeal. So while Revelation does not speak about our world, it certainly has something to offer for our world.

One final word on the author of the book – He writes in his own name. He is John. He claims to be a prophet, but he is not an apostle. That means he is not one of the Johns mentioned in the gospels. He makes no eyewitness claims to Jesus. Only once does he ever come close to even quoting him. Because the language is so different, most scholars do not think he was the John who wrote the Gospel of that name, nor did he write the letters of John. He was probably a Palestinian Christian, but was well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is possible that he knew Hebrew or he might have spoken Aramaic. He does claim that the book is a witness to the truth of the Christian faith.

I -- 1:1-8 – Prologue

  • 1:1-2
    • This revelation is from Jesus Christ
    • Revelation means "uncovering"
    • Revelation was given to Jesus by God
    • God is the source of the revelation; Jesus is the agent
    • This revelation was made known; it is not simply a report, but it is not unknowable either
    • An "angel" is typically an intermediary figure
    • The message was given to John to give to others (7 churches)
    • Prophecy was meant for others and was not a testament to the piety of the one receiving it
    • Message was given to community of faith and not the world in general
    • Yet the church doesn't get to keep it private either
    • The purpose of the church is to be a witness to the world of God's great love
  • 1:3
    • A beatitude (this is the first of seven – John's favorite number)
    • A blessing is pronounced on the one who reads the letter aloud as well as on the ones who hear and obey
    • The beatitude is performative – makes it happen
    • "Time is near" -- nearness of the end is a common refrain
    • First century listeners believed the end was near; they would be the last generation
    • This is also why they must obey the words of the letter
    • Because the "time is near", they must live decisively and wholly for God
  • 1:4-8
    • The opening of the letter
    • The letter follows the traditional formula – it has the sender, the recipients, and the greetings
    • The greeting is for grace and peace
    • In this sense, John borrowed from Paul who was traditional by then
    • The sender calls himself John; there is no title, but he claims to be a prophet
    • It is addressed to seven Churches in the province of Asia (west coast of Turkey)
    • The greetings are from God, the seven spirits, and Jesus
    • "Seven spirits" are seven angelic beings under both God and Jesus
    • God is referred to as the one who "is, was, and is to come" 
    • Zeus was commonly addressed as the one who "was, is, and will be"
    • This not only refers to what God is, but also to what He does
    • It was important that Christians believed God was still in control
    • Hearing "is to come" reaffirmed the idea of His imminent intervention
    • Jesus is referred to in terms of Christological titles
    • He was a faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and ruler of kings on earth
    • These titles show there was continued development in early Christianity
    • Some of these titles go beyond what Jesus claimed for himself
    • Still, the Church was obviously thinking about these things, coming up with new understandings
    • John wanted this to be helpful in this new time they're living in
    • These are not random titles but apply to the moments they're living "Faithful Witness" – Jesus modeled that for them
    • Jesus lost his life for bearing witness
    • "First-born of dead" – Jesus died and was raised
    • That promise wasn't just for Jesus, but extends to them as well
    • "Ruler of kings" – Romans were earthly rulers
    • What kind of ruler was Jesus?
    • Such titles are not new, but John adapted them for this new situation
  • 1:5-6
    • Greeting is followed by the thanksgiving in ancient letters
    • Paul generally makes this into a praise to God
    • Here, instead of thanksgiving there is praise – to Jesus
    • This is a significant theological statemen
    • t It is theology done in the form of worship
    • Doxology is to Jesus, praises him for his mighty acts for salvation
    • Just like Israel throughout scripture, the church is now redeemed by shedding of blood
    • Blood in OT represents "life"
    • Jesus set us free from all sin by giving us "life" (his own)
    • Reference to the kingdom of priests again echoes Israel in the OT
    • John is taking these images, applying them now to Christianity
    • Church is, indeed, the continuation of the people of God
    • "Christ" means anointed (messiah in Hebrew)
    • Christ means the anointed king as well as the office of prophet and priest
    • In John's world, Christ means all three
    • Christianity shares in this
    • As a prophetic community, the church mediates God's message to people
    • As a priestly community, the church mediates reconciliation of God to the world through Jesus
    • As a royal community, the church signifies God's rule already in the world
    • What's at stake here is the tension between "already" and "not yet"
    • These two terms belong together and cannot be separated
    • In terms of "already", Christ has come
    • In terms of "not yet", God's just rule is around the corner
    • The fact that the messianic community already exists means God is in world
    • While Christians wait, there is cause for celebration, song, and praise 
  • 1:7-8
    • Prophetic announcements
    • Quotes are from Daniel 7:13; Zechariah 12:10, Matthew 24:30
    • John is not quoting for authority but is using the words to express joy
    • He's not just repeating words but is also interpreting them as well
    • Alpha and Omega – divine title emphasizing the sovereignty of God
    • It can mean from A to Z; beginning to the end; first to the last
    • "Is, was, is to come" is repeated
    • Almighty is one of the Hebrew names for God
    • It was common in society to give leaders, gods extravagant titles
    • Here John uses that to highlight the majesty and power of God
    • This is in contrast to Satan, and other earthly rulers
    • Lord God only speaks twice in this book: here and in 21:5-8
    • Later these titles will be used of Jesus
    • Again, this is an indication of a developing Christology
  • 1:9-20 – The Risen Christ
    • Answers questions: who, where, why, when, how, what
    • Who: Someone named John, with no official titles
    • He is their "brother and companion;" he participates in the tribulation, the kingdom, and patiently endures (like them) in Jesus
    • Even though he is a prophet, he is one of them
    • He's like a pastor of the congregation
    • He shares their lives in three distinct ways: tribulation, kingdom, and patient endurance
    • "Tribulation" refers to the apocalyptic stuff which will precede the "end"
    • These troubles are like birth pangs, pain that precedes the new birth
    • The "kingdom" is both what they're living now and that "future" time
    • Christian living embraces the unity of these opposites
    • "Patient endurance" means holding on to that faith, no matter what
    • Christ is real; you just can't see him
    • This is the life that is shared "in Jesus"
    • John is not their mediator for this; they all participate directly
    • He can only model behavior for them
    • When he talks about the reality of Christ, that's what enables him to face those tribulations and empowers him to encourage others as well
    • Where: He is at Patmos, an island 75 miles west of Ephesus
    • It was roughly 30 miles in circumference
    • It was a fortified island, belonging to Melitus
    • It had a school and temples to Artemis and Apollos
    • It was not exactly a penal colony, but "troublemakers" were banished to it
    • Sometimes people would be recalled once the emperor died; Eusebuis says John was
    • Being exiled could be voluntary or involuntary
    • After Domitian's death, it is believed that John was released and returned to Ephesus
    • Why: John has been banished by the government for being a Christian leader
    • His preaching got him in trouble
    • We do not know which governor sent him there, or why that was chosen
    • We do know that some Christians had been executed by this time so it seems like a light sentence
    • Then again, there were no hard and fast policies
    • Each governor could decide as he saw fit
    • When: This all happened on the Lord's Day
    • This most likely refers to Sunday, which was the new holy day for Christians
    • His vision comes when he knows others are at worship
    • He'd probably be with them if he could
    • Generally prophecy occurred during worship, where it could be heard and evaluated
    • How: He heard this while being "in the Spirit", a reference to his prophetic office
    • He both heard things and saw things
    • This message comes straight from God
    • He's not out there looking for it, nor is he working toward that goal
    • It just came
    • Prophets were messengers, not seekers
    • John heard a voice behind him – he could not see the speaker
    • It was a revealed message
    • That the voice was loud is captured by making it like a trumpet sound
    • He was commanded to write; he was not the author, just the messenger
    • This was actually typical of pagan gods, to command someone to write
    • Generally they had a dream about it
    • John was to write things down and send the letter to the seven churches
    • This resembles an OT prophetic command: go and tell
    • Only then did he turn around to see who was speaking
    • And he found – no one at all What:
    • What he saw were seven golden lampstands and one like the "son of man"
    • In Zech 4:2 there is one lampstand with seven lamps
    • These lamps represent the "eyes of the Lord, which travel throughout the earth" 
    • Other lampstands occur in the story of Moses and the building of the tabernacle
    • These seven lamps reveal "one like the son of man"
    • This is an allusion to Dan 7:13; conflagration of "son of man" with "Ancient of days"
    • Mostly scholars don't know what this references, but they don't think it's a divine figure
    • Generally "son of man" means someone who is humanlike
    • The figure is wearing a long robe with a golden sash – Dan 10:5 (Possibly a description of Gabriel)
    • In other places, this is used to describe angelic messengers
    • Here, it is a description of Christ who is dressed in priestly garments
    • Priests did, however, wear other garments as well
    • His head and white hair were like wool or snow
    • This is another allusion to Dan 7:9 – God is an old man
    • It reflects their attitude towards the elderly; it was one of honor, wisdom, and respect
    • His head, that is, his white hair, was like white wool
    • John has just described this individual from feet to head – it means the whole man
    • His eyes were like a flame of fire – allusion to Dan 10:6
    • This usually means his eyes were bright and shining
    • It was oftentimes used of the gods
    • His feet were like bronze when smelted in a furnace
    • His feet were bare, which was typical for ritual observances
    • And his voice was like the sound of cascading water -- Ezek 43:2
    • These are metaphors for God's voice
    • He had seven stars in his right hand
    • Seven stars refer to seven planets – the Sun through Saturn
    • Greek and Romans agreed on number seven, but they didn't agree on the order
    • A sharp double-edged sword projected from his mouth
    • (More will come on this sword)
    • That it's in his mouth suggests a metaphor for the tongue, or words
    • That it is sharp means the words have power
    • His face was like the shining sun
    • Dan 10:6 states his face was like lightening
    • This might be a metaphor for beauty, but more likely refers to serenity, divinity, and transcendence
  • 1:17 – Revelatory response
    • And when John saw this, he fell down at his feet as though dead
    • "As though dead" might mean he simply fainted, or was in a trance
    • It could also mean he was scared out of his mind
    • Placing one's right hand on someone was like commissioning them
    • In this case, John was being commissioned for a particular purpose
    • It could also have been for comfort or reassurance
    • The one like a son of man said, "Don't be afraid, I am first and last, even the living one"
    • This is the exalted Christ speaking
    • This is thought to be an oracle of assurance
    • It starts with "fear not", followed by words of comfort "I am" (ego-eimi) is almost always attributed to Christ or God
    • "First and last" is from Isa 44:6 
  • 1:18 – Christ lives because he was raised from the dead
    • He has the keys of Death and Hades (maybe keys belonging to Death and Hades)
    • Generally only God has these keys
    • One does not typically associate Hades with doors or gates
    • In Greek mythology, one of the goddesses (Hekate) had the keys to Hades
    • Basically the point is that the one holding the keys holds the power
  • 1:19 – Write what you see, both present and future
    • What you saw (the vision); what is (the seven churches); what is to come (the future)
    • It is written in terms of past, present, future
    • But in actuality, he has yet to see the vision; already he speaks of it as past tense
  • 1:20 – Meaning of the seven stars
  • We weren't that curious about it, but this is a good segue into the seven churches
  • Seven stars = seven angels of the seven churches
  • The Angels are the recipients of the letters to the seven churches
  • Angels are messengers or agents of God
  • They are generally benevolent beings who work between God and man
  • This is possibly something that John simply created
  • The Lampstands are the seven churches
  • Some see references to the menorah in this word
  • Generally menorahs stand for witnessing

Next month we will explore the letters to the seven churches. Obviously, we have noticed that many things involve the number seven, which seems to be John's favorite number. This number presupposes the idea of order and structure. It was also used as the symbol for God's design of patterns evident both in the cosmos and in history.


1Aune, David, E. "Revelation." Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1997. p. lxxviii.

Barclay, William. "Revelation." Daily Study Bible. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press. 1975.

2Boring, M. Eugene. "Revelation." Interpretation. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press. 1989. p35.

3Ibid. p37.

Gaebelein, Frank. "Revelation." Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing. 1985.

Keck, Leander. "Revelation." New Interpreter's Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1995.

Osborne, Grant. "Revelation." Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002.