The Revelation of Jesus Christ (1:1-3)
Maybe you think of Revelation much like a horror movie. Seven headed monsters rise out of the sea, destructive earthquakes wipe out entire nations, hail and fire – mixed with blood – rain down from heaven and burn up a third of the earth. The world is darkened with swarms of locusts ascending from the depths of hell with scorpion-like stingers tormenting, but not killing everyone in sight. All of that describes the equivalent of a single chapter! Are the other 21 chapters much of the same? Maybe we should add a subtitle to this series: “Stranger Things”.
The first word John wrote is ἀποκάλυψις (apocalypsis). Modern versions of apocalyptic fiction portray catastrophic events that leave the world devastated (i.e., Suzanna Collin’s The Hunger Games or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the latter being far superior to the former). While these novels might be fun to read, their genre can be a bit misleading. John is not informing us about the forthcoming Zombie Apocalypse.
Ἀποκάλυψις means “revelation” in the sense of “revealing” some hidden spiritual reality. Although it is filled with visions of devastation, its purpose is not to horrify, but enlighten and comfort through the testimony of Jesus Christ. The primary person we discover in these pages is not Caesar, Hitler, Stalin, or some other proposed manifestation of the Antichrist. We primarily discover more about our Lord and Savior. We are comforted and blessed to learn that the Lamb who was slain, now rules and reigns over all the earth.
When we have a better understanding of the context of the original audience, we will appreciate the angel’s words regarding “the Lamb…their shepherd” who “will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (7:17; cf. 21:4).
Still, we must admit, there are just as many passages, if not more, that leave us confused rather than passages that bring comfort and hope. We can relate to the dilemma Dennis Johnson mentions:
You cannot understand any individual passage in Revelation unless you understand the book as a whole, but you cannot understand the book as a whole unless you understand its individual passages.1
In order to gain a big picture view of Revelation we need a good grasp of the apocalyptic-prophecies of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah. The analogy of Scriptureinstructs the use of clearer texts to help us understand more obscure ones. In order to understand Revelation, we will frequently find ourselves in other books, especially these Old Testament prophets.
We also need to understand the purpose and themes in the book in order to understand the individual passages. These safeguards are important and better suited for this particular text than the literal approach to biblical prophecy. Interpreting Revelation literally (wherever possible), will necessarily lead to interpreting other biblical texts figuratively. It’s simply impossible to hold to a literal approach to Revelation with rigid consistency. However, that doesn’t mean everything should be read figuratively.
We will discuss more about interpreting Revelation’s symbols, themes, and structure in the next few weeks. My goal this morning is simply to answer three critical questions that inform our understanding of the big picture.
Read Revelation 1:1-3
Strap on your seatbelts, we’re about to get a little technical (and you might want to get used to it)…
I. Who Wrote Revelation?
John tells us he wrote Revelation (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8), but he never mentions his name in his Gospel and Epistles. Could it be “another John” as Dionysius (3rd century) and Eusebius (4th century) suggest? If that were the case, we would expect a designation to follow. This John was well known by his audience. The early church was in almost unanimous agreement that the author was John the apostle. Second century fathers such as Justin Martyr, Melito of Sardis (bishop of the church addressed in 3:1-6), and Irenaeus (who knew Polycarp of Smyrna 2:8-11, one of John’s disciples) all testify that the apostle John authored Revelation. D.A. Carson concludes that Revelation has stronger evidence for authorship than any other New Testament book.2
The differences in grammar and style may be due to the difference in genre. The Gospel’s historical narrative is necessarily different from epistles and, to a much greater degree, apocalyptic literature. We should also consider his radically different contexts. Being banished to the island of Patmos (1:9), writing about a prophetic vision in an emotionally involved state, obviously had an impact on his writing style.
The similarities between the Gospel and Revelation are significant. Jesus is called “the Lamb of God” and “the Logos.” He calls the thirsty to come to him for living water. He has received authority from the Father. There is total doctrinal agreement. The grace of God for salvation is accomplished through the death of Christ. There is a list of words, phrases, and even consistent grammatical mistakes (intentionally preserving idiomatic Hebrew) that are almost exclusively found in John’s writing.
And yet, while the pen was in John’s hand, what he wrote was “the revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him.” God chose John, banished to Patmos for his testimony of Jesus, to receive this encouraging vision and then deliver it to his persecuted Church. The vision of Christ conquering his enemies would provide them with the comfort and hope they were so desperate to have, because it had surely done the same for him.
This leads to our next question.
II. When Did He Write Revelation?
The only debate is whether John wrote prior to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD or in 95/96 AD. Was it written to Christians suffering under Roman Emperor Nero (early) or Domitian (late)? The date is significant for Preterists who argue that the persecution in Revelation occurred during Nero’s reign.
The main arguments for an early date have significant diffulties. First, they mention that the temple is still standing in Rev. 11:1-2, and therefore it could not have been destroyed yet. But this assumes a literal reading of a highly symbolic passage.
Second, they believe “Babylon” is a reference to an apostate Jerusalem, “the great city” (11:8; 18:10), warning of Nero’s impending judgment. But this also assumes the literal interpretation of a verse that is explicitly symbolic. And no other biblical or extra-biblical writing, before or since, associates Jerusalem with Babylon. More plausibly, John is doing what other Jewish writers did after 70 AD, calling Rome “Babylon” (since both destroyed Jerusalem).
Third, they argue that the number of the beast “666” (13:18) spells out Caesar Nero in Hebrew transcription. But gematria, computing the numerical value of Hebrew words, can produce 666 with several names, including additional Caesar’s like Domitian. It is telling that no one proposed Nero until 1831! Since the Hebrew text excluded vowels until 600 AD, there is too much ambiguity with the proper spelling of transliterated names.
Incidentally, Beale points out that “the numerical value in Hebrew of the Greek word θηρίον (‘beast’) is 666?” That makes the most sense if John were using gematria. But, obviously, “beast” is nowhere near as satisfying as, say, “Obama” or “Trump”. But let’s not spoil chapter thirteen before we get there! Irenaeus (180 AD) warns against attaching a name to 666 because it is certain to be wrong. He concludes, were we meant to know, John would have revealed it to us.
The vast majority of scholars throughout history have preferred the later date. Clement (96 AD) speaks of the calamities they were experiencing, even comparing their circumstances to that of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul. Irenaeus (180 AD) states John received his revelation in the last part of Domitian’s reign.
Several passages indicate Roman Emperors were (or would soon be) demanding worship and persecuting Christians who refused (13:4-8, 15-16; 14:9-11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). This possibly occurred under Nero, but his reasons differed. Nero justified his persecution of Christians by blaming them for starting the great fire in Rome, not because they refused to worship his image. In addition, his persecution never extended into Asia Minor.
On the other hand, in a letter to Emperor Trajan (113 AD), Pliny mentions Christians who apostatized decades early, under Domitian. Domitian heavily capitalized on emperor worship to expand his religious power. He worked with social elites in Asia to add an unprecedented network of new images and sites of worship. There is evidence that he placed a statue of himself in Ephesus for imperial worship. He embossed coins with divine titles elevated beyond any emperor before him.
This increasing expectation to participate in imperial worship would have afforded a much greater opportunity for believers in Asia to experience the kind of local and sporadic persecution depicted in Revelation.
Which brings us to our last question.
III. To Whom Did He Write Revelation?
Seven letters are addressed specifically to seven churches in Asia Minor (chs.2-3). This is the immediate audience John had in mind. Any level of persecution must have been evident in that region already.
While the persecution in Revelation was local and sporadic, it was not minor. John had been exiled to Patmos (1:9). Ephesus had to “endure patiently” for Christ’s name (2:3). Smyrna experienced economic tribulation (2:9). Antipas had been killed in Pergamum (2:13). Philadelphia is commended for not denying Christ (3:8), which implies they were being pressed to do so.
As Greg Beale points out:
The internal evidence of the book points toward a situation of relative peace and selective persecution, with an imminent expectation of intensifying persecution on a widening and programmatic scale.3
Although, John was writing to these churches, with their particular situations in mind, he could have easily written to more churches. His choice of seven churches has symbolic significance. Seven represents completeness. These seven churches represent the universal Church. The implications of the text are relevant for all believers in this present Church age.
There’s even an evangelistic component. Revelation is a “testimony of Jesus Christ” (1:2) that concludes with Christ’s gospel call for anyone thirsty to “Come” (22:17). Those who respond to that call and go on to live godly lives can expect persecution (2 Tim. 3:12), which will be especially intense prior to Christ’s return (Mt. 24:29-30).
Revelation is God’s answer to the prayers of persecuted Christians (8:3-4). “Revelation is addressed to a church that is under attack.”4 And that truly describes Christ’s Church in every age and place! But Christ’s promise remains true “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18). Revelation shows us Satan’s final attempt to overthrow the Church, and his utter failure to do so. So, yes, we should take comfort in the hope of Christ’s victory over every force of evil.
There is a promised blessing to all who read, hear, and keep the words of this book (1:3). Revelation is a means of grace permeated with songs of the Church worshipping and praising the victorious Lamb of God! Richard Phillips summarizes the point of the book well:
The message of Revelation is God’s government of history to redeem his purified and persecuted church through the victory of Christ his Son.5
The Lamb wins! That is the constant theme of Revelation and it is cause for great rejoicing. Let us join the chorus of the elders who fell down before the Lamb and “sang a new song, saying,”
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (5:9).