A Word of Caution
The book of Revelation gets its name from the fact that it was a “revelation” (Revelation 1:1), a vision, given to the apostle John. Because it was a vision, it’s wise to begin with a word of caution to its readers. There have been a great number of false teachings that have come from misinterpretations of portions of this book. Some have failed to recognize that this was a series of visions using elaborate imagery and symbols. Some have failed to see that many of these symbols are numbers that are not meant to be taken literally but instead symbolically, representing different scriptural themes and ideas. Some have failed to recognize that much of the imagery used in Revelation is taken from the Old Testament, particularly the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. Some have taken statements from the book of Revelation and shaped various doctrines from them that are contrary to the rest of Scripture.
Therefore the reader of Revelation is encouraged to use proper, biblical interpretation when reading and understanding the messages in this book. It is good to interpret Revelation similar to the way Jesus’ parables are interpreted, that is, looking for one main point of comparison between imagery and events and not trying to interpret every little detail. However, it is also different from Jesus’ parables because the imagery depicts actual, historical events. Determining the context of each portion of Revelation is of utmost importance and will help the reader properly interpret what is being communicated.
See Biblical Interpretation for important guidelines to follow when reading any portion of Scripture, especially the book of Revelation. See also The End Times for discussion of some false teachings that come from misinterpretations of statements and symbols found in Revelation.
The book begins with a prologue introducing the vision and identifying the vision’s recipient as “John, who testifies to everything he saw” (Rev 1:1-2; see also Rev 1:4,9). Since he is identified simply as John, this must have been a man named John who was well-known to the early church.
Early Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr (approximately AD 135), Irenaeus (approximately AD 200), and Tertullian (approximately AD 250) all credit authorship to the apostle John, one of Jesus’ Twelve Disciples.1Some attribute its writing (along with the Gospel of John and the epistle of 1 John) to an Elder John, due to a statement of Eusebius that misinterprets a statement of Papias, Ecclesiastical History, III:39 (see Becker’s Revelation, pp 8-10; also Hiebert, Introduction to the Non-Pauline Epistles, pp 203-207). Eusebius was anti-millennialistic and therefore perhaps wanted to divorce the apostle John from Revelation because some, like Papias, were interpreting Revelation 20 in a crassly millennialistic way. This fits well with the fact that the author states he received the vision while exiled on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9), where the apostle John was exiled approximately AD 95-96. It also fits well with the fact that John served as bishop of Ephesus later in his life, which was surrounded in Asia Minor by the churches addressed in chapters 2 and 3 (see also the map for Paul’s Third Missionary Journey). The style of language also matches that of the Gospel of John and the letters of 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John, all of which are widely attributed to the apostle John as well.
For more information about the apostle John see the introductory pages for John and 1 John.
Place and Date of Writing
John states that he received and wrote down this vision while on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9). We are told by the early church historian Eusebius that John was exiled to the island of Patmos from AD 95 until the death of the Roman emperor Domitian in AD 96. Thus, it seems that John received and wrote down his vision at some point during those years.
The book is actually a letter written “to the seven churches in the province of Asia” (Rev 1:4). Chapters 2 and 3 contain special messages from Jesus to each of these seven churches (see also the map for Paul’s Third Missionary Journey). However, because of the subject matter of the rest of the book, the letter was probably meant for widespread distribution among God’s people.
Purpose and Content
Ultimately the message of the book of Revelation can be summed up as: Jesus wins. The purpose of the series of visions John received is to show believers of all time—and especially believers that face persecution—that in the end Jesus will have conquered sin, death, the devil, and all who oppose him, and that though God’s people have to endure difficulty now they will go to live with him forever in perfect happiness on the Last Day. This means the book could also be seen as essentially a commentary on the thoughts expressed by Jesus in Matthew 16:18 and Matthew 28:20 and by the apostle Paul in Acts 14:22. At its core, the book of Revelation is a message of hope and comfort from God for his faithful people in difficult times.
It is with that purpose that God provides this revelation, or apocalypse in the original Greek. It is this Greek word that gives rise to the name for the genre of apocalyptic literature, writings that are meant to reveal something profound using elaborate imagery. Oftentimes this imagery depicts major events that are to come in the future, including the events closely related to the end of the world. The Old Testament books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah are examples of books where large portions fall under the category of apocalyptic literature. It is from these books of the Old Testament that much of the imagery John describes originated (for example, see Zech 1:7-17,6:1-8 and Rev 6:1-8).
There are seven visions in the book of Revelation, and for the most part they all relate the same overall events. All of these visions describe in greater detail what Jesus teaches his disciples in Matthew 24:1-25:46, including the struggle that takes place between Jesus and Satan, between God’s people and those who oppose God.
“John’s seven visions go back and forth over the ongoing struggle between Christ and Satan. God’s army includes Jesus, the holy angels, saints, and faithful witnesses to the gospel. The devil’s forces include Satan, his evil angels, unbelievers, false prophets, and worldly governments. While all the visions describe the same battle, each pictures different combatants and arenas of conflict. Each successive vision shows the battle growing more intense. The last vision climaxes with Jesus’ final defeat of Satan and his eternal victory for the saints.”2Mueller, Wayne D. Revelation. The People’s Bible. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1996. 4.
It should be noted that the events depicted in Revelation are currently taking place, just as the events prophesied by Jesus in Matthew 24 and 25 are currently taking place. For more information see The End Times.
The Numbers of Revelation
The book of Revelation uses many numbers that are symbolic of truths found in the rest of Scripture.
- 3 = the number of God, the Trinity (Matthew 28:18; Isaiah 6:3; Rev 4:8)
- 4 = the number of the created world (Jer 49:36; Dan 7:2; Zech 2:6; Rev 7:1); also used of God’s representatives in the world, e.g., “four living creatures” (Rev 4:8), “four horsemen” (Rev 6:1-8), “four angels of destruction” (Rev 7:1)
- 7 = 3 + 4, i.e., the triune God as he deals with his people (e.g., Rev 16:1); also a symbol of completion (Dan 4:14,23,25,32; 9:20-27; Rev 15:8); this is the most frequently used number in Revelation
- 6 = the number of man in his attempt to be like God, but he always comes up short; the number of evil or something incomplete or imperfect, e.g., 666 (Rev 13:18)
- 10 = the number of completion and fullness (Rev 2:10; 5:11; 12:3,13:1,17:12); also its multiples, e.g., 1000 years = 10x10x10 (Rev 20:2-7)
- 12 = the Church; also its multiples, e.g., 12+12 = 24 (Rev 4:4); or 12x12x10x10x10 = 144,000 (Rev 7:1; 14:1)
- Revelation 1:1-3
- Revelation 1:4-8
- Revelation 1:17-18
- Revelation 2:7,11,17,26-29; 3:4-6,11-13,21-22
- Revelation 4:11
- Revelation 5:9-13
- Revelation 7:9-17
- Revelation 11:16-18
- Revelation 12:7-12
- Revelation 14:13
- Revelation 19:6-9
- Revelation 19:11-16
- Revelation 20:4-6
- Revelation 20:11-15
- Revelation 21:1-8
- Revelation 21:22-27
- Revelation 22:1-7,12-21
Introduction (Revelation 1)
Part One: The struggle between the church and the world (Revelation 1-11)
Vision 1 – The Seven Letters (Revelation 2-3)
Vision 2 – The Seven Seals (Revelation 4-7)
Vision 3 – The Seven Trumpets (Revelation 8-11)
Part Two: The struggle between Christ and Satan (Revelation 12-22)
Vision 4 – Satan and His Agents (Revelation 12-14)
Vision 5 – The Seven Bowls of God’s Wrath (Revelation 15-16)
Vision 6 – Christ’s Victory over Satan’s Allies (Revelation 17-19)
Vision 7 – Christ’s Victory over Satan (Revelation 20-22)
Conclusion (Revelation 22:8-21)
|↑1||Some attribute its writing (along with the Gospel of John and the epistle of 1 John) to an Elder John, due to a statement of Eusebius that misinterprets a statement of Papias, Ecclesiastical History, III:39 (see Becker’s Revelation, pp 8-10; also Hiebert, Introduction to the Non-Pauline Epistles, pp 203-207). Eusebius was anti-millennialistic and therefore perhaps wanted to divorce the apostle John from Revelation because some, like Papias, were interpreting Revelation 20 in a crassly millennialistic way.|
|↑2||Mueller, Wayne D. Revelation. The People’s Bible. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1996. 4.|