John was in exile for the faith. God granted him a compelling vision which would encourage Christians in their faith: what they were experiencing was consistent with the challenges of the people of God before them. Jesus would have the victory.
Revelation, also called the Apocalypse (Greek apokalupsis, “unveiling”), is the twenty-seventh and final book in modern editions of the New Testament. While Revelation is written in the form of a letter, it generally is placed in its own category of “apocalyptic.” The author identifies himself as John (Revelation 1:4); while some have speculated regarding potential other authors, most ancient witnesses consider John as the same person as the author of the Gospels and Letters bearing that name. The specific audience is identified as the seven churches of the Roman province of Asia: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (Revelation 1:4, 11). The dating of Revelation is a very controversial matter and often considered determinative for interpretation: some favor an early date in the 60s, others somewhere in the 70s or 80s, and others a late date in the 90s. The text itself does not provide any explicit reference; if the date were so decisive for interpretation we would expect God to provide it, and He has done no such thing. Internal criteria can be understood as favoring either an early or a late date depending on interpretation. Irenaeus, who interacted with men who had seen John in the flesh, claimed John saw the Revelation in the days of Domitian (Against Heresies 5.30.3); Domitian reigned from 81-96, and this evidence would favor the late date, as does most evidence from early Christian witness. In the first few hundred years of Christianity many had questions regarding Revelation’s place in the New Testament canon, less on account of its origin and more on account of its use and abuse by heretics; such a concern is well placed, for not a few false prophets have been deceived by doctrines of demons and have led many others astray on account of their views regarding and emphasis on Revelation. A long treatise would be required to sort out various forms of interpretation regarding Revelation in general and the millennium of Revelation 20:1-6 in particular. For our purposes we understand Revelation to be a vision God gave to Jesus to give to John using imagery consistent with what had been made known through the prophets and Jesus to encourage the Christians of Asia Minor in the late first century to obtain the victory of Jesus in faith in the face of the Roman menace.
Revelation begins as a letter to the seven churches of Asia written by John while in exile on the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:1-9). John saw Jesus in terms of the Ancient of Days and one like a Son of Man, and Jesus told him to write what he saw to the seven churches; Jesus began to explain the meaning of the images John saw, suggesting to the reader that whereas John sees the images as described in Revelation, their meaning involved something quite different and more familiar (e.g. candlesticks/lampstand as churches, Revelation 1:10-20; cf. Daniel 7:1-14). Jesus began with specific messages for each of the seven churches, speaking both to them as individual congregations in a specific context and suggesting each as a representative type of congregation (Revelation 2:1-3:22).
John was then summoned up and was granted a vision of the heavenly throne scene, reminiscent of what was seen by Isaiah and Ezekiel (Revelation 4:1-11; cf. Isaiah 6:1-9, Ezekiel 1:1-28). God has a scroll with seven seals, and only the Lion of Judah, the Lamb, Jesus, was worthy to open the seals (Revelation 5:1-14). As the first six seals are opened four horsemen come forth; martyrs are commended and told to wait; great terror comes upon the people of earth (Revelation 6:1-17). In an “intermission” John saw faithful Christians on earth sealed by God while God in Christ was praised by Christians and the heavenly host surrounding His throne, and the blessed state of those departed faithful Christians was pronounced (Revelation 7:1-17).
The opening of the seventh seal introduced the proclamation of seven trumpets: the first five trumpets bring forth judgments on the earth (Revelation 8:1-13). The final three trumpets were also known as the three woes: one brought forth tormenting locust creatures from the abyss, the second brought forth an army of plagues among mankind, an intermission in which John is given a scroll to eat to continue to prophesy, the measurement of the temple representing the faithful people of God, and the proclamation, death, and resurrection of God’s two faithful servants, and the last woe is not described; instead, praise is rendered to God as if the third woe had come to pass and now reigns over all for eternity (Revelation 9:1-11:19).
Revelation 12:1-20:15 seems to present a second “cycle” parallel to Revelation 6:1-11:19, for John saw a woman giving birth to the Christ child who was protected from a dragon, identified as Satan; Satan and his forces fought against Michael and his forces, and were defeated and cast down to the earth; Satan attempts to persecute the woman, but was hindered; he raised up a beast (embodiment of Roman power in the Emperor) and a second beast, a false prophet (embodiment of Roman pagan religion), who spoke blasphemies, overpowered the majority, and made war on the saints (Revelation 12:1-13:18). John then saw Jesus and the faithful saints, and three angels gave pronouncement regarding what would come to pass: a harvest of the faithful and a judgment against the wicked, envisioned as a judgment of seven bowls of God’s wrath poured out on the beast and his people (Revelation 14:1-16:21). John is then introduced to Babylon the whore and her condemnation: her condition is described in ways reminiscent of Rome; judgment was made against her, and he heard the lamentation of many peoples regarding the downfall of Babylon but also the exaltation in heaven over her fall and the impending marriage supper of the Lamb and His bride; in the final “Armageddon” Jesus defeated the beast and the false prophet (Revelation 17:1-19:21).
John was shown a period of thousand years, or a millennium, in which Satan was bound and Christians reigned (perhaps the period since the downfall of paganism; Revelation 20:1-6). After the millennium Satan is loosed to deceive the nations for a time, and then came the final judgment: Satan, his minions, and those not found in the book of life were cast into the lake of fire, the second death (Revelation 20:7-15). John then saw the eternal fate of those whose names were in the book of life in the new heavens and the new earth: he was shown the bride of the Lamb, the faithful people of God, glorified, as a city coming down from heaven encrusted with jewels, in which God dwelt with His people, and provided for them; the scene included a river of life and trees of life, reminiscent of Eden (Revelation 21:1-22:6; cf. Genesis 2:1-23). John ended the Revelation with concluding exhortations assuring Christians of what would come to pass, warnings about altering what is said in the prophecy, and an appeal for the Lord Jesus to return quickly (Revelation 22:7-21). Thus ends not only the Revelation to John but revelation itself; the New Testament is thus concluded.
Christians do well to handle the Revelation of John with care, seeking to understand it in terms of what God has made known in the rest of the New Testament, and not vice versa. Yet Revelation ultimately can provide great encouragement for the Christian: God is faithful, God will have the victory, and we can share in the new heavens and new earth, but only if we remain faithful and overcome in Jesus. Amen! Lord Jesus, come quickly!
Ethan R. Longhenry