Let’s begin with the background of this fascinating book. Without some knowledge of this it will be little more than an impersonal piece of literature penned centuries ago. But when remembering the author, the circumstances and also the type of writing, we will be better able to see our way through what otherwise might seem an almost impenetrable jungle of symbois.
No less than four times does the author introduce himself by name. He is “John” (1:1,4, 9 and 22:8). For centuries the Christian church has attributed this writing together with the fourth gospel and three brief epistles to “the apostle whom Jesus loved.” He is the John who spent the last decades of his life ministering to the churches in Asia Minor.
The writer leaves us in no doubt as to the place where he received this message. He was on the island of Patmos, a rocky piece of land some forty miles west of Asia Minor. Here he found himself because “of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” In those days this was a Roman penal colony. Here criminals against the state were banished to spend their days at hard labor in the stone quarries. From it. with the Aegean sea whipping up storm-tossed waves, there was little hope of escape.
The text indicates that the writer as a church leader suffered exile because of his loyalty to the Lord Jesus. Undoubtedly this imprisonment with possible condemnation to hard labor was occasioned by a refusal to offer the prescribed pinch of incense publicly to Caesar’s effigy. John remained here for eighteen months to be released under the next ruler Nerva (96–98 AD) when persecution of the Christians abated.
Nowhere had the gospel won such firm and widespread acceptance as in Asia Minor. Here were many congregations. By John’s day many of them were suffering great distresses.
The first was occasioned by the Roman authorities. Although Nero (54–68 AD) had put many believers including both Paul and Peter to death, his persecution was largely restricted to the city of Rome. He, too, had demanded that divine honors be paid him. But no imperial edict to that end had been issued.
Gone and never to return was that golden age under Augustus Caesar (37 BC–14 AD), when our Lord was born. After his time several ineffective and even vicious emperors had ruled. Rome was beginning to show signs of its eventual dissolution. Heavier taxes were being imposed to support armies essential to safeguarding imperial borders. From the north and northeast. barbarian tribes threatened to invade. Sporadically the Parthian empire to the east engaged in guerrilla tactics. Signs of rebellion in several provinces were becoming more commonplace. And the Jews arose in a long and bloody revolution which ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. At best the empire was a ramshackle affair embracing dozens of once independent nations and hundreds of tribes and peoples. Only the emperor Domitian,as representative of the city which thought it ruled the world (so Domitian thought), could hold it all together. Hence that pinch of incense to be publicly offered. To refuse made one guilty of high treason punishable by death.
Immediately Christians fell under suspicion. For them there was only one Lord, even Jesus Christ. Worship of any other, no matter how simple the form, made them guilty of idolatry. And the Roman authorities recognized this at once. How rigorously the edict was enforced we have no way of knowing. But that the churches in Asia Minor suffered severely is abundantly clear from John’s letters.
But there were also the Jews. Little had changed since those early days when they had rejected the Lord Jesus as the promised Messiah. For years they had enjoyed special status under the Roman government. Hence their refusal to bend the knee to Caesar’s image placed them in no danger. But they could, in their own way, make life difficult for the followers of the Nazarene. And this they did. John's letter to the church at Smyrna, where a large Jewish colony flourished, also demonstrates this.
Far more insidious, however, were dangers which threatened the Christian congregations from within. Compromise with the faith, both in doctrine and conduct, was far from imaginary. By this time, as John's epistles already alert us, Gnostic ideas had begun to infiltrate. These were a strange amalgam of Jewish, Greek and Oriental notions which stimulated the rise of a new mystery religion. Not until a century later did these appear in a more systematic form to be described and then refuted by such church fathers as Irenaeus (c. 180) and Hippolytus of Rome (c. 200). They championed the unbridgeable dualism between matter and spirit, between evil and good. These two, it was argued, were eternally in conflict. Evil was found in matter; good alone in spirit. Thus the created world including man’s body was evil. But the spirit. also called God and all associated with Him, was good. By a higher kind of knowledge (gnosis) man could attain to this and so escape the bad influences of the physical. Especially among the less discerning much of what these “teachers” held seemed in accord with the Christian gospel.
How radically the two life and worldviews differed can be quickly ascertained.
God as “pure spirit” could never be regarded as the Creator of a material universe. It derived rather from a “demi urge” orfallen kind of god. Nor could Jesus Christ be God-incarnate. Earlier John had denounced as “antichrist” those who denied that Jesus Christ had come “in the flesh” (1 John 2:22,23; 4:1–3). But to get around this impasse, these arch-heretics taught that Jesus was a god who only masqueraded as a man. Later Cerinthus refined this notion, claiming that Jesus was indeed an ordinary man but who received the “spirit” at His baptism which then departed at His crucifixion. Salvation was not obtained by faith in His atoning sacrifice; rather, by way of gaining a “deeper insight” into the nature of the conflict raging between good and evil. And the battleground was the life of those who attained such wisdom. Anyone who recognized this as “truth” despised others as being ignorant of “the deep things of Satan” (2:25). While some sought escape from evil by denying the bodily appetites, others argued appealingly that whatever was done in and by the body could in no way harm the “soul” as the true life. Against these, finding their way into the churches, John warned vigorously. Such views, catering to the flesh, are for him an open assault on the fundamentals of the Christian faith.
Already the literary character of this book has been stated in its opening word. It is “apocalypse.” This is an unveiling, a drawing aside of the curtain to reveal the drama to be unfolded.
John also speaks of his writing as “prophecy.” Both terms are to be taken seriously. Clearly he stands in the tradition of the Old Testament and New Testament prophets who brought God’s message to mankind. For this calling John rightly claims divine inspiration. Nothing that he “saw” or “heard” and then “wrote” derived from his own imagination. But this came in the form of “visions” received while “in the spirit” but in full possession of all his mental faculties. Repeatedly he insists that he speaks “truth” and “testifies” to it as one present in a court room before the heavenly Judge. This “truth” came directly from the Lord Jesus Christ who is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6; d. 3:14; 12:4).
We should, however, recognize a kind of difference between prophecy and apocalypse. Already the Old Testament contains some “apocalyptic” passages, chiefly Daniel 7–12 and Zechariah 9–14. In the period between 200 BC and 100 AD such writings appeared frequently and were highly esteemed by the Jews. They took their rise in times of severe disappointment and distress. Their aim was to provide encouragement by pointing to God who in cataclysmic ways would soon arise to destroy all his enemies and preserve those who trusted in him. Nothing in the present world, so the writers urged, offered any hope But when God would arise in judgment, a new and bright day would dawn to last for 400 or a 1,000 years or even longer. Much of this, then, seemed to harmonize with some of the rich promises of Old Testament prophecy.
But between those writings and Revelation we soon will discover marked differences. While both make use of strange and striking symbols, the former insisted that deliverance was only for those who adhered strictly to the Mosaic laws while John declares that salvation comes to those alone who trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. So, too, the earlier writings ap.peared either anonymously or under the name ofsome long-dead Jewish leader. John, however. makes himself known. So well-known was he among the believers in Asia Minor that he needed no long list of credentials. And while some of the scenes which he describes appear terrible and terrifying, here is none of the often fantastic speculation which colored the other writings.
But why was John constrained to write in this fashion? The answer should be apparent at once. Many of his descriptions are borrowed either directly or indirectly from Old Testament prophecy. Even more, this is precisely the way in which the Lord Jesus appeared to him and delivered the message for the congregations. And let us not forget, the “material” with which this book deals. supplying the spiritual and supernatural basis for the events of world history, could hardly be described in some ordinary speech. It is therefore with symbols that we will have to come to terms.
Revelation, much like Genesis. follows an unmistakably clear pattern. Where the former is arranged according to “generations” (toledoth), this book comes largely by way of visions in terms of “sevens.”
What should be remembered at the outset, however, is that these are not arranged in a strictly chronological order, that is, in terms of past, present and future in sequence. Thus the relationships of each of these “sevens” to the others will have to be considered carefully. This to a large extent determines how the materials are arranged for our understanding.
Far more decisive for a sound understanding of Revelation is discerning its “key” and remembering this throughout any reading, study and reflection on its message.
That key is provided by John himself.
This is not the Revelation of John, even though our Bibles entitle it thus. He is, indeed. the messenger. But it is not about him any more than it is by him. Actually — and the author insists on this — it is the Revelation of Jesus Christ! It comes from Him; it is all about Him from beginning to end. He is the One now glorified at the Father’s right hand in control as the Lord of history. In everything that happens He engages in gathering, defending and preserving the church which He purchased with His precious blood. This is the rich consolation which it affords to all who trust in the Savior “in whom all the fulness of the deity dwells bodily.” Because of His perfect: obedience to the Father’s will He has been endowed with — all authority in heaven and on earth.” Nothing therefore can successfully resist or thwart His will. He, then, is the source and the substance of this book. To lose sight of Him, even for a pause when puzzling about some strange detail, misses the point of the passage, disrupts the unbreakable thread which constitutes the unity of John’s visions, and so robs the reader of that comfort which it pledges.
The apostle informs us what we must look for. It is that “which must take place soon.” It is also “what is now and what will take place later.” All this is connected with Jesus Christ who is always “coming.”
We look forward to the day of His visible appearing on the clouds of heaven in great glory to judge the living and dead decisively (Acts 1). But with all evangelicals we also confess that He is not far away. Rather, with His “deity, majesty, grace and Spirit” He is never absent from us and that in the most dynamic way possible. So has He been the coming One even from the beginning, in the Old Testament by way of promise as chapter 12 will indicate, but far more so now that He has received a name which is above every name and a right to claim all the ends of the earth as His possession. Always He engages in fulfilling the eternal counsel and plan of the triune God. Much has already happened in the past; much was happening in John’s day and now in ours; much will continue to happen under His control until finally the curtain of world history is rung down.
Although largely clothed in symbolical language, what John “sees” are actual historical events. Also in that respect Revelation is a worthy and indispensable capstone to the Holy Scriptures.
Bearing this in mind, we should be reasonably well-versed in the rest of the Bible. Foolish are those who want to begin their studies with this prophecy and then, by some hit-and-miss method, try to fit everything that the prophets, the apostles and our Lord Jesus have said about eschatological subjects into the 1,000 years of chapter 20. This is putting the cart in front of the horse. God’s self-revelation always bears the stamp of its redemptive-historical and progressive character. All is bound up in an unbreakable unity. Hence the several allusions to the first Paradise, if reduced to some figment of Moses’ imagination and thus unreal make nonsense also of this book.
The use of symbols
Like all apocalyptic writers John here makes much use of symbols. But such figurative language is not spun out of thin air. Rather, it is used to express ideas, concepts and events — all real and factual and true — for which our ordinary language seems inadequate.
On their presence there is no disagreement. The disagreement arises rather on how much of this must be interpreted as stating visible, tangible, purely physical realities. And the differences will simply not melt away easily. We do well to exercise due caution. Some argue vehemently that all the symbols speak of very specific, identifiable persons and events; others that everything especially in chapters 4 through 22 is to be “spiritualized.” In the latter method nothing factually and historically real usually remains. All is reduced to a kind of “dream” which John had. In the next section more on methods of interpreting Revelation will be found.
What first strikes us is the symbolical use of “colors” together with precious metals and gems. Little of this needs explanation. In fact, John at times explains this. On this, too, most commentators have, in the light of other Scripture passages, agreed.
Nor should we find much difficulty with John’s use of “numbers.” None of the first readers apparently did because of their acquaintance with the Old Testament and some apocalyptical writings then current.
Let us review a few. “Two” throughout much of the Bible signifies companionship and strength. “Three” often expresses the triune God indivisible, with a parody in those “frogs” as an unholy trinity arising out of the abyss. While “seven” is usually the number of completeness and/or perfection, “three and one half” points to incompleteness. “Four” stands for the created order, the fulness especially of this earth with its four directions. “Six” deserves to be noted carefully. It denotes a high level of achievement but an inability to attain the highest potential. On “ten” there seems little disagreement; here is the kind of completeness ascribed to human situations. And when “twelve” is mentioned, we find it connected with the Old Testament patriarchs and the New Testament apostles representing the Lord’s people organized under the leadership appointed by Him.
But when it comes to “hours” and “days,” much as with Daniel’s “weeks,” the disagreement becomes much sharper and more vocal. So too with “years.” But why, so many may rightly ask, should this writing so replete with symbols, now demand that times here must be interpreted in their precise, literal, mathematical designations? Few evangelicals will dispute that actual historical realities of time-span are intended. All the actions of Jesus Christ are “dated.” But to press the references to time in this writing into our calendar years is impossible. Even the most confirmed “literalists” have not done that with Daniel’s “weeks.” For them these are transposed into “years.”
And when we come to John’s mention of events, persons and locations, we find the difference in interpreting symbolical language even greater. In the premillenarian and especially dispensational camp we find many who insist that they can “identify” here-and-now precise fulfillments of the apostle’s prophecies. Thus the return of the Jews to the land of Israel is the sure guarantee of Christ’s coming soon to reign over the world from Jerusalem. Some have opined that Russia, perhaps with some help, will invade the promised land and meet with ultimate defeat. Others claim that Revelation plainly teaches that the old Roman empire will be revived with one world-ruler and ten kings subordinate to Him. A last and actually physical battle, but with modem weaponry, will be fought to a finish at a place called “Armageddon” which is to be identified with a location in Israel. When all this is connected with a smcret “Rapture” long before the endtime, speculation on times and seasons begins to run rife.
Something of such speculation on times was advocated by early Anabaptists and later by the Millerites in the last century, not to speak of the theories ardently proclaimed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Again and again, such attempts have met with grave disappointment and shaken the faith of those who thought that also Revelation with its prophecies was history “written-ahead-of-time” so plainly that anyone should be able to understand it. Unless we learn from such mistakes made in the past, we expose ourselves easily to making them again and again to our disappointment and spiritual distress. Certainly the “Signs of the times” are here and must be discerned. On this our Lord allows for no spiritual indifference. But a holy reserve becomes us with regard tothe future and iden~ tifying specific events. We are still living in the day when “we see in a glass darkly.” The Lord Jesus, indeed, has been and still is doing great and wondrous things before our very eyes. With this He will continue until the consummation on that last great Day of days. Not until then, however, will prophecy with its fulfillment become fully clear to the believers.
How, then, should we approach this marvelous book which grips the heart and mind of every sincere believer? Bear in mind that everyone, consciously or quite subconsciously, approaches Revelation with some predispositions. This is unavoidable. Thus it is well to review the several “methods of interpretation” which have been advocated. Within each we soon become aware also of modifications.
Some maintain the “historicist” view. It claims that everything here written down was fulfilled in John’s day or shortly thereafter. The Babylon about which he writes was unmistakably that wicked day of Rome in his time, Nero made alive again in the antichrist, and the Parthians the 200,000,000 strong horde from east of Euphrates. When all this was to happen, then Christians would be somehow delivered. So, according to them, did both John and his first readers understand the book. Often those championing this understanding do not accept it as divinely inspired and thus normative for us today.
Far more numerous are those who adopt the “futurist” interpretation, especially because decisive judgments are mentioned frequently. Thus the reference is thought to be exclusively to that period immediately prior to our Lord’s visible appearance. Here, of course, dispensationalists often disagree with others who also see nearly everything as still future. Among some this produces an extremely pessimistic view of life today with little eye for the victories which our Lord by His Word and Spirit is accomplishing also today. All hope is fixed upon His visible return. Thus no room is left for that progressive unfolding of God's purposes in history which characterizes the entire Scriptures. Nor would such an approach have meant much to believers throughout the past centuries of church history.
Then comes the “chronological-understanding of this book. Often was it advocated with fervor in the past. It sees in the seven churches of Asia Minor the story of Christianity from the days of the apostle to the return of the Savior-King. Ephesus. then. would stand for the church in its earliest centuries; Philadelphia for the church in Reformation times; Laodicea for the lukewarmness of our own day. Even among those adopting this approach, however, we find little agreement on what is precisely indicated by each of the seven churches. Church history, as past events demonstrate so unmistakably, hardly falls into such sharply defined categories.
Also there is the “symbolist” interpretation. In its consistent forms it maintains that, except perhaps for chapters 2 and 3. There is no more than a broad and even quite vague description of the forces operative throughout world history. Indeed, they may be and are under Christ’s control. But no room is left for specific historical realities in whidh God’s purposes are fulfilled. Some premillenarians have openly attacked the amillenarian view as endorsing this approach. But as the lessons which follow should demonstrate, this is a less than accurate evaluation of their efforts to understand this book.
Finally there is the “parellelistic” approach. Those who use this try to do justice to the message with its movement found especially in chapters 4 through 20. This approach explains that the seals, the trumpets and the bowls of wrath span the period from Christ’s ascension to His blessed return in glory; each of these in turn viewing that period from its own perspective. Thus the parallels are by no means identical in time-sequence. While each does announce judgments, we find here intensification so that each series also brings the reader closer to the final days of world history under Christ’s reign.
In all of these there may well be a modicum of truth. But some have forgotten John’s clear assertion that Jesus Christ is the One who “was” and who “is” and who “will come soon.” The Savior-King is yesterday and today and forever the same and always acting on behalf of His own. Because of this profound truth the church in every age and in all life-situations draws consolation from this precious and powerful book.
Much, very much indeed may already have been fulfilled; more is still to come.
Our understanding of Revelation will soon make this evident.
It spans, against the background of the rest of Holy Scripture, God’s ways from that eternity before this world sank on its foundations to that eternity when time shall be no more, new heavens and a new earth will be enjoyed by all who love Him and look for His appearing, and the triune God in Jesus Christ shall be all and in all to Him, therefore, be all the praise, honor and glory together with the dominion forever and ever!