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Introduction to the Book of Revelation

Julian Spriggs M.A.


The authorship of Revelation is greatly disputed, with many arguments as to whether the apostle John wrote it or not. The traditional claim is that it was written by John the apostle, one of the sons of Zebedee, the brother of James, the disciple who Jesus loved. He was one of the three who listened to the Olivet Discourse, and wrote the gospel and three letters.

From the book itself we see that the writer calls himself John (1:4, 22:8), your brother (1:9), who shares in the tribulation and patient endurance (1:9). He also claims to be a prophet: (1:3, 10:11, 19:10, 22:6-7,10,18).

From the writings of the church fathers there is a consistent tradition of John the apostle being the author. Justin Martyr wrote in AD 140, “And further, there was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that thereafter the general, and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all men would likewise take place.” (Dialogue with Trypho 81). Eusebius refers to Justin’s words saying, “And he (Justin Martyr) mentions the Apocalypse of John, saying distinctly that it was the apostle's.” (Eusebius: Ecclesiasticsal History 4:18)

Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons in France, who was a disciple of Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of John, wrote this, “John also, the Lord's disciple, when beholding the sacerdotal and glorious advent of His kingdom, says in the Apocalypse: "I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And, being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks ...” (Against Heresies 4:20:11), and this, “And if any one will devote a close attention to those things which are stated by the prophets with regard to the [time of the] end, and those which John the disciple of the Lord saw in the Apocalypse, he will find that the nations [are to] receive the same plagues universally, as Egypt then did particularly.” (Against Heresies 4:30:4)

Tertullian also wrote about the author of Revelation, saying, “For although Marcion rejects his Apocalypse, the orders of the bishops (thereof), when traced up to their origin, will yet rest on John as their author.” (Against Marcion 4:5), and, “Now the Apostle John, in the Apocalypse, describes a sword which proceeded from the mouth of God as "a doubly sharp, two-edged one.” (Against Marcion 3:14)

Jerome also commented on John as follows, “An Apostle, because he wrote to the Churches as a master; an Evangelist, because he composed a Gospel, a thing which no other of the Apostles, excepting Matthew, did; a prophet, for he saw in the island of Patmos, to which he had been banished by the Emperor Domitian as a martyr for the Lord, an Apocalypse containing the boundless mysteries of the future." (Against Jovianus 26)”.

He also described the historical occasion of John’s writing, “In the fourteenth year then after Nero, Domitian having raised a second persecution he was banished to the island of Patmos, and wrote the Apocalypse, on which Justin Martyr and Irenaeus afterwards wrote commentaries. But Domitian having been put to death and his acts, on account of his excessive cruelty, having been annulled by the senate, he returned to Ephesus under Pertinax, and continuing there until the tithe of the emperor Trajan, founded and built churches throughout all Asia, and, worn out by old age, died in the sixty-eighth year after our Lord's passion and was buried near the same city.” (Lives of Illustrious Men 9).

Arguments against apostolic authorship

It has often been suggested that Revelation was written by a different John from the gospels and letters. The letters of two and three John refer to "the elder", who is suggested as the author of Revelation. The first to suggest this was Dionysius of Alexandria, who wrote this, "For blessed," says he, "is he that keepeth the words of the prophecy of this book; and I John who saw and heard these things." That this person was called John, therefore, and that this was the writing of a John, I do not deny. And I admit further, that it was also the work of some holy and inspired man. But I could not so easily admit that this was the apostle, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, and the same person with him who wrote the Gospel which bears the title according to John, and the catholic epistle. But from the character of both, and the forms of expression, and the whole disposition and execution of the book, I draw the conclusion that the authorship is not his. For the evangelist nowhere else subjoins his name, and he never proclaims himself either in the Gospel or in the epistle." (Dionysus of Alexandria, Fragments 1:1:4)

It has also been noted that the Greek grammar of Revelation is inferior to the gospel. The gospel is in simple clear accurate Greek, while Revelation is said to contain bad grammar and generally to be uncultured. However there are some possible explanations of this. John probably dictated the gospel and letters to a professional secretary, but wrote Revelation himself, hence the bad Greek. He was on Patmos, in difficult circumstances, where he would not have access to a secretary, and he was not an educated man (Acts 4:13). Also there is no reason why John was limited to using only one style of Greek during his lifetime. Luke, for example, in his gospel, wrote the preface in classical Greek, the birth narratives in Aramaic Greek and the rest in an imitation of the Septuagint. Also it should be noted that Revelation is in a completely different literary style from the gospel, describing apocalyptic visions. John does break grammatical rules, but at other times keeps to the rules perfectly, within the same book. In other words, the so-called mistakes could be deliberate. John had just had a vivid experience of meeting the risen Lord Jesus. He was "in the Spirit", so was obviously deeply affected by what he had seen.

Arguments for apostolic authorship

No other person could identify himself simply as "John", as an accepted authority in the church. From church history we know that John, the apostle, spent the last part of his ministry in Ephesus, where the first letter is addressed to. The book is saturated in the Old Testament, in the 404 verses, there are over 600 allusions to the OT, although there are no direct quotations. Many concepts and expressions are found in John and Revelation. These include the unique description of Jesus as the "logos" (Jn 1:1, Rev 19:13), as well as Jesus being the lamb (Jn 1:29, 36, Rev 5:6). Others include, “He that thirsts to drink water of life” (Jn 4:13-14, 7:37, Rev 21:6b, 22:17), “He that overcomes” (Jn 16:33, Rev 2:7, 1 Jn 5:4), keeping the commandments (Jn 14:21, Rev 12:17), the First resurrection (Jn 5:24-29, Rev 20:5). Other concepts also include Satan being cast out at the cross (Jn 12:31, Rev 12:9,13), and Jesus being pierced (from Zech 12:10) (Jn 19:37, Rev 1:7)

In both books there is the same sharp contrast drawn between good and evil and the conflict between this world and God's kingdom, the same emphasis on being a witness, or bearing testimony and on the keeping of God's commandments. Revelation gives witness to the risen Lord, and the Gospel gives witness to the incarnate Lord in the flesh.

Historical background

The date that Revelation was written is greatly disputed. Dates fall generally into two groups. The early date, before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, during or shortly after the reign of emperor Nero, and the late date in the nineties, during the reign of Domitian. John the apostle is known to have lived until the nineties.

The most important thing to note is that the book of Revelation is a letter addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor, so the book has an occasion, as do all the other letters in the New Testament. Also it is essential to remember that the whole book was relevant to the first readers in the seven churches. Any interpretation which does not take this into account should be considered most suspect.

Reading the letters, there are three basic problems facing the seven churches: Jewish hostility, false teachers in the churches, and persecution

1) Jewish hostility

In the letters to the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia, John refers to the "synagogue of Satan", "those who say they are Jews and are not" (2:9, 3:9). In the Roman empire, Jews were disliked but respected. They had been well established in most Roman cities for centuries. The Christians were seen as a heretical cult. Under the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the Jews had an easier time, but suffered under Vespasian and his sons, Titus and Domitian, especially after the Jewish revolt and destruction of Jerusalem (AD 66-70). Vespasian made the Jews pay their temple tax to the temple to Zeus in Rome instead of to the Jerusalem temple, once that was destroyed. Christians did not have to pay this. The Jews were exempt from Caesar worship, the Christians were not. Jews in the cities of Asia had probably reported Christians who refused to worship Caesar or to participate in pagan worship to the Roman authorities.

2) False teachers in the churches

The following are mentioned: The Nicolaitans in Ephesus, who hated them (2:6), and in Pergamum (2:15) who followed them, the teachings of Balaam in Pergamum (2:14), the prophetess Jezebel and the deep things of Satan in Thyatira (2:20,24). Most of these would involve compromise with idol worship, eating food offered to idols and sexual immorality (2:14,20). The Nicolaitans are an unknown group. All the these are probably different varieties of what was basically the same group and teaching. Irenaeus identifies the Nicolaitans as followers of Cerinthus, the gnostic teacher:
"John, the disciple of the Lord, preaches this faith, and seeks, by the proclamation of the Gospel, to remove that error which by Cerinthus had been disseminated among men, and a long time previously by those termed Nicolaitans, who are an offset of that "knowledge" falsely so called” (Against Heresies 3:11:1)

3) Caesar worship

The Roman province of Asia has been described as a religious Disney-land, where people worshipped a multitude of gods, practised astrology, immorality and pagan religion. This the religious background to letters to the Ephesians and Colossians. The cult of Caesar worship was started in Asia to bond the Roman empire together. The intention was to unite the empire in patriotism to Rome. The early emperors did not take their divinity seriously, but were pronounced to be divine after their death. There were imperial temples in several of the cities named in Revelation, and caesar worship became particularly strong in Asia from the early second century onwards. In Ephesus, there was a temple to Domitian, with an eight high metre statue. After Nero, Domitian was one of the early emperors to claim divinity, and was expected to be addressed as "Dominus et Deus", meaning "Lord and God". Emperor worship was enforced more strictly during the reign of Trajan in the early second century.

In the Book of Revelation, persecution has already begun, at least in a small way, and is expected to get worse. The troubles had already started by Antipas being killed in Pergamum, where Satan's throne is (2:13), John being on Patmos, because of the gospel (1:9), and some already being martyred (6:9). Further troubles were predicted: In Smyrna, the Devil was about to throw some into prison, and tribulation for ten days. They were called to be faithful unto death (2:10). The promise was made to Pergamum that they will be kept from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole earth (3:10). The earth is warned that the devil has come down to you in great wrath (12:12), and the great harlot is drunk with the blood of the saints (16:6, 17:6, 18:24, 19:2, 20:4).

In later years, all citizens of the empire were required each year to go to the temple to Roma, the deity of the Roman empire manifested as the current emperor, burn a pinch of incense to Caesar, and say, "Caesar is Lord". A certificate called a libellus was signed by the authorities to show that the person had done their duty in worshipping the emperor. Failure to produce a libellus would disqualify a person from joining trade guilds, so they would suffer economically, and refusal to worship the emperor would result in death by burning or being thrown to wild beasts in the arena.

This obviously caused great difficulties for the Christians, as only Jesus is Lord. Christians are called to worship Christ alone. The choice would be to worship Christ or Caesar. In Revelation, the Roman empire is personified as a beast demanding universal worship, that all should bear his mark (13:4,15, 14:9-11, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4). John, in the book of Revelation, shows that the lie that the emperor was god was inspired by Satan, to deceive the whole population of the Roman Empire.

Historically, this happened, for over two hundred years, from late in the first century until AD 312. There was continual conflict between the Christians and the Roman government, with some periods of more intense persecution. Thousands of Christians were martyred because they would not worship Caesar.

This is also a message for all time, whenever the state demands worship and allegiance which is only due to God and to the Lamb. This has happened again and again in every century in every nation through history. Examples being Stalin, Hitler, Mao tse Tung in China, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Idi Amin in Uganda, Ayatollah Khomeni of Iran, and Enver Hoxha of Albania in twentieth century. The beast is a picture of anti-Christian government in all times, the Roman empire in John's time and many others since. So, this book is relevant, not only to the original readers, but to Christians who have lived in all centuries in all countries since.

The main message of the book is that although Satan will use his beasts to persecute the church, the final victory belongs to Jesus, because he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. A great message of encouragement to Christians whenever and wherever they live.

Type of literature

The literature question is probably the most significant question to ask in looking at Revelation, as the type of literature has an enormous affect on the interpretation of the book.

Firstly we need to recognise that Revelation is a letter, written by command of the risen Jesus by John to the seven churches of Asia (1:11). These were real churches experiencing real things. Revelation has the same letter structure as is seen in other NT letters. After an introduction about John (1:1-3), it begins with a greeting: “John to the seven churches in Asia” (1:4), followed by a doxology (1:5b-6). The book closes with a benediction (22:21). The primary message of any letter is always to the original readers in their life setting. They would have understood it and found the contents relevant to their lives. Then, as with all other scripture, letters have abiding value to Christians in all centuries and in all nations.

Secondly, Revelation claims to be a prophecy (1:3, 10:7,10, 22:7,10,18-19). In the OT, a prophet spoke God's message, speaking about the present situation, calling the people back to the covenant, in the light of the future. His aim was not just to foretell the future to satisfy the reader’s curiosity, but to challenge his readers to repent. In the NT, a prophet speaks God's message to men or the church for their upbuilding, encouragement, consolation and edification. (1 Cor 14:3-4). Again, a response is looked for now.

Thirdly, Revelation is written in apocalyptic style. It is titled “The revelation of Jesus Christ”(1:1). The word 'revelation' comes from the Latin, translated from the Greek word 'apocalypse', which means an unveiling or disclosing of something previously hidden.

Apocalyptic literature was very popular at the time this book was written, from around 200 BC to AD 100. Many apocalyptic books were written, which were not included in the NT. For example: the Book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Baruch, and the Assumption of Moses. Apocalyptic is a type of literature unknown to us today. Someone once said that nearest modern equivalent are rock videos, which make great use of dramatic symbols.

Apocalyptic literature normally claimed to be a revelation from an angel to a great figure of the past, like Abraham or Moses. The message was expressed in vivid or even bizarre symbolism, using familiar items in unearthly combinations. They express the conviction, that although times are currently difficult, God will finally intervene and destroy evil. They were known as "tracts for hard times". God’s final intervention was associated with the coming of the Messiah, who would bring in God's kingdom, and the final triumph of the righteous and the judgement of the wicked. The writers were pessimistic about the present world, knowing that man could not overcome evil alone, but looked to God for deliverance. For this reason, there is very little emphasis on moral teaching.

Some Biblical books contain passages written in this style: Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Zephaniah and The Olivet Discourse. Please refer to the article on Understanding Eschatology on the Inductive Bible Study page for an example of apocalyptic writing in the Apocrypha.

The Book of Revelation has some similarities with these books. It too was written at a time of intense persecution. It also makes great use of symbolism, visions and images of beasts and dragons, to portray the great conflict between good and evil. Symbolic numbers are characteristically used to describe spiritual realities. The author is guided by angels, who give interpretations of the visions. The focus on the final judgement and salvation, and the triumph of the righteous and judgement of evil. The writing is highly structured with much repetition, and not particularly concerned with chronology.

There are also some distinct differences. The author uses his own name (1:4), compared with apocalyptic literature which was usually pseudonymous, often claiming to be by some famous person in the past, such as Moses, Ezra, Baruch, or Enoch. Revelation is not pseudo-predictive, such as claiming to live at the time of Enoch and describe the events of the first century AD. John sets his book in his own day and looks forward into the future. Revelation sees that the Messiah and his kingdom have already come, contrasted with the totally pessimistic, fatalistic despair of apocalyptic books. These see the world hopelessly in the control of demonic powers, the only hope being in a final dramatic intervention by God, to bring the evil age to and end and to inaugurate the new age. Revelation claims divine inspiration as a prophecy (1:3), and is concerned with ethical response, containing many calls to repentance, showing more of a prophetic style. So, the Book of Revelation is not a standard apocalyptic book, but shares some characteristics of that style of literature. We should severely question any interpretation of Revelation which doesn't mention apocalyptic literature.

Other articles on this web-site

For information about how to interpret Revelation, please go to Understanding Revelation in the Inductive Bible Study page. This has additional information including the meaning of the numbers.

There are also articles about the different Views of Revelation and of the Millennium on the NT Studies page.

If you want to read more about Revelation, please consider purchasing my book The Lion and the Lamb.