What Sort of Book is Revelation?Let’s begin by talking about what kind of literature it is. Scholars point out that Revelation contains features of at least three different kinds of literature.
· Letter - First, the book contains material that makes it like a letter. It begins (1:4-8) and ends (22:21) like a letter. Perhaps it was intended to be like one of the other circular letters we’ve looked at in our overview of the NT, intended to be sent from church to church to be read.
· Prophecy - Second, the book is presented as a prophecy (1:3; 22:7, 10, 18-19) the reader is expected to “keep” the words of the book, implying that its message can be obeyed. In that sense it can be compared to some of the OT prophetic books like Ezekiel, Zechariah and especially Daniel. Taken that way Revelation could be viewed as a series of warnings and exhortations about what is going to happen as God brings human time to an end
· Apocalypse - Third, the book has a lot in common with a genre of literature known as apocalypse. This type of writing is not well known today, but back when Revelation was written, it was a fairly common form of literature. We now have copies of numerous apocalypses that were read by Jews and Christians just before and after the time of Jesus. These typically report divine visions that are granted to people that are then interpreted by angels or other spiritual beings. Symbolism and numerology are prominent and the visions often involve bizarre creatures and mysterious events. Such books tend to be dualistic in their outlook, meaning there are clear distinctions between good and evil; the story pits angels against demons or saints against sinners and the outcomes of these battles typically are matters of cosmic significance: the end of the world, the defeat of evil, the vindication of the righteous.
How Should We Read Revelation?
So how can we make sense of the book – how should it be interpreted or read? Over the years Christians who have studied the book of Revelation have taken three major approaches:
· Historical – in this sense the book is understood in terms of the time and place in which it was written. Historical readers believe the book’s main purpose was to disclose the truth about what was happening in the world “back then.” To them the book’s events have already taken place. This group is also called “preterists.” The term preterism comes from the Latin praeter, meaning “past.” Preterists regard the book of Revelation as a symbolic picture of historical first-century conflicts, not a description of what will occur in the end times.
· Idealist – is the second type of interpretation of Revelation. For the idealist, the book is understood to refer to universal themes and symbols. Its main purpose was to provide spiritual insight that is meaningful for every time and place but not necessarily representative of any particular time and place. Such timeless truths would include the ultimate victory of good over evil for instance.
· Futurist – the third type of interpretation of Revelation is called futurist. For the futurist the book is understood in terms of things to come – its main purpose is to describe what’s going to happen in the future, particularly in the “end times.”
As far as who falls into what groups – it has been pointed out that scholars typically focus on determining what Revelation meant to its first century readers while at a popular level, Revelation is taken as a blueprint for understanding or predicting events happening in the world today.
That said, let’s take a look now at the book as we have been doing all along: who wrote it, who was it addressed to, when was it written, and what was its purpose?
The Title of the BookThe English title comes from the Latin revelatio which in its verb form means “to reveal or unveil that which has previously been hidden.” This was the title given to the book in the third century Latin Vulgate translated by Jerome. The Greek title is Αποκαλυψις (apocalypse) taken from the first word in the original Greek text.
AuthorFour times the author identifies himself as John (1:1,4,9; 22:8). From as early as Justin Martyr in the second century it has been held that this John was the apostle, the son of Zebedee (see Mt 10:2). The book itself reveals that the author was a Jew, well versed in Scripture, a church leader who was well known to the seven churches of Asia Minor, and a deeply religious person fully convinced that the Christian faith would soon triumph over the demonic forces at work in the world.
In the third century, however, an African bishop named Dionysius compared the language, style and thought of Revelation with that of the other writings of John and decided that the book could not have been written by the apostle John. He suggested that the author was a certain John the Elder, whom we have talked about before and whose name appears elsewhere in ancient writings. The truth is, no one really knows, but I think it is a safe bet to assume that the Apostle John wrote it.
RecipientsThe seven churches in Asia and all believers everywhere.
Revelation was obviously written when Christians were entering a time of persecution. The two periods most often mentioned are the latter part of Nero’s reign (54–68 AD) or the latter part of Domitian’s reign (81–96 AD). Most interpreters date the book around 95 AD.
SettingLike Daniel and other apocalypses, Revelation was composed as resistance literature to meet a crisis. Much of it is written in “code” so the Roman authorities couldn’t charge them with insurrection. The harlot Babylon, for instance, symbolizes pagan Rome, the city on seven hills (17:9). The book is, then, an exhortation and admonition to Christians of the first century to stand firm in the faith and to avoid compromise with paganism, despite the threat of adversity and martyrdom; they are to await patiently the fulfillment of God’s mighty promises. The triumph of God in the world of men and women remains a mystery, to be accepted in faith and longed for in hope. It is a triumph that unfolded in the history of Jesus of Nazareth and continues to unfold in the history of the individual Christian who follows the way of the cross, even, if necessary, to a martyr’s death.
While the Book of Revelation had its origin in a time of crisis, it remains valid and meaningful for Christians in every place and time. Those who remain steadfast in their faith and confidence in the risen Lord need have no fear. Suffering, persecution, even death by martyrdom, though remaining impenetrable mysteries of evil, do not get the last word. No matter what adversity or sacrifice Christians may endure, they will in the end triumph over Satan and his forces because of their fidelity to Christ the victor. This is the enduring message of the book; it is a message of hope and consolation and challenge for all who dare to believe.
OverviewA. Letters to the Churches (1:1 – 3:22)
B. Message for the Church (4:1 – 22:21)
a. Worshipping God in Heaven
b. Opening the Seven Seals
c. Sounding the Seven Trumpets
d. Observing the Great Conflict
e. Pouring out the Seven Plagues
f. Seizing the Final Victory
g. Making all Things New
The Life Application Study Bible; New Revised Standard Version
The NIV Study Bible
The ESV Study Bible
Introducing the New Testament by Mark Allan Powell