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Studies in the book of Revelation: Revealing the Revelation

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Revelation 1:1

Revelation is my favorite book of the Bible. But for most of us, it is the most confusing book of the Bible as well. My college professor simplified it greatly for me. He said the entire book can be summarized in two words: “We win.” He was right.

Unfortunately, preachers and scholars over the centuries have made Revelation much harder to understand than it really is. Entire seminary classes are devoted to applying complex methods of interpretation to Revelation. I know, because I’ve been in such classes and taught them as well.

What words come to mind today when you think of the book of Revelation? Confusing, hard to understand, debated. And more.

This study should not have confusion. Revelation was written to everyday Christians in ways they could understand and apply. It can still be understood by believers today, if we know what those first century readers knew. And so our method for interpreting the book of Revelation will be simple: to explain what the text meant to its first readers, and therefore what it means for us today.

We begin by stepping back 20 centuries into the environment and context of this remarkable book. We need to answer four important questions, as we lay the foundation for the semester before us:

Who was the author?

Who was the writer?

Who were the readers?

How should we read Revelation?

Who was the author?

We cannot understand fully any writing unless we know its author and circumstances. What do these words mean: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The Chicago Times said of the speech, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.” But these 268 words are immortal, because of the man who spoke them and the times when he spoke them.

The text before us is even more eternal in its significance, but that significance is far more meaningful for us when we know its author and context.

Who was the author of Revelation? Many editions of the Bible confuse us with their title: “The Revelation of John.” The titles of the biblical books were added centuries after the books were written; in this case, the appended title is wrong.

The first five words of the text settle the question: “The revelation of Jesus Christ” (1.1). The book is the revelation of Jesus, given to John for him to give to Jesus’ churches (1.1b). Jesus is the real author of Revelation.

What difference does it make that Jesus is the author of this book? What do we know about him which is relevant to this book? He knows the future, so these predictions can be trusted, We have through the years heard many predictions made by men, especially concerning the end times. And we know they cannot be trusted.

Jesus has the power to bring these things to pass. He defeated death, calmed storms, overcame Satan’s temptations. He created all things, and all things are subject to him. He cares about us enough to reveal these promises and offer this hope to us. He walks with us as we experience the suffering predicted here. He has suffered himself, and knows the pain we feel.

This is not the naïve predicting of a fortuneteller, or the weak assurances of a frail human being. This is the revelation of Jesus Christ himself to us. So we will read it with fascination and trust it with confidence.

Who was the writer?

The author of Revelation was Jesus Christ. However, this text was first given to a man named John (1.1) who served as the writer. Who was this writer, and why does his identity matter?

Interpreters of the Bible consider two kinds of evidence in determining who wrote a given book: “internal” and “external.” Internal evidence comes from the book itself; external evidence comes from other historical records and sources.

What do we know from internal evidence about John? He is named four times (1.1, 1.4, 1.9, 22.8). He calls himself “your brother and companion” in 1.9. He is on the island of Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1.9). That is all we know internally. From this evidence alone, what can we conclude?

He is a Christian (“your brother”).

He is suffering for his faith, thus likely a visible Christian.

He is exiled on Patmos, a prison colony. And so he will understand our sufferings, our pain, as one who goes through them with us.

The external evidence is helpful: from earliest times the near-unanimous opinion of scholars was the John the Beloved Disciple wrote this text.

Justin Martyr (ca. AD 100-165) connected the book with “a certain man of us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him” (Dialogue with Trypho 81).

Irenaeus (born AD 130) and most others in the early Christian era believed that John the Disciple wrote the book.

Some point to differences in the Greek style of Revelation when compared with the Gospel of John and the Letters of John, and suggest that someone other than the Beloved Disciple wrote the book. But changed circumstances behind the writing of Revelation could account easily for these differences.

Here’s what we know about John the Beloved Disciple and his circumstances:

He was Jesus’ best friend and author of the Fourth Gospel: “One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him” (John 13.23); “Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them” (John 21.20); “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true” (v. 24).

He pastored in Ephesus, and knew the other six churches as well, likely preaching in them as a circuit rider. The seven churches were all satellites of Ephesus, in a sense, and all part of that pastor’s wider area of responsibility.

He had been exiled on Patmos (1.9). According to Jerome (died AD 419/420), this occurred in AD 94, when John was quite elderly.

Patmos is a barren, rocky island forty miles off the coast of Asia Minor in the Mediterranean Sea, 10 miles long by 5 miles wide and crescent-shaped. This island was where Rome often banished notorious criminals.

Sir William Ramsey says that John’s banishment would have been “preceded by scourging, . . . marked by perpetual fetters, scanty clothing, insufficient food, sleep on the bare ground in a dark prison, and work under the lash of military overseers.” This was the Auschwitz of the first century.

And so John received the Revelation when he needed its hope as much as we do. He will give it to us as the gift of a fellow sufferer.

Who were the readers?

The prologue is clear: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia” (1.4); “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea” (1.10-11).

We know a good deal about their circumstances. And none of it is good.

Rome was on the attack. Domitian, emperor from AD 81-96, was a cold-blooded murderer and egotist. He commanded the citizens everywhere to worship him as God. When he arrived at the theatre in Rome with his wife, the soldiers made the crowd rise and shout, “All hail to our Lord and his Lady!” He made subjects worship him as God or die.

Jewish leaders were a threat. Justin Martyr said of them: “You displayed great zeal in publishing throughout the land bitter and dark and unjust things against the only blameless and righteous Light sent by God” (Dialogue with Trypho 17).

According to an early record of the martyrdom of Polycarp, the aged Smyrnan Christian leader, “the whole multitude both of the heathen and the Jews, who dwelt at Smyrna, cried out with uncontrollable fury” in demanding that Polycarp die by fire. the crowds even gathered wood for the fire, “the Jews especially, according to custom, eagerly assisting them in it” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 12, 13).

And their persecution increased the Roman problem, as Rome saw them as a separate group from the Jews.

Internal division was increasing and life-threatening. The Ephesian Christians had forsaken Christ, their first love. Believers at Pergamum and Thyatira were compromising with false teachings and immorality. The church at Sardis was “asleep” and dying spiritually. The Laodiceans were self-sufficient and proud.

Thus the first readers of these letters were facing a future as uncertain as our own. What would their external circumstances bring? What would come of their internal, moral, spiritual problems?

We face nothing in our future more difficult than what they faced in theirs.

How should we read Revelation?

There are several views about how Revelation should be interpreted. The following are short descriptions of the most common.

Preterist: the events recorded in Revelation have already been fulfilled.

Continuous Historical: Revelation is a forecast of the entire history of the church; this view attempts to correlate passages in the book with specific historical events. For instance, Barnes’ Notes comments on Revelation 8.8-9: “A third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.” Barnes locates this event with the invasion of Rome by Genseric, at the head of the Vandals, in AD 428-468, and writes four pages to defend his position.

Theological Principles: Revelation is a religious philosophy of life which demonstrates how things turn out in a world where evil seems to be in control but God is the actual ruler.

Social Interpretation: Revelation teaches a particular social agenda, in which God’s Kingdom overcomes the existing, hostile, godless powers.

Dispensational Premillennialism: a literal approach wherever possible, separating Israel from the Church, and teaching a literal rapture, 7-year tribulation, and 1000-year millennial rule of Christ on earth.

Historic Premillennialism: no rapture or 7-year tribulation.

Postmillennialism: Christ will return after the millennium.

Amillennialism: the prophecies of a future millennium are highly symbolic; seven sections move in parallel with one another.

I will give you my approach in a later study.

Jesus has been where we are right now. We will go through nothing today or this week which he and the first Christians did not face. He offers us the hope of his help and presence. We win!