Introduction to the Book of Revelation

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (27:51)

Revelation was originally written to guide and encourage a persecuted Church. While Americans may not experience much persecution for their Christian faith, the opposite has been true around the world in the last century. The 20th Century saw more martyrs for the Christian faith than all the previous centuries put together. Dictators such as Idi Amin in Uganda, Stalin in the Soviet Union, and Mao Zedong in China were responsible for killing millions of believers in order to suppress Christianity. They didn't succeed. A resurgence of radical Islam and fundamentalist Hinduism imperil Christians in many lands today. The message of Revelation is very relevant indeed for our generation.

Influence

The Book of Revelation has exerted a huge influence on the Christian Church and Western thought. During cycles of the Black Plague in the Middle Ages, Europe was sure it was experiencing the plagues mentioned in Revelation 6. Many of the phrases and symbols in Revelation have found their way into English vocabulary and imagination -- "pearly gates" (21:21), "lukewarm" (3:16), "overcomers" (2:7, etc.), "Alpha and Omega" (1:8; 21:6; 22:13), "the second death" (2:11), "book of life" (3:5), "666" (13:18), the Millennium (20:1-6), and the "lake of fire" (19:20; 20:10, 15), to name just a few.

Type of Literature

It's not hard to see that Revelation is very different than anything else in the New Testament. Actually, it is a different genre or type of literature. (Genre is pronounced JAHN-rah, with the J sound not hard but kind of slurred.) The other New Testament books are Gospels (evangelistic biographies of Jesus' life and ministry), Epistles (letters designed to guide individuals and churches to better live out the Christian life), and the Book of Acts (a history of the early church). 

You're familiar with different genres or types of songs -- Country and Western, classical, soft rock, Big Band, Negro spiritual, etc. Each has its own distinctive approach and style. Literature types can include biography, history, historical fiction, romance fiction, poetry, etc. Each type of literature must be considered and understood within its own genre. 

The Book of Revelation is an example of apocalyptic literature, a type of Jewish-Christian writing that flourished especially between 250 BC and 150 AD. The chief example in the Old Testament is Daniel 7-12. In addition to Daniel and Revelation, scholars have found 14 Jewish and 23 Christian documents of this type. This genre of literature communicates about the End Time through visions and symbolic language. 

We don't have any good examples of this highly symbolic style in modern literature. John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678) is a complex allegory presented as a dream. Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) is a highly symbolic satire of his age. But these are centuries old. The best current examples of using symbols to communicate are to be found in political cartoons. Here you see donkeys and elephants interacting in various ways. Political cartoons use recognizable symbols to make a point. So does the Book of Revelation and apocalyptic literature of its era.

To understand the symbols used, however, requires a familiarity with the Old Testament. You'll see many Old Testament references in the notes. Feel free to look them up to learn more.

Date and Author

Map of Asia MinorThe earliest church writers are unanimous that "John" (1:1) who recorded this revelation was John the Apostle, the son of Zebedee (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 81, Irenaeus, Against Heresies iii.11.1; iv.20.11; v.35.2; Tertullian, Against Marcion iii.14.3). I lean in this direction, too. There are many similarities between Revelation and the Gospel of John, but also many differences, including grammar. Since John doesn't identify himself as an apostle, it is also possible that he is another John, sometimes called John the Elder. We just aren't sure. Fortunately, however, exactly which John is the author doesn't really affect how the book should be interpreted. Whoever he was, he had been exiled to the Isle of Patmos for his preaching (1:9). Most scholars believe that Revelation was written during the persecution of the later years of the reign of Domitian (AD 81-96), around AD 95.

Intended Readers

The seven churches mentioned in chapters 2 and 3 cluster around Ephesus, the chief city of Asia Minor, the traditional pastoral residence of John the Apostle later in his life (Eusebius, Church History 5.8.4). The book was no doubt intended to both warn and encourage these First Century readers. However, though conditions which characterized the last decade of the First Century AD are the focus of Revelation, the book has an important message for all believers who await the return of Christ.

Purpose and Theme

The purpose of the Revelation is to jolt those Christians who are compromising with idolatry out of their spiritual anesthesia so that they will perceive the spiritual danger they are in and repent (Beale). It is also designed to comfort and encourage the faithful, witnessing church in its struggle against the forces of evil. Assurance is given that: God sees their tears (7:17; 21:4); their prayers rule the world! (8:3-4); death ushers them into a glorious heaven (14:13; 20:4); their final victory is assured (15:2); their Christ lives and reigns forever, who governs the world in the interest of His church (5:7-8); and that He is coming again to take his people to Himself (chapters. 21-22).

The theme of the book is the victory of Christ and of His church over the dragon (Satan) and his helpers. The theme is stated in 17:14:

"They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with Him are called and chosen and faithful."

Structure

The book seems to be divided into seven sections which can easily be distinguished from each other.

  1. Christ in the midst of the Seven Golden Lampstands (chapters 1-3)
    a. Christ the eternal One (chapter 1) 
    b. Letters to the Seven Churches (chapters 2-3)
  2. The Scroll with the Seven Seals (chapters 4-7)
  3. The Seven Trumpets of Judgment (chapters 8-11)
  4. The Seven Mystic Figures (chapters 12-14)
  5. The Seven Bowls of Wrath and Judgment of Babylon (chapters 15-18)
  6. The Consummation (chapters 19-20)
  7. The New Heavens and the New Earth (chapters 21-22)

Two major divisions:

  • Chapters 1-11 The struggle on earth: The church persecuted by the world. The church is avenged, protected, and victorious.
  • Chapters 12-22 The deeper spiritual background: The Christ (and the church) persecuted by the dragon (Satan) and his helpers. Christ and His church are victorious.

Interpretation

Historically there have been four major divisions of interpretation (with many variations):

  1. The preterite--everything has already been fulfilled.
  2. The historical--the predictions are in the process of fulfillment.
  3. The futurist--all predictions are in the future.
  4. The spiritual--the events described are only symbols of spiritual realities and struggles, without any literal or historical application.

John was told, "Now write what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter" (1:19). After the letters to the seven churches he is told, "Come up hither, and I will show you what must take place after this" (4:1). As I consider the text, I find it necessary sometimes to hold the preterite view (this was fulfilled in the first century or shortly thereafter); sometimes the historical view (this was fulfilled in the middle ages, or is in the process of fulfillment); sometimes the futurist view (this is still yet to come); or perhaps even the spiritual view (that these events are symbols of spiritual realities and struggles).

Principles of Interpretation

  1. The Revelation is rooted in contemporaneous events and circumstances. Its symbols should be interpreted in light of the conditions which prevailed when the book was written.
  2. Revelation shares a characteristic of Bible prophets, in that contemporary historical events are seen as a type of, or a prelude to, the great Day of the Lord in the latter days. Often they do this without a chronological distinction between the two.
  3. John is an artist in words and symbols. We are to look for the meaning conveyed by each symbol in that symbol itself. It doesn't really matter whether or not the symbols can be visualized or reconciled.
  4. I hesitant to speculate which, if any, current events, nations, or political figures are referred to in Revelation. The history of interpretation is littered with hundreds of mistaken identities. Rather I am looking for the basic structure of events and principles of faith and action for Christians in the End Times.
  5. I am reluctant to superimpose upon Revelation a preconceived system of interpretation (that is, pre-, post-, a-millennial, or pre-, mid, or post-tribulation rapture). In this study we'll consider these various alternatives. The time to synthesize of the whole teaching of the Bible about the End Times is after we have carefully analyzed of each portion on its own terms.
  6. I see Revelation as not a simple chronology of events from chapters 4 through 22; rather as a series of visions which may parallel each other chronologically, but which emphasize different aspects of divine truth. This view is called "parallelism".
  7. I believe that we can learn much from Revelation, even though there are parts we do not understand. I consider myself a student of the book, not a master of it. I believe God will reveal some of the hidden parts of Revelation to Christians only when we need to know them. Until then, all our speculations are a waste of time and can get in the way of learning.

Leon Morris, RevelationReferences

I've used a number of Commentaries and Reference Books in preparing these lessons which are referred to by the author's last name or common abbreviations. You'll find these abbreviations online. http://www.jesuswalk.com/revelation/refs.htm

You might consider purchasing Leon Morris, The Revelation of St. John (Tyndale NT Commentaries; Eerdmans, 1969, revised 1987; ISBN 0802802737, paperback, 256 pages). It is inexpensive and readily available on the Internet and in some Christian book stores. Morris is helpful because he takes the text seriously and doesn't try to superimpose an artificial system of interpretation upon the text.

Translation

These lessons are based primarily on the Revised Standard Version (RSV) translation that I was using when I first wrote the study notes, though some portions of the notes include the New International Version (NIV). However, any modern study Bible should work well as you study Revelation, except a paraphrase, such as the Living Bible or The Message.

How This Study Works

We've tried to design this study of Revelation so you'll be able to grasp the real message of Revelation. Here's how you can get the most out of this study.

  1. Download and print out the charts. Then use them to take notes on as you read Revelation. They'll help you discern the structure of the book. http://www.jesuswalk.com/revelation/revelation_charts.zip
  2. Read the Book of Revelation several times, asking God to help you understand what you are reading. 
  3. Study notes and questions will be e-mailed to you each Saturday for eight weeks. Print them out and read very carefully the chapters assigned for that week. Look up the verses that interest you. Take notes on these sheets.
  4. Answer the Questions. Answer the questions numbered Q1, Q2, Q3, etc. If you signed up to receive the daily questions, these will be e-mailed to you on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc. This daily thinking on Revelation will keep your mind focused on this book and have a great cumulative impact on your life. Try to answer these questions in your own words. Don't just parrot back the words you find in the notes. Think this through for yourself. These questions are designed to help you apply the truths of Revelation to your own life and to your church.
  5. Post Your Answers on the Joyful Heart Bible Study Forum. This is an online Forum where you can read others' answers and post your own. The process of reflecting, writing, and reading their answers will help reinforce and ingrain these truths in your heart. http://www.joyfulheart.com/forums/index.php?c=7  You can find full instructions online explaining how to register and post your answers.  http://www.joyfulheart.com/forums/instructions.htm     

    As you can imagine, people have disagreements about the Book of Revelation. That's okay, but I expect each of us to scrupulously follow the Bible Study Forum Guidelines. http://www.jesuswalk.com/admin/pu_forum_guidelines.htm   Especially, let your words be flooded with love, not disputation. You are free to disagree with me and one another, but do so in love and tolerance toward one another. This is not a fight, but an extension of Christ's Church online. Our goal is to learn and grow in Christ's likeness.

    It's exciting to meet other people who are involved in this Bible study. Why don't you check in and share a bit about yourself, and what state and country you are from. Be discrete about sharing private things about yourself. http://www.joyfulheart.com/forums/index.php?act=ST&f=24&t=117

It is my prayer that as you study Revelation you continually call upon Jesus, who gave this vision (1:1-2), to show you how its message should affect your life and thinking. Mere knowledge is useless; knowledge that we absorb into our living and value system -- that knowledge is worth much.

Okay. It's time to dig in and study. You'll receive the first lesson on Saturday.


Prayer

Father, teach us together as we study this special, awesome, and unique portion of your Word. Change us a result. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

References and abbreviations and Reprint Guidelines

Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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