The Book of the Revelation was written around 96AD by the apostle John on the Island of Patmos, not far from Ephesus in the then Roman Province of Asia.
The reason for writing was to encourage the seven churches in that province in the face of cruel persecution by the Roman authorities who were forcing all citizens to swear loyalty to the Empire by publicly affirming that Caesar, in this case Domitian, was a god. The penalty for refusal was death.
The book really is a letter to be read out in the seven churches and includes a short letter to each of the churches dealing with their particular problems. It is, by definition, a pastoral letter, not some puzzle book offering secret insights into various future events.
It is best known for the fantastic imagery, the strange use of numbers and various multiples of them, as a means of conveying its message.
The first point to make is that these images are not to be taken literally. They are a kind of security code for other things that the readers understood but which outsiders could not.
The task of the reader is to understand the reality behind the images.
Much of the imagery is taken from the Old Testament. Some of the rest is able to be understood with a little cross referencing. The meaning of some of what is left has been lost and we just have accept that. That is not a serious problem because no vital doctrine or message is lost by our not knowing what all the images mean. Often similar points are made by using other images from other parts of the letter or elsewhere in the Bible.
Another important principle of interpretation is to see that the main burden of this letter is about the past, namely Christ’s victory over evil in his death and resurrection, and that he is ruling in honour and glory in heaven now. The titles, The Lamb that was Slain and The Lion of Judah of the Root of David, encapsulates this reality.
The letter is about the pastoral and personal challenges facing the members of the seven churches, mostly from the threat of persecution. That is to say, it is more concerned about helping the readers cope with their troubles than revealing to curious readers, far removed from their predicament, secrets about when and how the world will end.
There are of course several references to the return of Christ to judge the world, to put down evil once and for all and to elevate his faithful people to the place of honour around the throne of God and of the Lamb. These promises are also clothed in dramatic imagery, most of which can be worked out. Their meanings accord with other parts of the New Testament.
An important feature of The Revelation is the way it is structured. For example:
Chapters 1 – 3 contain a fearsome vision of Christ, and a about their various letter to each of the seven churches problems.
Chapters 4 – 5 contain a vision of heaven, focusing in turn on God as creator, and on Jesus as saviour, portrayed as the one who was slain and now lives and as the Lion of Judah, the long promised king who rules the world.
Chapters 6 – 7 speaks of the Seven Seals, depicting the war upon people.
Chapters 7 – 11 speaks of Seven Trumpets, depicting chaos in creation.
Chapters 12 – 14 speaks of Seven Signs of persecution of the people of the Lamb.
Chapters 15 – 16 speaks of seven plagues depicting destruction of the cosmos.
Chapters 17 – 20 speaks of the destruction of Babylon (ancient Rome), the Beast, false prophet and the Dragon.
It is very important to understand these events are not one after another but concurrent. In other words, they depict events that have been occurring in one way or another ever since the fall in Genesis 3 and will continue up until when Christ returns.
It is this realization which makes The Revelation so relevant to us today. Christians of every age have had to deal with satanic opposition and with the inherent physical weaknesses of this fallen world. We need to know that the return of Jesus will bring all this to an end.
Chapters 21 – 22 speaks of the new age of peace and tranquility which Christians will enjoy when our Lord returns. They are depicted as the New Jerusalem coming out from God.
Bishop Paul Barnett has written a brilliant book called Revelation Apocalypse Now and Then. He gives the key points to understanding this wonderful book as follows:
- Recognise its pastoral intention to encourage believers to keep following the Lamb.
- Acknowledge that John has intimate knowledge of the churches and their cities.
- The ability to decode the symbols of the book – numbers, colours and animals.
- The cycle (war, chaos, persecution) each depict the 1,000 years, [the period between Christ’s earthly life and his return] concluding with his people triumphant in heaven.
- The letter combines the Preterist (present), fururist (future) and Historicist (past).
QUESTIONS FOR GROWTH GROUP DISCUSSION
- Looking at what is said about Jesus in Chapter 1, and comparing it to what is written in Daniel 7:9-14 for the Jews suffering in exile, what promises are available to us that surpass what the exiles had in their day?
- When looking at the description of Jesus in the vision in 1:12 to 16, what meaning do you think would be conveyed to the members of the seven churches as they heard it read to them?
- The churches who received the Revelation were experiencing persecution. Observing how things are going in our day, what kinds of suffering do you think Christians in Australia could be called upon to experience in the coming years?
- How might we prepare for times of trial?