An introduction to the book of Revelation

The revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, whatever he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear the words of this prophecy and keep what is written in it, because the time is near.

-Revelation 1:1-3

Here are some things to consider, about the book of Revelation.

Revelation is an epistle, a letter to Christians living at the time of it’s writing.  Just like reading and studying the other New Testament letters, we understand that they were first written to believers at that time and secondly are for later believers.

Revelation is written in an apocalyptic style.  The word revelation is from the Greek word Apokalupsis.  Apocalyptic means a disclosure of the other-worldly, the unseen.  The genre of  apocalyptic writing also is highly symbolic.  The message of revelation is told mostly in a symbolic, apocalyptic, way.  Jesus’ Olivet discourse (Matthew 24:1 – 25:46, Mark 13:1-37, and Luke 21:5-36) is also written in the apocalyptic style.

The purpose for or problem solved by this letter, written to seven churches and applicable to every generation since, is to give comfort in times of suffering.  The people whom Revelation is meant to minister to are believers who need comforting in a world where it looks like there is no hope.  The big idea of the book is, “God is in control, ruling, and comforting his children”.

Revelation as a book, is a prophecy; like the Old Testament books of Daniel and Zechariah, came to John in a series of visions.  We know that the purpose of prophecy is to encourage, edify and comfort believers.

There are four ways to interpret Revelation and you don’t have to interpret the whole book one way.

1. Preterist

The book is understood as having happened or being fulfilled in the first century.  The partial preterist view is that part of Revelation has been fulfilled.

2. Historical

Revelation presents the times from the first century to the end.

3. Idealist

Revelation is understood as a philosophy of history and is above time.

4. Futurist

Revelation is mostly about the future.  There has been throughout most of church history, a moderate futurist view, which sees the book of Revelation best understood from what it meant to its first hearers and seeing the seven letters applicable to any post first century church.  And the moderate futurist view sees God’s people as the church and not the nation of the Jews.  Moderate futurism also teaches that the church will go through tribulation, and be saved by God; and that the Temple will not be rebuilt, nor will God deal with Israel as a nation.  Through the 2,000 years of church history, this has been the view most held.

The dispensationalism futurist view sees Revelation as a template for the future. The seven letters are believed to be seven time periods of the church age.  Dispensationalism teaches that there will be a seven year tribulation before which, Christians will be raptured, disappeared.  Dispensationalism teaches that God will also deal with the nation of Israel, in judgement while offering salvation.  And the Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem.  Jesus will come again as the book finishes.  Despite it’s popularity, especially in American Evangelicalism, dispensationalism is not the majority view world-wide and across the spectrum of the church; and not at all the view of historic Christianity over the past 2,000 years; being only about 200 years old.

Futurists divide into camps about when the rapture will occur: pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, or post tribulation

The millennium

It is worth noting that there are three views on what is called “the millennium”, which is a symbolic or literal thousand year period mentioned only in Revelation 20:4 & 6.  These three views are the amillennial view that says the thousand years is a symbolic number meaning a long time, for the church age.  The postmillennial viewpoint teaches that there is a time period, perhaps literally 1000 years, perhaps figuratively long, when there will be a ‘golden age’ of prosperity and dominance of Christianity, before the second coming of Christ.  Postmillennialism teaches that the binding of Satan happens in a special time for the spread of the gospel, whereas amillennialism teaches that Jesus bound Satan at the cross.  The premillennial teaching is that the second coming of Christ comes before a literal 1000 year millennium.

The purpose of the book of Revelation is to comfort God’s people.  This is the message.

When was Revelation written?

Was Revelation written during Nero’s reign (54-69 AD), or after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, or as late as 96 AD?    Futurists seem to need the later date, so that the prophecies are seen to not be about the fall of Jerusalem.  And preterists seem to need to have Revelation written before Jerusalem’s fall, so as to see the book foretelling that event.

But whether or not the book was written before or after 70 AD and the fall of Jerusalem, it can still be seen as written against Rome and anti-Christian Roman culture.  If the book was written before 70 AD, that does not have to mean that it was written foretelling the calamity coming upon the Jews and Jerusalem.  But if you do believe that the events prophesied include the decimation of Jerusalem, then you would need to argue that Revelation was written before 70 AD.

The ‘popular view’ today, especially in American Evangelicalism, is the later date and that Revelation is not about and can not have been written before 70 AD.  Although there are arguments for this, these arguments must be believed to hold the futurist, dispensational viewpoint (it seems to me).  Because if we just use common sense and let scripture interpret scripture, and especially if we set aside Darbyism; in other words, if we hold off on imposing the interpretive grid of dispensationalism onto the scriptures and just let the scriptures speak to us (scripture interpreting scripture), and listen to what John is saying with a mind to his original audience in the first century, we can begin to understand this book for today.

Here are some pretty strong arguments for the earlier date of Revelation:

-The temple in Jerusalem seems to still be standing when Revelation was written:

Then I was given a measuring reed like a rod, with these words: “Go and measure the temple of God and the altar, and count those who worship there.  But exclude the courtyard outside the temple. Don’t measure it, because it is given to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months. 

-Revelation 11:1-2

But, was this picture symbolic; and perhaps a future temple like how Ezekiel saw a future temple?

-James and Peter, who both died prior of AD 70 seem to have referred to things John wrote in Revelation:

Blessed is the one who endures trials, because when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

-James 1:12

Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. Look, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you, and you will experience affliction for ten days. Be faithful to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.

-Revelation 2:10

But based on his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

-2 Peter 3:13

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 

-Revelation 21:1

Is Revelation non-linear?

  • Revelation might be telling the same story perhaps seven times.  Imagine having the same dream seven different nights in seven different ways.  What if Revelation is not linear and is not consecutive, but has a time-line that jumps backwards and forwards really all over the place to tell a story?  What if Revelation contains a series of visions that overlap a lot and are the same story told over and over?

The revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, whatever he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear the words of this prophecy and keep what is written in it, because the time is near.

-Revelation 1:1-3

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Bibliography / *for further study

Beasley-Murray, Hobbs, George, and Robbins; Revelation Three Viewpoints

*Clouse, Robert G., Editor; Boettner, Hoekema, Hoyt, and Ladd; The meaning of the Millennium: Four Views

*Gregg, Steve; Revelation Four Views

Griffin, Winn; God’s Epic Adventure

Grudem, Wayne; Systematic Theology

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