Revelation 0: Intro and Background
Before we begin studying the Book of Revelation there are a few important pieces we need to walk through. Some of them are important to read any book of Scripture (like author, audience and time period) but there are a few which are unique to Revelation.
Author: Who is this John who write the book of Revelation? Well the short answer is we’re not super sure. The earliest biblical commentators of the first few centuries always erred on the side of simplicity when ascribing authorship. That means the most books by the least number of figures. So for them this clearly means that John the Gospel writer, John the apostle, John the Elder (who wrote the 3 epistles) and John the Revelator are all one person. This makes for a neat answer but it doesn’t really line up with what we actually have.
First, all three of these sets of books Gospel, Epistles and Revelation, are addressed in a different way. The Gospel writer refers to himself in the third person, calling himself “the beloved disciple.” The epistle author seems to call himself “The Elder.” And the author of Revelation refers to himself by name “his servant John.”
We also have a writing style problem. While all three sets of books have overlapping images and words like “lamb” “light” and “darkness” Revelation completely loses the love language of the Gospel and epistles. There is also a technical style difference. The Gospel of John is some of the clearest simplest Greek in the New Testament. Its so easy some professors don’t want to use it to teach beginners because its so basic. The epistles are also fairly simple, technically solid Greek. Revelation’s Greek is a mess. The author was definitely a native Hebrew speaker and writer. Then he either learned Greek poorly and thus made lots of mistakes (like saying “They is” in English). Or he learned Greek very very well and made an intentional poetic choice to use Hebrew phrasings in the Greek to highlight his Old Testament images. Either way it is very very different from the other 4 books. So for our purposes we’re going to assume we have a distinct “John the Revelator” or “John of Patmos” who is familiar with or somehow related to the apostle/Gospel writer John but is not the same person.
Date: There are two fairly narrow windows which could be the time period for Revelation. Based on the cultural references, especially those around Rome and its emperors, we can get some fairly precise dating. John seems to assume that Nero is dead at the time of writing but still holds him as highly culturally significant which would put us around 70 AD. However, Nero was not a major proponent of the emperor worship to which Revelation is at least in part responding to. He also did little systematic persecution beyond the borders of the city of Rome. Our second window is right around 100 AD. In this case the author is making some allusions to Nero but mostly to link him to the emperor Domitian who did in fact demand emperor-worship which was the root of his persecution of Christians. The Domitian date seems more likely because of the intersection of the imperial cult and a widespread state sponsored persecution. So it was likely around 100 AD.
Audience: So who was John writing to? Well it was certainly Christians sometime around 100 AD. They had deep familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures and were suffering under Roman persecution. Though he cites 7 specific churches its likely his letter was meant to be circulated to any Christian who was being persecuted. Those 7 specific churches were evenly distributed along a major trade route, likely chosen as ideal sites for mass distribution.
Purpose: Revelation is ultimately about hope and faith in times of trial. John wrote to lift the spirits of Christians suffering under intense persecution, giving them a vision of God’s ultimate victory and rescue. This was to give them the strength to continue to resist Roman influence and idolatry even under threat of death.
Genre: Revelation is an Apocalypse (from the greek word Apocalupso which is the first word of the book) a specific mostly Jewish genre of book which literally means “Unveiling.” Apocalypse is similar to but ultimately different from prophecy. It is usually published under the name of a famous Jewish figure like Moses (though Revelation breaks this pattern). It talks about the world in terms of rich, vivid and sometimes seemingly contradictory images and symbols. References to the world around them and the Hebrew Scriptures fill small details with big significance. The closest modern parallel would be something like a political cartoon, where symbolism is drawn from current and past events to offer up some kind of insight. Apocalypses are usually focused around dualism, opposing pairs like good/evil, light/darkness. They often include messengers, angels, dreams and break the world down into a current and coming age.
So we have one more important question, the one which is unique to Revelation. Is Revelation about the past or the future? There are some strong arguments for each.
The Past: Revelation seems to mostly be about Roman persecution of Christianity during a very specific point in history. It references ancient emperors and uses a lot of imagery and symbols unique to the first 1st/2nd century Roman world. And in fact Rome has fallen since Revelation was written, seemingly fulfilling much of its words. Also, John was writing about a very urgent present situation. It seems strange if not cruel to tell people who are suffering deeply this very moment to “hold on because sometime thousands of years from now God will fix this.”
The Future: Well, Jesus hasn’t had a glorious second coming yet. We would probably have noticed. There also seem to be large portions of the story which haven’t quite come to a head yet. So it certainly seems that some if not all of this story have yet to play out.
There is also another way of reading Revelation, a view called Dispensationalism which situates us part of the way through the book of Revelation. Different passages correspond to different points in history, usually lined up around European history and the Catholic Church. So the book moves from the past and is heading towards the future.
Well, many of you have spent enough time in Colby-style youth lessons by now to know that when I present you with an A or B (or C) question the answer is probably “both and neither.” Revelation is simultaneously about the past, the present and the future together. Revelation is a historically rooted book which conveys its meaning through first century and ancient Hebrew imagery. It was written to a group of Christians in the past and had a specific real meaning for them. Revelation is also a book about the future. It is about God’s final victory and the restoration of the whole creation, something which we have not yet seen but never quit awaiting.
But the place where Revelation really hit us is here in the present. Revelation is an unveiling. It is God peeling back the curtain and showing us the way things are right now. The patterns of powers and empires, good and evil and ages and martyrs and the suffering of those who carry their cross and challenge this world, all of those things are just as true today as they were in 100 AD. So we will use the historic images to help us understand and we will chart our course by a future resolution but ultimately Revelation is a book about living faithfully in the world the way it really is.