Introductory Notes

INTRODUCTORY NOTES ON REVELATION

© Rosemary Bardsley 2015

Author: The consensus of historical and current opinion is that the writer of Revelation is John, the disciple of Jesus Christ, and the writer of the Gospel and Letters of John.

Date: Two dates are proposed: [1] during the persecution under the Roman Emperor Nero [A.D. 60s] or during the persecution under Domitian [A.D. 90s], with the latter date more strongly supported.

Occasion: As inferred by the dating, the occasion of writing was the intense persecution being experienced by Christians. [At the time of writing, John was exiled, because of his Christian witness, on the island of Patmos, which is in the Aegean Sea, off the western coast of the Roman province of ‘Asia’ – which is now part of Turkey.] When we study the letters to these seven churches we will find that they were also being attacked at a doctrinal/belief level from within by the presence of false teaching, and the associated corruption of ethics and morals. Indeed these pressures are just as much part of the on-going ‘battle’ as direct physical persecution.

Source: As we will discover when we study Revelation 1:1-2 God is the source of the content of this book. God gave it to Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ made it known to John via an ‘angel’.

Genre: For the most part this book contains what is known as ‘apocalyptic’ writing. Two key features of this kind of writing are (1) visions and (2) the use of symbols (sometimes quite strange) to communicate truth. The word ‘apocalyptic’ is derived from the Greek apokalupsis which refers to a revealing, uncovering or disclosure. Hence the title of the book ‘Revelation’ and the statement in 1:1 ‘The revelation (apokalupsis) of Jesus Christ …’. By its self-introduction it is clear that this book was never meant to hide or confuse the truth, as it does for so many Christians, but to uncover the truth, to reveal the truth.

Cautionary notes:
[1] Although Revelation is written with some of the features of apocalyptic writing scholars suggest that we should not see it as typical of that genre. There are aspects of non-biblical apocalyptic writings that are quite different from Revelation: they are pessimistic – Revelation is optimistic. Their authors are pseudonyms – Revelation’s author is not. They look forward to a Messiah who has not yet come – Revelation speaks of a Saviour who has already come and conquered. They are not concerned with moral/ethical questions - Revelation imposes a high standard.

[2] When looking at the symbols it is important to realise that often the physical details of the symbols appear contradictory. For example both ‘darkness’ and ‘fire’ are used to refer to the same dread reality. But darkness and fire are mutually exclusive. These symbols are not contradictory; rather they are two different ways of communicating the horror of the one reality. For another example, in chapter one, Jesus, in John’s vision, holds the angels (‘stars’) of the seven churches in his right hand, yet he also reaches out and touches John with his right hand.. John does not intend that we should give every detail of a symbol a unique, specific meaning, or try to work out how the symbols can physically fit together; nor does he intend that a particular symbol is always understood in the same way. The important thing is the truth that he is communicating by the symbols in the individual vision in which they occur.

[3] As well as the obvious ‘apocalyptic’ style of this book, we also find here letters, history and prediction, sometimes written with heavily apocalyptic elements. Revelation contains a large amount of what could be called ‘present history’ and ‘future history’. Because events were revealed to him in visions they appeared to him as already accomplished or in the process of being accomplished – as history, as fact. However, in terms of linear human history some, but not many, of these events are as yet future, not yet accomplished.

Original readers: The book is addressed to the seven churches listed in 1:11 and chapters 2 and 3. These churches were all in a limited area to the north and north east of Ephesus, in what was then known as the province of ‘Asia’. [The west of what we know as Turkey.] They were, in fact, not very far from Patmos, where John was in exile. But it was not intended for these seven churches only, as we will see when we study the book. It had immediate and significant relevance for all Christians at the time it was written; they, not only those in those seven churches, were living under the threat of persecution and death. They also were struggling to hold to the truth and refuse to be influenced by deviant teaching and corrupted by lax morals. It has continuing and significant relevance for Christians in all ages, and especially for those who are living under similar persecution and threat of death, and under the corrupting influence of false teaching and an immoral culture.

Purpose: The first verse states the purpose of this ‘revelation’ – ‘to show his servants what must soon take place’. This is repeated in 22:6. The meaning of ‘soon’ is debated; we will look at this when we study these verses. Given the fact that Christians were suffering because of severe persecution and deceptive teaching the book has an obvious intention to encourage persistence in confident faith. It was not meant as a riddle or puzzle that had to be solved, but as a ‘revelation’ that would positively impact the suffering and struggling Christians who first heard it read, and for all who follow in all subsequent generations. To interpret this book in such a way that it has relevance only for Christians of later generations is to compromise its message and its purpose. It certainly was not written so that anyone, then or now, could by a time-specific, and therefore limited, application of its symbolism identify either the time of the return of Christ and the final judgment, or any human characters involved.

Controversies: The study and interpretation of the book of Revelation is characterised by controversy, sometimes, and in some places, quite heated controversy. Interpretations differ incredibly. It is therefore with some caution and hesitation that I present these studies. That some will disagree with them is unavoidable! I would, however, state that the major controversies concerning this book arise from differing interpretations of Revelation 20:1-10. It is unfortunate, therefore, that these controversies are permitted to colour and flavour the whole book, and to determine one’s approach to the whole book. It is also regrettable that the existence and heat of these controversies has deterred probably countless Christians from reading and studying this book. There is so much in Revelation that is clear, powerful and empowering, regardless of how one understands those ten verses. We should not deprive ourselves of its glorious truth because others are at loggerheads over it.

The use of numbers in Revelation: As we begin to read Revelation it very quickly becomes obvious that there is a heavy and pervasive reference to numbers in this book. The question arises: Does John intend us to take these numbers as precise, literal numbers, or as symbolic numbers, or sometimes one, sometimes the other, or both at the same time? And how are we supposed to know which or when? Do the numbers he uses have specific meaning to the first century middle-eastern mind that is not immediately obvious to the modern reader? This kind of discussion can get way out of hand, indeed has obviously done so in many instances. From a small number of conservative evangelical and reformed scholars I have identified the following commonly accepted meanings of the most significant numbers used in Revelation:

Seven – the number of perfection.
Ten – the number of completeness.
Twelve – the number of the tribes of Israel, and the number of Christ’s disciples/apostles.

These numbers, and/or multiples, squares or cubes of these numbers, feature in Revelation. Of them all, seven is the most frequently used. It dominates the book.

Guiding principles: The underlying and guiding principles and perspectives within which these studies on Revelation are written are as follows:

  1. That the significance of Revelation for its original readers must also be its significance for us today. God’s word, like God himself, is absolute and eternal. Any interpretation that would have been meaningless and useless to the original readers is to be avoided.
  2. That where Revelation is clearly using the apocalyptic literary style [e.g. using symbolic images] it is contrary to the nature and intention of this genre to interpret these symbols in a way that is commonly termed ‘literally’ or ‘literal’; that is, as non-symbolic. A ‘literal’ interpretation does not honour the built-in intention of the apocalyptic literary style.
  3. That the symbols in Revelation must never be interpreted in a way that overrides and re-interprets truths taught elsewhere in the Scripture in clear, non-symbolic, language. Rather, truths clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture should be used to clarify the meaning of the symbols, including numeric symbols.
  4. That God’s intention in Revelation is to reveal not to confuse or hide his truth.
  5. That Revelation assumes, and is grounded in, both Old Testament truth and the New Testament Gospel.
  6. That Revelation, at the bottom line, is about Jesus Christ – his person and his work. He, Jesus Christ, is the centre of all Scripture, and he, Jesus Christ, is the goal of all Scripture. He is the eschatos – the last. Because of this, these studies endeavour to interpret Revelation in such a way that the focus and the fulfilment of God’s purposes of which it speaks remain firmly fixed in Jesus Christ, and not on anything beside or beyond Jesus Christ.