Basic Facts from… The REVELATION (Part 1)

Basic Facts from… The REVELATION (Part 1)

There is only one “revelation” – this letter’s proper “title” appears in its first sentence:

“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants– things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John,” (Revelation 1:1).

This means the last book of the bible is “the” revelation, NOT “revelations.” The inspired penman is John the apostle, and this letter dates from about 96 A.D. (some biblical scholars connect it to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and the early Christian historian Justin Martyr dated it at 150 A.D.). Although Nero persecuted Christians in and around Rome during the mid- to late 60’s, that persecution did not affect most other Christians spread throughout the Roman Empire. During the reigns of Domitian and Trajan (in the 90’s), persecution spread throughout much of the empire, including to the region of Asia Minor, and it appears that the apostle John was exiled from Ephesus to the island of Patmos during this time.

The Revelation depicts the ultimate victory of Christ and His church over Satan, and this theme is emphasized and repeated throughout the letter (Revelation 1:18; 2:3; 6:2; 11:15; 12:9; 14:2; 15:2; 19:16; 20:4; and 22:3). Most modern readers find the Revelation hard to understand because it is written in a literary style almost unknown today – apocalyptic literature (the Greek word apocalupsis in vs. 1 means “to reveal” or “to uncover”). The language of Revelation seems cryptic and difficult because it is symbolic rather than literal; by presenting a message as a “dream” or vision, the writer gives the impression that it belongs to some “later time” rather than his own era. Apocalyptic literature combines parts of an epistle/letter with elements of prophecy to produce a message that is expressed mainly through figures or symbols.

Apocalyptic literature is almost uniquely a product of times of persecution or intense oppression. Books like the revelation point the reader toward the future by using figures or symbols instead of plain language (Ezekiel, Daniel, and parts of Zechariah in the old testament are also written in this style). This type of literature was very familiar to most first-century Jews and Christians, and there were many secular books of this type written between about 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. (Those are not part of the bible, but were mainly written to teach moral lessons, and they share characteristics that are also found in the Revelation).

Symbolic books like the revelation do not repeat messages that had previously been presented orally, and the instruction John received in Revelation 1:19 reinforces this point (“Write the things you have seen…”). The images in apocalyptic writings are often fantastic, and many of them do not actually exist in the real world (although they may be composites of ordinary things, such as a beast with multiple heads). Apocalyptic books/tracts were intended as literature, so they follow a very formal and stylized format, which divides time and events into separate “packages,” and these often include a heavy symbolic use of numbers. The end result generally presents its visions/dreams in carefully-arranged, numbered groups.

John’s writing possesses all of these qualities except that its author is plainly named. What he wrote is clearly addressed to the church, and presents a message from God that spoke to the harsh circumstances Christians faced at the end of the first century. Its basic purpose was (and is) to comfort persecuted Christians.


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