Revelation Overview

In this introduction to a study of the Book of Revelation, the author clarifies common misconceptions, emphasizes the importance of accurate terminology, and lays out historical context. The text outlines the Apostle John as its unanimously agreed early author, with arguments against this coming later. The preferred date for its writing is around AD 95 or 96, under Emperor Domitian’s rule. The book is presented as apocalyptic literature, unique in the New Testament. The author insists on a grammatical-historical interpretation while acknowledging the difficulties and potential pitfalls therein and introduces tools that will aid in the study. The session concludes with an overview of the introductory structure of Revelation, indicating future detailed exploration.

Well!  Here we are at last, the final book in Scripture!  As believers that are serious in our pursuit of holiness in our walks with Christ, we’ve probably been warned about this book.  It’s really dark!  Bad things happen!  It says hard things!  No one can understand it!  Therefore, in their thinking, you shouldn’t read it, and you CERTAINLY shouldn’t teach it, Gerry!  You’ll be wrong!  People will think you’re crazy!  All I can say is that they’re the crazy ones for not being excited about studying the will of God in the whole counsel of Scripture, but I’m not going to start arguments.  And I’ll probably manage that anyway, because there are many ways of understanding this, and more than one makes some sense.

As we begin, I want to get one thing straight.  The name of the book is “The Revelation, or Revelation, not “revelations.”  That’s a pet peeve I have, and further, I think that people who consistently call it “revelations” haven’t put in the required effort to do more than read the book.  Chuck Missler went so far as to call this kind of Bible teacher “uneducated,” although I wouldn’t go that far.  So please be careful when citing references.  In fact, Revelation is not the actual title of the Book, nor is the incorrect Revelation of John.  John was the recorder.  The one doing the revealing was Jesus Christ Himself.  John tells us in the very first verse of the book that it is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.”  Please be an educated reader.

With that out of the way, this book is the only book in Scripture that pronounces a special blessing on its reader just for reading it!  The Lord intended that the book be read and understood, and even went so far as to tell John to write seven copies of the letter to send to the seven churches of Asia Minor, all located in the present-day nation of Turkey.  After the third chapter, however, things move location, and interestingly, the word “church” is not mentioned again.  After that, it is called “bride,” and that has some inclusions not available at present.

The book itself is what is called in theological terms “apocalyptic literature.”  There are more biblical sources called apocalyptic in the Old Testament.  Examples include but are not limited to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel especially, some of the minor prophets, some of the Psalms, like that.  Having said that, it is the only apocalyptic book in the New Testament.  I know a number of theologians that don’t agree with my assessment, but I think that Revelation is the prophetic section of the New Testament.  What I find particularly fascinating is that it’s mostly dealing with Old Testament prophecy, but we will talk about that as we get into the book, probably after about chapter 5.

There are always some things we want to know to put the book itself into historical context, which is important to know when deciphering what it says, so buckle up, we are going for a bit of a ride!

The first of those is who wrote it, and there is some debate about it, though I personally think it is easily resolved, so we will do so right away.  The author identifies himself four times in the text itself, and he calls himself John.  The early church (until the third century at any rate) UNANIMOUSLY agreed it was John the son of Zebedee, the beloved disciple, the Apostle John himself, and the same guy that wrote the letters and the gospel that bears his name.  Doctor John MacArthur goes through all of the first and second century proofs for this in his New Testament Commentary on Revelation, naming sources whose names we have become familiar with over the course of our studies.  Those include in no particular order, Justin Martyr (AD 135ish); a heretic Gnostic source called the Apocryphon of John (AD 100-150ish) which cites the author of Revelation as the Brother of James and son of Zebedee; Irenaeus in his work Against Heresies, particularly in 4.20.11; Clement of Alexandria; Tertullian; and Origen.  Doctor MacArthur goes on to state that such strong commentary early on affirms that John the Apostle is in fact the writer of the book.  He goes on to point out that it was not until the end of the second century that Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, seriously challenged the authenticity of the Apostle John’s authorship of Revelation.  Dionysius it seems was not a supporter of a literal 1000-year kingdom of Christ on earth.  For the life of me I cannot see how that adds to his argument since he accepted Revelation as canon, but maybe it was simply about what we have come to see over time ourselves.  Authorship is always an area of attack because it can weaken the authority of the work, and if it doesn’t cause the text to be disregarded as a source of truth, it perhaps then can water down the rest of it so it is easier to twist.  His argument is that there were two men named John in Ephesus at the time the book was written, the second being John the Elder.  There are even two monuments that bear the name John in the ruins in Ephesus, I am told.  These are the very same arguments used to attack John’s authorship today.  Also opposing John’s authorship was Eusebius, who attributed his own information to Papias, but that quote of Papias is confusing, and may not be saying what Eusebius wants it to say.

I personally hold that it was the Apostle John, and I base it on all the church fathers that claim the Apostle as the author.  Some have said, (and Dionysius started this) that the differences in the word usage is the key when they argue for a second author named John.  My response is the same as it was for Paul’s pastoral epistles.  The subject matter is different and therefore requires different words.  Even if there was a second man named John the Elder, none of the arguments prove that he was the author or disprove that the Apostle wasn’t the source.  Difference in word use aside, there is much similarity in writing style, and that to me is far more important in author identification.  As you know, I write a great deal on a weekly basis.  I use different vocabulary when writing about political news than I do writing about biology, and my vocabulary choices for that AND for theology are larger than for that, and I have written many articles and papers on all of those subjects.  I personally understand that different topics use different words.  If you were to read my undergraduate thesis for example, you would not recognize some of the terms I used, but you would still know I wrote it from the style of writing, even over time.  Though my style has evolved, you can still recognize something I wrote over 30 years ago.  If you were to compare it to my writings today, you would see that although my style has evolved a fair bit, my writing basics have not changed.  I won’t get into boring detail here, but there are metrics that one can use comparatively for this purpose, and by those metrics, it is my firm opinion that John the Apostle would be found to author everything the bears his name in Scripture, but even if it does not, that does not matter in the least, so the argument is moot anyways.  The REAL author is the Lord Jesus Christ who dictated the work to John.

The next piece of historical data we always want to look at is the approximate date that the work was produced.  With Revelation, as you would expect, there is a debate.  The first option is about AD 68 during the reign of Nero, and the second option is about AD 96 under the reign of Domitian.  Most of the people that select the earlier date are those who are known as “preterists.”  Again there are two versions of that, partial Preterism that states that most of the prophecy in this book occurred before AD 70 and the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, and full Preterism which holds that ALL of it was completed by then.  The latter of these is heretical because it denies the second coming of Christ and the resurrection from the dead, and that would include Christ’s resurrection.  That’s a logical fallacy, by the way, because it requires what is known as a priori reasoning of demonstrably false assumptions in Scripture.  Something a priori isn’t necessarily false.  A tautology that is well known today requires a priori reasoning.  Philosopher Rene Descartes said it:  “I think, therefore I am.”  You can put this another way and it is still true.  You must exist to think, therefore, the fact that you are thinking means you exist.  That’s an example for you.  What Hymenaeus (of Hymenaeus and Alexander fame) did here is different.  He held and taught that the Second coming of Christ, the Resurrection from the dead, and the Eternal State all happened before AD 70.  I don’t want to call him a moron here, but it seems to me that it is self-evident that at least some of that has not yet come to pass (actually none of it has).  Paul refutes this in his second letter to the Thessalonians, particularly in 2:1-6, which reads:  “Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things?”  My point here is that the Apostle Paul refutes this IN SCRIPTURE, so anything else the full Preterist says may safely be ignored.  Doctor MacArthur also affirms that there is no real evidence for the Neronian date in his commentary.  Besides this, there was no real Roman persecution of the church yet, or maybe it was so new it was not yet universally enforced because orders like that take time to travel to the regions in question.

All of that leaves us with the date of AD 95 or 96, when Domitian was Caesar, and believed himself to be a god.  That places the Apostle John on the isle of Patmos, right where the writer tells us he is when the book narrative begins.  This is the prevailing view of the early church, though all the sources we’ve named before.  Irenaeus can be quoted here from Against Heresies:  “For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign…” (5.30.3)  That would be difficult to explain with all of the other similar strong testimony if Revelation was written in the time of Nero.

Another argument in favour of this later date was the condition of the churches of chapters 2 and 3 of the book.  Ephesians, Colossians, and both 1 and 2 Timothy tell us that Ephesus was very healthy in the days those letters were written, and they were all written in the mid-60s.  People seem to miss that one, and we must not as biblical scholars if we want to be consistent.  The Nicolaitans were never mentioned by Paul.  Laodicea suffered an earthquake around AD 60 and Nero spent the rest of his reign rebuilding it.  It could hardly be considered rich by the standards of Rev. 3.  Smyrna wasn’t founded until after Paul’s death (about AD 67).  John didn’t leave Israel until between AD 66 and 70, and there isn’t any reasonable way it could have reached the proportions it had so that Rome had to exile him in Nero’s day.  Like that.

The next thing that we need to pay attention to are difficulties in interpreting the text itself.  I think there will be more than a few, which is why I will be taking it slow here.  There are a number of ways that we can try to understand the story in context, and all of them have difficulty in my thinking.  The first of these we have already referred to as Preterism, and I can’t seriously entertain that.  I know for a time Dr. R. C. Sproul flirted with partial Preterism.  My brain just cannot go there for reasons I will explain in a bit.  Full Preterism is heretical, and that cannot be right.  Revelation 19 is clearly written in the future, and it is obvious from the text itself.  There has been no persecution as horrific as those recorded in chapters 6-18.  It just doesn’t fit.

Another of these is the historicist view, where one must view this as a historical sweep into the future and try to match things with specific historical events by, get this, allegorizing the text.  The coming of the barbarian hordes, the fall of Rome, the rise of the Roman Catholic church, the advent of Islam, and even the French Revolution have been points people have tried to read into the text, and therein is the problem.  That’s “reading into the text,” also known as eisegesis.  That is something we must NEVER do, because that gives rise to all kind of Scripture twisting to say the least, and to critical misunderstandings of the text as basic levels.

Another is the idealist view, where we must view this through the timeless lens of good versus evil.  That means this isn’t historical record or predictions of the future, but instead is a collection of spiritual poetry to convey spiritual truth that is divorced from reality entirely.  That can’t be right.  Revelation is not a book of fables, Beloved!

The last one we will consider is the view know as the futurist.  This would “force” us to interpret Revelation in the literal, grammatical-historical, hermeneutical method which non-prophetic portions of Scripture are interpreted.  Gee, that sounds about right.  The problem here is that clearly some of the text is written in allegory!  No, Revelation is not just poetry–but it does contain some poetry!  This is most like what we will use as an interpretive method, because much of the book is still in the future.  This is the only one that allows us to use proper interpretive methods that consider history, grammar, the language itself, and the science of interpretation (hermeneutics) itself.  That’s the one we will use, understanding there are still pitfalls to avoid, but because we have been doing this for a while, we are experienced in handling them.

The book also gives its own outline in 1:19:  “Therefore write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things.” 

I broke the book down like this:

KV19:  The Revelation of Jesus Christ

1:1-20:  The Things Which You Have Seen

2:1-3:22:  The Things Which Are

4:1-22:21:  The Things Which Will Take Place Hereafter

Rather than going into detail here, I would like to take a few minutes on some things that are useful to us as students of the word here that might help us keep things straight as we go.  You are no doubt aware of all of the books that have been written about Revelation, and there are more all the time.  There is no way I could survey them all, and I’m not even going to try because I would never get any rest, and I need it desperately, as you know, with all my health issues.

The first of those is this diagram, which I gained from an old Chuck Missler tape and reproduced for my own use.

A diagram of a diagram

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This is a diagram that explains in a useful way how hermeneutics works.  In things that will come up in eschatological studies like Revelation, it’s a winner.  For the record, I am a classic Premillennial, and I waffle between a pre- and mid-tribulation harpazo event, and I’m not even sure of that.  There is a lot of room as to how to interpret this and I know actual good theologians in all of these camps.  I am not officially dispensational, which is a special subdivision of Premillennial, but I guess I’m dispensational-adjacent.  That’s a little joke for those who know, and accurate for those who don’t.  This is stuff you have to keep in the back of your mind as we go through the book.  It is okay if you don’t share my conclusions, but I’m going to ask you NOT to interrupt with your own hermeneutics, it disturbs the flow.  We can chat after if you must.

The next is a spreadsheet of some variety.  I use MS Office, so Excel is my choice, but Google Docs is a good free one that you can even use online. From your google drive or save to your computer.  I’ll say more about this when I get to chapter 2, because that’s where we want to keep track of things with a spreadsheet.

Another thing is a good word processing package to keep notes if you can.  I use MS Word, but Google docs is a good online and free one.  You can even use that from a phone over the church network or anywhere if you don’t mind using cell data on it.  It doesn’t take a lot unless you’re me.

Another though is that you should use a good literal translation.  I prefer formal equivalence translations because I read a little Koine Greek, and I can translate a little myself.  The NASB, the ESV, the KJV or one of the more modern versions of the KJV are all good, and there are others.  NIV is okay, but it introduces something called Dynamic equivalence, which is also known as thought-for-thought translation, and that begins to insert hermeneutics where we really should not.  Be advised that I will reference the Greek text as I need to for this, and I am not a KJV-Onlyist, so I will not be using the Byzantine text base as a rule.  When the KJV text was first translated, there was no extant Greek text for the book of Revelation, and whatever you may think of John Nelson Darby, his translation of Revelation is very good, because by then they had full texts of the book in Koine Greek that dated into at least the 2nd and 3rd centuries.  If I sound like I’m speaking in tongues, I’m not, I think this is important.  Comment below if you want an explanation of what I said.

With all of that said, I think that’s enough for the evening.  Next time, which all things proceeding normally, should be next Thursday, we will look at Revelation 1:1-8. 

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