Author: St. John, Son of Zebedee

Date Written: c. 68-100 AD


St. John wrote this apocalyptic book to relate a vision he had while exiled on the Isle of Patmos.  This book must be read in the context of apocalyptic literature, especially Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah.  Revelation predicts cataclysmic events using complicated symbolic language.


The book is in letter format and is intended to be read aloud in the Christian liturgy (cf. 1:3).  Revelation begins with a short explanation (1:1-8), an introductory vision of Jesus (1:9-20) and letters to seven churches (2:1-3:22).  John relates a detailed vision of worship in heaven (4-5).  Then he presents three series God's judgments on the earth: the seven seals (6:1-8:5), the seven trumpets (8:6-11:19) and the seven bowls (15-16).  John has a vision of a woman clothed with the sun (12), which the church has traditionally understood as Mary.  We also find a description of the "Whore of Babylon" and her fall (17-19).  Finally, Jesus returns and the wedding feast of the Lamb occurs with a new heaven, new earth and new Jerusalem (19-22).


Though the book is very complex, there are a few keys to interpret its symbols.  First, John is writing at a time of persecution, evident from the letters (cf. 2:13), so he wants to warn and encourage Christians.  Second, he is writing in the context of the Roman empire to a religious movement the government considers subversive.  He uses code language in case the book falls into the wrong hands and many of the symbols relate directly to the Roman government (e.g. 17:10).  Third, John is very conscious of the Old Testament background.  The living creatures in Rev 4 are very similar to the those in Ezek 1:5-14.  The descriptions of the beast in Rev 13:1-10 match the vision in Dan 7.  The fourth beast in Dan 7 was traditionally interpreted in early Judaism as the Roman Empire.


Fourth, Jerusalem was conquered and destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.  Some interpreters find predictions of this event in Revelation.  Others find reflections on the event.  Whether Revelation was written before or after 70 AD, much of its content relates to the overthrow of Jerusalem.  Fifth, John expects the fulfillment of his visions soon (1:1, 1:3, 2:16, etc.).  His expectation of quick fulfillment indicates that the majority of Revelation's predictions were fulfilled in the first century.  Sixth, the cataclysmic imagery in Revelation-earthquakes, wars, lightning, etc.-must be understood in light of the Old Testament.  Many Old Testament passages use similar language (Isa 13:10, 14:12; Ezek 32; Joel 2) to describe God's judgment against wicked nations, not necessarily the end of history.


Revelation presents a God-centered vision of the world.  He reigns as king from his throne (4:2) and nothing takes place outside of his governance.  The book's imaginative illustration of the Christian worldview places the truth of God above all else.  While acknowleding the tragic yet heroic deaths of first century martyrs, Revelation adopts the perspective of oppressed people struggling against human systems of power.  These systems, though strong, will all succumb to God's judgment and be brought low under his universal kingship.  Revelation calls Christians not to hide until the end of the world, but to proclaim the victory of God's kingdom, which is coming.  Just as Jesus was a faithful witness (1:5, martyr in Greek), all Christians are called to hold fast to the testimony of Jesus (12:17, 19:10, 20:4) even unto death.  Revelation's expansive vision is inspiring, yet difficult to comprehend.


By Mark Giszczak


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January 26, 2015

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