Introduction to the Book of Revelation – the message conveyed and how to properly interpret it (Revelation 1:1 – 1:8)
An introduction to the Book of Revelation and its author, John
Written by “John” and included as the last book in the New Testament, the book of Revelation is often difficult to interpret, comprehend, and place in context with the rest of the Bible. Its supernatural, apocalyptic message is often richly symbolic and difficult to understand. But this is typically due to the readers misunderstanding of apocalyptic prophetic messages in general. Apocalyptic literature’s primary intent is not to predict the future, but to make clear once the events described begin to take place.
The book is classified as “apocalyptic literature”, a form of prophecy which uses symbolic language and setting to proclaim a prophetic message, in this case, a vision from John, which given the vivid portrayal of the end-times he reveals, must have been an extremely intense experience for him. The title, apokalupsis, means to unveil, disclose, or reveal and describes the book’s true theme – a revelation of, from, and about Jesus.
The author of Revelation reveals himself four times to be John. Early Christian traditions attribute authorship to the Apostle John (brother of James, son of Zebedee) who is believed to have also authored the three letters and the Gospel of John but true authorship is unknown. That the book was addressed to the early churches of Asia Minor (present day western Turkey) hints that the author was indeed a prominent leader in the earliest days of the Christian movement.
At the time of its writing, believed to have been during the late first century and possibly earlier than 70 AD, John was exiled to the island of Patmos (in the eastern Aegean Sea) “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus”. An early historian (Eusebius) wrote that John had been deported to the island of Patmos during the reign of Domitian.
Revelation 1 – John sees a vision from God
This is the revelation from Jesus which God gave him to show us what must soon take place. The revelation was sent via angel to John who testified to everything he saw in this vision.
Blessed is the one that reads aloud the words of this prophecy and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it – because the time is near.
“From John, to the seven churches in the province of Asia. Peace to you from him who is, who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus who is the faithful witness, the first to rise from the dead, and ruler over all kings of earth. Greetings and glory to God for ever and ever.
Look, he is coming with the clouds and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him. And all people on earth will mourn because of him.”
God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega who is, who was, and who is to come.”
What the story means to us today
Revelation is the only New Testament book that focuses on prophecy. In essence, it completes the story begun in Genesis and describes a great battle between good and evil and the final disposition of earth.
Revelation was penned by “John”, well known by the churches in Asia and generally accepted to be the John, apostle of Jesus and author of the New Testament book of John. Written around 95 AD (possibly as early as 69 AD) while he was exiled on the island of Patmos, John was praying when a voice instructed him to write what he was about to see.
In Revelation, the second coming of Jesus and the years immediately preceding his arrival are revealed in graphic detail. The book boldly announces, “Behold, he cometh”, and shows us that ultimately, God is the victor over evil.
Additional thoughts and considerations
A vision applicable to modern-day?
Some may wonder if John’s vision, written and delivered to the “seven churches”, is only applicable to the time it was written. It an easy misinterpretation given the persecution of Christians at the time and indeed, as a means to calm the followers of the early church, it may have served that purpose. However, the seven churches (later, Revelation lists each individually) were not all of the Christian churches operating in Asia at the time. Specifically, not included in the list were the churches of Colossae, Tralles, Miletus, Hierapolis, and Magnesia. Thus, the “seven churches” were likely chosen to symbolize the whole Church, not just a small segment of Christian followers.
Another clue that the Book of Revelation was written for some generation in the future – the scope of the visions John presents is far greater than historical Rome. Many aspects of John’s vision are clearly intended for an audience far beyond ancient Rome. For this reason, we can presume the message was intended not just for the seven churches of Revelation, but addressed with equal force to all churches of all times.
Who told John what to write in Revelation?
The book of Revelation begins by explaining how the visions depicted in Revelation were delivered to John. Later verses confirm and clarify the method God used to deliver the message to John. In short, God gave the message to Jesus who shared it with John. The direct contact to John varied – sometimes Jesus delivered the message to John directly while other times it was communicated via “his angel”. On occasion the voice came from heaven and Revelation does not explicitly describe who was speaking. In all instances, the crux of the vision originated with God.
Must Revelation be read aloud as instructed (i.e. a “chant”)?
John says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy and blessed are those who hear it and take it to heart.” In ancient times, reading biblical texts aloud in a public setting was common. Thus, John was merely putting the task of “reading” the book of Revelation in context with the time and was not suggesting that his blessing would be bestowed only upon those who read the book aloud.
Who were the “seven spirits” John mentions?
John tells us that Revelation’s message came from God, Jesus, and the “seven spirits before his throne”. It is difficult to determine what is meant by the “seven spirits before the throne”. Seven spirits may refer to seven angels (possibly one for each church he was addressing the message to). More likely however, it refers to the often-referenced third person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit. In ancient times, “seven” was considered “complete” (see the Science behind the Story below) and thus, a reference to the enigmatic Holy Spirit as “the seven spirits” is simply another way to describe an entity that really can’t be described using earthly language.
The “time is near”
Many may wonder about the timeframe hinted at in the phrase “the time is near”. Translations for “time” are difficult in both the Old and New Testaments. The biblical concepts of time are only translatable when careful consideration to the context of the story is taken into account. “Near” can relate to geographic measures such as “approach” or “draw near”. Near can also indicate measurements of time such as days, weeks, years, or centuries. In Revelation’s instance, “near” is a reference to a relative timeframe with no absolute measurement to gauge from.
Atheists often claim the prophecy of Revelation is inaccurate because “near” has already passed. This is patently false. A more accurate translation for the verse, one that would not make much sense to modern readers, would be “time is swift”.
Readers should recognize that “near” simply means the return of Christ is at hand – regardless of the reader’s timeframe. Later in Revelation, John provides more clarity, explaining that once events foretold in Revelation begin to take place, the prophecies will be fulfilled suddenly, quickly, and in rapid succession.
People on Earth will mourn because of him
John says, “all peoples on earth will mourn because of him”. This phrase, derived from a collage of prophecies from the Old Testament books of Daniel and Zechariah, refers to the response of those for whom it is too late to be saved.
Why did John use symbolism in the book of Revelation?
We must recognize that John did not invoke symbolism in his writing – symbolic representation of the events was the means the visions were delivered. John simply recorded what he saw in his visions, not necessarily understanding everything that he was being shown. Still, Revelation uses more symbolism than any other book in the Bible and stands uniquely on its own in that regard. Why would God choose to invoke symbolism in order to deliver his message?
The prophecies shown to John were intended for a Christian audience. This is quite clear in the introduction – John addressed the “letter” directly to the Christian churches. As such, the symbolisms used would be unclear to anyone outside of the Christian church since many of the devises employed relate directly to Old Testament prophecies. In this light, Revelation is an “encoded” message to Christians, especially important in John’s day since the Roman officials would be unable to use it as evidence against Christians. More importantly though, symbolism is timeless. Even modern readers can relate to the images described by John. They convey not only information, but arouse emotion in the reader. For instance, John could have described an evil ruler in great detail but instead, simply labels this ruler a “beast” (aka, the Antichrist), a vivid timeless depiction, easily rendered in even modern-day readers’ minds.
How do we properly interpret Johns’ visions?
Without a doubt, the book of Revelation is the most difficult book in the Bible to understand. This is largely because of the vast symbolism used in the story. To modern readers, the events described in Revelation bear semblance to a mind-bending science fiction adventure story. For ancient readers however, bold symbolism was not uncommon. Other early books used similar abstract imagery including Enoch, Baruch, and the Apocalypses of Ezra.
Symbolism allows the story to serve multiple purposes – (1) an idealist view that Revelation tells the general story of the Christian faith from beginning to end and (2) a futurist view that interprets Revelation as a prophecy of coming events. This dual purpose is a testament to the complexity and effectiveness of the intricately woven symbolisms used to convey the message to Christian readers.
In the end, it is important to avoid focusing solely on the prophetic system or questioning literal translations of the events described in Revelation. To do so would unfairly separate the prophesy from the underlying message. The intent of the Book of Revelation is not to provide a roadmap to the future, but to explain to Christian followers that a series of persecutive events will precede the return of God’s messenger, Jesus, and mark the end of mankind’s “trials” on Earth.
Old Testament prophecy related to New Testament prophecy
Study of Old Testament prophetic books will assist the reader when interpreting the events described in Revelation since many of the Old Testament prophecies are mirrored in Revelation. For instance, the introduction to Revelation tells us, “Look, he is coming with the clouds and every eye will see him”. The reference to Jesus’ arrival amongst the clouds is mirrored in Daniel 7:13 which says in part, “before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven”. Revelation continues with “and all peoples on earth “will mourn” because of him” which is mirrored in Zechariah 12:10 which states “they will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child”.
Revelation – uncomfortable gloom and doom?
Although later chapters will fully reveal Revelation’s gloomy picture of future events, it is worth noting that Revelation is the only book in the Bible that openly pronounces a blessing upon its readers.
The science and history behind the story
The significance of the number 7
The number seven plays a predominate role in Revelation – seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, seven lampstands, seven spirits of God, seven stars, seven thunders, seven plagues, beast with seven heads, and even seven literary sections in the book itself. The number seven is mentioned 54 times in Revelation. This has nothing to do with the number being magical, mystical, or “lucky”. In ancient times, the number seven was meant to signify totality. This definition of completeness is oft-mentioned as one of the proofs that Revelation was not specifically addressed to ancient Christians but rather is intended to address the entire church, throughout its full span of existence, to the very end of the world.
Why John addressed Revelation to only seven churches
In its introduction, John addressed Revelation to seven churches in Asia. We know the churches named really existed – five of the seven cities appear in a passage in Tacitus’ Annals. Given that seven represented completeness to ancient people, it is likely this was used to symbolize the entire church. Still, some have argued that geographically, the seven churches were linked together by a common postal-route. Oddly, this may indeed be the reason the seven churches were singled out. Each church would have received a copy of Revelation and subsequently distributed to other churches throughout the region.
Notes on Biblical translation
The title of Revelation comes from the first word in the text – the Greek word apokalpsis – which means revealing, unveiling, or disclosure.
“Revelation from Jesus Christ”
The first sentence in Revelation can be interpreted in two different ways: as “revelation from Jesus Christ” or as “revelation about Jesus Christ”. Given the ancillary text surrounding the sentence, most translate it as “from Jesus Christ”.
The “servant John”
Revelation tells us that the message was delivered by an angel to “his servant John”. The word translated to “servant” does not exist in modern-day languages. It implies more than an employee or underling but less than a bonded servant or someone held in slavery against their will.
The “alpha” and the “omega”
Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. The phrase as used in Revelation, suggests the composition of everything in the universe. God is the beginning, the end, and everything in between.
Are our sins “released” or “washed” away?
John mentions Jesus as the one who “freed us from our sins by his blood”. This verse (and others like it) are sometimes translated as “wash” or “release” instead of “freed”. For instance, “he washes away our sins by his blood”. This ambiguous translation came about due to an anomaly in the original Greek words for “release” and “wash”. In the native language, both words sound identical, similar to what we find with English words such as “mail” and “male” or “write” and “right”.
1 The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
Greetings and Doxology
To the seven churches in the province of Asia:
Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits l before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
7 “Look, he is coming with the clouds,” u
and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
So shall it be! Amen.
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
1 A revealing of Jesus, the Messiah. God gave it to make plain to his servants what is about to happen. He published and delivered it by Angel to his servant John. And John told everything he saw: God’s Word—the witness of Jesus Christ!
3 How blessed the reader! How blessed the hearers and keepers of these oracle words, all the words written in this book!
Time is just about up.
4–7 I, John, am writing this to the seven churches in Asia province: All the best to you from THE GOD WHO IS, THE GOD WHO WAS, AND THE GOD ABOUT TO ARRIVE, and from the Seven Spirits assembled before his throne, and from Jesus Christ—Loyal Witness, Firstborn from the dead, Ruler of all earthly kings.
Glory and strength to Christ, who loves us,
who blood-washed our sins from our lives,
Who made us a Kingdom, Priests for his Father,
forever—and yes, he’s on his way!
Riding the clouds, he’ll be seen by every eye,
those who mocked and killed him will see him,
People from all nations and all times
will tear their clothes in lament.
8 The Master declares, “I’m A to Z. I’m THE GOD WHO IS, THE GOD WHO WAS, AND THE GOD ABOUT TO ARRIVE. I’m the Sovereign-Strong.”
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
The NET Bible
1:1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must happen very soon. He made it clear by sending his angel to his servant John, 1:2 who then testified to everything that he saw concerning the word of God and the testimony about Jesus Christ. 1:3 Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy aloud, and blessed are those who hear and obey the things written in it, because the time is near!
1:4 From John, to the seven churches that are in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from “he who is,” and who was, and who is still to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 1:5 and from Jesus Christ—the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, the ruler over the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and has set us free from our sins at the cost of his own blood 1:6 and has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving his God and Father—to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever! Amen.
1:7 (Look! He is returning with the clouds,
and every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him,
and all the tribes on the earth will mourn because of him.
This will certainly come to pass! Amen.)
1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God—the one who is, and who was, and who is still to come—the All-Powerful!
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
King James Version
THE Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John: 2 Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw. 3 Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.
4 John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne; 5 And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, 6 And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
7 Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen. 8 I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.