{1}         Introduction to Revelation

The Book


The term ¡§apocalypse¡¨ used to derive a literary genre is derived from Rev 1:1, where it designates the supernatural unveiling of that which is about to take place. Daniel and Revelation are usually referred to as apocalypses. While it is not possible to establish precisely the exact boundaries of apocalyptic, it is generally referred to a divine discourse in which God¡¦s promises to intervene human history to bring times of trouble to an end and destroy all wickedness.


One definition of apocalyticism is ¡§the eschatological belief that the power of evil (Satan), who is now in control of this temporal and hopelessly evil age of human history in which the righteous are afflicted by his demonic and human agents, is soon to be overcome and his evil rule ended by the direct intervention of God, who is the power of good, and who thereupon will create an entirely new, perfect, and eternal age under His immediate control for the everlasting enjoyment of His righteous followers from among the living and the resurrected dead.¡¨


For the people today, a major role of the apocalypse was to explain why the righteous suffered and why the kingdom of God delayed. Apocalyptic focused on a period of time yet future when God would intervene to judge the world and establish righteousness.


Basic elements:


[1] It is always eschatological. It treats a period of time yet future when God will break into this world of time and space to bring the entire system to a final reckoning.


[2] It is dualistic. This dualism is not metaphysical but historical and temporal. There exist two opposing supernatural powers, God and Satan. There are also two distinct ages: the present one that is temporal and evil, and the one to come that is timeless and perfectly righteous. The first is under the control of Satan and the second under the immediate supervision of God.


[3] It is characterized by a rigid determinism in which everything moves forward as divinely preordained according to a definite time schedule and toward a predetermined end.


[4] It is distinguished by 4 distinctive literary characteristics: [a] esoteric in character: the content of apocalyptic normally comes to the author by means of a dream or vision in which he is translated into heavenly realms, sometime with an angelic interpreter; [b] literary in form; [c] symbolic in language; [d] pseudonymous in authorship: not using the author¡¦s own name but assigning authorship to some outstanding person of antiquity.


However, Revelation differs a lot with typical apocalypse. The author considers his work to be prophesy (1:3). The author identifies himself. The book is permeated with optimism although the prospect of suffering is realistically set forth. The book also contains urgency, calling for repentance (2:5,16,22; 3:3,19).




The author is John, as appearing 4 times in the book. He wrote as a person of authority to Christian communities. Early tradition is unanimous in its opinion that the author was John the apostle, including Justin Martyr (early 2nd century in Ephesus), Iranaeus (who knew Polycarp who in turn was close with John), Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian. There were gnostic materials discovered in 1945 had the same claim.


While there were speculations that the author may be someone else with the same name, none of these has been widely accepted. The reasons for such speculations include: [1] Nowhere in the book talks about himself being an apostle. [2] There is nothing  in the book that indicates that the author knew the historical Jesus. [3] There was a tradition that John was never in Asia Minor. [4] The book has distinct language, style, and thought from the Gospel of John. Yet there are also significant number of similarities, such as the use of the word logos, in a personal sense in Rev 19:13 and used similarly in NT only in Jn 1:1,14; 1Jn 1:1.


Place and Date


The book was dated differently from AD 41-54 to AD 98-117. The early date interprets statements and allusions as best understood in light of the political, cultural, and religious milieu of the middle of 1st century. Some claim that the use of the number 666 (Rev 13:18) as a cryptic reference to Nero (AD 54-68) but this is not certain. Most agree with Iranaeus who assigns the vision to the end of the reign of Domintian (Ad 81-96). Therefore the date is probably near AD 95.


The place is specifically named as the island of Patmos where the author was banished. It indicated that the storm of persecution of Christians was about to break. It is a small, rocky island (10 miles long, 5 miles wide) in the Aegean Sea.




The book was accepted as canonical by the end of the 2nd century and was quoted by many Church Fathers including Iranaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen. It was formally accepted at the Council of Laodicea (AD 360) and Council of Carthage (AD 397).


Approaches to Interpretation


Early Fathers such as Justin, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus were chiliasts. They held that the Apocalypse foretold a literal millennial kingdom on earth to be followed by a general resurrection, judgment, and a renewal of heaven and earth. Late in the third century, Victorinus introduced the idea of recapitulation in which the bowls parallel the trumpels instead of following in a continuous series.


In the Alexandrian church, a spiritualizing approach was developing. Origen played a major role in the rise of an allegorical method of exegesis. Augustine followed the same direction. Andreas followed Origen in finding a threefold sense in Scripture (literal, figurative, and spiritual) and making the spiritual dominant. The widespread belief was that the millennial reign had begun with the historic Christ.


In the 12th century, Joachim divided world history into three periods and held that the millennium (the third period, that of the Holy Spirit, following the Father and the Son) was still in the future. His followers identified the Pope as the beast and the papal Rome as the woman astride the scarlet beast.


In the 14th century, Nicolas of Lyra held that the Revelation contained the prediction of a continuous series of events from the apostolic age all the way to the consummation.


In the 16th century, the Spanish Jesuit Ribeira proposed that the Apocalyptist foresaw only the near future and the last things, the intervening period not being in view. Another Spanish Jesuit Alcasar interpreted that Rev 4¡X19 was the entire premillennial part from the 1st century until Constantine. Chapters 4¡X11 and 12¡X19 refer respectively to the church¡¦s conflict with Judaism and with paganism. Chapters 20¡X22 describes her present triumph, which began with Constantine.


In modern times, different approaches or views to interpretation can be summed up into four categories.


[1] Preterist or contemporary-historical interpretation understands the Apocalypse from the standpoint of its first-century historical setting. The book describes the persecution at that point in time, following the growing demands of emperor worship. Encouragements and warnings are taken with immediate seriousness. Major prophecies of the book were fulfilled either in the fall of Jerusalem (AD70) or the fall of Rome (AD476). The major problem of this approach is that the decisive victory portrayed in the last chapters of the Apocalypse was never achieved.


[2] Historicist interpretation regards the book as a forecast of the course of history in the last two millennia. The explanation of the book is done subjectively and there is no essential agreement between different proponents of the system.


[3] Futurist or eschatological interpretation regards everything from Rev 4:1 on as belonging to a period of time in the future. Kuyper insists that the book is about the world starting from the eve of parousia. The letters to the 7 churches are often held to represent the successive ages of church history that lead up to the rapture of the church in Rev 4:1. This is a literal approach and is commonly used by dispensationalists. The major weakness is that it leaves the book without any significance for those to whom it is addressed. Some futurists believe that Rev 4:1 simply represents a change in the Seer¡¦s perspective from earth to the throne room of heaven. The seals represent events that are characteristic of all history.


[4] Idealist or timeless symbolic interpretation holds that the book is not to be taken in reference to any specific events but as an expression of those basic principles on which God acts throughout history. Christian forces are continuously meeting and conquering the demonic forces of evil. This is the continuation of the allegorical interpretation. Its weakness is that it denies the book any specific historical fulfilment and there is no necessary consummation of the historical process.


Each approach has some important contribution to a full understanding of Revelation. Based on the preterist view, the book must be interpreted in light of the immediate historical crisis in which the first-century church found itself. His figures of speech and imagery are to be interpreted in the context of his own historical setting. They are not esoteric and enigmatic references to some future culture totally foreign to first-century readers (such as atomic bombs, satellite television, and the European Union). Based on the historicist view, it is important to notice that the philosophy of history revealed in Revelation has found specific fulfilment in all the major crisis of human history up to the present day. Based on the futurist view, the central message of the book is eschatological. It yet remains as the one great climactic point toward which all history moves. The age will come to an end and Satan and his hosts will be destroyed and the righteous will be vindicated. These are in the future. Based on the idealist view, the events of history demonstrate the basic underlying principles that God is at work behind the scenes to bring to pass His sovereign intention for the human race.


John himself could without contradiction be preterist, historicist, futurist, and idealist. He wrote out of his own immediate situation, his prophecies would has a historical fulfilment, he anticipated a future consummation, and he revealed principles that operated beneath the course of history.


While we need to trust that John¡¦s prophecy will have final and complete fulfilment in the last days of history, it is also dangerous to make definitive predictions about a literal fulfilment which is often shaped by the facts and conditions of a transient period of history.


Many Christians tried to link the signs to contemporary events. Others have claimed new insights (such as the recent predictions about the second coming at the turn of the millennium). This kind of predictionism (sign-seeking and date-setting) has become institutionalized in publications and public media. Christians should use extreme caution in such activities as they may lead believers into false expectations and they may lose credibility when such predictions did not come true and their claims need constant revisions.




The basic structural question is whether John intended his readers to understand the visions in his book in a straightforward chronological sense or whether some form of recapitulation is involved. There is a complete lack of consensus.


At times, John moves ahead quickly to the eternal state in order to encourage the redeemed with a vision of the bliss that awaits them. At other times, he returns to the past to interpret the source of the hostility being experienced by the church in the present time. He is bound by neither time nor space as he moves with sovereign freedom to guarantee the final destruction of all evil and the vindication of those who follow the Lamb.


There is progress in the book, but it is a progress that moves the reader to a fuller experience of the divine plan for final victory rather than a progress that ticks off the minutes on an eschatological clock. Each new vision intensifies the realization of the coming judgment. (One scheme explains the book as a seven-act play or seven groups of seven visions each.) The seals allow the scroll to be opened. The trumpets announce that divine retribution has arrived. The bowls are the pouring out of God¡¦s wrath. The only sure fact is that the forces of evil will be totally defeated in the end.