Few writings in all of literature have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation (= the Apocalypse). Its history of interpretation is largely a story of tragic misinterpretation, resulting from a fundamental misapprehension of the work’s literary form and purpose. (Johnson, 573)
Luke Timothy Johnson begins a chapter on the Book of Revelation with the above grim statement. For modern Western readers, Revelation can be a difficult book to read. It is an apocalypse, a type of literature we do not typically read. Revelation does not lend itself to the fact and information oriented method of reading that most of us use when we read. Reading Revelation takes some effort on our part. It is not an “easy read”.
Apocalypse is a type of literature that is about revelation- i.e. something is revealed. Usually there is the report of a vision which comes from a supernatural revealer which tells heavenly secrets or tells about the end of the world. Between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D. there were many Jewish apocalypses written. These developed in response to challenges within Judaism and an attack on Jewish values and beliefs from the outside culture. Most apocalypses are pseudonymous and present history as a prediction about the future. In an apocalypse, there are dreams, visions, bizarre images, and dialogues between the recipient (author) and the revealer. In apocalyptic literature, the author ascends to heaven or has dreams or is transported to elsewhere, sees both the present and the future, and then records what they saw and experienced. Apocalyptic literature uses a standard set of symbols that include numerology, catastrophes of cosmic proportions and odd and amazing animals. The purpose of apocalyptic literature was to encourage the faithful to hold firm in their beliefs, to endure, to assure the reader that faithfulness would be rewarded and that ultimately justice would be done.
…[I]t is the cumulative effect[of images, numbers, symbols] that creates the sense of mystery and transcendence essential for the dramatic impact of the revelation….despite its elaborate symbolism, it [Revelation] presents a rather straightforward interpretation of history. Appearances to the contrary, God is in charge of the world. Even though God’s people suffer tribulations and evil appears to be triumphant (12:7-13:8), God will intervene decisively on behalf of the oppressed (14:14-20:15), bringing history to its goal: the communion of God with humans (21:1-22:5). (Johnson, 576,578)
For Revelation, therefore, the triumph of God over evil and death is not only a future expectation; it has already been realized in heaven. Jesus’ resurrection is the pledge of God’s cosmic victory over evil. The hope of the saints does not rely simply on the promise of God made in the distant past. It is based on the present power of God-manifest in the resurrection of Jesus- and on the proleptic realization of those hopes by the saints who have now joined him in heave: already the church shares in the resurrection victory through those who have gone ahead. As the visions reveal to the readers, then, the essential victory has already been won. The outcome is not in doubt; the visions of the future simply spell out the inevitable consequences of the triumph already accomplished by Jesus. (Johnson, 578)
This discussion of Revelation will not treat the text as a”road map” to the future. We will not try to decode and decipher every number and symbol. Scholars can tell us what some of the images in Revelation mean, but the meaning of others- while not unknown to the first audience- is unknown to us. Mostly, we will engage the text from a “big picture” perspective, trying not to get lost in the details but looking for the larger message of the text- comfort and encouragement to persecuted Christians.
The literary structure of Revelation is complex and neither straightforward nor linear. Some parts of the book are more organized than others. There are groupings of seven but there are also several digressions with the groupings. There are two major sections with a prologue and epilogue. The first section is Christ’s proclamation to the seven churches and the second (larger) section contains the author’s visions. Scholars debate whether later sections within the second part of the text are repetitions of events found earlier in the section. For example, are the seven trumpets and the seven bowls two different ways of telling about the same events or are they describing a series of different events?
Scholars believe Revelation was written toward the end of the first century. Tradition holds the author, John was the apostle John. Modern scholars are not sure this is correct. There is not evidence within the book itself that the author is the apostle. The author never claims to be an apostle and refers to the 12 apostles as founders. (21:14). Scholars to think the author was a Jewish Christian, perhaps part of a group of prophets and was acquainted with the seven churches. The author may have been a refugee from the first Jewish revolt (66-70 A.D.).
In the late first century, Domitian was emperor. While there was no official and systematic persecution of Christians at that time, there was certainly persecution. Being a Christians was a crime because Christians would not worship any God but their own. Domitian required his subjects to call him “Lord and God” and to worship him. Refusal to do that was punished by exile or death. But whether Christians were actually persecuted or not depended on the interest the provincial governor and public opinion.
Outline This outline is purposely simple. As we read each week, a more detailed outline will be provided.
I. Prologue 1:1-8
II. John’s Commissioning Vision 1:9-20
III. The Letters to the Seven Churches 2:1-3:22
IV. From Tribulation to Glory 4:1-22:9
1. The Six Seals 4:1-7:17
2. The Seventh Seal and the Six Trumpets 8:1-11:14
3. The Seventh Trumpet and the Six Bowls 11:15-16:16
4. The Seventh Bowl and the Punishment of Babylon 16:17-19:10
5. The Judgment of God’s Adversaries 19:11-21:8
6. The New Jerusalem 21:9-22:9
V. Epilogue 22:6-21
Read More About It
Aune, David E. “Revelation” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Bruce M. Metzger, Roland E. Murphy eds. (New York: Oxford University Press) 1994.
Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, rev. ed. (Minneapolis:Fortress Press) 1999. Chapter 26 “The Book of Revelation”.
Metzger, Bruce, “Revelation” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary, rev. ed.James L Mays, ed. (New York: Society of Bible Literature) 2000.