Introduction to Revelation

Type of Literary Genre

The Revelation belongs to that genre known as apocalyptic literature. Such literature flourished during the last two centuries B.C. and the first century A.D. (L. Morris, p. 22.) As M. Tenney points out (p 384), apocalyptic literature was usually produced in times of persecution and oppression as a means of encouraging those who were suffering for their faith. Both the Jewish community and the early Christian church experienced such times during these centuries as they found themselves living in the midst of a monolithic pagan culture governed by the empire of Rome.

Normally an apocalyptic piece of literature purported to be a revelation made by some celestial personage (like an angel) to a great figure of the past (such as Abraham, Moses or Ezra.) The message was usually expressed in vivid symbolism, sometimes of a very bizarre kind. Addressing its readers in the mist of the difficult times they were undergoing, this literature conveyed to them the author’s profound conviction that the troubles in which they presently found themselves were not the final word. On the contrary, in His own appointed time God would intervene catastrophically and destroy evil. Not infrequently this deliverance was associated with God’s Messiah who would inaugurate the eternal kingdom of God.

Needless to say, Revelation displays similarities to the typical apocalyptic literature of the period: it abounds in apocalyptic-type symbols; it looks forward to God’s final vanquishing of evil and the creation of a new heavens and earth; and it features angels in the role of communicators of divine visions (L. Morris, pp. 22-23.) This having been said, it must also be pointed out that the Revelation has some striking differences from the typical apocalyptic literature: (1) the writer repeatedly identifies his book as a prophecy (1:3; 22:7,10,18,19), whereas the typical apocalyptics were usually distinguished from prophecy. (2) The book has a strong moral tone (note, for instance, the warnings and calls to repentance issued to the churches in chapters 2-3), this is characteristic of biblical prophecy, but not so of the apocalyptics. The apocalypticists pay little attention to righteous living on the part of God’s people; they despair of man’s efforts to overcome evil and look only to God’s mighty intervention at the end of history. (3) In contrast to the apocalypticists who see this present world as hopelessly controlled by evil, the Revelation declares that the Messiah, in the form of the Lamb, has already conquered evil, and even in this present age evil beings, including the devil himself, are under the sovereign control of God who sits upon the throne. (4) Finally, whereas the apocalyptics are written by unknown authors in the name of some illustrious person from the past (Abraham, Moses, Ezra), the writer of the Revelation identifies himself at the very beginning of the book (1:4) as John (L. Morris, pp. 23-25.)

Authorship and Canonicity

Who is this John who identifies himself as the writer of the Revelation? L. Morris (p. 26) points out that the use of the name John without any further identification indicates the Apostle John as being the author. No one else would simply call himself John and expect it to be known who he was and have his writing accepted as authoritative (note Rev. 22:18-19.) Then, too, the author has an intimate knowledge of and interest in the churches located in the Roman province of Asia. This fits the testimony of the early church that the Apostle John resided in Ephesus and exercised oversight of these churches during the latter years of his life (E. Harrison, p. 442.)

The identification of John the apostle as the human writer of the Revelation is supported by the testimony of the early church fathers. Justin Martyr, who lived and taught at Ephesus shortly after his conversion (about A.D. 130), wrote: A certain man among us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, prophesied in a revelation made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would spend a thousand years in Jerusalem (Dialogues, lxxxi.15.) Irenaeus (A.D. 130-200), bishop of Lyons in South Gaul, quotes frequently from the Revelation in his major work, Against Heresies (written in the last decade of the second century.) He refers to “all the genuine and ancient copies” of the book, thereby indicating the early circulation of the Revelation. The fact that the Revelation was included in the Muratorian Canon (the earliest extant list of New Testament writings) indicates its circulation and acceptance as canonical in Rome by the end of the second century A.D. In Carthage (located in North Africa), also, the Revelation was accepted as authoritative by the end of the second century. Tertullian (A.D. 160-220), the great Carthaginian apologist for the faith, quotes extensively from it. In western Syria, Theophilus, bishop of Antioch, made use of “testimony from the Revelation of John” in his treatise, Against the Heresy of Hermogenes. Thus it is that by the close of the second century, the Revelation had circulated throughout the empire and was widely accepted both as Scripture and as having been written by the Apostle John (R. Mounce, pp. 37-38.)

Despite the widespread acceptance of the Revelation, there were those who raised objections to its place within the canon of Scripture. It should be noted that their objections arose as a means of combating the rise of Montanism in the second century. (Note: Montanism was a movement whose adherents claimed to possess special prophetic gifts and who used the Book of Revelation as the basis for their teaching that the new Jerusalem would soon descend in the region of Phrygia where their movement was centered.) Around the middle of the second century Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, in his efforts to refute a certain Nepos (a bishop of an outlying area), whose teaching had Montanist tendencies coupled with carnal overtones, launched a sustained attack against the apostolic authorship of the Revelation (E. Harrison, p. 429.)

Dionysius’ objections to the Apostle John’s authorship of the Revelation were as follows: (1) the writer of the Revelation mentions his name, whereas the writer of the Gospel does not. (2) Dionysius claimed that the Revelation presents a different range of thought from that found in the Gospel, omitting such words and themes as “life,” “light,” “truth,” “grace,” and “love;” words and themes that abound in the Gospel. (3) Then there was the matter of language. Whereas the Gospel is written in good Greek (relatively simple and normally correct), the Greek of the Revelation is inferior (D. Guthrie, p. 935.) In the words of Dionysius, the author of the Revelation “employs barbarous idioms, in some places committing downright solecism (i.e.; errors in grammar or word usage)” (L. Morris, p. 28.)

In responding to the objections raised by Dionysius, we must again bear in mind that his criticism of the Revelation stems from his attempt to combat the rise of Montanism, a movement that appealed to the Revelation as support for its apocalyptic extremism. Prior to any universally authoritative canon, individual scholars (like Dionysius) felt free to undermine whatever heretical movement they were combating by denying to that movement the one New Testament book that seemed to give it legitimacy (R. Mounce, p. 39.) With regard to the writer’s mention of his name (John), we may refer back to what was said earlier in this present article. Who else beside the Apostle John could simply identify himself as John and expect it to be known who he was and have his writing accepted as authoritative? As D. Guthrie points out (p. 937), the writer of the Revelation is very conscious of the fact that he is writing by divine inspiration (1:1,11,19; 10:10; 22:9, 18-19), this would be in accord with apostolic authorship. Then, too, by identifying himself as John, a contemporary known to the churches to whom the Revelation was originally addressed, he distinguishes the book from the typical apocalyptics that tended to be written by an anonymous person purporting to relate a message given to some prominent personage from the ancient past.

Concerning the alleged difference in theme and theological thought, L. Morris (p. 32) asserts that this is actually only a matter of emphasis due to the different purposes for which the two books were written. The Revelation has a great concern for eschatological matters, while the Gospel concentrates more on this present life (although the subject of the Final Judgment is not entirely missing from the Gospel, note John 5:28-29.) It is true that the Gospel emphasizes the love of God, whereas in the Revelation the expression of His righteous wrath is much more predominant; nevertheless, the latter certainly is not absent from the Gospel (note John 3:18,36.) Indeed, there are some very striking resemblances between the Gospel and the Revelation that they share in common and that are unique to these two books alone in comparison to the rest of the New Testament Scriptures: (1) only these two books refer to the logos (Jn. 1:1; Rev. 19:13) and use such imagery as “the lamb,” “the water of life,” and “overcoming,” to name a few. (2) These two books also quote the Old Testament passage of Zechariah 12:10 in a unique way. In both John 19:37 and Revelation 1:7 the same word for “pierce” is used, a word that is not found in the Septuagint translation of the Zechariah passage (L. Morris, p. 31.) Added to these similarities is the fact that (3) the Gospel and the Revelation do, in fact, have a similarity of theme and theological thought. Both present a view of a supreme conflict between the powers of good and evil. In the Gospel this is expressed mainly in moral concepts, in the Revelation mainly by means of images and visions. In the Gospel the opposing forces are treated under abstract terms such as light and darkness, love and hatred, in the Revelation they are presented in more concrete terms: God and Christ warring against the devil and the beast (E. Harrison, pp. 441-442.) One other factor (4) that is undeniably common between the two books is the symbolical use of the number seven. Among other things, the Gospel presents seven of Jesus’ miraculous signs, as well as seven “I AM” declarations. The Revelation, among other things, presents the opening of the Seven Seals, the sounding of the Seven Trumpets, and the pouring out of the Seven Bowls of Wrath. This characteristic would not be so significant were it not for the fact that it is confined in the New Testament to these two books (D. Guthrie, p. 940.)

Finally, with regard to the solecisms that appear in the Revelation but are absent from the Gospel, it has been pointed out by scholars that these may be deliberate. If in writing the Revelation John on occasion breaks the grammatical rules, on other occasions he observes those same rules. Thus it seems as though his peculiar Greek is intentional, not due to an ignorance of the proper forms of grammar. Then, too, it must be borne in mind that the Revelation was written in a state of heightened spiritual excitement (“in the Spirit,” 1:10) in which the writer received revelations communicated to him in apocalyptic imagery (L. Morris, pp. 29-30.)

As we conclude this part of our study, we would note that the reversal of this negative trend of objecting to the Revelation’s apostolic authorship was brought about by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria for more than forty years during the fourth century. His wide acquaintance with the church at large gave him an appreciation of the high regard in which the Revelation was held, especially in the West, and he unhesitatingly endorsed it (E. Harrison, p. 431.)

Date of Composition

It is generally conceded that the Revelation was written either during the reign of the emperor Nero or that of the emperor Domitian. The tradition of the early church, as well as the situation of the churches to whom the Revelation was originally addressed, testify to its having been written in the time of Domitian, somewhere around A.D. 90-95 (L. Morris, p. 34.)

The concept of emperor worship had a natural evolution in the ancient Gentile world, aided by polytheism, ancestor-worship, and the subsequent deification of legendary heroes. In the Roman Empire this prior practice of deifying the State and its leader (a practice that was especially common in the Eastern provinces) provided the rationale for the emperors to strengthen their authority by making certain claims to divine status. Julius Caesar accepted worship as a god during his lifetime. Augustus was more cautious in the vicinity of Rome, but sanctioned temples to himself in the provinces. Following his death, he was worshiped widely in the provinces of Asia as well as in the western provinces. By the time of Nero, the imperial cult was firmly established as a religious institution. (However, it should be noted that the persecution of Christians under Nero was not due to their refusal to acknowledge the emperor’s supposed deity. It was due rather to the fact that Nero needed some group to serve as a scapegoat on whom he could lay the blame for the great fire that decimated a portion of Rome.) It was not until the reign of Domitian (A. D. 81-96) that failure to honor the emperor as a god became a political offense that was punishable. It was under Domitian that persecution of Christians by the State on religious grounds took place for the first time (R. Mounce, pp. 32-33.) According to E. Stauffer (quoted by E. Harrison, p. 446), “Domitian was the first emperor to understand that behind the Christian ‘movement’ there stood an enigmatic figure who threatened the glory of the emperors. He was the first to declare war on this figure, and the first also to lose that war—a foretaste of things to come.”

The evidence contained within the Revelation itself supports the view that it was addressed to the church at the time when she was confronted with the blasphemous demands of imperial Rome in the days of Domitian. John testifies that he has been banished to the island of Patmos “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9.) Even if this exile resulted from the action taken by a local authority, it is not unreasonable to assume that behind the decision was a general policy emanating from Rome (R. Mounce, p. 33.) A member of the church in Pergamum, the faithful Antipas, has already been publicly martyred (2:13.) Far worse persecution is yet to come: the church in Philadelphia is informed of “the hour of trial that shall come upon the whole world” (3:10.) This certainly seems to be alluding to a trial that could only originate from the emperor himself, for only he would have the authority to command and the power to enforce such a world-wide demand that would challenge the allegiance of every man (D. Guthrie, p. 952.) Then, too, “the beast,” which most commentators identify as the Roman Empire personified in the emperor, is seen to demand universal worship (13:4, 15-17; 14:9; 16:2; 19:20.)

We must also take into account the condition of the churches in Asia Minor: Ephesus has left her first love; Sardis is virtually dead; Laodicea is lukewarm. A considerable interval between the founding of these churches and the time of the writing of the Revelation is needed to account for this spiritual decline. Furthermore, the city of Laodicea is portrayed as being especially prosperous. Yet, in the year A. D. 62, during the reign of Nero, it was destroyed by an earthquake. It is true that the city was soon rebuilt, but some length of time must be allowed for its return to prosperity. This again favors the time of Domitian (E. Harrison, pp. 446-447.)

Although the evidence for widespread persecution under Domitian is not especially strong, there is no other period in the first century in which it would be more likely. I.T. Beckwith notes that the book reflects a stage in the development of emperor worship that had not been reached at an earlier date and that the Revelation seems clearly to point to the time of Domitian (R. Mounce, p. 34.)

Approaches to the Interpretation of the Revelation

The early church fathers, such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Hippolytus, were chiliasts (derived from the Greek word “thousand,” and referring to “the thousand-year” period mentioned in Revelation 20.) That is to say, they held that the Revelation foretold a literal millennial (thousand-year) kingdom on earth to be followed by a general resurrection, the final judgment, and a renewal of the heavens and the earth. Late in the third century, Victorinus appears to have been the first interpreter to suggest that the Revelation contained a series of recapitulations—instead of the book progressing along a strict chronological time line, certain themes were repeated, with each cycle covering the same material. For example, the breaking of the seven seals, the sounding of the seven trumpets, and the pouring out of the seven bowls of wrath are each repeating the same sequence of temporal judgments visited upon the earth and leading up to the Final Judgment. The main distinction between the three cycles is that each cycle is more severe than the previous. In other words, as history marches on to the inevitable day of the Final Judgment, each of God’s temporal judgments upon mankind (intended to induce his repentance) becomes increasingly severe.

In the church in North Africa, especially in the great city of Alexandria, there was a tendency to spiritualize the Revelation. This was the opposite approach to that of Justin and Irenaeus. Whereas they had sought to interpret the Revelation in terms of literal and historical fulfillment, the Alexandrian church fathers sought to deny to the Revelation any intention of historical fulfillment. They maintained that the symbols found in the book represented eternal spiritual truths. Partly influenced by Greek philosophy, (which tended to divorce eternal truths from the temporal realm of history,) and partly reacting to the extreme literalistic interpretation of the Montanists (referred to above), the Alexandrian school taught that the mysteries of the Revelation can be understood only by going beyond the literal and historical to the spiritual. This spiritualizing method of interpretation was greatly advanced by Tyconius, who interpreted nothing in the book as relating to the actual historical events of the first century. The great theologian Augustine followed such men as Tyconius in this approach and, consequently, for the next thousand years this spiritualizing, allegorical approach was normative for the interpretation of the Revelation.

A new departure in the field of the interpretation of the Revelation was introduced in the twelfth century by Joachim of Floris. He divided world history into three periods and held that the millennium—the thousand-year period mentioned in Revelation 20—was still in the future. Joachim viewed this coming millennium age (governed by the Holy Spirit) as an era of perfected monasticism that would restore the corrupt church to its primitive purity. Joachim was loyal to the church and its hierarchy, but his followers were quick to identify the Pope as the beast and papal Rome as the harlot astride the scarlet beast. This anti-papal interpretation was later taken over by the Reformation movement and continued for several centuries.

Still another approach to the interpretation of the Revelation was that of Nicholas of Lyra (a Parisian theologian who died in 1340.) He abandoned the theory of recapitulation (originally introduced by Victorinus), maintaining instead that the Revelation contained the prediction of a continuous series of historical events from the apostolic age all the way to the final consummation. Late in the sixteenth century the Spanish Jesuit, Ribeira, proposed that the Revelation was only dealing with the events of the first century and the final events of history, having nothing to say about the centuries of church history that elapsed in between those two points (R. Mounce, pp. 39-40.)

The various approaches to the interpretation of the Revelation cited above have their modern day descendants. Those earlier views are to a large extent repeated in the four main approaches to the interpretation of the book that are prevalent today. But before summarizing these four schools of interpretation, we must briefly mention one other fairly recent view, namely, Dispensationalism (a view that arose in the nineteenth century.) Dispensationalism sees an outline of church history contained in the letters to the seven churches, with Ephesus representing the church in John’s day and Laodicea representing the church of today. This view postulates a secret return of Christ for His church that takes place sometime at the beginning of chapter four, usually designated as happening with the command issued to John in verse one, “Come up here.” Consequently, the church is exempt from everything that takes place from chapters four through nineteen, (which chapters describe the “great tribulation.”) Following the “great tribulation” Christ and His church return to destroy the Anti-Christ and set up a millennial (thousand-year) kingdom on earth. According to this interpretation, the Book of Revelation is not intended for the church per se, but can still be read with profit to see what God will do for the Jewish believers who are living during the time of the “great tribulation.” The church is to look for its “rapture,” that is, its removal from the earth, which may happen at any moment (W. Elwell, p. 1201.)

As mentioned above, there are four main approaches to the interpretation of the Revelation. The first of which is the Preterist View. This view regards the prophecies of Revelation as being wholly concerned with the circumstances of John’s day and as having no reference whatever to any future ages or events. Preterists hold that the major prophecies of the book were fulfilled either in the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70) or the fall of Rome (A. D. 476.) The great merit of the preterist approach is that it rightly sees the Revelation as being addressed to the first century church as it was imperiled by the great crisis of its time. But the major drawback of this view is that it renders the Revelation relatively meaningless for all succeeding generations of church history, since it confines itself to only addressing the first century church. Furthermore, based on the preterist approach, the decisive victory portrayed in the latter chapters of the Revelation was never achieved. It is difficult to believe that John envisioned anything less than the complete overthrow of Satan, the final destruction of evil, and the coming of the eternal kingdom of God.

A second approach to the interpretation of the Revelation is the Historicist View. While the preterist confines the entire Book of Revelation to the first century period in which it was written, the historicist interprets it as a forecast of the course of history. The historicist sees the symbols in the book as setting out in broad outline the history of Western Europe, stretching down to the Second Coming of Christ. This view does indeed make the Revelation meaningful for the church in all generations, rather than limiting its relevance to only the first century church. However, it is curious that a book purporting to forecast human history should largely ignore the world beyond Western Europe. Furthermore, the subjectivity of this approach is underscored by the fact that no essential agreement can be found between its major proponents. If the Revelation is in fact foretelling the main events of subsequent history, it should be possible to identify those events with tolerable certainty; otherwise the prophecies loose their value.

Moving on to a third approach, we come to the Futurist View (Pre-Mellennial Dispensationalism would fall under this category.) The futurist places the relevance of the book entirely in the future, more specifically, the end of world history. As mentioned above under our discussion of Pre-Millennialism, this view tends to see chapters two and three as portraying the successive ages of church history, as opposed to addressing the actual needs of the seven churches located in Asia Minor in the closing decade of the first century. But such an interpretation is possible only at the expense of sound exegetical principles; by allegorizing the messages to the seven churches the interpreter divorces them from their historical setting and makes them subject to his own personal interpretation. Also, by seeking to interpret the visions in as literal a way as possible, the futurist fails to do justice to the literary genre in which the Revelation was written.

A fourth approach to the interpretation of the Revelation is the Poetic View. This view maintains that the visions are not intended to reveal any historical events or personages, either present or future. On the contrary, the Revelation is seen as a theological poem setting forth the ageless struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. According to T.S. Kepler (quoted by R. Mounce, p. 43), the Revelation is a “philosophy of history wherein Christian forces are continuously meeting and conquering the demonic forces of evil.” The poetic approach makes the Book of Revelation relevant to the church of all ages, but its weakness lies in the fact that it divorces the visions and prophecies from their historical setting. Consequently, it denies to the book any specific historical fulfillment. From the poetic point of view, the symbols found in the Revelation portray an ever present, ongoing conflict without any final consummation. This certainly does not do justice to the message contained in the concluding chapters of the book. (Note: This survey of the four main approaches to the interpretation of the Revelation has been gleaned from the following sources: G.R. Beasley-Murray, p. 1168; D. Guthrie, pp. 974-975; L. Morris, pp. 16-18; and R. Mounce, pp. 41-44.)

Before bringing this article to a close, we would do well to set forth some basic guidelines as we seek to fathom the message of the Revelation. First, we must always bear in mind that the book is written in the genre of apocalyptic literature. This implies that the symbols it presents are not to be interpreted in a literalistic way; however, we must not divorce the symbols from their historical context; they do pertain to historical persons and events. Also, in our effort to understand the significance of the symbols we must appreciate their source. As W. Elwell points out (p. 1197), virtually all of the symbolic representations in Revelation are found in either the Old Testament or the New Testament.

Second, in order to interpret the Revelation rightly, we must begin with its historical setting. Rather than divorcing it from its original first century setting, we must appreciate that the book was originally addressed to the churches of Asia Minor in the closing decade of the first century. Evidently, John intended the book to be read aloud in the churches to which it was addressed (1:3.) The letters to the seven churches reveal much about both the internal condition of these churches (specifically, a manifest tendency towards spiritual deterioration,) as well as the external challenge they faced. There is the problem of increasing opposition between the Church and the State. In the subsequent chapters, John removes the veil so as to allow the Church to understand the spiritual dimension of this challenge, that it is in reality the opposition of the devil himself to the Lord God, His Christ, and His Church. For the comfort and encouragement of the Church, John reports that the victory has already been secured by Christ (5:5) and that finally He will bring about the total realization of that victory, resulting in the eternal condemnation of the devil and all who are aligned with him (20:10) and the inauguration of the kingdom of God in all of its fullness (21:1 through 22:5.)

One further thing to bear in mind with regard to the interpretation of the Revelation, (something already implied in the previous paragraph,) is this: we need to appreciate the dual fulfillment of the visions and prophecies. That is to say, there is both a historical fulfillment as well as a final eschatological fulfillment, (this is also characteristic of so much of Old Testament prophecy.) In the words of R. Mounce (pp. 44-45), the predictions of John, while expressed in terms reflecting his own culture, will find their final and complete fulfillment in the last days of history. Although John saw the Roman Empire as the great beast that threatened the extinction of the church, there will be in the last days an eschatological beast that will sustain the same relationship to the church of the great tribulation era. Thus, we need to appreciate both the historical fulfillment of the prophecies as they pertained to the church in John’s own generation and the final eschatological fulfillment of the prophecies yet to be realized in the end of history.

We may conclude with the comments of E. Harrison (pp. 448-449): The [Revelation] supplies the finishing touch to the whole panorama of the biblical story. Eden’s tragedy is in the background, but it is swallowed up in victory. The great deceiver is banished, the curse is gone, men have access to the tree of life, the garden gives way to the celestial city, spacious enough for all the myriads of the redeemed … Nothing could better serve as the church’s chart and compass through days of stress and strain. Nothing could better supply healing for her wounds or kindle perennially her hope in the living God.


Beasley-Murray, G.R.; “The Revelation,” The New Bible Commentary, Edited by Prof. F. Davidson; The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, Reprinted October 1967.

Elwell, W.A.; “Revelation,” Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Edited by Walter A. Elwell; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids MI, 1989.

Guthrie, Donald; New Testament Introduction; Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL, Third Edition, December 1970 (Eighth American printing, January 1979.)

Harrison, Everett; Introduction to the New Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1964 (Third printing, October 1968.)

Morris, Leon; “The Revelation of St. John,” Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, Seventh printing, April 1979.

Mounce, Robert H.; “The Book of Revelation,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1977.

Tenney, Merrill C.; New Testament Survey; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1964 (Third printing, October 1968.)