54. Revelation: Introduction
Lecture: Revelation: Introduction
I have not given lots of commercials for books, or anything. There is a brilliant little book on the Book of Revelation, though, that I want to call to your attention. It is by Bruce M. Metzger, entitled, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. It’s put out by Abingdon Press. It’s just over 100 pages (I like short books – I hate 700-page commentaries). It’s the first thing I would read on the Book of Revelation. Is it the infallible interpretation of the Book of Revelation? No, and he would be the very first person to say that. But it is simple and sensible. And there are not a lot of books on Revelation that are simple, and even less that are sensible. So it’s a great little book. I think you’ll appreciate it. I had the privilege of studying in my doctoral work under Bruce Metzger, a very humble man, a giant, and one of the really great New Testament theologians in the latter half of the twentieth century.
The author of the Book of Revelation claims to be John, and he doesn’t qualify his name in any significant way. That usually means that he must be a pretty well-known John. You remember that we dealt with this issue in the Book of James, where the author just claims to be James, with the assumption that the readers know who he is. Tradition that begins in the middle of the second century states that the author was John the brother of James who was martyred (not the author of the Book of James) -- in other words, one of the twelve disciples, one of the sons of Zebedee. There are also references in Justin Martyr, Eusebius, etc., as to that authorship. Melito, who mentions James as the author, came from one of the churches addressed in Revelation, and so does Irenaeus. They may have had additional info that John had written this, because there are letters in this book addressed to their churches.
In the third century, a bishop of Alexandria, Dionysius, argued that it was not the apostle John, but a different John, John the Elder. The theological ideas and emphasis and vocabulary are very different. If you read the gospel of John and the Book of Revelation or the Apocalypse of John, the style and vocabulary is quite different, and the emphases, as such.
As to the dating of it, it’s a work that’s written during a time of persecution. We see in 1:9, “I, John, who share with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” He was a prisoner on Patmos. In 2:10, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” In 2:13, we have another message to a different church, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you.” This is a book that’s being written to people who are facing martyrdom and death. It’s a book that is meant to encourage Christians to endure to the end, even though for many it may mean martyrdom. It’s something that a lot of Christians through the centuries and a lot of our brothers and sisters in Christ today are experiencing. We should not take our freedom and lack of fear of this kind of persecution as something we merit. It’s a gift. We should be thankful for it, but it has not been so for many, and it was not so for the original readers of this.
Sometimes when we think of the first century, we think of the persecution under Nero, where according to good tradition, Peter and Paul are martyred in Rome, and where Christians were thrown to the beasts in the arena. But that was not really a very broad persecution. This persecution in Revelation exists over in Asia, not in Rome. Apparently, Nero’s persecution never went much beyond Rome itself; and the next major time of persecution came under the reign of Domitian. Domitian demanded that his subjects throughout the empire refer to him as Lord and God. And there seem to be allusions to this, with the mark of the beast accepting that kind of a designation, where the evil emperor demands this kind of thing. So it may very well be that the persecution, if you look at a time, fits best the middle of the AD 90’s. There’s some other evidence for this. The city of Laodicea is described as being prosperous in the Book of Revelation, and we know that a devastating earthquake happened in AD 61, and if that’s true you probably need some time for it to regain its prosperity, so the middle of the 90’s would be a fine time for that. As to the church in Smyrna, a bishop there named Polycarp who later is martyred in Rome, mentions that there is no church in Smyrna until after the time of Paul, which would be the late 60’s. So, dating-wise, with its heavy emphasis on the state persecuting people, it looks like the best time for the Book of Revelation to have been written would be the middle-90’s.
The Book of Revelation has a very unusual literary form or literary genre. It’s known as apocalyptic literature. We have in the Old Testament books that are like that. Daniel is most like that, but there are parts of books like Isaiah 24-27, Ezekiel 38-39, Zechariah 9-14; and from the Apocrypha, the Book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Baruch, 2 Esdras, Jubilees, The Testament of the 12 Patriarchs – these are all apocalyptic works.
Apocalyptic literature has various kinds of characteristics. Not all of them are present in every apocalyptic work, but there’s a whole listing of things that indicate a work is essentially apocalyptic:
• The idea that the whole world is divided into two camps, good and evil (God rules the good / Satan the evil);
• sometimes you have pseudepigraphic authorship (that’s not true with Revelation, but it’s true with books like Enoch and 2 Esdras, etc.);
• the idea that we’re living in the end times, and the end of ages is come;
• there’s a great persecution beginning to take place and this is written to help people in persecution (sometimes this kind of literature has been called “Tracts for Hard Times”, something to read in this difficult time);
• there is a moral dualism between God and Satan or good and evil. It is not a metaphysical dualism between flesh or body and spirit – not that philosophical kind of dualism, but a moral dualism; there are lots of cosmic events taking place; symbolism is fantastic (there are angels that intervene, predictions as to when all of this will take place).
There is a close relationship between prophecy and apocalyptic literature. There’s no real sharp difference between them, but a general thing that is associated with one and not the other is that prophecy tends to talk more about this-worldly events, political events. Apocalyptic literature talks more about other-worldly events (the end of history, the end of this planet, etc.). So prophecy many times can talk about Syria, Babylon, or places like that; here, you’re not talking about nations so much. You’re talking about Satan and his evil. You have lots of imagery here that’s very metaphorical. If you’re a literalist and you come to the Book of Revelation, you’re dead. It really has lots and lots of metaphorical imagery, for instance:
• stars falling,
• altars speaking,
• locusts as large as horses with scorpion tails ….
I remember when I was a brand new Christian. I just came to know the Lord, and Johnny Ray was our Sunday School teacher. He was teaching from the Book of Revelation, and when he came to this description of these horses with scorpion-like tails, he said, “Boy, it’s going to be a tough world to live in in those days, when these scorpion-like horses come around and start stinging you.” He took it all very literally. Johnny was a literalist, and a better Christian than I’ll ever be – a wonderful, loving man. But he was the wrong man to teach the Book of Revelation to us, because he didn’t see any of the metaphorical dimension of this. He probably would think that if you saw these as metaphorical you no longer believed the Bible being true, because he was very literalistic this way. But, again, he was a wonderful Christian.
Continuing with our list:
• a lamb here with 7 horns,
• a monster with 10 horns and 7 heads,
• smoke coming out of the mouths of horses with serpent-like tails, etc.
I mentioned that there’s a difference between apocalyptic literature and prophecy. And yet, there’s no real sharp dividing line, and it should be remembered that the writer of this apocalyptic work refers to it as a book of prophecy. He says (1:3), “Blessed is he who reads aloud the words of the prophecy.” And then in chapter 22, when he comes to the end of the book, he again refers back to this as a word of prophecy. And it’s hard to make clear dividing lines. We see in 22:7, “Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” And then in 22:10, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near ….” So you don’t want to make them absolute different genres. I think there’s a dimension in which prophecy in a traditional sense deals more with this edge of the line (dealing with this-worldly events), and other-worldly events would be apocalyptic literature. Please note that the examples of apocalyptic literature I mentioned earlier like Isaiah 24-27, and in Zechariah, and in Ezekiel, all are found in books of prophecy. So there is no absolute, sharp break between them. There are differences in emphases, but there’s no absolute break between them.
There is also a difference between the apocalyptic literature in Judaism (Book of Enoch, 2 Esdras, etc.), where they tend to focus on the far-distant past – the time of Enoch, etc. Revelation doesn’t look back to the far-distant past, but to the near-past, because Jesus is the center of history. And so you’re not looking back thousands of years earlier, but to 60 years or so earlier. And there’s no pseudepigrapha used in this book.
We have heavy use in the symbolism of numbers. The word “seven” is found 54 times in the book. It’s amazing – it seems that the author just came back from Las Vegas, and had been playing dice out there or something. We have seven spirits, seven thunders, seven angels, seven plagues, seven horns, seven eyes, seven trumpets, seven stars, seven lampstands, seven seals, seven bowls, etc. And even when a number is not there, you find seven being used. Look with me at 5:12, “Worthy is the lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.” There are seven things in this list. So, the use of numbers is frequently given there. The number “twelve” occurs 23 times; the number “four” 16 times; and the numbers “six” and three-and-a-half” appear frequently. Use of colors – purple and black and white – which have certain symbolism associated with them are used, and there are other figures, like a woman referring to a city; horns, to the idea of power; wings, referring to mobility ; eyes for knowledge; a sword for the word of God, etc.
If you are going to ask where all this metaphorical terminology comes from, this is a book that is heavily borrowing terminology from the Old Testament. The book that I remember from years ago, an early work – one published before 1910, by R.H. Charles, was a 2-volume commentary on Revelation for the International Critical Commentary series. And I was just amazed, because he spent lots of time showing every Old Testament analogy or example being used in the Book of Revelation. It was absolutely amazing to see how this material comes from the Old Testament. It doesn’t come from other Greek literature; it’s Old Testament material, heavily influenced by that.
The outline is pretty straightforward. You have after the prologue a message to the seven churches, followed by seven seals (with an interlude); then you have seven trumpets (then an interlude); then there is a major section as to a dragon and two beasts; then the seven bowls; the final victory; and the last judgment; the heavenly Jerusalem; and the epilogue. And how they all fit together, we’ll talk about next.