The earliest extant Greek manuscripts, as well as the writings of several Church Fathers beginning with Irenaeus (c. A.D. 130-c. 202), entitle this book simply “Apocalypse of John.” Later, medieval manuscripts elaborated the title to “Apocalypse of John the Theologian and Evangelist” and “Apocalypse of St. John the Theologian.” The name as it stands in the KJV is a variant English rendering of this last title. The Greek word apokalupsis, “apocalypse,”“revelation,” means literally, “an unveiling,” and in religious literature, especially, an unveiling of the future. The apocalyptic was a characteristic literary form among the Jews of the intertestamental and early Christian periods (see Vol. V, pp. 87-90), and also among certain writers of the primitive church (see below on “theme”).
The author of the Revelation repeatedly identifies himself as “John” (chs. 1:1, 4, 9; 21:2; 22:8). The Greek form of this name, Iōannēs (see on Luke 1:13), represents the common Hebrew name Yochanan, “Johanan,” which appears numerous times in the later books of the OT, the Apocrypha, and Josephus. This identifies the author as a Jew.
Various evidences clearly indicate that the name John was that of the author, and not a pseudonym, such as many Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic works bore. First is the fact that, in identifying himself as John, the author of the Revelation makes no attempt to establish himself as holding any position in the church. Various Jewish and Christian apocalypses are attributed to Hebrew patriarchs and prophets and to Christian apostles. If the Revelation were also pseudonymous, it would be expected that its author would attempt to identify himself specifically as an apostle. But the simple statement of the author that his name is John, “your brother” (Rev. 1:9; cf. Peter’s reference to Paul, 2 Peter 3:15), is testimony that he is giving his true name. Obviously the writer was so well known to the churches that his name alone was sufficient to identify him and to lend credence to his record of the visions he had seen.
Furthermore, it appears that the practice of pseudonymity did not flourish when the exercise of the gift of prophecy was vigorous. On the other hand, during the intertestamental period, when, so far as we know, there was no recognized prophet among the Jews, religious writers often felt it necessary to attach the name of some ancient personage of high repute to their work in order to gain for it general acceptance. There was apparently no true prophet speaking for God, as the OT prophets had done. But with the coming of Christianity the gift of prophecy once more flourished. In the Christian church of the 1st century the supposed need for pseudonymity did not exist; Christians were convinced that their apostles and prophets spoke directly for God. But when the prophetic office among Christians fell into disrepute and finally disappeared in the 2d century, pseudonymous works bearing names of various apostles began to appear (see Vol. VI, pp. 41, 42). In the light of these facts it is reasonable to conclude that the Revelation, coming from the 1st century, is not pseudonymous, but is the work of a man whose real name was John.
Who was this John? The NT mentions several men by this name, the Baptist, the son of Zebedee, who was one of the Twelve, John, who was surnamed Mark, and a certain relative of the high priest Annas (see on Acts 4:6). Obviously the author of the Revelation could not be John the Baptist, for that John died before the crucifixion of Jesus; nor is there any reasonable probability that it was the relative of Annas, of whom there is no indication that he ever became a Christian. Similarly, there is little evidence that John Mark was the author of the Revelation. The style, wording, and approach of the second Gospel are quite different from those of the Revelation, and there is no evidence that anyone in the early church ever seriously connected the Revelation with Mark.
By a process of elimination, John the son of Zebedee and the brother of James is left for consideration. He was not only one of the Twelve but also a member of Jesus’ inner circle. Almost unanimously early Christian tradition recognizes him as the author of the Revelation. In fact, every Christian writer until the middle of the 3d century, whose works are extant today and who mentions the matter at all, attributes the Revelation to John the apostle. These writers are Justin Martyr at Rome (c. A.D. 100-c. 165; Dialogue With Trypho 81), Irenaeus at Lyons (c. A.D. 130-c. 202; Against Heresies iv. 20. 11), Tertullian at Carthage (c. A.D. 160-c. 240; On Prescription Against Heretics 36), Hippolytus at Rome (died c. A.D. 220; Who Is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved? xlii). These testimonies demonstrate the strong and widespread belief in the early church that the author of the Revelation was the apostle John. Furthermore, several early Christian traditions associate the later years of John with the city of Ephesus. Thus Irenaeus (op. cit. iii. 3. 4; ANF vol. 1, p. 416) declares that in his youth he had seen the aged Polycarp of Smyrna, who “conversed with many who had seen Christ,” among them John, who had remained permanently at Ephesus until the days of Trajan (A.D. 98-117). Polycrates (A.D. 130-c. 200), bishop of Ephesus, the eighth of his family to be a Christian bishop, testifies that the John “who reclined on the Lord’s bosom, ... he rests at Ephesus” (Epistle to Victor and the Roman Church Concerning the Day of Keeping the Passover; ANF, vol. 8, p. 773). These statements coincide with the fact that John addresses himself to Ephesus and the other churches of Asia (Rev. 1:4, 11).
The only testimony during this period that would seem to discount the view that the author of the Revelation was the apostle John comes from the early Christian Father Papias (died c. A.D. 163). The works of Papias are lost, and all that is extant from his works is contained in highly fragmentary form in quotations preserved by later writers. Two of these relate to John’s death. One, a manuscript from the 7th or 8th century A.D., which appears to be an epitome of the Chronicle by Philip of Side (5th century), declares:
“‘Papias in his second book says that John the Divine and James his brother were slain by the Jews’” (in R. H. Charles, Revelation [International Critical Commentary], Vol. 1, p. xlvi). Similarly, a manuscript of the Chronicle of Georgius Hamartolus (c. A.D. 860) says, “‘For Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis, being an eyewitness of this, in the second book of the Lord’s sayings, says that he [John] was destroyed by the Jews, plainly fulfilling, with his brother, Christ’s prediction concerning them’” (Greek text in H. B. Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John, p. clxxv).
At first sight these quotations would seem to indicate that a Christian official living in the late 1st and early 2d centuries and in the vicinity of Ephesus testified that the apostle John was, like his brother, killed by the Jews too early to have written the Revelation in the time of either Nero or Domitian, the periods in which scholars usually place it (see below on “historical setting”). On closer scrutiny, however, several questions must be raised in regard to these quotations. The fact that the passage from the Oxford manuscript refers to John as “the theologian” indicates that the quotation has undergone some modification by a medieval scribe, for this title is not applied to John in any extant Bible manuscript before the 8th century, and it is virtually inconceivable that Papias could have used it. The second quotation, from Georgius Hamartolus, is found in only one manuscript of that writer. Other manuscripts of his work say simply that John died in peace, but apparently they do not quote Papias at all. Consequently it is difficult to know just what Papias said regarding the death of John. If he did write that John, like James, was killed by the Jews, by no means does it follow that their deaths occurred at, or even near, the same time. The Revelation itself reveals that at the time of its writing the Jews still were causing difficulty for Christians, and if John did finally suffer a martyr’s death, it may well have been the result of Jewish machinations.
A third quotation from Papias is recorded by the church historian Eusebius (d. A.D. 340):
“And I shall not hesitate to append to the interpretations all that I ever learnt well from the presbyters and remember well, for of their truth I am confident.... But if ever anyone came who had followed the presbyters, I inquired into the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or Peter or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any other of the Lord’s disciples, had said [Gr. eipen], and what Aristion and the presbyter John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying [Gr. legousin]. For I did not suppose that information from books would help me so much as the word of a living and surviving voice” (Ecclesiastical History iii. 39, 3, 4; Loeb ed., vol. 1, pp. 291, 293).
This passage has been the subject of much conjecture. Eusebius interpreted it to mean that there were two men by the name of John who had lived in Asia in the late 1st century—the apostle, and another man who was a presbyter, or elder. Eusebius’ opinion was that this latter man was the one whom Papias had known personally and that it was he who had written the Revelation, whereas the apostle had been the author of the Gospel.
It is possible, however, to interpret Papias’ words in another way. As the German New Testament scholar Zahn (Introduction to the New Testament, 2d ed., vol. 2 pp. 451- 453) has pointed out, in Papias’ statement there is no real distinction made between presbyters and apostles. Papias says that he “inquired into the words of the presbyters,” and immediately goes on to list apostles; then when he mentions “the presbyter John” he identifies him at once as one of “the Lord’s disciples.” The real distinction between the two groups he mentions lies in the words eipen, “said,” and legousin, “were saying,” which suggests that those in the first group mentioned were disciples of Jesus who had lived and borne their testimony before Papias’ time, whereas those in the second group were still living, and available for information in his day. If Irenaeus’ testimony (see p. 716) is accepted, the apostle John would be included in both groups, and so might conceivably be mentioned twice.
Eusebius’ effort to derive two Johns from Papias’ statement is made more understandable by the fact that his conclusions were influenced by the work of Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria (d. A.D. 265; see Eusebius op. cit. vii. 24, 25). In reaction against some Christians who were stressing a literal millennium, Dionysius wrote a work entitled A Treatise on the Promises, in which he sought to show by scholarly arguments that the Revelation was not written by the apostle John, but by another man of the same name. Dionysius is the first Church Father to question the apostolic authorship of the Revelation, and his arguments have remained the classic ones for those scholars who share his point of view.
Dionysius centered his criticisms chiefly about the fact that there are obvious differences between the language of the Gospel and that of the Revelation. The vocabularies of the two books portray marked differences; a number of words that occur with particular frequency in one are found but infrequently in the other. The following examples are particularly striking: kosmos, “world,” appears in John 79 times, but in the Revelation only 3 times; alētheia, “truth,” in John 25 times, in the Revelation not at all; phōs, “light,” in John 22 times, in the Revelation 3 times; agapaō, “to love,” in John 37 times, in the Revelation 4 times; pisteuō, “to believe,” in John 100 times, in the Revelation not at all; alla, “but,” in John more than 100 times, in the Revelation 13 times; enōpion, “before,” in John once, in the Revelation 36 times; emos, “mine,” in John 42 times, in the Revelation once. In referring to Christ as “the Lamb,” the Gospel always uses the word amnos, whereas the Revelation always uses arnion, both of which mean “lamb.” In the Gospel, Jerusalem is always Hierosoluma, whereas in the Revelation it is consistently Hierousalem ̄.Dionysius also pointed out the fact that the Greek of the Gospel of John is correct and idiomatic, whereas that of the Revelation contains a number of passages that are unusual and cannot be explained in terms of correct Greek grammar and syntax. In view of these marked differences between the Gospel and the Revelation, Dionysius concluded that they were not by the same author. These criticisms appear to have had a wide influence upon the thinking of the Eastern Church in regard to the apostolicity, and therefore the canonicity, of the Revelation. Not only did Eusebius record the details of Dionysius’ arguments, but he sought to establish them further by the passage from Papias quoted above. Similarly, in regard to the canonicity of Revelation, he reported:
Of the writings of John in addition to the gospel the first of his epistles has been accepted without controversy by ancients and moderns alike but the other two are disputed, and as to the Revelation there have been many advocates of either opinion up to the present (op. cit. iii. 24. 17, 18; Loeb ed., vol. 1, pp. 255, 257).
Although the evidence adduced by Dionysius to indicate two Johns is weighty, several other facts must be considered before a judgment is made. The view of Dionysius and Eusebius rests chiefly on two points—the ambiguous quotation from Papias, and Dionysius’ arguments from linguistic differences between the Gospel and the Revelation. Although it cannot be proved that Papias did not refer to two different men by the name of John, if he did, his testimony—in so far as it may be used as evidence for the nonapostolic authorship of the Revelation—is contradicted by a half dozen other Church Fathers (see p. 716). Particularly important in this regard are the statements of Irenaeus, who himself had personal contact with Polycarp, a contemporary of both John and Papias. He seems to have known of only one John, the apostle, and states clearly that this one wrote the Revelation. In view of this, it seems reasonable to conclude that Papias’ ambiguous statement must not be pressed strongly as proof of the existence of two Johns.
The linguistic differences between the Gospel and the Revelation are significant. Although differences in subject matter and style, which obviously exist between the two books, may account to some extent for the divergent vocabularies, one writer does not ordinarily vary so widely in his use of such words as alla, enōpion, and emos (see p. 718). Regardless of subject matter or literary form, the same writer commonly uses or omits such words quite unconsciously. When two works vary as widely as do the Gospel and the Revelation in the employment of these words, it may seem difficult at first to think that they represent the work of the same writer.
However, this fact in itself does not necessarily mean that John was not the author of both works. The circumstances under which the two books seem to have been written may reasonably account for such differences as exist. In the Revelation, John declares that he received its visions while he “was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus” (ch. 1:9). That John was an exile there would imply that he was forced to rely upon his own linguistic abilities in the composition of the Revelation. Therefore it is not surprising that the language of this book is not always idiomatic, that Semiticisms sometimes shine through the Greek, and that its author was not at all times sure of his grammar. Such a situation is quite in keeping with the circumstances under which John is known to have written the Revelation. Furthermore, the visions were apparently written down as the scenes passed vividly before the prophet’s eyes (see ch. 10:4). John may have purposely avoided revision lest the sense of drama be lost.
On the other hand, early Christian tradition indicates that the Gospel was written under entirely different conditions. The Muratorian Fragment, composed at Rome probably about A.D. 170—only a few decades after John’s disciple Polycarp had visited there—declares:
The fourth of the Gospels is of John, one of the disciples. When encouraged by his fellow-disciples and bishops, he said to them: “Fast together with me the next three days, and whatever shall be revealed to each of us we shall recount to one another.” That night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that while they all revised, John should narrate it all in his own name (Latin text in S. P. Tregelles, ed., Canon Muratorianus, pp. 17, 18).
Although this story obviously has fanciful features, such as the presence of Andrew and other apostles with John at the time he wrote the Gospel, it still may retain a kernel of truth, suggesting that in the composition of the Gospel, John may have had assistance. That this may have been so is indicated also by a statement attributed to Papias, preserved in a 10th-century manuscript:
This Gospel, then, it is clear, was written after the Apocalypse, and was given to the churches in Asia by John, being still in the body, as the bishop of Hierapolis, Papias by name, a beloved disciple of John, who wrote this Gospel with John by dictation, recounts in his Exoterica, that is, in the last five books (Latin text in Wordsworth and White, Novum Testamentum ... Latine, vol. 1, pp. 490, 491).
Although the details of this account cannot be taken as proved, these two statements strongly suggest that in the 2d century the idea was abroad that John had composed his Gospel with the assistance of others. In the light of this very early tradition, the statement at the end of his Gospel, “This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true” (ch. 21:24), would seem to be the affidavit of John’s helpers to the truth of his account. If this reconstruction of the evidence is correct, it is not difficult to account for the linguistic and literary differences that exist between the Revelation, written probably when John was alone on Patmos, and the Gospel, written with the help of one or more fellow believers at Ephesus.
To the foregoing evidence may be added the fact that there are certain striking literary parallels between the Revelation and the Gospel of John that suggest identity of authorship. Thus the Revelation speaks of “water of life” (chs. 21:6; 22:17), and the Gospel of “living water” (chs. 4:10; 7:38). The Revelation invites, “Let him that is athirst come” (ch. 22:17), and the Gospel declares, “If any man thirst, let him come” (ch. 7:37). The word opsis, “appearance,” or “face,” is used in the NT only in the Johannine writings (John 7:24; 11:44; Rev. 1:16). The same is true of the expression tērein ton logon, “keep my saying [or, “word”]” (John 8:51, 52, 55; 14:23, 24; 15:20; 17:6; 1 John 2:5; Rev. 3:8, 10; 22:7, 9), and onoma autō, “his name,” literally, “a name to him” (John 1:6; 3:1; Rev. 6:8). Except where direct reference is made to OT symbolism, Christ is characterized as the Lamb only in the Gospel of John and in the Revelation (John 1:29, 36; Rev. 5:6; and 28 other times).
Therefore, although evidence may be presented against the Johannine authorship of the Revelation, it must be recognized that the arguments for the traditional view, that the author of the Revelation was the apostle John, are reasonable and sound. This commentary accepts the traditional view. Compare AA 578-585.
3. Historical Setting.
Modern scholars are divided as to whether the writing of the Revelation should be assigned to a comparatively early date during the reign of Nero (A.D. 54-68; see Vol. VI, p. 81) or to that of Vespasian (A.D. 69-79; see Vol. VI, p. 86), or to a later date toward the end of the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81-96; see Vol. VI, p. 86).
Generally, those scholars who prefer an early date for the Revelation identify the persecution referred to in the letters to the seven churches as that suffered by Christians under Nero (A.D. 64), or possibly subsequently under Vespasian, although it is not clear to what extent the latter emperor persecuted the church. They believe that the disordered world portrayed by the Revelation reflects the troubles that disturbed the city of Rome from the last years of Nero to the early years of Vespasian. They see in the beast that suffers a deadly wound and is healed (ch. 13:3) and in the beast that “was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit” (ch. 17:8) a representation of Nero, of whom, after his death, a popular legend declared that he would one day reappear. Similarly they see the mystic number 666 (ch. 13:18) as symbolic of Nero Caesar, when spelled in Hebrew consonantal letters (Nrwn Qsr). These evidences have led a number of outstanding scholars to date the Revelation in the late 60’s or 70’s of the 1st century.
This reasoning, though apparently based on historical incidents, depends for its plausibility on the interpretation given to certain of the statements in the Revelation. But such an interpretation is, of course, subjective, and has not been accepted by many able scholars in the past. Nor is it accepted by this commentary, which believes that the prophecies of the Revelation have an application also to what is beyond the immediate and local situation (cf. on ch. 1:11). Any evidence for the date of the writing of the Revelation must be based primarily, at least, on other kinds of evidence and reasoning. The testimony of early Christian writers is almost unanimous that the book of Revelation was written during the reign of Domitian. Irenaeus, who claims to have had a personal connection with John through Polycarp, declares of the Revelation, “For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign” (op. cit. v. 30. 3; ANF, vol. 1, pp. 559, 560). Victorinus (died c. A.D. 303) says, “When John said these things he was in the island of Patmos, condemned to the labour of the mines by Caesar Domitian. There, therefore, he saw the Apocalypse” (Commentary on the Apocalypse, on ch. 10:11; ANF, vol. 7, p. 353; see on Rev. 1:9). Eusebius (op. cit. iii. 20. 8, 9) records that John was sent to Patmos by Domitian, and that when those who had been unjustly banished by Domitian were released by his successor, Nerva (A.D. 96- 98; see Vol. VI, p. 87), the apostle returned to Ephesus.
Such early Christian testimony leads the authors of this commentary to place the writing of the Revelation during the time of Domitian’s reign, which ended in A.D. 96.
It is interesting, therefore, to mention briefly something of the conditions existing in the empire particularly as they affect Christians during the time of Domitian. It was under this emperor that the question of emperor worship became, for the first time, a crucial issue for Christians. Nowhere was this more true than in the Roman province of Asia, the area to which the letters to the seven churches were first directed. See on ch. 1:1, 11.
Emperor worship existed in some Mediterranean lands before Alexander the Great. He had been deified, as had his successors. When the Romans conquered the East, their generals and proconsuls were often hailed as deities. This was especially true in the province of Asia, where the Romans had always been popular. It was common to build temples to the goddess Roma, a personification of the spirit of empire, and with her worship was associated that of the emperors. In 195 B.C. a temple was erected to her at Smyrna. In 29 B.C. Augustus granted permission for the building of a temple at Ephesus for the joint worship of Roma and Julius Caesar, and of one at Pergamum for the worship of Roma and himself. This was the first instance of a cult for a living emperor. Augustus did not urge the worship of himself, but in view of the desires of the local people he doubtless considered such worship a wise measure from a political point of view. Gradually, in these cults, the worship of Roma became less important and that of the emperor became the salient feature. Worship of the emperor by no means replaced that of the local gods, but was added, and served as a means of uniting the empire. Rituals in worship of the emperor were not always easily distinguishable from patriotic ceremonies. At the same time the worship of a living emperor was discouraged at Rome, although the Senate did officially deify certain dead emperors.
Gaius Caligula (A.D. 37-41) was the first emperor to urge the worship of himself. He persecuted the Jews for refusing to worship him, and doubtless would also have directed his wrath at Christians had they been significant enough at the time for his notice. His successors were more lenient on the question and did not persecute for nonconformity.
The next emperor to make an issue over the worship of himself was Domitian (A.D. 81-96). Christianity was as yet without legal recognition by the Roman government (see p. 573), but even such a religion as that was not likely to be persecuted by the Romans unless it ran afoul of the law. Now Christianity did just that. Domitian zealously sought to establish his claim to deity in the minds of the populace, and to force his subjects to worship him. Suetonius records that he issued a circular letter in the name of his procurators, beginning with the words, “‘Our Master and our God bids that this be done’” (Domitian xiii. 2; Loeb ed., Suetonius vol. 2, p. 367).
An intriguing passage from the Roman historian Dio (Roman History lxvii. 14. 1-3; Loeb ed., vol. 8, p. 349) seems to throw some light on this persecution:
And the same year [A.D. 95] Domitian slew, along with many others, Flavius Clemens the consul, although he was a cousin and had to wife Flavia Domitilla, who was also a relative of the emperor’s. The charge brought against them both was that of atheism, a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned. Some of these were put to death, and the rest were at least deprived of their property. Domitilla was merely banished to Pandateria.
Although on first sight this passage seems to record a persecution of Jews (and according to the Jewish historian H. Graetz, Domitian’s cousin was a Jewish proselyte [History of the Jews, vol. 2, pp. 387-389]), scholars have suggested that it is really Christianity for which Flavius Clemens and his wife were punished. From the standpoint of a pagan historian not intimately acquainted with Christianity, “Jewish ways” would be a logical description for Christianity, and “atheism” might well represent the refusal of Christians to worship the emperor. Eusebius (op. cit. iii. 18. 4), apparently confusing the relationship between Domitilla and Clemens, says that Domitian exiled a niece of Clemens, named Flavia Domitilla, because she was a Christian. Probably the two references are to the same person, and they suggest that the persecution involved even the imperial family.
Such conditions of persecution for refusal to worship at the emperor’s shrine doubtless constitute the immediate background of John’s exile to Patmos, and thus of the writing of the book of Revelation. Apparently all the twelve apostles but John were dead, and he was an exile on the isle of Patmos. Christianity had entered its second generation. Most of those who had known the Master were now in their graves. The church was faced with the fiercest external threat it had yet known, and it needed a new revelation of Jesus Christ. Thus, the visions given to John met a specific need in their own time. Through them heaven was opened to the suffering church, and Christians, who refused to bow to the pomp and circumstance of the emperor, were given reassurance that their Lord, now ascended and standing at the throne of God, infinitely transcended in majesty and power any earthy monarch who might demand their worship. See AA 581-583. For the significance of emperor worship in relation to John’s statement regarding the “Lord’s day” see on ch. 1:10.
At the very beginning (ch. 1:1) this book announces itself as an apocalypse, an unveiling of the mysteries of the future culminating in the triumph of Jesus Christ. Apocalyptic writings had been a prominent type of Jewish religious literature for more than two centuries. Indeed, the first-known apocalypse, the book of Daniel, appeared at the time of the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century B.C. When the Maccabean wars once more brought political independence to the Jews 400 years later, Messianic expectations looking toward the expected new Jewish kingdom ran high, and gave rise to a body of apocalyptic literature that drew to a greater or less degree on the literary form and symbols of Daniel. When, in the following century, Roman conquest dashed the hopes of the Jews for the realization of a Messianic kingdom through the Hasmonaeans (see Vol. V, p. 34), Messianic expectations became, if anything, more intense as the Jews anticipated a messiah who would overthrow the Romans. During the 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D. such hopes continued to provide the incentive for more apocalyptic works. For a survey of Jewish apocalyptic literature see Vol. V, pp. 87- 90.
It is not surprising, then, that in the NT, written largely, if not entirely, by Jews for a church that was chiefly Jewish in its religious background, God would place an apocalypse setting forth the lead up to and usher in the Messianic kingdom. In His messages to men through the prophets God expresses His will in human languages and in literary forms with which the people to whom His messages were originally addressed were familiar.
Although apocalypse is, indeed, prophecy, it differs from other Biblical prophecy (such as that in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Minor Prophets) in several important aspects, and these distinctive features are the earmarks of apocalyptic literature. Particularly significant among these distinguishing characteristics are the following:
1. The Cosmic Sweep of Apocalyptic. Whereas most prophecy is concerned largely with national and international problems centering chiefly in the history of Israel and the glorious future that might have been hers (see Vol. IV, pp. 25-38), apocalyptic plays upon the grander stage of the universe, and takes as its central theme the great controversy between God and Christ on the one hand, and Satan on the other.
2. The Basis of Apocalyptic in Visions and Dreams. The apocalyptic writer records the dreams and visions granted him while “in the Spirit” (see on ch. 1:10). He is often snatched away and carried to distant places, where he beholds scenes of majesty and grandeur that defy adequate description in human language, and where he converses with angels. Although such experiences are found repeatedly in the other prophets also, they are particularly characteristic of apocalyptic writings; so much so, in fact, that they form virtually the whole content of the apocalyptic sections of Daniel and of the Revelation.
3. the Use of Allegory in Apocalyptic. In prophecy, generally speaking, the symbols are concrete object lessons from everyday life; for instance, the potter and the clay (Jer. 18:1-10), the yoke (Jer. 27:2), and the tile (Eze. 4:1, 2). In apocalyptic prophecy, on the other hand, the symbols employed are almost always creatures never seen as such in actual life, such as multiheaded beasts, angels flying in heaven, and animals that speak and act with intelligence. Similarly, time periods, though rare in conventional prophecy, are generally given there in literal years (see Jer. 29:10), whereas in Daniel and in the Revelation, time periods repeatedly are used, and usually are to be understood on the basis of the year-day principle.
4. The Literary Form of Apocalyptic. Much prophecy is in poetic form, whereas apocalyptic prophecy (and similarly noncanonical literature) is almost entirely in prose, with only an occasional insertion of poetry, particularly in the case of hymns (see Rev. 4:11; 5:9, 10; 11:17, 18; 15:3, 4; 18:2-24; 19:1, 2, 6-8).
These considerations give point to the rule that to be rightly interpreted apocalyptic writing must be understood in terms of its characteristic literary structure and theological emphasis. Central to its message is the theme of the great controversy, with particular focus upon the cataclysmic end of this world and the establishment of the new. All this is portrayed in highly symbolic language, which may not always admit of exact interpretation (see on Eze. 1:10). In speaking of supernal things, literal language is sometimes utterly inadequate to convey the subtler realities of heaven. In some respects the figurative language of apocalyptic is similar to that of parables, and the same precautions are to be taken in interpreting both (see Vol. V, p. 204; cf. Vol. III, p. 1111).
The book is a revelation of Jesus Christ at work perfecting a people on earth so that they may reflect His flawless character, and guiding His church through the vicissitudes of history toward the accomplishment of His eternal purpose. Here more completely than elsewhere in Holy Writ the curtain that separates the invisible from the visible is drawn aside in order to reveal, “behind, above, and through all the play and counterplay of human interests and power and passions, the agencies of the all-merciful One, silently, patiently working out the counsels of His own will” (Ed 173).
Revelation consists of four major divisions, or lines of prophecy:
(4) closing events of the great controversy, chs. 12-22.
Particularly in view of the fact that the language of the book is often highly figurative, it is essential to discover the intent and purpose of the inspired writer, and the meaning the book conveyed to the readers to whom it was originally addressed. Otherwise, the interpretation of its figures, and thus its message, may reflect mere personal opinion. Those first intended readers were Greek-speaking Christians who, whether Jew or Gentile, considered the writings of the OT canon to be the inspired Word of God (see on John 5:39; Acts 24:14; 2 Tim. 3:16, 17), and who would be disposed to interpret the new revelation in terms of the old. Accordingly, the following observations and principles will be found useful in an interpretation of the book.
“In the Revelation all the books of the Bible meet and end,” and in a special sense, it “is the complement of the book of Daniel” (AA 585). Much of what was sealed in the book of Daniel (see on Dan. 12:4) is unsealed in the book of Revelation, and the two must be studied together. The Revelation contains citations from, or allusions to, 28 of the 39 books of the OT. According to one authority there are 505 such citations and allusions, some 325 of which are to the prophetic books of the OT—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel in particular. Of the Minor Prophets, references to Zechariah, Joel, Amos, and Hosea are most common. Of the books of the Pentateuch, greatest use is made of Exodus, and of the poetic sections, Psalms (see on Luke 24:44). Some also find reflections from the NT books of Matthew, Luke, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Thessalonians. For illustrations of the way in which John borrows the language and figures of the OT see Additional Note on Rev. 18; see on Isa. 47:1; Jer. 25:12; 50:1; Eze. 26:13. An examination of the citations and allusions makes evident that he translated directly from the Hebrew OT, though at times under the influence of the LXX or a later Greek version.
A clear understanding of these citations and allusions in their historical setting in the OT is the first step toward understanding the passages where they occur in the Revelation. Study may then be given to the context in which John uses them, to ascertain their adapted meaning. In particular this applies to the names of persons and places, and to things, incidents, and events. Since many of the symbols of the book of Revelation were already known in extant Jewish apocalyptic literature, this literature is sometimes helpful by way of clarifying these symbols. Those familiar with contemporary Roman history will also observe that John’s language is often descriptive of the Roman Empire and of the experiences of the church under its sway. Accordingly, a study of Roman history of the period clarifies some otherwise cryptic passages. Finally, attention should be given to contemporary modes of thought and expression, in the light of the cultural background of the time.
In determining the import of the successive scenes that passed before John in vision, it is well to remember that the Revelation was given to guide, comfort, and strengthen the church, not only in his day, but throughout the Christian Era, to the very close of time (see AA 581, 585). Herein the history of the church was foretold for the benefit of, and vital counsel was addressed to, believers of apostolic times, to Christians of future ages, and to those living in the last days of earth’s history, in order that all might have an intelligent understanding of the perils and conflicts before them (see AA 583, 584). For instance, the names of the seven churches are symbolic of the church in different periods of history. The local church at Ephesus accordingly became a symbol of the entire Christian fellowship in apostolic times, but the message addressed to it was placed on record for the encouragement of believers in every age (see AA 578, 585).
It is reasonable to conclude that the characterization of, and admonition to, the church at Ephesus was particularly appropriate to the needs of that church at the time the message was written. It was similarly appropriate to the needs of the entire Christian church in the apostolic age, and thus, in brief, represents the experience of that period of the history of the church. It was recorded for the inspiration and encouragement of believers in every age, for under similar circumstances the same principles apply. By analogy, the same is true of the messages to the other churches. In view of the fact that the focus of each of the four major lines of prophecy is on the closing scenes of earth’s history, the messages of the book of Revelation have particular import for the church today.
That a single prophetic passage may embrace more than one fulfillment is evident (see on Deut. 18:15). Some such prophecies have both an immediate and a more remote fulfillment, and in addition contain principles that are generally applicable at all times. Furthermore, “it should be remembered that the promises and the threatenings of God are alike conditional” (EGW MS 4, 1883).
Thus certain predictions that might have met their complete fulfillment at an earlier stage of earth’s history have been deferred because of the failure of the church to measure up to its privileges and opportunities (see Vol. IV, pp. 30-34).