Introduction to Revelation
This final book of the Bible—final in time of writing, final in standard canonical order, and final in terms of both historical record and promised fulfillment—is the most exciting of all! It records the restoration of all things to God’s created perfection in the beginning, and the consummation of all His purposes in creation.
At the same time, because of its pervasively prophetic nature, its interpretation has been extremely controversial, and many Christians simply ignore it because of this fact. This is a grave mistake, for prophetic revelation becomes more and more important as the time of prophetic fulfillment nears. Even though we cannot know when Christ will return, we do know that the time gets closer with every passing day, so our concern with prophecy should likewise grow day by day.
The author of the “Revelation” (Greek apokalypsis, meaning “unveiling of something heretofore hidden”) is the Apostle John, the same as the author of the Gospel of John and the three epistles of John. There have been many who have disputed this fact, but the arguments for Johanine authorship are compelling.
The author of Revelation identifies himself simply as John, no less than four times (Revelation 1:1, 4, 9; 21:2; 22:8). It is unreasonable to think that some other person of the same name would do this, knowing the reputation of the Apostle John among the very churches among whom his book would be circulated. He would surely call himself “John the Younger” or some other name to distinguish himself from the venerable “John.” Otherwise he would be involved in deliberate deception, and the book of Revelation should never have been included in the canon of Scripture at all. But the fact is that it was so included from the earliest times. It was accepted by all the main church fathers (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Papias, Tertullian, etc.) as authentically Johannine.
Furthermore, the vocabulary and concepts of Revelation are very compatible with those of the Gospel of John, and the first epistle of John, despite the vast differences in purpose and scope (John being history, I John exhortation, and Revelation prophecy). The author writes from exile on the Isle of Patmos, which is directly off the coast of Asia Minor opposite Ephesus, the city and church where early church history uniformly agrees John the Apostle ministered during his later years. Several early writers report that John was exiled during the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Domitian, and that he was allowed to return to Ephesus following Domitian’s death in A.D. 96. Evidently, he wrote the book while on Patmos, finishing it and circulating it among the “seven churches of Asia” immediately after his return.
The purpose of the book was “to shew unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass” (Revelation 1:1) and to complete the canon of Scripture. There had been many prophecies given before, in both Old and New Testaments, but Revelation pulls them all together, filling in all the gaps and adding all the new revelation that would be needed to guide the church from then until the return of Christ. The Lord had promised that the Holy Spirit would “shew you things to come” (John 16:13), and He finally fulfilled that promise through John in the book of Revelation.
The Old Testament Scriptures had been completed through the prophet Malachi, and now the New Testament Scriptures, which were to be given through Christ’s “apostles and prophets” (note Ephesians 2:19–3:5) would be completed through the last of the apostles and prophets, the Apostle John who had been allowed to live to a very old age, in effect as it were, to “tarry till I come” (John 21:22). And now Jesus had come, “to shew unto His servants the things which must shortly be done” (Revelation 22:6) to bring to completion God’s great plan of the ages and finally to usher in His eternal kingdom in the new heavens and new earth.
Then, when Christ’s revelation to and through His beloved disciple John was complete, He issued this sober warning: “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book” (Revelation 22:18). Therefore, let no man after John, the last of God’s holy apostles and prophets, presume to add any revelation to “these things.” No longer does anyone have a legitimate gift of prophetic revelation, nor have there been any apostles after John. God’s revelation to man has been completed with the Book of Revelation, and there is no need for any further revelation until Christ comes. God, through Paul, had said that “prophecies…shall fail” when they are no longer needed, “when that which is perfect [i.e., complete] shall come” (I Corinthians 13:8,10).
The problem with reading this book is that there have been so many interpretations of Revelation that most people believe it is impossible to understand, and so do not read it at all. They, thereby, miss a great blessing. The book of Revelation is the only book of the Bible which promises a special blessing to those who read it, or even to those who hear it read (Revelation 1:3). But how could any book be a blessing if it cannot be understood?
Perhaps the problem is not that it is hard to understand, but rather that it is hard to believe! The reason there have been so many interpretations is that expositors believe it cannot possibly mean what it says, so they attempt alternate explanations.
For example, many advocate the “historical” interpretation, attempting to match the symbols of Revelation with the various events of church history. Such correlations vary widely with the individual expositor. Others favor the “preterist” interpretation, which seeks to explain all the symbols in terms of current events of the first two or three centuries during the time of terrible persecutions of the church under the Roman Empire. Still others advocate an “idealist” interpretation, which in effect abandons all attempts to relate the symbols of Revelation to real events of any kind, assuming that all are simply various ways of picturing the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
These and other non-literal interpretations of Revelation vary widely in detail, testifying more to the relative ingenuity of the interpreters than anything else. Even the various “literalist” expositors often rely on their own interpretation of many of the different symbols in the book, and therefore come up with different schemes of literal interpretation (pre-millennial, post-millennial, a-millennial, sequential, cyclic, pre-tribulation, post-tribulation, mid-tribulation, partial rapture, pre-wrath rapture, etc.). It can, indeed, be confusing to an unsophisticated Bible student.
It would seem, based on the stated purpose of the book, that the best interpretation is no interpretation! That is, since its purpose was to be a blessing to its readers and to unveil the future to them, it would be written as simply and understandably as possible. Thus it would mean precisely what it says, with no interpretation necessary at all. When symbols or figures of speech are used, their purpose is not to confuse or mystify the reader, but to clarify and emphasize the truth being discussed. If such symbols are not so obvious as to be self-explanatory, they are explained in the immediate context or in the broader context of Scripture as a whole (with which the reader presumably already should be familiar). Because these coming judgments are to be so severe and so global, scholarly interpreters find them hard to believe, not hard to understand.
Therefore the explanatory footnotes in this Defender’s Bible seek to defend the statements of the Apostle John as meaning exactly what they say, no matter how difficult to believe they may seem to the modern mind. The book of Revelation was written to reveal, to unveil, to bless, and, above all, to be understood, as God’s final revelation to man before Christ’s return to fulfill all its prophecies.
John is simply reporting what he saw and heard, as he was translated—in time as well as space (God being Creator of both!)—to be an actual eye-witness of these great future events. It is significant that he used the words “I heard” exactly twenty-eight times in the book (i.e., 4 x 7), and the words “I saw” (or “looked,” or “beheld”—same Greek word) forty-nine times (i.e., 7 x 7). Thus, he asserted that “I saw” or “I heard” seventy-seven times (11 x 7) throughout the book’s twenty-two chapters. He is merely reporting, as a direct eyewitness and ear-hearer, of these things to come. He means to tell us they will occur exactly as written, because he was there, and saw them happen!
This pervasive “seven-ness” of Revelation is noteworthy. The word “seven” occurs in Revelation more often than in all the rest of the New Testament put together. There are seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven scrolls, seven thunders, etc. The number “seven” has always been considered to represent fullness, or completion, the reason being that God’s creation of the universe was completed on the seventh day of the primeval creation week.
Ever since creation, mankind has been keeping time in terms of seven-day weeks, commemorating God’s complete creation. In the book of Revelation, the “seal of the seven” throughout the book is thus subtly reminding us that His work of redemption and restoration of His creation is likewise about to be completed.
The great judgments that are to be unleashed on the Christ-rejecting world are not only punitive, but also restorative. The primeval “very good” creation (Genesis 1:31) is to be restored to its original perfection in the “new earth” (or better, “earth made new again”), with all effects of the Edenic curse removed (Revelation 22:3). There will be no more death, crying, sorrow, or pain (Revelation 21:4). Christ the Creator/Redeemer will “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Once again there will be “the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7), and all the redeemed of all the ages from all the nations will be there with their Lord, and with Him “they shall reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 22:5).