Biblical historians have never come up with a satisfactory answer as to who wrote this book. Many think it was St John the Apostle while others think that the writing is not in St John’s style. We can be certain that the author is named John as he uses that name in the opening verse. Perhaps we should try and concentrate on the message contained in the work and leave the identity of the writer to be discovered on the other side of the grave.
The word Apocalypse means Revelation. The book is the Bible’s climatic and concluding prophecy. It completes the message of all the biblical prophets by disclosing the way in which the rule of God over his whole creation is finally to come about. It is the most obscure of the New Testament writings and, in order to avoid the gross misinterpretations to which it has so often been subject, it is essential to appreciate the kind of literature it is. Revelation is both a circular letter and an apocalyptic prophecy. Both categories help us to read it correctly.
A Circular Letter. Revelation is a circular letter to the seven churches of the Roman province of Asia at the end of then 1st century. The seven messages to these churches are not themselves letters but introductions to the rest of the book. Each is a prophetic analysis of the state of one of those churches. Each addresses one local variation of the broader context which the prophecies of the rest of the book address. This means that, just as when we read one of Paul’s letters we have to remember the 1st century context to which it was initially addressed, so we cannot hope to understand Revelation if we ignore the situation of the first readers. Although Revelation does portray the final completion of God’s purposes for the world, it does this in direct relation to the situation of its first readers. It calls them to share in God’s victory over the anti-Christian forces of their time and place – the power and influence of Rome and pagan culture. As we can tell from the seven messages, not all of these Christians were suffering persecution. Many of them were avoiding suffering by compromising with pagan society and Roman power. Revelation is written not only to encourage those who are already suffering, but also to stir the complacent to uncompromising witness to God and to enable them to face the persecution which will come if they are faithful to Jesus Christ.
Apocalyptic Prophecy grew out of times of persecution. It was resistance literature, seeking to give hope to the persecuted. So, it was coded, to keep the persecutor in ignorance. Thus apocalypses use numbers, symbols, images drawn from the prophets. The book of Apocalypse draws especially from Ezechiel, Daniel and Zechariah. We must understand this to stop ourselves falling into the trap of making bizarre interpretations. In the Apocalypse numbers are symbols. Seven denotes perfection or completeness, because the perfect head should have seven openings. If seven is for perfection then six is the number for imperfection, for imperfection lacks something. Thus blindness, a lack of sight, is an imperfection. Six tripled (666) is superlative evil. Hence the number of the beast (Rev 13:18). Half of seven is 3 ½ - whether it is 3 ½ days (Rev 11:9) or half of seven years 42 months or 1260 days (Rev 11:2-3) – all symbolize a short time and persecution. The most vicious persecution of the Jews by Antiochus IV lasted 3 ½ years. Twelve (12) is a holy number, it symbolizes the tribes of Israel or the apostles. One thousand (1000) is a good number. It indicates a vast length of time and indicates triumph..
Emperor Worship. At the time Apocalypse was written, Caesar worship was the religion of the Empire. It meant that the Emperor was divine. Once a year everyone had to appear before a magistrate, burn a pinch of incense before a statue of Caesar and say, “Caesar is Lord and God.” After that he or she could go and practice any other religion, but only after they had acknowledged that the Emperor was God. A person who would not carry out this ‘worship’ was considered a bad citizen. Not to worship was an act of treason. Christians could not give the title of Lord and God to anyone but Christ. So the crushing power of the Empire was turned against them to annihilate them. It was in this context that Apocalypse was written.
1. John’s introduction declares his book a ‘prophetic message’. It is ‘the revelation of Jesus Christ.’ Jesus is John’s source and his subject. He draws back the veil on future events for John to make them known. This
is not speculation: these are certainties, things that will take place ‘soon’. Apocalypse 1:1-3
Address and Greeting.
2. John’s Revelation takes the form of a letter ‘to the seven churches in the province of Asia’. The focus, from the outset, is on Jesus Christ: his death which ‘freed us from our sin’, his resurrection, his kingly rule, his coming again in glory. Apocalypse 1:4-8.
One Like a Son of Man.
3. On the Lord’s day and when in ecstasy God’s Spirit came on John. He was told to write down all that he saw and send it to the churches. The radiant figure ‘like a man’, with its echoes of Daniel 7 and 10, is Christ himself, the Master of life and death and human destiny. Apocalypse 1:9‑20.
The Letters to the churches are intended to meet the needs of real churches at Ephesus and in the surrounding area, but they also deal with ‘the topics which have relevance to God’s people at all times and in all places.’ They follow a set pattern. The greeting is followed by a particular description of Christ. His ‘I know…..’ commends what is good about the church. In five out of the seven cases this is followed by a criticism and a warning. Each letter closes with a plea – ‘If you have ears, then listen….’ – and a promise. In the first three letters the plea comes first, in the last four the promise.
The Letter to Ephesus.
4. The church at Ephesus was firmly established and spiritually discerning. It had endurance, but their love (whether for Christ, or for humanity) is not what it had been. They need to repent, for a church without love is no church. Apocalypse 2:1-7.
The Letter to Smyrna.
5. The little church at Smyrna (now the port of Izmir, in Turkey) was poverty-stricken – but rich in all that mattered. Jesus’ word to them is all encouragement . He has set a definite limit to their suffering – and he holds out to them the gift of life. They will not be condemned at the judgement. Apocalypse 2:8-11.
The Letter to Pergamum.
6. At Pergamum the church had made a brave stand despite external pressure, but some members are addicted to false teaching. As a result, old pagan practices are creeping in. Their choice is to repent or have Christ ‘fight against them’. Apocalypse 2:12-17.
The Letter to Thyatira.
7. Thyatira (now Akhisar, in Turkey) was a town with many skilled workers, and the trade guilds held meals associated with pagan worship (‘food offered to idols’). This was another very mixed church. In many ways it was healthy. But an influential woman in the fellowship is advocating easy compromise with the immoral, idolatrous pagan world. And many have fallen in with her way of thinking. There are ‘Christians’ who have plunged deep into evil – perhaps to demonstrate their moral superiority; perhaps because they make a false separation (common in Greek thinking) between soul and body. Those who remain faithful are promised Christ’s power and his presence. Apocalypse 2:18-29.
The Letter to at Sardis.
8. For all its reputation the church at Sardis was dying on its feet. It is not opposition this church has to overcome but apathy, indifference and self-satisfaction. Yet there are a few whose faith is untarnished. Apocalypse 3:1-6.
The Letter to Philadelphia.
9. Philadelphia is present- day Alacehir in Turkey. This letter, like the letter to Smyrna, contains no word of blame. To judge by these letters, it is not the biggest, most impressive-looking church, or those with the most prestige, which are necessarily in best spiritual shape. Christ opens the door for effective work, not to those who are strong, but to those who are faithful. Apocalypse 3:7-13.
The Letter to Laodicea.
10. The worst case of all seven is a church so self-satisfied as to be totally blind to its true condition. It is so far from what it should be that Jesus stands outside, knocking for admittance to the lives of individuals who call themselves Christians. This letter is full of local colour. Banking and the manufacture of black woolen clothing made Laodicea affluent. The town was proud of its medical school, and renowned for a special ointment for sore eyes. Laodicea’s water supply was channelled from hot springs some distance away, reaching the town tepid. The church is like its water – lukewarm. There is nothing to commend it. Apocalypse 3:14 ‑22.
The Court of Heaven.
11. The scene and the perspective shift from earth to heaven. The picture of the struggling churches fades before the sublime vision of the throne – the ‘control centre’ of the universe – ringed by an emerald rainbow. The One who is seated there defies description. John can only say that he seems to be shot with diamond light, to glow red as ruby. Around him are the ‘elders’: possibly Israel’s 12 patriarchs, plus the 12 apostles, but probably angelic beings who represent all God’s faithful people. Everything speaks of God’s power and glory, his utter faithfulness, and purity (the white garments, the shining, transparent ‘sea’). Lightning and thunder speak of his awesomeness. Four living creatures, all-seeing, represent the whole creation, ceaselessly singing in honour of the Almighty, the Holy One, ‘who was, who is, who is to come’. The elders join them to worship the eternal Lord of life. Apocalypse 4:1-11.
The Scroll and the Lamb.
12. At this point John begins to see the things which ‘must happen’ in the future. A scroll completely covered with writing, inside and out, sealed with seven seals – the scroll that contains the world’s destiny (revealed in a series of pictures from Verses 6:1 & 8:1) – must be opened. John is full of anguish that no one is found worthy. Then one of the elders calls his attention to ‘the Lion from Judah’s tribe’: the Lion who won his victory as the slain Lamb. Chapter 4 pictured God the Creator. This chapter pictures God the Redeemer. The response to both is universal praise and worship. The elders and living creatures are joined by countless myriads of angels. Apocalypse 5:1-14.
The Lamb Breaks the Seven Seals.
13. The breaking of the seals sets in train a series of disasters. (Many see the seven seals, the seven trumpets and the rest as parallel descriptions of the same reality – not a sequence in time order.) On the heels of conquest come slaughter, famine and disease – the classic judgements of God so often predicted by the prophets. But no matter what the disaster, God is in control. His love and care for his people never fails. Verses 12-17 picture the cataclysmic events which usher in God’s great
day of reckoning. In apocalyptic language John depicts the disintegration of the fixed and stable world we know. Apocalypse 6:1-17.
God’s Servants Will be Preserved.
14. The four winds may be the same as the four horseman of chapter 6. If so, John sees the forces of destruction held back while God sets his mark of ownership on everyone who belongs to him. Christians are not promised a trouble-free life on earth. But they will come through their struggles to the permanently trouble-free life of heaven. Apocalypse 7:1 ‑17.
The Seventh Seal.
15. Solemn silence follows the breaking of the last seal. We are brought to the time of the end. Apocalypse. 8:1.
Then First Four Trumpets.
16. The first six judgements which follow the trumpet-blasts echo the plagues of Egypt recorded in Exodus. The trumpets which signal God’s judgements parallel the seven seal (see on Chapter 6), but the judgements are intensified. The prayer of God’s people play a significant part in all this. The trumpets sound a note of warning. The judgements, though severe, are not total. They are intended to bring people to their senses. In symbolic picture-language John describes four calamities affecting the natural world – earth, sea, water and the heavens. The ‘woes’ of the lone eagle imply that there is worse to come. The remaining judgements directly affect humanity. Apocalypse 8:2-13.
The Fifth and Sixth Trumpets.
17. Demonic forces (monstrous stinging locusts), servants of ‘the Destroyer’, are next unleashed. But God sets them a time-limit (five months is the approximate life-span of a real locust). Though human beings are their target they have no power to touch those who belong to God. The ‘locusts’ torture. The angels released after the sixth trumpet is blown, with their hoists, have power to kill – within limits. Yet even in the face of the most fearsome people stubbornly refuse to change their ways. This is the world we live in: a world that resists God to the bitter end; a world that creates its own ‘gods’ and has no qualms about murder, theft or moral standards. Apocalypse 9:1-21.
The Angel and the Little Scroll.
18. There is a break between the sixth and seventh trumpets, as there was between the sixth and seventh seals. God delays his final judgement, but not for ever. Another mighty angel, radiant and glorious, brings John an open scroll. It contains a message for the world – the angel stands on land and sea. God’s word is bitter-sweet. The believer tastes its sweetness, but John’s stomach churns at the bitter message he must make known to those who refuse God. (Verses 11:1-14 closely reflect Jewish apocalyptic writing and are particularly difficult). John draws his symbols from Ezekiel 40-41, the measuring of the Temple, and Zechariah 4, the olive trees. The measuring indicates God’s protection and care for his people. The two olives represent the church, faithful to the death. (Old Testament law required that evidence must be attested by at least two witnesses: Deuteronomy 19:15). Warring against them are the anti-God forces and the Satanic ’beast’, with power to kill and dishonor, but not to destroy or prevent their triumph.
Apocalypse 10:1-11 & 11:1-14.
The Seventh Trumpet.
19. The seventh trumpet announces the end. Jesus reigns: the world is his kingdom. Praise God! The Ark of the Covenant, once hidden away in the most sacred and inaccessible part of the Temple, is now visible to all. The way into God’s presence is thrown open amid awesome flashes of lightning, peals of thunder, and a shaking of the foundations. Apocalypse 11:15-19.
Seven Signs: Gods Peoples under attack.
The main thrust of these visions is clear: not so the details. The signs are:
1. A woman in labour (12.1-2)
2. A fiery red dragon. (12:3)
3. A beast from the sea. (13:1)
4. A beast from the earth (13:11)
5. The Lamb with his people, standing on Mt Zion. (14:1)
6. Three angels. (14:6, 14:8-9)
7. A heavenly reaper, harvesting the earth. (14:14ff)
It has been suggested that John may have taken some of the material in these chapters from current myths. If that is so, the application is all his own. He was writing for a persecuted church, and these chapters are full of encouragement to take heart.
A Woman and a Red Dragon.
20. The Star-crowned woman clothed with the sun is Jesus’ Mother Mary. from whom the Messiah, and through him the Church, was born. The dragon bent on destruction is Satan himself. (Genesis 3:15).Verses 7-12 are a reminder that the struggle Christians are caught up in is part of a much greater conflict. The main message is clear: although Satan is strong and powerful, and his attack fierce, his time is short. he has been overpowered by Christ: he is destined for destruction, the Church for triumph. God’s people are at all times and everywhere under his sovereign protection. Apocalypse 12:1-17.
The Beast of the Sea.
21. The beast from the sea (an evil place in Jewish thinking) is a composite creature drawn from the four beasts which represent successive world empires in Daniel 7. With its crowns and horns (sovereignty and power) and its open defiance of God, it stands for the authoritarian anti-God state. It derives its power from the evil one and it is seemingly indestructible. It dupes the world, but not those whose names are written in the Lamb’s ‘book of life’. Apocalypse 13:1-10.
The Beast of the Earth.
22. The second beast – the pseudo-lamb which speaks with Satan’s voice – is state-sanctioned, state-dominated religion. Verses 16:13 and 19:20 identify it as the ’false prophet’ It apes the real thing, and misdirects people’s worship. Refusal to worship costs some their lives, others their livelihood. For John, the two beasts were the Roman Empire and emperor-worship. But every age has its equivalents. Apocalypse. 13:11 ‑18.
Joy of the Redeemed. The Final Harvest.
23. This chapter stands in dramatic contrast to chapters 12 & 13. The Lamb stands on Mt Zion – the New Jerusalem – with all those who bear his name, not just a spiritual elite. John now sees seven angels, appearing one by one as the agents of God’s judgement.
The First calls people to respond to God’s message of Good News.
The Second announces the fall of ‘Great Babylon’, the city which symbolizes humanity combined in opposition to God. (In John’s time ’Babylon’ could be a ‘code-word’ for Rome.)
The Third angel declares judgement on all who have sold out to the forces of evil.
A voice speaks reassurance to God’s people. These are the happy ones. They are called to endure, but they will enjoy rest from their labour. Now the harvest of God’s judgement begins. Four more angels appear in turn, coming from God’s sanctuary in heaven. The first (crowned) sits on a cloud, sharp sickle in hand. At the command of the second, he begins to harvest the earth. A third appears with another sharp sickle. At the command of the fourth, he harvests the vineyard, casting the grapes into the winepress of God’s wrath. Apocalypse 14:1-20.
Seven Angels with Seven Plagues.
24. Now come seven more angels with seven plagues which express God’s anger. These plagues, like the judgement in chapter 8, vividly recall those who fell on Egypt at the time of the exodus. But first we see the joy and security of God’s people. They are not subjected to the final terrors, which are specifically directed against evil. Heaven (it would appear from Revelation) is full of joyous song. Praising God, at last, comes naturally. Apocalypse 15:1-8 & 16:1-21.
The Woman on the Scarlet Beast.
25. So often and so vigorously did the Old Testament prophets denounce the literal Babylon that it became a byword for human pride and vainglory. Every age has its ‘Babylon’, the personification of all the greed and luxury and selfish pleasure-seeking which entice people away from God; the things that promise so much and give so little. And Babylon, the epitome of all that cheats, is doomed! Apocalypse 17:1-18.
The Fall of Babylon.
26 Babylon’s fall, echoes the spirit and language of all the great ‘downfall’ prophecies of the Old Testament (Isaiah Chapters13 & 14, Jeremiah Chapters 50 & 51 and Ezekiel Chapters 26 to 28). It is one final, comprehensive pronouncement of doom on every power in every age that grows fat on evil and treats people as mere commodities to be bought and sold. God’s people are tempted to come to terms with the world. But they are called to take an uncompromising stand. They will be vindicated. Justice will be done. It is so certain, it can even be said to have happened already. Babylon has fallen! Apocalypse 18:1-24.
Songs of Victory in Heaven.
27. A great shout of triumph and hymn of praise is heard from heaven. This is not sheer vindictiveness, or gloating over the fate of others. God’s people stake their lives on his truth and justice. They rejoice to see God vindicated and militant, unrepentant evil overthrown. Apocalypse 19:1-5.
The Wedding of the Lamb.
28. In the Old Testament, Israel is portrayed as the (usually unfaithful) wife of the Lord, so the image of the bride is a natural one here. So too is the feast. People expected Messiah’s coming to be celebrated with a great banquet. John brings the two together in his lively image of the wedding-feast of the Lamb and his faithful followers, the bride – the fine linen of her wedding-dress made from ‘the good deeds of God’s people’. What happiness to be an invited guest at this wedding. Apocalypse 19:6-10.
The Rider on the White Horse.
29. We expect to see the lamb – the Bridegroom – at this point. Instead we are shown a Warrior. The name we know him by (and there are depths to his character which we cannot fathom), is the Word of God. His victory is certain. He is King of kings and Lord of lords: supreme. Carrion are summoned already to gorge at a feast far removed from the banquet of the Lamb. The beast and the false prophet, Satan’s two henchmen, and their allies are seized and destroyed – in a ‘war’ without weapons, armour, or battle, so great is the power of this horseman. Apocalypse 19:11-21.
The Thousand Years.
30. The ’thousand years’ (millennium) of this chapter is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible, and no other chapter in the Bible has given rise to such heated argument about its meaning. However, certain things are clear.
1. John sees Satan under God’s firm control.
2. He sees the souls of the martyrs, not every Christian (and this is
important for the persecuted early church), resurrected to reign with
Christ for ‘a thousand years.’
3. At the end of it, forces of evil muster to attack God’s people, but are
utterly destroyed. Satan himself shares the fate of the beast and false
prophet in ‘the lake of fire.’
4. There is general resurrection, when everyone stands before God to be
judged, each on their own record. The verdict is life or death. And for
those who live there will be no more death.
With regard to detail, here as in the rest of the book, it pays to be cautious. And the basic rules of interpretation need to be applied. To ask ‘where’ the reign takes place, or try to work out a timetable of events, runs counter to the whole spirit of the thing. It is true that in early Judaism the messianic kingdom happened on earth. Some Jews thought in terms of a messianic reign for a particular period of time, others of an interim Sabbath of 1,000 years. The earliest Christian interpreters assumed that this chapter refers to an early millennium. But John records something new. The reign here is not a general one of all believers, but only of the martyrs. Nor does he actually say that this reign is on earth. And although there has been fierce argument about the relation of the millenium to Christ’s return, John in fact makes no mention of the ’second coming’ in this chapter. Apocalypse 20:1-15.
The New Heaven and the New Earth.
31. Death and all that is evil have been destroyed. Will God renew, or replace, the present heaven and earth? What John describes is all new. If it is pictured in earthly terms, what others can we understand? The new life is one long unclouded wedding day for all God’s people –the happiest, most joyful time imaginable. And there is nothing to spoil it: no sorrow; no pain; no parting with loved-ones; no darkness. For God is always present. He is near. There is no sin or temptation to spoil the perfect relationship; no guilt; no shame. The bride of chapter 19 appears as a city: the new Jerusalem and its people. The finest cities of the world are nothing to the breathtaking splendour, the shining radiance, of this golden city, with its perfect dimensions, its jewelled foundations, its glittering diamond walls, its gates of pearl. These gates stand always open. And the city has no Temple, for God himself is present. There is peace here, and freedom and security. From God’s throne and through the centre of the city flows the river of life, crystal-clear. Trees which bear fruit all year round, and healing leaves, line the river-banks. All speak of wonderful endless life. Night is gone. God’s own ‘light perpetual’ shines on his worshipping people. Apocalypse 21:1-27. & 22:1-5.
Jesus is Coming.
32. This is all true, the angel says to John. ‘He is coming soon. Make these things known.’ Then the vision of the angel fades – and it is Jesus himself who speaks. The final statements are somewhat disjointed but lack nothing in vigour. John affirms the truth of what he has written. In the sternest terms of his day, he warns against tampering with it. His closing words are full of urgency. The things he has described will happen soon. Christ’s coming is imminent. Then the people’s attitudes will be fixed. It will not be possible to change. In the end, those who are not saved will be lost: those who do not enter into eternal life and the presence of God will be shut out for ever. So ‘let all who are thirsty come’. Let them ‘have the water of life’, for which there is no charge. Apocalypse 22:6:21.