The Book of Revelation remains the most misunderstood book in the entire canon of Scripture. Its apocalyptic narrative allows for the predominant reception of the book to be one of prognostication and prediction. And such is the unfortunate legacy of Revelation as it has become largely sequestered to “prophecy conferences” and classes teaching on “End Times ethics.” There is an untold amount of convictions derived from nothing but a speculative interpretation of John’s visions. The dogmatic assumptions that often arise out of these studies on Revelation have served to divide otherwise likeminded individuals. It is tragically ironic that the dogmatism that has sprung from Revelation has divided churches when, in fact, the primary intent of John’s writing was to bring churches together, enriching and encouraging them in the certainty of Jesus’s eschatological reign.
The narrative of Revelation is much more personal than it is customarily reckoned. “As apocalyptic literature, Revelation is an unveiling of the secrets of the end,” A. Verhey affirms. “It and other such literature was not, however, written for the sake of divining the future.” This assertion alone often makes the disciple of Christ stutter and stumble. So often, Revelation is regarded as a scriptural missive which foretells future events, and rightly so — but that is not all. “Revelation was written,” continues Verhey, “to console and to encourage the churches of Asia Minor suffering the emperor’s oppression. It called for patience, not computation; for courage, not calculation.”1 Indeed, the Book of Revelation is not an instruction manual by which churchgoers can become “godly Nostradamuses.” The intent of John’s Revelation is not discovered through copious amounts of scriptural dot-connecting or divining all the religious symbolism. Rather, the intent of the entire book is made plain in the first five words: “The revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Rv 1:1)
The epistolary nature of Revelation can be noticed by examining John’s salutation (Rv 1:4–5) and benediction (Rv 22:21), both of which address the readers in the conventional style of a letter. This is further corroborated by Jesus’s own commission to John, which was to record the visions that the Lord would give to him and publish them in correspondence to seven distinct congregations. “Write on a scroll what you see,” the Lord says, “and send it to the seven churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.” (Rv 1:11) It is in that way, then, that the enigmatic words, visions, and symbols which constitute the bulk of John’s apocalypse are contextualized for the benefit of local assemblies of believers. They could, therefore, withstand the persecution and cruelty lobbied against them for their faith and devotion to the gospel of Christ because Christ is, indeed, the true and better sovereign. He is, by his own admission, “the Alpha and the Omega . . . the one who is, who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rv 1:8) Such is what John was desirous of instilling in the hearts of these congregations.
This is, perhaps, the most crucial fact for one to be mindful of when contemplating the themes, messages, and motifs of Revelation. “The situations and needs of the churches to which John wrote,” writes G. R. Beasley-Murray, “were as truly in John’s mind as the situations and needs of the churches to which Paul and other Christian leaders wrote.”2 The “disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn 20:2) writes to God’s beloved, mercifully attending to their specific needs in a specific time, namely, the harrowing world of oppression in which they found themselves for their allegiance to Jesus. Though the precise situation which afflicted these churches is unknown, it is widely accepted that John’s revelatory epistle was published during the reign of Emperor Domitian, who is frequently regarded as the vicious heir apparent to his predecessor’s, Emperor Nero, vindictive prejudice towards Christians.
In the end, the recognition that St. John was commissioned by the Spirit to record his revelation of Jesus and send it to the surrounding churches who were suffering severe mistreatment on account of their faith fundamentally alters one’s interpretation of the book. “Failure to grasp this fact,” Beasley-Murray affirms, “has led innumerable readers to misinterpret the book by identifying the figures and events described in it with persons and events of their own times.”3 The apocalyptic style, though, indeed, prevalent throughout Revelation, is not the paramount milieu for a right understanding of the text.
Though the apostle’s words describe the countless calamities that would shortly befall this world, it is the foremost objective of Jesus’s Spirit (through John) for troubled believers of any age in human history to know, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Christ is still enthroned in the heavens. “The whole book of Revelation is rooted in its portrayal of God Almighty as the Lord of history and his redemptive activity in Christ,” Beasley-Murray continues. “So surely as Jesus has accomplished the first and most important stage in the redemption of humanity, so he will complete his appointed task of bringing to victory the kingdom of God and thereby the total emancipation of humanity from the powers of evil.”4 Thus, Revelation is a book of comfort precisely because it conveys a transcendent view of Christ Jesus, the One whose “glory and dominion” are “forever and ever.” (Rv 1:6)
A. Verhey, “Ethics,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 348.
G. R. Beasley-Murray, “Book of Revelation,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 1027.