Chapter 25: The Revelation of John

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter 25: The Revelation of John


The author of the book gives his name as John (1:1,4). Tradition from the middle of the second century identified him with the apostle, although there is evidence that this tradition was disputed in the second half of the second century by Christians who found distasteful the teaching of the book on the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth before the final judgement (20:3-6). Criticism of the tradition was renewed in the third century by scholars who were conscious of the contrasts in style which separate this book from the Fourth Gospel, also traditionally attributed to the apostle.

The great majority of modern critics agree that the John who wrote the Revelation cannot also have written the gospel or the epistles. There are a number of curious verbal coincidences, e.g. the frequent occurrence of ‘witness’ and of ‘keeping the commandments’ of Christ or God, but these are probably due to the common Asian provenance of the books. Between the general thought, vocabulary, and style of the gospel and epistles on the one hand and those of the Revelation on the other, there is a wide gulf. In the Revelation God’s love is mentioned once (10:9), his fatherhood not at all, and the material imagery of the Revelation is in sharp contrast to the mysticism of the gospel. Many of the specially characteristic words of the gospel are absent from the Revelation, e.g. truth, or used in a different sense, e.g. light, only with a physical meaning; different Greek words are employed in the two books for ‘the Lamb’. The style of the Revelation is barbarous, and only consistent with a very imperfect knowledge of Greek grammar.

While such a poor knowledge of Greek is perhaps consistent with authorship by the apostle — and we have seen that many scholars refuse to connect the gospel with the apostle John — there is nothing in Revelation to indicate such authorship, and the statement in 21:14 that the twelve foundations of the wall of new Jerusalem had ‘on them twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb’ is hardly consistent with it. The writer shows no interest in the earthly life of Christ apart from his birth (12:1 ff.), his Davidic descent (5:5), and his death by crucifixion (1:7, 18, 11:8), but the very nature of his work leaves little place for mention of the earthly life of Christ.

Beyond his name, the fact that he was a prophet (22:6-7), the place of his vision (1:9), and his acquaintance with some of the Asian churches, the Revelation tells us little about its author. His knowledge of the Hebrew Old Testament and of Jewish apocalyptic thought suggests that he was a born Jew, and the Hebraic solecisms of his style that he was not brought up in the Asian dispersion which used the Greek language in its everyday life, but that he may have come there from Palestine. Of the attempts to identify the author more closely only one deserves serious attention. The historian Eusebius (c. A.D. 320) drew attention to the fact that an earlier Christian writer, Papias (c. A.D. 120), had given in his list of authorities two Johns, one the apostle and one ‘John the Elder’, and thought that the latter might have written the Revelation. There is much to be said for this view, though it can never be more than a conjecture. The little we know of him suggests that this John was a well-known figure in Asia, and the one passage in the surviving fragments of Papias’ work which is directly ascribed to a reminiscence of John the Elder puts into the mouth of Jesus a description of the miraculous fruits of the age to come in terms akin to those used in a first century Jewish apocalypse (cf. Chap. 26).

Date and Circumstances of Writing

Irenaeus (c. A.D. 185) speaks of the Revelation as seen ‘not long ago, but almost in our generation, at the end of Domitian’s reign (i.e. c. A.D. 95)’. There are grounds for believing that Irenaeus is here quoting from Papias, who himself knew the Revelation, and this date may well be correct. The church in Ephesus has had time to leave its first love (2:4), that in Laodicea to become lukewarm (3:16). Domitian seems to have been the first emperor to take emperor-worship seriously, and persecution of Christians seems to have become widespread, if sporadic, in his reign, although the evidence is scanty. Earlier dates have been suggested, but on insufficient grounds. A date in the last years of Nero’s reign (54-68) is ruled out by the references to the legend of Nero’s return (27:8-11), and the verses (11:1 ff.) which are sometimes claimed as indicating that the temple was still standing seem to draw their significance from Old Testament prophecy (especially Ez. 40) rather than from any contemporary historical situation. A date under Vespasian can be supported by a strict interpretation of 17:10, but such an interpretation is far from binding in an apocalypse.

How the book came to be written is explained in 1:1-3, 9-20. John received a command from Christ (18) when he was ‘in the Spirit on the Lord’s day’ to write what he saw in a book and to send it to the seven churches. It is permissible to speak of the occasion of the book as the need to exhort these churches, and to reassure them of the reward soon to come (1:1,3), but the impelling force that led to its writing is the consciousness of the Christian prophet that he has been commanded to proclaim his vision of the future (1:1, 4:1). How far the contents of the book correspond to the actual experiences of the ecstatic vision, and how far the author has sought to expand and interpret his vision, we have no means of learning. What is certain is that the form both of his vision and of his presentation of it show the great influence exerted upon his mind by his study of the Old Testament and Jewish apocalypses; there are continual echoes of Isaiah, Ezekiel, I Enoch, and, above all, of Daniel. The Revelation illustrates in a remarkable fashion the way in which early Christian prophets drew from Jewish literary sources the language and imagery with which they strove to express their own spiritual experiences and the meaning of the new and final revelation in Jesus Christ.

The letters to the seven churches (2-3) tell us a little about the situation of Christianity in Asia when the book was written. There is persecution from without; the imprisonment of some at Smyrna (2: 10-11) and the death of Antipas at Pergamum (2:13) seem to indicate the hostility of the authorities. The antagonism of the Jews is referred to in 2:9, 3:9. Internal troubles also are plaguing the churches, and we hear of false apostles at Ephesus (2:2) and of heresies there and elsewhere. We are not informed of what the Nicolaitans taught (2:6,15), but the teaching of Balaam (2:14-15) and Jezebel (2:20-21) involves fornication and idolatry. The churches are clearly in need of encouragement, and in some cases, of reproof.

The Message of The Book

There is no ‘teaching’ as such in the Revelation, and the word is used only of heresies, e.g. 2:15, 20. Even in the letters to the churches it is not teaching which is given, but commands from the Spirit, and the main purpose of the book as a whole is the revelation of the future. The plan of the book is simple, a prologue (1:1-8), the account of a vision of Christ (1:18) commanding John to write what he sees to the seven churches (1:19-20), special messages to each of the churches (2-3), the heavenly visions which comprise the main part of the book (4:1-22:5), and an epilogue (22:6-21). What makes the understanding of the author’s original meaning hard for the reader is the difficulty of divining a consistent and consecutive course of events from the series of visions narrated in the main body of the book. Thus the great day of God’s wrath upon the people of the earth is described at the end of chapter 6, and is followed immediately by the sealing of the elect and a description of their service before the throne of God; yet the armies of the kings of the earth are destroyed again, after a whole series of intervening disasters, in 19:21; even after the second death of all who were not found written in the book of life (20:15) there are still evildoers to be found outside the holy city (22:15).

Attempts have been made to explain this disorder of thought by supposing that the sheets of the original MS. have been accidentally transposed, that the original book has been clumsily redacted, that earlier literary sources have been incorporated by John into a framework inconsistent with them, or that the series of seals, trumpets, bowls, etc., are to be understood not as following one another but as different ways of presenting the same actions. None of the explanations have commanded general assent, however, although it is clear that John has a wide knowledge of earlier apocalyptic writings, and that some theory of recapitulation is necessary to produce a logical sequence of events in the book; the most probable solution of the confusion of the Revelation lies in the confusion of the writer’s own thought and his lack of concern about strict consistency. His mind was soaked in apocalyptic imagery drawn from various sources and not always mutually consistent, and he wrote, as he believed, under the direct guidance of the Spirit; the combination of these two influences enabled him to write passages of tremendous power and religious significance, but not to achieve a consistent whole.

The reader will find his way more easily through the maze of visions if he bears in mind the general scheme of eschatological expectation that underlies I and II Thessalonians, I Cor.15, and the apocalyptic chapters Mk.13, Lk.21, and Matt.24. The end is conceived of as coming in three stages, a period of catastrophe in the earth and heavens, the coming of Christ to destroy the power of evil, and the entering of the faithful into their reward. This simple pattern has been embroidered and developed by each writer in a number of ways. Paul, for example, writes of ‘the lawless one’, whose revelation is delayed by a restraining force, but whose final appearance will bring on the events of the End (II Thess. 2): the dead in Christ are to be raised at Christ’s coming and to join those who are left alive to be ever with the Lord (I Thess. 4); in I Cor.15:23-28 there appears even to be a reference to a temporary Messianic kingdom until the final conquest of death and Christ’s deliverance of his kingdom to God the Father.

In the Revelation the general scheme is not fundamentally different from that of Paul, but it has been so developed and overlaid with an abundance of apocalyptic detail and the repetition of events that the connecting thread is hard to follow.

For the history of the Church two sections of the book have had a special importance, the judgement on Rome (12-18) and the account in 20 of the Millennium, i.e. the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth (from the Latin mille = 1,000 annus = year).

John’s denunciation of the Roman power and her rulers is cast in symbolic language, but there can be no doubt that he regarded the Roman Empire as the instrument of Satan. Hatred of Rome had grown among the Jews with their subjection to Rome and with the failure of the Jewish revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70, but for a Christian of the age of Domitian it was the claim of the emperor to be worshipped that was the supreme offence against God (13:6-8). The interpretation of the great harlot as Rome (17:3,18) and of the seven heads of the scarlet beast on which she sits as Roman emperors (17:3,10) is certain. Unfortunately the interpretation of the book has too often proceeded from attempts to show the relevance of its symbols for each passing age, and the challenge of 13:18 to deduce the name of the beast has been answered with names as different as the Pope and Hitler.(The author was prevented from preaching in a prisoner of war camp in Germany in 1940 because this latter identification had been made in a previous address by a British sergeant-major.)

John’s account of the Millennium owes much, directly or indirectly, to the belief which can be traced in some Jewish apocalypses (cf. Chap. 11) that God’s Messiah will reign on earth for a period of time before the final judgement. The authority of the Revelation was in turn to persuade many Christians to accept ‘Chiliasm’ (Greek chilioi = 1,000), and the revulsion of other Christians against this material conception of religion delayed the recognition of the Revelation as canonical for centuries in the East.

The Value of The Revelation

The preceding paragraphs have inevitably concentrated upon the defects of the book, with its one-sided interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s message to men. The absence of the ideas of God’s fatherhood and love of men, and the comparative subordination of the moral and spiritual side of the Christian gospel to an apocalyptic often at variance with it, are serious failings. And yet, with all its imperfections, the Revelation remains the greatest of Christian prophecies because of its power to fire men’s imaginations in times of persecution and crisis with the majesty of God and the hope of glory to come. Its deficiencies are supplied by other books of the New Testament, and, when it is read and studied in conjunction with them, it more than bears out Paul’s promise (I Cor. 14:3) ‘he that prophesieth speaketh unto men edification, and comfort, and consolation’.