Written by the Apostle John, Revelation is both fascinating and terrifying.
Revelation is certainly the strangest book in the Bible.1 It’s also the darkest, filled with earthquakes, plagues, dragons, blood, violence, and war. Granted, filmmakers love the imagery. But most of us are either scared of the book, or we dismiss it as a figment of someone’s imagination.
Consider what Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend about Revelation: “It is between fifty and sixty years since I read it, and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams. . . . What has no meaning admits no explanation.”2
But what if there is a good explanation for the book? What if it really does have meaning for us today?
A Collision Course
In the first century CE, the Roman Empire portrayed itself as the divine ruler over the earth. It defended its economic and political control over its subjects in spiritual terms. The religion of the empire involved not only homage to the Roman gods, but also the worship of Roman emperors as divine beings. This practice began with Caesar Augustus (63 BCE–14 CE). Consider this inscription from 9 BCE:
The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a saviour for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere . . . the birthday of the god [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the gospel that has come to men through him.3
By the time of the emperor Domitian (81–96 CE), the gospel of the Pax Romana—Roman peace—was well established throughout the Mediterranean region.4 Rome and the emperor stood at the center of the sacred universe while all the other cities of the empire competed for the emperor’s favor. They orchestrated elaborate civic rituals, built luxurious pagan temples, proclaimed the emperor’s divinity, and spawned a cult of emperor worship.
Any resistance to this cult put a city’s hopes of imperial favor in jeopardy; any refusal to acknowledge the caesar as lord put the lives of citizens in danger. But early followers of Jesus recognized a different lord and savior, a different gospel, a different God. As such, their faith, worship, and allegiance set them on a collision course with the Roman leaders and society in which they lived.5
One of these early Christians was the Apostle John. Advanced in years at the time, John was probably the last survivor of the twelve disciples who had walked with Jesus. John had written his own gospel account of Jesus’ life and spent his later years traveling to the cities of Asia Minor, encouraging small bands of Christians in each place. In a sense, John was their pastor.
As hostility toward Christians grew, he was likely arrested and sent into exile on Patmos, a small island in the Aegean Sea. There he claimed to receive a vision from God in which he saw that the growing worship of the Roman emperor would soon become deadly to followers of Jesus. John believed that he needed to share this vision with his churches to warn them about the coming persecution, challenge them not to compromise their convictions, and encourage them to “be faithful, even to the point of death.”6
John wanted them to know that the one true God, not any Roman emperor, reigns from heaven and is in control of the events of human history.
As a pastor, John wrote down this vision in about 95 CE and sent it as a letter to be read aloud in the churches of Asia Minor.7 But John was also a poet.8 He communicated the vision he saw through the recognizable form of apocalyptic literature. In fact, he began his letter by calling it an apokalypsis, which is Greek for “unveiling,” “disclosure,” or “revelation”—hence the title “Revelation” in English.
Though it is unfamiliar and a bit strange to us now, this genre was a well-known literary style in John’s day.9 In apocalyptic literature, a visitor from heaven—sometimes an angelic being—discloses the secrets of the unseen world through vivid symbols. This visitor typically takes the recipient of the vision on a journey through heaven, reviewing past and future events in order to explain the present conflict between good and evil and encourage the faithful to persevere. In the case of Revelation, John’s letter depicts the intense challenges his churches are facing with the Roman Empire through a cosmic, otherworldly lens.
After a brief introduction and specific comments to seven churches, John’s description of his vision is bold, vivid, and terrifying all at the same time. He depicts angelic beings and people from every nation worshiping God and Jesus on a throne in heaven.10 Then, in the longest section of his letter, John records how Jesus will begin to execute God’s judgment against his enemies—using metaphors of seals, trumpets, and bowls—while protecting those who belong to him. The book concludes with Jesus’ triumph over evil and a final vision of a new heaven and earth—God’s ultimate victory over sin, brokenness, and death.
While the scenes in the book are odd and unsettling at first, the meaning of many of them can be explored in light of John’s circumstances and imagery found elsewhere in the Bible. The number twelve, for example, describes the people of God (since there were twelve tribes of Israel and twelve apostles of Jesus).11 When John writes about a woman “drunk with the blood of God’s holy people” and seated on “seven hills,” he is almost certainly identifying her as Rome, known as the city of seven hills.12 In this way, John is speaking directly to the situation of his audience.
Of course, the most intriguing aspect of John’s letter is the way it seems to indicate God’s cosmic plans for the future. John is not just a pastor and poet; he is a prophet. The messages of judgment and hope were not only for John’s generation, but for future generations like ours.
Many Christians believe that Revelation’s visions and prophecies of the future remain unfulfilled. They believe the book of Revelation provides clues to when Christ will return and establish his kingdom on earth for a time. Then God will usher in a “new heaven and a new earth” forever.13
However, we should be cautious when attempting to solve the mysteries of the book of Revelation. The book is indeed a deep, complicated ocean of both symbolism and literalism. Rigidity in interpretation can be dangerous, effectively dividing the Christian community rather than uniting it in faith.
A New Beginning
Whatever one’s view, it certainly seems the book of Revelation functions as the appropriate conclusion to the entire drama of the Bible. John’s final vision brings the story full circle. And so the end is a new beginning: “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’”14
Ultimately, Revelation offers hope; it promises that God “will wipe every tear from [his people’s] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”15 But until that time, John suggests that we face the hardships and hostility of our world with “patient endurance,” placing our faith in God and trusting his ways.16 Viewed in this way, the book of Revelation can be beneficial to people of faith today.