The last book of the Bible describes itself as a “revelation of Jesus Christ,” an expression that functions as the title for the book. The term revelation (apokalypsis in Greek) suggests that something once hidden is now being unveiled or displayed openly. The expression “of Jesus Christ” could refer to something about Jesus, or communication from Jesus, or most likely some of both.
In this “final chapter” of the story of salvation, God pulls back the curtain to give his people a glimpse of his plans for human history, plans that center around Jesus Christ. So let’s begin our interpretive journey in Revelation.
In understanding the New Testament church, we understand that the first Christians lived in eager expectation of the Christ’s return. But sixty years after his death it still had not happened, persecution was increasing, and some were beginning to doubt. So Revelation’s letters to the churches, and the book as a whole, were needed to encourage them to stand firm. God is in control, no matter how things may look. Christ, not the emperor, is Lord of history. And he is coming again to execute justice. There is a glorious, wonderful future for every faithful believer—and especially for those who lay down their lives for Christ.
Revelation was written during the reign of the Domitian. He wanted the people to address him as “our lord and god.” For Christians, the earliest and most basic confession was “Jesus is Lord.” So when they refused to address the emperor as such, they were considered disloyal to the state and were subject to persecution. Under Domitian, persecution was spreading.
Revelation is filled with comfort for those who are being persecuted and warnings for those who are trying to avoid it. The historical context is one in which false religion has formed a partnership with pagan political power. One result is that those who claim to follow Christ are beginning to face tremendous pressure. Will they compromise with the world to avoid persecution or will they openly confess Christ, knowing that it may cost them their lives?
The book seems strange because it combines three different literary genres: letter, prophecy, and apocalyptic.
1. Revelation is a letter.
The book opens and closes like a typical New Testament letter. This suggests that the whole book of Revelation is a single letter meant to be circulated among seven specific churches in Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. There are separate messages to each church at the beginning, but the letter as a whole is addressed to all seven churches.
Like other New Testament letters, Revelation is “situational.” That is, it addresses specific problems or situations that occur in the local churches. We must read Revelation in light of the original situation faced by those churches (i.e., comfort for the persecuted and challenge for the complacent).
The introduction to the letter (Chapter 1-3) shows us that the entire letter centers around overcoming. This becomes clear as we read the entire book. At the beginning, we are challenged to overcome; in the middle (12:11), we struggle to overcome; at the end (21:7), we see the inheritance that overcomers will receive.
2. Revelation is a prophetic letter.
Biblical prophecy includes both prediction of the future and proclamation of God’s truth for the present. We should remember that Revelation is not just about the future; it is also a book about what God wants to see happen in the here and now.
Revelation stands in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. The main difference, of course, between Revelation and the Old Testament prophets is that John’s prophetic letter is for Christians who are living between the already of the cross and resurrection and the not yet of Christ’s glorious return.
3. Revelation is a prophetic-apocalyptic letter.
The term apocalyptic refers to a group of writings that include a divine revelation, usually through a heavenly intermediary, to some well-known figure, in which God promises to intervene in human history and overthrow evil empires and establish his kingdom. We see examples of apocalyptic writing in Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah, as well as noncanonical books like 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra.
The chief characteristic that makes apocalyptic so unfamiliar to us is its use of images. In its abundant use of visual images, Revelation goes beyond any other apocalypse. While we are familiar with picture language used in other parts of Scripture, apocalyptic literature uses images that are often forms of fantasy rather than reality (i.e., locusts with scorpion’s tails and human heads (9:10), a woman clothed with the sun (12:1), and a beast with seven heads and ten horns (13:1)). As a prophetic-apocalyptic letter, Revelation is full of strange visions and bizarre images.
What Is the Purpose of Revelation?
The images of Revelation create a symbolic world in which the readers may live as they read the book. When they enter this symbolic world, its message affects them and changes their entire perception of the world in which they live. They can see the present from the perspective of its final outcome—God’s ultimate victory.
That’s the main message of Revelation: God will win! Those who are not compromising with the pagan world should see God’s future and be filled with hope in the present. Those who are compromising should be shocked out of their spiritual slumber and warned to repent. So Revelation gives people a foretaste of God’s ultimate victory and offers them the perspective and the encouragement they need to overcome.