Introduction to Revelation
There are four primary theories concerning how to understand the Revelation. The preterist theory holds that the Revelation symbolically refers to events that took place around the time of its writing, and the early Christians understood the symbolism because they lived the events. The historical theory is similar, except that the events have happened throughout church history, rather than just the first century. Both of these theories are plagued with the problem that none of the events in the Revelation have actually happened. There has been no demonic global ruler, no cataclysmic judgments, no return of Christ, and no utopian kingdom (although some place the kingdom and eternity still future). These must be rationalized away for any theory that views the Revelation as past tense. The spiritual or idealist theory skirts this problem by arguing that the Revelation uses symbolic language to explain a spiritual reality. In other words, the “events” recorded are not and will not be events at all.
Standing in contrast to these, the futurist theory recognizes that the Revelation is clearly identified as “prophecy” or prophetic literature (1:1, 3; 22:10, 18-19). (The Greek name, apokalypsis, means “uncovered, revealed” not “hidden, secret”). Specifically, this prophecy was given by Jesus himself to John (1:1, 17-19; 22:16). Since the Scriptures are full of prophecies that have been fulfilled literally, the Revelation must not be considered to be figurative, symbolic, or spiritual. Instead, its interpretation must be based on the concept that these are prophecies yet to be fulfilled. Even this view, however, is represented by a variety of interpretations of the specific timeline and events.
Although the book is not necessarily chronological throughout, it does provide a concise outline of its contents. In 1:19 Jesus told John to “write what you saw, what is, and what will be after these things.” What John saw must refer to the vision in chapter one. “What is” seems to be the then-existing churches named in chapters 2-3. Chapter four begins with the statement “after these things” (twice in vs. 1) implying that everything from that point was John’s vision of the future.
There is a great deal of imagery in John’s vision, which has led to some of the theories mentioned above. However, when we realize that much of the imagery comes from the Old Testament, the symbols tend to come into better focus. Interestingly, although the influence of the Hebrew prophets is prominent in the Revelation, it tends to come via allusions rather than a lot of direct quotes.
The Revelation begins with a blessing and ends with a curse. The blessing is upon those who read and obey the things written in the book (1:3). The curse is upon anyone who would add to or subtract from this “revelation of Jesus Christ” (22:18-19).
Chapter one presents both the introduction to the book (including what has already been mentioned) and the singular event at which time John received this revelation. John began by explaining that what he was about to write came to him from Jesus, not any other source. Technically, this book was sent to seven major churches on a circuitous route throughout western Asia Minor, with a cover letter for each church. We assume that it was not intended to stay in these churches, but rather they would be the hubs from which it could circulate in their regions.
The “main event” of chapter one is John’s vision of Jesus. John claimed to be on the island of Patmos due to persecution against Christians. This, along with the statements of many Early Church Fathers, helps place the writing of the Revelation to be in the mid-90s A.D. John was released from his imprisonment after the death of Emperor Domitian in A.D. 96.
While on Patmos, John saw a vision of the risen Christ. His response, falling down as dead (1:17), was significant, because he had seen Jesus many times after his resurrection (see Acts 1:3) without that response. This time, Jesus appeared as the one who would judge, the Son of Man and Ancient of Days seen by Daniel (7:13). The detailed description of Jesus given in chapter one has a double purpose. In addition to simply describing what John saw, several of the different parts are used in the letters of chapters two and three to illustrate Jesus’ message to the individual churches.