“I Open At the Close”: A Brief Introduction to the Book of Revelation

            “I open at the close” was inscribed on the golden snitch Professor Dumbledore gave to Harry Potter. As Harry concluded that everything would open up at the end, with his sacrifice imminent, he welcomed what would come through the expectation of what would come later. In as similar way, the Bible opens at the close. The battle between God and evil arrives at its inevitable end. God sovereignly punishes evil. Faithfulness is vindicated. The redeemed rejoice. As Dr. Schreiner wrote, “The story line of the Bible concludes with Revelation, and not surprisingly the book climaxes with God’s reign over all, with the righteous vindicated and the wicked punished, with the righteous rejoicing and the wicked grieving, and with God being glorified and human beings satisfied.”[1]

INTRODUCTION

            What is going on? That was what the first century Christians wondered as they saw their Christian family persecuted and saw evil menaces closing in on them as well. As modern Christians read Revelation, we ask the same question, but we wonder what is going on in Revelation. The words are easy to read, but they are some of the most debated in all of Scripture. We believe these words are from God and that God can communicate what he would have us to know in ways in which we can understand it (this is called the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture). At the same time, we also respect the difficulties in understanding Revelation which are demonstrated in the thousands of commentators who offer various and often conflicting interpretations of the same Text. We even have trouble getting the name right—its Revelation not Revelations.

            The commentators disagree on many interpretive issues, but most all agree on the overall message of Revelation—Jesus is Lord, Jesus has won, Jesus will actualize his verdict on evil, and Jesus will vindicate the righteous. “The Apocalypse of John is like an exclamation point at the end of the long sentence that is the Bible. John writes as the last prophet who is consciously taking up all the threads of prophecy that precede him and tying everything together.”[2]Perhaps this is why J. B. Philips described his work translating Revelation this way: “in the true sense of that threadbare word, thrilling. For in this book the translator is carried into another dimension—he has but the slightest foot-hold in the Time-and-space world with which he is familiar. He is carried, not into some never-never land of fancy, but into the Ever-ever land of God’s eternal Values and Judgments.”[3]

            The entire book points to God’s victory which he graciously shares with his people. Hamilton is correct to say that “the center of the theology of Revelation is the glory of God in salvation through judgment.”[4] Hamilton offered the following which serves as an excellent summary of the entire book:

The kingdom belongs to God and Christ (Rev. 11:15–19). The church will be protected by God to proclaim the gospel until the times are fulfilled (11:1–14; 12:1–13:10). John is a true prophet (10:1–11), and Satan deceives by means of a false prophet (13:11–18). God’s people are sealed (Revelation 7) and will be delivered to stand with the Lamb on Mount Zion (Revelation 14) through a new exodus of plague-like judgments in the trumpets (Revelation 7–8) and bowls (Revelation 15–19). Christ has conquered through his death and resurrection (5:5–6), and he will come again to conquer on a white horse with a sharp two-edged sword coming from his mouth (19:11–21). The church in the world is called to overcome (Revelation 2–3), that she might be the bride of Christ in glory in the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21–22).[5]

So, as we stand perplexed at the evil in the world around us and the sacred Text in our hands, let us remember, in the words of one of our favorite hymns, there is “victory in Jesus, my Savior forever.”

            Sadly, the difficulties of life and the difficulties in interpreting Revelation lead many to practically exclude it from the Christian canon of Scripture. This unfortunate unhinging of Revelation from the rest of the Bible leads to famine of faith when their should be feasting. The language of the book is, admittedly difficult. The power of faith revealed and encouraged in the book is far more powerful and it should not be ignored.

The World in Which Revelation Was Written

Date

            The date of Revelation has been debated, but most have agreed upon sometime around 95 A.D. as the date of its publication.[6] The date of writing can have some interpretative implications for a few texts, but the message of the book for contemporary readers remains largely unchanged if one takes the early or late date. If the book was written before 70 A.D., then the persecution feared would have been from the Jews and during Nero’s persecution (c. 65 A.D). If the book was written in the mid 90’s, then the warnings would be about Domitian’s persecution and continued, but more limited, persecution by the Jews. With either date, Revelation is an argument against the false religions surrounding the Christians with exhortations to remain faithful to Christ in his church.

            Those who argue for an early date point to the way the temple is described as still standing in Revelation 11:1-2. This begs the question of whether or not the passage should be taken literally here. In a similar way, the references to “the holy city” (11:2) and “the great city” in 11:8 could be understood as references to the literal geographic area. The way in which the “seven mountains” of 17:9 are interpreted can also point to an early date. This listing of the seven kings has proved difficult.[7]

            One argument for the 95 or 96 dating of Revelation is the existence of emperor worship (13:4-14:9-11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). This emperor worship became a requirement just before Domitian came to power. Although Nero was worshiped as a deity, Nero’s persecution was largely based on the great fire in Rome which he blamed on the Christians. Domitian’s persecution was more about the Christian’s failure to worship him as a god. The later development of enforced emperor worship is seen in Pliny’s letter to Trajan in 113 A.D. in which Pliny searched in vain for legal principles to guide him in how to deal with Christians. Apparently, there was not enough legal documentation for Pliny to be confident in a course of action. If Christians had been legally persecuted for almost 50+ years by Rome (Nero’s persecution), then there would have been legal precedence. Since there was little to no legal precedence, then the evidence points to a later date of Revelation.    

            The use of the word “Babylon” as a euphemism for Rome also points to a later date for the book’s writing. “John’s use of the name may be the strongest internal evidence for a post-70 date. “Babylon” refers to Rome in Jewish literature after 70 a.d. and roughly contemporary with the Apocalypse. Jewish commentators called Rome “Babylon” because the Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in 70 a.d., just as Babylon had done in the sixth century B.C.”[8] Since the term is used to describe Rome, this points to a dater closer to the end of the first century.  

            The congregations presented in the opening section are also likely evidence of a later date. Events in the area and our best understanding of the evangelistic outreach in these areas point to a later date of authorship for Revelation. “The Laodicean church is called “wealthy,” but the city experienced a devastating earthquake in 60–61 a.d. Therefore, the natural assumption is that the city took longer than merely three or four years to recover economically” and furthermore, “the very existence of the church at Smyrna suggests a later date, since it is possible that the church was not even established until 60–64 A.D.”[9]

            Most of the earliest Christians (i.e. Irenaeus, Victorinus, Eusebius, Origen, and Clement of Alexandria) also point to a late date for Revelation. Eusebius recorded the words of Irenaeus who said the book was written “toward the end of Domitian’s reign.”[10]

Persecution

            As Christianity grew, it was no longer seen, by the Romans, as a sect of the Jews. Slowly but surely, even the Roman emperor recognized that the church was not Judaism. Judaism was permitted by Rome (religio licita). Christianity came to be viewed as religio ilicita (illicit or illegal religion). The Jews enjoyed rights to assemble and practice their religion. Christianity did not enjoy those privileges. As a religion that was neither Roman nor Jewish, the charge of atheism became prominent because it was assumed that the Christians were not worshiping any recognized or known Gods. The enforced emperor worship led to the persecution of Christians which Rome saw as a necessary response for lawbreakers.

            It is possible that Clement described this persecution when he wrote, “shameful and detestable sedition, utterly abhorrent to the elect of God, which a few rash and self-confident persons have kindled to such a pitch of frenzy, that your venerable and illustrious name, worthy to be universally loved, has suffered grievous injury.”[11] It seems that this persecution gradually grew in Rome until it reached a fever pitch under Domitian. Domitian required, at times, emperor worship in which he would be addressed as “Lord and God.” This emperor worship was used by Domitian to make his citizens display their submission and unity to him.  “All in all, what emerges from both the early secular and Christian sources is that there is some evidence for a hardening of Roman policy, which became increasingly intolerant toward explicit Christian nonparticipation in the political-religious life of Greco-Roman society.”[12] Domitian was not alone in these demands for worship. Gaius Caligula, according to Philo, said, “You are haters of God, inasmuch as you do not think that I am a god, I who am already confessed to be a god by every other nation, but who am refused that appellation by you.”[13]

            In Revelation we see persecution which was ongoing but which would also increase. Beale described the situation as “relative peace and selective persecution.”[14] This relative peace, compared to what would soon come, was presented as “selective persecution in the recent past see 1:9; 2:3, 9, 13; 3:8; 6:9 [?]; ch. 13” and “imminent, systematic oppression see 6:9 [?]; ch. 13; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2; 20:4, though all these could refer to persecution already under way.”[15] Things had been bad and would be worse. Perhaps, persecution was spreading like fire from the capital to the other areas of the Roman empire.

Church Life

            The congregations of ancient Asia Minor were similar to many congregations of that time and ours as well. They were real congregations with real struggles with faithfulness. “First, the spiritual lethargy of Ephesus, Sardis, and Laodicea is so widespread and severe that each church as a whole is on the verge of losing its very identity as a church of Christ.”[16] These same problems are present in the admonitions found in the letter to the Hebrews. The problems are common today and were common then. The exhortations to faithfulness remain the same as well. The Christians struggled with the continued existence of evil in a world which they believed to be ruled by God. This dichotomy rings true today and reinforces our desire to study Revelation. This struggle led to spiritual doubt and lethargy. John wrote this book by inspiration of the Spirit in order to reaffirm the necessity of faithfulness in doctrine, practice, and zeal. They needed to be woke from their slumber to the reality of Jesus risen from the dead, reigning in Heaven, and preparing to return.

Nero’s Resurrection??

            Revelation 13:3-4 and 17:8, 11 may echo the myth that Nero had been resurrected. This was popular at the time because Domitian’s persecution so reminded the people of Nero’s persecution. Nero didn’t die until 68 A.D., so this would point to a late date for Revelation. Perhaps John used the Nero resurrection myth as an evil parody of Christ’s resurrection.

JOHN THE AUTHOR

            The book of Revelation is from both God and man. The human author of Revelation is identified as John. Some have questioned whether this was John the apostle, John the Elder, or someone who used the name John but wasn’t John. There are differences in style in Revelation than in John the Apostle’s other works, but perhaps these differences should be expected given the increase in age and different genre of Revelation. The traditional view is that John the Apostle has written the book. There are few reasons to doubt the great tradition. Johannine authorship can be demonstrated in the use of consistent themes and stylistic similarities in Revelation and the Johannine corpus.[17]

TYPE OF LITERATURE

            Recognizing the genre of a work of literature is vital for understanding the literature. Different books are written in different forms which necessitate different ways of reading. We should not read poetry, parables, or hymns the same way we read narrative like Luke and Acts. The book of Revelation is written in epistolary form but contains prophecies and apocalyptic styles as well. Revelation contains prophecy but this is a heightened form of prophecy described as Apocalyptic. Furthermore, this is the New Testament Apocalypse. Everything from the past is summarized and serves as the background at the great culmination of God’s book in Revelation. As Richard Bauckham wrote, “It seems that John not only writes in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, but understands himself to be writing at the climax of the tradition, when all the eschatological oracles of the prophets are about to be finally fulfilled, and so he interprets and gathers them up in his own prophetic revelation.”[18]

            Apocalyptic literature is like prophetic literature, but it is much more intense and much more symbolic in nature.[19] This intensity comes, in part, from the desire to awaken the spiritual slumber of those who read the book. Apocalyptic literature “appears in difficult times and conveys the author’s profound conviction that the troubles in which his readers find themselves are not the last word. God in his own good time will intervene catastrophically and destroy evil. Not infrequently this deliverance is associated with God’s Messiah who would inaugurate God’s kingdom.”[20] Apocalyptic literature is much more intense than prophetic literature which is similar to the less intense parables with which we are familiar. These apocalyptic warnings come directly from the throne of God to demand attention among sleepy soldiers of the cross.[21]

            The apocalyptic nature of Revelation requires the student to do intense research in the Old Testament background of the images recycled in Revelation. The images are recycled from Old Testament literature in order to point to the same type of things happening again in the lives of Christians. The amazing frequency of Old Testament allusions and citations strengthens the Christians by forcing them to recall the sufferings of the past coupled with God’s continued faithfulness in the past. In this way, Biblical theology comes to a climax in Revelation with the exhortation to wake up and be faithful because Jesus will return in judgment to make everything right.

MAJOR INTERPETIVE VIEWS

            The first view we will consider is the preterist view. This view holds that the book of Revelation is about the fall of Jerusalem. “This starts with the situation of the church in the first century and ends there.”[22] Babylon, according to this view, refers to sinful Israel rather than Rome. This view is far too limited. The Scriptures speak of judgment on all the nations and not just sinful Israel. Another preterist view is that Revelation refers just to the fall of Rome in the fifth century. This is more probably than the first view, but it suffers still by making judgment far too limited. The futurist view, by contrast, holds that everything from chapter 4 to chapter 22:5 refers to a future time immediately before the end of time. This view falls into the error of making everything in Revelation chronological. This method would have no real value for first century readers.

            The historicist view sees the book of Revelation as predicting major events of history in which Christians live. “Those who see the book this way claim that it is an inspired forecast of the whole of human history.”[23] These interpreters see everything in the book happening in chronological order. These interpreters believe they can “see” everything from the medieval papacy to Hitler as specifically prophesied in Revelation. This view has major interpretive problems and limits the book, largely, to Western history rather than God’s work. The idealist view teaches that everything in the book is just a symbolic portrayal of the battle between good and evil. This view doesn’t see anything “real” in the book. It is much like reading the book as an extended parable. “This secures its relevance for all periods of the church’s history. But its refusal to see a firm historical anchorage seems to most students dubious to say the least.[24]

            It seems that we must read Revelation acknowledging that it described real events which real Christians experienced and encouraged them to be faithful by focusing on the faithfulness of God in the past so that they can be encouraged to rely on God’s faithfulness in the future to carry them through tribulations and to vindicate faith at the end as he punished sin. In this way we see that the future “belongs to no man or group of men, but only to Christ, the Christ who was crucified for the salvation of us all. He it is who can open the book of human destiny.”[25]

OUTLINE

Hamilton’s Chiastic Structure of Revelation

1:1–8: Letter opening: revelation of Jesus and the things that must soon take place  
1:9–3:22: Letters to the seven churches: the church in the world  
4:1–6:17: Throne room vision, Christ conquers and opens the scroll  
7:1–9:21: The sealing of the saints and the trumpets announcing plagues  
10:1–11: The angel and John (true prophet)  
11:1–14: The church: two witnesses prophesy for 1,260 days, then opposition from the beast  
11:15–19: Seventh trumpet: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”  
12:1–13:10: The church: The woman nourished for 1,260 days, then opposition from the dragon and the second beast  
13:11–18: The deceiving beast (false prophet)  
14:1–19:10: The redemption of the saints and the bowls of wrath  
19:11–20:15: Return of Christ, he conquers, sets up his thousand-year kingdom, and opens the scrolls  
21:1–22:7: New heavens and new earth: the church in glory  
22:8–21: Letter closing: Jesus is coming soon[26]  

            [1] Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 617.

              [2] James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 541.

              [3] J. B. Phillips, The Book of Revelation (Collins, 1960), 9.

              [4] James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 541.

            [5] James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology, 546.

              [6] “The consensus among twentieth-century scholars is that the Apocalypse was written during the reign of Domitian around 95 a.d. A minority of commentators have dated it immediately prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 a.d.” G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 4.

              [7] “More likely the seven kings are not to be identified with any specific historical rulers but represent rather the oppressive power of world government throughout the ages, which arrogates to itself divine prerogatives and persecutes God’s people. This conclusion is indicated by (a) the figurative and telescopic use of Dan. 7:4–7, (b) the understanding of the same Daniel text in Jewish writings, (c) the use of the sea beast metaphor throughout the OT to symbolize different wicked kingdoms spanning centuries, (d) the NT’s trans-temporal understanding of the Antichrist figure from Daniel 11 (2 Thess. 2:6–8; 1 John 2:18), and (e) Revelation’s identification of the seven-headed sea beast as the malevolent alter ego of the Lamb, who also exercises authority not merely in any one historical epoch but throughout history G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 23–24.

              [8] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation,18–19.

              [9] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: 16–17.

              [10] Eusebius, H.E. 3.18.3; 5.8.6.[10]

              [11] Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 5.

              [12] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 9.

              [13] Charles Duke Yonge with Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 789.

              [14] G. K. Beale, Revelation, 12.  

[15] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999).

              [16] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation,16.

              [17] Beale summarized the research “S. S. Smalley has concluded that John “the beloved disciple” and apostle wrote both Revelation and the Gospel on the basis of a number of similarities between the two books, among the foremost of which are the Exodus-Moses motif, christology (Jesus as Word, Lamb, and Son of man and as glorified even through death), eschatological ideas, and the manner in which both use early exegetical traditions. Likewise, C. G. Ozanne has observed such common themes as the Shepherd, manna, living water, and life and light, as well as words and phrases that Revelation has in common with the Gospel and Johnannine Epistles and that are more or less confined to these three bodies of literature: νικάω, τηρεῖν τὸν λόγον, τηρεῖν τὰς ἐντολάς, ὁδηγεῖν (with respect to spiritual guidance), σκηνόω, ποιέω, σημεῖον, μαρτυρία, and ἀληθινός. In addition, Ozanne concludes that the large number of Semitisms and grammatical solecisms in Revelation “are a deliberate device assumed for a particular purpose,” so that there should be nothing unnatural in the author writing other documents according to a more natural or common style.” G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 35.

              [18] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, New Testament Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 5.[18]

              [19] “Apocalyptic should not be seen as too different from prophecy, though it contains a heightening and more intense clustering of literary and thematic traits found in prophecy.” G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 37.

              [20] Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, 25.

              [21] “Revelation as an apocalyptic-prophetic work focuses more on the source of revelation than does prophetic literature. The origin of revelation is God’s throne room in the heavenly temple. This is a feature that forms a part of prophetic genre (e.g., Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1–2), but in Revelation it becomes the dominating focus in order to underscore the divine, heavenly source of revelation sent to the seven churches.” G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 38.

              [22] Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, 19.

              [23] Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, 19.

              [24] Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, 21.

              [25] Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, 23.  

            [26] James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, 544.

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