Revealing the Revelation
Studies in the Book of Revelation
Dr. Jim Denison
Revelation is my favorite book of the Bible. But for most of us, it is the most confusing book of the Bible as well. My college professor simplified it greatly for me. He said the entire book can be summarized in two words: “We win.” He was right.
Unfortunately, preachers and scholars over the centuries have made Revelation much harder to understand than it really is. Entire seminary classes are devoted to applying complex methods of interpretation to Revelation. I know, because I’ve been in such classes and taught them as well.
What words come to mind today when you think of the book of Revelation? Confusing, hard to understand, debated. And more.
This study should not have confusion. Revelation was written to everyday Christians in ways they could understand and apply. It can still be understood by believers today, if we know what those first century readers knew. And so our method for interpreting the book of Revelation will be simple: to explain what the text meant to its first readers, and therefore what it means for us today.
We begin by stepping back 20 centuries into the environment and context of this remarkable book. We need to answer four important questions, as we lay the foundation for the semester before us:
Who was the author?
Who was the writer?
Who were the readers?
How should we read Revelation?
Who was the author?
We cannot understand fully any writing unless we know its author and circumstances. What do these words mean: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The Chicago Times said of the speech, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.” But these 268 words are immortal, because of the man who spoke them and the times when he spoke them.
The text before us is even more eternal in its significance, but that significance is far more meaningful for us when we know its author and context.
Who was the author of Revelation? Many editions of the Bible confuse us with their title: “The Revelation of John.” The titles of the biblical books were added centuries after the books were written; in this case, the appended title is wrong.
The first five words of the text settle the question: “The revelation of Jesus Christ” (1.1). The book is the revelation of Jesus, given to John for him to give to Jesus’ churches (1.1b). Jesus is the real author of Revelation.
What difference does it make that Jesus is the author of this book? What do we know about him which is relevant to this book? He knows the future, so these predictions can be trusted, We have through the years heard many predictions made by men, especially concerning the end times. And we know they cannot be trusted.
Jesus has the power to bring these things to pass. He defeated death, calmed storms, overcame Satan’s temptations. He created all things, and all things are subject to him. He cares about us enough to reveal these promises and offer this hope to us. He walks with us as we experience the suffering predicted here. He has suffered himself, and knows the pain we feel.
This is not the naïve predicting of a fortuneteller, or the weak assurances of a frail human being. This is the revelation of Jesus Christ himself to us. So we will read it with fascination and trust it with confidence.
Who was the writer?
The author of Revelation was Jesus Christ. However, this text was first given to a man named John (1.1) who served as the writer. Who was this writer, and why does his identity matter?
Interpreters of the Bible consider two kinds of evidence in determining who wrote a given book: “internal” and “external.” Internal evidence comes from the book itself; external evidence comes from other historical records and sources.
What do we know from internal evidence about John? He is named four times (1.1, 1.4, 1.9, 22.8). He calls himself “your brother and companion” in 1.9. He is on the island of Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1.9). That is all we know internally. From this evidence alone, what can we conclude?
He is a Christian (“your brother”).
He is suffering for his faith, thus likely a visible Christian.
He is exiled on Patmos, a prison colony. And so he will understand our sufferings, our pain, as one who goes through them with us.
The external evidence is helpful: from earliest times the near-unanimous opinion of scholars was the John the Beloved Disciple wrote this text.
Justin Martyr (ca. AD 100-165) connected the book with “a certain man of us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him” (Dialogue with Trypho 81).
Irenaeus (born AD 130) and most others in the early Christian era believed that John the Disciple wrote the book.
Some point to differences in the Greek style of Revelation when compared with the Gospel of John and the Letters of John, and suggest that someone other than the Beloved Disciple wrote the book. But changed circumstances behind the writing of Revelation could account easily for these differences.
Here’s what we know about John the Beloved Disciple and his circumstances:
He was Jesus’ best friend and author of the Fourth Gospel: “One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him” (John 13.23); “Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them” (John 21.20); “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true” (v. 24).