Overview of the Book of Revelation

Overview of the Book of Revelation

Overview of the Book of Revelation

Author: The author is the Apostle John.


To encourage fidelity to Christ in the midst of suffering by affirming that God rules history and will surely bring it to a glorious consummation of judgment and blessing in Christ.

Date: A.D. 66-95

Key Themes:

  • The Church faces much suffering in this sinful world.
  • God requires sincere repentance and enduring faithfulness from his people.
  • God controls history so that evil will not prevail against the Church.
  • Jesus will return in glory to bring final judgment on the wicked and final blessings to the righteous who overcome.

Author: John

The author identified himself as John (Rev. 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8). He was well known to the Churches in Asia Minor (Rev. 1:9; see "Original Audience"). As early as the second century A.D., Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and others identified the author as the apostle John. In the third century, however, Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, compared the style and themes of Revelation with the Gospel of John, and concluded that the two must have had different authors. On balance it is still probable that the apostle John was the author. The different styles may be explained by the different genres in which John wrote (Gospel, epistle, apocalypse), and John's different purposes in writing these works easily account for the thematic differences. In any event, Revelation stresses that its message and content derive ultimately from Jesus Christ and from God the Father (Rev. 1:1, 10-11; 22:16, 20), so Revelation possesses full divine authority (Rev. 22:18-19).

Time and Place of Writing:

John indicated that he wrote from the isle of Patmos (Rev. 1:9), which is off the coast of Ephesus. The Roman authorities used this island as a place of exile.

The date of the writing of Revelation is disputed. Interpreters generally favor an early date near the end of the reign of the Roman emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68) or a later date during the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81-96). Several factors are pertinent to this issue.

The reference to "seven kings" in Revelation 17:9-11 indicates that the sixth king was in power at the time of writing. Most commentators assume that these kings refer to Roman emperors. Nero himself was the fifth emperor if Augustus is counted as the first true emperor. If Julius Caesar is accepted as the first king (even though he was not an emperor), then Nero was the sixth emperor. On the other hand, it is not entirely clear that these seven kings refer necessarily to successive kings or that the counting must begin with a particular emperor or ruler. Those who favor a date in Domitian's reign point out that Caligula was the first emperor who severely persecuted Christians and that three minor emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius) held extremely brief and rather inconsequential rules between the end of Nero's reign in A.D. 68 and the beginning of Vespasian's reign in A.D. 69. If Caligula is counted as the first emperor and these three others are passed over, then Domitian was the sixth emperor in the sequence.

That Revelation was written during a time of persecution is indicated by the circumstances of the author and of the Churches to which he wrote (Rev. 1:9; 2:10, 13; 3:10) as well as by the recurrent theme of persecution throughout (Rev. 6:9; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2; 20:4). Widespread persecution was more characteristic of Domitian's reign than of Nero's, although lesser degrees of persecution did take place under Nero.

The reference to the Temple in Rev 11:1-2 may indicate that it was still standing when the book was written (the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70), which conclusion would favor an early date. Those who support a later date respond that the passage may be metaphoric or may depend on a source.

Emperor worship also seems to have been an issue for the original audience (Rev. 13:4, 15-16; 14:9-11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). While such worship may have been required under Nero, there is no solid evidence verifying that speculation. Evidence does exist, however, that Domitian required emperor worship. Although inconclusive, the lack of evidence indicating the worship of Nero more strongly supports a date during Domitian's reign.

In addition, some have argued that the conditions of the seven Churches addressed in chapters 2-3 are more appropriate to Domitian's reign. Others suggest that the beast who recovers from a "fatal wound" (Rev. 13:12) corresponds to the first-century myth that Nero would rise from the dead and return to Rome.

Although the data is inconclusive, most scholars believe that the weight of the evidence favors a date around A.D. 95. This concurs with the indications of the second-century Church Fathers.

Original Audience:

Revelation is addressed to seven Churches in Asia Minor (Rev. 1:4, 11), an area now part of western Turkey. These Churches received rebukes and encouragements in accordance with their conditions (Rev. 2:1-3:22). Persecution had fallen on some Christians (Rev. 1:9; 2:9, 13), and more was coming (Rev. 2:10; 13:7-10). Roman officials tried to force Christians to worship the emperor, and heretical teachings and declining fervor tempted Christians to compromise with pagan society (Rev. 2:2, 4, 14-15, 20-24; 3:1-2, 15, 17).

Purpose and Distinctives:

Revelation assured the Churches of Asia Minor that Christ knew their condition and was calling them to stand fast against all temptation. Their victory had been secured through the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 5:9-10; 12:11). Christ would come soon to defeat Satan and all his agents (Rev. 19:11-20:10), and Christ's people would enjoy everlasting peace in his presence (Rev. 7:15-17; 21:3-4).

Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Like Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah, it contains visions with many symbolic elements. Using visual imagery as well as verbal promises and warnings, it weaves together into a vast poetic tapestry the themes of the whole of Scripture. Its depths are displayed through its multiple allusions, which often refer simultaneously to various Old Testament texts. It is "revelation," or disclosure, that is intended to nourish all those who are servants of Christ (Rev. 1:1).

The principal theme of Revelation is that God rules history and will bring it to its consummation in Christ. At the center are the visions of Christ (Rev. 1:12-16) and of God (Rev. 4:1-5:14).

God displays his majesty, authority and righteousness as the Ruler and Judge of the universe (Rev. 1:12-20). These central visions foreshadow the consummation of history, when God's glory will fill all things (Rev. 21:22-23; 22:5; see note on Rev. 4:1-5:14). Detailed elements in the visions flesh out these truths and are to be seen as part of a larger picture. Revelation is thus a picture book, a dramatic presentation that enables the reader to have a God-centered view of history. It is not a puzzle book to be used as a source of arcane calculations.

The prologue (Rev. 1:1-3) explains Revelation's basic purpose. Revelation 1:4-22:21 is a letter with a greeting (Rev. 1:4-5a), a body (Rev. 1:5b-22:20), and a farewell (Rev. 22:21). In formal features this arrangement is similar to Paul's letters. The main portion of the book (Rev. 4:1-22:5) consists of seven cycles of judgments, each of which leads to a description of the second coming (Rev. 4:18; 8:2-11:19; 12:114:20; 15:1-16:21; 17:1-19:10; 19:11-21; 20:1-15), and final, eighth portion that presents the supreme vision of the new Jerusalem following the second coming (Rev. 21:1-22:5). Each of the seven cycles of judgment is best understood as depicting the same spiritual war, but from a fresh vantage point. Later cycles concentrate progressively more on the most intense phases of conflict and on the second coming itself. The vision of the New Jerusalem presents the peace of the new heavens and new earth after the war has ceased.

Symbolic personages are introduced into the drama one by one, with their destinies assigned later in the book in reverse order, as follows:

  • A. The People of God Depicted With the Imagery of Light and Creation (Rev. 12:1-2)

    • B. The Dragon: Satan (Rev. 12:3-6).

      • C. The Beast and the False Prophet (Rev. 13:1-18).

        • D. The Bride: The People of God in the Imagery of Sexual Purity (Rev. 14:1-5).

          • E. Babylon the Prostitute (Rev. 17:1-6).

          • E.' Babylon Destroyed (Rev. 17:15-18:24).

        • D.' The Bride Is Blessed With Marriage(Rev. 19:1-10).

      • C.' The Beast and the False Prophet Are Destroyed (Rev. 19:11-21).

    • B.' The Dragon Is Destroyed (Rev. 20:1-10).

  • A.' The People of God in the Imagery of Light and Creation (Rev. 21:1-22:5).

Many thematic features unify the book. Repeated use of the number seven signifies completeness. God's plan and power determine the outcomes. Praise to God rises from the angels and saints (see note on Rev. 1:6). Satanic counterfeits oppose God in a spiritual war of cosmic proportions. The present struggles of the church (Rev. 2:13:22) contrast with its final rest. The Church must maintain its witness and purity.

Everything moves forward to the victory of Christ at his coming.

Interpreters disagree about the time and the manner in which the visions (especially those in Rev. 6-18) have been, are or will be fulfilled. Four major views have emerged:

(1) "Preterists" believe that fulfillment occurred in the fall of Jerusalem (if Revelation was written in A.D. 67-68) and/or the fall of the Roman Empire.

(2) "Futurists" contend that fulfillment will occur in a period of final crisis just before the second coming.

(3) "Historicists" interpret Rev. 6-18 as a basically chronological outline of the course of church history from the first century (Rev. 6:1) until the second coming (e.g., Rev. 19:11).

(4) "Idealists" argue that the scenes of Revelation depict general principles of spiritual war, not specific events.

These principles are operative throughout the church age and may have repeated fulfillments.

A combination of these views is probably closest to the truth. The imagery in Revelation is multifaceted and is in principle capable of multiple embodiments. Idealists maintain that general principles are expressed. If so, those principles had a particular relevance to the seven churches and their struggles in the first century (Rev. 1:4; see "Original Audience"). The principles also will come to climactic expression in the final crisis of the second coming (Rev. 22:20; cf. 2 Thess. 2:1-12). Christians today are involved in the same spiritual warfare and so must apply the principles to themselves and this present time. Hence, many passages have at least three main applications: to the first century, to the final crisis and to whatever time period the readers happen to be living in.

On the other hand, preterists can easily acknowledge that the underlying principles of conflict have wider significance. Thus the practical applications they draw can be similar to those of the idealists. Patience and humility are needed when we confront disagreements on these matters. In the meantime, Revelation has broad lessons from which all can profit.

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

The Epistles of the New Testament


Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.