[Fairly major re-write, 3/30/17]


I.  Introduction--difficulty of Revelation


There is a Greek saying, “Kalepa ta kala,” which might be translated, “Difficult things, beautiful things.  Beauty and difficulty often do go hand in hand, e.g. a reverse 11/2 somersault which is both a difficult dive and a beautiful dive.  And then there’s the book we move on to now: Revelation—which is both a difficult book and a beautiful book.


Revelation is so difficult, that it’s tempting not even to assign it in a class of this kind.  But it’s an important book in addressing the general theme of the course, the transition of the Roman empire from pagan polytheism to monotheistic Christianity.  The church is about to go through extraordinarily difficult times: emperors from Nero to Galerius are going after Christians in a major way.  The theme/message of Revelation goes a long way toward explaining the survival of the church in these difficult circumstances.

    A.  Struggles of theologians with this book


Some of the all-time best Christian thinkers have struggled with this book.  Luther scoffed, “A Revelation should be revealing,” implying that this book really wasn’t what it claimed to be.  Calvin said the book gave him a headache.  And Dionysius of Alexandria, one of the first Christian philosophers said that, while he supposed there was a great message here somewhere, he sure didn’t know what it way. 

    B.   Disadvantages of apocalyptic style


Part of the struggle with Revelation has to do with the fact that it was written in a genre we’re for the most part unfamiliar with today, what’s called apocalyptic style.  This was a style popular in some Jewish circles starting around 200 BC or so, a period where the Jews in general believed the true prophetic voice had ceased.  Often, the apocalyptic books are pseudepigraphal,  books that claim (falsely) to be by a great figure of the distant past.  Often, these works are borderline heretical, and it seems possible, at least, that *this* apocalypse was written as a direct challenge to some other apocalypses.  *This* is the apocalypse of Jesus Christ: the true vision of world beyond the one we live in.

    C.  Advantages of apocalyptic style


Apocalyptic style has some advantages.  It can (and did) serve as a vehicle for resistance literature.  When an open message might get one in trouble with the Roman authorities, hiding one’s message in cryptic language might be useful.  Further, the cryptic style is engaging.  A certain kind of mind just can’t help trying to figure out the symbols.  Just like the symbols in Jesus’ parables, the language in Revelation sticks in our minds.  Also, symbolic language often makes a work adaptable to many different situations—symbols have more than one meaning, and more than one applications. 

    D.  Skills needed to understand Revelation


Those to whom Revelation was originally written probably had far fewer difficulties than we do: the conventions of the apocalyptic style were more familiar to them.  But today, one needs a combination of skills fairly rare to completely understand the book.


1.  An ability to deal with symbolic language: the skills of a poet or (perhaps) an English professor.


2.  Historical skills. While most people today don’t understand the political cartoons of (say) the late 19th century (see the Thomas Nast cartoon below), historians often do.  Those who know about the historical events of the 1st century have a great advantage in understanding Revelation.




3. Spiritual experience.  Those who fast and pray in the way John does are more likely to understand this kind of book.


4.  Pastoral skills.  This is a message from a person in a pastoral position, designed to encourage people he knows are going through hard times.

II.  Difficulty with dating and authorship


Understanding Revelation would be easier for us if we knew when it was written.  And here we’ve got a few difficulties.

    A.  External evidence


Most of the external evidence points to the apostle John as the author.  But there were a few relatively early Christian writers who argued that a different John (John the elder) may have written this book. 

    B.  Internal evidence


The internal evidence seems to point to the apostle John as the author, but the author doesn’t make it absolutely clear that that is the John he is.  Internal evidence doesn’t give us quite the clear dating we would like either.  Revelation talks of a beast with seven heads and ten horns, and these heads are specifically identified as seven kings (emperors) or Rome.  Five are fallen, one is, and one is to come.  Ok, good enough.  But who specifically are the heads?  Perhaps we should count this way.
            Julius Caesar (d. 44 B.C.)
            Augustus (31 B.C.--A.D. 14)
            Tiberius (14-37)
            Caligula (37-41)
            Claudius (41-54)
            Nero (54-68)


If so, the Nero is the sixth “head,” the one who “is.”  Gives us a date during the reign of Nero, who started persecuting the Christians around 65 AD.  But if we don’t start with Julius Caesar, it’s not as clear who the sixth head is.   Playing around a bit with the symbols, we might get to the reign of Domitian.  Here’s how:


As we have seen, the other attempts to understand the seven kings as seven emperors faced their biggest challenge in identifying the eighth king in a way that made sense.  If Vespasian is identified as the sixth king, and Titus as the seventh, the eighth would be Domitian, who reigned from A.D. 81–96.  Can the description of the eighth king in 17:11 be legitimately understood as a reference to Domitian?  It is possible.  Of the eighth king, John writes, “As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction.”  This is where the history of the Roman emperors is informative.  When Vespasian was named the emperor in December 69, he was preoccupied in Egypt for approximately six months before he was able to come to Rome.  During the first six months of his reign, his son Domitian ruled in his place, accepting the title of Caesar and all the authority of the throne (Keith Mathison).


III. Four approaches to Revelation/difficulty of deciding among them

rev17In addition to dating problems, we also have a problem deciding on the best approach to take in interpreting the symbols of revelation. There are four major approaches—and all of them work. These four approaches:

    A.  Preterit: the book refers mostly to events of 64-70 A.D.
    B.  Histor
ical: the book foreshadows all subsequent history
    C.  Futurist: the book describes a still-future conflict w/antichrist
    D.  Allegorist: the book describes spiritual forces, not historical events, and the symbols are deliberately designed to talk about spiritual forces that are always at work in human history.

IV. Beautiful aspects of Revelation

But while a difficult book, Revelation is certainly a beautiful book.  The opening and closing chapters are especially beautiful.

    A.  Revelation is a beautifully constructed book

1.  The many repeated/modified images are like the theme and variations approach to a symphony.

2.  The image of the glorified Christ (and the glories of God’s kingdom) are especially beautiful when considering the circumstances: John the Baptist dead, Jesus dead, James dead, the other apostles dead, John in exile, a great persecution coming.

  3.  Each of the Seven Churches gets a message beginning with a particularly appropriate aspect of the vision of Christ, a status report, and then a promise particularly appropriate to that church.  A church with doctrinal problems, for instance, gets the image of the two-edged sword in Christ’s mouth, and a persecuted church gets the message of victory over the 2nd death, while those excluded from the synagogue get the promise they will be pillars in God’s temple, never to be removed.  And those condemned for their faith get a white stone at the Great Judgement innocent!

    B.  Depiction of majesty of God and heavenly worship

Revelation beautiful also in its depiction of heavenly worship.  If your churches are being destroyed, that’s especially nice!  And if you’re feeling outnumbered and overwhelmed—well, just take a look.  And notice—up go the prayers of the saints: God really does hear.

V.  Difficulty with Seven Seals

At first, unravelling Revelation seems possible by just comparing the teaching here to earlier, clearer material.  Comparing the 7 seals to the “little apocalypse” (Mark 13, Luke 21, Matthew 24 helps a lot--maybe!  The apostles ask Jesus about the destruction of the temple, about His return, and about the end of the world.  He seems to answer all three questions, and the seven seals of revelation correspond very well to some of the events Jesus describes.  Here are the Matthew verses:

1.  Many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ and shall deceive many (vs. 5).
2.  And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars (vs. 6)
3-4.  There shall be famines and pestilences (vs. 7-8).
5.  Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted (vs. 9)
6.  Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light and the stars shall fall from heaven (vs. 29). And he shall send his angel with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect form the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (vs. 31).

Somewhat helpful, but, of course, the little apocalypse is somewhat difficult itself, so even if we assume the seals are talking about the same thing, we don’t have a complete answer.

Also, the 7th seal has all sorts of strangeness.  The seal opens, 7 trumpets sound.  Fine: judgment day. But the last three trumpets are associated with woes (one woe is passed, two are to come…), but the pattern breaks and we get the 7th trumpet sounding and 7 thunders before the 2nd woe of the 6th trumpet has passed.  And we get the temple opened in heaven before the temple has appeared in the vision.  Very strange, and very hard to understand—at a critical point in Revelation! 

VI. Difficult interpretation of symbols

Remember: we have four approaches to Revelation.  11:1-3 (gentiles treading down city)

·        Preterit: refers to 3 1/2 year war between Jews and Rome
    A.D. 64        Rome burns, Nero blamed
    A.D. 65-68        First persecution of Christians/Peter and Paul (and most apostles) killed
    A.D. 66-70        War between Jews and Romans/Civil war in Jerusalem
    A.D. 68-69        "Year of Four Emperors"/Rome sacked
    A.D. 70        Jerusalem (and the temple) destroyed

·        Historical: entire period of gentile domination

·        Futurist: the "Great Tribulation" of the the future antichrist

·        Allegorist: a limited # of Jews/unlimited # of gentiles saved

Each approach leads to differences in the interpretation of various symbols:

1.  Dragon waiting to swallow man-child who is caught up into heaven, persecutes the woman who fleas into the wilderness.
2.  First beast (Seven heads ten horns)
3.  Second beast (Two horns)
4.  "Two witnesses" (Ch. 11).
5.   Woman clothed with sun (Ch. 12)
6.    Different interpretations of harlot drunk with saints’ blood

V.  Beautiful conclusion of Revelation—but more difficulties!

          A.  Millennium

          Revelation 20 describes a period where Satan is bound for 1000 years and those who have given their lives for the gospel live and reign with him.  But what exactly this passage is talking about is widely disputed.  There are three very different views, the amillennial, premillennial, and postmillennial positions.  The premillennial types view the millennium as sometime in the future, and (understandably) most “futurists” tend to take this position.  There will be a “rapture” of the church, followed by a seven-year reign of antichrist, followed by the return of Christ, and earthly kingdom of Christ lasting for 1000 years, a “loosing of Satan” and the final battle between good and evil and the ultimate day of judgement.

          That view works pretty well.  But, not so long ago, the postmillennial view also had many followers.  The post-millennialists thought the first coming of Christ had brought with it a binding of Satan, and that it was now the job of the church to build toward Christ’s kingdom.  During the 19th century, this idea (that human civilization was going to get better and better) seemed plausible enough.  Ultimately, Christ would return to claim the kingdom we had built for him.  After the horrors of the 20th century, postmillennialism seemed less plausible.

          A third view (the one I happen to hold, so take my criticisms of the other two views with a grain of salt) is the amillennial view.  Amillennialists say we shouldn’t look for an earthly millennium at all.  John sees the “souls” of those executed for their faith in Christ living and reigning with Christ for 1000 years.  The “millennium” of Revelation 20 refers to the period of Christ’s reign in heaven *before* his earthly return, the resurrection, and the Day of Judgment.  A beautiful picture of John especially, a man who had seen so many of his friends executed.  Where are they now?  Living and reigning with Christ.

B.  But beautiful...

          Plenty of difficulties, then, in Revelation.  But as the book closes, plenty of especially beautiful images.   As John writes, his favorite city, Jerusalem has been destroyed, or it’s just about to be destroyed.  Imagine your favorite city or town lying in utter ruin.  But now John sees a New Jerusalem—more lovely than the original Jerusalem had ever been.  All sorts of wonderful things in it—and every bad thing excluded.



Talk about me, talk about you,

Talk about everybody;

Thank God Almighty, if the Bible's true,

Ain't no talkers in Heaven.


Lie on me, lie on you,

Lie on everybody;

The angels in Heaven done wrote it down,

There ain't no liars in Heaven.


        Of course, that’s something of a worry for people like me.  Any place for us talkers?  Well, that takes us down to the end:


And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.


            For more than 200 years, from the time of Nero (AD 65) until Galerius’ Edict of Toleration (AD 311), the church periodically goes through times as difficult as the times of John’s own life.  The psychology reflected and enhanced by the Book of Revelation—the psychology of seeing a deep beauty beyond the difficulties of the moment—is a major factor in understanding the central theme of this course, the eventual triumph of Christianity in the Roman empire.