Revelation was written as an epistle to the seven churches in Asia Minor, or present-day Turkey (1:4). Its message is also intended for anyone else who might read the epistle (2:7, 11, 17, 23, 29, 3:6, 13, 22).
The date of writing is unknown, although two periods have been proposed: 1) shortly after the reign of Nero (A.D. 54-68) and 2) at the end of Domitian’s reign (A.D. 81-96).
When John wrote Revelation, the church was facing severe persecution and threats to her faith. Unlike Judaism, which was an established religion in the Roman empire and thus enjoyed some religious freedom, Christianity was liable to persecution for its refusal to acknowledge the gods of the Romans. Terrible persecution had once broken out under Nero, who tortured, crucified, and burned Christians to death. The mention of martyrdom in 2:13 and 6:9 shows the persistent persecution that Christians underwent.
The widespread imperial cult which demanded veneration and worship of the emperors also placed Christians in a vulnerable position. True believers, who pledged allegiance to Jesus Christ the King rather than to the emperor, were therefore singled out as targets of persecution.
To make matters worse, the Jews were hostile to the Christians and often accused them before the authorities. Thus we read in Revelation (2:9, 10, 3:9) of the persecutions from “those who say they are Jews and are not.”
Besides the external persecutions, the church also struggled against infiltration of secularization and false teachings. The church in Laodicea, for example, indulged in riches and was ignorant of her spiritual poverty and lukewarmness (3:14-22). The letters to the seven churches also warned believers of false teachers and people of immoral deeds, including the Nicolaitans (2:6, 15) and followers of Balaam (2:14) and Jezebel (2:20-23). Therefore, God commanded the people to come out of Babylon (18:4), which is an image of the sinful world depicted as an arrogant woman of material splendor who had become drunk with the blood of the saints and martyrs (17:6).
The purpose of Revelation is stated in 1:1. God intends to show His servants the things which must shortly take place. In view of the intense conflicts between Christians and the forces of evil, the book of Revelation serves to strengthen believers of all generations to remain faithful to Christ unto death. Since Christ will be the ultimate victor and Satan is doomed to destruction, followers of Christ will enjoy eternal glory after suffering for a little while. Revelation is also a book of warning and a call to repentance in an adulterous generation. As believers look forward to the new heaven and new earth, they must not take part in the evil of this world. The church must stand firm in the fight against sin and adorn herself as a bride without blemish in order to join the Lord at the last and greatest wedding banquet.
1. It differs from other NT writings in its form and subject matter. According to John, it is a book of prophecy (1:3, 22:7, 10, 18-19). The book therefore belongs to a literary genre called apocalyptic writings (The word apocalyptic comes from the Greek apocalypsis, “an uncovering”) and its content is eschatological in nature (i.e. containing teachings about the end of things).
2. It is rich with symbols and imagery.
3. It has numerous OT quotations and allusions, more so than any other NT writings.
4. The numbers 7 and 12 are predominant in the book. The number 7: seven beatitudes (1:3, 14:13, 16:15, 19:9, 20:6, 22:714); seven churches (1:4, 11); seven spirits (1:4, 4:5, 5:6); seven golden lampstands (1:12); seven stars (1:16); seven lamps (4:5); seven seals (5:1); seven horns and seven eyes (5:6); seven angels and trumpets (8:2); seven diadems (12:3); seven plagues (15:1); seven bowls (17:1); seven mountains (17:9); and seven kings (17:10). The number 12: 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes (7:4-8); a garland of twelve stars (12:1); twelve gates (21:12); twelve angels (21:12); twelve foundations (21:14); twelve apostles (21:14); 12,000 furlongs (21:16).
5. It contains many songs of praise and worship.
6. The scenes in the book alternate between those in heaven and those on earth. See chart below.
Chart B [ref]
People on the Earth (Ch 2-3)
“Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this” (1:19).
To get a broad picture of the Revelation, read the entire book and record a heading for each of the section divisions in chart C.
1. Observe and record the progression of the seals, the trumpets, and the bowls and how they are related. Note also the interlude between the seals and trumpets and between the trumpets and bowls. How many chapters does each interlude take up?
2. What is the main theme of the songs recorded in Revelation? Where do the songs usually appear?
The following are a few of the various possible outlines for the book.
1. 1:19: Things which you have seen (ch 1), and the things which are (2-3), and the things which will take place after this (4-22).
2. Four key visions: the vision of the Son of man among the seven churches (ch. 1-3); the vision of the seven-sealed scroll, the seven trumpets, the seven signs, and the seven bowls (4:1-19:10); the vision of the return of Christ and the consummation of this age (19:11-20:15); and the vision of the new heaven and new earth (21-22). [ref]
3. Seven acts in a drama: [ref]
The title of the apocalypse (1:1-3) Salutation to the seven churches (1:4-6)
Prologue: two voices (herald and Lord God) (1:7-8)
Act I: The church on earth (1:9-3:22)
A. Setting: The seven golden lampstands (1:9-20)
B. The letters to the seven churches (ch. 2-3)
Scene 1: The passionless church (Ephesus; 2:1-7)
Scene 2: The persecuted church (Smyrna; 2:8-11)
Scene 3: The tolerant church (Pergamum; 2:12-17)
Scene 4: The compromising church (Thyatira; 2:18-29)
Scene 5: The dead church (Sardis; 3:1-6)
Scene 6: The missionary church (Philadelphia; 3:7-13)
Scene 7: The arrogant church (Laodicea; 3:14-22)
Act II: God’s purpose in history (4:1-8:1)
A. Setting: The throne of God (4:1-8a); odes of creatures and elders (4:8b-11); the sealed book and the Lamb (5:1-7); hymns (5:8-14)
B. The opening of the seven seals (6:1-8:1)
Scene 1: The rider on the white horse (6:1-2)
Scene 2: The rider on the red horse (6:3-4)
Scene 3: The rider on the black horse (6:5-6)
Scene 4: The rider on the pale horse (6:7-8)
Scene 5: Prayer of the martyrs (6:9-11)
Scene 6: The eschatological events (6:12-7:17; cosmic catastrophes, 6:12-17; sealing of the martyrs, 7:1-8; the martyrs in heaven, 7:9-17)
Scene 7: Silence in heaven (8:1)
Act III: The church in tribulation (8:2-11:18)
A. Setting: The altars, prayers of the saints (8:2-6)
B. The sounding of the seven trumpets (8:7-11:18)
Scene 1: Hail and fire fall (8:7)
Scene 2: A mountain cast into the sea (8:8-9)
Scene 3: A star falls on rivers and springs (8:10-11)
Scene 4: Heavenly bodies darkened (8:12); an eagle announces three woes (8:13)
Scene 5: (woe 1): Pit of the abyss; locusts (9:1-12)
Scene 6: (woe 2): Four angels released (9:13-15); two hundred million horsemen (9:16-21); angel with the little book (ch 10); times of the Gentiles, two prophets, the evil city (11:1-14)
Scene 7: (woe 3): Worship in heaven (11:15-18)
Act IV: The salvation of the church (11:19-15:4)
A. Setting: The ark of the covenant (11:19)
B. The showing of the seven pageants (12:1-15:4)
Scene 1: The woman and the dragon, (ch 12)
Scene 2: The beast arising from the sea (13:1-10)
Scene 3: The beast arising from the land (13:11-18)
Scene 4: The Lamb with the 144,000 martyrs (14:1-5)
Scene 5: Announcement of doom to Babylon (14:6-13)
Scene 6: The son of man on a white cloud and the winepress of God’s wrath (14:14-20)
Scene 7: Hymn of the Lamb chanted by the saved (15:1-4)
Act V: The world in agony (15:5-16:21)
A. The tent of witness (15:5-16:1)
B. The pouring out of the seven bowls (16:2-21)
Scene 1: Plague to the earth (boils on men; 16:2)
Scene 2: Plague to the sea (blood; 16:3)
Scene 3: Plague to rivers and springs (blood; 16:4-7)
Scene 4: Plague to the sun (burning heat; 16:8-9)
Scene 5: Plague to the beast’s throne (darkness; 16:10-11)
Scene 6: Plague to the Euphrates (armageddon; 16:12-16)
Scene 7: Plague to the air (devastation; 16:17-21)
Act VI: The judgment of the world (17:1-20:3)
A. Setting: An angel issuing from the sanctuary (17:1-2)
B. The unfolding of the seven plagues (17:3-20:3)
Scene 1: The woman on the scarlet beast (17:3-5)
Scene 2: The beast at war with the woman (17:6-18)
Scene 3: The final cosmic oratorio (18:1-19:10)
Scene 4: The Word of God on the white horse (19:11-16)
Scene 5: The angel standing in the sun (19:17-18)
Scene 6: The Battle of Armageddon (19:19-21)
Scene 7: Satan cast into the abyss (20:1-3)
Act VII: The church in the Millennium (20:4-22:5)
A. Setting: The church enthroned with Christ (20:4-6); Satan’s limited authority and defeat (20:7-10) B. The fulfilling of God’s sevenfold plan (20:11-22:5)
Scene 1: The old heaven and old earth (20:11)
Scene 2: The Last Judgment (20:12-15)
Scene 3: The new heaven and new earth (21:1)
Scene 4: The new Jerusalem (21:2-8)
Scene 5: Measuring of the city (21:9-21)
Scene 6: The city’s illumination (21:22-27)
Scene 7: The city’s source of life (22:1-5)
Epilogue: Imprimaturs on the book (22:6-20)
Closing benediction (22:21)
God on His Throne
An emphasis in Revelation is that God is the Lord who has sovereign control over history and over all forces in heaven and on earth. He is described as He “who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4); He is “The Alpha and Omega” and the “Almighty” (1:8). He is holy (4:8). As the creator of all things, He is worthy of all the glory, honor, and thanks (4:9-11). He is the Judge who will judge the living and the dead according to their works (20:11-15). He will also prepare a new heaven and new earth as a dwelling for His people, where there will be no more death, sorrow, and pain (21:1-5).
Christ the Conquering Lamb
A major motif in the book is the cosmic battle between Christ the Lamb and the hosts of evil, including the dragon (12:7-9), the beasts (ch. 13; 17:1-14), the false prophet (19:20), and the nations of the earth (20:7–10). Christ, the Lamb which has been slain, is worthy to open the sealed scroll because He has prevailed (5:5, 6). By the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony, the saints have overcome Satan the accuser (12:10, 11). Christ is the Lord of lords and King of kings; He will overcome the forces that unite to make war against Him (17:14). He is portrayed as a warrior sitting on a white horse, leading the heavenly army into battle. He strikes the nations of the earth with the sharp sword and destroys all the enemies who make war with Him (19:11-21). With His ultimate victory in view, the Lord Jesus Christ challenges believers to overcome and promises reward for those who overcome (2:7, 11, 17, 26, 3:5, 12, 21).
Coming of Christ
The imminent return of Christ echoes throughout the book. In his opening statements addressing the seven churches, John speaks of how the whole earth will witness the coming of Christ and mourn because of Him (1:7). In the letters to the churches, the coming of Christ also serves as warning to the unrepentant and encouragement to those who persevere (2:5, 16, 25, 3:3, 11). Twice, the coming of the Lord is likened to that of a thief, calling for spiritual awakening and watchfulness (3:3, 16:15). The words “I am coming soon” is repeated again and again with the promise of blessing, reward, and judgment (3:11, 22:7, 12, 20). Finally, the book closes with John’s hearty response to the Lord’s imminent return, “Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (22:20).
God’s Kingdom and Salvation
Amidst tribulation and calamity, God’s kingdom and salvation are firmly established. Songs of praise to God for His power and salvation ring throughout the book (4:8-11, 5:9-13, 7:10-12, 11:17, 12:10, 19:1-6). The people of God are identified as those washed and redeemed by the blood of the Lamb (1:5, 5:9, 7:14, 14:3, 4). They have the privilege of entering into the holy city and the right to the tree of life (21:24, 22:14). Jesus Christ is the ruler over the kings of the earth (1:5, 15:3, 17:1419:16), to whom belongs the kingdoms of this world (11:15). He has made us kings and priests to God the Father, and those who overcome shall reign with Him forever and ever (1:6, 5:10, 20:4, 6, 22:5).
At the end of the apostolic age, the Lord Jesus revealed to His church God’s impending judgment and Christ’s imminent return. As the signs of the end time are being fulfilled, we can not afford to fall into spiritual slumber and poverty. Our Lord is standing at the door. We have to be prepared now. If the churches of John’s era needed to repent and be ready for the speedy coming of the Lord, how much more must we do the same!
In addition to warning the believers as well as all who live on earth, Revelation is also full of promises to those who read, hear, and do the words of the prophecy. The messages and visions constantly remind us of the reward that awaits those who remain faithful to God’s commandments. The picture of the glorious city and new heaven and new earth is presented vividly before us. Our hearts yearn for this eternal dwelling with God. Although we now live in a perilous time when we often seem powerless over the pressures and temptations of evil, we have a bright future to look forward to. Although Satan seems to be in control, we know that the dawn is drawing near and that we are to reign with Christ. By the power of our Lord Jesus, who has overcome sin and death, we shall also overcome.
Map & Chart
Chart C: Survey of Revelation