The Glossary of Terms

The Revelation to John


Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

Revelation to John, The. N.T. book written probably toward the end of the first century A.D., when Christians were being severely persecuted. The writer was a church leader who had been banished to the island of Patmos in the Mediterranean Sea. To reassure Christians of God's eventual triumph in history, perhaps also to hide his meaning from outsiders, the writer used many symbols and visions, some of them taken from the O.T. books of Daniel and Ezekiel.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Revelation to John, the, the last book of the nt, also called the Apocalypse. The term ‘apocalypse’ comes from the Greek word for revelation, which is used in the preface to characterize the work (1:1).


The Revelation to John

In modern times, the word ‘apocalypse’ has come to designate a particular literary form. An apocalypse is a narrative account of the reception of revelation by a human individual from one or more heavenly beings. The revelation includes descriptions of the heavenly world and of a qualitatively new future. The book of Daniel in the ot is also an apocalypse, as is 2 Esdras in the Apocrypha. Revelation is the only apocalypse in the nt, although other books contain passages of similar content, e.g., Mark 13 and parallels, 1 Thess. 4:13-18.

Author: Although the author never claims directly to be a prophet, several passages suggest such was his self-understanding (e.g., 22:9). He calls himself John (1:4). Nothing in the work links the author to John the son of Zebedee or John the Elder. Sound judgment requires the conclusion that he is a John otherwise unknown to us. His work was preserved because he was recognized as a prophet in the early church and because the work itself was accepted as a valid revelation of God’s will.

Date: According to Irenaeus, a leader of the church in the second century, John saw his revelation near the end of the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian. No good reason for doubting Irenaeus’ testimony has been brought forward. The book in its present form should therefore be dated to a.d. 95 or 96. Earlier traditions have certainly been incorporated. In some cases, sources with relatively fixed wording were used, in, e.g., chaps. 11, 12, and 17:10.

Occasion: The occasion of the book has often been seen as the persecution that Christian tradition says Domitian initiated against the church. Recent research has called the existence of such a persecution seriously into question. The hard evidence supports only the conclusion that under Domitian Christians were subject to the same sporadic repression they experienced under other emperors of the late first and early second centuries. Another theory is that Domitian escalated the ruler cult by insisting on new divine honors of his person. The evidence for this theory is not very strong. It seems best to conclude that John was not simply reacting to objective changes in the situation of Christians, but that with prophetic insight he interpreted the typical situation in a new way.

Content and Purpose: In Revelation John tells how he received revelatory visions from Christ and describes those visions. Most of them concern the future, but John tells them in order to interpret the experience of the first readers and to evoke a particular response to that experience. In describing his visions, he uses traditional images. The result is that the book has two levels of meaning. The traditional images call to mind the ‘old story’ of the conflict between the creator-god or God and a rebellious beast of chaos. The various versions of this story express in a vivid and concrete way the perennial struggle between order and chaos, life and death.

John uses these traditional images to interpret his situation. The bestial, chaotic images are applied to the Roman Empire, its leaders and friends, and the very culture related to it. The ‘new story,’ which is the second level of meaning, uses the story of conflict to interpret the relationship between the followers of Jesus and the Roman Empire. The hostility of Rome to the Christian message and way of life is revealed as a renewed rebellion of chaos against order, of creature against Creator.

The Christ of the messages exhorts the readers to remain faithful, especially in the face of hostility from their non-Christian neighbors. Another important theme is the warning not to practice immorality (i.e., idolatry) and to avoid meat sacrificed to pagan gods. These warnings teach that the faithful Christians must often be critical of their culture.

The woman clothed with the sun in chap. 12 represents the faithful people of God who will be protected by divine power in situations of adversity. Chaps. 13 and 17 allude to the emperor Nero, who slaughtered Christians in Rome ca. a.d. 64, as a symbol of political power that abuses its God-given authority. In chaps. 17 and 18 Rome is portrayed as (the new) Babylon, because the armies of Rome, like those of Babylon at an earlier date, destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in a.d. 70.

Beginning with the seven seals, the visions focus upon the future. The five series of visions, beginning with the seals and ending with the second unnumbered series, all have the same plot. Their common underlying pattern is threefold: (1) persecution (e.g., 6:9-11; 12-13), (2) punishment of the nations, or judgment (e.g., 6:12-17; 14:14-20), and (3) triumph of God, the Lamb, and his followers or salvation (e.g., 7:9-17; 15:2-4). By repeating this pattern, Revelation expresses the insight that reality in general and Christian life in particular are characterized by conflict and struggle. A further insight is that death is only a phase in that struggle, not the end. The new and old stories of conflict are reinforced by the example of Jesus. They are models for understanding and coming to terms with powerlessness, suffering, and death. Readers are given hope within struggle and challenged to distinguish God’s cause from Satan’s cause in their everyday life.

Interpretation: Revelation has always been interpreted in various ways; the twentieth century is no exception. Today fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians believe the book was written to predict the end of the world in our own time. Some of them expect, for example, a world war to occur in the Middle East that will involve nuclear weapons and will fulfill the prophecy of a battle at Armageddon (Rev. 16:12-16).

More liberal Christians recognize that the prophecies of Revelation were addressed to the late first century and that most of them were not fulfilled in a literal, historical way. Such Christians do not understand prophecy to be primarily a matter of prediction. John’s prophetic role consisted in exposing and denouncing idolatry and the abuse of power in his day. His expression of hope for a new heaven and a new earth reminds us that the Kingdom of God is not just a matter of the salvation of the individual or even the maintenance of the faithful church. The rule of God ought to encompass all of creation. Only when all are faithful and the world-order is characterized by peace and justice will God’s work be complete. The readers of Revelation today are challenged by it to discern and distinguish divine and satanic forces at work in our world.

Bibliography Caird, G. B. A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. Collins, Adela Yarbro. The Apocalypse. Wilmington, DL: Michael Glazier, 1979. Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schuessler. Invitation to the Book of Revelation. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981. Achtemier, Paul J., Th.D., Harper’s Bible Dictionary, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.) 1985

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Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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