- The prologue (1:1-8)
- The first vision (1:9 - 3:22)
- The second vision (4:1 - 16:21)
- The third vision (17:1 - 21:8)
- The fourth vision (21:9 - 22:5)
- The epilogue (22:6-21)
Authorship, date, and background
The book of the Revelation closes the canon of Scripture. It is appropriately paced at the end of the New Testament. The closing of the canon means that there is no new revelation given to men by God. The Old and New Testaments are all there is. The next revelation will be the revealing of the Son of God from heaven when Jesus comes the second time.
The Revelations itself claims to have come from John. When all of the scholarly claims have been examined, it boils down to the conclusion that John, son of Zebedee, the brother of James, and the author of the Gospel of John and the three letters of John wrote the book. He was an apostle, an eyewitness, and an aged saint. The book itself was written during the time of the persecution by Domitian, which places it in the last decade of the first century (ca. A.D. 96).
John, the author, had been imprisoned on the isle of Patmos. The stated reason for his imprisonment was that he was exiled there for preaching "the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus" (1:9). It must be remembered that he was an eyewitness who had been with Jesus throughout the days of His ministry on this earth. Christianity, which had been regarded as a cult under the umbrella of Judaism, no longer enjoyed this protection. It was regarded as a new religion, and the stubborn refusal of Christians to bow before the emperor, who set himself up as God, occasioned their persecution. Toleration was no longer possible. The church was placed on the defensive, a situation which was to continue until Constantine's day, when church was victorious over paganism for a time.
The Revelation is the only completely apocalyptic book in the New Testament. As such, it discloses things otherwise hidden which could only be made known by revelation from God. As an apocalyptic work it is similar to that of Daniel in the Old Testament. As a book of prophecy, it majors on future events. It fits into history of that day when Christians were inclined toward despair because of the persecution they suffered. Their despair was offset only by the expectation of being saved by divine intervention on their behalf. Times of persecution usually brought forth apocalyptic books and this was one of those times. The book itself followed this type of literature with strange dreams and visions of a symbolic nature; with celestial beings and demonic powers fighting against each other; with the assurance of the victory of right over wrong, which included the deliverance of the righteous and the judgement of the wicked.
Characteristics and content
The big question about The Revelation is: What does it all mean? The first three chapters are plain enough. They include the prologue, the vision, the portrait, and the messages to the seven churches of Asia. These are historic churches. John evaluates their strengths and weaknesses and warns them that their candlesticks may be removed. Beginning with chapter four, John writes about the seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven signs, and the seven bowls. These are followed by the advent of Christ the conqueror, the binding of Satan, the millennial reign of the Lord, the last rebellion, the final judgement, and the new heavens and the new earth. The consummation brings with it the total end of evil and the total victory of god and good forever and ever. The real problem has to do with interpretation. What do these things mean? There have been four schools of thought. The Preterist School holds that all of The Revelation pertains only to the events of that day. Nothing in the book is futuristic; that is, it has no predictive prophecy. This views commends itself to liberal scholars who do not believe in the possibility of predictive prophecy to begin with.
The second is the Idealist School, which holds that the book simply gives us a picture of the struggle between good and evil characteristic of all ages. This school does not think the symbols can be attached to any real historical events. The emphasis is on ethical and spiritual truths, not on historical happenings. By spiritualizing the book, it dehistoricizes it so that there is no climax to history when Jesus comes to sit on a visible throne in all of His glory.
The third school is known as the Historicist School, which claims that the book discloses in broad outline from the future course of history from the descent of the Holy Spirit to the second coming of Jesus. Major events in history since the age of the apostles are made known through the symbols in the book. The advocates of this view are not agreed about the meaning of each symbol. The seven seals are thought to represent the division of the Roman empire and its dissolution; the coming of the locusts is thought to represent the invasions of Europe by the Muslims.
The fourth school is the Futuristic School, which holds generally that the first three chapters of The Revelation are historical and the remaining portions of the book, beginning with chapter four, have to do with the period at the end of the age, known as The Great Tribulation. These events are regarded as literally as possible and are thought to be wholly future.
Broadly speaking, most Christians today adhere to one of three interpretations of eschatology, each of which is related to the understanding of Revelation chapter 20. The three views are known as the postmillennial, the amillennial, and the premillennial.
Postmillennialism teaches that Satan is bound during this present age. The church will progress and an earthly millennium will come, at the end of which Jesus Christ will return. This view presents an optimistic account of the triumph of righteousness quite at variance with the experience of history. It is a view held by few Christians in our time, although it was strongly held by many in bygone ages.
Amillennialism interprets Revelation 20 in such a way as to foreclose any possibility of a future thousand-year millennium after the coming of the Lord during which time peace will reign and righteousness will prevail. So far as the events connected with the end of this age are concerned, the amillennialist is much in agreement with the premillennialist. In this view, the coming of Christ will not bring in the millennium. History, as we know it, will end with the return of the Lord, when the final judgement will take place and the eternal age will begin.
The Premillennialist believes the course of history moves inevitably toward the climax of the age, the rapture of the church, and the second advent of Jesus. The closing days of the age, will witness the coming of the Great Tribulation such as the world has never seen. At the end of this period Jesus will come again. He will then establish his thousand-year (millennial) kingdom on earth which will be a period of enforced righteousness. Satan will be bound for the history of man. Christ will be triumphant; the Devil and his hosts, including the unsaved, will be consigned to the Lake of Fire, while the righteous saints will live and reign with Christ in the city of God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from God out of heaven.
Fundamentalists almost without exception hold to the premillennial viewpoint; among evangelicals there are premillennialists and amillennialists; liberals who take the Bible seriously generally fall into the postmillennial camp; although there are few orthodox believers who hold this view too. Other liberals have no use for millennialism of any kind.