Understanding the Book of Revelation
Oct 17, 2023 · Scott Hoezee
For almost 2,000 years the Bible’s final book has been a cause for consternation, fear, and controversy. Some pastors and theologians have even chosen just to leave The Book of Revelation alone, including John Calvin, who never wrote a commentary on Revelation even though he wrote commentaries for every other book! The leading reason for this is that we categorize Revelation in the genre of apocalyptic literature. As such, Revelation is chock-full of symbolism, some of which seems frightening and a good bit of which seems confusing and perhaps open to multiple layers of interpretation. All in all, Revelation understandably strikes many Christians as challenging material. However, a look at the context, interpretation, and purpose of Revelation helps to demystify the book and reveal that all the apocalyptic imagery and symbolism point to a simple, consistent, and comforting message: Jesus Christ has won the battle against evil and God’s kingdom will endure forever.
Author & Context of Revelation
As with all of Scripture, the ultimate author of Revelation is God by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In this case, the Spirit also caused John to have many visions in which the resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus Christ speaks directly to John, and through John, Jesus speaks to us readers still today. Some biblical scholars dispute the identity of the human author (you can read more about why in the Groundwork blog “Who Wrote the Book of Revelation?”). Some believe this is the same John who wrote the Gospel of John and the three epistles of John, one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, along with Peter and John’s brother, James. Others think that John of Patmos is a different person than the disciple.
In the end it may not matter. Whoever John was, he was a follower of Jesus who had been exiled by Rome to the island of Patmos due to his allegiance to Jesus as Lord and King. What’s more, John addresses this whole book of Revelation to seven named churches and even though those seven churches are only front and center in chapters 1-3, those same seven congregations and their members each received the entire book.
Rome had exiled John to Patmos as a punishment for talking about Jesus as the true God and Lord of the universe, which upset the Roman Caesar Domitian, who believed himself to be dominus et deus or “lord and god” of the Empire. A rich and wonderful irony of Revelation, however, is that Rome could not cast John beyond the reach of Christ Jesus the Lord. There on that island, John encountered Jesus in a way more vivid and glorious than ever before. If Rome had hoped to separate John from Jesus, Rome failed! What’s more, the visions John received on that distant island constitute the whole Book of Revelation, meaning that not only did Rome fail to sever John’s connection to Jesus by exiling him, but the result was a whole biblical book that has influenced the world for two millennia now, having been read by untold numbers of Christians!
There have been many schools of thought about how to interpret Revelation, but today, two of these schools stand out in contrast to one another. The first school sees Revelation as a preview of the end times, interpreting, for example, the so-called Mark of the Beast and the Tribulation as literally sketching an exact order of events that will happen only once when the day of the Lord finally nears.
The second school, on the other hand, holds that Revelation describes events and confrontations that will occur over and over again all throughout history, giving a symbolic interpretation to the book’s imagery. Babylon, for example, will not be a one-off, final evil empire, but stands instead for regime-after-regime rising and falling throughout history as the battle between God and evil continues.
The Purpose of Revelation
Although we often find Revelation confusing and sometimes even controversial, in truth this book is meant to be of great comfort for Christians. Revelation celebrates the victory of Jesus over death, hell, and Satan. In much of the book, the city of Babylon serves as a stand-in for all the powers that oppose God. Revelation depicts both the fact that Christ Jesus has already won the decisive battle against evil and the fact that for now, and until history draws to a final close, a degree of ongoing struggle remains. But we already know the end of the matter: Christ is Victor! God has won! We are on course for the New Creation, the New Heaven, and New Earth that we encounter in Revelation’s final chapters.
The Book of Revelation was meant as a comfort to the early church in a time when it seemed that evil ran rampant. Many people feel the same way about the world today. Thus Revelation has much to offer us right now, if we can receive its encouraging message as it was intended by the Spirit of Jesus Christ through the witness of John.
Revelation for Today
Written for everyone, anyone can understand the book of Revelation. If you’d like resources to aid and support your understanding of this comforting book, here are a few we recommend:
- Our six-part audio Bible study, “Revelation: A Comfort for Believers.” Groundwork hosts Darrell Delaney and Scott Hoezee unpack the theme of comfort that runs through all of Revelation. Subscribe to Groundwork and download the study guide. It’s free.
- Darrell and Scott were joined in the second episode of the series by Calvin Theological Seminary New Testament Professor Jeffery Weima. Dr. Weima’s book The Sermons to the Seven Churches of Revelation: A Commentary and Guide is an excellent resource especially on the opening chapters of the book.
- If you are looking for a commentary on the entire book, we highly recommend The Book of Revelation: Revised by Robert H. Mounce.