1. Introduction to the Book of Revelation

Revelation 1:1-11

On the island of Patmos ... on the Lord's Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice ... which said, "Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches." (Revelation 1:9-11)

To desert island banished

With God the exile dwells

And sees the future glory

His mystic writing tells. (Ancient Latin Hymn)

Prison literature (including Paul's Prison Epistles and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress) enriches the life of the church! Banished to the island of Patmos, John in his lonely cell received the most remarkable revelation ever granted. To the west was Rome, the city of seven hills; to the east were Palestine, the Euphrates River, and Babylon. Amid these geographical surroundings—which figure prominently in Revelation—the Apostle John received his vision.

No one was better fitted than John to act as the appointed channel of this sublime revelation. This is evident from what the Gospels record of his intimate fellowship with Christ. John was Christ's close friend, whom He loved very much. He is also pictured as leaning upon the bosom of Jesus. And it was John who wrote the words of Jesus regarding the Spirit's ability to show the servants of Christ "what must soon take place" (Revelation 1:1; 22:6).

The Setting

In authoritative fashion the apostle begins this section with his own name: "John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia" (1:4). Similarly emphatic is the phrase in verse 9: "I, John." The word apostello means "to send forth" and describes a messenger commissioned to undertake some important mission. This is how the term is applied to Christ (Hebrews 3:1). As John begins the communication of the revelation sent to him (1:1), he affirms his authority as an apostle, or "sent one." What he is about to announce was not of his own creation. As a God-sent messenger, John is going to describe "everything he saw"(1:2). In the "I, John" of verse 9, the apostle proclaims the opening of the book containing the Second Coming of Christ. In the "I, Jesus" of 22:20, Christ announces His own Second Coming.

John was a saint and knew much about long periods of communion and meditation; it was during one of these seasons of spiritual reflection, on a Lord's Day, that he found himself transported by the Spirit into the heavenly realms. Thus his own meditative nature, and the sweet and precious memories of Christ, prepared him for extraordinary visions. This transference of the inner being to another realm was also experienced by other Bible saints, who likewise received visions and revelations by a supernatural power, apart from their own natural mind. Their natural powers were held in abeyance while dominated or controlled by the Spirit (see 1 Kings 18:12; Isaiah 6; Ezekiel 3:12, 14; 37:1; Acts 8:39; 2 Corinthians 12).

The combination of the two phrases "on the island of Patmos" and "in the Spirit" (1:9-10) prove that geographical limitations are no hindrance to spiritual vision. Patmos was the sphere, but the Spirit was the atmosphere. The extremely dreary and inhospitable island on the Aegean Sea was no barrier to John's reception of the unveiling of Christ.

All that John saw while in his ecstatic condition was divinely authoritative; hence the constant refrain, "These words are trustworthy and true" (19:9; 22:6-10). What John witnessed he had to write down. Guided by the Spirit, he recorded his sublime revelation. Twelve times John was told to write. We may not be able to write volumes, but what we do write can say volumes if we record what we receive by the Spirit. What Ezekiel saw in vision he had to transcribe and tell (Ezekiel 12:21-25). With Paul's heavenly revelations it was different: when caught up into paradise, he heard unspeakable words, but his lips were sealed as to what he saw and heard (2 Corinthians 12:1-7). The thorn in his flesh prevented him from exalting above measure in the abundance of his revelations. But in John's case, again and again he warns us about keeping those things he received and recorded (Revelation 1:3, etc.).

How impoverished the church would have been if John had failed to record the revelation granted him by the Holy Spirit! But John obeyed the divine voice and gave the churches of his time this precious unfolding, with the exhortation that it must be read and with the promise that a divine blessing would rest upon all who read the record and obeyed its instructions.

The Recipients of the Letter

The original readers of Revelation were the members of the churches in Asia Minor, which was remarkable for the number and wealth of its cities. The seven churches named in Revelation were important centers from which the gospel spread eastward and westward. Revelation is for the church universal and for all the churches of succeeding generations. Here Christ reveals Himself to "all the churches" (2:23; 22:16). What a mighty spiritual renewal would be experienced today if all churches lived in the light of this final book of the Bible! From Ephesus, John had directed the churches of Asia Minor in spiritual matters. This continued while he was a prisoner of Rome on the island of Patmos near the end of the reign of Emperor Domitian (probably about a.d. 90). However, Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, felt that Revelation was written during Nero's persecution, around a.d. 64. Modern scholars favor this earlier date.

The purpose of Revelation is indicated in its prologue. The book was written to show us the things that "must soon take place." This corresponds with the activities of the Holy Spirit, which include guiding us into all truth and showing us things to come (see John 16:13).

Although some theologians dispute the Johannine authorship of Revelation, their objections do not move us from the position that John, the beloved disciple (who wrote the Gospel of John and the three Epistles of John), was also the writer of Revelation. The testimony of the early church cannot be ignored. Revelation is quoted with the author's name earlier than any other New Testament book except 1 Corinthians. In his Gospel and Epistles John writes in the third person, but in Revelation he names himself four times (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8) and writes in the first person.

In most cases the writers of Holy Scripture did not title their respective books. The title of Revelation is not "the revelation of Saint John the divine," as if to suggest that the apostle possessed some special sanctity. The book contains "the revelation of Jesus Christ ... to his servant John (1:1). John was the recipient, not the author, of Revelation. Often the book is referred to as "the Revelations," but while it contains various visions that John received while in the Spirit, these were essentially one, being received in one day, namely, "the Lord's Day" (1:10). The unity of the whole book is expressed in the two opening words, "The revelation."

Some people think we should treat Revelation as an enigma—the more we study it the less we understand it. But this book is a revelation. It is not a mystery, not a covering up. The name means an unveiling, an uncovering, a drawing aside of a curtain to show something that can no longer be concealed. True, Revelation is highly symbolic, but there is hardly a symbol in the book that is not explained in some other part of Scripture. In fact, Revelation contains some three hundred allusions to other parts of Scripture. Therefore, we must seek to compare Scripture with Scripture.

What was sealed to Daniel would be made clear at the end-time period of the Gentile age: "Those who are wise shall understand" (Daniel 12:9-10). Events mentioned by Daniel are now fully revealed by God to His servants. To the undiscerning mind much of Revelation may appear dark, inexplicable, impossible to comprehend; but to those who wait upon the Spirit, its plan and purpose are clear. Yet in all our efforts to understand Revelation, we must bear in mind the wise comment of Bishop John Newton (1725-1807) that explaining the book of Revelation perfectly is not the work of one person or of one age, and it probably will not be clearly understood until all has been fulfilled.

The book of Revelation has long been a battleground between differing systems of interpretation.

What are we to make of these different interpretations? The tribulationists fail to realize that the seals, trumpets, and bowls are related to judgment and apply to Jews and Gentiles. The church, then, cannot be on earth after chapter 3 because it is not the subject of judicial judgment. Rather, the Lord will save His own from the horrors of the Tribulation: "Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth" (Revelation 3:10; see also 1 Thessalonians 1:10). Because prophecy is frequently progressive or cumulative, the historical and futurist interpretative systems can be combined. Those who lived in John's day and suffered much at the hands of Rome saw some fulfillment in what John wrote. But the persecutions of the first century did not exhaust John's predictions, for these point on to complete fulfillment. In Revelation 1:19, John himself gives us the words of Christ as a guide to interpreting the book:

The complete fulfillment of this section is therefore future. Then the predictions and promises of the prophets will be realized, and the kingdom of the Messiah will be set up.

J. B. Phillips outlines five important lessons we can learn from the book of Revelation:

  1. The absolute sovereignty of God results in His ultimate purpose to destroy all forms of evil.
  2. The inevitable judgments of God will come upon evil, especially the worship of false gods, which include riches, power, and success.
  3. The necessity for patient endurance is based on the knowledge that God is in control of all history.
  4. The existence of reality (represented under such symbols as the New Jerusalem, apart and secure from the battles and tribulations of earthly life) promises complete spiritual security to those who are faithful to God and His Christ.
  5. The glimpse of worship and adoration constantly offered to God and the Lamb demonstrates man's ultimate acknowledgment of the character of God when he sees God as He is.