The Book of Revelation

This is an extract from the booklet produced for the Bible Study Group on the Book of Revelation

This is a book of vivid colour and high drama:  there are no shades of grey and nothing is easy or simple:  It is full of red, white, black, green, purple, blue and gold;  cities, buildings and thrones are made of precious jewels and metals; it is riddled with numbers that clearly have symbolic meaning – but what?

There is an assumption in every age that the experience of that age will give the tools and  keys to unlock the message of the book.  The more people try to do this the more they are likely to miss the point.

The Revelation is sometimes called The Apocalypse (Gk Apokalupsis)

·         Apo = away from

·         Kalupsis = a veiling

Apocalypse means an unveiling or a revealing.

History and Background

Revelation was written around 90 to 96AD towards the end of the life of the Emperor Domitian (d in 96AD).  Some authors argue that it was written earlier, during Nero’s life (54-68 AD) but this is not the general view.  Barclay and others argue that the book was written in response to the persecution of the church during Domitian’s rule – see below.

The background to the writing of Revelation may well have been Caesar-worship.

In the early church there was a strong attitude to be obedient to Roman authority (cf Acts 16.36-40; 18.1-17; 19.13-41; 21.30-40 and 1Pet 2.12-17).  This is in strong contrast to the Revelation in which is to be found only blazing hatred for Rome which is described as “Babylon the Whore”. (cf Rev 17.5,6; Rev 20).  The suggestion is that the development of Caesar-worship and the persecution of those who failed to conform (including death) was at the bottom of the writing of the Book of Revelation.  Failure to worship Caesar was not just seen as an irreligious act but as an act of political disloyalty.  Jews were generally the only people in the empire who were exempt.  Revelation, of course, was written ostensibly to the churches in Asia Minor rather than in Palestine.


Augustus: d AD14 – he was tolerant of Caesar or Emperor worship and did not insist on it

Tiberius (14-37 AD) – was also tolerant but did not allow worship of himself – only past Caesars

Caligula (37-41AD) – insisted that he was divine and that he should be worshipped as such.  Even tried to make the Jews worship him including proposing to put a bust of himself in the Holy of Holies)

Claudius (41-54AD) – he reversed Caligula’s policy

Nero (54-68AD) – persecuted Christians for political reasons but did not pursue Caesar worship

Vespasian (69-79 AD) – didn’t pursue Caesar worship

Titus (79-81AD) – didn’t pursue Caesar worship

Domitian (81-96AD) – complete change.  Where Nero was mad, Domitian was just bad and cold-bloodedly persecuted those who would not worship him or the ancient gods.  He insisted on being called “Lord and God” which both Jew And Christian would not do.  Christians therefore had a very stark choice – Caesar or Christ?

This is the background to the Book of the Revelation


John – but which John?

Some argue that it was John the Apostle (MacArthur, 2007).  Others that it was another John.

Given that this is apocalyptic literature (see below) some caution is needed.  This could be a pseudonym or it could be unusual and written in the author’s true name .

The style is very different to the Gospel and the letters of John.  This does not necessarily mean that it couldn’t have been written by the Apostle.  Light, life, truth and grace do not dominate the Book of Revelation!  There are, however, enough similarities to show that both Revelation and the Gospel came from the same centre and same world of ideas and thought.

 If it was by the Apostle then he would have been into his eighties.

Almost certainly lived in “Asia” (ie Asia Minor) in the area of the seven churches.  He describes himself as a “brother” to those to whom he writes.

He was probably a Palestinian Jew who went to Asia Minor later in life.  His Greek language, while “vivid, powerful (and) pictorial”[1] is “grammatically the worst in the New Testament”.  It is full of mistakes that show that this was not his native language.  However, the fact that the whole book is steeped in the Old Testament (with more than 240 allusions and references from 20 Old Testament books) showing that he had a Jewish background, he was also clearly familiar with the form and style of apocalyptic literature.

The author of Revelation claims to be a prophet but not an apostle link but also states that the real author is Jesus Christ, himself.  If he was the apostle John why didn’t he claim this greater authority?  He also speaks of apostles in the past (Rev 21.14).

The Genre

There are characteristics of three different styles or genres in this book:

·         Letter or Epistle

·         Prophecy

·         Apocalypse

Letter or Epistle

Revelation has the form of a letter : there is prescript naming the author and addressees, and  giving an opening greeting.  There is also a postscript to close.  Within the overall book/letter there are also seven specific letters addressed to “The Seven Churches of Asia”.

Prophecy and Apocalypse

Although Revelation is framed as a letter it is primarily a mix of prophesy and apocalypse

Prophecy:  A prophet focuses on the present world with a cry for social economic and political justice.  Prophecy is a summons to obey and serve God NOW.   The underlying belief is that this world can be fixed. (Reformation)

Prophets spoke under their own name.

Apocalypse: The underlying belief is that this world is beyond being mended and that the only cure is not reformation but dissolution.  For this to happen requires God’s total intervention.

Apocalyptic writers wrote under a pseudonym, taking the authority of a well known historical figure (such as Isaiah, Daniel, Enoch, Ezra or Ezekiel).

Apocalyptic Literature

Although the Book of the Revelation is unique in the New Testament it belongs to a type of literature that was very common in the period between the end of the Old Testament writing and the beginning of the New Testament (200BC to 100AD).  It would therefore have been much more familiar and less intimidating for those who contemporaries who read it than it is for us.

As William Barclay puts it, between the Old and New Testaments  there was a great mass of apocalyptic literature, “the product of an indestructible Jewish hope” (Barclay p2).

Barclay [2] offers the following as characteristics of Apocalyptic Literature

1.       In apocalyptic literature the Messiah was seen as a divine, pre-existent, other-worldly figure of power and glory.  He was waiting to descend into the world to begin his all-conquering career.  There was nothing human or gentle about the Messiah in this view.

2.       The Messiah’s coming would be preceded by the return of Elijah, who would prepare the way.  (cf Malachi 4.5-6)

3.       The coming of the Messiah would be like birth pains (cf Matt 24.8, Mark 13.8).  These last, terrible times were known as “the travail of the Messiah”.

4.       The last days will be a time of terror.  (Even mighty men will cry – Zeph 1.14) and the inhabitants will tremble (Joel 2.1)

5.       In the last days the world will be shattered (cf Is 13.10, Joel 2.30,31;3.15)

6.       Everyone will be at war with their neighbour and relationships will be destroyed (Zeph 14.13)

7.       The last days will be a time of judgement when God will come like refiner’s fire (Mal 3.1-3; Is 66.15-16)

8.       The Gentiles have a place in all apocalyptic literature but that place can vary significantly

a.       They are totally destroyed – Babylon is a place of desolation (cf Is 13.19-22, 63.6; 45.14)

b.      There is one last gathering of the Gentiles against Jerusalem

c.       The Gentiles are converted through Israel.  God “has given Israel for a light to the Gentiles (cf Is 49.6; 45.20-22)

9.       In the last days the Jews will be gathered together in the Holy City (cf Is 27.12,13)

10.   A New Jerusalem will be prepared in heaven. It will be beautiful beyond compare and it will come down among people (cf Is 54.12,13)

11.   There will be resurrection of the dead (cf Dan 12.2-3).  The nature and scope of resurrection varied according to the literature but this was the beginning of the emergence of a strong hope of life beyond the grave.

12.   There were differences in the length of the Messianic kingdom.  The most common was for ever (cf Dan 7.27) but sometimes for 400 year (cf Gen 15.13, Ps 90.15).  In Revelation it is for 1000 years (Rev 20).

The Jewish View of Apocalypse

The Jews were unable to forget that they were the chosen people of God and yet they were faced with one disaster after another:

·         The Northern kingdom of Israel disappeared in the last quarter of the C8th BC and its capital, Samaria vanished under the assault of the Assyrians.  Ten of the 12 tribes consequently disappeared.

·         In the early C6th  BC the Southern kingdom of Judah was reduced to slavery and exile by the Babylonians, the temple was destroyed and Jerusalem largely disappeared..  After that the Southern kingdom became subject to different powers – Persians, Greeks and then Romans.

Jewish history “was a catalogue of disasters from which it became clear that no human deliverer could rescue them” (Barclay p3) yet they held stubbornly to the view that they were chosen.  They therefore had to change their view of history in the light of the constant troubles they were in.

Under the apocalyptic view there were two historical ages:

·         The Present Age: – wholly bad and beyond redemption.  To be swept away when the Messiah comes

·         The Age which is to come: – to be wholly good, the golden age of God, with peace, prosperity and righteousness.  God’s people will be vindicated and inherit their rightful place

The Present Age becomes The Age which is to come only through the agency of God on the day of the coming of the Lord, “The Day of the Lord”.

Apocalyptic Literature deals with these events and is necessarily cryptic.

The Influence of the Old Testament in Revelation


Of the 448 verses in Revelation, 278 contain references to the Old Testament.  These may use the same ideas and symbols or allude to the verse indirectly.

The following table shows examples of the Old Testament influence on Ch21 of Revelation[3]



Restoration of the people

Zephaniah 3.18-21

Amos 9.11

Restoration of the people

New Jerusalem 21.2

Twelve gates/tribes 21.12


Isaiah 66.18-20, 23

Zephaniah 3.9,10



The nations 21.24

Peace and happiness

Amos 9.13-15

Isaiah 65.21-25

Peace and happiness

Abolition of death 21.4

Tree of life 22.1

New Creation

Isaiah 65.17

Ezekiel 47.12

New Creation

New heaven 21.1

God recreates everything 21.5

New city

Isaiah 65.18,19

Micah 4.1-5

New city

God’s dwelling 21.2-3

Holy city 21.9-27

Liturgy without frontiers

Isaiah 66.21-23

Micah 4.1-5

Liturgy without frontiers

The coming of the nations  21.24

The glory of God 21.6 22 – 23

Presence of God

Zephaniah 3.14-17

Presence of God

God-with-them 21.3

No more temple … 21.22,23

The use of Numbers and Symbols in Revelation [4]

The symbolic and imaginative nature of Revelation can be problematic for our logical, practical brains.  Symbols were used though for several reasons:

·         Easier to describe the indescribable – a picture is worth a thousand words.  These are word pictures. Cf also John’s use of “Babylon” which is much more powerful than simply demonic forces .

·         Follows the biblical tradition cf Daniel, Ezekiel, Zephaniah.  Also the parables of Jesus are symbolic in nature (ie not literally true). 

·         To the Middle Eastern mind symbols define truth rather than simply illustrating it.

·         To get people’s attention.  Cf John’s use of the expression the description of Babylon as a prostitute

·         Symbolism reinforces unity.  It’s like groups of people who use acronyms in their work. Only the insiders know the code.   The vast majority of John’s symbols appear in the Old Testament.  In the context of the whole Bible these symbols begin to make sense.

·         Given that this was a time of persecution, symbols were a way of spreading the message but only to those in the know.

·         Symbolism is a way of keeping some mystery for God and retaining a reliance on him.




“One like the son of Man”


Refers to Jesus

·         Robe and sash


Clothes of the Jewish High Priest

·         White hair and head


Jesus purity and holiness or wisdom and dignity

·         Fiery eyes


Complete knowledge and judgement

·         Bronze-like feet


Compare with soiled feet of man or the feet of clay of the pagan gods

·         Mighty voice


Sovereignty and power

·         Seven stars


Angels of the seven churches

·         Two edged sword


Lethal power and penetration of Jesus’ words

·         Radiance of his face


His divine nature

24 elders


Various suggestions:

1.       Glorified people representing either the entire people of God (Jews and Gentiles)

2.       The NT church i.e. Christians

3.       Angelic choirs

4.       24 pointed star of ancient Babylon mythology


1.4, 2.17, 3.4,5   4.4 20.11

The divine world, resurrection, victory, dignity (but see notes on the white horse – 6.2)


6.5  6.12

Disaster, distress


6.4  9.17  12.3

Bloody power, violence





17.4  18.12  18.16

Debauchery (also the colour of emperors)


17.3-4 18.12, 16










Like a last will and testament – but also a message for God’s people now.



The breaking of each seal is an event, a judgement that takes place before the reading of the scroll and its last will and testament

Four horsemen of the apocalypse



·         White horse


Some argue this is Jesus, but others say it is the Antichrist in the disguise of white and bent on destruction

·         Red horse


Spreads violence and war

·         Black horse


Symbolises famine and destruction – the separation between those who have and those who have not

·         Pale horse


Death that follows the red and black horses




Day of the Lord


Refers to the time when God holds court and passes judgement of the world.  Appears 19 times in the OT and 4 in other NT books. 




Silence in Heaven


Signifies a point of no return for the existing world as the new world begins

30 minutes


Meaning is unknown



Trumpet was an important symbol in the life of God’s people.  Used to direct the Israelites during their desert wanderings and in battle.  Also a reminder that God was fighting on their behalf.

Here trumpets  are also a reminder that judgement is “amplified” in the last days.

Mighty angel


1.       Jesus – he is described in terms usually associated with God

2.       Nowhere else is Jesus depicted a s an angel – therefore perhaps an archangel (Gabriel?) as they play an important part through Biblical history

Two witnesses


1.       On-going witness of the church

2.       Two preachers, preaching to Jesus in Jerusalem

3.       The law and the prophets (in various combinations) – Moses and Elijah, Peter and Paul, Israel and the church

1260 days


A multiple perhaps?  7x10x18

Pregnant woman



Red dragon



Wings of a great eagle



Mark of the beast


Numerical depiction of Nero.  Domitian was seen as the returned/raised/resurrected Nero



Literally symbolic of Rome or, for some, the seat of the Antichrist’s power.  Allusion to one of the dominant powers in the history of the Jewish people.



Represent the final judgement and activity just before the Second Coming of Jesus



1,000 year reign of Jesus


·         Premillennialists


Literal belief that this is a 1,000 year reign following the Second Coming

·         Amillennialists


The Millennium is figurative referring to the current church or the reign of the dead saints with Jesus (or both)

·         Postmillenialists


The Millennium occurs before the final coming and is a period when the world will be changed by the Gospel

First (Gk protos)

1.17  2.8  22.13

Exclusiveness, primacy, excellence

Used 18 times in R out of 92 in the NT – the most of any book

Third (or “a third”) (Gk tritos)


23 times in R out of 48 in the NT

Half – three and a half

8.1  12.14 11.9,11

Limited time, restricted period

Four (tessares)


Universality – four corners of the earth; four winds

Used 29 times in R out of 41 in the NT



Stands for humanity and human frailness and fallibility.  Six falls short of the perfect seven, God’s perfect number.  666 is the number 6 repeated

Seven (hepta)

1.4  1.12  4.5  5.1

THE biblical number  used  54 times in R out of 87 in the NT  and over 400 times in the Bible.  It symbolises completeness and perfection  cf Gen1, Gen 2 – the seventh day. 

Twelve (dodeka)


13 times in Matt, 15 in Mark, 12 in Luke, 23 in Rev out of 75 in the NT



A multiple of 12 – only used in R.



A large number

A thousand thousands (chilioi-chilias)


Used 24 times out of 28 in the NT



12,000 of each tribe

Subject to considerable fierce debate

1.       Symbolises all Christians

2.       Jewish Christians

3.       An elite group (martyrs?) with special status

Interpretations of Revelation

Revelation is not a straightforward book to interpret.  Different commentators can take quite different positions on how the book should be interpreted.  The following table gives a picture of these different approaches.





Actual historical events

Timeless spiritual themes













See the fulfilment of Revelation as yet to come.  These will be real events that will take place on the earth at some time in the future.  (A huge generalisation but …) Futurists are less inclined to look for symbolic meaning and more likely to read the text literally.

A mainstream position in some evangelical churches.


Some has already happened, some is happening and some will happen in the future.


Full Preterists believe that the events of Revelation have already taken place in the early centuries after Christ, as, for example the fall of Jerusalem in AD70.  Although believing these are historical events they nevertheless interpret many of the events symbolically.

Partial Preterists believe that the judgements already took place in the C1stAD but that there will be a literal Second Coming.


The visions are not literally true: everything is symbolic or allegorical.  Idealists see cycles of evil in history as proof of the fulfilment of Revelation.  See Revelation as a book of encouragement for believers that God will win despite signs to the contrary.

Historical development and importance of the four approaches









Premillenialism (literal approach)









For an excellent, readable description and explanation of these four approaches, including their historical development, see Helyer and Wagner.


[1] Barclay – sorry forgot to note the page

[2] Barclay, William, The Revelation of John, St Andrew Press, Edinburgh (1951, 1976) – This section summarises p6ff on Apocalyptic Literature.

[3] Prevost p66

[4] Helyer Chapter 5 pp 87ff