Analysis of The Book of Revelation
The Revelation of John is the one book in the New Testament that claims John as its author. By the time the writings that are now included in the New Testament were assembled in their present form, three letters and one gospel were also attributed to John. But in the case of these writings, the name of the supposed author was added at a later date, and their respective contents indicate that they were not written by the same John who wrote Revelation.
The Book of Revelation often has been regarded as a mysterious book, quite beyond the comprehension of the average lay reader. Its many references to angelic beings, its elaborate description of Christ as he appears in the heavenly courts, its use of such mystic numbers as three, seven, twelve, and their multiples, the accounts of strange beasts, symbolic names, and definite time periods — all suggest some hidden and esoteric meaning that supposedly can be detected only by an expert. For these reasons, many people have ignored the book, feeling that any attempt to understand it is futile. Other people have taken an opposite attitude and have found in this book what they believe to be predictions of whole series of events, many of which have already occurred and the remainder of which are about to take place in the near future. The basis for these views, many of which sound strange and fantastic, is found in the elaborate symbolism used in the book. The use of symbols has an important place in religious literature, for there is no other way in which a person can talk or even think about that which is beyond the realm of finite human experience. But there is always a danger that the symbols may be interpreted in a way that was not intended by the author who used them. Only in regard to the content in which the symbols are used can we determine what the author meant.
One source of confusion has been the result of a failure to distinguish between prophetic writing and apocalyptic writing. The prophets used a particular literary form in which they expressed their messages; the apocalyptic writers used a different literary form, one that was better suited to the particular purpose that they had in mind. To understand either group, one must interpret their writings by considering the respective literary form that they used. The characteristics of apocalyptic writing are fairly well known. In addition to the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation, a wealth of apocalyptic writing exists in the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament. A careful study of these writings shows that they have a number of common characteristics: They were produced in times of crises; they describe the conflict between the forces of good and evil; future events are made known through dreams and visions; the end of the conflict is to come shortly; and those who remain faithful through persecution and trial are promised a reward in the messianic kingdom soon to be established. The messages are for the benefit of the persecuted and are usually conveyed by means of symbols that only the faithful can understand.
Interpreted in light of these characteristics, the Revelation of John is comparatively easy to understand. In many respects, it is the least original of any of the New Testament writings. In its style of writing, the number and kind of symbols that are used, and the purpose for which it was written, the book closely follows the precedent established in the older apocalyptic writings. The unique feature about Revelation is the particular occasion that caused it to be written. Toward the end of the first century of the Christian era, the attitude of the Roman government toward Christianity became especially hostile. Nero, the Roman emperor, charged that Christians were to blame for the burning of Rome. Although the charge was false, it was sufficient to cause many people to regard the new Christian movement with suspicion. Jews and Romans alike resented the fact that Christians condemned so many of the things they were doing, and they especially disliked the belief on the part of Christians that their religion was superior to the older faiths that had been honored for centuries. The Christians often held their meetings in secret places, and their critics imagined that they were doing all sorts of evil things. It was easy to circulate rumors of this kind, and along with other things, Christians were charged with plotting against the Roman government. As the opposition to Christianity became more intense, the followers of the new movement were asked to prove their loyalty to the Roman government by denouncing Christ and by worshipping the statue of the emperor. When they refused to do this, they were tortured and even put to death.
Under these conditions, the Revelation of John was written. It would be difficult to imagine anything more appropriate for the members of Christian churches at that time. They needed encouragement and the assurance that their trials would soon be over, that the evil powers of the earth would be destroyed, and that the triumph of righteousness would be established in the world. The message of Revelation was intended for this particular time and set of circumstances. Christians familiar with the older apocalyptic writings would understand the book's symbolism, for practically everything John said to his contemporaries was said before to people who suffered under similar circumstances. It is a mistake to suppose that John was predicting events that would take place in the later centuries of Christian history. Writing to the people of his own day about events that would happen while they were still living, he states that Christ will return while those who put him to death on the cross are still living. The permanent significance of Revelation lies in the author's conviction that right will ultimately triumph over evil.