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Introduction To The Book Of Revelation

By George E. Ladd


      I. Authorship. The author of the book designated himself simply as "John" (1:1; 1:4; 21:2; 22:8). He was well known by the churches of Asia, calling himself their brother, who shared with them the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance (1:9). The question arises: Who was this John? It is clear from the style of the book that he was a Hebrew Christian, saturated in the Old Testament. The early church generally accepted him as the apostle of Jesus Christ, the author of the Fourth Gospel. This was clearly attested as early as A.D. 150 by Justin Martyr and around A.D. 200 by Irenaeus, who had lived at one time in Asia. This apostolic authorship was widely accepted by the ancient fathers. Such authorship is entirely possible, for there is a solid historical tradition that John lived to a ripe old age in the city of Ephesus.

      We must note, however, that John did not designate himself as an apostle, and in 21:14 he mentioned the apostles as a group but gave no hint that he was to be included in this circle. He did, however, claim to be a prophet (22:9) and called his book a prophecy (1:3; 22:7,10,18,19). If the author was not the apostle, he was a well-known prophet in the churches of Asia who is otherwise entirely unknown to us.

      There are, admittedly, serious difficulties in recognizing the Revelation and the Fourth Gospel as coming from the same pen. While there are numerous similarities between the two books (e.g., only in the Fourth Gospel and Revelation is Jesus called the Logos), the style of the Greek is strikingly different. The language of the Gospel is smooth and fluent and couched in accurate and simple Greek; the idiom of the Revelation is rough and harsh, with many grammatical and syntactical irregularities. We know from many references (see Rom. 16:22) that the use of an amanuensis or a secretary was common in the ancient world; and the differences in the style of the Gospel and the Revelation may be accounted for by the difference in subject matter and by the use of secretaries. Possibly a disciple of John actually penned the Gospel, while the Revelation reflects his own rough Hebraic Greek.

      II. Date. Tradition has ascribed the Revelation to the last decade of the first century when Domitian was emperor in Rome (A.D. 81-96). Some scholars have argued for an earlier date, but this is unlikely.

      III. Setting. Many scholars consider apocalyptic literature almost by definition to be "tracts for hard times" and to have been produced by persecution. This may well be true of the Jewish apocalypses. The problem they faced was, Why were God's people suffering such persecutions? Where was God's salvation? The Old Testament prophets saw God active both in history and found hope only in the eschatological consummation, but the apocalyptists despaired of history and found hope only in the eschatological intervention of God. The world and the age were hopelessly evil, having fallen under the power of demonic angelic powers. God was far away in the heavens, but soon he would arise from his throne, destroy the demonic powers, and deliver his people.

      Following this theory, many scholars have reconstructed the setting of the Revelation in terms of an imminent worldwide persecution of the church by Rome. The church was about to face practical annihilation; to steel God's people in the face of their trials, John wrote to assure them that though they must expect to suffer, the coming of the Lord was at hand to overthrow Rome and to deliver his church.

      The problem with this theory is that there is no evidence that during the last decade of the first century there occurred any open and systematic persecution of the church. In popular Christian thought the idea has prevailed that there were ten great persecutions of the church that were practically universal in scope:

      by Nero (A.D. 64), Domitian (A.D. 95), Trajan (A.D. 112), Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 177), Septimus Severus (late second century), Maximinus (A.D. 235), Decius (A.D. 250), Valerian (A.D. 257), Aurelian, and Diocletian (A.D. 303). It is true that widespread persecution was promoted by Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian, but earlier persecutions were local in character or relatively mild in execution. Nero did indeed instigate a vigorous if brief persecution of Christians, but only in Rome and on a single occasion.

      The alleged persecution by Domitian was by no means empire-wide but was directed against a few families in Rome.

      It is clear, however, that Christians were experiencing local troubles in Ephesus, even though we cannot reconstruct from independent sources the extent of the opposition. John's exile establishes the fact of persecution in Ephesus, and this may as well have been due to local consular action in Ephesus as to an imperial decree in Rome. In Pergamum a Christian named Antipas had been killed, presumably some time previous to the writing of the letter to that church (2:13). There is, however, no hint of any general persecution. The church at Smyrna was warned of imminent imprisonments (2:10) and apparently faced the threat of the death penalty, for Christians were urged to be faithful to death. Other Christians had already suffered martyrdom, for John saw the souls of the martyrs under the altar calling out for vindication (6:9). But the reference is general in character and could include Old Testament as well as New Testament martyrs.

      We must conclude that it is impossible to establish from extrabiblical historical sources a situation of worldwide persecution of the church which is reflected in the Revelation. The prophecy of the Revelation goes far beyond any known historical situation in the first century. While the Rome of John's day embodied antichristian tendencies, the portrait of Antichrist in Revelation 13 is far larger than historical Rome. Concrete references to persecutions in the Revelation are all illustrations of the hostility the world bears to the church.

      Just why John had been exiled to Patmos we cannot say (1:9). In any case he claimed that God used his exile as the occasion of giving him a series of visions that would trace the conflict between the Kingdom of God and the power of Satan, the final victory of God's Kingdom, and the consummation of his redemptive purpose.

      IV. Methods of Interpretation. Revelation is the most difficult of all New Testament books to interpret, primarily because of the elaborate and extensive use of symbolism. How are these strange, often bizarre, symbols to be understood? Several distinct methods of interpretation have emerged. Many interpreters find valuable elements in more than one method, so there is considerable overlapping. But four distinct methods can be identified.

      Preterist. The view which prevails in critical and scholarly circles is that that the Revelation belongs to a distinct genre of jewish-Christian writings called "apocalyptic," which are "tracts for hard times." Judaism produced such books as Enoch, The Assumption of Moses, The Apocalypses of Ezra, and Baruch, which exhibit similar literary characteristics to the Revelation, particularly in the use of symbolism, and a similar type of eschatological hope. These writers were discouraged because of the evils of historical experience and the persecutions of God's people at the hands of godless nations. While they were led to despair of history, they continued to hope in God and to look forward to his salvation. They believed that God would soon arise from his throne to shatter the rule of the wicked nations, destroy all evil, and establish his Kingdom on the earth. This would occur by a shattering cosmic visitation which would completely displace the fallen evil order by the glorious Kingdom of God. The apocalyptists looked upon their own days as the worst and the last, since the end of the age was immediately to come. However, their apocalyptic predictions, of course, were not fulfilled, and as genuine prophecies of future events the Jewish apocalypses are worthless. They are important only in understanding the religious hopes of the people whose culture produced them.

      Interpreted in this way, the Revelation expresses the hopes of the early Christians of Asia that they were about to be delivered from their troubles at the hands of Rome. In the preterist view, imperial Rome was the beast of chapter 13, and the Asian priesthood promoting the worship of Rome was the false prophet. The church was threatened with practical extinction in the face of impending persecution, and John wrote to confirm the faith of believers that even though terrible persecution was at the door, God would intervene, Christ would return, Rome would be destroyed and the Kingdom of God shortly established. Of course, Christ did not return, Rome was not overthrown, and the Kingdom of God was not established. But prophetic prediction is not an element of the genre of apocalyptic. The book fulfilled its purpose in strengthening and encouraging the first-century church. For those who accept the claim of Revelation to be a prophecy, this view is quite inadequate.

      Historical. This method views the Revelation as a symbolic prophecy of the entire history of the church down to the return of Christ and the end of the age. The numerous symbols of the book designate various historical movements and events in the western world. and the Christian church. Obviously, such an interpretation could lead to confusion, for there are no fixed guidelines as to what historical events are meant. One of the most prevailing features of this interpretation has been the view that the beast is the Roman papacy and the false prophet the Roman Church. This view was so widely held that for a long time it was called the Protestant view. This view has little to commend it, for the Revelation would in that case have little to say to the churches of Asia to which it was addressed.

      Idealist. This method avoids the problem of trying to find any historical fulfillment of the symbols of Revelation and sees only a symbolic portrayal of the spiritual cosmic conflict between the Kingdom of God and the powers of satanic evil. The beast represents satanic evil wherever it breaks out to oppress the church. That there is some truth in this method is illustrated by chapter 12, which portrays a mighty conflict in heaven between Satan and the angels. However, it is a fact that Revelation belongs to the genre of apocalyptic, and apocalyptic symbolism is primarily concerned with the events in history which lead to the end of the age and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, we must look further.

      Futurist. This method interprets Revelation largely as a prophecy of future events depicted in symbolic terms which lead up to and accompany the end of the world. The futurist view has taken two forms which we may call the moderate and the extreme futurist views. The latter is also known as Dispensationalism. The seven letters are seen as seven successive ages of church history symbolically portrayed. The character of the seven churches depicts the chief characteristics of the seven periods of church history, the last of which will be a period of decline and apostasy (Laodicea). The rapture of John symbolizes the rapture of the church at the end of the age. Chapters 6-18 depict the period of the great tribulation-the last short but terrible period of church history when the Antichrist will all but destroy God's people. In the dispensational view God's people are Israel, restored to Jerusalem, protected by a divine sealing (7:1-8), with a rebuilt temple (11:1-3), who suffer the wrath of Antichrist. The church is no longer on earth, for it has been caught up to be with the Lord in the air.

      A moderate futurist view differs from the extreme futurist view at several points. It finds no reason, as does the latter, to distinguish sharply between Israel and the church. The people of God who face fearful persecution are the church. Again, there is no reason to see in the seven letters a forecast of seven ages of church history. There is no internal evidence whatever for such an interpretation; these are bona fide letters to seven historical churches. However, this view agrees that the primary purpose of the book is to describe the consummation of God's redemptive purpose and the end of the age.

      The objection again seems valid that if the book is conceived to deal primarily with events which lie in the distant future, its message had little relevance for the first-century churches to which it was addressed. This is an argument which cannot be pressed too far, or else it will empty many of the Old Testament prophecies of any relevance. The prophets spoke not only of contemporary events; they constantly related contemporary historical events to the last great event at the end of history: the Day of the Lord when God will visit his people to redeem them and to establish his Kingdom.

      This brings us to a characteristic of Old Testament prophecy which is also characteristic of the Revelation and which solves this problem of distance and relevance. As we have just pointed out, the prophets had two foci in their prophetic perspective: the events of the present and the immediate future, and the ultimate echatological event. These two are held in dynamic tension often without chronological distinction, for the main purpose of prophecy is not to give a program or chart of the future, but to let the light of the eschatological consummation fall on the present (II Pet 1 19) Thus in Amos' prophecy the impending historical Judgment of Israel at the hands of Assyria was called the Day of the Lord (Amos 5:18, 27), and the eschatological salvation of Israel will also occur in that day (9:11). Isaiah pictured the overthrow of Babylon in apocalyptic colors as though it were the end of the world (Isa. 13:1-22). Zephaniah described some (to us) unknown historical visitation as the Day of the Lord which would consume the entire earth and its inhabitants (1:2-18) as though with fire (1:18; 3:8). Joel moved imperceptibly from historical plagues of locust and drought into the eschatological judgments of the Day of the Lord.

      In other words, the imminent historical judgment is seen as a type of, or a prelude to, the eschatological judgment. The two are often blended together in apparent disregard for chronology, for the same God who acts in the imminent historical judgment will also act in the final eschatological judgment to further his one redemptive purpose. Thus, Daniel viewed the great eschatological enemy of God's people as the historical king of Greece (Antiochus Epiphanes of the Seleucid Kingdom-11:3), who yet took on the coloration of the eschatological Antichrist (Dan. 12:36-39). In the same way, our Lord's Olivet Discourse was concerned with both the historical judgment of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman armies (Luke 21:2Off.) and the eschatological appearance of Antichrist (Matt. 24: 15ff.). Rome was a historical forerunner of Antichrist.

      Thus, while the Revelation was primarily concerned to assure the churches of Asia of the final eschatological salvation at the end of the age, together with the judgment of the evil world powers, this had immediate relevance to the first century. For the demonic powers which will be manifested at the end in the great tribulation were also to be seen in the historical hatred of Rome for God's people and the persecution they were to suffer at Rome's hands.

      Therefore, we conclude that the correct method of interpreting the revelation is a blending of the preterist and the futurist methods. The beast is both Rome and the eschatological Antichrist-and, we might add, any demonic power which the church must face in her entire history. The great tribulation is primarily an eschatological event, but it includes all tribulation which the church may experience at the hands of the world, whether by first-century Rome or by later evil powers.

      This interpretation is borne out by several objective facts. First: it is the nature of apocalyptic writings to be concerned primarily with the consummation of God's redemptive purpose and the eschatological end of the age. This is the theme of the revelation: "Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him" (1:7). Second: it is the nature of apocalyptic symbolism, whether canonical or noncanonical, to refer to events in history leading up to, and associated with, this eschatological consummation. Third: as already noted, the book claims to be a prophecy. We have already seen that the nature of prophecy is to let light shine from the future upon the present.

      V. Sructure. The main contents of the book are easy to analyze. After an introductory chapter follow four series of sevens: seven letters (2-3), seven seals '(5:1 to 8:1), seven trumpets (8:2 to 11:19), and seven bowls (15:1 to 16:21). These four series are broken by several interludes which briefly interrupt the flow of the narrative and do not belong to the four series of sevens. The book concludes with the judgment of Babylon, the apostate civilization, the final triumph and consummation of God's Kingdom, and the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem (chaps. 17-21).

      In terms of literary structure, the book consists of four visions, each of which is introduced by an invitation to "come and see" what God purposes to disclose (1:9; 4:1; 17:1; 21:9). The book is concluded by an epilogue.

      From: A Commentary On The Revelation Of John. George Eldon Ladd. W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. Grand Rapids, MI. 1972. Pages 7-14.

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