The Book of Revelation was written by a Christian prophet who identifies himself as John. As we mentioned last week, we don't know for certain which John he was. After all, there are four identifiable Johns in the New Testament. Linguistically, it has been believed by many scholars that the writing of the Book of Revelation is different in style and vocabulary from the Gospel According to John. In the end, it doesn't matter who the author is because the author is not the central character of the book. The first five words of the Book of Revelation tell us everything we need to know and gives us the key to finding the central theme, as well as the central person, of the book. Those five words are “The revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Revelation actually has the framework of a pastoral letter that is filled with apocalyptic imagery and language. Since it is a letter, it is addressed to a specific situation in a specific time and environment. The Book of Revelation itself shows us that the audience is suffering persecution and distress and are being treated like outsiders in the Roman culture. We know that some of them may expect to be arrested and one member, Antipas, had already suffered martyrdom. In fact, John himself had been exiled to the island of Patmos because of his preaching.
As we said last week also, while Nero did not enact an empire-wide persecution, persecution was very real at the end of the 1st century. This is especially true in Asia Minor. Perhaps, even at this point, the persecution was not empire wide but was localized persecution but still leading to harassment and of martyrdom. For John, he may have felt that he was witnessing the vanguard of a much larger persecution.
The vast persecutions would erupt in the middle of the 3rd century under the emperor Decius. John’s writing, therefore, was to offer comfort to those Christians who actually were suffering overt persecution but also to make aware those Christians who had become rather complacent.
The opening passage, as I said, tells us who is the central person. That is, of course, Jesus Christ himself. The revelation is a testimony to the Word of God, made known by the angelic interpreter. Then verse 3 says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy and bless it are those who hear and keep what is written in it, for the time is near.”
The one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy is in fact the member of the church congregation who read the book to the people in attendance. As I told you before, not every church had the documents in their possession. Sometimes, they were on loan. Sometimes, the church was able to make their own copy of it. In any case, since every member of the church was not literate, the documents were read aloud to the congregation. So, John calls for the blessing on the one who does the reading, as well as for those who sit and hear it.
The Book of Revelation begins and ends with the announcement that the end is near and that the risen Christ will return soon to bring history to an end and establish the universal rule of God. The whole document is punctuated with repeated warnings and declarations about the shortness of the remaining time. There will be various periods mentioned in the Book of Revelation: 42 months, 1,260 days, or “a time, times, and half a time,” meaning 3 ½ years as was prophesied in Daniel 7:25 and following.
That period of time is actually a rather traditional apocalyptic time frame, as we see in Luke 4:26, James 5:17, and 1 Kings 17:1 and 18:1. That time designation is never meant to be taken literally but it only represents a short time. Too many times, modern interpreters of the Book of Revelation try to make this an ironclad timeframe and they are determined to fit their theology around it. When we do that, we are doing violence to the scripture by contextualizing words like soon, as if it is symbolic language for a centuries-long unfolding. It is also a rendering of the return of Christ, the defeat of Satan, the resurrection, and the judgment in purely spiritual terms, as if these things take place in our own time frame.
When John is writing, he is seeing the events of his own time as indicators of the nearness of Christ’s return. And John was expressing his own expectations in the traditional thoughts of his time. John was expressing the apocalyptic hope of the imminent return of Christ, the parousia. What has church history shown us but that this form of Christian expectation was mistaken and we should not repeat it. That is not to say that we are rejecting John’s understanding or his message because John is expressing a message of hope and comfort, albeit in apocalyptic form, which must always include the expectation of an imminent end. We can believe the central message that God is with us and God dispatches supernatural beings for our comfort and defense without continuing to repeat John's terms and times. In some Christian circles, however, the imminent terminology has been used to craft doctrines there are nowhere found in the Bible or in the Early Church.
After the letter’s opening, the pastoral epistle begins to take shape as the risen Christ commands John to write messages to the churches in seven cities in the Roman province of Asia. The churches are analyzed, sometimes chastised, but always encouraged by the risen Savior.
John then offers a kind of “chain of command” with God as the ultimate source of revelation, mediated through Jesus Christ, then to the Angel, then to the prophet, then to the church, who must then take it to the rest of the world. The links of this chain become fused together and are identified as the Word of God.
With the epistle-style opening is much like the letter form that we have come to know and love from the tradition of St. Paul. The apocalyptic contents of the document are framed in the brackets of a real letter and, thus, John expects it to be read like a real letter.
The doxology of verses 5 through 8 is exactly what we've come to expect in the conventional letters that was occupied by the Thanksgiving. Verse 8 is one of those great pronouncements. “I am the alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
[Next time: A Vision of Christ]
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