Book of Revelation

There is naturally an increased interest in the book of Revelation. I have had numerous informal discussions on the meaning and application of the contents of the Book of Revelation. The name – from the Greek Word Apocalypse literally means to unveil or reveal. As we approach the end of the present age and come nearer to the age to come it is evident that the meanings within the book of Revelation will become more and more clear.

Yet I have been astounded over the years at the amount of unnecessary confusion which is allowed to accompany various attempts at interpreting the meanings of verses from the book. There are basic rules of interpretation of scripture which we must be adhere to so that we do not fall into “one’s own” interpretation rather than allowing the scriptures to reveal their own meaning.

2 Peter 1:20 knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation.

As we know, one basic principle of interpreting scripture is to know the context of the scripture. “A text without a proper context is a pretext” as the saying goes. There may be both internal and external context.

When interpreting scriptures the witness of the scripture about its self is paramount this is the internal evidence. External evidence is information from outside of the scriptures used to interpret scriptures may also sometimes be helpful, however, it should be considered only as circumstantial and not as conclusive it never should be given the weight of internal evidence of scripture. When external evidence seems contradictory to internal evidence it should be suspect or rejected, certainly not made primary or obligatory.

It seems the book of Revelation may have been the unfortunate recipient of more malpractice of private interpretation than perhaps any other book of the bible. This is terribly unfortunate as the information contained in it is extremely important for the well being of the saints at the end of the age. It is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1).

Revelation is the only book of the bible that has a special blessing associated with it for those who read it and keep the words contained in the book – and a special warning for those who would abuse it.

Rev 22:6 Then he said to me, “These words are faithful and true.” And the Lord God of the holy prophets sent His angel to show His servants the things which must shortly take place.
7 “Behold, I am coming quickly! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”

Rev 22:18 For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book;
19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

So in my mind it is especially important and rewarding to get the proper understanding of what the Lord is communicating to us through the book.

Perhaps more than any other book in the bible the context of the book of Revelation is of paramount importance to understand what is being communicated.

An example of internal evidence contained in the book are John’s own words that the Lord said he would be a witness after the writing of the book of Revelation

Rev 10:11 And he said to me, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings.”

John mentioned in his epistles that he intended to carry out these instructions.

2 John 12 Having many things to write to you, I did not wish to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, that our joy may be full.

3 John 14 but I hope to see you shortly, and we shall speak face to face. Peace to you. Our friends greet you. Greet the friends by name.

If external evidence would contradict this internal information or make it impossible to have occurred than it should be rejected and the internal record accepted as scripture.

For most of my Christian life I understood the book of Revelation to have been authored around 95 A.D. when the apostle John was quite old and reportedly by his disciple Jerome that in the year A.D. 96 that the apostle was so aged and weak and infirm that “he was with difficulty carried to the church, and could speak only a few words to the people”. Again this is external information and should only be given authority where it does not contradict the internal evidence.

The Syrian version of the book of Revelation first published by Deuteronomy Dieu, in 1627 is inscribed with the words “The Revelation which God made to John the evangelist, in the Island of Patmos, to which he was banished by Nero Caesar.” Now Nero was Caesar from 54-68 A.D. when John was probably in his 60s.

Clement of Alexandria wrote in his Account of the Apostle John “a narrative, handed down and committed to the custody of memory, about the Apostle John. For when, on the tyrant’s death, he returned to Ephesus from the isle of Patmos, he went away, being invited, to the contiguous territories of the nations, here to appoint bishops, there to set in order whole Churches, there to ordain such as were marked out by the Spirit.”

Again this external account from Clement does not contradict the scripture but confirms it. Some have written that because Clement described John as an “old man” at this time that he must have meant he was in his 90’s and not in his 60s. Certainly a person is older when in his 90s but would it be proper to described the apostle John as “old” if he were in his 60s – during a time in history when the average life expectancy was between 20-30 years old and someone living into his or her 40s was quite exceptional.

Clement also wrote that the apostle “called for a horse” letting us know that John was still able to ride. Yet when Jerome described the apostle, he certainly was beyond riding a horse at that time.

What we should be after in searching through this information is truth. Truth will make us free, and truth has nothing to fear from facts. However, because of what I was taught in my Christian training I was not aware that there was any other possibility for the context of the book of Revelation than that it was written in or around 95 A.D. Unfortunately for me, my understanding of the book was less clear than it might have been if I had been taught that there are alternative applications of the historical record.

Every student of the book of Revelation should at least be aware that there are basically two interpretations of the external evidence as to when the book was authored. These are either in the time period of 65-68 A.D. or around 95 A.D. By understanding this at the outset one can at least look at the evidence with an open mind and decide which fits with the scripture without contradicting it for one’s own self.

I consider that it may be wrong, perhaps even dangerous to close off the possibility of understanding of scripture because of a belief in the external historical record. As an example Rev11:8 speaks of “the great city which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.” I should think that the words “where also our Lord was crucified” would identify this city for us. But for centuries commentators have spiritualized this from a literal meaning to an allegorical one meaning “wherever the church is persecuted” and most often Rome is substituted for Jerusalem – but other cities have had their place in the commentaries. However, if one has the option of the possibility that the city of Jerusalem was still in existence at the time of this writing than one also has the option to interpret it literally. Since we are allowing external evidence to influence the interpretation of scripture, wouldn’t it be wise to at least consider all evidence keeping in mind that no external evidence carries the weight of scripture?

John was banished to the Isle of Patmos and wrote the book of Revelation either around 65-68 A.D. due to the persecution of Christians by Nero Caesar, which would be before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. or around 90-95 A.D. during the persecution under Domitian Caesar (Domitianikos).

Some tradition has it that John was banished to Patmos during the reign of Domitian. However the Syriac Version of the New Testament, also called the Peshitta, meaning simple, text is the oldest direct version of the New Testament, dating from the second century. This places the Revelation in the period of Domitius Nero with this title for the book of Revelation – “The Revelation which was made by God to John the evangelist in the island Patmos, into which he was thrown by Nero Caesar”. This clearly indicates that early church fathers accepted an early date for the writing of the book of Revelation.

The early Syriac Version of the book of Revelation concurs with the statement of Irenaeus in 175 A.D., who says it happened in the reign of Domitianou – who is Domitius (Nero). Later writers seemed to mistake Domitianou for Domitianikos and supposed Irenaeus was referring to Domitian around 95A.D. Most succeeding writers seem to have copied this error often enough that it is held by many today as fact.

Another important principle necessary for proper interpretation of scripture is to be clear on whom the scripture is being addressed. Knowing “to whom it is written” is paramount when understanding any scripture. The book of Revelation tells who it is addressed to in chapter 1 verse 4.

“John, to the seven churches which are in Asia …” Rev 1:4

In doing this he was clearly obeying his instructions received directly from the Lord Jesus Christ, recorded in Verse 11.

“… I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,” and, “What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”

While the richness of what was written to the seven churches is important for us beyond imagination, it can never be forgotten that it was originally, and primarily, addressed to them and for them. Scripture is prophetic (2 Pet 1:19) and the Lord specifically instructed that John not seal up the “words of the prophecy of this book” (Rev 22:10) so that future generations would also receive and learn from it. However, it is important not to deny the immediate necessity the words of the book of Revelation held for the people of these churches alive at the time of its writing and learn from the immediate application of the letters.

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