EDITOR’S NOTE: This groundbreaking series is being offered in celebration of a previously top-secret project and now unprecedented new 3-Volume book series (over 10-years in the making) from best-selling scholar Dr. Thomas Horn and acclaimed biblical history and theology majors Donna Howell and Allie Anderson: THE MYSTERY OF JESUS FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION—YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
Not counting far-sighted prophecies in Daniel, Isaiah, and other Old and New Testament visions of the future, up to this point in this series, each of the books of the Bible bearing Christophanies were in and of the past. Revelation—also called “Apocalypse” and “Apocalypse of John”—though written in the past, is a prophecy about the future. In other words, the book is based on “revelations” or visions given by Christ, Himself, to John, of events that have not yet taken place. (Thus the name. Despite common use of “Revelations,” plural, the proper name for this book is singular.) When these events do occur, they will bring a momentous and final conclusion to all that God has purposed for the human race from the beginning of Creation forward.
When the tragic terrorist attack on the Twin Towers occurred on September 11, 2001 (9/11) near the start of this century, many Americans suddenly got a lot more interested in what this “old book” had to say. Polls taken in 2002 showed that more than one-third of Americans experienced a sharp increase in their interest in the Bible as a result of the attack; though only 39 percent of those polled believed the Bible to be the written Word of God, a staggering 59 percent stated that John’s enigmatic vision was coming true in their day. In fact, nearly one-fifth agreed they would live to see the end of the world, while one-fourth believed 9/11 could be interpreted as having been predicted in Revelation, proving that “many other Americans who usually ignore the Bible are willing to listen to teachers of Bible prophecy when world events reach crisis levels.”[i] We can imagine that, when we do get closer to the end times, events such as 9/11 will increase in number and intensity due to spiritual warfare if nothing else. When those days come, we may just be looking at a revival or a Great Awakening of the saints on the ground prior to that glorious day when we are taken up to be with Christ in the air. That will be one last upsurge in the number of God’s people on earth before a final, pre-Rapture harvest.
That is, however, just one way to interpret the text…
Setting of the Revelation
Let us first briefly discuss the book of Revelation’s setting. From there, we will address its various interpretations, then examine its content.
Authorship, Canonicity, and Setting
In our look at the previous sixty-five books of the Bible, we haven’t spent much time or space on parsing out the details of authorship and canonicity. However, for reasons we are about to discuss, the setting of the book’s writing—Patmos—somewhat calls for at least a brief reflection. We, along with most scholars, believe the Revelation, sometimes referred to as “Apocalypse,” was written by Apostle John, the same author who produced the fourth Gospel, as well as the Epistles of 1, 2, and 3 John. As we read from Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (who also quotes from Irenaeus), John was deported to the island of Patmos during the time of Emperor Domitian, as we read in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (Eusebius also quotes Irenaeus):
It is said that in this persecution the apostle and evangelist John, who was still alive, was condemned to dwell on the island of Patmos in consequence of his testimony to the divine word.
Irenaeus, in the fifth book of his work Against Heresies, where he discusses the number of the name of Antichrist which is given in the so-called Apocalypse of John, speaks as follows concerning him:
“If it were necessary for his name to be proclaimed openly at the present time, it would have been declared by him who saw the revelation. For it was seen not long ago, but almost in our own generation, at the end of the reign of Domitian.”
To such a degree, indeed, did the teaching of our faith flourish at that time that even those writers who were far from our religion did not hesitate to mention in their histories the persecution and the martyrdoms which took place during it.[ii]
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Despite Eusebius’ massive sway in the topic of early Church history—and his outright attribution of the writing of “Apocalypse” to the “Apostle John” and “the apostle and evangelist John” in what we just read—conclusions about Revelation’s authorship did not go unchallenged in former times. Some believe the Revelator was a prophet in the early Church who had travelled around Asia Minor, thus giving him unique familiarity with the seven churches mentioned in the book. During the second century, Justin Martyr (in his Dialogue with Trypho; 81.4) and Bishop Irenaeus (in his Against Heresies; 4.20.11) both agreed with our conclusion (and Eusebius’) that John the Revelator was the apostle, son of Zebedee. Irenaeus’ testimony is one that should be heeded, as he was a disciple of the teachings of Polycarp, who personally knew John the apostle and attributed Revelation to his writing.
A Roman Church elder by the name of Gaius around the same time said the book was written by Cerinthus, a troublemaker in the Church. Another man, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria (according to Eusebius; Ecclesiastical History 7.25), believed the book too enigmatic to match the writing style of the Apostle John and claimed it had simply been written by another man with the same common name. The apostle’s “diction of the Gospel and Epistle differs from that of the Apocalypse,”[iii] Dionysius says. He goes on to say that:
…the writer had…the gift of knowledge and the gift of expression,—as the Lord had bestowed them both upon him.… I perceive, however, that his dialect and language…uses barbarous idioms.…
I would not have any one think that I have said these things in a spirit of ridicule, for I have said what I have only with the purpose of showing dearly the difference between the writings.[iv]
In his lengthier discussion, Dionysius also points out that the Revelator oddly taught “that the kingdom of Christ will be an earthly one,”[v] which is one of the reasons questions were raised about the book’s qualification for inclusion within the canon. Jesus taught that His Kingdom was “not of this world,” which initially appeared to contradict the teachings of the early Church (and understandably so) that the book of Revelation describes Christ’s Millennial Reign on earth. But there is a chief reason this should not be a worry for us (and one of the reasons this particular argument was eventually dropped in the debate of the book’s canonicity). While Jesus was teaching about His Kingdom, He was a resident of our current world, which, in its sinful state, belongs to Satan (2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:2; John 12:31). All of this changes in Revelation 11:15, when “the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ.” Therefore, it’s correct to say that Christ’s Kingdom would not be considered a threat to the politicians of His day (though they didn’t understand this), but in nearing the end of Revelation—after the kingdoms of this world have been placed under the power of Christ—He will reign in “this world” and in the unseen realm.
By no means was this the only wrinkle that had to be ironed out prior to the Spirit-guided decision to include it in the canon. We don’t have the time or space to dedicate the next fifty pages to every issue raised in that debate, but with one example, we can show that the same interpretational issues that plague us today regarding Revelation were present from the beginning. In fact, though Dionysius himself agreed that the book was canonical, his early sentiments about its mystery often mirror that of our own. He states:
But I suppose that it is beyond my comprehension, and that there is a certain concealed and more wonderful meaning in every part. For if I do not understand I suspect that a deeper sense lies beneath the words.
I do not measure and judge them by my own reason, but leaving the more to faith I regard them as too high for me to grasp. And I do not reject what I cannot comprehend, but rather wonder because I do not understand it.[vi]
If we’re honest, many Christians today—even those in the most highly respected offices in the world of academia—acknowledge that we feel the same way this early bishop did when we read the Revelation. We don’t dispute its authority, but we frequently say, “It’s above my head,” or, “I generally understand its apocalyptic nature, but I don’t grasp its symbolism.”
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Coming round about: In an ironic (and perhaps backward) way, this intense confusion serves as one of the grandest arguments in favor of John the Evangelist (apostle and son of Zebedee) as the author. From the beginning, interpreting Revelation has been so difficult that, had it been written by anyone other than an apostle of Christ, the question about its canonicity would have been magnified. For who would agree to place within the Holy Word a book that almost nobody can easily understand and whose author was “just some nice guy from the first century” who had accumulated some followers by telling them of his bizarre dreams and visions? As we’ve seen from almost every Epistle in the New Testament, anyone claiming God had given them a vision that didn’t align with the teachings of the apostles were called “false teachers” and “false prophets.” Though Revelation does agree with the apostolic voices of the first century (in fact, it authenticates all of Scripture, from Genesis forward), interpretational problems like the “not of this world” issue we just addressed initially suggest that it might not. Such a controversial document would have been disregarded immediately and tossed into the huge pile of extrabiblical, apocryphal books had it not been widely received as a teaching from a true apostle who tied it into the prophetic messages of both the Old and New Testaments.
If the writing were not from of the son of Zebedee, the Revelator would have to be: 1) well-known by all the early churches that contributed to the book’s circulation; 2) authoritative enough to expect these churches to take his warnings seriously; 3) so strong and intimidating in his teaching that the government at the time would see him as a threat, making him fit for exile to Patmos; 4) well-versed in the Old Testament prophecies that are frequently referenced in the book; 5) well-versed in Koine Greek; 6) willing to use theological concepts that are unique to those of the Apostle John’s Gospel, such as Jesus being viewed as “the Word” (and many others); 7) able to explain why Polycarp, who personally knew the son of Zebedee, was wrong when he confidently taught others (including Irenaeus) that the Evangelist and the Revelator were one and the same;[vii] and 8) an authoritative apostle of the same time whose name also happened to be “John.” The likeliness that there was another “John” at the time with the apostle’s influence and who satisfies the qualifications on this list—and of whom we, today, don’t know anything about from the huge collection of historical documents detailing the writers of the Word—causes overwhelming doubt.
We will therefore proceed with the firm conclusion that the author of Revelation is the same as that of the Gospel of John, and 1, 2, and 3 John: It is the Apostle John, son of Zebedee, the Evangelist, the Elder, who is now also known by the moniker “the Revelator.” However, note that in this book, John is called a “prophet” as well (Revelation 22:9).
The Island of Patmos
The small, volcanic island of Patmos is in the Icarian Sea (a subdivision of the Aegean Sea), just southwest from the coastline of Asia Minor (a little over thirty-five miles southwest from Miletus). It is one of twelve Greco-Roman islands collectively called “the Dodecanese.” The distinct shape of the land mass makes it look like a seahorse swimming to the right.
Many of us, when we read that John was exiled to an island, imagine a scenario resembling the circumstances of Tom Hank’s character, Chuck Noland, in the popular film Cast Away. We wonder if, perhaps, John had a similar experience, huddling under exotic plants during harsh weather; eating worms and bugs; building fires by rubbing sticks together; shivering in dark caves; watching the coastlines for rescue ships; and making a “friend” out of a log or coconut to give him company and to talk to between writing sessions—in the same manner Noland famously designed his best friend “Wilson” from a volleyball manufactured by Wilson Sporting Goods.
Such a setting could certainly contribute to a heavy loneliness that could lead to hysterical thoughts—maybe even hallucinations—that would affect the integrity of the book. If John was entirely cut off from the human race and existed as one man on an island surrounded by water as far as the eye could see, surely his imagination would have run wild, leading to bizarre—even apocalyptic—ideas. How, then, could we trust what he saw in the visions he described in Revelation? (Biblical artwork sometimes contributes to this concept by depicting imagery of an old, bearded John sitting on sharp rocks next to withered trees—alone, and looking out into the endless sea with no belongings other than a quill and parchment.)
However, in spite of the logic behind our ideas about John and his surroundings, a look at the geographical history of Patmos reveals our concepts are based on a grave misunderstanding perpetuated by human imagination and art; they’re not at all based on reality.
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First of all, if Eusebius’ account of history is correct, then John was only exiled to Patmos for about a year and a half. That’s not nearly as dramatic as what happened to Hanks’ emaciated character, who lived entirely alone for four years. That brings us to our second point: The Romans of John’s day frequently used such islands as Patmos to exile people who threatened them, and Patmos had already established some level of civilization as early as the Middle Bronze Age or the Mycenaean Era of Greece (circa 1700–1100 BC), as extant pottery in and around the area dates. The island featured a well-developed seaport at a location known in New Testament times as Phora (today, “Skala”), situated on the eastern side between the “neck” and the “abdomen” of the island’s seahorse shape. Likewise, after stating that Patmos was one of several islands the Milesians (residents of Miletus) inhabited for military purposes from the late seventh century BC through John’s day, the Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation further explains:
Patmos formed part of a second line of islands comprising Miletus’ commercial sphere.… Patmos also played a critical defensive role in protecting Miletus’ commercial routes. With Leros and Lepsi, Patmos was a phrourion (…“military fortress”). Milesian veterans formed an important population within the colony. The island was governed by a phrourarch (…phrourarchos) [a] commanding officer of the garrison. The island’s social, political, and economic life was thus oriented to Miletus for centuries.[viii]
When John was exiled, he would have been dropped off at a populated seaport (possibly Phora), where he would have immediately come face to face with commercial activity under the supervision of the Milesian government. From there, he may have decided to travel south to a cave that later traditions marked as the site of John’s visions (just below the contemporary location of the monastery of St. John the Divine), but he would have easily been within walking distance to civilization. Scholars have good reason (drawn from historical accounts) to believe that, a year and a half later, John returned to Ephesus during the reign of Nerva, resuming his post as pastor of Ephesus.[ix] Most other legends of John’s time on the island come from the Acts of John, which is not a reliable source, as it was claimed to have been written by John’s scribe, but it was dated to the fifth century AD (hundreds of years after John or anyone claiming to be his scribe could have lived). It is thus a work that falls into a category of literature known as the Pseudepigrapha (texts written by people under pseudonyms—falsely attributed works) and cannot be trusted to contain truth (unlike apocryphal works, which generally have more solid attribution).
Audience and Occasion
With the Revelation’s authorship, canonicity, and setting established, the occasion for the letter is unique from any other in the Word, as John experienced prophetic and futuristic visions that had not yet come true (as stated prior), and he wished to circulate the information to the early Church as a warning. More specifically, the text was delivered to an audience of seven churches of his day (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea—each addressed in the coming pages), while on a wider scale, we can safely assume from Revelation 1:3 (an exhortation and blessing meant for all in the Church who read it) that John believed the Holy Spirit intended everyone in the Church of all times to have a copy and heed it. What a blessing for us, today, that circulation attempt was successful when he returned to Ephesus, as we have the book in our canon now. Our next issue, then, is why we keep saying the book covers matters that are yet to come, as some disagree.
UP NEXT: Varying Approaches to Interpretation
<Note to Pam: Please insert the following note at the beginning of the endnotes: “For complete source information on shortened references, please see the endnotes to volume 1.”>
[i] Weber, T. P., “Dispensational and Historic Premillennialism as Popular Millennialist Movements,” chapter one in: C. L. Blomberg & S. W. Chung (Eds.), A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2009), 2.
[ii] Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Church History of Eusebius,” Ecclesiastical History, as quoted in: Eusebius: Church History… 148.
[iii] Ibid., 311.
[v] Ibid., 309.
[vii] Beale, G. K., & Campbell, D. H., Revelation: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; 2015), 2–3.
[viii] Wilson, M., “Geography of the Island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9),” as quoted in: Lexham Geographic Commentary… 621.
[ix] Carroll, S. T., “Patmos (Place),” as quoted in: D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary: Volume 5 (New York: Doubleday; 1992), 178–179.
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