1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. – Revelation 1:1-3 ESV
Over the centuries, the Book of Revelation has been both revered and feared, a book some obsess over while others simply pass it by, overwhelmed by its difficult-to-understand content. It is a controversial book, surrounded by mystery and responsible for debates over everything from the actual identity of its author to the exact interpretation of its message and meaning. While most conservative scholars attribute the authorship of Revelation to the apostle John, one of the disciples of Jesus, there have been others who disagree, going all the way back to Dionysius of Alexandria in the third century. John’s name appears four different times in the text of Revelation and while there is never a claim of apostleship associated with those four references, it still seems highly probable that the author was John the apostle. Many of the early church fathers believed that the John referred to in the book was the same John who wrote the gospel of John. The apparent dissimilarities between the writing styles of the gospel of John and the Revelation have been used as a basis for rejecting John the apostle as the author of Revelation. They based their conclusions on differences in Greek grammar found in the two books, claiming that there is an inconsistency in style between the gospel of John and Revelation. But it must be remembered that these are two different books written many years apart from one another and represent two completely different styles of literature. John’s gospel is an historical document chronicling the life of Jesus. Yet, Revelation is apocalyptic in nature, a book of prophecy that is primarily based on visions given to John while he was on the island of Patmos. In his gospel, John was simply describing things as he saw and experienced them. But in Revelation, the author is attempting to put into words the incredible sights and sounds he saw while “in the Spirit” (Revelation 1:10). Trying to describe the incredible scenes revealed to him by God would have stretched John’s imagination and his use of the Greek language. It would be like someone describing what they had for breakfast and then trying to put into words their first-hand, eye-witness account of the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11. There would be a marked difference in style, grammar, and word usage between those two accounts.
A few verses later, John will reveal that he was on the island of Patmos when he received the vision(s) that became the basis for this book. Clement of Alexandria, a second-century Greek-born leader of the Christian community in Alexandria, Egypt, affirms that the apostle John returned from exile on the island of Patmos following the death of the Roman emperor, Domitian, which took place in A.D. 96. Eusebius, the fourth-century Bishop of Caesarea concurred with Clement on this point, as did Irenaeus, another second-century Christian theologian. So, it seems quite probable that John, the brother of James and the disciple of Jesus, was the author of this book. And the fact that, nowhere in the book, does the author claim apostleship, simply confirms the belief that those in the early church would have recognized John’s name and known that it was none other than the apostle himself.
Over the centuries, this book has often been referred to as the Revelation of John, but the opening lines provide us with the non-debatable fact that what John saw and wrote was “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” The Greek word translated “revelation” is apokalypsis and it refers to “things before unknown.” It is a revelation or revealing of things that, up until this point, had been hidden from view. This revelation, John says, was given to Jesus by God the Father. This is most likely a reference to a later scene described in chapter five, where John saw God seated on His throne in heaven.
Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. – Revelation 5:1 ESV
As John observed that scene, he saw “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6 ESV). And he watched as the Lamb “went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne” (Revelation 5:6 ESV). This scroll was sealed with seven seals and could only be opened by one who was worthy. And when God handed the scroll over to the Lamb, His own Son, Jesus Christ, the 24 elders gathered around the throne of God broke out in praise, saying:
9 “Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.” – Revelation 5:9-10 ESV
As we will see, that scroll will become key to understanding all that John will write in this book. With each seal that is broken, the scroll will reveal another aspect of God’s future plans for the world, His people, and the fate of mankind. But more about that later.
John was given the privilege of witnessing all these things, and assigned the responsibility to write them all down for posterity. And the fascinating thing is that the book he penned is the only one that comes with a promise of blessing to the one who reads it out loud so others can hear it, as well as a blessing to those who hear and obey what it says.
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. – Revelation 1:3 ESV
That one point should be encouragement enough to read this book and hear what John has to say. The book of Revelation is going to provide us with a front-row seat to one of the most remarkable spectacles ever witnessed by the eyes of men. We are going to step into the very throne room of God and witness never-before-seen events and hear news of things yet to come. Much of what we are going to read will be difficult to understand. It will sound fantastic and unbelievable. But we must remember that these are the words of a mere man who was attempting to describe heavenly things. He was struggling to use words to describe the indescribable and make plain the unfathomable. This book was intended to be read, not ignored. But it must be read with care and extreme caution. It must also be read in conjunction with the rest of God’s revealed Word. Revelation is not intended to be a stand-alone book. There is much in the book that is difficult to understand, but the key to its comprehension lies in its inclusion among the 66 books of the Bible. One scholar claimed that 278 of the 404 verses in Revelation contain references to the Old Testament. The United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament lists over 500 Old Testament passages. The books of Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremy are among the many Old Testament books that will provide invaluable insight into what we discover on the pages of Revelation. Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, found in Matthew 24-25, will also provide critical information that will help us understand what this seemingly obscure and mysterious book has to tell us.
One of the benefits of reading and studying Revelation will be the way in which it will enforce the claim of the Bible’s inerrancy and reliability. We are going to see all the seemingly disparate and disconnected passages of Scripture come together in a cohesive and comprehensive manner, revealing the Bible’s divine inspiration and God’s irrefutable plan for mankind.
The final phrase in these opening verses carries the warning, “the time is near.” Yes, centuries have passed since John wrote this book. Generations have come and gone. But there is still an imminence and immediacy to this book. We don’t know when these things will take place, but God does. And John’s warning is intended to prepare those of us who trust in Jesus Christ to live in a constant state of anticipation and preparation. In reading the book of Revelation, we must resist the urge to turn it into some kind of a parlor game where we try to figure out the exact meaning of each and every image. We must not waste time speculating about the timing of when these things will take place. Jesus told His disciples just before His ascension, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7 ESV). In His Olivet Discourse, Jesus said, “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36 ESV). There will be many things in the book of Revelation that remain a mystery to us. But rather than speculate, we must rest in the sovereign will of God. He is not going to tell us everything we want to know. He is not going to explain everything that we find confusing. But while the book of Revelation may not reveal all its mysteries, it will show us the unmatched, indisputable power of our God and the unstoppable nature of His divine plan for His creation.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.