After the introduction and the apostolic blessing, 1:1-8, the book contains seven visions or series of visions, extending from 1:9-22:7, followed by a conclusion, 22:8-21.
I. The first Vision, 1: 9-3:22, is that of the glorified Christ in the midst of the Church, directing John to write letters of reproof, of warning, of exhortation and of consolation to seven representative churches of proconsular Asia, viz. to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamus, Thyatire, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
II. The second Vision, 4:1-8:1, reveals God as ruling the world's destiny, and the Lamb as taking the book of the divine decrees and breaking the seven seals of which each one represents a part of God's purpose, the first four referring to the terrestrial, and the last three to the celestial sphere. Between the sixth and seventh seals an episode is introduced to show the safety of the people of God amid the judgments that are inflicted on the world.
III. The third Vision, 8:2-11:19, shows us seven angels, each one having a trumpet. After an angel has offered up the prayers of the saints to God, the seven angels blow their trumpets, and each trumpet is followed by a vision of destruction on the sinful world, the destruction of the last three being more severe than that of the first four. Between the sixth and seventh trumpets there is again an episode describing the preservation of the Church.
IV. The fourth Vision, 12:1-14: 20, describes the conflict of the world with the Church of God. The Church is represented as a woman bringing forth the Christ, against whom the dragon representing satan wages war. In successive visions we behold the beasts which satan will employ as his agents, the militant Church, and the advancing stages of Christ's conquest.
V. The fifth Vision, 15:1-16:21, once more reveals seven angels, now having seven vials or bowls containing the last plagues or judgments of God. First we have a description of the Church that triumphed over the beast, glorifying God; and this is followed by a picture of the sevenfold judgment of God on the world, represented by the seven vials.
VI. The sixth Vision, 17:1-20:15, reveals the harlot city Babylon, the representative of the world, and the victory of Christ over her and over the enemies that are in league with her, the great conflict ending in the last judgment.
VII. The seventh Vision, 21:1-22: 7, discloses to the eye the ideal Church, the new Jerusalem, and pictures in glowing colors her surpassing beauty and the everlasting, transcendent bliss of her inhabitants.
The book closes with an epilogue in which the seer describes its significance and urges the readers to keep the things that are written on its pages, 22:7-21.
1. The Revelation of John is the only prophetic book in the New Testament. It is called a prophecy in 1:3, 22: 7, 10,18, 19. A nearer description of the book is given, however, in the name Apocalypse, for there is a difference between the prophetic books of the Bible in general and that part of them that may be said to belong to the Apocalyptic literature. Naturally the two have some eicments in common: they both contain communications, mediated by the Holy Spirit, of the character, will and purposes of God; and the one as well as the other looks to the future of the Kingdom of God. But there are also points of difference. Prophecy, while it certainly has reference also to the future of God's Kingdom, is mainly concerned with a divine interpretation of the past and the present, while the chief interest of Apocalyptic lies in the future. Prophecy again, where it does reveal the future, shows this in its organic relation with principles and forces that are already working in the present, while Apocalyptic pictures the images of the future, not as they develop out of existing conditions, but as they are shown directly from heaven and to a great extent in supernatural forms.
2. A characteristic feature of the book is that its thought is largely clothed in symbolic language derived from some of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Hence its correct understaiding is greatly facilitated by studying the writer's Old Testament sources. Yet we must constantly bear in mind that he does not always employ the language so derived in its original significance. Compare ch.18 with Is.13, 14; Jer.50, 51; 21:1-22:5 with various parts of Is.40-66; Ezek.40-48 ; 1:12-20 with Dan.7, 10 ; ch.4 with Is.6; Ezek.1, 10. But however dependent the author may be on the prophets, he does not slavishly follow them, but uses their language with great freedom. The symbolic numbers 3, 4, 7, 10, 12 and their multiples also play an important part in the book.
3. The language of the Apocalypse differs from that of all the rest of the New Testament. It, is very decidedly Hebraistic Greek. According to Simcox its vocabulary is far less eccentric than its style and grammar. This author in his, Writers of the New Testament pp.80-89 classifies the most important peculiarities of the language of Revelation under several heads: (1) As in Hebrew the copula is generally ommited cf.4^1,3, 5^2, 6^8, 9^7,10,16, 17, 10^1, 11^8, 19^1,12, 21^8,13,19. (2) Apparently the writer, at least in several instances, does not use the Greek tenses in their purely temporal sense, but more like the Hebrew perfect and imperfect, cf.2^5,22,24, 4^10, 10^7, 12^4. (3) The use of a redundant pronoun or pronominal adverb is very frequent, cf.3^8, 7^2,9, 12^6,14, 13^12, 17^9, 20^8. (4) When two nouns are in opposition, the second is usually put in the nominative, whatever be the case of the first, cf.1^5, 2^13,20, 3^12, 7^4, 8^9, 9^14, 14^12, 17^3, 20^2. (5) There are some irregularities which, considered abstractly are perfectly legitimate, but are contrary to established Greek usage, as f. i. the use of the dative instead of the double accusative in 2:14; and the use of the plural of verbs with a subject in the neuter nominative as in 3^4, 4^5, 11^13. (6) False concords in get der, constructions ad sensum are also frequently found, 4^7,8, 7^4,8 9^5,6 etc.
The external testimony for the authorship of the apostle John is quite strong. Justin Martyr clearly testifies that the book was written by "John one of the apostles of the Lord." Irenaeus whose teacher was Polycarp, the disciple of John, gives very decisive and repeated testimony for the authorship of the apostle. The Muratorian Canon mentions John as the author of the book, and the context shows that the son of Zebedee is meant. Hippolytus quotes the Apocalypse several times as a work of John; and that the John which he has in mind is the apostle, is clear from a passage in which he speaks of him as "an apostle and disciple of the Lord." Clement of Alexandria names the apostle as the author of the book, as do also Victorinus, Ephrem the Syrian, Epiphanius e. a. In the West Ambrose and Augustine repeatedly quote the Apocalypse as written by John the apostle, and Jerome speaks of the apostle John as also being a prophet.
This strong external testimony is corroborated by internal evidence: (1) The author repeatedly calls himself John, 1^1,4,9, 22^8, and there is but one person who could use the name thus absolutely to designate himself without fear of being misunderstood, viz. John the apostle. (2) The writer evidently stood in some special relation to the churches. of proconsular Asia (i. e. Mysia, Lydia, Caria and a part of Phrygia), which is in perfect harmony with the fact that John spent the later years of his life at Ephesus. (3) The author was evidently banished to the island called Patmos in the Aegean sea, one of the Sporades to the South of Samos. Now a quite consistent tradition, which is, however, discredited by some scholars, says that this happened to the apostle John; and there are some features that seem to mark this as an independent tradition. (4) There are also notes of identity between the writer and the author of the fourth Gospel and of I John. Like in John 1:1 ff. and I John 1:1, so also in Rev.19:13 the name ho logos is given to our Lord. He is called arnion twenty-nine times in this book, a word that is used elsewhere only in John 21:15, as a designation of the disciples of the Lord. It is remarkable also that the only place, where Christ is called a Lamb outsid of this book, is in John 1:29, the word amnos being used. The term alethinos, found but once in Luke, once in Paul and three times in Hebrews, is employed nine times in the gospel of John, four times in the first Epistle, and ten times in the Apocalypse, though not always in exactly the same sense. Compare also with the repeated expression ho nichon, 2^7,11,17, etc.; John 16^33; I John 2^13,14; 4^4, 5^4,5.
Still there have been dissentient voices from the beginning. The Alogi for dogmatical reasons impugned the authorship of John and ascribed the book to Cerinthus. Dionysius of Alexandria for more critical reasons, but also laboring with a strong anti-chiliastic bias, referred it to another John of Ephesus. Eusebius wavered in his opinion, but, led by considerations like those of Dionysius, was inclined to regard that shadowy person, John the presbyter, as the author. And Luther had a strong dislike for the book, because, as he said, Christ was neither taught nor recognized in it; and because the apostles did not deal in visions, but spoke in clear words, he declared that it was neither apostolic nor prophetic.
The Tubingen school accepted the Johannine authorship of the Apocalypse, while it denied that the apostle had written any of the other books that are generally ascribed to him. A great and increasing number of critical scholars, however, do not believe that the apostle John composed the Apocalypse. Some of them, as Hitzig, Weiss and Spitta, suggest John Mark as the author, while many others, such as Bleek, Credner, Dusterdieck, Keim, Ewald, Weizsacker e. a., regard it as the work of John the presbyter. The principal objectipns urged against the authorship of the apostle are the following: (1) While the apostle in the gospel and in the first Epistle does not mention his name, the writer of this book names himself both in the first and in the third person. (2) The genius of the two writers is quite different: the one is speculative and introspective, the other, imaginative, looking especially to the external course of events; the one is characterized by mildness and love, the other is stern and revengeful; the views of the one are spiritual and mystic, those of the other are sensuous and plastic. (3) The type of doctrine found in the Apocalypse has a Jewish stamp and is very unlike that of the gospel of John, which is idealizing and breaks away from the Mosaic basis. In this book we find the Old Testament conception of God as a fearful Judge, of angels and demons, and of the Church as the new Jerusalem. There are twenty-four elders round about the throne, twelve thousand of each tribe that are sealed, and the names of the apostles are engraved on the foundation stones of the heavenly city. Moreover the necessity of good works is strongly emphasized, cf. chs.2, 3 and also 14:13. (4) The style of the book is of a very distinct Hebraic type, different from anything that is found in the other writings of John. Instead of the regular and comparatively faultless construction of the Gospel, we here find a language full of irregularities.
But we do not believe that these considerations necessitate the assumption that the author of the book cannot be identified with the writer of the fourth gospel. It is in perfect harmony with the usage of the historical and the prophetical writers of the Bible throughout that the writer conceals his name in the Gospel and mentions it in the Apocalypse. The different light in which we see him in his various books is the natural result of the vastly different character of these writings. We should also remember that a prophetic book naturally reflects far less of the personal character of its author than epistolary writings do. The alleged Judaeistic type of the teachings found in the Apocalypse does not militate against the authorship of John. In a symbolic description of the future condition of the Church it is perfectly natural and indeed very fitting that the author should derive his symbolism from Old Testament sources, since the Old Testament is symbolically and typically related to the New. It cannot be maintained that the Christological and Soteriological teaching of the Apocalypse is essentially Jewish. The Jews that oppose Jesus are denounced, 3:9; the Church is composed of people out of every nation, 7:9; salvation is the free gift of grace, 21:6; 22:17; and though the necessity of good works is emphasized, those are not regarded as meritorious, but as the fruits of righteousness, and are even called the works of Jesus, 2:26. The strongest argument against the authorship of John is undoubtedly that derived from the style and language of the book. There has been an attempt on the part of some scholars, as Olshausen and Guericke, to explain the linguistic differences between the Apocalypse and the Gospel of John by assuming that the former preceded the latter by about 20 or 25 years, in which time the authors knowledge of Greek gradually matured. But the differences are of such a kind that it may be doubted, whether the lapse of a few years can account for them. The language of the fourth Gospel is not that of the Apocalypse in a more developed form. While it is questionable, whether an altogether satisfactory explanation can be given with the data at hand, it seems certain that the solution must be found, at least in part, in the transcendent nature of the subject-matter and in the symbolic character of the book. The fact that the author so often violates the rules of Greek grammar, does not necessarily mean that he did not know them, but may also indicate that under the stress of the lofty ideas that he wished to express, he naturally resorted to Aramaic usage, which was easier for him. The facts in the case do not prove that the Greek of the Gospel is superior to that of the Apocalypse. In the former writing the author does not attempt so much as in the latter; the language of the one is far simpler than that of the other.
The apostle addresses the Apocalypse to "the seven churches which are in Asia," 1:4. Undoubtedly this number is not exhaustive but representative of the Church in general, the number seven, which is the number of completeness, forming a very important element in the texture of this prophetic writing. These churches are types that are constantly repeated in history. There are always some churches that are predominantly good and pure like those of Smyrna and Philadelphia, and therefore need no reproof but only words of encouragement; but there are also constantly others like Sardis and Laodicea in which evil preponderates, and that deserve severe censure and an earnest call to repentance. Probably the greater number of churches, however, will always resemble those of Ephesus, Pergamus and Thyatire in that good and evil are about equally balanced in their circle, so that they call for both commendation and censure, promise and threatening. But while there is a great difference both in the outward circumstances and in the internal condition of these churches, they all form a part of the militant Church that has a severe struggle on earth in which it must strive to overcome by faith (notice the constantly repeated ho nichon) and that may expect the coming of the Lord to reward her according to her works.
1. Occasion and Purpose. The historical condition that led to the composition of the Apocalypse was one of increasing hardships for the Church and of an imminent life and death struggle with the hostile world, represented by the Roman empire. The demand for the deification of the emperor became ever more insistent and was extended to the provinces. Domitian was one of the emperors who delighted to be styled dominus et deus. To refuse this homage was disloyalty and treason; and since the Christians as a body were bound to ignore this demand from the nature of their religion, they stood condemned as constituting a danger to the empire. Persecution was the inevitable result and had already been suffered by the churches, when this book was written, while still greater persecution was in store for them. Hence they needed consolation and the Lord directed John to address the Apocalypse to them. Cf. especially Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire pp.252-319.
It is but natural therefore that the contents of the book are mainly consolatory. It aims at revealing to the servants of Christ, i. e. to Christians in general the things that must shortIy (not quickly, but before long) come to pass. This note of time is to be considered as a prophetic formula, in connection with the fact that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years and thousand years as one day. The central theme of the book is, "I come quickly," and in the elaboration of this theme Christ is pictured as coming in terrible judgments on the world, and in the great final struggle in which He is conqueror, and after which the ecclesia militans is transformed into the ecclesia triumphans.
2. Time and Place. There are especially two opinions as to the composition of the Apocalypse, viz. (1) that it was written toward the end of Domitians reign, about A. D.95 or 96; and (2) that it was composed between the death of Nero in the year 68 and the destruction of Jerusalem.
(1). The late date was formerly the generally accepted time of composition (Hengstenberg, Lange, Alford, Godet e. a.) and, although for a time the earlier date was looked upon with great favor, there is now a noticeable return to the old position (Holtzmann, Warfield, Ramsay, Porter (Hastings D. B.), Moffat (Exp. Gk. Test.) e. a.). This view is favored by the following considerations: (a) The testimony of antiquity. While there are few witnesses that refer the book to an earlier date, the majority, and among them Irenaeus whose testimony should not lightly be set aside, point to the time of Domitian. (b) The antithesis of the Roman empire to the Church presupposed in the Apocalypse. The persecution of Nero was a purely local and somewhat private affair. The Church did not stand opposed to the empire as representing the world until the first century was approaching its close; and the Apocalypse already looks back on a period of persecution. Moreover we know that banishment was a common punishment in the time of Domitian. (c) The existence and condition of the seven churches in Asia. The utter silence of Acts and of the Epistles regarding the churches of Smyrna, Philadelphia, Sardis, Pergamus and Thyatira favors the supposition that they were founded after the death of Paul. And the condition of these churches presupposes a longer period of existence than the earlier date will allow. Ephesus has already left her first love; in Sardis and Laodicea spiritual life has almost become extinct; the Nicolaitans, who are not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament, have already made their pernicious influence felt in the churches of Ephesus and Pergamus, while similar mischief was done in Thyatira by the woman Jesebel. Moreover Laodicea, which was destroyed by an earthquake in the 6th (Tactitus) or in the 10th (Eusebius) year of Nero, is here described as boasting of her wealth and self-sufficiency.
(2). Against this and in favor of the earlier date defended by Dusterdieck, Weiss, Guericke, Schaff, are urged: (a) The late testimony of the Syrian Apocalypse that John was banished in the time of Nero, and the obscure and self-contradictory passage in Epiphanius that places the banishment in the time of Claudius. Cf. Alford, Prolegamena Section II.14, where the weakness of this testimony is pointed out. (b) The supposed references in the Apocalypse to the destruction of the Holy City as still future in 11^1,2,13. But it is quite evident that these passages must be understood symbolically. Regarded as historical predictions of the destruction of Jerusalem they did not come true, for according to 11: 2 only the outer court would be abolished, and according to vs.13 merely the tenth part of the city would be destroyed, and that not by Rome but by an earthquake. (c) The supposed indications of the reigning emperor in 13:1 ff., especially in connection with the symbolical interpretation of the number 666 as being equal to the Hebrew form of Nero Ceasar. But the great diversity of opinion as to the correct interpretation of these passages, even among the advocates of the early date, proves that their support is very questionable. (d) The difference between the language of this book and that of the Gospel of John is thought to favor an early date, but, as we have already pointed out, this is not necessarily the case.
It is impossible to tell, whether John wrote the Apocalypse while he was still on the island of Patmos, or after his return from there. The statement in 10: 4 does not prove the former theory, nor the past tenses in 1:2, 9, the latter.
3. Method. Of late several theories have been broached to explain the origin the Apocalypse in such a manner as to account satisfactorily for the literary and psychological features of the book. (1) The Incorporation theory holds to the unity of the Apocalypse, but believes that several older fragments of Jewish or Christian origin are incorporated in it (Weizsacker, Sabatier, Bousset, McGiffert, Moffat, Baljon). (2) The Revision-hypothesis assumes that the book has been subject to one or more revisions, (Erbes, Briggs, Barth). The last named author is of the opinion that John himself in the time of Domitian revised an Apocalypse which he had written under Nero. (3) The Compilation-hypothesis teaches that two or more sources fairly complete in themselves have been pieced together by a redactor or redactors, (Weyland, Spitta, Volter at least in part). (4) The Jewish and Christian hypothesis maintains that the groundwork of the Apocalypse was a Jewish writing in the Aramaic language, written about 65-70, that was later translated and edited by a Christian (Vischer, Harnack, Martineau). In connection with these we can only say that to us these theories seem unnecessary and in the majority of cases very arbitrary. There is every reason to maintain the unity of the Apocalypse. The use of written sources in its composition is an unproved assumption; but the author was evidently impregnated with Old Testament ideas and modes of expression, and drew largely on the storehouse of his memory in the symbolic description of the supernatural scenes that were presented to his vision.
Various principles of interpretation have been adopted with reference to this book in the course of time:
1. The older expositors and the majority of orthodox Protestant commentators adopted the Continuist (kirchengeschichtliche) interpretation, which proceeds on the assumption that the book contains a prophetic compendium of Church history from the first Christian century until the return of Christ, so that some of its prophecies have now been realized and others still await fulfilment. This theory disregards the contemporaneous character of the seven series of visions and has often led to all sorts of vain speculations and calculations as to the historical facts in which particular prophecies are fulfilled.
2. In course of time the Futurist (endgeschichtliche) interpretation found favor with some, according to which all or nearly all the events described in the Apocalypse must be referred to the period immediately preceding the return of Christ (Zahn, Kliefoth). Some of the Futurists are so extreme that they deny even the past existence of the seven Asiatic churches and declare that we may yet expect them to arise in the last days. As a matter of course this interpretation fails to do justice to the historical element in the book.
3. Present day critical scholars are generally inclined to adopt the Praeterist (zeitgeschichtliche) interpretation, which holds that the view of the Seer was limited to matters within his own historical horizon, and that the book refers principally to the triumph of Christianity over Judaeism and Paganism, signalized in the downfall of Jerusalem and Rome. On this view all or almost all the prophecies contained in the book have already been fulfilled (Bleek, Duisterdieck, Davidson, F. C. Porter e. a.). But this theory does not do justice to the prophetic element in the Apocalypse.
Though all these views must be regarded as one-sided, each one contains an element of truth that must be taken in consideration in the interpretation of the book. The descriptions in it certainly had a point of contact in the historical present of the Seer, but they go far beyond that present; they certainly pertain to historical conditions of the Church of God, and conditions that will exist in all ages, but instead of arising successively in the order in which they are described in the Apocalypse, they make their appearance in every age contemporaneously; and finally they will certainly issue in a terrific struggle immediately preceding the parousia of Christ and in the transcendent glory of the bride of the Lamb.
The particular form of inspiration in which the writer shared was the prophetic, as is perfectly evident from the book itself. The author, while in the Spirit, was the recipient of divine revelations, 1^1,10, and received his intelligence by means of visions, in part at least mediated and interpreted by angels, 1^10,19, 4^1,2, 5^1, 6^1, 17^7-18, 21^9. He received the command to write and to prophecy from God himself, 1^19, 10^4,11, 14^13. And the "I" speaking in the book is sometimes that of the Lord himself and sometimes that of the prophet, which is also a characteristic mark of the prophetic inspiration. In chapters 2 and 3 f. i. the Lord speaks in the first person, and again in 16:15 and 22:7.
The canonical authority of the apocalypse has never been seriously doubted by the Church. Hermas, Papias and Melito recognized its canonicity, and according to Eusebius Theophilus cited passages from it. The three great witnesses of the end of the second century all quote it by name and thus recognize its authority. Hippolytus and Origen also regarded it as canonical. Similarly Victorinus, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine. Gradually, however, the fact that Millenarians found their chief support in the book, made it obnoxious to some of the Church fathers, who deemed it inexpedient to read it in the churches. This explains, why it is absent from some MSS. and from some of the catalogues of the ancient councils.
The book is primarily a book of consolation for the militant Church in its struggles with the hostile world and with the powers of darkness. It directs the glance of the struggling, suffering, sorrowing and often persecuted Church toward its glorious future. Its central teaching is, "I come quickly!" And while it reveals the future history of the Church as one of continual struggle, it unfolds in majestic visions the coming of the Lord, which issues in the destruction of the wicked and of the evil One, and in the everlasting bliss of the faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ. Hence the book comes to the enemies of God's Kingdom with words of solemn warning and with threatenings of future punishment, while it encourages the followers of the Lord to ever greater faithfulness, and opens up to them bright visions of the future, thus inspiring the Church's constant prayer: "Even so, come, Lord Jesus!"