No other book of the New Testament evokes the same fascination as the book of Revelation. Attempts at its exposition are almost without number, yet there continues the widest divergence of interpretation. Because the book reveals truth relative to every important fundamental of Christian theology, it is inevitable that its interpretation be influenced by the contemporary confusion in biblical scholarship especially in the realm of eschatology. In some sense, the book is the conclusion to all previous biblical revelation and logically reflects the interpretation of the rest of the Bible. The expositor is faced with innumerable hermeneutical decisions before beginning the task of understanding the peculiar contribution of the book of Revelation, an undertaking made more difficult by the fact that his decisions not only color the exposition of the book itself but also in a sense constitute an interpretation of all that precedes it in the Scriptures.
Even a casual reader of the book of Revelation is impressed with the tremendous scope of its prophecies. Here is obviously an important book, one intended by God to be a final word to man. The great truths treated are the termini for lines of revelation beginning in some cases in the book of Genesis and continuing throughout Scripture. Most important is the revelation concerning Jesus Christ, introduced as the major theme of the book in the first verse. If for no other reason, the book is important as the final chapter in scriptural self-disclosure of God through Jesus Christ. In earlier books of the Bible, Christ is introduced in the Messianic prophecies and the activities of the Angel of Jehovah in the Old Testament. The revelation of Jesus Christ is advanced in the Gospels and the Acts, which unfold the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Son of God. The epistles add the theological interpretation of the person and work of Christ. To all of this dramatic and tremendously significant revelation, the last book of the Bible provides the capstone. It is indeed “the revelation of Jesus Christ” not only as the Lamb that was slain, a familiar portrayal in the book, but as King of kings and Lord of lords who is certain to return to the earth in power and glory to judge the wicked and reward the righteous. The book of Revelation is the counterpart of the Gospels, Christ in His glory in contrast to Christ in His humiliation and death.
It is implicit in any orthodox Protestant approach to the Scriptures to hold that the Bible was intended to be understood. What is true of other Scriptures is also true of the book of Revelation. However, it is too much to assume that the book, like the Old Testament apocalyptic books and prophecy generally, was intended to be comprehended fully by believers in the early church. As history unfolds and as prophecy is fulfilled in the future, much will be understood that could be only dimly comprehended by the first readers of the book. But even to early Christians, the main facts were clear.
The climax of human history was to involve a period of great suffering which would be worse than any of the trials which afflicted the church previously. The ultimate triumph of the saints and the final victory of our Lord Jesus Christ are plainly written in the book of Revelation for all to comprehend. Saints of all ages can be assured of the certainty of their hope which today shines brighter than ever in view of the approaching end of the age. The book of Revelation like all other unfulfilled prophecy provides particular instruction to the generation which will see its fulfillment, and it constitutes general exhortation and encouragement for those who await the coming day.
The expositor of the Revelation is inevitably forced to choose one of the systems of interpretation which have emerged in the history of the church as a proper approach to this last book of the Bible. The author has assumed that this book should be interpreted according to the normal rules of hermeneutics rather than as a special case. The prophetic utterance of the book has therefore been taken in its ordinary meaning unless the immediate context or the total revelation of the book indicates that terms are being used in a symbolic sense, as they frequently are in apocalyptic writings. Instead of assuming that the interpretation should be nonliteral unless there is proof to the contrary, the opposite approach has been taken, namely, that terms should be understood in their ordinary meaning unless contrary evidence is adduced. Hence stars are stars, earthquakes are earthquakes, et cetera, unless it is clear that something else is intended. The result has been a more literal interpretation of prophecy and revelation in general and a clearer picture of end-time events than is frequently held by expositors.
The opening verses of the book of the Revelation plainly claim the book was written by John, identified almost universally in the early church as the Apostle John. The apostolic authorship of the book has, nevertheless, been questioned ever since the time of Dionysius of Alexandria in the third century.
Dionysius challenged the traditional view that John the Apostle was the author on the ground that the book of Revelation had numerous cases of bad grammar. Dionysius said, “I perceive that the dialect and language is not very accurate Greek, but that he uses barbarous idioms, and in some places solecisms which it is now unnecessary to select.”
Beginning with Dionysius those who object to Johannine authorship or to inclusion of the Apocalypse in the canon have tended to magnify the problems of grammar and alleged inaccuracies. Impartial scholarship has admitted that there are expressions in the book of Revelation which do not correspond to accepted Greek usage, but this problem is not entirely confined to this book of the Bible. Conservative scholarship has insisted that infallibility in divine revelation does not necessarily exclude expressions which are not normal in other Greek literature and that such instances do not mar the perfection of the truth that is transmitted. Swete, after acknowledging “that the Apocalypse of John stands alone among Greek literary writings in its disregard of the ordinary rules of syntax,” goes on to say that it does so “without loss of perspicuity or even of literary power. The book seems openly and deliberately to defy the grammarian, and yet even as literature it is in its own field unsurpassed.” It is important to note, however, that some of the supposedly bad grammar in Revelation was used in contemporary Koine literature, as is revealed by discoveries in the Papyri.
The substantiating evidence for any other author than John the Apostle, however, is almost entirely lacking. While notable scholars can be cited in support of divergent views, the proof dissipates upon examination. It seems clear that the early church attributed the book to John the Apostle.
There is really no solid evidence against accepting John the Apostle as the author, and there is much that confirms it. In fact, it may be argued that the reference to John without further identification would presume a familiarity on the part of the readers which would make naming him unnecessary.
The evidence for John the Apostle hangs largely on the question whether the Apostle John actually was exiled on the Isle of Patmos, as the author of this book claims (1:9). There is good historical evidence in support of this claim. Clement of Alexandria refers to the Apostle John as returning from the Isle of Patmos. Eusebius not only affirms John’s return from the isle but dates it immediately following the death of Domitian, which occurred in a.d. 96.