In my earlier post, “Reading Revelation Without Missing the Point,” I introduced the notion that the book of Revelation is not primarily about gloom and doom and judgment. Nor is it meant to be read primarily as a code to be deciphered so we can determine tomorrow’s news headlines.
Rather, Revelation is primarily a book about faithfulness — God’s faithfulness to his promises, and our call to be faithful to Jesus in spite of opposition. At the core of what Revelation was meant to communicate is this: Be faithful to the end for the sake of Jesus, because Jesus is worth it.
Before we unpack that message and dig into the book of Revelation, let’s talk a bit about how this book came to be. Who wrote it, and when? Why was it written? And how was it intended to be read? Knowing this background will help us read Revelation with the right approach, so we don’t miss the points the book was originally trying to make.
Author & Date
The book tells us that it’s by “John” (Rev 1:1, 4, 9), but it doesn’t specify which John. That implies that Revelation’s readers were very familiar with this John — familiar enough that he didn’t have to specify — and early church tradition linked it with the apostle John, one of the twelve original disciples of Jesus. Some interpreters dispute this, saying that Revelation is too different in style from the other Johannine writings, but I think there’s good reason to hold the traditional view. 
We’re told in Rev 1:9 that John was on the island of Patmos when he received this prophecy from the Lord. He says he was there “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” His wording strongly suggests that he did not go there willingly to preach, but rather he had been forcibly placed there as some sort of punishment or deterrent to his preaching.
Now, contrary to some popular notions, Patmos wasn’t necessarily a penal colony per se – in fact, it may have been a pretty nice little place to be (see Craig Koester, Revelation, 239-43). Perhaps there are some pastors today who wouldn’t mind being sent to a cozy little island in the Mediterranean! But for John, being banished from the churches he ministered to would have been stressful. He was physically isolated from the community he deeply cared for.
What’s more, most scholars believe (based on external evidence) that John probably wrote Revelation around 94-96 A.D., which means it had been 60 years since Jesus’ earthly ministry. 
For John, that meant sixty years of waiting for Jesus to fulfill his promise that he would return soon and finish setting up his kingdom on earth. Sixty years of spreading the gospel as far and wide as possible, even though that often meant persecution and trials. Sixty long years. If I were John, I think it would have been very easy to get discouraged after that much waiting.
But then, in the midst of exile, John was given a fresh vision — an update from heaven about Jesus’ promise. That’s what “revelation” means: it’s a revealing. God revealed to John through these visions some new information about the last days and Jesus’ return. And the visions he received on Patmos he wrote into this book and sent to the churches he pastored back on the mainland to tell them: Jesus is still coming. Stay faithful.
The apostle John was given this message to call Christians to faithful endurance and to remind them of three things: Jesus wins. He’s coming back. And he’s worth it.
Genre & Symbolism
Now, when it comes to interpreting Revelation, we need to determine what kind of book it is; what genre it is. Otherwise you’ll run into problems. For example, you shouldn’t read a science fiction novel like Jurassic Park the same way you’d read a history textbook; if you did, you’d have a very inaccurate picture of dinosaur behavior and a deep fear of traveling to islands near Costa Rica! Having a good grasp of the genre sets appropriate guidelines for interpretation and application.
So when we come to Revelation, we need to step back and ask, “What genre is this? How did John intend for it to work?” It turns out Revelation is a very complex book. And part of the reason there are so many wrong approaches to it is because it actually has three genres: apocalypse, prophecy, and letter.
“Apocalypse” is a genre that a lot of people aren’t very familiar with, but in the time of Jesus and the early church, apocalypses were a common Jewish style of writing. They drew heavily from the prophecies of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah. Apocalyptic literature typically comes in one of two varieties: 1) symbolic visions of the end of time that are meant to inspire faithfulness to God in the present; or 2) symbolic visions of God’s spiritual reign intended to discourage loyalty to human systems or institutions.
Revelation has both these aspects – the horizontal (letting the end of the story shape the present) and the vertical (letting heaven’s power redefine earthly loyalties). We mustn’t exclude one or the other in our reading. Revelation addresses the present circumstances of the readers and events in the distant future.
And make sure you catch this key word: symbolic! Apocalypses use symbols and metaphors and big, mythic depictions of spiritual realities. That’s not to say that Revelation is fiction; it’s just that it’s a highly stylized presentation of spiritual truths and future realities.
As Mitchell Reddish puts it,
“[Revelation] uses visions, symbols, and ancient myths to convey its message. The language of the book is primarily pictorial, symbolic language. It is not the language of science or logic. Rather, it is evocative, powerful, emotive language, at times more akin to poetry than to prose. Like the language of poetry, the language of Revelation sometimes is mysterious and slippery, teasing its reader to make connections and see possibilities that one has never made or seen before.” — Revelation (Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 29.
So what does that mean for us? It means Revelation has many layers of meaning — that’s why it’s such a challenge to interpret, and it’s why we need to be very humble in our interpretations.
Symbols are complex. They can operate on multiple levels, and sometimes they are even intended to have multiple associations or referents (which is why it can be so difficult to pin down exactly what they refer to in our world). For example, picturing Jesus as a “slain Lamb” has connotations of the Passover sacrifice, the crucifixion, and even possibly the imagery of a conquering ram from the book of Daniel! The imagery gets even more dense in Rev 12-13 and 17-18, piling up tons of Old Testament references into new and evocative visions.
Not only can an author pack a ton of meaning into one symbol, but he or she can also create a much bigger emotional impact on us with a symbol than with a mere statement of fact. It’s one thing to talk about Satan as a villainous figure; it’s quite another thing to envision him as a fiery red cosmic dragon with seven heads, sweeping away a third of the stars with his massive tail, and to call him “that ancient Serpent,” linking the last book of the Bible back to the story of the fall of humanity in Genesis 3.
What’s more, Revelation is also a prophetic book — it’s a preached word of God to call God’s people to repentance and faithfulness. Just like the Old Testament prophets, it uses powerful rhetoric to denounce idolatry and sin and to proclaim the gospel. It calls its readers/hearers to obey and worship God instead of pursuing idols or immorality. It exposes false teaching and reveals spiritual truth.
Prophecies aren’t just predictions of the future. They can and often do include prediction, but biblical prophecy is often more like a sermon. It’s a word from God to us. It calls us to faithfulness in the present.
And lastly — and just as important! — Revelation is a letter! It was written to seven churches in Asia Minor to address their struggles. And since it was written to first-century Christians, we modern readers must be aware of two things every time we try to interpret it: 1) it had to be relevant to the first readers’ circumstances, and 2) it had to communicate in symbols that they would have grasped in their cultural context. We need to do our level best to determine, as near as we can, how that first-century audience would likely have understood it before we can begin applying it to today.
The Value of Context
That was a lot of background to cover, but it’s important to get our trajectory right as we approach a book as dense and complex as Revelation. The context helps us see that this is a message that was meant to encourage faithful believers who are looking forward to the promises of their risen and returning Lord, while also challenging those who were wavering because of pressure from Roman society without or from deception within.
As an apocalyptic vision conveyed through a prophetic letter, Revelation gives readers a glimpse of the future that is coming so that they will devote themselves wholeheartedly to God in the present, and it’s all conveyed in language and symbols its first readers would have related to.
Now we can begin the challenging but fun work of unpacking Revelation’s message and discussing some passages that have often been misunderstood, which we’ll do in subsequent posts.
See you down the path.