Also called the Apocalypse; the last book in the Bible, traditionally ascribed to John the Apostle, but the language and content make it unlikely that this work could have come from the same hand as the fourth gospel. Nor was this John (Rev. 1: 4), sometimes known as ‘the Divine’ or ‘Theologian’ either John the Apostle or John the Elder (of 2 and 3 John, epistles). But there is a connection between the seer who was banished to the island of Patmos (Rev. 1: 9) and the evangelist whose surviving circle perversely recalled the last words in the gospel about a belief in an imminent return of Christ (John 21: 23)—a different eschatology from the realized, present, eschatology predominating in the gospel’s presentation of Jesus. So John in Patmos, to whom Jesus makes the promise ‘Yes, I will come quickly’ (Rev. 22: 20) does write down ‘what is now’, in the present, ‘and what is to take place hereafter’ (1: 19). That is, he addresses himself first to the words and the failings of the Churches which he knows well (2: 1 to 3: 22), and then he passes to his second task: the prophecy about the future contained in the series of visions, from ch. 4 to the end. Irenaeus (c. 190 CE) held that John’s vision was put into writing towards the end of the reign of the emperor Domitian, which would give the date of composition as c. 95 CE when Christians experienced another round of repression, not universal, but local, sporadic, and unpredictable.
Revelation was written to give encouragement to Christians at the end of the 1st cent., not to predict events centuries hence—though the book has been an inspiration to ‘enthusiasts’ of all ages. The images, the visions, the symbols have been a rich field for bizarre interpretations. The work’s first three chapters take the form of a letter to seven Churches in Asia Minor whose failings are well known to John and are sternly rebuked in accordance with the book's essential message, which is of the current conflict between God and the powers of this world (this does also give a relevance to all future generations). There can be no compromises, or back-sliding, no deference to the monster rising from the sea (13: 1–10), the Roman State. Against that power, Christians are to obey Christ, symbolized by the ‘lamb’, a sacrificial lamb, who alone is able to open the book with the seven seals (5: 6).
The book continues in a series of sevens: seven seals (4: 1–8: 5), seven trumpets (8: 2–11: 19), seven visions of beasts (12: 1–15: 4), seven bowls (15: 5–19: 10), seven further visions, followed by a description of the New Jerusalem (19: 11–22: 5), and an epilogue (22: 6–21). Each set of seven represents a miniature apocalypse in itself, and seems to answer to the six workdays of God in the Genesis narrative of creation, plus the Sabbath. John represents the most extreme form in the NT of a Christianity which is against its surrounding culture. There is no question (as in Rom. 13) of accommodation towards the emperor—Rome is ‘Babylon’ (17: 5) with its seven hills (17: 9) and it destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE as the ancient Babylonians did in 586 BCE.
Revelation is heavily indebted to OT apocalyptic writings—to Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel—and with these books in mind the first readers of Revelation would have grasped the seer’s message of no compromise with pagan religion. It may have been possible for the Egyptian cult of Isis to be assimilated to the worship of Caesar, but this was unacceptable to Christians, even though the purpose of Caesar-worship was to fuse together a hundred different races into a single state. No exemption from the imperial cult was granted to Christians (as it was to Jews). For they could not recognize the State as the ultimate good, nor that force and wealth were to be acknowledged as the realities before which all must bow. So under cryptograms the Roman emperors are pilloried: 666 (Rev. 13: 18) may stand for Nero by transliterating the letters into Hebrew, where their numerical values add up to 666. Nero, the worst of all the emperors, stabbed himself in 68 CE. The beast of Rev. 13: 3 may be a reference to Caligula, who had a mortal wound, because he was murdered. Revelation is a mosaic of a book, exceptionally difficult for modern readers to disentangle, but with a clear message: the Christian life is one of conflict and struggle, in which death has its part, but the resurrection of Jesus enables us to begin to come to terms with suffering and death.
The clearest sections of Revelation are the first three chapters, addressed to seven Churches in Asia Minor. Their situations are well known to the writer, and the seer’s exhortations are designed to fit each Church’s current position. Where they have stood firm, praise is given (to Smyrna and Philadelphia); where they are failing, they are rebuked—especially Laodicea. Modern readers of Revelation may not be able to take literally what is prophesied, though there exist today fundamentalist and conservative Christians, as there have often been in the past, who believe the book to be a prediction of the end of the world in their own generation. Some have even anticipated the battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16: 12–16) to be fought with mass destruction by nuclear weapons. There is certainly in the seer’s words the faith that the salvation of Jesus, the Word of God (19: 13), can be available to every generation. Every Christian can follow Jesus and through suffering like his win through to victory (2: 7, 17, 26). We shall all be judged by our deeds (20: 12–13). And there is a role for the Church—that of mediating God’s forgiveness and urging repentance (3: 7–9). In this way the Lord comes on his day (1: 10) year in, year out, in preaching and in Eucharist, and the New Jerusalem descends from God not at the end of all time but whenever a martyr wins a crown (3: 12; 21: 2, 10).
The earliest non-Christian account of Church worship is in a letter of Pliny the Younger in 112 CE, but the book of Revelation (22: 1–5) offers a glimpse of such worship, and it resembles a scene in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, where the high priest stood before the throne of God on the Day of Atonement. In the vision of Revelation the Christians are high priests.