A verse-by-verse exegetical commentary on the Greek New Testament
IN PREPARATION - 2018Introduction
We are not sure who wrote the book, although early tradition holds that John the apostle was the author. It is written as a letter with associated apocalyptic visions using conventional symbols of the time. It makes particular reference to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia in western Asia Minor, but of course, its message is applicable to all Christian churches, both then and today. The author defines his work as "prophecy", although in simple terms we might define it as the gospel.
The structure of Revelation
i] Greeting, doxology and prophetic sayings, 1:1-8
ii] John's vision of the risen Christ in Patmos, 1:9-20
The letters to the seven churches, 2:1-3:22
The Christian church, compromised and struggling to survive
i] Ephesus, 2:1-7
ii] Smyrna, 2:8-11
iii] Pergamum, 2:12-17
iv] Thyaitira, 2:18-29
v] Sardis, 3:1-6
vi] Philadelphia, 3:7-13
vii] Laodicea, 3:14-22
The vision of God and the Lamb, 4:1-5:14
i] Adoration of the Creator, 4:1-11
ii] Adoration of the Lamb, 5:1-10
iii] Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, 5:11-14
The messianic judgments, 6:1-16:21
The heavenly perspective: in Christ's victory judgment is complete
1. The judgment of the seven seals, 6:1-8:1
i] The opening of the first four seals, 6:1-8
ii] The opening of the fifth seal, 6:9-11
iii] The opening of the sixth seal, 6:12-17
iv] Interlude #1. The sealing of God's servants, 7:1-8
v] Interlude # 2. The Lamb is the shepherd, 7:9-17
vi] The opening of the seventh seal, 8:1-5
2. The judgment of the seven trumpets, 8:2-11:19
i] Sounding the first four trumpets, 8:6-13
ii] Sounding the fifth trumpet, 9:1-12
iii] Sounding the sixth trumpet, 9:13-21
iv] Interlude #3a. The mighty angel and the little scroll, 10:1-11
v] Interlude #3b. The two witnesses, 11:1-14
vi] Sounding the seventh trumpet, 11:15-19
3. The judgment of the beasts. 12:1-14:20
God's people in conflict with evil
i] The woman and the dragon, 12:1-6
ii] War in heaven, 12:7-17
iii] The evil of political power, 13:1-10
iv] The evil of false ideologies, 13:11-18
v] The triumph of the redeemed and the Lamb, 14:1-5
vi] The church militant, 14:6-13
vii] Life and judgment, 14:14-20
4. The judgment of the seven bowls, 15:1-16:21
i] The angels prepare for judgment, 15:1-8
ii] The outpouring of the first three bowls, 16:1-7
iii] The outpouring of the fourth, fifth and sixth bowl, 16:8-16
iv] The outpouring of the seventh bowl, the final judgment, 16:17-21
The reign of Christ, 17:1-22:5
i] The ruin of the harlot Babylon, 17:1-19:10
The self-destruction of antichrist's kingdom
i] The great harlot, Babylon, 17:1-6a
ii] The beast, the harlot and the ten kings, 17:6b-18
iii] The judgment of Babylon, 18:1-8
iv] The three woes - a lament for Babylon, 18:9-19
v] Babylon remembered, 18:20-24
vi] The marriage of the Lamb - vindication, 19:1-10
ii] The Last Judgment, 19:11-21:8
i] The coming king and his armies, 19:11-16
ii] The defeat of the beasts, 19:17-21
iii] The millennia bondage of Satan, 20:1-4
iv] The millennia reign of the saints and the defeat of Gog, 20:6-10
v] The final judgment, 20:11-15
vi] New heavens and a new earth, 21:1-8
iii] The New Jerusalem, 21:9-22:5
The revelation of the bride of Christ, the new creation, the city of God,
i] The new Jerusalem, 21:9-21
ii] Paradise regained, 21:22-22:5
i] General testimonies to Christ, 22:6-11
ii] The testimony of Jesus, 22:12-21
The structure of the book of Revelation has been one of ongoing debate, but one of the more suggestive and widely accepted models is the one developed by Farrer, A Rebirth of Images, 1949. He argues that the structure is sabbatical; six groupings of seven followed by a sabbath rest, the sabbath rest of God, the new Jerusalem, Rev.21-22. This approach is interesting, but somewhat of a stretch when it comes to the fine details. None-the-less, a structure something like this is evident. See "Context", 1:1-8.
The kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel
The experience of God's people in the here and now stands in contrast to another reality, the eternal reign of Christ, 4:1-5:14. The gospel proclaims the reality of the kingdom of God / the reign of God; in this reality grace is all - new life in Christ expedited by Christ. From our perspective, Christ is the slain Lamb, but if we look past the fog of earthly strife, we may see him on his throne, the glorious Lion, the reigning one. There is another reality which stands in contrast to the experience of God's people - messianic judgment, 6:1-20:15. The seals are broken and the powers of darkness are already judged and lay in ruin; their threats are but the death-rattles of a wild beast. And there is final reality which stands in contrast to the experience of God's people - the glory for which we hope, the new Jerusalem, is a glory which is even now taking shape before our eyes, 21:1-22:5.
In the seven letters to the churches, 2:1-3:2, we see the Christian fellowship warts and all. It stands at the crossroads of history, of God's now / not yet reign, compromised in the face of a hostile environment. It is the church which has survived to this moment of time between the cross and Christ's return, and if it is to share in "what must soon take place", 1:1, it must repent and persevere in faith, it must "conquer".
John, in his revelation from Christ, confronts us with the reality of the Great Day of the Lord, a day of blessing / glory, a day of cursing / disaster / judgment, a day for the full realization of the kingdom of God. John draws us into the imagery of the prophets of the historic kingdom (eg., Ezekiel and his apocalyptic visions), who, on looking back to the shallow victory won by David, proclaims that the Great Day was a day of disaster for their age. Yes, Goliath had fallen, but the sinful state of the people of Israel pointed to another Day. There would have to be a new David, a new messiah for a new kingdom, a new Zion. The prophets of the restored kingdom proclaimed the same message to the people of Israel (eg., Zechariah in his apocalyptic visions) - a Day is still coming. Nehemiah's kingdom was no Great Day of the Lord, it was but a shadow of the historic kingdom; its temple an embarrassment.
The gospel proclaims that the time is fulfilled, the victory is won, the kingdom come; it proclaims that the Great Day is upon us, the powers of darkness are subdued, the great Satan defeated by a cross and glory won in an empty tomb. Faced with the risen Christ, the disciples had to conclude that the kingdom of God is at hand; the Great Day was bursting in upon them.
Yet, the disciples of Christ soon discovered another reality. If the cross and empty tomb proclaim the victory, the kingdom come, the Great Day won, where was the glory in full measure? Was the New Testament church just another repeated image of something still greater in the future? The answer is "yes and no." The church is indeed caught in a fading age facing "interesting times", but it is also on a journey, in like manner to the children of Israel all those years before. So the church faces struggle as it awaits its Armageddon, a battle for which victory is assured, a not yet. Yet, this is not the end of the story.
Through his apocalyptic visions, John confronts us with the reality of realized eschatology, the now of the kingdom of God (illustrated by a curser rollover on the image below).
In terms of the kingdom now, we join John in the throne-room of the Ancient of Days to witness exuberant celebration and affirmation of the divine. The Great Day of the Lord has come, the reign of God is realized, and the Lamb that was slain, the Lion of Judah is breaking open the seals, the trumpets are blowing, the beasts destroyed and the bowls spilt. The harlot of Babylon is in ruin and the New Jerusalem, the city of God, resides in all her glory. The kingdom is now.
John confronts us with this dichotomy in apocalyptic. Although its time frame is linear, apocalyptic makes the impact of the visions immediate. John's now may well be the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 and its associated difficulties even now impacting on his seven churches. These troubles serve as a paradigm for a greater tribulation, that of the last day. For John, and for his readers, that last day is a not yet, it is a future day, but at the same time it is now, in fact, it has already occurred in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. For John the prophet, apocalyptic draws the not yet into the now, so making its impact immediate.
In this fading age, this fluttering of God's eyelid, this moment in eternity, Babylon is in ruin and the city of God stands in all its glory before us. If we are to share in this glory we must conquer, we must repent and persevere in faith.
When it comes to interpreting the signs unveiled in Revelation, a number of approaches have emerged over the years. The following classifications may be helpful, although they can only serve as a guide:
Historicist: With this approach the visions are equated with events in the present age from 70AD to the return of Christ. The Reformers tended to adopt this method of interpretation, eg., the Antichrist is identified with the Pope. In later times, Napoleon was identified as the Anichrist, and in the early twentieth century it was Hitler. Few recognized commentators accept this method today.
Preterist: With this approach the visions, signs and symbols are aligned with events at the time the book was written, ie., it describes past events as if they were prophecy. There are two main groups. The first group hold that the book was written late in the 1st. century. For them, the book is all about the Roman Empire, "Babylon the Great", the persecutor of the Christian church, an empire destined to destruction; see the commentaries by Charles and Sweet for this approach. The second group holds that the book was written, or purports to be written, prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and so the book addresses the rejection of the Messiah, persecution of the church and judgment upon Israel / the destruction of Jerusalem; see Kraybill, Apocalypse Now, Christianity Today, 1999.
Idealist: This approach spiritualizes the visions, taking them to refer to all periods of history such that they allude to no specific events in history. So, the book describes the symbolic battle of good against evil, of the church struggling, and at time victorious, through the ages; see the commentaries by Hendricksen and Hughes. Some who fall into this camp do, at the same time, see a consummation of all things in Revelation, an ultimate salvation and judgment at the return of Christ; see the commentary by Beale.
Futurist: In this approach to the book of Revelation, the visions from chapter 4 onward are viewed as predictive, symbolically describing events leading up to the last day. This approach presents in two main forms. The first, dispensationalism, either pre or post millennial, is very popular, but is not widely accepted by New Testament scholars. The restoration of Israel, the rebuilding of the temple, the rapture, etc., are all elements of this approach. The second is a less predictive form which doesn't strictly define the series of events leading to the end. With this approach the visions speak of Christ's returns after the church (not Israel) has suffered in the tribulation; see the commentaries by Mounce, Osborne and Beasley-Murray.
Modern commentators, including those listed as proponents of a particular approach to the book of Revelation, tend often to be lateral (eclectic!), rather than linear. So, for example, Beale says of himself that he is a "modified idealist", Koester, on the other hand, rejects such classifications, but he is usually viewed as a preterist-idealist. Modern commentators display, in varying degrees, a blend of preterist, idealist and futurist.
These notes reflect an eclectic approach to interpretation, in the greater part idealist, even theological, such that John's words are treated as a divine revelation for all believers throughout the ages. Yet, at the same time, they may also be classified as preterist and futurist, so supporting the argument that the classifications are next to useless. Although the words of a prophet will apply to future generations, they are primarily addressed to their own generation. It is the struggle of his own generation that John addresses (ie., preterist), but their struggle serves as a paradigm for ours (ie., idealist). When John addresses the troubles affecting his churches he does so within the context of the troubles that will engulf he world at the end of the age, on the Great Day of the Lord. In the eye of the prophet, the now and not yet coalesce. When John speaks of a coming day of judgment and glory he is indeed addressing the end times (ie., futurist).
The Christian church has danced with the devil; some members have remained true, but most are compromised. This situation must be addressed for the day of judgment is now and God's eternal city is already before us. In this fading age, compromised by the secular city, Christ calls on his church to repent and persevere in faith for glory is at hand.
Many aims have been suggested, eg., Sweet argues that John is addressing the materialism and idolatry affecting 1st. century Christianity, and so to this end he argues for the uniqueness of Christ and the need to be faithful to the end. Beale, on the other hand, thinks John is calling for a faithful witness in the face of the temptation to compromise belief and action under the pressure of a godless pagan society, ie. the problem of secularization. Smalley thinks "the seer's chief concern is to present a drama about God's salvation through his judgment to a community which was itself infected with falsehood." Smalley argues that John's community, based in Ephesus, was torn on the doctrine of the humanity and deity of Christ, leaning toward either a Ebionitic stance, or pre-gnostic / docetic stance.
The book of Revelation can only properly be interpreted under the guiding principle of the gospel. Without a focus on the gospel, speculative and fanciful interpretations dominate. John's aim is the euaggelion, "important news", that "the kingdom of God is at hand" - the full appropriation of the promised blessings of the covenant is now ours / life eternal is now ours, as a gift of grace through faith in the faithfulness of Christ. This reality is now and not yet / realized and inaugurated, which reality demands that we turn to Christ (repent) and rest on him in faith (persevere, conquer). See The Gospel in Revelation, Goldsworthy, 1994.
Most modern scholars agree with Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria in the third century, who argued that John, the author of Revelation, is not John the apostle, the author of the gospel of John and the epistles of John. He made three points: First, the author of Revelation, John the prophet, makes no claim that he is John the son of Zebedee, brother of James, etc. The name John is a common name. Second, there is strong affinity in thought and language between the gospel and epistles of John, but little between them and the book of Revelation. Third, the Greek in the gospel and epistles of John is faultless, but the Greek in Revelation is crude.
Of course, this argument proceeds from the assumption that the gospel and epistles of John are from the hand of John the apostle, the beloved disciple. As the gospel says of itself, the author of the gospel is a person who edits the tradition he has received from John, the beloved disciple, cf., Jn.21:24; "we know that his testimony is true." The gospel is Hellenistic in thought and well written, while Revelation is Semitic, highly influenced by the Old Testament, and poorly written. An Aramaic fisherman is more likely to write in poor Greek, and think like a Jew. In any case, the difference in thought between the gospel and revelation is not as great as Dionysius claimed, eg., "the Word of God", "the Lamb of God", etc. Then there is the tradition that it was John the apostle who exercised authority over Asia Minor from his base at Ephesus, not John the prophet. The early church fathers ascribed the book to John the apostle, eg., Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian. Eusebius, referring to the writings of Papias, argues that the book was from the hand of John the Elder, but Eusebius is quite possibly misunderstanding what Papias was saying. Papias often refers to the apostles as elders. As it stands there seems no substantial reason to discount the tradition that the Revelation was from the hand of John the beloved disciple.
Maybe we should lean toward Kiddle who noted in his Moffat commentary published in 1940, that "the authorship of the Revelation may prove the one mystery of the book which will never be revealed in this world."
Noting our friend Dionysius again, he argued that the Revelation is not be interpreted in a literal sense. This is a widely held view among those commentators who tend to be amilliennial in their approach to the book, theological rather than historical. Trying to work out the date of writing by identifying which Roman emperor identifies with the one still reigning of the kings of the antichristian empire, cf., 17:10ff, is fraught.
Persecution is often viewed as the context within which the book was written. The first major persecution of the Christian church was during the end of the reign of Nero, around 68AD. The second major persecution inflicted on the Christian church was toward the end of the reign of Domition, around 95AD. This period of persecution was widespread and fits well with John being punished for being a Christian minister. Irenaeus, writing in the latter part of the second century, held the view that Revelation was written during the reign of Domition. Sweet sums up the majority of modern scholars when he says "to sum up, the earlier date may be right, but the internal evidence is not sufficient to outweigh the firm tradition stemming from Irenaeus."
Although persecution is viewed as the context for Revelation, a fair reading of the seven letters does not evidence widespread persecution. A latter date may be preferred by most scholars, but the internal and external evidence gives support to an earlier date. Smalley suggests a date just before the fall of Jerusalem when Titus was the emperor of Rome. The lingering stains of Nero's pogrom, harassment of the church by Jewish authorities, a decline in fervor and a general adjustment to the secular environment, provides a compelling context for the writing of Revelation.
Revelation, more than any other New Testament book, requires a recognition of the form of literature being employed. The text of the book moves from narrative, to poetry, from hymns to prose, oracles to apocalyptic visions, ..... all requiring a recognition of the form of literature being used. Where literary forms are ignored we end up with apocalyptic visions read as actual accounts of events yet to be fulfilled, eg., the millennium. The prophecy school approach prompts age-long debates between postmillennialists (a 1,000 year reign of Christ prior to his second coming and the formation of the new heavens and new earth) and premillennialists (a 1,000 year reign of Christ after his second coming and before the formation of the new heavens and new earth). I fall into the amilliennial camp, holding that the 1,000 years is nothing more than an image of this present age, an age which is initiated with the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ and which will end at his return.
Of all the literary forms in Revelation, the most difficult to interpret is the apocalyptic texts. This was a form of writing which was popular among the Jews from the second century BC into the first century AD. It was a particularly vivid way of expressing a Biblical truth. The author would describe how they had received a revelation from God, often by an angel, and how they were instructed to write the revelation in a scroll for posterity. This revelation turns out to be weird and wonderful, requiring a divine explanation. See Leon Morris, Apocalyptic, IVF, 1972, and Bauckham, The Climax of prophecy, p38-91, T&T Clark, 1993.
A dispensationalist approach to the Revelation of John is widely accepted in some quarters. This view was popularized some years ago in Hal Lindsay's, The Late Great Planet Earth. In this view there is an immanent "coming [of Christ] for his saints" when believers are raptured. Jesus comes secretly and raises the dead and transfigures the living to himself in the air. This is the resurrection at the first coming of Christ. Then follows seven years when the world is evangelized, Israel converted, the great tribulation occurs and the Antichrist is revealed. After this, Jesus returns with his saints to judge the world and usher in his millennial kingdom. For some, this kingdom is an eternal one, reigning over new heavens and new earth. For others it lasts for a thousand years. Those who believe in the millennial kingdom lasting a literal thousand years, fall into two groups:
a) Premillennial. This view maintains the sequence of events above with the millennial kingdom centered in Jerusalem and a new temple, a kingdom ruled by Christ and his saints with great power and glory. The reign of the earthly kingdom ends when Satan is loosed for a time. He attacks the holy city, but is ultimately defeated and judged. This ushers in the new heavens and new earth.
b) Postmillennial. This view sometimes holds to a literal thousand years. "A period in the later days of the church militant, when, under the special influence of the Holy Spirit, the spirit of the martyrs shall appear again, true religion is greatly quickened and revived, and the members of Christ's churches become so conscious of their strength in Christ that they shall, to an extent unknown before, triumph over the power of evil both within and without". So says Strong. The return of Christ comes at the conclusion of this millennial kingdom.
The dispensational approach tends to proof-text scripture and so is more imposed than derived. One disastrous byproduct of dispensational thought is that it encourages support for the state of Israel in its occupation, subjugation, and in some cases, persecution of the Palestinian people, 10% of whom are Christian.
The Revelation for today
I grew up in Killara, a leafy suburb of Sydney on the northern railway line. It had three shops, a community hall, kindergarten, primary school, Scouts hall, playing fields and parks, and three churches. I started out in the Church of England and then migrated to the Congregational church after being bashed up at Sunday school one day, finally being forced back to the CofE church for Confirmation when I was fourteen years old. In those days, every CofE teenager got confirmed - it was like a coming out parade. My father was Presbyterian, but the Presbyterian church was a little wooden building in a state of total disrepair and of little attraction to my mother. My mother was CofE, Christmas and Easter, which was about the level of her attendance. My parents were nominal Christian, as were most Australians at this time. Typical of the time, their moral compass was the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus, especially, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
My earliest memory of the CofE priest was of an elderly man called Reverend Charlton. He always wore a cassock around town, even at the Sunday School picnic when we used to chase him and tug on his cassock to get sweets from him. My mother said he was past it because he always prayed for the late King rather than Queen Elizabeth. Then came Reverend Fox, affectionately known as Foxie; he too wore his cassock around town. Here they were, dressed in the garb of an English Vicar, a garb that dates back to the middle ages, doing what an English Vicar has done for centuries. And there was I sitting in the midst of an unchanging world-view, Western Civilization, the font of which was the teaching of Christ, Christianity.
Today I can barely recognized the society of my childhood. In many ways I feel like John, trapped firmly in a pagan world, Jerusalem and the temple now nothing but ruins, the church struggling and compromised, and no sign of Christ's return; or like Augustine, witnessing the sack of Rome in 410AD and the destruction of Christian civilization. Over a period of some fifty years I have witness the destruction of Christendom, not from without, but from within. Socialist ideology has permeated the West replacing Christ's "do unto others" with the oppressive ideal of equality in diversity. Capitalism, now without its moral compass, has replaced the customer first, staff second and shareholder third model with the bottom line. Executive pay-rates have exploded, employees squeezed and integrity devalued. "I think and it is true" has replaced "I think and therefore I am." We are witnessing the same secular polarization in politics and academia that was evident in Germany and Russia in the early twentieth century, and we all know where that ended up.
Worst of all, the church is increasingly driven to adapt to the secular ideology of our age. The recent plebiscite in Australia on Gay Marriage was lost well before the vote was taken, but it was the large number of church leaders who felt compelled to argue for diversity against Biblical truth that was the greater concern. Gay couples have as much claim to the grace of God as do divorced remarried couples, but that does not make either homosexual sex or adulterous sex either natural or moral. Christianity in the West is increasingly the target of progressive politicians and activists, as well as academia, but it is the secularization of the church, the adoption of secular ideology, syncretism, that is the far greater problem. In my own branch of the Anglican church, Evangelical Anglicans, we are increasingly adopting marketing strategies to incorporate people into the Christian fellowship rather than depend on gospel communication in the highways and byways of secular society.
So, John, in his Revelation, addresses our world situation. The Christian church is an institution increasingly distrusted by the wider society. Yes, some of it is of our own making, but irrespective of our failings, negative sentiment is growing. We are also a church compromised by secular ideology. To this situation John brings a word from Christ. It is time that we assessed our Christian walk, our strengths and weakness, and facing our failings square on, to turn again to Christ (repent) and press forward in faith (persevere, endure, conquer). To enable us to walk this walk of faith, John takes us into the heavenlies to view our situation from the divine perspective. And guess what, Satan and his minions may rant and rage, but their time is already up, their rage nothing more than death-rattles. Heaven is in full celebration mode because Christ has won the victory, the kingdom is now, and we are already reigning with Christ.
Bibliography: Commentaries - Revelation
This is not a list of recommended commentaries although it does avoid most of the dispensational works. The older classics are included for reference purposes only; see Select English Bible Commentaries
Aune, 1997, Word. Brighton, Concordia Commentaries. Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, 1993, T&T Clark. Beale, NIGTC, 1999. Beasley-Murray, NCB. Blount, NTL, 2009. Caird, Blacks. Charles, ICC, 1920. Collins, Wipf & Stock, 2001. Farrer, Clarendon, 1964. Ford, Anchor. Glasson, CBC. Goldsworthy, The Gospel in Revelation, Paternoster. Hendriksen, Baker, 1967. Hughes, Pillar, 1999. Kiddle, Moffatt, 1940. Koester, Anchor, 2014. Love, Layman's. Mathewson, HGT, 2016. Massyngberde, Anchor, 1975. Morris, Tyndale, 2nd. ed. 1987. Mounce, NICNT, 1977. Murphy, NT in Context, 1998. Osborne, BECNT, 2002. Preston & Hanson, Torch. Ramsay, London, 1904. Reddish, Smyth & Helways Commentaries, 2001. Richardson, MPA, 1996. Smalley, IVP, 2005. Strelan, ChiRho. New ed. Openbook, Where Earth Meets Heaven, 1994. Sweet, Pelican, 1979. Swete, Macmillan, 1909. Thomas, Moody, 1992, (dispensational). Thompson, Oxford University Press, 1990. Turner, BECNT. Wilcock, BST, 1975. Witherington, NCBC, 2003.