Tuesday, August 1, 2023

The Book of Revelation: Date and Context

Last year, I finished teaching a Bible survey course, in which I gave a lesson on each book of the Bible. One exception to this pattern was that I spent two lessons on the book of Revelation. This post is adapted from my first lesson on the book from that series. I plan to add the second part next week [it is now available here]. You can also listen to the recordings of the lessons here


The book makes it plain that it came from Jesus Christ to his servant John, who wrote it down and sent it to the seven churches that are in Asia (1:1-4, 22:8). John was at this time banished to the island of Patmos on account of the testimony of Jesus (1:9).

This John was the apostle John, who also wrote the Gospel of John and three epistles (1-3 John). The author’s reference to himself simply as “John” implies that he is the well-known apostle John. This is also the testimony of the church fathers in the second century, including two writers from the very churches addressed in Revelation. While some have proposed the idea that this could be a different John, this mostly stems from a dubious reading of a statement by Papias and the different style used in Revelation. 

While the style is a bit different than the apostle’s gospel and other epistles, this is because it is a different kind of writing, a book of apocalyptic prophecy similar to Daniel and Ezekiel (Rev. 1:1, 3, 22:7, 10). Despite the different genre, many of John’s typical themes appear, such as “living water” (John 4:7-15, 7:37-38, 19:34, Rev. 7:17, 21:6, 22:1, 17), Jesus as “the Word” (John 1:1, Rev. 19:13), Jesus as “the Lamb” (John 1:36, Rev. 5:6, 12-13, 7:14, etc.), Jesus as “the Truth/the True one” (John 14:6, Rev. 3:7, 19:11), and Jesus as our “shepherd” (John 10:11-16, Rev. 7:17).

Historical Context

While there is a debate on the dating of this book, I believe John wrote this book in the 60s (c. AD 64), during the reign and persecution of Nero, in light of events that “must soon take place” (1:1, 22:6), including the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. The alternative understanding, which I believe to be incorrect, is that it was written in the 90s in the reign of Domitian.

Arguments for a date in the 60s:
  1. The book mentions seven rulers of Rome in Revelation 17:9-10 (Rome is identified by its well-known seven mountains). This passage mentions “five who have fallen,” and these would be Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. It then mentions that “one is,” and this would be Nero (reigned AD 54-68). Then it says “the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while.” After Nero came Galba, who reigned for 7 months. 
  2. Revelation 11:1 describes the temple in Jerusalem like it was still standing and in use. “Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there…” Revelation 11:2 also describes Jerusalem like it had not yet been trampled by the nations.
  3. In the reign of Nero, there was both pressure to worship of the emperor (especially in Asia Minor) and persecution of Christians by Jews and Romans. 
Addressing arguments for a date in the 90s:
  1. Irenaeus knew Polycarp, who in turn was discipled by John. Around AD 180-190 Irenaeus wrote concerning the interpretation of 666 that, “if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.” While at first it may seem that Irenaeus is saying that the apocalyptic vision was seen near the end of Domitian’s reign (81-96), his statement is better understood to say that John was seen then. 
  2. Even though there was pressure to worship the emperor and probably persecution of Christians under Domitian, there was also in the reign of Nero both pressure to worship the emperor (especially in Asia Minor) and well-attested persecution of Christians by Jews and Romans. Under both emperors, their persecution of Christians would have directly impacted Rome itself, but would have influenced policy around the empire (and hostile Jews had been trying to get the Romans to persecute Christians for years). 
  3. It is claimed that the church of Smyrna did not yet exist when Paul wrote Philippians (AD 61-62) due to comments that Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, made in a letter to the Philippians. But Polycarp does not actually refer to the time of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, but simply notes that the Philippians knew God at a time when those in Smyrna did not (Paul arrived in Philippi in AD 51). 

Revelation’s prophesied events: primarily about the end times or the 1st century?

While some people approach Revelation as if it said, “this is a book about events that will take place in the final years of the age, in the distant future,” Revelation actually is mostly about events that were going to take place soon after it was written. This is said repeatedly and in different ways.

“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.” (Revelation 1:1)

“Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” (Revelation 1:3)

“Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.” (Revelation 2:16, see also 2:5)

“And he said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.’” (Revelation 22:6)

“And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” (Revelation 22:7, see also 22:12, 20.)

“And he said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.’” (Revelation 22:10, compare this with Daniel 8:26, 12:4, 9)

In the concluding chapters, the book does describe events that follow from the events of the 1st century. It speaks of the millennium (20:1-6), which began in the 1st century but extends far beyond it and culminates with the final judgment and the new heaven and new earth (20:7-21:8). But the book is not primarily about the end times. It is primarily about events that took place soon after it was written.

This does not mean the book is not relevant to us. The prophecies of Jeremiah are still relevant for us, even though they were mostly fulfilled in events that took place in the 6th century BC. The book of Revelation continues to instruct the church about its Lord and Savior and about how to live and trust God amid the challenges of the present day. Additionally, the events of the 1st century are foundational for understanding the present new covenant era.

Original Recipients 

This book was originally written to churches in seven cities (1:4), each of which is given a particular message in chapters 2-3: Ephesus (2:1-7), Smyrna (2:8-11), Pergamum (2:12-17), Thyatira (2:18-28), Sardis (3:1-6), Philadelphia (3:7-13), Laodicea (3:14-22). 

These seven churches were all located in the Roman province of Asia, the western part of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). They are listed in chapters 2-3 in the order one would come to them on a journey beginning on Patmos, which is an island off the coast near Ephesus. These particular letters introduce the terms, images, and concepts of the book and apply them to the 1st century experience of these churches (for example, see Jesus’ coming in judgment in 2:5, 14-16, 22-23, 3:3). These churches faced problems like persecution from its enemies, slander from the synagogues, and false teachers within who promoted idolatry and sexual immorality.

The “angel” of each church, to which these messages are addressed, does not seem to refer to a spiritual being. How would John send a letter to an angel? And what would be the purpose? “Angel” is used here according to its meaning of “messenger” and refers to the preacher, who would read this book to the church. As John writes in 1:3, "Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near."