The Book of Revelation is a book of hope and encouragement written to the seven churches in Asia Minor that were facing persecution and opposition for their loyalty and commitment to Jesus Christ as “Lord” rather than to the Caesars of Rome and their empire. The worship of the emperor and all its trappings put Christianity on a collision course with the Roman Empire. The book is a manifesto against civil religion and a summons to uncivil worship and witness, according to Michael Gorman in his excellent book, Reading Revelation Responsibly (p. 55).
The Apostle John is calling the early Christians to unlearn and abandon the false but often seductive gospel of empire and civil religion and to follow the truth of the Lamb’s gospel in faithful witness and obedience even if it means persecution and death. “Thus one of the main purposes of Revelation is to challenge sacrificial imperial power- and its seductive allure- with an alternative vision of power that will give believers comfort, assurance, hope, and especially courage to resist in accord with the paradigm of Jesus. This alternative vision of power is the power of the one true God and the slain Lamb, “Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Gorman, p. 55). It’s a magnificent piece of “resistance literature that reminds its readers that one of the prophetic purposes is to remind the church, both then and now, not to give in to the demands or practices of a system that is already judged by God and is about to come to its demise” (Gorman, p. 25). N. T. Wright tells us that “this book, in fact, offers one of the clearest and sharpest visions of God’s ultimate purpose for the whole creation, and of the way in which the powerful forces of evil, at work in a thousand ways but not least in idolatrous and tyrannous political systems, can be and are being overthrown through the victory of Jesus the Messiah and the consequent costly victory of His followers. The world we live in today is no less complex and dangerous than the world of the late first century when this book was written” (Revelation for Everyone, p. 11 of the introduction). But for John, everything that is to come flows from the central figure, Jesus himself, and ultimately from God the Father, “He who is, and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (1:18).
The book of Revelation is composed primarily of “apocalyptic” literature, a special type of literature that was very prevalent and popular in the period of time between the Old and New Testament and some two hundred years after the death of Christ. Most of Revelation was probably written during the reign of Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD). He insisted his subjects worship him as a god and address him as “Lord.” This put Rome and Christianity at odds, each claiming absolute allegiance, and could not exist side by side. Christ or Caesar must win the struggle. For faithful Christians, the choice was very clear! There is only one God who is Lord and He was revealed in Jesus Christ. The book of Revelation is a book of supreme hope for those who were faithful even in death to the testimony of Jesus Christ, who will reign in ultimate victory over evil and history. It is a message for the church in every age.
John uses “apocalyptic” literature so the truth of a seditious nature might be safely hidden under strange symbols. However, these symbols were understandable to the Christian readers but were unintelligible to the Roman authorities. Using symbolic language, John conveys a dramatic story of conflict in sovereignty between the sovereignty of God asserted in history through Jesus Christ and the pretended sovereignty of Satan asserted in history through the imperial Roman power. The conflict is resolved with the utter overthrow of Satan and the complete victory of God through His agent, Jesus Christ.
The great New Testament scholar, Dr. John R.W. Stott, sums up the conflict and struggle facing the New Testament church in these words: “John enables us to see the hidden forces at work. In Acts, human beings oppose and undermine the church; in the Revelation the curtain is lifted and we see the hostility of the devil himself, depicted as an enormous red dragon, aided and abetted by two grotesque monsters and a lewd prostitute. Revelation is a vision of the age-long battle between the Lamb and the dragon, Christ and Satan, Jerusalem the holy city and ‘Babylon’ the great city, the church, and the world” (The Message of Acts, p.89).
The book is composed of 404 verses that comprise 22 chapters, and the author draws heavily upon the Old Testament books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah, using a great deal of the symbolism used in the Hebrew scriptures. New Testament scholar Bruce M. Metzger points out that 278 verses contain one or more allusions to an Old Testament passage (Breaking the Code, p.18). Also, one must remember that the book is at least ninety-five percent concerned with the events of the first and second centuries.
John’s use of symbols may seem strange to us today. For example, the Roman Empire is symbolized as a beast like a leopard with feet like a bear and a mouth like a lion’s mouth. However, such strange beasts were often commonplace features in apocalyptic literature. So were colors such as pale, red, white, black, etc. as well as numbers such as 7 or 144,000, to represent completeness or 666 or 3 ½ to represent incompleteness, or not whole or pure, or 1,000 representing a very long time. We, too, make use of animals as symbols of nations and groups such as the British lion, the American eagle, the Russian bear, the Republican elephant or the Democratic donkey. According to Metzger, it is important, however, to recognize that the descriptions are descriptions of symbols, not of the reality conveyed by the symbols (p.19). Another such example can be found in chapters 12 and 13: the great “dragon” in chapter 12 verse 9 seeking to destroy the Christ child represents Satan. The beast arising out of the sea in chapter 13 verses 1–4 represents the Roman Empire, and the second beast rising out of the earth in chapter 13 verses 11–18 represents the cultic priests who enforced the emperor's worship. These three form a “counterfeit trinity” who oppose God, Christ, and the church.
Make no mistake, God and the Lamb are at center stage throughout the book! The dragon and the two beasts have their days numbered by the eternal God of all creation! One of the most important verses in the book is recorded in chapter 11, verse 15: “The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever.’” God and the Lamb are victorious over all opposing forces.
John warns his readers three times in chapter 22 with the words “Behold, I am coming soon.” While these words are words of warning, they are also words of hope and encouragement. God is still in control of history and the cosmos. He is the sovereign Lord whose eyes are always on His people and His great creation, giving assurance of His presence and their safety and all circumstances of life and death. He holds the keys to death as Lord and Creator. He is the Eternal One who lives and walks among His people, the Church, His body, in the world. Indeed, the Book of Revelation is a book of hope, of worship, and encouragement. “I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 21:6). The One who always was, who is, and is yet to come. This God is in control of the future. God is coming to make all that is wrong right, to bring His loving mission of grace in the world to its intended goal of salvation and judgment. The Creator of heaven and earth still has a future for His creation, as He is making all things new. The great drama He started with the human race in Genesis 1–2, He will finish in Revelation 21–22. That story launches with God creating the heavens and the earth and all things therein and climaxes with God creating a new heaven and a new earth. It started in a garden with two people sharing communication with God. It ends with a new city and a new creation in which people from every nation live in intimate fellowship with God and with each other. It will be a new city that teems with life and fruitfulness, and the curse is reversed (Revelation 22:3).
Let us remember His words, “Behold, I am coming soon!” and the old Moravian Creed: “Our Lamb has conquered; let us follow Him!” Amen!
Recommended Reading for Further Study:
Breaking the Code by Bruce M. Metzger (1993) —This is an excellent book written for lay readers.
Reading Revelation Responsibly by Michael J. Gorman (2011) —An excellent work on the Book of Revelation by an excellent New Testament scholar. Very readable.
Revelation for Everyone by N. T. Wright (2011) —An excellent commentary for lay readers.
Foretaste of the Future: Reading Revelation in Light of God’s Mission by Dean Flemming (2022) —An excellent book written from the perspective of God’s mission in the world as revealed in Jesus Christ, the slain Lamb.
Bio: Frank R. Harrison is a member of May’s Chapel OFWB Church, a graduate of the University of Mount Olive, Barton College, and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He served as chaplain of the University for 30 years before his retirement in 2002. He resides in Mount Olive, NC.