There has been a great deal of discussion among Bible students concerning the date when this book was written by John the apostle. Some say it was written in the 60s during the reigns of Nero and Vespasian who were Caesars of Rome. Others affirm the traditional date of A.D. 95 or 96. This latter date is supported by most church writers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Consider also with this the fact that it is unlikely that the churches discussed in chapters 2 and 3 would have digressed so much in so little time if the book was written in the 60s. Compare Ephesians 1:15, which was written around A.D. 61, with the state of the church in Ephesus as described in Revelation 2:4. Their spiritual state as described in 2:4 does not seem to be the their spiritual condition as described in Ephesians 1:15. Compare also the lukewarmness of the church in Laodecea (3:15,16). This city was destroyed by an earthquake during Nero’s reign, but had been rebuilt and was prospering by the time John wrote (3:17). We must also consider the fact that it was the practice of Domitian to exile religious and political leaders. Tradition says that John was exiled to Patmos around the end of the 1st century. What John says in 1:9 seems to indicate that he was suffering from such an exile at the time he saw the visions.
In view of the content of the book, we would not rule out the early date. Some Bible students have affirmed that John saw the visions before A.D. 70 but recorded them after the event of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This date is held in conjunction with the view of some students that the beast and false prophet in Revelation refer to Judaism and not the Roman Empire. This is at least one view that should be considered. In the years preceding the consummation of national Israel in the destruction of Jerusalem, there was great turmoil throughout the Roman Empire in reference to the insurrection of the Jews. Even in the church there were those who were questioning the messiahship of Jesus, and thus were being recruited by zealot Jews who were working to inspire all Jews to rebel against the Roman domination and occupation of Palestine.
However, the extent and nature of the persecution that was launched against the church that is portrayed in the book seems to reach far beyond the persecution of the Jews against the early members of the church. The political and economic onslaught that the beast and false prophet launched against the church seems to be much greater than the Jewish persecution that was only regional and was always controlled by the laws of the Roman government. The Jewish persecution of the church was small in comparison to the persecution that was launched against the church by the Roman Empire.
In chapters 13 and 17 John seems to speak of kings and kingdoms as a chronology in order to identify the date of writing. If reference in the context of these two chapters is to the Caesars of Rome, then the one who was in power at the time of writing was Vespasian who was Caesar from A.D. 69 to A.D. 79. Therefore, it would have been during the early part of his reign that Revelation was written. In view of the turmoil that prevailed throughout the Empire during Rome’s destruction of the Jewish State that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, it could be concluded that the letter was written in A.D. 69 or 70.
Regardless of the date of writing and the persecutors of the church to who John refers, references to the characters and symbols in the book cannot refer to the end of time. Whether reference was to Jewish persecution or Roman persecution, the textual content of the book does not refer to the end of time. John was writing to those immediate recipients who were enduring persecution, or headed for persecution in their lifetime.
The theme of Revelation is expressed in 17:14. Throughout the revelation, John portrays the victorious Christ over all evil power (1:18; 2:8; 5:9,10; 6:2; 11:15; 12:9-12; 14:1,14; 15:2-4; 19:16; 20:4; 22:3). Christ is pictured as leading the church into victory over Satan and all obstacles that Satan can place in the way of Christian faithfulness (17:14). It is the theme of Jesus throughout the visions to reassure the persecuted saints that they have a greater future than the hostile environment in which they were persecuted. There was a reward for those who endured (2:10). This hope in the reward that was yet to come gave them strength and encouragement to overcome the onslaught of persecution into which they had gone and were going. The message of the book is the victory of the saints over the evils of this world.
The general scope of Revelation is that God brings down judgment on those who would persecute His people, even though He has used pagan nations to discipline His people. Through the proxy of the Assyrian Empire God brought judgment on the northern kingdom of Israel in 722/21 B.C. However, Isaiah said that God would bring judgment on the Assyrian Empire. Through the proxy of the Babylonian Empire God brought judgment on the southern kingdom of Israel in 586 B.C. However, God brought judgment on the Babylonians, and subsequently, brought the Babylonian Empire to a close. Through the proxy of the Roman Empire God brought judgment on national Israel who had rejected Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. However, God eventually brought down the Roman Empire in 476 B.C. with the fall of Rome. The recipients of the book of Revelation were living in a time when God was bringing national Israel to a close, which close happened in A.D. 70 with the fall of Jerusalem. Though God was using the Roman Empire to bring national Israel to a close, he wanted to reassure his readers that as God had brought down judgment on the Assyrians and Babylonians, He would also bring down judgment on the Roman Empire.
John knew the persecution that the church endured in its early beginnings. It was a persecution led by a Jewish leadership who saw the early growth of Christianity as a threat against Judaism wherever it went. However, John saw a greater persecution that was coming in the near future. It would be the persecution of Imperial Rome in her efforts to crush those who would not submit to the tyranny of the Caesars who presumed themselves to be deity. Those Caesars who presumed to be deity imposed their self-deification on the populous of the Empire. Therefore, John sees 175 years of persecution that would begin in the near future, but would eventually come to an end when God would eventually bring judgment upon the Roman Empire. John’s purpose for writing, therefore, was to encourage the disciples in order that they endure the onslaught of Rome’s persecution until God brought down judgment on the Empire (15:2; 17:14). John’s final encouragement was in the fact that God would bring the whole world to a conclusion.
This inspired letter of the New Testament is apocalyptic in style and presentation of its message. Apocalyptic literature was written in times of suffering and persecution by the Jews. The message of the writer was composed in apocalyptic writing in order to conceal the real message from the enemies of the truth. At the same time, the message of the literature was revealed to the faithful recipients. The general purpose of apocalyptic literature was to encourage the recipients to believe that they would be victorious over their enemies because God was working on their behalf.
The message of apocalyptic literature is presented in a figurative manner with the use of many metaphors (See 1:1). Students should be cautious not to literalize the figures lest they miss the message of the writer. The writers of apocalyptic literature often used cryptic symbols. These are figures of speech that are often very graphic and terrifying. John uses many cryptic symbols in this document in order to either produce shock or emphasis concerning the message he is conveying.
Because Revelation was written in figurative language, our approach to the interpretation of the book must be different than our interpretation of non-apocalyptic literature. Our approach to non-apocalyptic literature is to first understand the text in a literal manner unless there are contextual reasons to understand the text in a figurative manner. However, in apocalyptic literature the reverse is true. We must first understand the text in a figurative manner unless there is contextual justification to understand the text in a literal manner. Many interpreters of Revelation misunderstand the message of John because they fail to follow this simple method of biblical hermeneutics when studying this particular book. John knew this. Therefore, he introduces the book with three notes of caution to those who would take the message of the visions out of their historical context or twist them to fit preconceived ideas.
- He first alerts all readers concerning his style of writing in the very first verse of the book. The message of the book was “sent and signified” to the churches (1:1). The message of the revelation, therefore, is set forth and signified in figurative language.
- John then takes the precaution of identifying the time when the judgments of the book would take place. They would shortly come to pass (1:1; 22:6). The fulfillments of the judgments would take place in the time of the first recipients of the letter.
- Finally, John warns those who would add to or subtract from the message he writes (22:18,19).
It would be the tendency of those who came later in history to seek to apply the message of Revelation directly to their own circumstances. In a spiritual sense, the message of Revelation certainly applies to the church at any time in history. However, the actual events of the letter were written with direct application to the first readers of the message. All readers after the 1st century Christians are secondary recipients of the message. Therefore, we can apply the message of the letter to ourselves only in the sense that the message offers encouragement to the church by seeing how God has worked to deliver His saints. All truth in the message applies to the church in any age. However, the historical content of the book refers to the early Christians who endured these sufferings.
By the time John wrote this letter to the seven churches of Asia, all truth had already been delivered to the church through the apostles (Jn 14:26; 16:13; Jd 3). Therefore, there is no more revelation of fundamental truth in this letter that is not found in other epistles of the New Testament.
God does not reveal fundamental truth through apocalyptic language. The reason for this is obvious. If He did reveal fundamental truth through language that was subject to the interpretation of men, then we could never come to an agreement on what was fundamental for salvation. Therefore, interpreters who go to this book as their primary source for establishing doctrinal beliefs should be cautioned concerning this point in their deductions from the book. The biblical interpreter must understand that God never revealed that which was essential to believe in order to be saved in a manner that was difficult to understand. Though fundamental teachings can be embedded in figurative language, the teachings themselves must be clearly revealed in other texts. In fact, understanding figurative language depends on the revelation of fundamental teachings that are clearly revealed in other books of the Bible. When we come to a book of apocalyptic symbols as Revelation, our understanding of the book must to be based on our understanding of clearly interpreted concepts from other inspired books.