Welcome to a study of Revelation. You will find outlines, web
links, Bible texts, and interpretation. Probably no book in the Bible has
been more written about, this in spite of, or perhaps due to, John's warning
22.18 I warn everyone who
hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will
add to that person the plagues described in this book; 19 if anyone takes away
from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s
share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this
The intent of this study will be
to discover what the words are--not to add to them or to take away, but to hear
and understand them more clearly. To that end, the reader is provided a KJV
text; I will be quoting throughout from the NRSV.
In beginning a study of Revelation,
I find myself agreeing completely with five principles laid out by the Oxford
Companion to the Bible (underlining is mine):
Through the centuries the
Apocalypse has been the object of widely divergent systems of interpretation.
It can be best understood when one takes into account the following
considerations. (1) This book comprises the substance of real visions that
repeat with kaleidoscopic variety certain great principles of God’s just and
merciful government of the whole creation. By centering attention on these
principles, the church in all ages has been encouraged and sustained despite
the fiercest antagonisms of both human and demonic foes. (2) The book is
written in apocalyptic style, a recognized literary genre (see "Introduction
to the Apocalyptic Literature"). It contains
other elements as well, such as the seven letters in Revelation
2 and Revelation 3
and the several prophetic utterances scattered here and there throughout its
pages, but its difficulty will be found to arise largely from our
unfamiliarity with apocalyptic writings. (3) As an apocalypse, the message of
the book is couched in symbolism, involving numbers, strange beasts, and other
typical apocalyptic features. Throughout one must recognize that the author’s
descriptions are descriptions of the symbols, not of the reality conveyed by
the symbol. (4) Although the key for understanding some of the symbols has
been lost, in other cases a comparison with the prophetic symbolism of the Old
Testament sheds light on the intended meaning. This is understandable in view
of the author’s frequent allusion to the Greek Septuagint translation of the
Hebrew Scriptures; of the 404 verses in Revelation, some 275 include one or
more allusions to passages in the Old Testament. (5) The structure of the book
involves a series of parallel and yet ever-progressing sections; these bring
before the reader, over and over again, but in climacteric form, the struggle
of the church, and its victory over the world in the providence of God
Almighty. There are probably seven of these sections, though only five are
clearly marked. The plan of the whole is, then, something like the following:
Prologue; Revelation 1.1–8;
seven parallel sections divided at Revelation
3.22; Revelation 8.1;
Revelation 11.19; Revelation
16.21; and Revelation
19.21; Epilogue, Revelation
One of the problems found
in approaching Revelation is the same problem frequently encountered with
the Gospel of John; the book obviously addresses that which is spiritual
and earthly: Revelation specifically addresses the end or consummation
of time: if, however, the time being addressed is God's time, then one
misunderstands completely when placing all events in human time. The
problem becomes even more complex: in addition to literal time and eternal time,
Revelation, also, obviously addresses a historical time--the first
century. Generally, it is agreed that "Although
parts of the book (e.g. Revelation 11)
may have been reduced to writing before the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70, it is
probable that the author, whose name is John (Revelation
1.1; Revelation 1.4;
Revelation 1.9; Revelation
22.8), put the book in its present form toward the
close of the reign of the Emperor Domitian (a.d. 81 - 96)" (OCB).
Concerning comparisons with the
Gospel of John, the Catholic Encyclopedia points to the following source
(underlining is mine):
THE APOCALYPSE COMPARED WITH THE FOURTH GOSPEL
The relation between the Apocalypse and the Fourth Gospel has been discussed by authors, bothancient and modern. Some affirm and others deny their mutual resemblance. The learnedAlexandrine Bishop, Dionysius, drew up in his time a list of differences to which modern authors
have had little to add. He begins by observing that whereas the Gospel is anonymous, the writer of
the Apocalypse prefixes his name, John. He next points out how the
characteristic terminology of
the Fourth Gospel, so essential to the Joannine doctrine, is absent in the
Apocalypse. The terms, "life", "light", "grace", "truth", do not occur in the latter. Nor did the crudeness of diction on the part
of the Apocalypse escape him. The Greek of the Gospel he pronounces correct as to grammar,
and he even gives its author credit for a certain elegance of style. But the language of the
Apocalypse appeared to him barbarous and disfigured by solecisms. He, therefore inclines to
ascribe the works to different authors (Hist. Eccl., VII, 25). The upholders of a common authorship
reply that these differences may be accounted for by bearing in mind the peculiar nature and aim of
each work. The Apocalypse contains visions and revelations. In conformity with other books of the
same kind, e.g. the Book of Daniel, the Seer prefixed his name to his work. The Gospel on the
other hand is written in the form of an historical record. In the Bible, works of that kind do not bear
the signature of their authors. So also as regards the absence of Joannine terminology in the
Apocalypse. The object of the Gospel is to prove that Jesus is the life and the light of the world, the
fullness of truth and grace. But in the Apocalypse Jesus is the conqueror of Satan and his kingdom.
The defects of grammar in the Apocalypse are conceded. Some of them are quite obvious. Let the
reader but notice the habit of the author to add an apposition in the nominative to a word in an
oblique case; e.g. iii, 12; xiv, 12; xx, 2. It further contains some Hebrew idioms: e.g. the Hebrew
word equivalent to erchomenos, "the one that is to come", instead of
esomenos, i, 8. But it should be borne in mind that when the Apostle first came to Ephesus he was, probably wholly ignorant of
the Greek tongue. The comparative purity and smoothness of diction in the Gospel may be
adequately accounted for by the plausible conjecture that its literary composition was not the work
of St. John but of one of his pupils. The defenders of the identity of authorship further appeal to the
striking fact that in both works Jesus is called the Lamb and the
Word. The idea of the lamb
making atonement for sin by its blood is taken from Isaias, liii. Throughout the Apocalypse the
portraiture of Jesus is that of the lamb. Through the shedding of its blood it has opened the book
with seven seals and has triumphed over Satan. In the Gospel Jesus is pointed out by the Baptist as
the "Lamb of God . . . him who taketh away the sin of the world" (John,
i, 29). Some of the
circumstances of His death resemble the rite observed in the eating of the paschal lamb, the symbol
of redemption. His crucifixion takes place on the selfsame day on which the Passover was eaten
(John xviii, 28). Whilst hanging on the cross. His executioners did not break the bones in His body,
that the prophecy might be fulfilled: "no bone in it shall be broken" (John,
xix, 36). The name Logos, "Word", is quite peculiar to the Apocalypse, Gospel and first
Epistle of St. John. The first sentence of the Gospel is, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the
Word was God". The first epistle of St. John begins, "That which was from the beginning which we
have heard . . . of the word of life". So also in the Apocalypse, "And his name is called the Word of
God" (xix, 13).
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I
Copyright © 1907 by Robert Appleton Company
Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight
Nihil Obstat, March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor
Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York
Bart D. Ehrman (The New Testament: A Historical
Interpretation of the Early Christian Writers, Oxford 1997) in discussing
the author for Revelation also makes a comparison between the Gospel
of John and Revelation:
1. "One of the ironies of the New Testament is that the
Fourth Gospel, which does not claim to be written by someone named John, is
called John, whereas the book of Revelation, which does claim to be written by
someone named John, is not called by that name."
2. Theological emphases are different: "In the Gospel of
John there is virtually no concern for the coming end of age (contrast the
Synoptics, with their proclamation of the imminent arrival of the Son of Man);
in the book of Revelation, the end is nearly the entire concern."
3. Writing styles are different: "the author of Revelation
was principally literate in a Semitic language, probably Aramaic, and knew
Greek, as a second language. His Greek is clumsy in places, sometimes even
ungrammatical. This is not at all the case with the Gospel of John, which
is written in an entirely different style and therefore by a different
4. When the author of Revelation, mentions the Apostles,
he does not mention being one of them (21.14), and when he talks about the
twenty-four elders around the throne of God, we have no indication he sees
5. The Beast of Babylon is said to have seven horns on its
head, representing seven rulers, but with which ruler should we begin
Another problem is, of course,
the nature of apocalypse; as apocalypse, the language is couched in imagery,
myth, and symbolism. Revelation repeats themes and motifs; the book
as a whole suggests eponymous meanings or literary representations. The writer
examines the relationship between God and humankind; he writes, characteristic
of the Hebrew-Christian Bible, a morality story in which readers learn about
every mortal's wrestling with destiny and place within it. One reads about seven
churches which will come to represent churches generally. The Old Jerusalem to
New Jerusalem tells the story of how human beings understand and accept all
history as being contained in the creation, if they are pious individuals. As
individuals await closure in their historical worlds, they wrestle with their
own ambitions and pride, created after all in the image of an autonomous
God. Like God, they can choose what they want to call good. What humans
call good and what God pronounces good will often conflict. Human will seeks to
exert itself apart from Divine will; in temporal time, cycles of obedience,
disobedience, punishment, destruction, and new creations and beginnings spend
themselves out in the face of an absolute beginning and end. An autonomous
Creator judges creation justly, delaying absolute ends, acting steadfastly in
mercy. This point is illustrated in Revelation by the half hour delay
after the opening of the seventh seal. Such cosmic pauses, almost as if
the Creator is thinking about action, occur from Genesis to Revelation.
Could it be God made a mistake on the sixth day in creating male and female
in His own image? These limited and finite beings wrestle to understand
themselves and God but become frustrated by tensions between their experiences
of change and transformation against the backdrop of the lasting and permanent,
the eternal. Only metaphor can connect these two worlds.
Apocalypse, as a specific literary genre, shares the
following literary features (Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical
Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Oxford 1997): pseudonymity
(written in the name of a famous person of the past), bizarre symbolic visions
(grotesque beasts, bizarre images, strange faces, mysterious events), violent
repetitions (spiral effect so that life and suffering go on even when climactic
end seems to have been reached), triumphalist movement (provides hope for the
suffering and despairing), and a motivational function (exhorts readers to
remain faithful to their religious convictions).
D.S. Russell in the Oxford
Companion describes the literary features of apocalypse:
Literary Features. The
apocalypse is recognized by many scholars as a distinct literary genre
expressing itself, as we have seen, in terms of divine disclosure,
transcendent reality, and final redemption. As such, it shares with other
related apocalyptic books certain literary features that are worthy of note:
Revelation through visionary
experience. This is a
stock-in-trade of these writings, though visions may be replaced by dreams,
trances, auditions, and visual/physical transference to the ends of the earth
or to heaven itself. The ancient seer (in whose name the author writes) is
confronted with the heavenly mysteries, either directly or as mediated by an
angel, and is bidden to record what he has seen and heard.
In so doing, the writer often
makes use of two literary devices that, though not confined to the apocalyptic
writings, are a common feature. The first is that of secret books, in which
the seer is bidden to conceal these mysteries until the end time, when he will
reveal them to the wise as a sign that the end is now at hand. The second is
that of pseudonymity, whereby the author writes in the name of some honored
person of antiquity, such as Adam, Enoch, Abraham, Moses, or Ezra. The
intention is not to deceive but rather to strengthen the conviction that the
apocalyptist is transmitting a long and authoritative tradition. The same
device is followed in Christian apocalypses, such as those of Peter and Paul,
but not in the book of Revelation, where it is enough that the writer should
declare in his own name the revelations he himself has received directly from
his risen Lord.
Symbolism, it has been said, is the language of the apocalyptic style of
writing, a code language rich in imagery culled both from biblical and from
Canaanite and Babylonian traditions. Generally speaking, the code is fairly
easily recognizable: wild beasts represent the gentile nations, animal horns
are gentile rulers, people are angels, and so on. Elsewhere it is less easily
broken, particularly where vestiges of early myths have no obvious relation to
the content of the book itself.
Tracts for the times.
The apocalyptic books, particularly those "historical" apocalypses
of Palestinian origin, were in many cases the product of their age and its
political and economic climate. As tracts for the times, they were written to
encourage those who were oppressed and saw little or no hope in terms of
either politics or armed might. Their message was that God himself would
intervene and reverse the situation in which they found themselves, delivering
the godly from the hands of the wicked and establishing his rule for all to
see. Sometimes such encouragement is given in the form of discourse in which
the revelation of God’s sovereignty is disclosed; at other times, as in the
book of Daniel, it takes the form of a story or legend concerning the ancient
worthy in whose name the book is written.
Such features are not peculiar
to the apocalyptic books, but their form of presentation, together with their
recurring theme of revealed secrets and divine intervention, indicates an
identifiable and distinct body of literature within Judaism that, though
sharing the ideals of prophecy, is nevertheless markedly different from it.
Russell also says the following
themes are common to apocalypse:
The whole of history is a unity under the overarching purpose of God. It is
divided, however, into great epochs that must run their predetermined
course; only then will the end come, and with it the dawning of the
messianic kingdom and the age to come when evil will be routed and
righteousness established forever...
The coming end will be "a time of anguish, such as has never occurred
since nations first came into existence" (Daniel
12.1). Sometimes this is described
in terms of political action and military struggle; at other times the
conflict assumes cosmic proportions involving mysterious happenings on earth
and in the heavens—earthquakes, famine, fearful celestial portents, and
destruction by fire. Such things find an echo in the New Testament, where it
is said that in the last days there will be an eclipse of the sun, and the
stars will fall from heaven (Mark
The coming kingdom is, generally speaking, to be established here on this
earth; in some instances it has a temporary duration, and is followed by the
age to come for, as 2 Esdras puts it, "The Most High has made not one
world but two" (2 Esdras 7.50).
In this new divine order, the end will be as the beginning and paradise will
be restored. "Dualism" is sometimes used to describe the
discontinuity between this age and the age to come, but continuity remains:
generally speaking, this earth (albeit renewed or restored) is the scene of
distinguishes prophecy and apocalypse:
related prophecy and apocalyptic may be, they are to be distinguished from
each other in at least two respects: whereas the prophets for the most part
declare God’s word to his or her own generation, the apocalyptists record
revelations said to have been made known by God to some great hero in
earlier times and now to be revealed in a "secret" book at the end
of the days; and whereas the prophets see the realization of God’s purpose
within the historical process, the apocalyptists see that purpose reaching
its culmination not just within history but above and beyond history in that
supramundane realm where God dwells.
points in mind, one also should not read more into apocalypse than what is
there; interpretations of Revelation tend to become fantastic.
The careful reader will determine, though, that Revelation generally
interprets itself; this includes simple explanation of symbols (for example,
the angels and lamp stands (1.20). Themes progress to interpret each
other: (4.8 " I have set before you an open door." 4.20 "I am
standing at the door knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will
come into you and eat with you and you with me." 4.1 "I looked and
there in heaven a door stood open." Numbers tend to represent
completeness, fullness, and limitation (seven angels, seven lamp stands, four
angels at the four corners of the earth, 144, 000 equals twelve (the number of
disciples and apostles) times twelve plus zeroes; even colors suggest a
natural use: red for war and violence (blood); white for righteous and pure;
black for death; green for famine. Probably, the temptation to elaborate and
fantastic interpretation result from apocalyptists seeing God's purpose reaching
culmination not just within history "but above and beyond history in that
supramundane realm where God dwells." The reader does well to
return to the Gospel of John and rehearse the difficulties inherent
within two realms: the earthly and heavenly, the temporal and eternal, the
finite and infinite. In the biblical morality story, a cosmic irony is created
as human beings understand and accept their fates or rebel against their
Creator and time.
Just provides the following definitions of apocalypse:
Apocalypse: Definitions and Related Terms
Prof. Felix Just, S.J. - Loyola Marymount University
Preliminary Description of "Apocalypse":
In popular terminology today, an "apocalypse" is a catastrophic event (e.g., nuclear holocaust).
In biblical terminology, an "apocalypse" is not an event, but a "revelation" that is recorded in written form:
it is a piece of crisis literature that “reveals” truths about the past, present, and/or future in highly symbolic terms;
the revelation often comes in dreams or visions, and usually needs to be interpreted with the help of an angel; it is usually intended to provide hope and encouragement for people in the midst of severe trials and tribulations.
Caution: "The Apocalypse" is an alternate name (used esp. by Protestants) for "The Book of Revelation" in the New Testament. Also, "The Little Apocalypse" or "The Apocalyptic Discourse" are names sometimes given to Mark 13 (and the parallel passages in Matt 24 and Luke
21), containing the teachings of Jesus about the future of Jerusalem and the end of the world.
Scholarly Definition of "Apocalypse" (from SBL "Apocalypse Group"; published in J. J. Collins, Semeia 14  9):
" ‘Apocalypse’ is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework,
in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient,
disclosing a transcendent reality with is
both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation,
and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world."
Definition addition regarding the genre’s purpose, incorporating suggestions of Hellholm (1982) & Aune (1986):
"…intended to interpret the present, earthly circumstances in light of the supernatural world and of the future,
and to influence both the understanding and the behavior of the audience by means of divine authority."
Subdivisions or Types of Apocalypses:
Apocalypses can be classified according to features in their CONTENT:
Some apocalypses contain "Otherworldly Journeys" (e.g., the seer is purportedly taken on a tour of heaven)
Others do not contain "Otherworldly Journeys" (e.g., while seeing heavenly things, the seer stays on earth)
Apocalypses can also be classified according to their primary REFERENTS:
Some apocalypses deal with Personal Eschatology (the death and after-life of individuals)
Others focus more on Ethnic or National Eschatology (the end of a nation or empire)
Many others contain Cosmic Eschatology (the ultimate end of the whole world)
Apocalyptic (adj.) - originally referred to anything “revelatory”; now usually refers to catastrophic violence or disasters.
Apocalypticism - a world view with strong apocalyptic expectations; social movements that expect the end of the world.
Eschatology / Eschatological - any teaching about the “end” times and/or the future world beyond the end of normal time.
Prophecy / Prophetic - not “foretelling the future”; but speaking & acting on behalf of God about past, present or future truths.
Revelation - an “uncovering” of something which has always been true, but previously hidden or unknown to humans.
Day of the Lord / Judgment Day - a cosmic event expected in the future, but the specific expectations vary.
Parousia - the “coming” or “arrival” of any important figure, esp. of Jesus at the end of time, in early Christian expectations.
Rapture - a fairly new term for the expectation that faithful Christians will be taken off the earth to live with Jesus, while all other people are not; based on an
overly literal misinterpretation of 1Thess 4:15-17.
Tribulation - in fundamentalist expectations, a 7-year period of great suffering and turmoil before the Second Coming of Christ; but exactly when the rapture
is to occur in relation to the tribulation is disputed among such believers:
Pre-Tribulation Rapture - non-believers have to endure the 7-year tribulation, but believers are raptured first;
Mid-Tribulation Rapture - believers must endure 3½ years of tribulation before they are raptured;
Post-Tribulation Rapture - believers must endure the entire 7-year tribulation before they are raptured.
Dispensationalism - the belief that world history is divided into a certain number of eras or "dispensations," which usually also implies the belief that one is
living in the last (or next-to-last) dispensation before the end of the world and/or the beginning of God's Kingdom.
Armageddon / Harmagedon - the place (Megiddo) where the final battle is to occur, according to Rev 16:16.
Millennium - any one-thousand year period; or more specifically, the thousand year period of peace described in Rev 20:1-6.
Millennialist / -ism - religious groups that expect Rev 20 to occur literally, and often try to calculate exact times.
Millenarian / -ianism - religious or secular groups that look forward to or prepare for the end of the world
Premillennialism / Premillenariaism - belief that the 1000-year reign of peace will come only after the great tribulation and the return of Jesus, so one
must be prepared to endure the worst; also called "Catastrophic Millennialism."
Postmillennialism / Postmillenariaism - belief that the 1000-year reign of peace must be established on earth by human beings and societies, and that
Jesus will return only at the end of that time; also called "Progressive Millennialism."
not every Apocalypse is purely eschatological (they may also interpret past or present events, not only the future)
not all Eschatology is apocalyptic (some look forward to a future that is peaceful, not violent).
In The Bible as
Literature: An Introduction,4th edition (Oxford 2000) Gabel, Wheeler and
York urge readers "to think of Revelation as a piece of literature in
which religious and mythic materials are shaped in the form of a conventional
apocalypse, for the conventional apocalyptic purpose of providing comfort to
the suffering faithful" and suggest that in doing so, they will discover
"much of the mysteriousness of the book" has been cut through but
add "Not all of the mysteriousness, of course, for symbol and myth by
their very nature cannot have firm walls set about them to confine their
walls, however, is exactly what human beings often decide to do, not realizing
those walls can be only as expansive as limited, finite vision.
This must be why in the Old Testament and in the New, apocalyptic
vision cycles through layers of endings and new beginnings; for in history,
one will continue to find the Present Age and the Age to Come; to make sense
of the cycle, one must move outside history to find the eternally
static. Within history, one can look back only to the last cycle and to
enmeshment in the present one. That it will come to end is the faith
expressed in both Testaments, for God is firmly in control of history
and eternal purpose. It should also not be surprising to find the New
Testament accomplishing what had been prophesied and discovered as a
pattern in the Old Testament: God would do for Christians what God had
accomplished for the Hebrew. Only as one embraces both the mythic
beginning in Eden and the utopian New Jerusalem in Revelation can one
step outside historical bounds and address the end of the Present Age
and the beginning of the Age to Come, eternally. To get there, the Hebrew were
guided by the Torah and Christians by the cross.
Another problem in
approaching Revelation as apocalypse is that the reader should keep in
mind that apocalypse led to bitter disappointment for Jews; "Judaism
turned away from the apocalyptic fashion of thought and concentrated instead
on working out the contemporary significance of the ancient law" (Gabel,
Wheeler, and York, 159); "But the same was not true of first-century
Christians...[who found] its promises on the verge of fulfillment."
To accomplish this, they admitted God's power had not yet been openly and
fully displayed but that a first coming had occurred to be followed by
a second coming which would end the Present Age and inaugurate the
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