The Book of Revelation is one of the more dark and foreboding texts in the Biblical canon. It continues the ancient eschatology found in the works of Daniel and others, prophesying a dark vision of the future. In the same way that Daniel generally refers to the troubling times of Babylon and its treatment of ancient Judea, some have suggested that much of the colorful imagery in Revelation is in reference to the Roman Empire. The word for “revelation” in Koine Greek is apokalypsis. Tradition holds that the John who proclaims himself author of the text is the Apostle John.
The text opens with a little prologue that does two things: 1) announce the reputability of the vision given by Jesus Christ and God to John, and 2) twice proclaim the ‘nearness’ of the events prophesied in the text. It blesses those who read aloud the book.
The book is addressed to the “seven churches of Asia” (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea) from John who is residing on the island of Patmos in the Aegean. Modern scholarship tends to refer to the author as John Patmos, with many suggesting it unlikely that John the Apostle was the true author (perhaps the text was written around 95 AD). The text is a first hand account. While on Patmos, on the Lord’s Day, John heard a booming voice from behind him commanding him to write down everything he sees on a scroll so it can be sent to the seven churches. John turns to see seven lampstands with Jesus standing in front, emblazoned. He proclaims himself as the first and last, alpha and omega, the holder of the keys to death and “Hades.”
John receives a message for each of the churches, and then begins to receive all manner of obscure visions: creatures covered in eyes (4:6), a scroll with seven seals (5:1) which a lamb begins to open causing great chaos, but after the seventh seal is opened there is silence in heaven for about a a half hour (8:1), and at this time humanity and its leaders are scattered and killed by plagues and other cataclysms while angels blow trumpets. He sees all kinds of different signs: a pregnant woman giving birth, a woman and a dragon, a beast rising out of the sea with ten horns and seven heads (13:1-2). The beast is given authority over mankind. And then a second beast comes out of the earth, as well, whose number is “666” (13:18). The text foretells of the woe and downfall of Babylon (a nation that no longer was dominant at the time, but nevertheless played an important central theological role in Judaism and early Christianity as a metaphor for the great enemy, the worldly kingdom). An angel takes the dragon and Satan (the serpent) and locks them up for a thousand years. Then the dead in Hades are all judged, and this gives birth to a new heaven and a new earthly power, as well.
In Chapter 22, the angel tells John that these events are coming soon! The scroll of Revelation reads like a cryptic warning. It is a personal, first-hand account of ominous things to come. However, it is a beautifully compelling text at the same time. Like a horror film or a Greek tragedy, we are compelled by dark mysticism. Dante’s Inferno is by far the most intriguing text in his Divine Comedy, and descriptions of hell in John Milton are also equally fascinating, as is the description by Homer of Odysseus’s descent into Hades, as well as similar accounts of Theseus and Heracles in Hades and the narrative of The Aeneid which also descends into Hades.
With the ancient Greeks, prophecy was commonplace. People went to the oracles for a vision of things to come and prophecies are rife throughout Herodotus, and Socrates also offers a claim of Oracle of Delphi’s claim about his own life at his trial. Additionally, recall the fateful prophecy that came to Oedipus that he actively tried to avoid to no avail. However, John’s prophecy is written and detailed. In fact, he says he is writing the prophecy down on a scroll while the vision comes to him. The angel commands him to write it down. Thus, the divinity wishes for the vision to be documented, and spread to the church. We rely on John’s authority for the accuracy of the prophecy. However, the prophecy is also mysterious – it speaks to many different people about a horrible vision of things to come, and there is no way to avoid it. Thus, it encourages people to remain steadfast and assured in their faith, despite Roman persecution, since these events will necessarily unfold. As with much of early Christian-Jewish eschatology, the authors believed the events were to transpire very soon (as the angel indicates in the text). John’s Revelation is the key text of ancient apocalyptic literature.