Background to John’s Revelation


The author of the book of Revelation simply identifies himself as “John”. However, he is universally recognised as the apostle John because the stamp of his personality and position runs the full length of the prophecy. Only a recognised apostle could have written to the seven Asian churches with such authority, and the book is addressed to seven of the churches that were known to be under John’s apostolic covering. Revelation also uses many expressions such as Lamb, Word and Witness that are common only to John’s Gospel. In addition, John was a personal friend of the High Priest’s family (Jn 18:15-16) and as such could have obtained intimate knowledge of the workings of the priesthood and the temple. The internal evidence of Revelation suggests that the author had substantial knowledge of all the priestly functions and temple practices.


Scholars give two possible dates for the writing of the book of Revelation (H.B. Swete, “Commentary on Revelation” (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, (1911) 1977), p.xcix). These periods are 65-68AD and 95-97 AD. Acceptance of either date over the other leads to very different conclusions about the purpose and intent of the prophecy. If Revelation was written during 65-68AD, it is almost certain John was warning the early Church to get ready for the Jewish Wars that were about to take place and which dispersed the Jewish people for 1800 years. If the book was not written until 95-97AD, the destruction of Israel is irrelevant to the book and it is almost certainly focused on events that were to occur in the very distant future.

The argument for the latter date is based on a statement by an early church leader named Irenaeus (120-202AD), who suggested the book was written “toward the end of Domitian’s reign” (St Irenaeus, “Against Heresies”, quoted by Eusebius in his “Ecclesiastical History”, iii.xviii.2-3,  v.viii.6). The majority of today’s theologians hold to the ‘late date’ argument. However, the argument is primarily based on one single piece of evidence. Irenaeus’ statement was made about 100 years after the events he was writing about, and all other late date sources quote from his one statement. 

The 65-68AD argument is based on several pieces of internal Biblical evidence from both the Old and New Testaments. Firstly, the book of Revelation itself opens by telling all who were about to read the document that it concerns events that must shortly take place (Rev 1:1). The original readers were also told, as concerns the book, to heed the things which are written in it, for the time is near (Rev 1:3). Clearly the events prophesied in the book had immediate relevance to the original readers. Secondly, the theme of the book is strongly connected with the destruction of Jerusalem (Rev 11:2, 8, 17:18, 18:9, 19-20), an event that took place in 70AD. Thirdly, John speaks of Nero Caesar as still on the throne (Rev 17:9-10), Nero died in June68AD. Finally, Daniel speaks of the future restoration of Jerusalem, the coming of the Messiah, the sealing up of prophecy and vision, and the destruction of Jerusalem, along with its temple (Da 9:24-27). Daniel tells us that all prophecy will be sealed before the destruction of Jerusalem, and we know from history that Jerusalem was destroyed in 70AD. 

Because of the book’s internal consistency with the earlier date, this commentary will be based on the 65-68AD argument.


The book of Revelation was intended to be distributed to, and read in, the seven churches of the seven major cities of Asia Minor, a part of modern-day Turkey. Archaeology provides the key to why the book was addressed to these churches.

Since the time of Augustus, the Caesars had been claiming divinity and the absolute right to be worshipped. Augustus himself claimed the title “son of God” (Ethelbert Stauffer, “Christ and the Caesars” (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955, p.88), his coins arrogantly pronounced that he was Lord, that salvation was to be found in none other than himself, and that there was no other name given to men by which they could be saved! Asia Minor was the centre of the cult of Caesar worship outside Rome. With the first major persecution of the infant church under Nero just a few years away, it was vital that those churches that were to be hardest hit knew who was in ultimate control. Therefore, we find throughout the book a titanic battle for sovereign authority between the Dragon (Satan), the sea Beast (Rome), the Harlot/Babylon/land Beast (apostate Israel), and the Lamb/Lion (Christ). John wrote to remind the seven Asian churches that Christ was no provincial deity but the Ruler of the kings of the earth (Rev 1:5), and that the kingdom of the world had become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ (Rev 11:15). It must have been a very comforting book to those believers who read it, but a treasonable political document to any loyal Roman.


The Bible is a book about covenants. A covenant was a legally binding contract designed by God to regulate His relationship with His people and their relationship with Him. The Biblical Covenants were absolutely foundational to all that transpired in the Old Testament. Without a working understanding of the Covenants, the meaning of Biblical history, law, prophecy and worship is lost and the Old Testament disintegrates into mystery or a bunch of semi-related moral stories. 

In the ancient Middle East, covenants were the usual means by which kings related to their subjects. A covenant was the ancient equivalent of a peace treaty or a political/social code of practice. All ancient covenants followed a well understood pattern that involved five distinct parts (Ray R Sutton, “That You May Prosper: Dominion by Covenant” (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987). This five-part covenant structure appears at many places in both the Old and New Testaments, and the early readers would have easily spotted it and noted its importance. The books of Deuteronomy, Hosea and Revelation are structured on this pattern, as are the Adamic, Noahic, Mosaic and New Covenants. An outline of the covenant structure is shown below.


Many of the royal decrees that were issued by the kings of ancient Middle Eastern empires strictly followed the covenant/contract structure listed below:


  1. Preamble: The king identifies himself and reminds his subjects of his greatness and power.
  1. Historical Prologue: The king surveys his previous relationship with his subjects, emphasising the blessings he has given and the loyalty or disloyalty shown by his people in response.
  1. Ethical Stipulations: The king explains the people’s obligations to him. He explains the “do’s” and “don’ts” of the covenant treaty.
  1. Sanctions: He then explains the blessings and curses that would follow upon obedience or disobedience to the ethical stipulations.
  1. Succession Arrangements: Finally, the king explains how the covenant will continue into future generations.


  1. Preamble: Vision of the Son of Man (Ch 1)
  1. Historical Prologue: The Seven Letters (Ch 2-3)
  1. Ethical Stipulations: The Seven Seals (Ch 4-7)
  1. Sanctions: The Seven Trumpets (Ch 8-14)
  1. Succession Arrangements: The Seven golden bowls (Ch 15-22)

As is the case in other parts of the Bible, the covenant in Revelation is pictured as a marriage between God and His people. However, unique to this book is a cosmic divorce. God’s first wife, Israel, has become a harlot and the mother of prostitutes (Eze 16, 23). The covenant sanctions are brought down upon her head in Chapter 18. In Chapter 19, God takes a new bride and a new covenant is begun. The church is that bride.


The role of a prophet in scripture is not well understood. A priest represented men before God. A prophet represented God before men. Because God always relates to man in terms of a covenant, He uses the ministry of the prophet to initiate and enforce His covenants. When Israel strayed from its covenants, which it frequently did, the prophet became God’s prosecuting lawyer, bringing a covenant lawsuit against the offending party. Warnings were given concerning specific future judgments should the nation not turn toward obedience. The emphasis was always on ethics and obedience, predicting the future was only a means to that end. Jeremiah 18:7-10 explains God’s attitude well. It is an attitude Jonah did not fully understand (Jn 3-4). 

Revelation was a covenant lawsuit against Israel. However, this time the judgments foretold were irrevocable. As Jesus made abundantly clear in Matthew 22-24, Israel had used up all of God’s grace. The axe was at the root (Mt 3:10) and Revelation was a full explanation as to how the tree would fall.


Our understanding of Revelation is further enhanced by a quick look at the relationship between it and the book of Ezekiel. There are over 100 allusions to the book of Ezekiel within Revelation (Ferrel Jenkins, “The Old Testament in the Book of Revelation”, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, (1972) pp54ff). A few of the more obvious parallels are the throne vision, the eating of the book, the four plagues, saints slain under the alter, the seal on the forehead, measuring the temple, the cup of wrath, the great harlot, Gog and Magog, the first resurrection, the new Jerusalem, the river of life and the scavenger’s feast. Both books follow each other almost step for step through these parallel images. The first half of each book leads up to the destruction of earthly Jerusalem, while the second half of each book inaugurates the new Jerusalem/new earth/new creation. Revelation is the closest thing to an Old Testament book in the New Testament.

The reason for the close parallel is not really clear to 20th-century Christians, but the early church, being mainly Jewish, probably picked up the reason without too much difficulty. The books of the Old Testament were read as weekly readings in the synagogues of Israel. We find Jesus being asked to do one of the readings one Sabbath in Luke, chapter 4. The book of Revelation was structured to be read in the same way as the book of Ezekiel. God was letting the early Church know about the proper form that Christian worship was to take, and that regular scripture readings were to be an integral part of their worship (M.D. Goulder, “The Apocalypse as an Annual Cycle of Prophecies”, New Testament Studies 27, No.3 (April 1981), pp.342-67).


We live in an age of rationalism that has a strong bias toward the literal and observable. This way of thinking comes from our strong reliance upon science and technology, capitalism and finance. These factors dominate our lives. Ancient Jews lived in a poetic age of symbolic meaning—indeed, many of today’s tribal peoples still think this way. The Bible, therefore, uses symbols differently from the way we do. Biblical symbols are poetic, not scientific. They are fluid, not concrete. A study of the names of God is a good introduction to this style of symbolism in the Bible. 

Revelation is packed with symbols. John uses literally hundreds of symbols or allusions that can be traced to the Old Testament (Merrill C Tenny, “Interpreting Revelation”, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eredmans Publishing Co., 1957), p. 101). Therefore, if we do not adopt an ancient Jewish mindset, we will become hopelessly unstuck in our interpretation of these symbols. A thorough understanding of the subtle spiritual messages and meanings behind words such as ‘cloud’, ‘beast’, ‘tree’, ‘sword’, ‘light’, ‘lake’, ‘fire’, ‘mark’, etc. is essential to clearly pick up what John intended for us. A quick look at the mark on the forehead will serve as an example. It is either a physical tattoo or a spiritual condition, but which one is it? In scripture we can read about Adam (Ge 3:19), the High Priest (Ex 28:36), the Israelites (Eze 9:4), the servants of God (Rev 7:2-4), and the servants of the Beast (Rev 13:16) all being marked on the forehead. These references must ALL be thoroughly examined before any conclusions about marks on the forehead can be made. If a Bible reader does not know the Old Testament, he or she cannot expect to fathom the mysteries of the Bible’s most symbolic book: Revelation.