There are a couple of things that make a study of Revelation difficult.
- Symbolism – we are not insiders into their culture and many of the symbols used are not as readily recognizable to us as it was to them. Some symbols are easier to understand than others (eg the number 7) and other things are more difficult (eg images of animals).
- Descriptive language – Much is made of language that is clearly descriptive and often may not include a deeper symbolism but is just an attempt to describe something no one has ever seen before.
- Old Testament connections – Bruce Metzger estimates that 278 of the 404 verses in Revelation contain references or allusions to the Old Testament.
- Space and Time – There are elements of Revelation that are difficult to understand because the way space and time is viewed in on a different level. There are heavenly scenes and earthly scenes and combinations of both. There are past events, present events, and future events that may all be bundled up into one or two images. That creates difficulties in determining just how far interpretation can stretch a single symbol.
- Genre – the very nature of apocalyptic literature makes it difficult to interpret due to the reasons stated above and also due to themes that are prevalent in this type of literature that we are not often familiar with such as the end times and good vs. evil (Metzger, 17-18).
The author identifies himself as John but does not signify the apostle. While the language of Revelation is significantly different from his gospel and epistles there is wide early recognition that this letter was from the apostle John including three early Christians from three of the seven churches (See Carson, Moo, Morris, 468-469).
Some have favored a date during the reign of Nero (AD 54-68) because of his persecution of Christians (which is a large part of the background of the book). It is more likely from the time of Domitian (AD 81-96). This is due to the fact that Nero’s persecutions had nothing to do with worship and seems to have been isolated to Rome, while Domitian singled out Christians attempting to force them to worship him as God. Most people recognize that emperor worship plays a huge role in the background of Revelation (Reddish, 11ff). What is more, Irenaus also believed it was written during the reign of Emperor Domitian (Against Heresies 5.30.3). A few other things to consider in dating this material include Rev 17:9-11 and the myth that Nero would return from death (which could be a reference to the beast in Rev 13:1-4 who had a “fatal wound” that had been healed). Pair that with the numerology of 666 that we will get to in a few days and it puts you after the death of Nero, probably during the reign of Domitian.
The persecuted church looms large in Revelation. While the opening chapters are addressed to 7 churches, as we know 7 is a symbol of completeness and so the book of Revelation is written to all churches who face persecution. In reading Revelation you will notice that the heavenly scenes are descriptive of worship and an all powerful God/Christ who even holds the keys of death (1:18) and on earth there is chaos and destruction. Rev 1:9ff – “I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus…” Persecution will play a major role in the unfolding of events and God’s faithful response toward his church.
Metzger presents a pretty compelling structure of the book with 7 sections and an alternation across the sections between scenes in heaven and scenes on earth.
Section 1: Rev 1:1-3:22
Chapter 1 – Heaven
Chapters 2-3 – Earth
Section 2: Rev 4:1-8:2
Chapters 4-5 – Heaven
Chapter 6 – Earth
Chapter 7 – Heaven
Section 3: Rev 8:3-11:19 & Section 4: 12:1-14:20
Chapters 8-13 – Earth
Section 5: 15:1-16:21; Section 6: 17:1-19:21; & Section 7: Rev 20:1-22:5
Chapters 14-15 – Heaven
Chapters 16-18 – Earth
Chapters 19-22 – Both heaven and earth
Epilogue: Rev 22:6-21