The following text is from “The Books of the Bible”, pages 1789-1790 used by permission of International Bible Society, Copyright© 2001, 2005.
The Roman Empire, similar to most kingdoms in the ancient world, portrayed itself as the divinely intended ruler over the earth. It defended its economic and political control in spiritual terms. The religion of the empire involved not only the worship of the traditional Roman gods, but also viewed the Caesars themselves as divine beings. The following inscription, from Asia Minor in 9 BC, shows how Caesar’s rule was proclaimed in simultaneously religious and political terms:
The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere; the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning for the world of the gospel that has come to men through him.
By the time of the emperor Domitian (AD 81-96) this gospel of the pax Romana, or ‘Roman Peace’ was well established. The wealthy cities of the Roman province of Asia Minor competed with one another for the emperor’s patronage, proclaiming his divinity and spawning a cult of emperor worship. Any resistance to this cult would put a city’s hopes of imperial favor in jeopardy. But the followers of Jesus acknowledged a different Savior, and they worshiped only the true God. Their faith was in him who sits on the throne, the Lord who rules the heavens and the earth.
God sent a message to these believers through a Jewish Christian prophet named John.
He circulated among seven cities in Asia Minor, challenging and encouraging the believers in each place. On the island of Patmos, John received a vision in which he saw that the cult of emperor worship would soon become deadly to followers of Jesus. The believers needed to be warned to be on their guard against any compromise, and to be faithful, even to the point of death in order to receive life as [their] victor’s crown.
John wrote down the vision and sent it as a circular letter to be read aloud in the churches under his care.
He wanted it to be understood as a word directly from God, so he describes it as a prophecy. John communicated the vision he received through the recognizable form of an apocalypse. This literary form was well known in his day (even though it is unfamiliar to us now) and it was perfectly suited for his task. In an apocalypse a visitor from heaven discloses the secrets of the unseen world and of the future through vivid symbols. This visitor typically takes the recipient of the vision on a journey through heaven and offers a review of history leading up to a present crisis between good and evil.
The vision enables the recipients to understand the spiritual dimensions of their situation and to respond to the crisis by remaining loyal to God.
The vision report that John sent to the churches of Asia has four main parts. Each one is marked by the phrase in the Spirit.
- In the first part, John is in the Spirit and receives a vision on the Lord’s day, bringing words of warning and encouragement to each of the seven churches.
- In the second part, John relates how he was taken into heaven in the Spirit and witnessed Jesus being exalted because He had redeemed humanity through His sacrifice. John also saw Jesus begin to execute God’s judgement against His enemies, while protecting those who belonged to Him.
- Next, a symbolic story of the birth of Jesus and the threat against the early Christian community is told. John sees that Jesus will be victorious in the end, but in the meantime, there is a call for endurance.
- This story is interrupted before it is completed by the third part of the book. John is taken in the Spirit to the wilderness, where he is shown the true spiritual state of the Roman Empire. Despite Rome’s pretensions to glory, it is drunken, blasphemous, and immoral – and doomed to destruction.
- The long vision that constitutes the bulk of the book then continues to its conclusion. It depicts the triumph of the Messiah over all His enemies.
- Afterwards John is taken in the Spirit onto a mountaintop, where, in the fourth part of the book, he sees the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. The city is portrayed as the home of the true ruler over all things; it is the reality of which Rome is the parody. The vision closes with the promise that God’s faithful servants will reign over the new creation.
While the symbols in· the book may appear strange at first; the meaning of many of them becomes clear when viewed both in light of John’s circumstances and of the imagery found elsewhere in the Bible. The number twelve, for example, which occurs repeatedly in the description of the new Jerusalem, describes the people of God, since there were twelve tribes of Israel and twelve apostles of Jesus. When John writes that the woman in the third part of the book is seated on seven mountains, he is identifying this character with Rome, the city of seven hills. With some care and reflection in its first-century setting, modern readers can interpret many of the book’s symbols.
Revelation was written to warn followers of Jesus living in a specific place how they needed to respond to the challenge of a particular time.
But the book also functions as the appropriate conclusion to the entire drama of the Bible. John’s closing vision incorporates images from the garden of Eden, the first story in the Bible. This is a new beginning: He who was seated on the throne said, “I AM making everything new!” But until then, all who would reign with Jesus need to know that they can triumph only by following the path of Jesus. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.
This text is from “The Books of the Bible”, pages 1789-1790 used by permission of International Bible Society, Copyright© 2001, 2005. Their TNIV version is rich with commentary, archeological references, and solid understanding of who wrote and why. I highly recommend this version of the Word for any believer. ISBN 978-1-56320-339-8