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Bible Commentaries

Robertson's Word Pictures in the New TestamentRobertson's Word Pictures

- Revelation

by A.T. Robertson





Perhaps no single book in the New Testament presents so many and so formidable problems as the Apocalypse of John. These difficulties concern the authorship, the date, the apocalyptic method, the relation to the other Johannine books, the purpose, the historical environment, the reception of the book in the New Testament canon, the use and misuse of the book through the ages, etc. In the eastern churches the recognition of the Apocalypse of John was slower than in the west, since it was not in the Peshitta Syriac Version. Caius of Rome attributed the book to Cerinthus the Gnostic, but he was ably answered by Hippolytus, who attributed it to the Apostle John. The Council of Laodicea (about A.D. 360) omitted it, but the third Council of Carthage (A.D. 397) accepted it. The dispute about millenarianism led Dionysius of Alexandria (middle of the third century, A.D.) to deny the authorship to the Apostle John, though he accepted it as canonical. Eusebius suggested a second John as the author. But finally the book was accepted in the east as Hebrews was in the west after a period of doubt.


There are only five uncials that give the text of John's Apocalypse (Aleph A C P Q). Of these Aleph belongs to the fourth century, A and C to the fifth, Q (really B2, B ending with Hebrews 9:13, both in the Vatican Library) to the eighth, P to the ninth. Only Aleph A Q (=B2) are complete, C lacking Revelation 1:1; Revelation 3:19-5; Revelation 7:14-17; Revelation 8:5-9; Revelation 10:10-11; Revelation 14:13-18; Revelation 19:5-21, P lacking Revelation 16:12; Revelation 19:21-20; Revelation 22:6-21. Both C and P are palimpsests. In the 400 verses of the book "over 1,600 variants have been counted" (Moffatt). Erasmus had only one cursive (of the twelfth century numbered Ir) for his first edition, and the last six verses of the Apocalypse, save verse 20, were a translation from the Vulgate. The result is that the versions are of special importance for the text of the book, since in no single MS. or group of MSS. do we have a fairly accurate text, though Aleph A C and A C Vulgate are the best two groups.


The book claims to be an apocalypse (Revelation 1:1) and has to be treated as such. It is an unveiling (αποκαλυψις, from αποκαλυπτω) or revelation of Jesus Christ, a prophecy, in other words, of a special type, like Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel in the Old Testament. There was a considerable Jewish apocalyptic literature by this time when John wrote, much of it B.C., some of it A.D., like the Book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Baruch, the Book of Jubilees, the Assumption of Moses, the Psalms of Solomon, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Sibylline Oracles, some of them evidently "worked over by Christian hands" (Swete). Jesus himself used the apocalyptic style at times (Revelation 0:13; Revelation 0:24; Revelation 0:25; Revelation 0:21). Paul in Revelation 0:1 spoke of the unpremeditated apocalyptic utterances in the Christian meetings and suggested restraints concerning them. "The Revelation of John is the only written apocalypse, as it is the only written prophecy of the Apostolic age.... The first Christian apocalypse came on the crest of this long wave of apocalyptic effort" (Swete). The reason for this style of writing is usually severe persecution and the desire to deliver a message in symbolic form. The effort of Antiochus Epiphanes, who claimed to be "a god manifest," to hellenize the Jews aroused violent opposition and occasioned many apocalypses to cheer the persecuted Jews.



There is no doubt at all that the emperor cult (emperor worship) played a main part in the persecution of the Christians that was the occasion for this great Christian apocalypse. The book itself bears ample witness to this fact, if the two beasts refer to the Roman power as the agent of Satan. It is not possible to single out each individual emperor in the graphic picture. Most would take the dragon to be Satan and the first and the second beasts to be the imperial and provincial Roman power. The Roman emperors posed as gods and did the work of Satan. In particular there were two persecuting emperors (Nero and Domitian) who were responsible for many martyrs for Christ. But emperor worship began before Nero. Julius Caesar was worshipped in the provinces. Octavius was called Augustus (Σεβαστος, Reverend). The crazy Emperor Caius Caligula not simply claimed to be divine, but actually demanded that his statue be set up for worship in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. He was killed in January A.D. 41 before he could execute his dire purpose. But the madcap Nero likewise demanded worship and blamed in A.D. 64 the burning of Rome on the Christians, though guilty of it himself. He set the style for persecuting Christians, which slumbered on and burst into flames again under Domitian, who had himself commonly termed Dominus ac Deus noster (Our Lord and God). The worship of the emperor did not disturb the worshippers of other gods save the Jews and the Christians, and in particular the Christians were persecuted after the burning of Rome when they were distinguished from the Jews. Up till then Christians were regarded (as by Gallio in Corinth) as a variety of Jews and so entitled to tolerance as a religio licita, but they had no standing in law by themselves and their refusal to worship the emperor early gave offence, as Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 12:3. It was Κυριος Ιησους or Κυριος Καισαρ. On this very issue Polycarp lost his life. The emperors as a rule were tolerant about it, save Nero and Domitian, who was called Nero redivivus, or Nero back again. Trajan in his famous letter to Pliny advised tolerance except in stubborn cases, when the Christians had to be put to death. After Nero it was a crime to be a Christian and all sorts of slanders about them were circulated. We have seen already in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, the man of sin who sets himself above God as the object of worship. We have seen also in 1 John 2:18; 1 John 2:22; 1 John 4:3; 2 John 1:7 the term antichrist applied apparently to Gnostic heretics. One may wonder if, as Beckwith argues, in the Apocalypse the man of sin and the antichrist are united in the beast.


The writer calls himself John (Revelation 1:1; Revelation 1:4; Revelation 1:9; Revelation 22:8). But what John? The book can hardly be pseudonymous, though, with the exception of the Shepherd of Hermas, that is the rule with apocalypses. There would have been a clearer claim than just the name. The traditional and obvious way to understand the name is the Apostle John, though Dionysius of Alexandria mentions John Mark as held by some and he himself suggests another John, like the so-called Presbyter John of Papias as quoted by Eusebius. The uncertain language of Papias has raised a deal of questioning. Swete thinks that the majority of modern critics ascribe the Apocalypse to this Presbyter John, to whom Moffatt assigns probably II and III John. Irenaeus represents the Apostle John as having lived to the time of Trajan, at least to A.D. 98. Most ancient writers agree with this extreme old age of John. Justin Martyr states expressly that the Apostle John wrote the Apocalypse. Irenaeus called it the work of a disciple of Jesus. In the ninth century lived Georgius Hamartolus, and a MS. of his alleges that Papias says that John the son of Zebedee was beheaded by the Jews and there is an extract in an Oxford MS. of the seventh century which alleges that Papias says John and James were put to death by the Jews. On the basis of this slim evidence some today argue that John did not live to the end of the century and so did not write any of the Johannine books. But a respectable number of modern scholars still hold to the ancient view that the Apocalypse of John is the work of the Apostle and Beloved Disciple, the son of Zebedee.


Here scholars divide again. Many who deny the Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel and the Epistles accept the apostolic authorship of the Apocalypse, Baur, for instance. Hort, Lightfoot, and Westcott argued for the Johannine authorship on the ground that the Apocalypse was written early (time of Nero or Vespasian) when John did not know Greek so well as when the Epistles and the Gospel were written. There are numerous grammatical laxities in the Apocalypse, termed by Charles a veritable grammar of its own. They are chiefly retention of the nominative case in appositional words or phrases, particularly participles, many of them sheer Hebraisms, many of them clearly intentional (as in Revelation 1:4), all of them on purpose according to Milligan (Revelation in Schaff's Pop. Comm.) and Heinrici (Der Litterarische Charakter der neutest. Schriften, p. 85). Radermacher (Neutestamentliche Grammatik, p. 3) calls it "the most uncultured literary production that has come down to us from antiquity," and one finds frequent parallels to the linguistic peculiarities in later illiterate papyri. J. H. Moulton (Grammar, Vol. II, Part I, p. 3) says: "Its grammar is perpetually stumbling, its idiom is that of a foreign language, its whole style that of a writer who neither knows nor cares for literary form." But we shall see that the best evidence is for a date in Domitian's reign and not much later than the Fourth Gospel. It is worth noting that in Acts 4:13 Peter and John are both termed by the Sanhedrin αγραμματο κα ιδιωτα (unlettered and unofficial men). We have seen the possibility that II Peter represents Peter's real style or at least that of a different amanuensis from Silvanus in 1 Peter 5:12. It seems clear that the Fourth Gospel underwent careful scrutiny and possibly by the elders in Ephesus (John 21:24). If John wrote the Apocalypse while in Patmos and so away from Ephesus, it seems quite possible that here we have John's own uncorrected style more than in the Gospel and Epistles. There is also the added consideration that the excitement of the visions played a part along with a certain element of intentional variations from normal grammatical sequence. An old man's excitement would bring back his early style. There are numerous coincidences in vocabulary and style between the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse.


Repeated efforts have been made to show that the Apocalypse of John is not the work of one man, but a series of Jewish and Christian apocalypses pieced together in a more or less bungling fashion. Spitta argued for this in 1889. Vischer was followed by Harnack in the view there was a Jewish apocalypse worked over by a Christian. Gunkel (Creation and Chaos, 1895) argued for a secret apocalyptic tradition of Babylonian origin. In 1904 J. Weiss carried on the argument for sources behind the Apocalypse. Many of the Jewish apocalypses do show composite authorship. There was a current eschatology which may have been drawn on without its being a written source. It is in chapter Revelation 0:12 where the supposed Jewish source is urged more vigorously about the woman, the dragon, and the man child. There are no differences in language (vocabulary or grammar) that argue for varied sources. The author may indeed make use of events in the reign of Nero as well as in the reign of Domitian, but the essential unity of the book has stood the test of the keenest criticism.


There are two chief theories, the Neronic, soon after Nero's death, the other in the reign of Domitian. Irenaeus is quoted by Eusebius as saying expressly that the Apocalypse of John was written at the close of the reign of Domitian. This testimony is concurred in by Clement of Alexandria, by Origen, by Eusebius, by Jerome. In harmony with this clear testimony the severity of the persecutions suit the later date better than the earlier one. There is, besides, in Revelation 17:11 an apparent reference to the story that Nero would return again. The fifth king who is one of the seven is an eighth. There was a Nero legend, to be sure, that Nero either was not dead but was in Parthia, or would be redivivus after death. Juvenal termed Domitian "a bald Nero" and others called Domitian "a second Nero." But in spite of all this Hort, Lightfoot, Sanday, Westcott have argued strongly for the Neronic era. Peake is willing to admit allusions to the Neronic period as Swete is also, but both consider the Domitianic date the best supported. Moffatt considers any earlier date than Domitian "almost impossible."


No theory of authorship, sources, or date should ignore the fact that the author claims to have had a series of visions in Patmos. It does not follow that he wrote them down at once and without reflection, but it seems hardly congruous to think that he waited till he had returned from exile in Patmos to Ephesus before writing them out. In fact, there is a note of sustained excitement all through the book, combined with high literary skill in the structure of the book in spite of the numerous grammatical lapses. The series of sevens bear a relation to one another, but more in the fashion of a kaleidoscope than of a chronological panorama. And yet there is progress and power in the arrangement and the total effect. There is constant use of Old Testament language and imagery, almost a mosaic, but without a single formal quotation. There is constant repetition of words and phrases in true Johannine style. Each of the messages to the seven churches picks out a metaphor in the first picture of Christ in chapter I and there are frequent other allusions to the language in this picture. In fact there is genuine artistic skill in the structure of the book, in spite of the deflections from ordinary linguistic standards. In the visions and all through the book there is constant use of symbols, as is the fashion in apocalypses like the beasts, the scorpions, the horses, etc. These symbols probably were understood by the first readers of the book, though the key to them is lost to us. Even the numbers in the book (3 1/2, 7, 3, 4, 12, 24, 1000) cannot be pressed, though some do so. Even Harnack called the Apocalypse the plainest book in the New Testament, by using Harnack's key for the symbols.


They are literally many. There are those who make the book a chart of Christian and even of human history even to the end. These divide into two groups, the continuous and the synchronous. The continuous historical theory takes each vision and symbol in succession as an unfolding panorama. Under the influence of this theory there have been all sorts of fantastic identifications of men and events. The synchronous theory takes the series of sevens (seals, trumpets, bowls) as parallel with each other, each time going up to the end. But in neither case can any satisfactory program be arranged. Another historical interpretation takes it all as over and done, the preterist theory. This theory again breaks into two, one finding the fulfilment all in the Neronic period, the other in the Domitianic era. Something can be said for each view, but neither satisfies the whole picture by any means. Roman Catholic scholars have been fond of the preterist view to escape the Protestant interpretation of the second beast in chapter Revelation 0:13 as papal Rome. There is still another interpretation, the futurist, which keeps the fulfilment all in the future and which can be neither proved nor disproved. There is also the purely spiritual theory which finds no historical allusion anywhere. This again can be neither proved nor disproved. One of the lines of cleavage is the millennium in chapter Revelation 0:20. Those who take the thousand years literally are either pre-millennialists who look for the second coming of Christ to be followed by a thousand years of personal reign here on earth or the postmillennialists who place the thousand years before the second coming. There are others who turn to 2 Peter 3:8 and wonder if, after all, in a book of symbols this thousand years has any numerical value at all. There seems abundant evidence to believe that this apocalypse, written during the stress and storm of Domitian's persecution, was intended to cheer the persecuted Christians with a view of certain victory at last, but with no scheme of history in view.


So considered, this vision of the Reigning Christ in heaven with a constant eye on the suffering saints and martyrs is a guarantee of certain triumph in heaven and ultimate triumph on earth. The picture of Christ in heaven is a glorious one. He is the Lamb that was slain, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Word of God, the Victor over his enemies, worshipped in heaven like the Father, the Light and Life of men. Instead of trying to fit the various symbols on particular individuals one will do better to see the same application to times of persecution from time to time through the ages. The same Christ who was the Captain of salvation in the time of Domitian is the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith today. The Apocalypse of John gives glimpses of heaven as well as of hell. Hope is the word that it brings to God's people at all times.


The whole book is sent to the seven churches in Asia (Revelation 1:4). There is a special message to each of the seven (chapters Revelation 0:2; Revelation 0:3), suited to the peculiar needs of each church and with a direct reference to the geography and history of each church and city, so Ramsay holds (The Letters to the Seven Churches). The book is to be read aloud in each church (Revelation 1:3). One can imagine the intense interest that the book would arouse in each church. Children are charmed to hear the Apocalypse read. They do not understand the symbols, but they see the pictures in the unfolding panorama. There were other churches in the Province of Asia besides these seven, but these form a circle from Ephesus where John had lived and wrought. They do present a variety of churches, not necessarily all types, and by no means a chart of seven dispensations of Christian history.


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