Let’s start with a quick recap of the four main steps in the Inductive Method of Bible study:
- Pray – the Spirit is our Teacher and Guide.
- Observe – only looking at what the text says – do not jump to any conclusions here.
- Interpretation – ask about the meaning to those to whom the book was originally written. Here we ask why questions; we do not ask about ourselves or our society in this step.
- Application – application is the goal of Bible study, leading to transformed lives and societies, but it is the last step in the method. Jumping to application prematurely can lead to incorrect doctrine.
Hopefully you’ve had a chance to read through Revelation out-loud, and all in one sitting. If you haven’t already, take some time to consider what stood out to you as a possible main idea of the book, and a reason it was written. Write down your thoughts to compare later.
A good place to start exploring is to consider the author and the original readers. If we can work out these two, then we have a good start on when it was written, and what was happening in history at the time.
Read Revelation 1:1 and write down who authored this book.
What did you learn?
We know that all Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16) and the human writers were carried along by the Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). Revelation is unique, however, because it specifically notes God as the author. In Revelation 1:1 we read that God the Father gave the revelation to Jesus Christ, who sent angels to tell it to John. Thus, John wrote the words of Revelation, but he did not author them! God is the author of this book!
The book supports the Apostle John as the writer of God’s words (see 1:1, 1:4, and 22:8). There is also early church support of John being the writer and the one who heard and saw the things written.
Let’s pause here to consider what we know of John the Apostle from Scripture:
- He was one of the two sons of Zebedee (Matt 4:21-22);
- He was raised to be a fisherman (Matt 4:21-22);
- His father, Zebedee, was a man of considerable wealth – he had “hired servants” with him (Mark 1:20), and his son, John, knew the high priest (John 18:15);
- John was one of the three most intimate of Jesus’ disciples (Mark 5:37 healing Jairus’ daughter; Matt 17:1-2 transfiguration; Matt 26:37 Gethsemane);
- When we consider the fire from heaven incident (Luke 9:54) and being named “Boanerges”, meaning “son of thunder”, by Christ (Mark 3:17), we can conclude he was zealous, earnest in his beliefs, and emotive;
- John knew he was loved – he refers to himself as the “one Jesus loved”, and records that he leant against Christ’s breast at supper (John 21:20).
We can gain further insight about John outside of Scripture:
- According to the tradition universally accepted in the church, John survived till the time of Trajan (Emperor of Rome from 98-117 AD);
- He was the only apostle not to be martyred; however, he suffered greatly for Christ, with tradition holding that he survived being boiled alive in a pot of oil;
- He became known as the “apostle of love”. Be careful how you interpret him as a man known for love – it does not imply weakness, or comprise. He was fiery in youth, and he maintained this passion as he aged. One account proclaims that he ran naked from the public bath when a known heretic entered it!**
- Some suggest he was the other disciple of John the Baptist who followed Christ in John 1:35-42.
Revelation also tells us who the original readers were: the seven churches that are in Asia (Rev 1:4). These were the churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. The term “Asia” here refers to the region that became known as “Asia Minor,” differentiating it from the continent of Asia. You can read more about this on-line, including in the ISBE or AHE. I’m going to give you researching more about these churches as your homework – more on this at the end of the post!
We know that John was on the Island of Patmos (Rev 1:9). Church tradition places this time of exile between 81-96 AD, during the reign of Emperor Domitian.
(Some interpreters, who place the book’s events in the first century, date the book before the persecution of Christians by Emperor Nero, which occurred between 64-68 AD. We will explore this more later).
History of this era affecting original readers
It is important to consider three Roman emperors and their actions towards Christians to be able to read Revelation through the eyes of its original readers.
Firstly, Emperor Nero (reigned 54-68 AD)
Persecution against Christians intensified under Emperor Nero’s reign. Previously, persecution had mainly been by the Jews, and rarely led to martyrdom. Although Jewish Christians also faced persecution by Rome when Emperor Claudius forced all Jews (and thus Jewish Christians) to leave the city of Rome in 49 AD. Emperor Nero allowed the Jews back into Rome in 54 AD).
The harsher persecution of believers commenced under Nero in the mid 60s AD after the great fire of Rome. A fire began on the 18th July, 64 AD. When the fire finally ceased to burn, 3 of the 14 regions of the city had been completely destroyed, and 7 partially destroyed. It was devastating for the citizens of that city. Blame has chased Emperor Nero, with some early historians suggesting he contrived the fire in order to have a new palace built (having already emptied the royal coffers, and the nobles unwilling to spend their money on his project). Emperor Nero averted suspicion from himself by turning on Christians.
Some of the persecution believers faced under Emperor Nero included:
- Being covered with the skins of wild beasts, and then torn by dogs;
- Fed to lions in the arena;
- Being set on fire, so that they might serve for lights in the night-time. Nero offered his gardens for this spectacle, and exhibited the games of the Circus by their light. ****
Secondly, Emperor Domitian (reigned 81-96 AD)
There is debate over how intense the persecution of Christians was under Domitian’s reign. We known that he put a tax on Jews (religious and ethnic), as well as Gentile Christians as they took up some Jewish practices; this was a response to Jewish rebellion in 70AD that also led to the Fall of Jerusalem. He also brought slanderous accusations against Christians. Of course, John’s banishment to Patmos and the exile of other Christians to the island of Pontia also occurred during his reign.
Furthermore, history records that Domitian was cruel like the Emperor Nero, but that Domitian was more intelligent. Some cite his intelligence as the reason he ceased his public cruelty and recalled the Christians he had exiled.
Finally, Trajan; (reigned 98-117 AD)
You will note that Trajan’s rule is after the dating of the book of Revelation. As the original readers would have been about to enter into his era of leadership, his actions are applicable when interpreting the book.
A quote about Ignatius’ response to impending martyrdom expresses the response of believers to persecution during Trajan’s reign:
In this persecution suffered the blessed martyr, Ignatius . . . This Ignatius was appointed to the bishopric of Antioch next after Peter in succession. Some do say, that he, being sent from Syria to Rome, because he professed Christ, was given to the wild beasts to be devoured. It is also said of him, that when he passed through Asia, being under the most strict custody of his keepers, he strengthened and confirmed the churches through all the cities as he went, both with his exhortations and preaching of the Word of God. Accordingly, having come to Smyrna, he wrote to the Church at Rome, exhorting them not to use means for his deliverance from martyrdom, lest they should deprive him of that which he most longed and hoped for.
“Now I begin to be a disciple. I care for nothing, of visible or invisible things, so that I may but win Christ. Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let breaking of bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so, only may I win Christ Jesus!”
And even when he was sentenced to be thrown to the beasts, such as the burning desire that he had to suffer, that he spake, what time he heard the lions roaring, saying: “I am the wheat of Christ: I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread.” *****
Our original readers were facing persecution to the point of martyrdom by cruel methods. We need to remember their plight when we get into interpreting this book.
Next blog we are going to consider the reason the book was written, its main idea and start jumping into some of the book’s themes.
In the meantime, start the method for yourself:
We list prayer as the first step, but it is a continuous part of Inductive Bible Study. We want to ensure we are walking with the Spirit of God as we study to have our hearts and minds enlightened, and our lives transformed.
- Continue observing.
Find out more information about the seven churches. Look each of them up in a Bible dictionary or encyclopaedia. Map in which modern country each church was situated. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia on Study Light is a great resource.
If you want to go deeper, and have time, read through the book again, this time writing a title for each paragraph. In your titles, try to capture what you think is the main idea or theme of each paragraph.
Continue to review what you think is the main idea of the book, and the reason it was written.
**Edited by James Orr, (1939). International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Accessed on-line at https://www.internationalstandardbible.com/J/john-the-apostle.html, 25/04/2019.
Quote referenced: “Striking and characteristic things are told of him in harmony with the touches we find in the Synoptic Gospels. The story of his rushing forth from the bath when Cerinthus, the heretic, entered it (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., iii.3, 4) recalls the characteristics of him whom Jesus called “son of thunder.””
*** Image by Lucky Gumbo, curtsey of The Inductive Bible Study Companion; Unlock the Word © 2015
**** Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (1965). The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Translated by Robert Graves. Accessed on-line at https://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/suetnius/index.htm, May 2018.
***** Foxe, John, and W. Grinton Berry. 1900. Fox’s Book of Martyrs – A History of the Lives, Sufferings and Triumphant Deaths of the Early Christian and Protestant Martyrs. Edited by William Byron Forbush. London: The Religious Tract Society. [Explore on-line, also accessible free on Kindle]