Who was John?
The author identifies himself only as "John." Tradition holds that he was the apostle John, brother of James and son of Zebedee, who also wrote the fourth gospel and 1, 2 and 3 John. Conservative scholars hold the view of the third-century bishop, Dionysius of Alexandria, that it was written by a "John the Elder," still others state it was really a composite of several texts. But historical and literary evidence points to the apostle John, one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus, as the author.
Where were the seven churches located?
The seven cities named in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation were in the Roman province of Asia, now western Turkey. Sailing from Patmos, a small island off the southwest Aegean coast, John would have disembarked at Ephesus, then headed north to Smyrna and Pergamum, southeast to Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and, finally, Laodicea. Today, visitors to these ancient sites see thousands of years of history and remnants of the empires and cultures of the Anatolians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuk Turks, Ottomans and the modem Turkish Republic.
Why did John address these particular churches?
In the 1st century AD there were certainly more significant churches than some of the seven addressed by John, like those in Jerusalem, Rome, Galatia, Corinth and Antioch, to name a few. John chose these seven because their spiritual conditions were typical of churches and believers everywhere, in any age, in any period of history. Every church in the world today falls into one or more of these categories:
- Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7) - Wonderful things seem to be happening in the church at Ephesus but it had lost its fire, its original "on fire" love for Jesus.
- Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11) - No warning or condemnation, but it would endure a period of persecution.
- Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17) - Struggled with false teachers and needed to repent.
- Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29) - A rather strong, faithful church commended for its works and charity, but struggling against a strong internal movement that advocated compromise with worldly interests.
- Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6) - Appeared dead, but there was a glimmer of hope.
- Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13) - No condemnation or rebuke, but was enduring persecution.
- Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22) - Lukewarm, stagnant, complacent; John had nothing good to say about it.
The word "churches" (ekklesia "gathering," "assembly") here means a group of Christians, not buildings as in the modern sense. There were no cathedrals, no richly decorated worship centers, no mega-churches, only house-churches, private homes, where small groups of believers met for prayer and worship. Those fortunate enough to visit the impressive excavations of the ancient Roman cities where these seven churches existed will be fascinated, informed and moved.
Where was Revelation written?
John states (1:9) that he was on the small island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea off the coast of modern Turkey, about 36 miles southwest of Miletus. Tradition has it that John was exiled there for his incessant preaching about Jesus. Rome believed that by banishing him to the remote island, that his voice would be quieted.
When was Revelation written?
While some hold the view that it originated after the death of the infamous emperor Nero, most believe the visions that inspired John took place near the end of the reign of the emperor Domitian, about 95 AD. Since John was a contemporary of Jesus, he would have been over 90 years old at the time — likely the only one of Jesus' original twelve disciples to survive to old age. According to tradition the rest of Jesus disciples were martyred decades earlier.
What happened to John?
Emperor Domitian was assassinated on September 18, 96 AD, after a 15 year reign. Early Christian tradition relates that John resumed residence in Ephesus. He lived until the time of the emperor Trajan (ruled 98-117 AD). It is said that John founded and built churches throughout all Asia, and worn out by old age, died and was buried at Ephesus.
Why was Revelation written?
Around the end of the first century AD, all people in the Roman Empire were ordered to offer prayers and sacrifices to the Roman emperors, who had been declared gods, referred to as the Imperial Cult. The practice began with Augustus, and became a prominent element of Roman religion. Within a few decades the cult spread over the whole Empire, more strongly in the east than in the west. Subjects and citizens alike were expected to make periodic incense offerings to the spirit of the Emperor, and upon doing so they received a certificate that they had in fact demonstrated their loyalty. Christians, of course, refused to worship the Emperor, considering it idolatry.
Those who refused make sacrifices on the altar of the Emperor were regarded as traitors, and could be put to death. Christians wondered whether their disobedience would mean the end of the church. John, the author of Revelation, received a special message from God that answered these questions. He shared it with the churches in what was then the Roman province of Asia (western Turkey today), where the Imperial Cult was especially practiced. But John's message is really for all Christians and it has three main parts:
- Evil forces are at work in the world, and Christians may have to suffer and die.
- Jesus is Lord, not the Emperor, and he will conquer all people and powers that oppose God.
- God has wonderful rewards for those who remain faithful, especially for those who lose their lives while serving God.
Revelation was a powerful message of hope for those early Christians who faced suffering and death for their faith. In this book, they learned that, in spite of the cruel power of the Roman Empire, Jesus (the Lamb of God) would win final victory.
Levels of Meaning
There are at least four levels of application for these letters:
- These were actual, historic churches, confirmed by archaeological discoveries, with valid needs.
- A key phrase appears in each letter, "Hear what the Spirit says to the churches." The plural, churches indicates that each of the letters applies to all churches then and now. As we understand the uniquely tailored messages, and the specific admonitions in each letter, we discover that any church can be categorized in terms of these seven profiles.
- Each letter also contains the phrase, "He that has an ear let him hear..." indicating that each letter applies to each of us individually. There are attributes of each church in each of us.
- These letters describe, with remarkable precision, the unfolding of all subsequent church history.
There are 4 elements to each letter:
- Praise - What pleases God.
- Condemnation - What the Lord is upset about.
- Advice - How to get back on track.
- Challenge - Hold fast and overcome.
Two bonus cities are included, Colossae and Hierapolis, both neighbors of Laodicea in the Lycus River valley.