What is Revelation about?
John is an exile on the isle of Patmos. His crime: bearing witness of Jesus (Re 1:9). Somebody didn’t want John spreading this gospel message, and so they’d shipped him off to an island. He’s contained.
But now John has received even more news to share.
It all starts one Sunday, when John hears a voice behind him: “Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches (Re 1:11).” John turns around to see seven golden lampstands, and among them, the risen Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
Jesus gives John a message for seven churches in Asia (modern-day Turkey). Of the seven, one is about to undergo intense suffering (Re 2:10), one has kept His word (Re 3:8), and the other five were faltering in their loyalty to Jesus. The Lord warns the churches that He is the righteous judge, and He knows their deeds. He calls the faltering churches to repentance, and makes seven encouraging promises to those who overcome.
Then, John is whisked into heaven to witness “what must take place after these things” (Rev 4:1). So begins a long series of prophetic visions for the churches, including:
- A Lamb (who represents Jesus) breaks seven seals holding an old book shut—each time a seal is broken, it triggers an event on earth, some of which are catastrophic (Re 4–7).
- Seven angels blow seven trumpets, and each trumpet blast brings a plague on the earth (Re 8–11).
- A great dragon (Satan) and two beasts make war against a certain woman and the saints (Re 12–14).
- Seven angels pour out seven bowls, and each bowl brings another plague on the earth (Re 15–16).
- The Lamb overcomes the wicked city of Babylon, the dragon, and the beasts, then brings about a final judgment day (Rev 17–20).
- A new heaven and new earth appear, where God and the Lamb dwell with people in harmony forever (Rev 21–22).
John faithfully writes everything down as a prophetic letter to the seven churches, with a closing message from Jesus: “I am coming quickly.”
Revelation’s role in the Bible
Revelation is traditionally attributed to the apostle John, who also wrote a Gospel and three New Testament letters. He was a leader in the early church, and he probably wrote his documents after most of the other New Testament books were already written.
Two characteristics of Revelation set it apart from the rest of the New Testament:
- It’s the only book of its genre. Most of the New Testament is history or a letter. Revelation is indeed sent as a letter with a traditional greeting (Re 1:1–8), direct messages to the recipients (Re 2–3), and a sendoff (Re 22:18–21), but the bulk of the letter is a record of John’s vivid symbolic visions. No other book of the New Testament feels like Revelation.
- Jesus directly addresses the readers. You’ll have to flip back to the Old Testament to see someone write down a message from God for someone else. The Gospels record Jesus’ teachings, and the letters draw application from His teachings, but only in Revelation does Jesus Himself speak directly to the churches (Re 2–3; 22:16).
Revelation isn’t just an outlier
Revelation may be distinct from the New Testament, but its style and theology are right at home in the Bible. Revelation’s symbolic visions are similar to what you’d see in the Old Testament prophecies of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah.
Of course, even after going over the book’s content, it can still be difficult to know what Revelation is all about. Some of the visions are explained for us: the Lamb is Jesus (Re 17:14) and the dragon is the devil (Re 12:9). Others—most, really—aren’t so directly explained.
Some say all (or most) of John’s visions are about the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.; others say the prophecies haven’t been fulfilled yet. As you read and study Revelation, keep a few things in mind:
- This message is written to churches in Asia, which had both Jewish and Gentile members.
- Jesus begins everything with messages to the churches who were dealing with distraction, persecution, false teaching, immorality, laziness, and stagnation.
- The correct response to this letter is to come to Jesus and invite others (Re 22:17).
Revelation is the last book of the New Testament and the Bible—what a finish!
Quick outline of Revelation
- John’s greeting and introduction (1:1–8)
- Jesus’ messages to seven churches (1:9–3:22)
- Visions of what comes “after these things” (4–22:9)
- The Lamb who was slain breaks seven seals (4–7)
- Seven angels sound their trumpets (8–11)
- The dragon, the beast, and the saints (12–14)
- Seven bowls of God’s wrath (15–16)
- The Lamb overcomes Babylon and judges the earth (17–20)
- The new heaven, new earth, and new Jerusalem (21:1–22:9)
- How to respond to John’s vision (22:10–21)