Updated: Dec 11, 2021
The letter of Revelation is mysterious to us today as we read about people in white robes under a throne, mark of the beast, seals, dragon, beast out of the sea, a beast out of the earth, a thousand years, and a new heaven and a new earth. For decades teachers and preachers have interpreted the symbolism in this ancient writing as signs of the end times. They assign the symbolism of Revelation to current events to fearfully predict God’s plan and Jesus return to earth. However, Jesus plainly stated that He did not know when He would return, only the Father knows that; which brings up an interesting question. Does God the Father know things that God the Christ doesn’t know? Or, did God the Christ not know because as Paul had stated in Philippians He emptied himself of His divine powers and knowledge as he became a man?
To truly appreciate the letter of Revelation we must put the letter in the context in which it was written. Most scholars date this writing around 80-90 A.D. It was a time of severe persecution against Christ followers. From around 45 A.D. to the time of the writing of Revelation persecution of Christ followers continued to intensify. In 66 A.D. Roman soldiers surrounded the city of Jerusalem for 3 1/2 years until they completely destroyed the city and everyone inside in 70 A.D. Emperor Nero had both Paul and Peter executed and crucified thousands of Christ followers on crosses and set them ablaze as human torches along the street of the cities.
Beginning with Emperor Caesar the emperors considered themselves gods, and Caesar had inscribed on roman coins “Caesar is lord”. Emperor Domitian built altars along major cities and at the entrance of all agoras ( ancient shopping mall). He had trumpet players who would blow their trumpets at certain times at which time the people were to bow and declare emperor Domitian as Lord. Imagine being downtown Indy with thousands of others and you hear the trumpets blast, and everyone bowed and declared, “Caesar is lord!” If you were caught not bowing and declaring emperor Domitian as lord, you would risk being thrown into prison or executed. At the entrance of the agora was a statue of emperor Domitian which you must give worship and pay a tithe before entering the agora. Once you gave worship to the statue of emperor Domitian they would give you the “mark of the beast” (beast was a nickname for the emperors) which allowed you to buy and sell in the agora. If you did not have the “mark of the beast” you were not allow to sell your goods or buy goods in the agora.
Also it is important for contextual understanding to recognize that the romans and greeks had many mythological gods, and many of them would believe the emperors were gods, or lords. The seven churches which John addresses in his letter were located in far north-eastern region of the Roman Empire known as Asia Minor. Ephesus was one of those cities, and a city were emperor Domitian lived. These seven churches were largely made up of romans, greeks, and asians. The reason why this is important to our understanding of the letter of Revelation is because these people have lived their entire lives believing the Emperors are gods and worshipping them as such.
John writes this letter to those seven churches to state that emperor Domitian was a fraud, and he was no god, or the son of a god. John uses language depicting the customs and practices of the emperors to reveal to these new Christ followers that Jesus is the true Son of the true God. He speaks of Christ throne because the Emperors had a throne. He speaks of people gathered around Christ throne in white robes, because the emperors required people to wear white robes when attending the emperor’s games. He writes of seals, because the emperors had seals with their mark on them. The language of Revelation wasn’t confusing to the first century believers. What we consider symbolism was as common to them as 911 or July 4th is too many Americans.
The letter of Revelation was a letter of encouragement and clarity to the Christ followers 2000 years ago. The letter of Revelation was the most circulated among the biblical letters at the end of the first century, and the Christians wrote songs from this letter and would read from this letter every time they gathered to give praise to Christ and to celebrate their victory in Christ.