A Commentary in Simple English on Revelation

John

John was the son of Zebedee. Probably Zebedee's wife was Salome (Mark 15: 14; 16: 1). If she was the sister of Mary, the Lord's mother, then John was a cousin of Jesus. John had a brother called James (Matt 4:21). Zebedee was more than a fisherman. His two sons worked for him; but he paid other men to work for him too (Mark 1:20). So it seems that Zebedee and his sons had more money and honour than Peter and Andrew who worked with them. They were just fishermen (Luke 5:10).

Matthew 4:18-22 tells us how Jesus first called Simon Peter and Andrew to follow Him. Then He also called James and John to follow Him. Later we find that their names are in the list of the twelve followers of Jesus (Matt 10: 2).

The name of James usually comes before that of John. So James was probably older than John was. There were several other men called James.

When we look at Mark 3:17 we find that Jesus called James and John 'The Sons of Thunder'. I think that this means that they were strong, noisy young men. Some people would not agree with me. If you look at Luke 9:51-56, you may feel that I am right.

James and John both shared with Peter a great honour when they saw the glory of Jesus (Matt 17: 1-13). Their mother seems to have thought that they had a great future (Matt 20:20-23).

The Acts of the Apostles speaks about John. (See Acts 1:13; 3: 1-11; 4:1-23; 8: 14-25.) Then in Acts 12: 2 we read how the King, Herod Agrippa I, killed James, John's brother. This Herod was king of the whole of Palestine from AD 41 to 44. So this happened from twelve to fifteen years after the death of our Lord Jesus on the cross. Galatians 2:9 tells us that John met Paul in Jerusalem. This would have been about AD 47. The New Testament does not tell us what happened to John after that.

So far we have not said anything about John's Gospel. You will not find this 'John' named in the Gospel. (There are, of course, other 'Johns' in the New Testament. They are John the Baptist and John Mark, who wrote Mark's Gospel. Another John who became Jewish High Priest in AD 36 appears in Acts 4: 6.)

Many Christians believe that this John is the 'beloved disciple' who is spoken of in John 13: 23 and in 21: 7, 20 and 24. He stood near the cross as Jesus died (John 19:26,27). From that time on, Mary the Lord's mother lived in John's home. Perhaps when we read John's Gospel we hear as much what Mary, the Lord's mother, said about Jesus as we hear from John himself. [0.1]

We can only guess that John left Jerusalem before the Romans destroyed the city in AD 70. Perhaps he took Mary along with him. We think that he settled in Ephesus in the Roman province of Asia. The church in Ephesus was one of the great churches in those days. Most of the early leaders of the church, like Peter and Paul, had died by this time so that John may have been rather lonely. He would be pleased to teach people about Jesus at Ephesus and in other cities. Several stories about him have come down to us. [0.2] John is said to have lived on into the reign of the Roman 'emperor' or Caesar Trajan. Trajan became 'emperor' in AD 98. We think that the books which John wrote were all written when he was an old man. Revelation was probably written when Domitian was 'Emperor'. Domitian died in AD 96.

John, this great and godly man, said one thing many times. 'Little children, love one another'. People asked him why he said this so often. It was because if this was done, all besides would be well. This is still true today.

Prophecy

The Book of Revelation is sometimes called an 'Apocalypse'. We will explain what that word means when we come to verse 1. There were other writings of the same kind, but I shall not talk about them here. [0.3]. When we come to 1:4 we can see that the book is also a letter. But the book is a 'prophecy' too (1:3) and we must say something about that.

  1. About one third of the Old Testament is made up of the Books of the Prophets from Isaiah to Malachi. There were many other prophets in Old Testament times. A prophet is a man who speaks in God's name and with the help of the Holy Spirit. But Revelation is the only book of this kind in the New Testament.

    God may sometimes show a prophet what will happen in the future. This is nearly always to help God's people, so that the prophet will also tell them what they ought to do. But prophets are men who know that history is 'His story'. It is the story of what God has done. History repeats itself. So we can learn when we think about the past. Often the prophets were men who grew up in the Jewish way of life but who later found themselves with people whose way of life was quite different. Daniel and Ezekiel were Jews who found themselves far away in Babylon. The Book of Amos contains messages to six other nations who lived all round the Jewish kingdom. Large parts of Isaiah and Jeremiah are written about other countries all round Jerusalem.

    In the same way, John had grown up among the Jews in Palestine. Then he had moved to a Greek city, Ephesus, which was part of the Roman Empire. In the Book of Revelation John looks at the Greek cities and the Roman laws, and we hear from him what God has to say about them.

    Many people today have left the way of life their fathers followed. They have become Christians. They have gone to live in the cities perhaps because of war. All around them there are people who have a different way of life. John was a man who knew what that was like. This is one reason why what he says can help us today.
  2. We can learn from history. So the prophet learns how God works in human life. He tells God's people what he has learnt, and this is what John does in Revelation. Now we must not be surprised if we can see that things of the same kind that John talks about still happen in our day. But there will be an end to it all when Jesus comes again!
  3. Now we know that there were prophets in the church in New Testament times. When the churches met for worship, the prophets would speak a message, which God gave to them by the Holy Spirit. The prophets went about from church to church. Elders and teachers stayed in one city. There seems to have been a group of prophets in Ephesus and the other churches in the area. (See 11:18; 16:6; 18:20; 22:6,9.) The messages that such men brought would have prepared the churches to receive the Book of Revelation. John wanted to be thought of as one of these prophets. Perhaps some of the messages that they spoke are in the Book of Revelation. [0.4]

People wrote books like Revelation in those days. Jews wrote some of them. Christians wrote others. It may be that John felt that people in the churches needed this book. They would read it because a great Christian like John had written it. And perhaps it would stop them reading the other books. Some of them had wild and silly ideas in them. The writers of them were not as wise as John. So John wrote his book. He wanted to say to people: 'Yes, Jesus will come again. We want Him to come. We hope He will come soon. But lots of things will happen before He comes again. We must learn to wait for Him.'

Pictures

John uses words to give us 'pictures'. Many of these are 'pictures' of what he saw in Asia. We cannot say: 'These are only pictures'. Every 'picture' is a picture of something. They all have a meaning.

Use of the Old Testament

Many of the New Testament writers use words that they take from the Old Testament. The first of these is in Matthew 1:23. The verse before tells us that Matthew has used words taken from the Old Testament (Isaiah 7:14). Matthew 'quotes' from Isaiah. Verse 23 is a 'quotation'. Now in Revelation John does not 'quote' from the Old Testament in this way. He does not say: 'It is written...' and then add some words from one of the Old Testament books.

Yet John knew the Old Testament well, and so did the people who first read his book. It is said that there are 404 verses in Revelation. 278 of them speak about something from the Old Testament. We shall not be able to give all of the verses in the Old Testament that John uses. But some we shall point out.

Numbers

We can see that the number 'seven' is very important in the Book of Revelation. There are many 'sevens'. Here are some more of them.

  1. Seven 'blessings': - 1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19: 9; 20:6; 22:7; 22:14. (These are 'beatitudes').
  2. The name of God: 'The Lord God the Almighty': - 1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7; 19:6; 21:22.
  3. 'The One Who sits on the throne' - another name for God: - 4:9; 5:1; 5:7; 5:13; 6:16; 7:15; 21:5
  4. The name 'Jesus' is there in Revelation fourteen times; seven of these speak of 'the witness (or witnesses) of Jesus'.
  5. The name 'Christ' is there seven times, sometimes as part of 'Jesus Christ'
  6. Christ is spoken of as 'the Lamb' twenty eight times; that is, four times seven. In seven of them 'God and the Lamb' are joined together.
  7. You will find words like 'peoples and tribes and languages and nations' in 5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15. The exact words are not the same, but there are always four of them. Again seven times.

So we can begin to see that in this book, numbers do mean something. 'Seven' may mean that something is complete. 'Four' is said to be the number of the world. 'Twelve' is also very important. But we must be very careful about the use of numbers in Scripture. Some people have given it too much attention and strange ideas and teaching have been the result.

Christians and the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire had robbed the cities of Asia of their riches. But Rome had brought peace. Before, there had been long ages of war. The people were happy to have peace. So in the cities there were temples to 'Roma', a 'goddess' who stood for the city of Rome. Most of the Caesars or Emperors of Rome were honoured as 'gods' but usually only after they had died. Domitian became Caesar in AD 81. He expected people to call him 'My Lord and my God' while he was still alive. Christians could not do this. They were sometimes punished by the state because they would not. John wrote the Book of Revelation at a time when many of the Christians were suffering because of this.

To make it worse, the worship of the Emperor was mixed up with the worship of the heathen gods. The Jewish religion was the religion of a nation, which lived in the Roman Empire. It was a very old religion and the Roman law had a place in it for this religion. The Christian faith was new, and it was not the religion of one nation. It had spread through the Empire and beyond. It had no place in the law. The Romans did not hunt out and punish Christians all the time. But when Christians refused to honour the Caesar as a 'god' they were punished. Of course, trouble might break out at any time because the Jews hated the Christians. If part of the Empire had to provide 'criminals' to be killed in public in Rome by wild animals, some Christians would be sent to die. The Christians suffered from time to time as we can see in the Book of Acts. The mass killings of Christians by Nero in Rome in AD 64 do not seem to have spread from Rome to other places.

We know that some Christians gave way when they had to suffer because of their faith. They are spoken about in a letter which a man called Pliny wrote. This was about 20 years after John wrote Revelation. Most Christians stood firm. Many gave up their lives for Christ's sake. The teaching of Jesus is clear. (See Mark 12:13-17.) The government has a right to expect us to pay taxes to it and to do much besides. But there are things that belong to God. If the leader of a nation calls himself 'god' then Christians cannot honour him for that. [0.6].

We shall have to say much more about the Roman Empire as we go along, but you can see that what was true then, is true today. Every Christian wants to obey the law of his own land. But if the law of our land tells us to give to the state what belongs to God, then we have to say 'No'!

The Book of Revelation down the years

The first known argument about the Book of Revelation took place about 250 AD. It was near Arsinoe in the Fayyum in Egypt. The argument was between Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria and some local Christians. One of them was a man called Coracion. The argument went on for three days. At the end, not everyone felt sure that the Bishop was right. Christians have argued about Revelation ever since and their arguments have not done them any good.

Remember this, too. The prophets in the Old Testament had spoken in many places about the coming of our Lord Jesus into the world. But all the people were surprised when He came. He came in a way that none of them guessed or expected. God kept exactly to His word. God will keep His word again. Jesus will come again. All that the prophets have written will prove to be exactly right. But we shall be taken by surprise. God will do what He has promised. But He will do it in a way we have not guessed. So I do not think that any of the various systems which people use to explain the Book of Revelation will be found to be quite right. I hope that what I write will help you to understand the Book better. First, we must try to understand what John meant when he wrote. We must try to understand what the book meant to his first readers. When we have finished that work it will be time to think about other questions. [0.7]. There are things I do not understand and I will tell you that I cannot explain them.