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THE ART OF REVELATION BY JONATHAN WELTON (INTRO, CHAPTER 1 AND 2)

The Art of Revelation

Dr. Jonathan Welton

     

PART 1

Building the Picture Frame

Imagine we are standing together at an art museum. Before us is a large, magnificent painting of grass surrounded by a tall forest and interspersed with wildflowers and deer. I turn to you and say, “I will explain this painting to you.”

You nod in agreement and suddenly step extremely close to the painting. Pointing at one tiny blotch of color, you ask, “What is this patch of color? What does it mean? What does it represent?”

Like this painting, the Book of Revelation is a beautiful tapestry of images and symbols. In order to understand it, we first need to step back and look at the entire piece of art—at the big picture. Yet often people do exactly the opposite. Like you did in our imaginary scenario, they move too close to the painting and point at tiny patches of color, demanding isolated interpretations of those particles.

As one who would like to explain this painting, I ask that we start by standing back and taking in the painting at once, as a whole. Then I will tell you about the artist who painted it, why He painted it, and the historical context that surrounded this painter and influenced the way He created His painting.

Allow yourself to understand these points surrounding the painting before you step closer to examine the details. If you don’t do this first, any interpretation of the details will be slanted by personal preference rather than an understanding of what the artist was trying to convey.

Because it is most important for us to understand what exactly the Holy Spirit was conveying when He wrote the Book of Revelation, let us begin with the big picture, which is encapsulated in the answers to four important questions—when, how, why, and where.

When was this painting created?

The first question that must be answered for any work of art is the question of when it was written. This is an especially important question for the Book of Revelation because the when determines whether or not to applies to the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem. As you may guess, I have come to believe the majority of the Book of Revelation was written regarding events that took place at the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. In order to believe that, we must first address the date of authorship. If the book was written in AD 96, as many modern teachers claim, then my point of view cannot be valid. Yet, I believe the overwhelming body of evidence proves beyond reasonable doubt that Revelation was more likely written before AD 68. Let’s look at the proofs to establish the date of writing.

    

The Proofs

The primary reason some Bible teachers claim the Book of Revelation was written around AD 96 is because John noted in Revelation 1:9 that he was on the island of Patmos at the time he received the Revelation. There is some historical evidence that John was exiled to Patmos under the reign of Domitian between AD 81 and AD 96. Therefore, the book might have been written during that time—or so some claim. In reality, there are also historical documents that tell us John was exiled to Patmos at a much earlier date. Here I will share ten evidences that Revelation was written before AD 68.

1. The Syriac

We have the witness of one of the most ancient versions of the New Testament, called The Syriac. The second-century Syriac Version, called the Peshitto, says the following on the title page of the Book of Revelation:

Again the revelation, which was upon the holy John the Evangelist from God when he was on the island of Patmos where he was thrown by the emperor Nero.

Nero Caesar ruled over the Roman Empire from AD 54 to AD 68. Therefore, John had to have been on the island of Patmos during this earlier period. One of the oldest versions of the Bible tells us when Revelation was written! That alone is a very compelling argument.

2. Revelation 17:10

When we look at the internal evidence, we find a very clear indicator of the date of authorship in Revelation 17:10: “They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while” (Rev. 17:10). This passage, which speaks of the line of rulers in Rome, tells us exactly how many rulers had already come, which one was currently in power, and that the next one would only last a short while. Take a look at how perfectly it fits with Nero and the Roman Empire of the first century.

The rule of the first seven Roman Emperors is as follows:

“Five have fallen...”

Julius Caesar (49–44 BC)

Augustus (27 BC–AD 14)

Tiberius (AD 14–37)

Caligula (AD 37–41)

Claudius (AD 41–54)

“One is...”

Nero (AD 54–68)

“the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while.”

Galba (June AD 68–January AD 69, a six month ruler-ship)

Of the first seven kings, five had come (Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius, and Claudius), one was currently in power (Nero), and one had not yet come (Galba), but would only remain a little time (six months). The current Caesar at the time of John’s writing was the sixth Caesar, Nero.

3. Those Who Pierced Him

As I discussed in depth in Raptureless, the Hebrew idiom “coming on clouds” speaks of God coming to bring judgment on a city or nation. That is what Jesus came to do in AD 70. Revelation 1:7 tells us who His judgment is against:

Lo, he doth come with the clouds, and see him shall every eye, even those who did pierce him, and wail because of him shall all the tribes of the land. Yes! Amen (Revelation 1:7 YLT).

Here, the phrase “those who did pierce him” refers to the people of the first century. According to this passage, they were expected to be alive at the time of Revelation’s fulfillment. The fact that “those who did pierce him” were not alive in AD 96, because they were killed in the slaughter of AD 70, is a clear indicator that Revelation was written before AD 70.

4. Jewish Persecution of Christians

The Jewish persecution of Christianity in Revelation 6 and 11 indicates a pre-AD 70 authorship. After the slaughter of AD 70, the Jews were not in a position to persecute the early Church. In fact, since AD 70, the Jews have never been in a position to be able to persecute Christians.

5. Judaizing Heretics in the Church

The activity of the Judaizing heretics in the Church (see Rev. 2:6,9,15; 3:9) is emphasized in the letters to the churches in Revelation. This tells us something about the dating of the letter, because the Judiazing heretics lost a great deal of influence after Paul’s epistles were circulated. Also, it makes sense that the heresy would have been a much smaller issue after so many Jews were slaughtered in AD 70. Only an early date of authorship allows for the heretics to be a significant problem.

6. Existence of Jerusalem and the Temple

The existence and integrity of Jerusalem and the Temple (see Rev. 11) suggest a date before the destruction of AD 70. If the Book of Revelation was written in AD 96, only twenty-six years after the destruction of the Temple and the Holy City, it is shocking John didn’t mention the recent massacre of the city and Temple.

7. Time-related Passages

The internal time-related portions of Revelation indicate that the events it foretells will come to pass shortly (see Rev. 1:1,3; 22:10,20). If this is read with an unbiased perspective, we can easily conclude Revelation was not written about events 2,000 years in the future. The time texts are bookends, which frame the content of the book.

8. John’s Appearance in AD 96

Another reason to believe the Book of Revelation was written at the earlier date is because Jerome noted in his writings that John was seen in AD 96 and that he was so old and infirm that “he was with difficulty carried to the church, and could speak only a few words to the people.”1 We must put this fact together with Revelation 10:11, which says John must “prophesy again concerning many peoples and nations and tongues and kings.” It is difficult to imagine John would be able to speak to many nations and many kings at any date after AD 96 since he was already elderly and feeble.

9. Timetable Comparison with Daniel

In Daniel, the author was told to “seal up the vision, for it is a long way off” (Dan. 12:4)—which referred to a 483-year wait until Jesus came to fulfill the prophecy. By contrast, in Revelation, John was told to “not seal up the vision because it concerns things which must shortly come to pass” (Rev 22:10). If 483 years was considered a long way off, meaning that the vision should be sealed, it makes no sense that 2,000 plus years would be considered “shortly to come to pass” and not to be sealed up. Clearly, the obvious answer is Revelation shouldn’t be sealed because it was about to happen at the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem.

10. Only Seven Churches

The existence of only seven churches in Asia Minor (see Rev. 1) also indicates a writing date before the greater expansion of Christianity into that region, which occurred after the fall of Jerusalem.

The Other Perspective

Those who believe in the later date of authorship for the Book of Revelation mainly lean on the fact that Irenaeus the Bishop of Lyons (AD 120–202) claimed John wrote while on Patmos under Domitian’s reign. This alone could seem compelling, except Irenaeus is noted for making mistakes in recording dates and times in his writings. Irenaeus is the same Church father who claimed Jesus’ ministry lasted nearly twenty years, from the age of thirty until the age of fifty.

Because Revelation contains no internal evidence for a later date of authorship, proponents of the later date must lean only upon external evidence to force this conclusion. Even the external evidence of Irenaeus is not a reliable source, and many scholars have even picked apart Irenaeus’ quote about the date of authorship as possibly being a very misunderstood quotation.

Kenneth Gentry has done the world an invaluable service by writing his doctoral dissertation on the dating of Revelation. His irrefutable paper is easily purchasable as a book under the title: Before Jerusalem Fell. John A.T. Robinson has also graced us all with his book, Redating the New Testament, in which he proves all the books of the New Testament were written before AD 70.

Considering these strong proofs for an early date of writing alongside the very poor evidence in favor of a later date, I believe it is common sense to date the writing of Revelation prior to AD 70.

How was the painting painted? What medium did the artist use?

Now that we have examined the masterpiece before us and determined the date it was painted, we must examine it within its larger context to understand the medium used and the backdrop on which it was created.  The context of the big picture of Revelation is the entire Bible and the history of Israel from Abraham to Jesus.

We struggle to understand the Book of Revelation because we struggle to understand the history of the Old Testament. If I asked a well-studied Christian to sketch out a rough timeline of the Old Testament, it would look something like this:

  • Adam and Eve (the Garden of Eden)
  • Noah (the Flood)
  • Abraham
  • Isaac
  • Jacob
  • Joseph
  • Egyptian slavery
  • Moses (the Exodus)
  • Joshua
  • the Judges
  • King Saul
  • King David
  • King Solomon

Overall, this rough timeline is excellent. The problem is not with what is written but with where it ends—with Solomon. After Solomon, the story gets too complicated for the modern teacher and preacher, and therefore, the modern pew-sitter never gets a handle on the Old Testament past the reign of King Solomon. However, to understand the Book of Revelation, one must especially understand the Old Testament after Solomon.

For the average Bible reader, the timeline breaks down after Solomon into a jumble of major and minor prophets, a divided kingdom, Elijah and Elisha, the exile to Babylon, and the return to rebuild Jerusalem. This whole section of texts becomes troublesome and challenging to relate to or understand. Allow me to iron out the timeline after Solomon, at least a little bit.

  • After Solomon was king, Israel divided into two kingdoms, which spiritually and morally went into drastic decline. Many evil rulers came and went in both kingdoms.
  • Elijah and Elisha fight against the tide of wickedness flooding into the divided kingdom
  • Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah prophesy a coming destruction upon Jerusalem for her wickedness
  • Babylon brought destruction upon the kingdom of Judah and took Daniel and others as captives. While Assyria destroyed the Northern Kingdom whose 10 tribes are now essentially lost to history.
  • Daniel writes the Book of Daniel while in Babylonian captivity.
  • Esther protects her people from destruction while still in captivity.
  • Finally the exile in Babylon ends, and the Israelites return to Jerusalem. They rebuild the city and the Temple under Ezra and Nehemiah.
  • Interspersed with the story from Solomon to Ezra and Nehemiah are the smaller books of the minor prophets.

The most important Old Testament book to a proper understanding of the Book of Revelation is Ezekiel. Ezekiel prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem in the Old Testament and gives a most stunning parallel of the Book of Revelation.

Examine carefully the following list of parallels between the contents of Revelation and Ezekiel:

  1. The Throne Vision (Rev. 4; Ezek. 1)
  2. The Book (Rev. 5; Ezek. 2–3)
  3. The Four Plagues (Rev. 6:1–8; Ezek. 5)
  4. The Slain under the Altar (Rev. 6:9–11; Ezek. 6)
  5. The Wrath of God (Rev. 6:12–17; Ezek. 7)
  6. The Seal on the Saint’s Foreheads (Rev. 7; Ezek. 9)
  7. The Coals from the Altar (Rev. 8; Ezek. 10)
  8. No More Delay (Rev. 10:1–7;  Ezek. 12)
  9. The Eating of the Book (Rev. 10:8–11; Ezek. 2)
  10. The Measuring of the Temple (Rev. 11:1–2; Ezek. 40–43)
  11. Jerusalem and Sodom (Rev. 11:8; Ezek. 16)
  12. The Cup of Wrath (Rev. 14; Ezek. 23)
  13. The Vine of the Land (Rev. 14:18–20; Ezek. 15)
  14. The Great Harlot (Rev. 17–18; Ezek. 16, 23)
  15. The Lament over the City (Rev. 18; Ezek. 27)
  16. The Scavengers’ Feast (Rev. 19; Ezek. 39)
  17. The First Resurrection (Rev. 20:4–6; Ezek. 37)
  18. The Battle with Gog and Magog (Rev. 20:7–9; Ezek. 38–39)
  19. The New Jerusalem (Rev. 21; Ezek. 40–48)
  20. The River of Life (Rev. 22; Ezek. 47)

Ezekiel is to the Old Testament what the Book of Revelation is to the New Testament. Ezekiel laid out the coming destruction of Jerusalem (by the Babylonians) in the Old Testament, and John used the same prophetic language to speak of the imminent coming destruction of Jerusalem in the New Testament. With that framework, the symbolism of Revelation is set in place and becomes simpler to interpret.

Also, Ezekiel is the turning point of the Old Testament. Before Ezekiel, from Adam to Solomon, the kingdom of Israel continually gained momentum. This momentum began to slow with the divided kingdom, but Ezekiel brought any remaining momentum to a screeching halt. His prophecy was followed by captivity, exile, a post-exilic return to Jerusalem, and a painful rebuilding process while still under a measure of captivity. After four hundred years of silence, the story of the Jews is resumed in the New Testament with Jerusalem under Roman oppression.

One crucial difference exists between Ezekiel’s (as well as Jeremiah’s, and Isaiah’s) prophecies of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the apostle John’s prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem. Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah all prophesied a future return to Jerusalem, which manifested through Ezra and Nehemiah. In contrast, John declared the utter devastation of Jerusalem with no re-gathering to the land.

  1. Ezekiel prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC.
  2. John prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
  1. Ezekiel prophesied the post-exilic return and rebuilding of Jerusalem (see Ezek. 34–37).
  2. John prophesied no such return and no rebuilding of Jerusalem.

Many scholars have struggled with and debated over the somewhat odd and choppy version of Greek the apostle John used to write the Book of Revelation. I believe this is simply solved by observing that John was taking on a different prose and style in order to prophesy in the manner of Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, his Old Testament shadows.

Thus we can see the backdrop of the whole Bible is needed to understand the point and purpose of Revelation. The painting is painted in this manner because of the biblical surroundings and backdrop of John’s day and the historical precedent of Ezekiel. John’s readers in the first century Church would have known the recent history of the Jews and would have recognized the parallels between Ezekiel’s prophecy and John’s. The fact that the modern Church has so poorly understood the meaning of Revelation demonstrates our lack of understanding regarding these very things.

Why did the artist choose to paint this painting?

Now for the third question—Why? Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record in their gospels an event referred to as the Olivet Discourse (see Matt. 24, Luke 21, Mark 13), Jesus’ longest recorded prophecy in the gospels. In it, Jesus declared the coming destruction of Jerusalem within a generation (forty years), which was fulfilled exactly by AD 70.

The gospel of John does not include this notable prophecy. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are named the synoptic gospels because they are somewhat parallel eyewitness accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In contrast, the gospel of John records many events that have no parallel in the synoptic gospels—for example, the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 or the unpopular “eat my flesh, drink my blood” sermon in John 6. John’s gospel is known as the more esoteric of the gospels, recording statements, sayings, encounters, and events that are much more mystical than the synoptic gospels; even a cursory reading makes this self-evident. Also, John’s letters—First, Second, and Third John—are similar, maintaining a heavenly and somewhat ethereal approach.

Therefore, when we get to John’s version of the Olivet Discourse, why would we expect anything different? Surely John heard the Olivet Discourse at the same time the synoptic writers did, yet he didn’t include this long prophecy in his gospel. Then, many years later, while on the Isle of Patmos, Jesus visits him with a much more detailed and dramatic version of the Olivet Discourse. John wrote his version of the Olivet Discourse as a direct vision on Patmos, likely within a decade of the actual fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy.

One of the main reasons John was finally writing this Olivet Discourse was because Jesus needed to give His Church a comforting update. From AD 30–70, the Church suffered terrible persecution at the hands of the Jewish Temple leaders. This greatly intensified in AD 64–68 under Nero, who made it his goal to completely annihilate Christianity. During this very difficult time, the Church needed encouragement from Jesus. They needed reassurance that He would be coming back soon, and that is just what Revelation gave them. Throughout Revelation, God tells His followers to be patient because His justice, wrath, and vengeance are coming very soon.

When the city of Babylon is destroyed in Revelation 18, the people of earth mourn, but in Revelation 19, all of Heaven rejoices at the destruction of the evil harlot-city. In this we see that Revelation was also intended to give the early Church Heaven’s perspective regarding the impending doom of Jerusalem in AD 70. God was saying, in essence, “Don’t mourn with the sinners over that wicked city, but rejoice that My justice is poured out. I have been patient to allow all people a chance to come to repentance, but now justice has been served. Rejoice!”

The purpose of the painter’s painting is to express his version of the Olivet Discourse, to give the early Church an update on the coming destruction, and to remind them of Heaven’s perspective regarding the impending events.

Where was the painting painted? What location does it reference?

Finally, we must consider the region the painting was painted in and also the region it refers to. Was our painting painted in France during the French Revolution or in Colonial America during the American Revolution? Is it a modern piece or was it upon the wall of a cave in ancient times?

Time Texts

To do this, we must first briefly revisit the topic of timing. Earlier, we established that the Book of Revelation was written before AD 68. After the early date of authorship is established, the next important key is the time-texts regarding the content of the book. As we noted previously, Revelation is an unsealed book (see Rev. 22:10) because the events were soon to take place, whereas Daniel is a sealed book (see Dan. 12:4) because its contents were regarding events in the then distant future of 500 years later.

Here is what the Book of Revelation says about the timing of its fulfillment:

  • What must Shortly take place (see Rev. 1:1)
  • For the time is near (see Rev. 1:3)
  • I am coming to you quickly (see Rev. 2:16)
  • I am coming quickly (see Rev. 3:11)
  • The third woe is coming quickly (see Rev. 11:14)
  • The things which must shortly take place (see Rev. 22:6)
  • Behold, I am coming quickly (see Rev. 22:7)
  • For the time is near (see Rev. 22:10)
  • Behold, I am coming quickly (see Rev. 22:12)
  • Yes, I am coming quickly (see Rev. 22:20)

An important principle of biblical interpretation is stated by the scholar Gordon Fee, “a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers.”1[AC4]  In other words, we cannot simply look at the texts that say “soon” and conclude it couldn’t be so because it was written 2000 years ago and we haven’t identified anything in history that fits what we think it should look like! This should not be. Instead, we must diligently treat the text with respect. Our ignorance of history gives us no allowance for such a conclusion.

The text says soon; therefore, we must look for a soon fulfillment that respects the text. We also must not do violence to the text by forcing it to fit into history. If it fits into history, it should fit beautifully and with such smoothness as to not violate the conscience in the least. I believe Revelation does just that—if we understand it in its proper location, which is not the entire globe but the small region of the world where it was created and where its original audience lived.

Location

The modern reader has been trained to read Revelation as if it was written about a global catastrophe. Unfortunately, our English translations are careless with the details regarding location. For example, when Revelation writes about a third of the grass, a third of the trees, and a third of the earth (see Rev. 8), the modern reader imagines this on a global scale. Yet the original wording of the Greek manuscripts paints an extremely different picture.

In the Greek, we must understand two words regarding location.

The first word is ge, which is used sixty-seven times in Revelation. It refers to a local inhabited civilization or the land of a particular nation.

 The second word is kosmos, which is used three times in Revelation (see Rev. 11:15; 13:8; 17:8). It refers to the entire globe, the entirety of planet earth and the heavens.

The apostle John often used this word, kosmos, in his other writings—a whopping fifty-seven times in his gospel and seventeen times in First John alone. Yet he chose not to use it in Revelation because he was not writing about a global event. This is an incredibly important point!

From this simple study of these two words translated as “world,” we can see that the Book of Revelation was not written about a global catastrophe but a local catastrophe. The contents of the entire Book of Revelation refer to local (ge) events, not global (kosmos) events.

Summary

We have taken a step back and observed the large painting of Revelation, noting the timing, method, purpose, and context of its creation. With this framework—the when, how, why, and where—in place, we can now look at the particulars and interpret them in the context they were meant to be understood in.

       

PART 2

The Nine Major Components

Now, join me as I take two steps closer to the painting and begin pointing out its major elements. No longer are we looking at the bigger picture, but neither are we looking at the minute details. The painting before us has seven major components: trees, grass, a pond, fences, flowers, deer, rabbits, sky, and the sun. Similarly, the Book of Revelation is comprised of nine main elements—an introduction, seven visions, and an epilogue. Each of these visions is added on top of the previous vision so that the painting has a layering effect.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • The Introduction (Rev. 1:1–7)
  • First Vision—The Seven Churches (Rev. 1:8–3:22)
  • Second Vision—The Seven Seals (Rev. 4:1–8:5)
  • Third Vision—The Seven Trumpets (Rev. 8:6–11:19)
  • Fourth Vision—Followers of the Lamb or the Beast (Rev. 12:1–14)
  • Fifth Vision—The Seven Bowls of Wrath (Rev. 15:1, 5–16:21)
  • Sixth Vision—The Babylonian Harlot (Rev. 17–19:21)
  • Seventh Vision—The New Heavens and New Earth (Rev. 20:1–22:11)
  • The Epilogue (Rev 22:12–21)

Although I will not be able to examine the specific colors or brushstrokes used within these nine major components, I will give you some major interpretive keys that will give you a lens you can use to effectively study the book in more depth. This short book is intended merely as an introduction to get you pointed in the right direction.

Although I will not be able to examine the specific colors or brushstrokes used within these nine major components, I will give you some major interpretive keys that will give you a lens you can use to effectively study the book in more depth. This short book is intended merely as an introduction to get you pointed in the right direction.