Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Revelation

rev. by Kristofer Phan Coffman (01/2023)


The Greek word apokalypsis or “apocalypse” appears in Revelation 1:1, and it simply means “revelation.” For this reason, this book is sometimes referred to as “The Apocalypse of John.” The term “apocalypse” has also been given to other ancient writings that are written in a form like that of Revelation. Examples include Daniel 7-12, Mark 13, and the book known as 2 Esdras (or 4 Ezra), which is found in the Apocrypha. An apocalypse is a narrative in which an angelic being reveals a supernatural world to a human recipient and points to salvation at the end of time. Usually the revelations are given through a rich array of images. When writing the book of Revelation, John used a literary form that would have been familiar to his readers.

Female imagery

Revelation includes the contrasting female images of Babylon the whore and new Jerusalem the bride (17:1-6; 21:2), while the people of God are pictured as a woman giving birth (12:1-17). One of John’s opponents is the female false prophet Jezebel (2:20). Some find this use of female imagery problematic, since it seems to limit women’s roles. Others point out that these female figures play strong roles in the book, that male images such as the beast function similarly, and that John’s opponents include men (2:14).


Revelation includes visions of Christian martyrs calling out for God to see that justice is done (6:9-11). The book also warns that the powers of evil will work to bring about the deaths of more Christians (12:17; 13:7; 17:6), while assuring readers that the martyrs will have a future place in God’s kingdom (20:4-6). Revelation does not glorify martyrdom or imply that Christians should seek it out. Rather, the book encourages all Christians to remain faithful in the face of opposition, knowing that God will not forsake God’s people but will bring them everlasting life.


Revelation includes visions that unfold in patterns of seven seals, trumpets, and bowls. Some passages play on the number 12, since there are 12 gates to the new Jerusalem and 144,000 is the number used for the people of God. Such numbers do indicate completeness, as does the number 1,000, but they have no secret meaning. A special case is 666, the number of the beast, which corresponds to the name of a person (13:18). The most likely interpretation of this particular number is that it corresponds to the name Nero Caesar.

Old Testament and Revelation

Revelation uses Old Testament language and imagery in nearly every chapter, making clear that the God of the prophets is the God to whom John bears witness. Surprisingly, Revelation does not include any exact quotations of the Old Testament. This flexible use of the Old Testament helps to show that God will be faithful and keep the promises made through the prophets, yet John does not assume that these promises will be fulfilled in a mechanistic way.


Revelation identifies itself as a book of prophecy (1:3). In today’s popular thought, prophecy is often equated with prediction, but this is not the way Revelation itself refers to prophecy. False prophets in the book are not faulted for making false predictions but for encouraging people to worship false gods (2:20; 16:13-14). Similarly, true prophets are not said to make true predictions but to call people to worship God and Christ (11:3; 19:10). Revelation is a true prophecy because it bears inspired witness to the true God and to the Lamb.

Seven spirits

Revelation periodically refers to seven spirits. These spirits burn like torches before God’s throne and are the seven eyes of Christ the Lamb (1:4; 4:5; 5:6). The identity of these spirits is disputed. Some think they are seven angels or angelic spirits. Others think that the number seven signifies completeness and that the seven spirits are a way to speak of the Holy Spirit.

Symbolic language

Revelation communicates much of its message through vivid word pictures. The agent of God is Jesus, pictured as a Lamb, and the agent of Satan is the beast. These word pictures do not conceal Revelation’s meaning but reveal something about the way God works, in contrast to the ways of evil. Many of the word pictures point to things of abiding significance. Just as the Lamb was real for people in the first century and remains real for people today, the beast symbolizes oppressive powers that were at work in John’s time and they remain at work today.

Synagogue of Satan

Revelation twice notes that Christians were being slandered by some from the local Jewish communities, whom the book calls a synagogue of Satan (2:9; 3:9). It is important to note that there apparently were Jewish communities in all seven of the cities mentioned in Revelation 2-3 and that there seems to have been conflicts between Christians and Jews in only two of these places. John does not demonize all Jews but is sharply critical of synagogue members who denounce Christians, since their words could have led to Christians being imprisoned and possibly killed.


Revelation includes many visions in which there are destructive plagues and battles between the forces of God and the powers of evil. The book assumes that the powers of evil seek to ruin the earth and that God the Creator must therefore overthrow these powers (11:18). Significantly, the followers of Jesus are sometimes pictured as the victims of violence, but they are not the perpetrators of violence. They resist evil, but in the end the defeat of tyrannical powers comes through the word of Christ (19:15).

What will happen “soon” 

Revelation says that things will happen “soon,” giving the impression that it describes events that are to occur shortly after the book was written (1:1-3; 22:20). Nevertheless, more than nineteen centuries have passed since Revelation was composed. Revelation speaks of things happening soon, yet the visions John describes do not unfold according to ordinary chronological time. An hour or a day in the visionary world does not equal the same amount of time in the ordinary world. Revelation does not offer readers any way to predict when the end will come.

John’s odd Greek

Though it is not apparent in English translations, John writes the Greek language in an idiosyncratic fashion, sometimes writing phrases that conflict with the usual rules of Greek grammar. Some scholars believe that this is because Revelation is a translation of an earlier work in Aramaic or Hebrew. Others see John’s prophetic ecstasy as causing his grammatical mistakes. The most likely explanation is that John is bilingual and that Greek is not his first language, so that at times, the grammar of Greek causes him difficulty.