Revelation—Who Wrote That Crazy Book?
By Pastor George Van Alstine
Anyone familiar with our New Testament knows that the Apostle Paul is the traditionally-accepted author of thirteen letters, nearly half of the New Testament books. In every one of these he clearly identifies himself as the person who wrote the book (though many modern scholars question the genuineness of this claim in his later epistles).
But most people don’t realize which author is traditionally held to be responsible for the second largest number of New Testament books. It is the Apostle John, whose name appears in the heading of five books: the Gospel of John, the First, Second and Third Epistles of John, and the book called Revelation (“The Revelation to John”). In contrast to Paul, John did not normally identify himself as the author. The Gospel of John repeatedly speaks of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7,20,24), and Bible students believe this was John’s self-effacing way of referring to himself. The First Epistle’s author doesn’t mention himself at all. In the Second and Third Epistles, the writer calls himself “the elder,” which some scholars see as another oblique way a humble leader might describe himself, while others believe “elder” is the title of one of John’s successors in church leadership.
The Book of Revelation is the one composition John actually put his name to. He calls himself simply “John,” without the title “Apostle,” at the beginning (Revelation 1:1,4,9) and the end (22:8) of his fantastic account of the end-times vision he had experienced. He refers to himself with the humblest of terms: Christ’s “servant” (“bond-slave,” vs. 1), “your brother who share(s) with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance” (vs.9). There is no superiority in his tone. His intimate first-person experience with Jesus, his years of personally blazing faith-trails in establishing churches, his imprisonment and exile for giving public testimony about the gospel—none of these made him any better than they; he still saw himself as just another fellow-pilgrim.
The Book of Revelation is not my favorite portion of the Bible. It’s full of hard-to-understand symbolism and threats of violent judgment. Not surprisingly, many scholars have serious doubts about John’s authorship of the book, even though his name is mentioned four times. Personally, I’m inclined to believe that John really is the author. If someone else were trying to pass this off as authentic, they would be likely to headline John’s credentials— “John the Apostle, one of Jesus’ three inner-circle disciples.” But when the author refers to himself as a “bond-slave” and a “brother” who “shares” equally with the common believers he’s writing to, that sounds like John himself, who never seemed to blow his own horn.
Here’s what historical studies seem to show about John’s later life. Early church traditions indicate that he moved away from Jerusalem to become the key leader in the church at Ephesus. Some ancient writers say he emerged to be the Bishop over a number of churches in the western part of Asia Minor, possibly including the seven churches he prophesied about in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. From this vantage point, he viewed with alarm the increasing tension between the Jewish leaders in Palestine and their Roman occupiers, leading finally to the dramatic destruction of Jerusalem and its great Temple, where Jesus had worshiped and taught. What powerful emotions he must have felt when he heard that the Temple had fallen. He was quite possibly the last remaining apostle alive in 70 AD when this occurred. He must have felt very isolated.
The Roman repression of the Jews spilled over to the growing Christian community. Every Christian meeting was seen as a possible breeding ground for rebellion and terrorism. Believers were imprisoned, tortured, or crucified without trial. This created panic and turmoil as far away as John’s Ephesus in Asia Minor. The old Bishop was arrested as a leader of this dangerous movement. To keep him quiet, the Romans exiled him to Patmos, a rocky, treeless island off the coast southwest of Ephesus. It was there that he had the awesome visions he later wrote about in the Book of Revelation.
Now that I understand a little more about the time and place John was writing from, I think I’m ready to go back and reread his dramatic account of the visions God gave him. However strange and foreign the details may seem, the ultimate message is clear: Whatever evil forces may threaten us—the Roman legions, Bin Laden and the Taliban, or all the forces of Satan and Hell—our Lord is secure on the throne over human history. As he said at the opening of John’s revelation,
“I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, who is and who was and who is to come, the almighty.” (Revelation 1:8)