First, the name is clearly in the singular, Revelation, from the Greek word, apocalypse. While there are an enormous number of competing images evoked in the words of the Book of Revelation, it is clear the author was telling about a revelation he received from God and which he was to deliver to seven churches. The revelation is singular.
Second, the book takes the form in some regard of a letter (especially our text Revelation 1:1-8). But it also refers to itself as prophecy (Revelation 1:3, 22:7, 10, 18-19). The most obvious genre that influenced it is the type of literature we call an apocalypse. It has all of the characteristics of an apocalypse: dualistic concepts and symbolic language that reveals the hopeful, surviving remnant provided by God's intervention from the present dangerous times.
Third, the historical circumstances that produced the book represent a time of persecution of Christians. The author, a person with the name of John but not easily agreed as to which John it is, received his vision on Patmos. The time of writing could be either during the severe persecutions of Nero (the 54-68 CE/AD) or at least remembering that time (given the play with the number 666 and its relationship to the name Nero) or more likely written in the Domitian era (81-96 CE/AD) when the Imperial Cult was strenuously emphasized and honored. Revelation makes the case that God instead must be honored and trusted.
Today one method of interpreting Revelation found in popular literature has taken the book as though it applies directly to our time. The urgency is derived from seeing in current events the realization of all the doom and gloom portrayed in Revelation. Another approach has been to assume that the book applies to the time in which it was written and the readers of that time
would have understood everything that is being said. Therefore it must have few practical implications for today. Of course there are still others who bring together these two means of interpreting Revelation to see a kind of universal set of implications.
We cannot forget the liturgical elements that influenced the formation of the book. In some sense there is nothing new in Revelation. It has been said that out of the 404 verses of the Book of Revelation there are over 500 direct allusions to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The words and images borrow heavily from praise (Revelation 1:5-6 one example from the current text), importance of numbers and other symbolic references to animals, and colors. In some cases elements are interpreted directly in Revelation itself (Revelation 1:20; etc.).
Revelation 1:1-8 is made up of several elements.
- Title (Revelation 1:1-2)
- Beatitudes (Revelation 1:3)
- Letter elements (Revelation 1:4-5c)
- Doxology (Revelation 1:5d-6)
- Prophetic oracles (Revelation 1:7-8)
The title points to the authority of the revelation; namely God gave it to Jesus Christ who gave it to John who in turn passes it on to the seven churches. In the midst of suffering persecution the urgency for turning to Jesus is noted. Many think the testimony is to be read aloud and may be a signal to us that even the sound of the words impart meaning. This reading aloud is indicative of a liturgical element such that the entire revelation may have been read at one time. The reader and those who hear and obey (repeated again at the end in Revelation 22:7) are blessed. This is the first of seven blessings that occur throughout Revelation (Revelation 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14). Furthermore the prophetic quality of the revelation to John implies that Revelation has authority along with other prophetic texts that would have been read at the same time. The shift to "us" in Revelation 1:5-6 is further indication of this communal setting.
The epistolary (letter) elements, written to a community just as Paul wrote, are the least mysterious parts of Revelation focusing on grace from beginning to end. When Revelation turns to the vivid, perplexing imagery in the vast middle of the book interpreters sense that all that is present is a "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." We hear at the beginning of Revelation, "Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come...." Near the end repeated for the third time we hear of the continuing grace. The Alpha and the Omega (first and last letters of the Greek alphabet) refer to God's constancy from beginning to end. In Revelation 21:6 , "I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end" refers to God. Then in Revelation 22:13 the Alpha and Omega refer to Jesus. All the time concentrating on the constancy of grace. People felt lost, powerless, and hopeless but Revelation confirms that there is one who endures and is by our side. So at the end of the book we find it wrapped up just as it began with the concluding element of a letter, We are told, "The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen" (Revelation 22:21). As one interpreter says, we may not always be able to "crack the code" of Revelation or solve all the mysteries but we are left with the assurance that God in his son Jesus Christ is with us.
Graphic is from John Martin (1789-1854)