To understand why there is a need for such an unveiling, imagine yourself in the following situation:
The first Christians lived in eager expectation of Christ’s return. But sixty years after his death it still had not happened, persecution was increasing, and some were beginning to doubt. So Revelation’s letters to the churches, and the book as a whole, were needed to encourage them to stand firm. God is in control, no matter how things may look. Christ, not the emperor, is Lord of history. He has the key of destiny itself. And he is coming again to execute justice. There is a glorious, wonderful future for every faithful believer—and especially for those who lay down their lives for Christ.
There are indications within the book itself that Christians are being persecuted for their faith and that the persecution is growing more intense and widespread. John himself is suffering because of his commitment to Christ (1:9):
I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
We are told that the church at Ephesus has persevered and endured hardship and has not grown weary (2:3). Note also what Jesus says to the church at Smyrna (2:9–10):
9I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
Antipas, a faithful witness to Jesus, was put to death in the city of Pergamum (2:13). The Philadelphian Christians have little strength, but they have kept Jesus’ word and have not denied his name (3:8). At the opening of the fifth seal, John sees the souls of “those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (6:9). There are also a number of places where we are told that pagan powers have shed the blood of the saints (ch. 13; 16:5–6; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2; 20:4).
Much of this persecution was already taking place by the end of the first century during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (AD 81–96). The standard sources from that time period (e.g., Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius) characterize Domitian as savage, cruel, devious, sexually immoral, mad, and evil. Pliny’s description of the palace under Domitian doesn’t sound like a place where you would want to hang out:
[It is the] place where . . . that fearful monster built his defences with untold terrors, where lurking in his den he licked up the blood of his murdered relatives or emerged to plot the massacre and destruction of his most distinguished subjects. Menaces and horror were the sentinels at his doors . . . always he sought darkness and mystery, and only emerged from the desert of his solitude to create another (Pan. 48.3–5).
Domitian wanted his subjects to address him as dominus et deus noster (“our lord and god”). Many of the titles given to first-century Roman emperors were similar to titles Christians gave to Jesus. For Christians, the earliest and most basic confession was “Jesus is Lord.” When Christians refused to confess “Caesar is Lord” in worship of the emperor, they were considered disloyal to the state and were subject to persecution. At this time in history the pressure to bow to the emperor was becoming more widespread and systematic.
But don’t get the impression that every Christian in Asia Minor was standing strong against persecution. When faced with the threat of suffering for their faith, many remained faithful and suffered, but some were openly denying Christ, and others were trying to strike a deal with the pagan powers. Some Christians reverted to Judaism, a legal religion of the Roman Empire, in order to escape trouble. Others joined trade guilds to avoid economic difficulty, but in those trade guilds they often had to participate in idolatry. Still others were led astray by false teachers.
The messages to the seven churches are filled with warnings for those tempted to turn away from Christ and to compromise with the world system. Ephesus has forsaken her first love (2:4). Some in Pergamum and Thyatira are following false teachers (2:14–15, 20). Sardis has a reputation of being alive, but it is dead (3:1). Then there is lukewarm Laodicea, which the Lord is about to spit out of his mouth (3:16).
Revelation is filled with comfort for those who are being persecuted and warnings for those who are trying to avoid it. As Craig Keener puts it, “Revelation speaks to churches both alive and dead, but more of the churches are in danger of compromising with the world than of dying from it.” The historical context is one in which false religion has formed a partnership with pagan political power. One result is that those who claim to follow Christ are beginning to face tremendous pressure. Will they compromise with the world to avoid persecution, or will they openly confess Christ, knowing that it may cost them their lives? As we read Revelation in light of its historical context, we see that the book offers hope for those who are suffering and challenge for those who are complacent.
A major part of interpreting the Bible properly is paying careful attention to the literary genre. It is like playing a game by the right set of rules. If we really want to grasp this mysterious and captivating book, we need to understand the kind of book it is intended to be. Let’s now look more closely at the literary genre of Revelation.