Why take Revelation seriously?
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.
(Revelation 1:1-2, ESV)
The introduction to the last book of the Bible gives us good reasons why we should read it. We’re promised blessing if we do (Revelation 1:3). The book is addressed to real people in real, struggling churches (1:11) - so all the strange-seeming symbols it contains are relevant to us. Most of all, it purports to have been given by the risen Christ himself, giving the writer a window into heaven and ‘what must take place’ (4:1).
But there is a problem. Why should we believe the writer, when he says he saw all this? If you or I were to claim an experience like that, would anyone take us seriously? I’m not sure we give this troubling question sufficient consideration - or that we look carefully enough at the way the writer himself answers it.
A large part of that answer comes in the author’s identity. Three times (1:1, 4, 9) he introduces himself as John. No other New Testament letter has its author identifying himself so emphatically. Clearly it matters that the writer is John.
Which John? The fact that he only has to use his name suggests that he is well enough known to the early Christian community to need little further introduction. He must be a figure of great prominence.
But it seems he does give us a bit more of an introduction. Verse 2 says he’s the John who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.
This is often taken as if he’s saying, “I’m telling you, I saw all you’re about to read!” Indeed, the NIV translates his bearing witness as in the present tense: John, who testifies…
In the Greek, however, John’s referring to past acts of telling - not about what he’s about to say in Revelation. It was on account of his past testifying that he ended up on Patmos (1:9, same expression). So it seems to me much more probable that what he’s doing here is to identify himself as an eyewitness of the historical Jesus Christ. If Revelation is dated in the Emperor Domitian’s reign (ca. 95AD), he’s saying he’s the same John who for years now has been preaching the testimony about Jesus set out in his gospel. That is a gospel which, as here, strongly emphasises eyewitness testimony.
Certainly the style of introduction of Revelation - John to the seven churches that are in Asia - Grace to you and peace… resembles other letters from the Apostles. And some of the very earliest church fathers, Irenaeus and Justin Martyr - both in the second century - attribute Revelation to the Apostle John. (Some have argued against this identification on the grounds that linguistically the fourth gospel and Revelation differ, but they are well-answered in standard commentaries.)
If Revelation came not just to some random individual but to the John who wrote the fourth gospel, then it sits in the mainstream of the apostolic testimony to Jesus. It is a man who already knew Jesus who heard Him speak. It is a fulfilment of Jesus’ own promise to teach his Apostles all things (John 14:26). This is why this book is in the Bible, and why we should read it as the word of Christ to us.
Which, God willing, we plan to do this autumn as a church, starting at the end of September!