The Book of Revelation was written at the closing of the first century in the island of Patmos off the coast of Asia Minor. The book is hard to read because of intricate and unusual symbolic language — apocalyptic literature — of ancient times. There are five major visions central to the book plus a prologue and an epilogue. The author, John the Elder, claims he heard behind him a loud voice, like a trumpet (Rev 1:11), telling him to write what he was about to see.
In Vision I, John sees seven lampstands representing the seven churches of Asia Minor, and then he is told to write letters to the churches. Asia Minor would become a key area for the expansion of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
In Vision II, John sees a scroll with seven seals, one for each trumpet, which are opened one at a time. The first four seals are very brief, the fifth is longer and the sixth climaxes the sequence and is followed by a longer vision. The overall impact of Vision II shows the dire and precarious position the faithful are contemporarily encountering as they wait for Christ’s Second Coming: famine, plague, oppression, and woe.
Vision III opens with the three Signs in Heaven, the literary and ideological centerpiece of Revelation. They explain the reason apocalyptical woes and suffering of Vision II afflict our generation. The war on Earth is a continuation of a cosmic war begun in Heaven between God and Satan (Rev 12:1-17). The Great Red Dragon is thrown down to Earth with his evil angels and they began warfare with the saints (Rev 12:18). The Dragon elects two helpers, “the beast from the sea” (Rev 13:1-10) and “the beast from the land” (Rev 13:11-18), who force Humanity to worship the Dragon and the first beast. God also sends his angelic army to Earth, led by the “Lamb who had been slain,” to fight the army of the dragon and the beasts (Rev 14:1-20).
Vision IV fulfills the implications of the central scenes in Vision III: the “beast from the sea” with seven heads is the Emperor of Rome, the “beast from the land” is either the provincial governor of Asia or the high priest of the imperial cult, the woman sat on the beast with seven heads as a symbol of the seven hills of Rome, and the seven heads are also emperors of Rome. Vision IV shows the final judgments against the evil forces of the Roman Empire, and the final rewards of the faithful.
The author considered the religious and political force of Roman as a threat. It arose in Ephesus after the year 89 when Domitian instituted a new imperial cult sanctuary dedicated to his family, the Flavian dynasty. Domitian tolerated no disagreement with his policies, but there is no clear indication that he consciously tried to persecute Christians for their faith. The imperial cult was a form of loyalty and honor to the Emperor and a public duty of all citizens in a city like Ephesus.
There was an existential crisis facing Christians — a pressure for Christians to participate in the imperial cult’s religious festivals. The author wrote to resolve this crisis by alienating Christian form the enticements of participation in pagan society and the imperial cult.
The traditional view of Revelation grew from circumstances of persecution. Therefore, it is traditionally assumed a direct persecution to Christians during the reign of Domitian and the exile and imprisonment of John in Patmos. The purpose of Revelation was to prepare and strengthen the Christians of Asia Minor to remain faithful against the incoming persecution. We should read “The Book of Revelation” as a religious response to the crisis of Christians facing opposition in the Roman world.
Vision V unfolds the cosmic drama: the fall of Rome, the triumph of the armies of God, and the restoration of Jerusalem. The events described in the Book of Revelation occurred in the Roman Empire and we must interpret them in that ancient historical context. Yet, the book is a timeliness universal message of God for all human generations, because the events described in the Book of Revelation after Chapter III are futuristic and will happen as The End Times and Christ’s Second Coming.