Toward Understanding the New Testament
Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin

Chapter 15
The Tradition of John

[p.362]The Johannine literary tradition includes the Gospel of John, the First, Second, and Third Letters of John, and The Revelation to John, sometimes referred to as the Apocalypse. Traditionally the authorship of all of these has been assigned to John, presumably John the son of Zebedee, one of the apostles of Jesus. Since the time of Justin Martyr, the view that John wrote all five documents has been widely held but by no means universally accepted. There is little internal evidence to support this claim.1 Reference in Papias that “John the divine and James his brother were killed by Jews” and the possible allusion to the martyrdom of James and John in Mark’s Gospel (10:38f) tend to confirm the fact that their deaths took place before 70 CE, too early for the Johannine authors. Moreover, the great differences in style, vocabulary, and viewpoint evident among these five documents severely undermine the case for their common authorship.

The question of the authorship of the “John” literature is still far from settled. Why were all five writings regarded from ancient times as Johannine? Or why was the name “John” ascribed to two documents so glaringly different as John’s Gospel and The Revelation to John? There may have been three, possibly four, different persons involved in these writings. It is likely, though not certain, that the anonymous person who authored the Fourth Gospel also wrote 1 John. A second person referred to by that name, called John “the Elder,” wrote 2 and probably 3 John, and a third was the author of the Apocalypse.2 But it is not the name “John” [p.363]but rather the doctrine of the Spirit that best identifies these writings as the Johannine tradition.3 The close connection between “the Spirit” in John’s Gospel and the spirit of prophecy in The Revelation to John relates both documents to the same school of thought.4 Apocalyptic prophecy was common among the Jews from the time of the Maccabees and was strong among the early Jewish Christians. Christian apocalyptic literature was laced with futuristic predictions of the last day, the “uncovering” or disclosure of events at the end of the age, the coming of the heavenly Christ, and the overthrow of the antichrist. These eschatological themes appear in the Johannine letters but in the Revelation to John are so vividly detailed that they have had a lasting impact on Christian imagery, myth, theology, and religion.

Apocalypticism and the Apocalypse

Christianity began as an eschatological movement. For approximately a century following the crucifixion and resurrection it retained much of its enthusiasm for the doctrines of the Parousia, the second coming of Jesus, and the imminent end of the age. Christian eschatology had its origin in that Jewish apocalyptic eschatology which developed in the post-exilic era under Persian, Egyptian, and Hellenistic influence. That apocalyptic was a flourishing Jewish religious literary genre in Palestine at the time of Jesus is evident from a study of the Dead Sea Scrolls.5 The Essenes, [p.364]the people of the Scrolls, were Jews who regarded themselves as faithful to the tradition of the Law and the prophets and sought a purification of the faith and ritual, but they looked for the end when God would break through into human history to destroy evil and usher in the Golden Age of truth, light, and saving knowledge.6

The earth cries aloud at the ruin
which has been wrought in the world;
all its sentient beings shout;
all who are upon it go mad
and melt in utter ruin.
For God thunders with the noise of his might,
and his holy dwelling re-echoes with his glorious truth;
the host of heaven utter their voice;
the external foundations melt and shake;
and the war of the mighty ones of heaven
rushes about in the world and turns not back
until the full end decreed forever;
and there is nothing like it.7

From its beginning early Jewish Christianity was a messianic-apocalyptic movement begun by John the Baptist and after his execution led by Jesus of Nazareth. The apocalyptic anticipation of the imminent end of the age, with Jesus as the supernatural Son of Man and agent of the transformation, was a distinctive feature of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem and was as well a dominant feature in Paul’s writings and in the beliefs of the Hellenistic Christians to whom he ministered.8

That the primitive Christians adopted but modified Jewish apocalyptic themes is evident from a comparison of first-century [p.365]Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writings. Apocalyptic is a special form of eschatology, the teaching concerning the end of things.9 Eschatology generally presents an optimistic view of the ultimate end of history—that history is under the control of the deity, that whatever its direction there will eventually be an ideal end, a golden age or the coming of God’s Kingdom. Details of the End are generally missing in eschatological writings; the end is distantly future and is usually left undefined and vague. The movement of history toward that future goal may be gradual or evolutionary.

Apocalyptic is a form of eschatology in which the events of the end of the age are detailed, often vividly portrayed in symbolic imagery. The end is sharply defined by the impact of divine or supernatural intervention in human history. In the apocalyptic vision the end comes about in a series of cataclysmic events. Apocalyptic is revolutionary rather than evolutionary.

The theology of Jewish apocalyptic is often called crisis theology because it often issued from tragic historical situations, as, for example, the persecution of the Jews by the Syrian Greeks under Antiochus IV. In the face of terrible persecution, it seemed as if all of God’s promises were about to be reversed by political and military events. The apocalypse that issued from the Syrian persecution was the Book of Daniel, which affirmed God’s goodness and power in the face of the most catastrophic defeats by projecting the promises of fulfillment across history to the end of the age. On that day God would intervene in the course of history and fulfill his purposes for his people.

Jewish apocalyptic writings generally contain certain formal features. First is the use of a pseudonym in place of the author’s own name. The name of some great historical personage is attached to the document to gain the authority of that person and to guarantee acceptance. Second, the substance of the author’s message is found in revelations received usually in visions, sometimes in dreams. His apocalypse is presented as a vision describing critical events taking place in the author’s own time as the fulfillment of [p.366]past prophecy. The accounts do not clearly identify by name the countries or persons involved but instead make use of images and symbols. Finally, and most important, such visions of God guarantee the outcome of human history.10 The parable of Enoch on the future lot of the wicked and the righteous is an excellent example of the Jewish apocalyptic form.

The words of the blessing of Enoch, wherewith he blessed the elect [and] righteous who will be living in the day of tribulation, when all the wicked [and godless] are to be removed. And he took up his parable and said—Enoch a righteous man, whose eyes were opened by God, saw the vision of the Holy One in the heavens, [which] the angels showed me, and from them I heard everything, and from them I understood as I saw, but not for this generation, but for a remote one which is to come.11

Jewish apocalyptic also features model heros and martyrs, those who persevered in the faith even at the cost of their lives. Eleazar and the seven sons in IV Maccabees and Daniel are cases in point. Messianism is a significant feature of some Jewish apocalyptic documents. The Messiah, one anointed by God as his agent, would appear at the Last Day to bring about the events leading to the fulfillment of the divine promises, the rewarding of the righteous and the punishment of the ungodly.

Apocalyptic became a primary literary-faith response to crises in history among Jewish writers from ca. 200 BCE to 154 CE. [p.367]Prophecy was an important element in this apocalyptic frame but not in the sense understood by Amos, Hosea, or Micah of the eighth century BCE, prophets who spoke forth for God on crucial matters which Israel encountered in their own time. Rather, apocalyptic prophecy was foretelling events of the future. For the apocalyptic prophets the experience of God was not primarily hearing, as in the case of the classical prophets, but rather a “seeing,” as in a vision or dream, the events of the end of the age. Also, apocalyptic was a national eschatology, bringing hope for the nation’s future, for political as well as religious redemption.

The Christian response to crisis in the first century was not primarily apocalyptic and therefore Christian apocalyptic writings are relatively few. The Revelation or Apocalypse of John is the only Jewish type apocalyptic book in the New Testament canon. However, the canon includes the so-called “little apocalypse” of Mark 13, a notable example of apocalyptic writings and important for the Christian faith.12

The characteristic form of the Christian apocalyptic is shown in Mark’s apocalyptic sermon.

And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, … there will be earthquakes in various places, …

But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven,…

And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect. … (13:7f, 24-27)

Undoubtedly, the Christian form and content of apocalyptic prophecy were based on such books as Daniel in the Old Testament and the Book of Enoch in the Pseudepigrapha:

I saw the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man,
[p.368]and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.

And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away. … (Dan. 7:13f)13

And there I saw One, who had a head of days

And His head was white like wool,

And with Him was another being whose countenance had the appearance of a man,…

And I asked the angel who went with me and showed me all the hidden things, concerning that Son of Man, who he was, and whence he was, [and] why he went with the Head of Days?

And he answered and said unto me:
This is the Son of Man who hath righteousness, …
And who revealeth all the treasures of that which is hidden.
(The Book of Enoch, XLVI, 1-3)14

The idea of prophetic prediction within the frame of apocalyptic is an essential aspect of earliest Christian thought dating back to possibly before Paul. There were at least three different ways of establishing the authority of one’s credentials as a prophet and apostle: being a descendant of David (dynastic Christianity); as a personal witness (the apostolic way); or having the gift of God’s spirit of prophecy (the prophetic, charismatic way).

Dynastic Christianity was Jewish and eschatological. The restoration of the Davidic kingdom and the expectation of the imminent coming of God’s Messiah were at the heart of the Jewish Christian proclamation. Apparently James, “the brother of the Lord,” was head of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem for a time. His leading role in settling the circumcision issue, for instance, is well documented in Acts of the Apostles (Acts 15:13-21).

Both apostolic and prophetic credentials are discussed by Paul. His claim to be an apostle differs from that of Peter and the other apostles in that his calling was by a special revelation of the risen Christ. Peter’s claim was his personal witness of Jesus’s words and deeds during his mortal ministry.

[p.369]Prophecy as a gift of the Spirit was an important part of Paul’s teaching. In 1 Thessalonians Paul instructs the congregation, “Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying” (1 Thes 5:19f). In 1 Corinthians he speaks of “prophetic powers,” and in his pronouncements about the gifts of the Spirit, he speaks of the need to pursue the spiritual gifts, especially prophecy (1 Cor 13:2, 14:1-3). In Paul’s day, glossolalia, speaking in tongues, as a gift of the Spirit was a strong feature of church worship but prophecy was probably seen as less threatening to the order and stability of the church. Paul admonished the congregation in Corinth to seek the gift of prophecy for the edification of the church rather than to speak in tongues. “How shall I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?” (1 Cor 14:3-6). As a recommendation for church order he says, “Let two or three prophets speak … you can all prophesy one by one” (1 Cor 14:29, 31).

In the Acts of the Apostles there are several references to the activity of prophets and to prophecy. Although the book of Acts in its present form was probably written ca. 80-90 CE, it may have included materials from an older stratum of the Palestinian tradition, material about Christian prophets, who presumably had considerable influence on the earliest Christian communities. Such a prophet, Agabus, is reported to have come down from Jerusalem to Antioch. He foretold “by the Spirit” that there would be a great famine, which, according to the author, took place in the days of Claudius (Acts 11:27). Later, Agabus is reported to have prophesied the imprisonment of Paul (Acts 21:10f). Also, the author of Acts says that “in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers” (Acts 13:1). These were prophets on the model of the Books of Samuel and Kings, called the “Former Prophets,” which include such charismatic figures as Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha, seers and visionaries through whom the Spirit worked powerful miracles of healing in ancient Israel.

It is interesting in this connection that in the Acts account, David is referred to as prophet rather than as king. And the Psalms are credited to David as prophetic utterances:

Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David, concerning Judas. (Acts 1:16, 2:25, 30, 4:25f)

[p.370]Then, the author quotes portions of Psalm 69:25 and 109:8, which contain the original prophecy. According to the scholar Philipp Vielhauer,

These observations compel us to conclude that Palestinian Christianity had a strongly pneumatic colouring and that the prophets must have had a considerable significance in the leading of the Palestinian church.15

Apocalyptic writing was a major influence upon the Jews in the two centuries before the birth of Jesus and continued through the tumultuous years of the Jewish-Roman war and the Bar Kokhba revolution ca. 133-135 CE. Apocalyptic literature flourished as the main inspiration for revolt in this period. After the failure of the Kokhba uprising, the appeal of apocalypticism declined markedly as Judaism sought to stabilize itself upon the foundation of the Torah, the rabbi, and the synagogue. Of all the apocalyptic literature produced in the Jewish world, only the book of Daniel was finally canonized in the Jewish scripture (the Tanak), and then as a part of the Kethubim or Hagiographa rather than the Prophets.

But in the Christian experience, the failure of the Parousia, conflict with non-Christian Jews, and the urgent need to come to terms with the Roman government inclined some Christians toward apocalypticism. Also, itinerant prophets and visionaries, many of whom were suspected of being gnostic and/or libertine in their teachings, were an obstacle to the developing organization of the church. Prophets were too individualistic, too free, too volatile to serve as the main support of the church institution. Caution about the status of wandering prophets is reflected in the Didache; considerable space is devoted in one part of the Didache, the manual of Church Order, to developing guidelines identifying genuine and false prophets.

However, not everybody making ecstatic utterances is a prophet, but only if he behaves like the Lord. It is by their conduct that the false [p.371]prophet and the [true] prophet can be distinguished. For instance, if a prophet marks out a table in the Spirit, he must not eat from it. If he does he is a false prophet.16

By the end of the first quarter of the second century, as the need for unity and stability increased, prophets and prophecy lost their initial significance in the church and prophets and teachers were gradually relegated to lesser roles.

1 John

First John is structured more like a theological tract or sermon than a letter. The epistolary frame, including a salutation and a formal ending, is not present. Yet, as R. H. Fuller perhaps correctly points out, in content it is a letter. In 1 John a specific historical situation is identifiable in which the theological concerns probably related to the event are so important that they substitute for the usual form of a letter.

The occasion for the writing of 1 John was the defection of an important, perhaps fairly large and influential group of Christians from the main body of the church. Their separation was especially threatening because it was led by false teachers who came from within the church. They denied the divinity of the historical person, Jesus, that he was the Christ, the Son of God. Apparently, their beliefs about Jesus Christ were similar to those of that form of Gnosticism called Docetism which differentiated between the human Jesus and the heavenly Christ, proclaiming that the supernatural and divine Christ had come upon Jesus at his baptism and remained with him only a brief time until his crucifixion. First John was written ca. 90-110 CE to establish for orthodox Christians in Asia Minor the claim that Christianity was the true gnosis and to affirm the foundation of that claim, that Jesus was in fact the heavenly Christ and that their salvation did ultimately depend [p.372]upon his life, his actual suffering, and the actual shedding of his blood upon the cross.

The concern about the “false teachers” in 1 John did not simply refer to the Jewish denial that Jesus was the Messiah but rather to the denial that Jesus Christ had come “in the flesh” (1 Jn 4:2). This teaching is similar to that of the Docetists or “Seemists” alluded to in Ignatius’s letter to the Ephesians, the Trallians, and Smyrnaeans in Asia Minor (ca. 117 CE).17

What good does anyone do me by praising me and reviling my Lord by refusing to acknowledge that he carried around the flesh? … Let no one be misled: Heavenly beings, the splendor of angels, and principalities, visible and invisible, if they fail to believe in Christ’s blood, they too are doomed. (Smyrnaeans)

And again in the letter to the Trallians,

Be deaf, then, to any talk that ignores Jesus Christ, of David’s lineage, of Mary; who was really born, ate, and drank; was really persecuted under Pontius Pilate; was really crucified and died in the sight of heaven and earth and underworld. He was really raised from the dead, for his Father raised him, …

And if, as some atheists (I mean unbelievers) say, his suffering was a sham (it’s really they who are a sham), why, then, am I a prisoner? Why do I want to fight with wild beasts? In that case I shall die to no purpose. (Trallians)

According to the Docetist view, Christ did not die on the cross. The human Jesus suffered and died; the heavenly Christ only seemed to die. Such a “Seemist” view is shown in the Acts of John, a New Testament Apocryphal source presumed to have been written by a person named Leucius Charinus, who was supposedly a disciple of John,18

Sometimes when I meant to touch him I encountered a material, solid body; but at other times again when I felt him, his substance was [p.373]immaterial and incorporeal, and as if it did not exist at all … And I often wished, as I walked with him, to see his footprint in the earth, whether it appeared—for I saw him raising himself from the earth—and I never saw it.19

On the mystery of the cross, the Acts of John says,

And I saw the Lord himself above the Cross, having no shape but only a kind of voice; yet not that voice which we knew, but one that was sweet and gentle … which said to me, “John, there must (be) one man (to) hear these things from me; for I need one who is ready to hear. This Cross of Light is sometimes called Logos by me for your sakes, sometimes mind, sometimes Jesus, sometimes Christ, sometimes a door, sometimes a way … and so (it is called) for men’s sake …

But this is not that wooden Cross which you shall see when you go down from here; nor am I the (man) who is on the Cross, … Therefore ignore the many and despise those who are outside the mystery; …

So then I have suffered none of those things which they will say of me; even that suffering which I showed to you and to the rest in my dance, I will that it be called a mystery.20

First John begins with a declaration of the fundamentals of the Christian faith: that the “word of life,” “the eternal life which was with the Father … was made manifest” to them so that they might have fellowship with each other and “with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 Jn 1:1-3). If they claim to have fellowship with him but “walk in darkness,” their lives are a lie. But if they “walk in the light, as he is in the light,” the blood of Jesus cleanses them from all their sins (1 Jn 1:6f).

Such key expressions as “from the beginning,” “the word of life,” “the eternal life,” “the life was made manifest,” and especially the prominence of “the Spirit” are similar to the gnostically inclined christological language and thought of the Fourth Gospel. The emphasis is upon “life,” upon light as contrasted with darkness, the truth versus the lie, and upon the claim to “know”—which means to “love”—rather than to hate. The expression [p.374]”abides in him” occurs frequently: “Every one who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness”; “No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him” (1 Jn 3:4, 9). “All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us” (1 Jn 3:24). References to the anointing which they received “from him” and “as his anointing teaches you” probably are intended to reinforce the Johannine doctrine of the Spirit (1 Jn 2:27).

First John repeatedly emphasizes the enormity of the sin of those who deny the humanity of Christ and the importance of knowing the truth.

I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father … he is the expiation for our sins … also for the sins of the whole world. (1 Jn 2:1f)

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. … If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar” (1 Jn 1:8, 10). By implication the author makes it clear that the Christian schismatics are denying that they sin and by doing so place themselves beyond redemption. The charge against them rests upon their claim to “know” God despite behavior inconsistent with God’s commandments; they claim to live “in the light” yet they hate their brothers (1 Jn 2:3f, 9). According to 1 John, only “he who loves his brother abides in the light,” he who hates his brother is blinded by the darkness (1 Jn 2:10f).

The claim to have unique spiritual experiences and to “know” God led to a form of moral libertinism in which the traditional Christian sense of duty to one’s brother became irrelevant. John warns these heretics that they should not believe every spirit but should test the spirits to see whether they come from God; for, he declares, “many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn 4:6-8). But “We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us. … By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. … for God is love” (1 Jn 4:6-8). According to 1 John, there is a key for knowing the spirit of God: “every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of [p.375]God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God.”21 This is the spirit of antichrist, which they knew was already in the world (1 Jn 4:2f).

The threat posed by the Christian schismatics is described in apocalyptic terms within an apocalyptic frame: “the world passes away.” The “antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour” (1 Jn 2:17f). “They [presumably the Docetist Christians] went out from us, but they were not of us.” Here, the author attempts to explain the defection “that it might be plain that they all are not of us” (1 Jn 2:19). Who is the liar,” he asks, “but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father” (1 Jn 2:22f). For the author, such denial is the most deadly of sins.

Such a discussion may be an early Christian attempt to distinguish between two classes of sins. In 1 John 5 the author advises that if any sees his brother committing “what is not a mortal sin,” he should ask and God would give life to those “whose sin is not mortal.” He adds, “There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that” (1 Jn 5:16f). The implication seems to be that there is sin for which God will grant no forgiveness. Probably, it is the sin committed by the Docetist Christians who had at one time fully embraced the faith given by the Spirit. They had denied the witness of the Spirit and rejected the doctrines of resurrection and the efficacy of the atoning blood of Christ, beliefs at the heart of the Christian gospel.

R. H. Fuller and others are certainly correct that 1 John 5:7 is an addition from a later date. Fuller claims that this is “the [p.376]clearest statement of the doctrine of the Trinity [found] anywhere in the N.T.”22 However, its Christology seems consistent with the content and emphasis of the Johannine literature.

And the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the truth. There are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree. … He who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. … And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life. (1 Jn 5:6-8, 10-12)

2 John and 3 John

Second and 3 John have the form of private letters. Both purport to have been written by John, called “the Elder.” Whether or not they were written by the same person is not clear, but they no doubt came from the same Johannine school. According to the text, 2 John was written “to the elect lady and her children” (2 Jn 1:1), but this is probably a figurative designation for a particular Christian congregation. Third John was written to an individual person named Gaius, presumably a convert of the Elder (3 Jn 1:1). Kümmel dates these two documents about the same time as 1 John, ca. 90-110 CE; Enslin dates 3 John somewhat later.23

The purpose of the two letters seems to be different. Second John was composed as a warning to a particular congregation against false teachers who reject the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ. For the author, they are deceivers, the antichrist, as the Docetist Christians were called in 1 John. Much of the content of this brief letter is related to belief in Christ’s humanity, which the author regards as “the truth which abides in us” (2 Jn 1:2). As in 1 John, he does not claim to write a new commandment but one they “have had from the beginning, that we love one another.” Love, he claims, is a crucial aspect of the Christian gospel. “This is love, that we follow his commandments” (2 Jn 1:5f). He warns against [p.377]the deceivers who refuse to acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh and the implications of that doctrine (2 Jn 1:7). Such persons do “not have God” (2 Jn 1:9). At this point, the author’s hostility toward his opposition seems to overcome his commitment to love—”Do not receive him” who does not bring this doctrine, “for he who greets him shares his wicked work” (2 Jn 1:10f).

Third John was written to Gaius personally rather than to a local congregation. The Elder seems to have had a close relationship with Gaius and his congregation, whom he refers to as “my children” (3 Jn 1:4). He commends Gaius for the hospitality he extended to visiting “brethren” who are strangers. Probably, they were a group of preachers sent by the Elder and led by Demetrius. He learns from them upon their return of Gaius’s kind assistance in fitting them for their journey. This was an act of special importance since they could not accept aid from the heathen. The Elder applauds the action of Gaius and recommends it to other Christians, that they “may be fellow workers in the truth” (3 Jn 1:8).

Diotrephes, apparently the leader of the congregation to which Gaius belongs, does not accept the Elder as his superior authority and has a different attitude toward itinerant evangelists. He not only refuses to welcome them but excludes those who accept them from the church (3 Jn 1:10). The suspicion of heresy probably is at issue here as well. It would seem that the evil the Elder cautions against in 3 John is precisely the lack of love represented in Diotrephes’s refusal to accept his fellow Christians. In 3 John the author emphasizes the importance of “love” and of truth. He speaks of “love in the truth,” of workers “in the truth,” and the fact that he who does good “is of God” (3 Jn 1:1, 3f, 6, 8, 11).

Third John seems to correct the overzealous reaction of Christians like Diotrephes who interpreted the advice of 2 John against greeting heretics too broadly and rejected Christian evangelists with suspected sympathy for the Docetist heresy. To such Christians, the Elder warns that in denying love to their fellow Christians, they are not the children of God.

The Revelation to John

[p.378]The authorship of the Revelation to John has long been argued by New Testament scholars. The conservative tradition holds that the document was written by John, son of Zebedee, a leading apostle of Jesus who supposedly authored the Fourth Gospel and the three letters of John as well. However, the internal evidence does not support this conclusion. Though the author of Revelation does refer to himself as John several times, once as a servant of Jesus, and once as “your brother” in Jesus (Rv 1:1, 4, 9, 22:8), he nowhere suggests that he is an apostle nor does he indicate that he was ever present with Jesus. The great differences in style, vocabulary, ideas and point of view among these so-called Johannine documents throw serious doubt on this tradition.24 Though the identity of the author remains unknown, the Apocalypse does reveal some of the author’s characteristics. For example, he probably was a Jewish Christian from Asia Minor. His familiarity with the condition of the churches in Asia Minor and his feeling of responsibility toward them suggests this. That he was a Jewish Christian is indicated by his familiarity with the Jewish scriptures and the materials of the Old Testament Apocrypha.25

The dating of the Revelation is problematic. Some scholars have maintained that the entire book was written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The reign of Vespasian following the Jewish war has been suggested as another possibility. However, it seems most likely that the book was produced during the final years of Domitian’s reign near the end of the first century (ca. 96 CE).26 This view conforms with both the tradition established by Irenaeus (ca. 180) and the internal evidence of the Revelation itself. The author’s reference to the two beasts in chapter 13, which reflects his hatred for the Roman empire and the imperial cultus, and his comment on the condition of the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3 seem to substantiate this judgment.

[p.379]Some interpreters maintain that “the letters” (chapter 2 and 3) were never sent independently of the main body of the book nor were they intended only for the seven churches. According to this view the number seven was probably intended to represent the whole of Christianity.27 However, the view that the author originally intended the letters to be read in the several churches in the Roman province of Asia has merit. The Revelation probably was written in response to a specific historical situation, the threat of Roman persecution of the churches in this area. The threat, at least in the mind of the author, was immediate and serious.

In the prologue, 1:1-3, John provides the authentication for his apocalypse: the message of his book, entrusted by God to Jesus Christ, had been revealed to him through a heavenly angel. John’s concern is to place the immediate circumstances in proper perspective to show through visions of the future that the present historical situation is only the final phase of the larger cosmic struggle between the forces of God and Satan.

Following the introduction and the recitation of the Christian witness (Rv 1:4-8), the author describes the circumstances leading up to his vision. He had been exiled to the island of Patmos because he had persisted in preaching God’s word. On the Lord’s day John, “in the Spirit,” heard a voice like a trumpet which charged him to write to the seven churches what he was about to see (Rv 1:10f). When he turned to identify the person of the voice, he saw seven standing lamps of gold and among them “one like a son of man” (Rv 1:12f) whom he describes in terms markedly similar to the son of man figure in the books of Ezekiel and Daniel.28

In Ezekiel and Daniel the person like the son of man is not identified; the imaginative and symbolic description in each of these books only indicates what that person is like. Similarly, symbolic imagery is employed in John’s description of the supernatural figure—that his hair was as “white as white wool”; “his eyes were like a flame of fire”; “his feet were like burnished bronze”; “his [p.380]voice was like the sound of many waters”; and “his face was like the sun” (Rv 1:14-16). But John identifies this symbolically described messianic figure as Jesus Christ, the Son of man. This is made clear when Christ speaks to John, “I am the first and the last, and the living one; … I have the keys of Death and Hades. Now write what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter.” Then Christ identifies the seven churches who are to receive the seven letters (Rv 1:17-20).

Certain patterns of expression are discernible in John’s seven letters. Each is addressed to an angel, presumably the guardian angel of each Christian community. The author concludes each letter with the cryptic comment, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rv 2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13, 22). Apparently communication by or through the Spirit is the key to his instructions. Finally he repeats in several places the complaint that “I have this against you” or “I have a few things against you” (Rv 2:4, 14, 20).

The main body of the Apocalypse (4:1-22:19) is made up of the seven cycles of visions. Howard Kee in his Understanding the New Testament describes the cycles: an introduction to the sevenfold prophecy (4:1-5:14) followed by John’s description of the seven cycles—seven seals (6:1-8:1), seven trumpets (8:2-11:15), seven visions of the kingdom of the dragon (11:16-13:18), seven visions of the coming of the Son of man (14:1-20), seven bowls (15:1-16:21), seven visions of the fall of Babylon (17:1-19:10), and seven visions of the End (19:11-21:4).29

Did John intend these as a series of events in a chronological order? The usual scholarly approach has been to locate a chronological sequence for the visions. Others have followed the suggestion that the visions are intended to be repetitious, that is, they are different visions or portrayals of the final events. Such repetitions emphasize the meaning and significance of the events, not primarily the order, leading up to the End and assure that under God’s direction they will take place.

The apocalyptic cycles begin with a vision of the throne of God (Rv 4:1-11). A voice directed John “to come up hither” and be shown [p.381]what must take place. “At once,” he said, “I was in the Spirit” and stood before the throne of God. The emphasis here on God’s holiness is reminiscent of the prophet Isaiah’s pronouncements in his temple vision (Is 6:1-3). That the author is familiar with Jewish apocalyptic imagery is evident.

Thus the stage is set for the heavenly Christ (the Lamb of God) to assume his central role. John saw in the right hand of one seated on the throne a scroll which was sealed with seven seals. None was able to meet the criterion of worthiness and open the scroll; then one of the twenty-four elders said, “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered … he can open the scroll” (Rv 5:5). Thus Jesus Christ, the Lamb, was introduced into the cosmic drama.

The seven seals are to be opened to disclose the secrets (the mysteries) of the future, to portray the imminent destruction of the world. The first four of the seven seals, represented by horses of different colors, symbolize the ways in which destruction is to be carried out. These are similar to Zechariah’s vision of the future.30 The fifth seal represents the slaughter of the martyrs who cry out for vengeance (Rv 6:9-11). They are given a white robe and told to rest until the tally of their brethren who are to be slain should be complete. The sixth seal involves tremendous cosmic upheavals: a great earthquake will occur, the sun will become black, the full moon will become like blood, and the stars will fall from the heavens (Rv 6:12-17). At this point, before the situation worsens, there is to be a pause to set apart the faithful so that they will be protected from the chaos to follow. This involves the sealing of the one hundred and forty-four thousand, the perfect number (Rv 7:1-8).31

How is one to understand such a grandiose projection of future events? Some Christians in all ages since the canonization of this document have attempted to apply it literally and have assumed that the end of the age described by John was imminent and relevant to their own time. But clearly this is not what John had in [p.382]mind. His prophecy of future events was not intended for Christians at all times and places. Christians in John’s time faced a specific historical crisis. Roman officials were suspicious of those Christians in Asia Minor whose opposition to the emperor cult was interpreted as a sign of disloyalty to the state. Given the historical context of such suspicion, charges of sedition, and threats of execution, symbols and cryptic comments usefully concealed pertinent information (the names of persons and peoples) from the Roman officials who were likely to take action against the Christians. At the same time, such symbols communicated important information to those of the elect who were most vulnerable.

An important use of mystical symbols can be found in the second series of judgments (8:7-15:8). There appeared a great portent in heaven—a woman “clothed with the sun” and having “a crown of twelve stars” (Rv 12:1.) (probably representing Israel). The dragon in this episode, identified as Satan “the deceiver of the whole world,” was eventually “thrown down to the earth” and his angels with him (Rv 12:9). This is probably an allusion to the story of Adam and Eve and the paradise story in Genesis. For Christians the serpent in the Genesis account was Satan or the Devil (Gn 3:1-5, 14). According to John, the dragon or Satan, furious with the woman, went off to war against her offspring (those who keep their testimony of Jesus) (Rv 12:17).

Another instance of the use of mystical symbols is John’s vision of the two beasts. According to John, the number of the second beast represents a man’s name and the numerical value of its letters is “six hundred and sixty-six” (Rv 13:17f). The number may represent either the priesthood of the imperial cult or one of the Roman emperors. The number was arrived at by adding the numerical value of the letters in the name of the emperor spelled in Hebrew. Although the person of the number cannot be identified with certainty, the intent of the cryptic number is clear; it points to the Roman emperors who claimed to be divine. Domitian seems to be the most likely candidate. He was thought by some in his time to be the reincarnation of Nero.

The Revelation builds in intensity and volume in chapters 17 and 18. Here John is carried away in the Spirit into a wilderness where [p.383]he sees the future fall of Babylon. “Babylon” is employed as a mystical symbol referring to Rome. The fact that in the vision the woman sits on “seven mountains” or hills seems to confirm this conclusion. (Rv 17:9.) The phrase “Fallen is Babylon the great!” reminds one of Zephaniah’s rejoicing over the destruction of the ancient city of Nineveh (Rv 18:2f, 10, 21; Zeph 2:13-15, 3:1-4).

The finale of the Revelation begins with chapter 19:11 when John “saw heaven opened.” An angel with the key to the bottomless pit comes down from heaven, seizes the dragon, and chains him up for a thousand years (Rv 10:1-3). Those who had been beheaded for the sake of their testimony to Jesus are resurrected and reign with Christ for the thousand years (Rv 20:4). The rest of the dead are not to be brought to life again until the millennial reign is ended. “This,” John says, “is the first resurrection” (Rv 20:5).

At the end of the thousand years, Satan is released. He gathers the hosts of Gog and Magog and lays seige to the camp of God’s people. But, John says, fire comes down from heaven and consumes them. Then the dead are judged by the books which are opened. The sea, Death, and Hades give up their dead and each person is judged on the record of his deeds (Rv 20:7-15).

The final two chapters of the Revelation portray the coming of the new and everlasting kingdom. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; … And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rv 21:1f). The number twelve is of special importance in John’s description of the city; it has twelve gates for the twelve foundations and on these are the names “of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” Of importance to the author is the fact that he saw no temple in the city (Rv 21:12-14).

The metaphors of living water and the river of the water of life are similar to themes found in the Gospel of John. According to the Revelation, a river will flow from the throne of God through the middle of the street of the holy city. On either side of the street, trees of life grow with their twelve kinds of fruit yielding twelve crops of fruit (Rv 22:1f). The apocalyptic-prophetic vision ends with the theme of light: night shall be no more, and they need no sun or light of lamp in the city of God, for God will be their light forever (Rv 22:5). The author [p.384]concludes that these things shown to John by God’s angel “must soon take place. … For the time is near.” This warning of the imminent end of the age is repeated. “Surely I am coming soon” (Rv 22:6, 20).

Many Christians over the centuries have been troubled that the Revelation to John is so heavily concerned with punishment and destruction. So relentless is the author’s pursuit of the wicked and so fierce is his picture of their destruction that at certain points in the vision he feels compelled to set the faithful apart that they may be protected from the wrath to come.

How is one to account for John’s bitterness and resentment, his pleas for vengeance, his seemingly over-riding passion for judgment and punishment? Clearly the Revelation is the response of a person under extreme pressure. In these circumstances one is able to understand the bitter tone of John’s fury but surely not to approve it. It is important that the author’s intention to give courage to those Christians who were under the immediate threat of death be taken into account. By means of apocalyptic-prophetic imagery, John sought to overcome the meaninglessness of their suffering and death by projecting Christian promises of fulfillment and hope to the end of the age. These promises were secured through martyrdom interpreted as a baptism of fire.

Other important trends in Christian thought are discernible in the Revelation: The visions came to John as he was carried away by or “in the Spirit.” The Spirit then is the vehicle of the vision. The connection between Spirit and prophecy (the Spirit of prophecy) is a significant doctrinal development. The place and function of angels is also made clear; they are mediators between God and Christ and the prophets in this world. God in the Revelation is wholly transcendent, the creator of the universe with absolute power and total omniscience. Judgment, punishment, and destruction describe him. Except for immanence suggested in the image of the Lamb, Christ has become a transcendent figure like the Father, judging and punishing the wicked. Finally the Revelation to John points the way toward a more distinctive Christian literary genre, the martyrology, and the cult of the martyrs which developed in the second century.


[p.362]1. See the discussion of the problem of authorship of the Johannine documents in Morton Scott Enslin, Christian Beginnings (New York, 1938), 343-50, 357-72.

2. Kümmel holds the view that all three documents, 1, 2, and 3 John, were written by the same person and dated ca. 90-110 CE. See W. G. Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament (New York, 1973), 434-45, 450f. First John is usually included among the General or Catholic Epistles. Eventually it may have had general use in the church, but originally it was probably a tract or letter intended to address a specific historical problem—the threat which gnostic Christian groups posed for the unity of the church.

3. Howard Kee’s view is similar. He holds that the key to the Johannine writings is not merely the name of John but rather the authority of the spirit. See Howard Clark Kee, Understanding the New Testament, 4th ed. (New Jersey, 1983), 351.

4. In the opinion of N. Perrin, there was a Johannine “school,” probably in Ephesus, and The Revelation to John does not “have a claim to a place in the ‘Johannine corpus.'” Perrin points out that the existence of a Johannine school is “extremely likely … in the cultural conditions of the first century.” There is precedent for the establishment of such institutions among the Jews; Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel are both known to have gathered disciples together and founded schools. See N. Perrin, The New Testament, 221, 249f.

5. According to Norman Golb the “discoveries in Qumran and Masada pointed to a much wider phenomenon of manuscript concealment in the Judean Desert dur-[p.364]ing the period of the war with Rome. … that these manuscripts stem not merely from sectarians but from first-century Palestinian Jews in general … they show that much of the Jewish society already at the beginning of the first century was in spiritual turmoil and doctrinally divided among itself.” See Norman Golb, “Who Hid the Dead Sea Scrolls?” in Biblical Archaeologist 48 (June 1985), 2:79, 81.

6. See especially Millar Burrows, The Dead Sea Scrolls (New York, 1955), chap. 12, and Theodor H. Gaster, The Dead Sea Scrolls (Garden City, 1976).

7. From The Thanksgiving Psalms, iii, trans. by Millar Burrows, from Burrows, op. cit., 405.

8. Paul’s expectations of the cataclysmic end of the age are clearly discernible in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 and in 1 Corinthians 15:12-58.

9. See the discussion of apocalypticism in early Christianity in Norman Perrin, The New Testament, 65-85.

10. See R. H. Charles, Translation of Early Documents, series 1, Palestinian Jewish Texts, The Book of Enoch (London, 1960), 31.

It appears that the term “apocrypha” was originally applied to books which were believed to be so sacred that their truths were kept secret from the general populace and were available only to the inner circle of the most pious believers. Such books were often apocalyptic in both substance and form. The fourteen books of the so-called Old Testament Apocrypha were included in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, but were not included in the Hebrew canon established in the first century. Most of them, however, were translated by St. Jerome in the fourth century and are in the Vulgate, the official Catholic Latin Bible. Protestants generally have followed the Jewish practice of omitting them from the canon. The title “pseudepigrapha,” falsely inscribed, usually refers to the collection of non-canonical Jewish writings not in the Apocrypha, produced between 200 BCE and 200 CE, bearing the names of ancient worthies such as Adam and Enoch, and purporting to contain truths revealed especially to the earliest of Israelite patriarchs.

11. The Book of Enoch 1:1-2, trans. by R. H. Charles.

12. Other Christian apocalyptic documents are to be found in The New Testament Apocrypha. The Apocalypses of Peter, of Paul, and of Thomas are the major examples.

13. This is from the Septuagint (the Greek) translation.

14. R. H. Charles, The Book of Enoch 46, L-3 (London, 1960), 63f.

15. Edgar Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha, ed. by Wilhelm Schneemelcher, English translation by R. M. L. Wilson, Vol. 2, Writings Relating to the Apostles, Apocalypses, and Related Subjects (Philadelphia, 1964), 606.

16. Didache, 11:8f. TheDidache or Teaching is made up of two parts: a code of Christian morals presented as the way of life versus the way of death and a manual of Church Order. Dating the Didache is difficult. It may have been edited ca. 150 CE. The part from which this quote was taken, the manual of Church Order, is presumed to have come originally from Syria, perhaps from the city of Antioch. See Cyril C. Richardson, ed., Early Christian Fathers, Vol. 1 (New York, 1970), 161-[p.372]66, 176-77.

17. Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, 1:100, 114.

18. That the author, Leucius, was a disciple of John is highly questionable. The earliest attestation of the Acts of John is its mention by Eusebius (HE III.25.6). The document probably came from Asia Minor. It was never strongly regarded as authentic to John and was better known by the fourth century as part of the Manichaean corpus of Acts literature. See Edgar Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha,Introduction, 188-206; on the texts, 227, 232-34.

19. E. Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 2, 227, Acts of John, 93.

20. Ibid., Vol. 2, 133f, Acts of John, 98-101.

21. As Enslin pointed out, the notion that Jesus was neither born nor subject to suffering or death constituted a serious problem for early orthodox Christians. This is made clear in the Gospels. For example, in Matthew’s account of the empty tomb the women “took hold of his feet” (28:9); also, the resurrected Christ says to his disciples in Luke 24:39, 42f, “see my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see I have,” and asks for food, “They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he … ate before them.” See Enslin, Christian Beginnings, 345f.

In the early Christian church, preserving the humanity of Jesus Christ was an issue of highest importance; today the chief issue is the divinity of Christ.

22. Fuller holds that 1 John 5:7 is a later insertion. The fact that it occurs in none of the Greek manuscripts earlier than the fourteenth century, in no early Christian Fathers, and in no Old Latin texts seems conclusive. R. H. Fuller, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament, 182.

23. See Kümmel, 450f. Also, see Enslin, 350.

24. See Kümmel, Introduction, 462.

25. Ibid., 472.

26. See Enslin, Christian Beginnings, 366.

27. Ibid., 21, 358.

28. Observe the use of the expression “son of man” in Ezekiel 2:1, 3, 8, 3:1, etc. Also, Daniel 7:13, 8:17.

29. Kee, 446f.

30. Zechariah 1:8, 6:1-3. The format is similar to that reported in Mark’s apocalypse (13:7f).

31. Some scholars think these passages allude to the return of the lost ten tribes. See 2 Esdras 13:39-50.