Revelation is presumed to have been composed in its entirety at Patmos in A.D. 96 by John the Evangelist. However, there has always been speculation that someone other than John the Evangelist wrote at least parts of Revelation. Some scholars believe that Chapters 4 through 11 had their origin in the preaching of John the Baptist. J. Massyngberde Ford explains this in considerable detail in "Revelation," The Anchor Bible, (Garden City: Doubleday, 1975) (pp. 3-57).
The thinking is that John the Baptist, prior to Christ's ministry, preached the earliest portions of Revelation to anyone who would listen. His visions explained the Messiah John was sent to announce and warned his listeners what would happen to anyone who opposed the Messiah and tried to frustrate the Messiah's God-given mission. The Baptist preached to his disciples, many of whom became Christian, one of whom was John the Evangelist. John's disciples, so it is claimed, also preached these visions, repeating them in their original form, for approximately thirty years.
Ford explains that, around A.D. 66, according to some scholars, a Christian disciple added more visions and preached the combined text during the Judean revolt against Rome. Finally, the letters to the seven churches were added (Ford, p. 3). This was twenty-six years after the Temple's destruction, thirty-eight years before Judea's final, disastrous defeat. This reorganized text is the text we read today. The possibility that Chapters 4 through 11 originated with John the Baptist, as the Baptist announced the Messiah, is the key I use to relate these visions to events when Christianity first started.
If this true, then the theophany described in chapters 4 through 6 would have come from John the Baptist. It would be his way of symbolically describing who Christ is and the mission of Christ. Curious, I carefully re-read chapters 4 through 6 to see if they could be a symbolic description of God, Jesus, and the mission of Jesus. I think I found an understanding that is worth passing on.
I think Rev. 4:1-11 is a mental image showing what God is like and showing the relationship between God and the promised Messiah. This vision representing God uses symbols people can understand similar to the way we use various symbols to represent a molecule of water. The vision shows the three persons in the one God and some activity of the three persons. The ancient one symbolizes the Father. The twenty-four kings symbolize the Holy Spirit. The four living beings symbolize the Son.
The Lamb is in this vision. The Lamb is related to the four living beings. The four living beings represent the second person, the Word, the divine nature of the Son of God. The Lamb is worshiped within the Godhead because the Lamb is the Word's incarnation. John the Baptist was the Lamb's herald, so Iím not surprised that the Baptist would open his ministry describing who the Lamb is. The Lamb is ready to begin his own ministry. John's mission was to prepare the Lamb's way.
The Lamb will be accepted by some and rejected by others, who will kill him. Why is that? The vision provides an insight into this when the sealed scroll the Father holds is opened seal by seal. The scroll, I believe, represents what is involved if God grants us genuine freedom. Some of us may disobey. Our disobedience will have catastrophic consequences. Someone has to make remedy for the consequences. No one can do that--except the Lamb.
The scroll has seven seals symbolizing the consequences. Opening the first four seals releases the four horsemen. Itís easy to imagine the four horsemen symbolizing the horrors unleashed upon the world if humans abuse the freedom God gave them. First there is the horror of human ambition that refuses to serve God and demands to be served by others. It rides out of the human heart, like the white horse, in a spirit of conflict and envy, conquest and tyranny, exploitation and greed. The second horror is the reaction of humans who, not willing to serve God, will not willingly serve other humans. Their resentment will spread through the world, like the red horse, in a wave of rage calling for resistance and war. The third horror is the result of such activities. The tasks God requires us to do remain undone, and what we have already accomplished is attacked and destroyed. Ruin results and famine, blind terror and despair. These spread behind the combatants like a black scourge that afflicts the innocent as well as the guilty and ruins everyone's happiness.
In the wake of these three comes the fourth horror: sickness and death, the pale horse. This is the worst horror of all: humans seemingly abandoned by God, torn from this life and thrust into the unknown terror of death. Such are the immediate risks of granting humans freedom, but there are more risks. Many will die; all will suffer if humans abuse their freedom. And God will punish the abusers.
This freedom is dependent upon the Son. The Son, in the Son's divine nature, grants every person existence and provides the ability and the continued existence for every person to perform deeds, even if those deeds be disobedience. Disobedience brings suffering to humans and to God, if God could suffer. But God canít suffer. Jesus Christ, the promised one, is God, and yet he is fully human as well. In his human nature, the Son really did suffer, for his crucifixion and death really happened. He suffers today also in the extension of his human nature through those who have been baptized. They are a part of him, as branches are part of a vine. They suffer. He suffers. All humans suffer because of the abuse of freedom by those who do not obey God as they should.
This suffering is symbolic of the underlying relationship that the Son, in the Son's divine nature, has with each person. The Father wants each person to act freely. We many times act against the Father's will. The Son keeps us in existence and provides us the ability to perform our actions, even if we act against the Father's will. The Son could refuse granting us ability to disobey, but that would destroy our freedom, the freedom the Father wants us to have. In a sense, the Son is crucified against our will by the Son's own perfect and flawless obedience to the Father's will that we all be granted genuine freedom.
As a human being, the Son was willing to endure suffering and death rather than call us to judgment. But in the Son's divine nature, the Son will not accept our disobedience forever. God always revealed from the very beginning that we would be held accountable. Each of us will be brought to judgment day. That warning is in the
last three seals. God will requite all people according to their deeds. It will be a terrible day then, the day God makes retribution for each person's disobedience.
These visions about the ancient one, the twenty-four kings, the four living beings, the lamb, the sealed scroll, the four horsemen, and the three woes were preludes to Christ's ministry. They nudged people who were already seeking God. The visions drew upon biblical traditions, using symbols already used by the prophets, to clarify who Christ is and what relationship Christ has with God.
Even David, long before Christ's time, had been inspired to write that the promised one, though to be a descendant of his, was still his own Lord. He wrote in Psalm 109:1 "The Lord said to my lord: 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.'" Jesus will affirm this during his ministry when he asks his critics: "If David then call him Lord, how is he David's son? They couldn't answer and didn't dare ask any more questions after that" (Matt. 22:45-6).
Jesus will say the same thing about Abraham when he tells his critics that their father Abraham "rejoiced that he might see my day: he saw it, and was glad" (John 8:56). It is this Lord, the Lord of David and Abraham, who the Baptist announced.
I see no reason to doubt that chapters 4 through 11 came from John the Baptist and that the theophany and seals (Rev. 4 through 6) really were the Baptist's symbolic way of identifying who and what the Messiah is. Understanding the seals as John's announcement of Christ, before Christ's ministry, was the key that gave me a new insight into Revelation and John the Baptist.
Maurice A. Williams
Author of Prophet and Historian: John and Josephus
Read more articles by Maurice A. Williams or search for articles on the same topic or others.