The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants — things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John. (Revelation 1:1)
Revelation is an “unveiling.” That is what the Greek word apocalypse, which is translated as “revelation,” means. It is a compound word, from apo, “off” or “away,” and kalypto, “cover.” It is taking away the cover, like pulling back the curtain of a stage play to reveal what is happening behind the scenes. That is what this book does for us, it pulls back the curtains and shows us how the gospel — the announcement that the kingdom of God has come and Jesus Christ is the King —plays out in history and changes the world.
Notice that the revelation of Jesus Christ is something God gave to Jesus Christ to show to His servants. It was given to Jesus but it is also about Jesus, and has everything to do with it means in the world that Jesus is Lord — what it meant for John’s day, what it means for the end of the age, and what it means for the time in between.
In this opening verse of Revelation, John gives us three important clues about how to interpret the rest of the book. First, John immediately identifies it as an apocalypse. This clearly indicates that it belongs to a specific genre known as apocalyptic. This Jewish form of literature is visionary, highly pictorial, draws heavily on the Old Testament prophets and portrays what will happen in heaven as well as on earth, and how everything will turn out for the people of God. Recognizing the genre as apocalyptic alerts us that the book of Revelation is not to be read as straight prose, or as a newspaper-life account of history in advance, but as a highly stylized form of literature that requires some decoding.
Second, the content of Revelation is about what God gave to the Lord Jesus to show it to His servants. The Lord Jesus, in turn, sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John. The Greek word for “show” has to do with what is seen. The book of Revelation is a collection of visions John was shown and it records what he both saw and heard in those visions. The word for “signify” is semaino and has to do with what is indicated or made known by a sign or symbol. These two terms, “show” and “signified,” alert us that the content of Revelation is not meant to be taken literally but symbolically.
Third, the book of Revelation is about “things which must shortly take place.” The Greek for “shortly” is en tachei. It is about things that would not only happen quickly but would also happen “soon,” which is how many major translations render it (e.g., NIV, NASB, ESV, NRSV). There is no suggestion that it will be delayed for an indefinite period of time (such as hundreds or even thousands of years) and then happen quickly whenever it does begin, however far in the future that may be. Quite the opposite, John reinforces the nearness of these thing when he says, in verse 3, “for the time is at hand.” At the end of the book, in Revelation 22:6, John reiterates, “And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent His angel to show His servants what must soon [en tachei] take place. ‘And behold, I am coming soon [tachu]. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book’” (ESV). And in Revelation 22:10, John once again observes, “for the time is at hand.” This alerts us that the book of Revelation, though it was about the future, was mostly about what was for John and his audience the near future, and not some distant time.