It contains an account of the author, named John in the text, who saw a vision describing future events at the end of the world, involving the final rebellion by Satan, and when God would defeat Satan once and for all and restore peace to the world.
It is definitely one of the most controversial books of the Bible, with many ranging interpretations of the meanings of the various names and events in the account. The identity of the author John is not completely clear. A traditional view is that the author of this book was John the apostle, but other scholars doubt that. The traditional Christian view is that this John was the same as the author of the Gospel of John and I, II, and III John. In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom and other bishops argued against including this book in the New Testament canon, chiefly because of the difficulties of interpreting it and the danger for abuse. In the end, it was included, although it remains the only book of the New Testament that is not read publically in Eastern Orthodox Church.
Traditionally the date of the writing of this book has generally been fixed at A.D. 96, in the reign of Domitian. Others contend for an earlier date, A.D. 68 or 69, in the reign of Nero. Those who are in favour of the later date appeal to the testimony of the Christian father Irenaeus, who received information relative to this book from those who had seen John face to face. He says that the Apocalypse "was seen no long time ago."
Historical interpretation of the book
The beast from the sea that had received plenitude of power from the dragon, or Satan, is the Roman Empire, or rather, Caesar, its supreme representative. The token of the beast with which its servants are marked is the image of the emperor on the coins of the realm. This seems to be the obvious meaning of the passage, that all business transactions, all buying and selling were impossible to them that had not the mark of the beast (Ap., xiii. 17). Against this interpretation it is objected that the Jews at the time of Christ had no scruple in handling money on which the image of Caesar was stamped (Matt., xxii 15-22). But it should be borne in mind that the horror of the Jews for the imperial images was principally due to the policy of Caligula. He confiscated several of their synagogues, changing them into heathen temples by placing his statue in them. He even sought to erect an image of himself in the Temple of Jerusalem (Jos., Ant., XVIII, viii, 2).
The seven heads of the beast are seven emperors. Five of them the Seer says are fallen. They are Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. The year of Nero's death is A.D. 68. The Seer goes on to say "One is", namely Vespasian, A.D. 70-79. He is the sixth emperor. The seventh, we are told by the Seer, "is not yet come. But when he comes his reign will be short". Titus is meant, who reigned but two years (79-81). The eighth emperor is Domitian (81-96). Of him the Seer has something very peculiar to say. He is identified with the beast. He is described as the one that "was and is not and shall come up out of the bottomless pit" (xvii, 8). In verse 11 it is added: "And the beast which was and is not: the same also is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into destruction".
All this sounds like oracular language. But the clue to its solution is furnished by a popular belief largely spread at the time. The death of Nero had been witnessed by few. Chiefly in the East a notion had taken hold of the mind of the people that Nero was still alive. Gentiles, Jews, and Christians were under the illusion that he was hiding himself, and as was commonly thought, he had gone over to the Parthians, the most troublesome foes of the empire. From there they expected him to return at the head of a mighty army to avenge himself on his enemies. The existence of this fanciful belief is a well-attested historic fact. Tacitus speaks of it: "Achaia atque Asia falso exterrit velut Nero adventaret, vario super ejus exitu rumore eoque pluribus vivere eum fingentibus credentibusque" (Hist., II, 8). So also Dio Chrysostomus: kai nyn (about A.D. 100) eti pantes epithymousi zen oi de pleistoi kai oiontai (Orat., 21, 10; cf. Suet., "Vit. Caes." s.v. Nero, 57, and the Sibyliine Oracles, V, 28-33).
Thus the contemporaries of the Seer believed Nero to be alive and expected his return. The Seer either shared their belief or utilized it for his own purpose. Nero had made a name for himself by his cruelty and licentiousness. The Christians in particular had reason to dread him. Under him the first persecution took place. The second occurred under Domitian. But unlike the previous one, it was not confined to Italy, but spread throughout the provinces. Many Christians were put to death, many were banished (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., III, 17-19). In this way the Seer was led to regard Domitian as a second Nero, "Nero redivivus". Hence he described him as "the one that was, that is not, and that is to return". Hence also he counts him as the eighth and at the same time makes him one of the preceding seven, viz. the fifth, Nero.
The identification of the two emperors suggested itself all the more readily since even pagan authors called Domitian a second Nero (calvus Nero, Juvenal. IV, 38). The popular belief concerning Nero's death and return seems to be referred to also in the passage (xiii, 3): "And I saw one of its heads as it were slain to death: and its death's wound was healed".
The ten horns are commonly explained as the vassal rulers under the supremacy of Rome. They are described as kings (basileis), here to be taken in a wider sense, that they are not real kings, but received power to rule with the beast. Their power, moreover, is but for one hour, signifying its short duration and instability (xvii, 17).
The Seer has marked the beast with the number 666. His purpose was that by this number people may know it. He that has understanding, let him count the number of the beast. For it is the number of a man: and his number is six hundred and sixty-six. A human number, i.e. intelligible by the common rules of investigation. We have here an instance of Jewish gematria; Its object is to conceal a name by substituting for it a cipher of equal numerical value to the letters composing it. When the name "Nero Caesar" is spelled with Hebrew letters (each letter having a corresponding numerical value) it yields the numerical result of 666.
The second beast, that from the land, the pseudoprophet whose office was to assist the beast from the sea, probably signifies the work of seduction carried on by apostate Christians. They endeavoured to make their fellow Christians adopt the heathen practices and submit themselves to the cultus of the Caesar. They are not unlikely the Nicolaitans of the seven Epistles. For they are there compared to Balaam and Jezabel seducing the Israelites to idolatry and fornication. The woman in travail is a personification of the synagogue or the church. Her first-born is Jesus, her other seed is the community of the faithful.
See also Christian eschatology.