This week, we get to begin the book of Revelation. Before we get into the book of Revelation I need to make a couple of preliminary statements that will carry us through the next two months. First, the purpose of Johns letter (the book of Revelation) was to implore believers to stay faithful to God in a time of persecution and to encourage them as the whole world turned against them. Second, the book of Revelation does not present us with a timeline of future events. Trying to figure out chronology distracts us from the intended purpose for the book. Third, though the book contains many symbols, it is not a book primarily of symbolism. There have been many people who get so concerned and caught up with interpreting what a symbol may or may not be, that the message of the book was neglected.
Considering these things, we notice that there is a proper way to understand this book. We are not to be concerned with chronology or heavily concerned with interpreting symbols to mean something that is vague or to be some future thing that did not exist as John described what he saw. Since John wrote his letter for people in his time in a way that the people of his time would understand, that is how we must read it. Revelation contains past, present and future events, but is specifically about the coming eternal reign of Christ and the hope that God’s people have in a world of great tribulation.
We do experience quite a few tribulations on this earth. We experience hurt. People leave us. Our loved ones pass on. We struggle with health problems. Children rebel and act out. Sometimes parents are just a little overbearing. There are many who are persecuted because of their faith or because they stand up for what is right. As John writes to the churches in tribulation, the message he shares is going to be more than relevant for our lives. Sometimes the hardship seems more than overwhelming. We are stressed to the core and it seems like the world only takes from us without giving us a break. When we are bruised and battered in this life, during this time of tribulation, how do we begin to find peace and find the motivation to press on? How do we rise above the hurt so that we might move forward? Is it even worth trying to rise above the tribulations of this life?
Revelation 1:1-8 HCSB
The revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave Him to show His slaves what must quickly take place. He sent it and signified it through His angel to His slave John, who testified to God’s word and to the testimony about Jesus Christ, in all he saw. The one who reads this is blessed, and those who hear the words of this prophecy and keep what is written in it are blessed, because the time is near!
To the seven churches in Asia.
Grace and peace to you from the One who is, who was, and who is coming; from the seven spirits before His throne; and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To Him who loves us and has set us free from our sins by His blood, and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father — the glory and dominion are His forever and ever. Amen.
Look! He is coming with the clouds,
and every eye will see Him,
including those who pierced Him.
And all the families of the earth
will mourn over Him.
This is certain. Amen.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “the One who is, who was, and who is coming, the Almighty.”
The things that must soon take place
In his introduction, here, John states that he is writing to reveal the things that must soon take place. John is writing this letter from his time in exile in about the year A.D. 95. Not only this, but as we move through John’s letter we see him describing some things that were going on during his own time (mainly in the first three chapters as he addresses the seven churches specifically). We have now come along years after John wrote this letter, approximately 1,922 years. If John stated that the things he prophesied would come about soon after he wrote, then we have to come to some sort of realization. It has been a long time since John made some of the prophecies that he did later in this account. It is possible, in fact it seems likely, that some of the things (not all) either have happened already or are happening in our present age. As I said before, it is so difficult, in fact it is impossible, to develop a chronology of events through John’s Revelation.
It is here that we actually have to make a shift in the way that we think so that we can understand the text of Scripture rightly. We tend to read the text of Scripture like a 21st century American. In America, and in our current age, there is an obsession with the event of the apocalypse. One of the most popular television shows in the United States is about a Zombie apocalypse. In new movies that are coming out, so much destruction is portrayed on the screen. As a culture, we are obsessed with the end of the world and the destruction that may overtake our planet. We value people who can discover hidden meanings and interpret symbols in a way that is not obvious. We love mysteries that have to be figured out. Consequently, this is how we read apocalyptic literature1 in the Bible. We read the book of Revelation to be a book of mass destruction, the end of the world, hidden meanings, and mystery.
In contrast to this, the seven churches to whom John wrote were churches trapped in persecution. They were churches and people going through tribulation in their current context. Through this book, John does not primarily describe destruction, but restoration. He does not primarily speak mystery, but revelation. He does not write concerning the end of the world, but the end of tribulation for people who have loved God. He describes a day when Christ will be seen by all people and when He will reveal His preeminence. When John states that there are some things that will soon take place, he is referring to the coming of King Jesus and the events that must take place for the world to be restored and brought out of tribulation. As we read this book and as we study it together, we must read it like a Christian under persecution and in tribulation who is being offered the hope of a world restored.
Here I learn that God is not concerned with our knowing the order of events or His timeframe. In fact, Jesus even stated during his time physically present on this earth that people would not know the time or the hour at which things would take place (Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32, Acts 1:7). It is ironic that we have come up with so many eschatological theories regarding the time at which things will or might happen. People often ask me whether I am pre-millennial, a-millennial, or post-millennial. My answer is simple, “I am pan-millennial. I believe that everything will pan out in the end!” While I do have my opinions, it is pointless for us to try and specifically and strictly define a timeline of events. God is much more concerned with offering His people hope in times of tribulation, a tribulation that Christ stated would begin by the end of the generation that was with Him physically on this earth almost 2,000 years ago (Matthew 24:34).
Secondly, I learn that God is not concerned with giving an unsolvable mystery that we cannot understand. John’s purpose was to reveal, not to encrypt. Revelation, overall, is a book that is far easier to understand than we might think. We, people who are obsessed with destruction and with the end of the world, tend to overcomplicate things so that we can make them fit our interests. God, though, is concerned with revealing His glory to us, warning the world plainly, and giving us a tangible reason to maintain hope even in times of tribulation. God is not a trickster or a deceiver. He has made His message plain to us and all we have to do is read or listen. Often we will hear someone who claims to be something say that they have a secret message for us from God, that they have found the hidden code in the text of Scripture, or that they know the hidden meaning of the book of Revelation. These are lies and we should be skeptical when someone makes such claims. John states very clearly in the first verse that his purpose is to show or reveal, not to hide or encode.
John even goes further to insist that the words of this letter and prophecy are easily understood as we move into verse 3, “The one who reads this is blessed, and those who hear the words of this prophecy and keep what is written in it are blessed, because the time is near!”
The message of this book is available to anyone who will read and anyone who would listen as it is read. It is discernible because it is possible for people to consider and heed the words that John wrote. John, here, says that anyone who actually takes the time to read or listen to the message in this letter is blessed. Thus, I realize something else about the nature of this letter: It is specifically for the purpose of blessing, not condemnation. We tend to read the book of Revelation as a book about punishment. While there are punishments described and while God’s wrath is evident in this book, it is primarily a book of blessing, not condemnation. We must be careful to read this as a book of blessing, then, and not primarily a book of God’s wrath.
Nature of our citizenship
After giving his purpose statement, John makes an address to seven specific churches. These churches were probably the bigger churches along the postal route of the time. This letter would arrive at each of these seven churches and the message would probably be distributed to other churches in the areas. It is a message that all believers can benefit from. In his address, John states the nature of the churches’ existence and their entire reason for being. In verses 5-63, we see that it is only through Christ that the people have been released from their sins. Only by the authority of Christ do we have the right to be children of God. This is not by our own works, but it is specifically the work of Christ. When we are redeemed by the work of Christ, He makes us to be a kingdom. If we think we are good at organizing and we think the church exists because of our administrative skill-set, we are mistaken. It is Christ and Christ alone who makes us to be a kingdom. If any church relies on its own administration rather than on the person of Christ, it is not a church that Christ is in and it is not a church that has received God’s blessing. Christ must be preeminent.
Not only has Christ made the church body a kingdom, but He has also made each believer that makes up the church a “priest to His God and Father.” This is a metaphor that the church would have understood because much of the church John was writing to was made up of Jews who had placed their faith in Christ. In the Jewish system, it was the priest who represented God to the people. Here, John is saying that every believer is a priest because that is what Christ has made him or her. Every believer is God’s representative to others.
We have to understand what this might sound like to the church under the persecution of Rome and in the midst of great tribulation. First, if Christ has made every believer a priest or a revealer of God, it means God is intimately present with them. We cannot reveal something that we cannot see ourselves. God was intimately present with them in their time of tribulation. In the same sense, God is intimately present with us during the times of tribulation in our lives. Even in those times when we cannot sense Him, He is always near us and is always drawing us nearer to Himself. This is a blessing in times of hurt and in times of need.
Secondly, it means that every believer was, and is, called to represent God to the people. If God is intimately present with believers, then there is desperate need for God to be revealed to people who have not yet trusted in Christ. John was saying something to the effect of, “God is with you. Stay the course. Keep the faith. Let God use you to reveal Him to the people around you.” The church was, and is, to be focussed outwardly. It is to reveal Christ to the community and not just be concerned with self. It is to invite people in, even people who are lost in sin. Even in the context of the seven churches that John is writing this letter to, there was the entirety of Rome coming against the believers, and John insinuates something to the effect of, “Reveal God to them!” John was telling the believers that they were a light to the whole world and that they were to be concerned with representing God to the world, not concerned with only their own survival. This idea is plain in Scripture and throughout John’s letter:
In Exodus 25, we see God command that a lamp stand be fashioned for the Tabernacle. This could have been a constant sign that God was with the people and that it was through this people that God would bless all nations (as He promised to Abraham in Genesis 22:18).
John adopted the symbolism of the lamp stand for the New Testament Church. Every local church was a lamp stand according to Revelation 1:20. This meant that God was with the local churches and it was the local churches’ responsibility to bless all people as each believer revealed God to those outside of the church, even the Romans who persecuted them.
In chapters 2-3, God actually threatens to remove the lamp stand (His presence and the ability of a congregation to reveal Him) from the churches that depended on themselves instead of on Christ. It is possible for God to remove His presence and witness from a local church when that church fails to be the church.
In chapter 11, verse 4, John mentions two witnesses, two lamp stands provided oil by two olive trees representing the witness of the church powered by the Holy Spirit (John bases his descriptions on the text of Zechariah 4).
Every believer has God and every believer is to be concerned with revealing God to people who are without God. This is a great encouragement in times of tribulation. We do not need to depend on pastors or professional evangelists. Our level of education does not matter. We are all priests and the church is a lamp stand that is empowered by the Holy Spirit.
So, we find this comfort. When we are in a time of great tribulation. When children are rebelling, when parents seem overbearing, when we have lost a loved one, when we struggle with our health, when there are family problems, when we feel lonely, or even when we are persecuted; God is intimately present with us because we are His kingdom of priests. This is why we don’t place our dependance on a preacher, pastor, teacher, deacon, boss, mayor, governor or president. Our dependance is completely and utterly on God. This is what enables us to be the lamp stand that Christ has made us. When we depend too heavily on people, we become revealers of those people, not revealers of God. Every believer is a priest called to reveal God in utter dependance on Him.
Everyone will see Christ
John finishes this introduction by encouraging his readers once again, “Christ is coming!” John was quoting from Daniel 7:13, where Daniel wrote of a day when the Ancient of Days would come and establish His kingdom forevermore and His people would reign everlasting on the earth. John also quoted Zechariah 12:10, saying that those who persecuted Christ would mourn because they had denied Him.
To a people living in great tribulation, there is a promise that if we have truly given ourselves to Christ, there will be a day when we will reign under the Lordship of Christ. There was reason for the people of God to endure the persecution of the Roman government at this point! There is also reason for us to endure the great tribulation that we face in this life. For those who genuinely believe in Christ, Christ will return and, according to Daniel (whom John quotes in this passage), God’s people will reign on the earth as God created them to do (Genesis 1:28).
There is another side to this promise. Those who have not genuinely believed in the person of Christ will see Christ and will mourn because they persecuted Christ. Those who persecute God’s people and do not turn to Christ will mourn when Christ does return. No one who chooses to remain outside of God’s grace will go unpunished for their wrongdoing. If the church is a lamp stand, then it is not our obligation to punish sinners in our current age. We are to invite even our persecutors to join us in Christ. We are to invite even the worst of sinners to join us in Christ. When people decline our invitation, it is God who reserves the responsibility for condemnation in His own timing, and it is not yet His timing.
So, we resolve to be a lamp stand. We represent God to the world beyond our walls. We know that in our tribulation, God is intimately present with us and that He promises His people will reign over the earth under His direction. We invite everyone in, knowing that it is God’s responsibility, and His alone, to condemn in His timing. Finally, we arrive at the most powerful statement in the introduction. It is what God states about Himself: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “the One who is, who was, and who is coming, the Almighty.” For those in Christ, this is the greatest of all encouragements. For those who are not, it is the greatest warning. As we move through the book of revelation, this is going to be a constant theme. Those who do not belong to God or have, for some reason stopped striving toward Him in the difficulties of life will receive warning as John warned the those in the seven churches. People who belong to God and strive toward Him will be encouraged in the difficulties of life as John wrote for the encouragement of those who would either read or listen.
1Apocalyptic literature is a prophetic genre in both the Old Testament (Daniel) and here in the New Testament. It does not refer to the end of the world, but is a term that refers specifically to the types of symbolism used.