How many of you have ever been out of the country? I have, and every time I go abroad I always look forward to one moment: walking out of the airport in the new country for the first time. Any of you know what I mean? It’s a different country, with different sights, different sounds, different smells, and an overall different feel. On one hand it feels a bit alien and strange to walk into such an unknown place, but on the other hand there’s an adventurous feel when you walk into a foreign and mysterious culture. It can be a bit of sensory overload and can feel risky at times, but I quite enjoy it. Well, we’re about to feel the same kind of excitement and uneasiness because today we’re beginning a journey into a similar type of foreign environment, the book of Revelation. On this journey you may feel a bit of sensory overload and it may even feel risky at times, but I assure you the book of Revelation is in the Bible to encourage us and I would even add that this book shows us the glory of Christ more than any other in the Bible. So prepare yourself to walk into the unknown.
The book of Revelation feels foreign to us mainly because it is filled with symbolism, figurative language, and prophetic apocalyptic imagery that most of us don’t really know what to do with. Now, to feel this way is ok, but to avoid Revelation because we don’t understand it is to fall into error. So, throughout the next year or two we’ll be dipping in and out of this book. From now until Thanksgiving we’ll be going through Revelation 1-5, and Lord willing we’ll return to pick up in Revelation 6 sometime in late 2016. As your tour guide through this foreign land I want to begin our adventure by giving you one foundational principle that will help you navigate through this book. This basic foundational principle comes to us from rightly answering the question: how do we approach the book of Revelation?
Answer, we should approach it literally, meaning, we should approach Revelation according to its genre of literature. Let me explain. We should NOT approach Revelation in the same manner we approach Genesis and Exodus. Genesis and Exodus both are included in the genre of historical narrative, which means these books give us a sequential timeline or chronological account of historical events. I think many people approach Revelation in the same manner, and though Revelation shouldn’t be thought of as history, it is commonly approached as a sequential timeline or chronological account of events that are going to take place in the future. We can’t do this because Revelation isn’t narrative, it’s in the apocalyptic genre. One reason apocalyptic and prophetic literature seems so foreign to us is because we normally don’t read it today. But most of you have read apocalyptic literature without knowing it when you read Ezekiel, the end of Daniel, Zechariah, and some parts of Isaiah. Just as there are different ways to interpret the genre of poetry and historical narrative in the Bible, there are different ways to interpret apocalyptic literature. The same rules do not apply.
So if we’re not to approach the book of Revelation as a future chain of sequential or chronological events, how then should we approach it? Understanding that apocalyptic literature doesn’t play by the same rules, we should approach Revelation expecting it to be filled with symbolic imagery, metaphor, and figurative language because those things are characteristic of the apocalyptic genre in the Bible. Something fascinating in this regard is that out of all the books in the New Testament, the one book with most OT allusions, quotes, references, and imagery is the book of Revelation. This means it is filled with symbolic fulfillment that goes all the way back to Genesis 1. We should also approach Revelation expecting it to have relevance and deep meaning for BOTH the present audience of the apostle John, and the universal Church throughout all of history.
So you know my cards here at the start, my view on Revelation is that throughout its 22 chapters, the apostle John re-tells the same story 7 different times with increasing intensity every time. You can call this a progressive parallelism, or a progressive recapitulation. Let’s get to the text:
Revelation 1:1-3 says, “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending His angel to His servant John, who bore witness to the Word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.”
We learn much in these first three verses. We learn the origin of the revelation of Jesus Christ – God gave this revelation to Jesus in order to show His people the things that will soon take place. Jesus then gave this revelation to an angel, that angel gave it to the apostle John, and John then gave it to the Church. That John faithfully gave this revelation to the Church makes him a faithful witness to the Word of God and testimony of Jesus Christ as 1:2 says. The word ‘revelation’ in 1:1 in Greek is the word ‘apocalupsis’ which is where we get the word apocalypse. This is the first clue letting us know the book of Revelation is apocalyptic in genre (notice also that it is called a prophecy in 1:3?). 1:1 says the purpose of Revelation is to show the Church the things that ‘must soon take place.’ That these things must soon take place means Revelation will tell both the beginning of the end times which has already been taking place in the time of John and the early Church and Revelation will tell the completion of the end times with the 2nd coming of Christ at the end of the world. The word ‘soon’ should be interpreted as ‘near’ or ‘quick’ indicating that this book is extremely relevant to John’s context (these 7 churches) and the rest of the early Church. But ‘soon’ may also mean ‘not so near’ from our perspective because 2 Peter 3:8 says, “Do not overlook this one fact beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” So one way of looking at this from God’s perspective is that since the time Revelation was written until now, only 2 days have gone by.
We learn the result of giving attention to the words of Revelation in 1:3. If you read it, hear it, and keep it or obey it you will be blessed. Why will you be blessed? Because the time is near. Listen closely Church: this means that John’s Revelation of Jesus Christ is meant to built up the body of Christ. It is not meant for ‘end-times curiosity’ to tantalize the soul or to help you guess the time of Christ’s return. It’s not meant to be a code that must be decoded, or secrets that must be revealed. Blood moon? Rather, the book of Revelation exists to bless anyone who reads it, hears it, and obeys it because it informs us how God wants us to live in light of the imminent 2nd coming of Christ. The underlying reason we should heed and obey John’s prophetic words in Revelation is because the same Jesus Christ who redeemed us in the past is coming back in the future, so we must remain faithful until His return.
1:4-5 says, “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the Firstborn of the dead, and the Ruler of kings on earth.”
Here in 1:4 we are introduced to the author and the audience of Revelation. The John mentioned here is the apostle John. You should be aware that there are those who believe this is another John, but throughout the history of Church it has been widely held that this is the apostle speaking here. In my opinion there are too many similarities between Revelation and the Gospel of John for this to be someone else. Also, notice who John is writing to: ‘to the seven churches that are in Asia.’
1:4 is the first time in Revelation where we are introduced to the idea of the number 7. We not only have the 7 churches here, we also have the 7 spirits before the throne. Throughout the rest of Revelation we’ll interact with 7 seals, 7 trumpets, 7 bowls, and many more 7’s as well. This is hardly a coincidence; it does seem that the number 7 is the favorite number in the apocalypse, and that would make sense because Revelation has more OT reference than any other book in the Bible and the use of the number 7 comes straight from the OT idea of ‘’completeness’ or ‘fullness.’ In the OT the number 7 was used to represent things that are literal and figurative. In Leviticus 4-16 we see both the figurative and the literal in that the priests were commanded to literally sprinkle the altar 7 literal times to signify a complete cleansing. Also in Leviticus 26 we read that God will punish Israel 7 times, referring not to 7 different punishments but one complete punishment that would come to them if they disobey. Of course all the 7’s in the OT find their importance from Genesis 1 when God completed the fullness of creation in 7 days. That John picks up the number 7 here in his apocalypse means that this book, though really addressed to 7 literal churches, is figuratively addressed to the universal Church of all time. This is why I say Revelation has relevant meaning for the direct audience of John and the universal Church throughout the ages, it doesn’t just have a future meaning, and it doesn’t just have a past meaning. That John also refers to the 7 spirits before the throne would therefore be a reference to the Holy Spirit, who is the most full and complete Spirit present before God.
The 7 churches John is writing to are introduced to us in 1:11 – Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. John wrote this letter in 95 A.D. under the reign of Domitian. Domitian wasn’t known for being very kind to Christians. As Caesar he was held to be god, and though not enforced by law at the time it was seen as good citizenship or common patriotism to worship the image of Domitian. That Christians refused to do so gave them the reputation of being bad citizens in the empire and they also were violently persecuted for it. The early Church needed in 95 A.D. what we need now. Think about from the perspective of these 7 churches. There was an apparent inconsistency for them. On the on hand the Kingdom of God had dawned onto the scene when Jesus was born, they believed and had seen His Kingdom grow and spread, and believed that Jesus Himself would soon return to conclude history and usher in His Kingdom in its full scope. On the other hand evil not only still existed but against all odds it seemed to be flourishing and oppressing believers wherever the empire spread. Due to this evil there was an unrelenting temptation to compromise their beliefs and worship the image of Domitian while worshipping Christ. This apocalyptic, prophetic letter would have encouraged them not to do such things, to endure, and to stand strong in the midst of severe opposition that seemed to be right around the corner.
Can you now get the sense of why Revelation is so practical and needed for us today? Being Christians in a culture that is growing in its hostility and intolerance toward Christians, we need encouragement to stand strong in our faith, we need encouragement to not compromise, and we need encouragement to not give up. We need to be reminded that Jesus, who in 1:5 is said to be the ‘faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings on earth’ will indeed come back as he has promised. We need to be reminded that when Jesus returns He won’t come quietly but will come triumphantly with the host heaven to conquer all His and our enemies. As He is our faithful witness that suffered and overcame, so too, we are called to be and therefore must be faithful unto death as well.
Do you feel the transition John makes in the middle of 1:5? It seems that John is feeling the weight of these things we’re talking of now, and that the knowledge of how Christ has conquered in behalf of His suffering Church causes him to burst into praise applying the gospel to the great Messianic prophecy in Daniel 7:13-14 saying in 1:5b-7, “To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood and made us a Kingdom, priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him, and all the tribes of the earth will wail on account of Him. Even so. Amen.” So Church, see what’s here: see that suffering, standing strong, steadfastness, proclaiming the gospel, and praising God for that gospel are all crucial parts of how the Church throughout the ages is to endure all the way until the end. The kind of life God is calling the early Church to here in Revelation is the same kind of life God is calling us to 2,000 years later.
1:8 concludes this first section of Revelation with God saying, “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’” Quoting the first and last letter of the Greek alphabet, God is proclaiming that He is the beginning of all history, the center of all history, and the end for which all of history culminates in.
May that be our goal as we go through this rich book here.