So, at the end of April we finished our studies in the book of Romans which we’d started back in October 2014. I’d always hesitated from preaching on Romans because, as the Apostle Peter says in 2 Peter, Paul’s letters contain some things that are hard to understand. And Romans is hard to understand. However, after putting it off for several years, I finally decided to take the plunge and tackle Romans. And in the end, I’m glad I did, because it’s a marvellous book which teaches us marvellous things about God and our salvation. I still think about chapter 8 which began with the promise that there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus; and which ended with the promise that nothing, nothing will ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. No condemnation; no separation. It’s marvellous stuff.
Well, if Romans is hard to understand, the book of Revelation might be even harder, because often you read some of the visions which the Apostle John saw and wrote about, and you end up scratching your head, wondering what he’s talking about and what it can possibly mean.
Now, some Christians are fascinated by it. In fact, some Christians seem to spend all their time in it. And they seem confident and assured that they have come to understand its secrets and they know with one hundred per cent certainty what the locusts are in chapter 9 and what the number of the beast means in chapter 13 and what the thousand years are in chapter 20. Some Christians are fascinated by all of these things; and they’re sure they’ve got it all worked out. Others are not so sure; in fact, they’re not sure what to make of Revelation and all the visions which John received. And so, they stay away from it. They don’t go near the book of Revelation. For them, it’s as if the Bible ends with Jude, because they don’t know how to handle the book of Revelation.
Well, I’ve tended to shy away from it. Until now. I’ve decided that since I enjoyed going through Romans so much, that I might get the same enjoyment from trying to work my way through Revelation and to make sense of it. And hopefully you’ll enjoy it too and will come back for more and more and more.
Now, part of the difficulty we face when we come to Revelation is that it’s such an unusual kind of book. It’s written in a style which is unfamiliar to us. Normally, when we pick up a book, we know how to classify it or how to categorise it. You know, if you were working in a library and found a book on the floor, you could look at the contents and work out pretty easily and pretty quickly where to put it and on which shelf it belongs. You open it and it begins:
Once upon a time….
Well, you know that belongs on the shelf for fairy tales. Another book has short lines of text and the lines might rhyme. Well, that tells you it’s probably poetry. Another book has pictures of food and lists of ingredients and instructions in it. That tells you its a cookery book. And so on. Here’s a romance novel. Here’s a thriller. Here’s a whodunnit. Here’s a biography. Here’s a book about history. And so on. We’re familiar with these kinds of books; we know how to classify them and how to categorise them. Well, if you found the book of Revelation on the floor of the library, where would you put it? What kind of book is this? This book with visions of a throne in heaven and with visions about scrolls and seals and trumpets and bowls and locusts and beasts and dragons and numbers. What kind of book is this? On what shelf does it belong?
Fortunately, John himself helps us. He helps us to categorise this book and to know how to classify it. Just look at what he says in the opening verses.
First of all, in verse 1 of chapter 1, he refers to this book as a revelation. Do you see that? It’s the revelation of Jesus Christ. Now, that could mean it’s a revelation about Jesus Christ. And certainly, the book of Revelation tells us lots of things about the Lord Jesus. However, it’s more likely that John means that this is a revelation that belongs to Jesus Christ. And that’s more likely because John goes on to say that this is a revelation of Jesus Christ which God the Father gave him. So, the revelation began with God the Father; and God the Father gave it to the Lord Jesus. So, it’s now his; it’s his revelation; it’s the revelation of, or belonging to, Jesus Christ.
Well, the whole Bible is a revelation. God has given us the Bible to reveal to us what we’re to believe about him and what we’re to do for him. The whole of the Bible is a revelation from God to us. But the book of Revelation is a special kind of revelation. The Bible scholars call it apocalyptic. By that, they’re referring to books of the Bible or passages in the Bible when God reveals heavenly secrets and secrets about his plan for the world. And he does this by sending angels to his servants; and by using dreams and visions and symbols and patterns to reveal these secrets things. And through these dreams and visions and symbols and visions God reveals how he will judge the wicked and deliver the righteous. And in apocalyptic passages, God reveals that he’s going to judge the wicked and deliver the righteous when he himself comes and breaks into human history.
Well, in the Old Testament, there’s the book of Daniel. And there’s also chapters 9 to 14 of Zechariah. They’re apocalyptic. And the book of Revelation is also apocalyptic. Just look at verse 1 again where we’re told that God the Father gave this revelation to Jesus Christ; and Jesus Christ revealed it to John by doing what? By sending his angel. That’s one of the features of apocalyptic revelation.
And in verse 2 John refers to the things he saw. And the rest of the book is full of visions and symbols and patterns which John saw. Often in the Bible, people tell us what they heard; or God’s people are commanded to listen to the word of the Lord. But in the book of Revelation, John tells us again and again about the things he saw or the things he watched. That’s another feature of apocalyptic revelation; through these visions, God was revealing heavenly secrets and secrets about his plan for the world.
And, of course, the task of the interpreter is to try to work out what these visions and symbols and patterns might mean. Since they’re visions and symbols and patterns, we’re not to take them literally, because they’re visions and symbols and patterns which need to be interpreted or de-coded. For instance, later in chapter 1, John tells us how he saw the Lord Jesus, risen and exalted. And he describes his appearance and says that out of his mouth there came a sharp, double-edged sword. Does the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus really have a sharp, double-edged sword coming out of his mouth? Or is the vision conveying to us something of the power and authority of his voice?
And then, in chapters 2 and 3, there are the letters to the seven churches. Well, the number seven appears lots of times in the book of Revelation. And seven, for the Jews, signified fullness and completion. After all, by the seventh day, God had completed his work of creating the world and could rest. The number seven signifies fullness and completion. And so, the letters to the seven churches are letters addressed, not to these seven churches and these churches alone, but they’re addressed to every church in every generation.
You pick up a book which begins, ‘Once upon a time…’: and you know what kind of book it is; and you know how to read it. You pick up a book of poetry: and you know what kind of book it is; and you know how to read it. You pick up a cookery book: and you know what kind of book it is; and you know how to read it. It’s the same with the book of Revelation. It’s an apocalyptic revelation from God: and so that tells us what kind of book it is; and it also tells us how we’re to read it. We’re to expect visions and symbols and patterns which need to be interpreted accordingly. And by means of these visions and symbols and patterns, God is revealing heavenly secrets to us.
Look down to verse 3 now where John says:
Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it.
This tells us that the book of Revelation is also a prophecy. Now in the Old Testament the prophets were sent from God with a message from him to his people. Now, some prophecy involved foretelling the future: God was announcing through the prophets what he intended to do. This is perhaps what most of us think about whenever we think of the prophets. Just think of those Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Lord Jesus into the world. Or other prophets foretold how God would send the Assyrians and Babylonians on Israel to punish them for their sins. Or in the book of Acts, one New Testament prophet foretold that a famine was coming. That’s foretelling the future.
However, most prophecy involves, not foretelling, but forth-telling. The prophets were sent by God to tell forth or to make known God’s word for his people, sometimes to rebuke them and sometimes to comfort them. So, Hosea was sent to rebuke the people about their unfaithfulness to him and about the sinful ways they were treating one another. So, he spoke against their lying and murder and stealing and adultery and so. Jeremiah was sent to tell the people how God would deliver them from the hands of their enemies and restore them to the land of Israel. So, prophets were sometimes sent to rebuke the people; and sometimes they were sent to comfort the people. They were sent to tell forth a message from God.
Well, the book of Revelation is a prophecy like that: John was chosen by God to tell forth a message from God to his people. And this message was to be read to his people. Do you see that in verse 2? And God’s people are to listen to it and they are to take it to heart — and that’s an expression which means we’re to obey it. So, although the book of Revelation contains all these visions and symbols and patterns about things to come in the future, it also contains instructions and commandments which we’re to keep and warnings which we’re to heed. God has given us this book to show us how we ought to live as his people.
And sure enough, in the letters to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3, there are warnings and encouragements and instructions. He says:
I know your deeds.
I have this against you.
You have this in your favour.
If you do not repent, then….
If you overcome, then….
Warnings and encouragements and promises. The book of Revelation is a prophecy from God to his people about how he wants us to live as his people.
So, the book of Revelation is an apocalyptic revelation; and it’s a prophecy; it’s also, surprisingly, a letter. Do you see that in verses 4 and 5? After the first three verses, John makes clear this is a letter. In Bible Times, the person who wrote the letter put their name at the top of the page. And then, on the second line, you would give the name of the person or persons you were addressing. And so, we read:
John, To the seven churches in the [Roman] province of Asia.
And then, there’s a greeting:
Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come [and so on].
So, this apocalyptic revelation, full of visions and symbols and patterns; this prophecy, this message from the Lord to his people; is also a letter. It’s as if John wrote it all down and then put it in the post to be sent to and read by all these churches. And not just to them, but to every church in every generation. —
Soon and Near
So, it’s apocalyptic revelation; and it’s a prophecy; and it’s a letter. And what’s it about?
Look at verse 1 again. John says:
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.
And then jump to verse 3:
Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
What’s the book of Revelation about? It’s about what must soon take place; it’s about things which are near. Soon and near.
Well now, some of the Bible scholars have noticed that John in verse 1 is echoing the words of the prophet Daniel. In fact, all through the book of Revelation, we can hear echoes of the Old Testament. But here, there’s an echo of Daniel 2. In Daniel 2, King Nebuchadnezzar had his dream of a large statue, made of gold and silver and bronze and iron and iron mixed with clay. And then a rock was cut out of a mountain — cut not by human hands — and it struck the statue and broke it into pieces. And the rock became a great mountain and filled the earth. And Daniel was able to interpret the dream to show how, just like the statue in the dream, all the kingdoms of the world would come to nothing. But another kingdom would come, a heavenly kingdom — signified by the rock which was cut out of the mountain without human hands. And this kingdom which will fill the earth will endure for ever.
That’s Daniel 2. Now, in verse 26 of Daniel 2, Nebuchadnezzar asked Daniel if he could interpret his dream. And Daniel replied that no wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery of the dream. However:
there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in the latter days [or the last days].
Well, as I’ve said, Bible scholars think that John is echoing what Daniel said. So, Daniel says:
There is a God who reveals mysteries and who has shown what will happen.
And John, in turn, writes in verse 1 about a revelation from God which he has been given to show what will happen. We have ‘reveal’ and ‘revelation’; and we have ‘shown’ and ‘show’. However, whereas Daniel was talking about what will happen in the last days, John is talking about what will happen soon. Not in the last days, but soon.
You see, the book of Revelation is talking about the same thing Daniel was talking about in Daniel 2: how every other kingdom will be destroyed and only God’s kingdom will endure for ever. But whereas Daniel said it would happen in the last days, John is saying it will happen soon. It’s near.
The last days have begun. They began with the resurrection of the Lord Jesus from the dead and his ascension to heaven. And from heaven, he poured out his Spirit on the earth, in fulfilment of God’s prophecy to Joel. Do you remember? God had promised through Joel, saying:
In the last days, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
And on the day of Pentecost, the Lord Jesus, risen and exalted, poured out his Spirit on the people to signify that the last days have begun.
And the last days will continue until Christ comes again, which is what the end of the book of Revelation anticipates. And when he comes, all other kingdoms — including Satan’s kingdom of darkness, and all those opposed to God and who set themselves up in opposition to God and his people — they will all will come to an end, and the only kingdom that will be left is God’s glorious kingdom which will endure for ever, because all his enemies have been destroyed.
But what’s going to happen until Christ comes again and until every other kingdom is destroyed, leaving only his glorious kingdom? What’s it going to be like, being members of Christ’s kingdom on the earth, while we wait for Christ to come again?
Well, consider what we learn from the rest of Revelation. After the opening chapter, we have in chapter 2 and 3 the letters to the seven churches. And the Lord writes to encourage and comfort his people who are being persecuted; and he rebukes his people about their sin; and he warns his people about false teaching and error. He’s setting out all the dangers and temptations the church faces on earth in these last days while we wait for our Saviour to come again.
But lest God’s people become discouraged or afraid, we’re reminded in chapters 4 and 5 that our God and the Lamb are already enthroned over all. They’re the ones who are seated on the throne. So, the devil is not on the throne; the beast is not on the throne; the dragon is not on the throne. During these last days, God and the Lamb are on the throne.
And then we have chapters 6 to 20. What do we find there? The Lord has pulled back the curtain and is revealing to his church on earth how God and the Lamb are in control of everything that happens on the earth. So, in chapters 6 and 7 the Lamb is the one who opened the seals and sends trials and tribulations on the earth. Then, in chapters 8 to 11 the trumpets announce the judgments he’s going to send on the earth in answer to the prayers of his people. Then in chapters 12 to 14 God protects his people from the devil’s wrath. Then, in chapters 15 and 16, he sends the seven bowls of wrath on the earth. And in chapters 17 to 20, he overthrows Babylon, the Beast, and the Devil. In other words, God and the Lamb are in control of all things that are happening in these last days.
And finally, in chapters 21 and 22, there’s the new creation; and God will dwell with his people in this glorious kingdom that will endure for ever.
What Daniel said would happen in the last days, John is saying will happen soon. The last days have begun. And though we may be persecuted, and though we may be tempted to sin, and though there’s false teaching to deceive us, we need to pay attention to God’s warnings and encouragements and we need to remember that our God and the Lamb rule over all and are in control of all things, even when it doesn’t seem that way to us.
And so, we need to be faithful; we need to persevere and not give up. When the world opposes us, and when unbelievers stand against us, when we have to suffer for our faith, we ought to remember — as the book of Revelation shows us — that God and the Lamb are on the throne; and in the end, their kingdom will be the only one left. And so, we need to be faithful and to persevere each day.
And as we gather around the Lord’s Table on Sunday, and as we receive the Lord’s Supper, we’re to look upwards to heaven, where Christ our Saviour rules over all; and we’re to look forward to the day when he will come again and when we’ll join our Saviour in heaven and where we shall be with him for ever and for ever.