Introducing Revelation

For those who missed it, here are my notes from Wednesday night. We are beginning new small group material on the letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation, so I did a sort of potted introduction to the book of Revelation:

Introduction

If you type “Who is the antichrist?” into Google, the first web page to suggest a candidate suggests…. George Bush! The second web page to suggest a candidate declares the “beast” to be David Hasselhof!

I wonder if sometimes we are put off reading the book of Revelation simply because we think it is too difficult! We are not sure we want to wrestle with questions like “When will the world end?” “Will it be in our day?” “How do recent events in the Middle East fit with what is described?”

I suspect that some of us are aware of those who have developed an obsession with end time prophecy and are rightly wary of getting sucked in to a similar way of thinking. Throughout history there have been those who are sure that they have cracked the code and rightly predicted end time events.

Sir Isaac Newton spent most of his life on this task and left a 500 page document outlining his now evidently wrong conclusions. Another commentator, William Miller, described as an honest church going farmer predicted “desolating earth quakes, sweeping fires, distressing poverty, political profligacy, private bankruptcy, widespread immorality which abound in these last days, which obviously indicate the Lord is returning immediately.” He was sure that the Lord would return with a year. Unfortunately he made this prediction in 1843 and subsequent events would seen to suggest that he was deceived! Tragically he disappointed thousands of Christians who believed his message.

More Recently in 1970 Hal Lindsey published the “Late Great Planet Earth” which predicted the return of Christ in 1988. Perhaps G.K. Chesterton was right when he declared that: “John saw no creature so strange as one of his own commentators.”

If we need to avoid the joint dangers of obsession and unwise prediction we need also to steer clear of the danger of avoidance. Some of us might find Revelation disturbing reading and would rather read that “the Lord is my Shepherd,” while others might find it impenetrable. Nevertheless we should read it for two reasons.

First, we should read the book of Revelation because it’s part of God’s word to us. A friend of mine jokes that one day we will meet the apostle John in heaven and he is going to ask “How did you like my book?” I’m not sure that is the best reason to read it! Perhaps a better reason is that we are convinced that it is part of God’s word to us, and so we must hear what it has to say.

Secondly, we should read the book because it contains a promise that those who so will receive a blessing.

(Rev 1:3) 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.

Indeed the book is tremendously encouraging to God’s people containing as it does a vision of the sovereign glory of God and the certain fulfilment of his ultimate purposes in history.

What is the book of Revelation?

The book of revelation describes itself in three ways.

1) The book of Revelation describes itself as a “revelation”. 1:1

(Rev 1:1) 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,

The book first of all describes itself as a “revelation” or “apocalypse” The book does claim to be predictive of the future. Here again a note of warning. For those of us who are not satisfied to deal only with the big sweep of history and want to engage with the details.

There is a temptation to read this book, or especially chapters 6-21 as “reverse history.” In other words every event described by John corresponds to an event that has happened or will happen in world history. The problem with this is that readers get in to trouble when they jump too readily to identify apocalyptic descriptions with events in world history, and declare as they read the book “this is that.” Current events in world history may seem a good fit at times, but history has a habit of showing our conclusions to be erroneous.

For example I can remember the level of speculation when the European Economic Community became ten states, and many made links to the 10 kings in Rev 17:12. Unfortunately for those who said “this was that” then there are now 25 countries in the EU.

Perhaps a better way of reading Revelation is to stand back and get the big picture. As a mosaic rewards more from a distance and individual tiles reward little when studied in great detail, so perhaps the book of Revelation blesses more when we stand back and view the big pictures of God’s sovereign actions and assured ultimate victory.

2) The book of Revelation describes itself as a “prophecy.” 1:3

(Rev 1:3) 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.

Revelation is fundamentally Jesus’ message to the church through the prophet John. It’s in understanding this that we find tremendous encouragement in reading the book. Jesus’ desire is to bless his church with his words and bless those who are obedient to his word.

Like so much prophecy, the book is rich with promises and is rooted in conviction about the return of Christ right from the outset. This is a book that will help every Christian to live with the end in mind.

(Rev 1:7) Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.

3) The book of Revelation describes itself as a “letter” 1:4

(Rev 1:4) 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,

John writes down what he sees and sends Revelation as a letter to the seven churches in Asia Minor. It’s important when we read this book that we remember that like all letters, it has a context.

John is imprisoned on Patmos because of his faithfulness to the word. The churches to whom he writes have begun to experience persecution which will become far more serious before too long. Christians will be imprisoned for their faith and some will die horribly and brutally under the rage of the Emperor Domitian. With troubles in the world there are also troubles in the church and as ever false teaching and prophecy must be opposed.

We must submit our conclusions on the meaning of the book of Revelation to what I would call “the letter test.” In other words I believe that every sentence in this book had a meaning to it’s first hearers. If we are to be responsible interpreters then we must insist that our conclusions were within the grasp of the first hearers.

To suggest, as some have, that most of the book is taken up with predicting events that happened after the restoration of the nation of Israel in 1948, is to ignore the very significant events that happened much earlier in history, to settle on an interpretation that could only mystify its first hearers and to insist that the book has had little meaning to the millions of Christians who have read it throughout church history.

Where did this vision come from?

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” Rev 1:9-11

Apart from the opening verses of the book, the whole describes a series of visions seen by the Apostle John while he worships on the Lord’s day.

Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white like wool, as white as snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. Rev 1:12-20

Perhaps one of the ways of thinking about the book of Revelation that can be helpful to us is to think about the way in which in his visions John sees beyond “what is real” to see “what is really real.”

The opening vision of the risen Christ sets this pattern. “What was real” for John was the fact that he was the imprisoned pastor of a group of small struggling, scattered and increasingly persecuted churches in Asia Minor.

In his vision however he sees the risen and exalted Christ in the midst of seven golden lamp stands. He sees seven stars in the right hand of this glorious Lord. This is what is “really real.” These churches are reminded that the risen Christ is in their midst, and in his hands are angels, one for each church. This is what is “really real,” the heavenly reality which John glimpses.

It is this Christ who has looked on the seven churches and now through John writes to them with his evaluation and response. These are the seven letters, not from John, but from Jesus that we will look at this term.

So what do we need to look for and remember as we study these letters?

Firstly we need to remember that the emphasis of the book of Revelation is on endurance rather than escape. I need to say this because many Christians today get their sense of end times more from the “Left behind” series than they do from Scripture. The emphasis of those books and other teaching from a pre-tribulation, pre-millennial position is on escape. Not so the book of Revelation. Instead this book urges God people to hopefully endure.

(Rev 14:12) Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.

(See also: 1:9, 2:2, 2:19, 3:10, 13:10 & 14:12)

Secondly, we need to remember that the church really matters. We will see that there are issues with some of the churches that are serious and Jesus invites repentance. We need to remember that that just because we call something “church”, that does not guarantee that God calls it “church.” Indeed the first letter to Ephesus would seem to suggest that better no lamp stand than a lamp stand without a light.

(Rev 2:5) Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

Finally, we need to remember that we are going to be talking about our church as we undertake this study. The booklet suggests a “code of conduct” for discussing church life, and I’m going to suggest that if you want your discussions to be Christ honoring and useful that you agree to do that in your groups. We can all get negative at times, yes me too! But it‘s rarely useful or constructive.

There is a suggestion on p 49 which I’ve developed as follows:

  1. We will seek to be honest
  2. We will talk about “us” not “they.”
  3. We will seek to be constructive so that we can make a difference
  4. We will seek to honour Jesus in all our discussions
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