I have heard it said that if you were to poll the average Christian on which book of the Bible they most want to study, the answer would be the book of Revelation. But if you were to poll the average preacher on which book of the Bible they most want to avoid preaching through, the answer would be the book of Revelation! The problem is what readers of the Bible probably all know something about: this book is so different from the rest of the New Testament, that we just don’t know what to do with it. The symbolic language it employs seems to cast an impenetrable fog about its contents. In fact, the atheist Richard Dawkins uses the book of Revelation as a whipping boy to cast aspersions on the believability of the Bible and points to its bizarre figures and symbols as a reason why no one should take it seriously.
Unfortunately, its interpreters often don’t help the situation. One man quipped, “And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his commentators.”1 There are just so many takes on the book of Revelation and many of them are seemingly incompatible. With so many competing interpretations, how can we profitably come to the book of Revelation?
But as Christians, it is simply not an option to avoid it. And one of the reasons we cannot avoid it is that we should absolutely want the blessing it offers: “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophesy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand” (1:3). In this book, there are seven blessings scattered throughout its pages (see 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14). The fact that there are seven of them is significant because, as we shall see as we work our way through this book, the number seven is a symbol in Revelation for Divine fulness and completeness. This is not therefore a haphazard coincidence; it is intentional on John’s part and meant to alert us to the fact that those who take up this book and read it and hear it and obey it will be certainly and assuredly blessed. But if you want the blessing, you have to take it with the book!
You may have heard someone say something like, “The book of Revelation says, ‘Blessed is he that readeth,’ not ‘Blessed is he that understandeth.’” However, this is not quite right. It doesn’t just say that those who read are blessed, but also those who hear and obey. You cannot hear and obey the book of Revelation if you don’t at some fundamental level understand what it is saying. In fact, the word which is translated hear in our Bibles often carries the connotation of hearing with understanding beyond just a bare hearing of the words. So the blessing is not for those who hear but walk away confused; it is for those who hear with at least some measure of understanding and then obey what they understand.
So the question is: how do we hear the message of this book so that we understand it, so that we can obey it and receive the blessing? What I want to do in this message is to try to help us get there by getting a big picture overview of this book and its contents. In particular, I want to ask three questions. First, What kind of book is Revelation? You don’t read poetry with the same expectations as history. Revelation is a different kind of book than the other New Testament epistles and gospels. Like the maps of old, it might be said of the book of Revelation, “There be dragons there” – yes – but what does all the symbolism tell us about what kinds of expectations we need to bring with us as we open this book and read it? The second thing we need to know is: what is its overall message? You might know that a book is a history book and not a poetry book, but you need to know what kind of history it is to profit from it. If you read a book on American history as if it were talking about Russian history you are going to be very confused!
So we not only need to know what kind of book Revelation is (that’s the first question) but we also need to know what message the book of Revelation is communicating (that’s the second question). Finally, I want to ask, How are we to apply the book of Revelation? For if the blessing is attached to obedience, that means that we are not meant to read this, put it down, and then go our ways unchanged. There is to be an application of this book to our lives. We want to consider how to do this.
It is an apocalypse.
The word that in our Bible is translated revelation – “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1) – is the word from which we get apocalypse. And though this word is not used in a technical sense by John (as it has come to be used by certain scholars), it still points us to a category of literature that is known as apocalyptic. It points us back especially to the Old Testament books of Daniel and Ezekiel and Zechariah (we will see that John draws much of his material and ideas from these books), as well as to a number of intertestamental books like Enoch, The Assumption of Moses, 4 Ezra, and The Apocalypse of Baruch. There are in fact a number of things these books have in common with Revelation, although Revelation is still in a category of its own.
What do these books have in common with Revelation? There are at least four things Revelation shares with them: (1) God’s ultimate purpose for human history is revealed through visions, (2) these visions give us a “transcendent, God-centered, heavenly perspective on reality,” (3) the visions are communicated through symbolic imagery much of which is drawn from the OT, and (4) these vision communicate the fact that despite present appearances, God is sovereign and will finally emerge decisively and universally triumphant over evil and his enemies.2 We should therefore expect that in this book John is going to communicate his message through visions that incorporate highly symbolic language, but that the purpose of this language is not to confuse us but to clearly communicate to us God’s ultimate purposes in judgment and salvation.
But why would John use symbols like dragons and locusts and beasts and so on? He does so I think to awaken our imagination as well as our affections to ultimate realities. These images communicate heaven’s perspective on things. So, for example, perhaps one of the reasons the Kings of the earth and the final Antichrist can be likened (as they are in the book of Daniel) to beasts, is because though they seem powerful and omnipotent and omniscient to us, they are no more than dumb animals to God Almighty and he will have no problem overthrowing them in the end. This symbol also reminds us that though the enemies of God’s people may be ferocious, nevertheless like Nebuchadnezzar of old, they are under the sovereignty of God.
I think one way to think about the book of Revelation is to compare it to the book of Ecclesiastes. The book of Ecclesiastes gives us an “under the sun” perspective on life and tells us that a life lived with this kind of perspective is vanity (see, for example, Eccl. 1:14). The book of Revelation, on the other hand, parts the heavens and helps us to see reality in view of heaven and eternity. The purpose of this book, in other words, is to help us change our perspective, from “under the sun” to “from the heavens.” In the short compass of Revelation’s twenty-two chapters, the curtain that separates heaven from earth is drawn back and we are allowed the privilege of viewing the events of human history from the vantage point of the throne of the Ruler of the kings of the earth (cf. Rev. 11:13). So you see, these pictures and images and symbols are not there to confuse but to communicate. As it was in these other apocalypses, the purpose in Revelation with all its symbols and pictures and images is through them to encourage the people of God who are suffering that God will be finally victorious and they with him.
Revelation is therefore not a puzzle book but a picture book.3 We err when we think that Revelation is just here to help us piece together a linear narrative of events as they are supposed to unfold right before the Second Coming of Christ. We are not to read this with a sort of “newspaper eschatology”4 so that every time someone sneezes in the Middle East we rush to our Bibles to figure out how that event fits in with the narrative of the book of Revelation. Rather, we are to read this in such a way that it changes our perspective right now from one of gloom and despair and sinful compromise to one of courageous obedience and faith and hope and triumph in Christ. The book of Revelation communicates the truth that God is sovereign and that the saints will finally persevere and will achieve ultimate victory and eternal life in Jesus Christ the Lord.
This is what we mean when we say that Revelation is an apocalypse. Because that’s what it is, we should expect in its pages to encounter visions conveyed in highly symbolic language rooted in the Old Testament. But this is not language to confuse – this is language that communicates through its pictures the sovereignty of God through Christ over all history and through whose sovereignty and salvation God’s people will ultimately and eternally triumph.
First and most importantly of all, it tells us that this is God’s word. This is not just John’s word: it is God’s inspired and authoritative word to us. In fact, John is just at the end of the divine chain of communication. It comes ultimately from God the Father, who gave it to his Son, Jesus Christ, who then “sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John” (1). So you have God -> Jesus -> angel -> John. It is therefore explicitly called “the word of God” and “the testimony of Jesus Christ” in verse 2. It is the revelation of Jesus Christ not only because it is about him, but most importantly because it is from him.
And it is not just God’s word; it is God’s word to us: “to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass” (1). Blessed are those who read, hear, and obey it (3). This is underlined and emphasized again at the very end of the book: “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (22:18-19). You can’t add or take away from these words precisely because they are God’s word (cf. Deut. 4:2).
As God’s word, there are two functions that prophesy fulfills: forthtelling and foretelling. We sometimes forget that much of OT prophesy is not about predicting the future, but rather is about calling sinners to repentance and God’s people to hope in him. The book of Revelation functions in this way as well. It is a call to the patient obedience of faith (Rev. 13:10; 14:12). It is a call to overcome (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). It is not therefore just a prophesy about events pertaining to the end of human history but a forthtelling of God’s will for his people now.
But it is a prophesy also in the sense that it does predict future events. It tells us about the final judgment and the Second Coming of Christ. It tells us about a new heavens and new earth. It tells us about the kingdom of the Lord in its fulness. Over and over again, as can be seen especially clearly in the three cycles of judgment (seals, trumpets, and bowls), this book brings us to the threshold of the coming of Jesus back to this earth to save his people and to judge his enemies.
Revelation tells us about “things which must shortly come to pass” and that “the time is at hand” (1:1, 3). Now some read that language and take it to mean that Revelation just pertains to events at the time of the writing, that is, in the first century. However, we must remember that the fact that Revelation is prophesy points first and foremost to the fact that it is a word from God, and that it is the perspective of heaven, not man, that determines the connotation of words like “shortly” in verse 1 and phrases like “at hand” in verse 3. And since “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” is not incompatible with the fact that “the Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness” (2 Pet. 3:8-9), we must not wave off the possibility that from our perspective these things may still be far away, whereas from God’s perspective they are not. Remember, this book is to help us transcend an “under the sun” perspective and to see the events of human history from God’s perspective.
Nevertheless, we must also remember that when our Lord ascended into heaven, he ascended to be enthroned (cf. Dan. 7:13-14). The kingdom does not wait to be established; it has been established in Christ. Our Lord himself put it this way at the beginning of his earthly ministry in Galilee, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mk. 1:15). And though the kingdom awaits the future for its fulness, the coming of the kingdom had already been inaugurated even in John’s time. We shall see that Revelation is not just about the very end, but about the last days, days which stretch from the first to the second coming of our Lord, and which encompass our own times as well. So in that sense, this book deals with what is already “at hand,” even for folks way back in the first century, as well as for us.
It is an epistle.
Letters (epistles) in the first century had a very definite form. They began by the author introducing himself, then naming the recipients of the letter, followed by a greeting. What we see here in Revelation is this same pattern. John identifies himself and the recipients and then gives the greeting all in verse 4: “John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you and peace” (1:4).
The fact that this is an epistle addressed to seven real churches in the Roman province of Asia (think southwest Turkey), means that this was meant to address specific people in specific churches at a specific time with specific problems. In other words, we should not think of this book as some kind of abstract teaching on the end times disconnected from the day-to-day problems that the believers in these churches were facing in the culture of their own day. In particular, we must avoid the temptation to think “that modern readers interpret Revelation better than the original hearers.”5 We must also avoid the temptation to think that the epistolary aspect of this book is limited to the first three chapters. Rather, the whole book is an epistle and the whole book functions as such.
Nevertheless, the fact that we are told in the direct addresses to each of the seven churches, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22) is an indication that the message is meant for all believers of all time. It is a letter for us as well, and the exhortation to hear is to the church in every age.
Also the fact that John writes to seven churches is not an accident. Again, in the book of Revelation, seven is a symbolic number that carries the meaning of fulness and completeness. This then seems to be pointing through these particular churches to the whole church. Now I don’t think that means that these churches weren’t actually addressed; they were. But in choosing seven churches, it seems that John is indicating that the whole church in every age is also being addressed as well. And that means that this is just as relevant a letter to our church as it was to Ephesus or Smyrna or Pergamum or Thyatira or Sardis or Philadelphia or Laodicea.
So we need to see Revelation as a combination of these three things: an epistle, a prophesy, and an apocalypse. That it is an epistle means that it is not an abstract theological treatise but a letter to real people with real problems in the real world. It is a letter to the church. That it is a prophesy not only means that it foretells the future but most importantly that this is God’s authoritative and powerful word to us. That it is an apocalypse means that this word is communicated in a highly symbolic and figurative fashion in order to give us heaven’s perspective on reality. As an epistle, this is a practical word; as a prophesy, an authoritative word; as an apocalypse, it is a perspective-changing word. Together, they make Revelation to be a faith-building, hope-giving, and joy-filling word.
What message does Revelation communicate?
There have been several different ways Christians have read the book of Revelation over the years. The reason why they are different is simply because each of these ways looks differently at the overall message of Revelation and reads it accordingly. So we need to settle right now what is the overall message that John is trying to communicate, or we will be hopelessly confused about the details. As we look at these approaches, I want to consider both the advantages and the disadvantages of each.
One approach6 looks at Revelation and sees all of it as dealing only with events in the first century. It sees the judgments and the coming of Christ as taking place in first century history, like the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. It sees the beast of chapter 13 completely in terms of the Roman empire. The advantage of this approach is that it makes it very relevant to the first readers who were themselves situated in the first century. The problem with this approach is that Revelation doesn’t seem merely to be talking about the triumphs and tragedies of the church in the first century, but rather to the complete destruction of evil and the eternal triumph of his people in the real, personal, visible, and glorious coming of Christ to judge his enemies and save his people. Revelation does not leave us with a world still grappling with the dragon, Satan, but with Satan finally and eternally cast into the lake of fire. Revelation does not leave us with struggling believers but with saints who are in the very presence of God in a renewed heavens and earth, where all things are new, and where evil, pain, sorrow, and death are things of the past.7
Another approach8 looks at Revelation as a linear narrative of church history between the two comings of Christ. This has been called the Protestant view because for a long time Protestant interpreters viewed Revelation as speaking about the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy through the symbols of the beast and the false prophet.9 The advantage of this view is that it looks at history through the lens of God’s providential direction of it. But there are a number of fatal problems with it. First, it is highly artificial and subjective in terms of which symbols point to which things in church history. It is also limited to Western church history, whereas the book of Revelation seems to be addressed to the whole church of every age. Finally, if this were so, Revelation would have been utterly incomprehensible to its original audience, and the call to hear and obey it would have necessarily fallen on deaf ears.
Yet another approach10 sees Revelation as dealing not with specific events in history per se but with ideas and principles that transcend history and that are true in every age. It doesn’t interpret the symbols of Revelation as referring to specific kings and empires and events in history but as referring to the spiritual realities that are always operating in and behind human history. So, for example, these folks don’t see the beast as referring explicitly to the Roman Empire or as the Roman papacy; rather, they interpret the beast as referring more generally to any kingdom in any time that oppresses God’s people and seeks to seduce them into sin. But hence it also follows that for them both the Roman empire and the Roman Catholic church might be a fulfillment of what the beast symbolizes, and so may many other nations that have used force and cruelty against God’s people.
The advantage of this view is that it makes the book of Revelation applicable to God’s people in every age. The symbols don’t refer merely to the past or the future but to spiritual realities which operate as much in the present as they have at any time. The problem with this view, as one commentator points out, is that “it denies to the book any historical fulfillment.”11 But surely the book of Revelation is not just about spiritual principles operating throughout history but also about the culmination of human history in the climatic return of the Savior and the final judgment of the wicked.
The last approach12 is the one I most sympathize with: it sees Revelation primarily as dealing with the events of the Second Coming of Christ. Those interpreters who take this view see this book as a prophesy primarily in terms of foretelling. All the events described, either from chapters 4, 6 or 8, are thought of as describing the events immediately preceding the Second Coming. Now some folks will decry this by saying that if this is the case, then it makes Revelation irrelevant for its original audience. But I have always found this objection to be weighed in the balances and found wanting. This is because the most relevant reality for the Christian in any age is to live in light of the Second Coming. So even if this book were entirely about the events surrounding the Second Coming, it would be nevertheless incredibly relevant. It is the Second Coming that gives us reason to hope, no matter the present circumstances. Note how the epistle begins and ends – on the theme of the Second Coming (1:7; 22:20). The identifying mark of those who love Jesus is loving his appearing, and Revelation was written as a means to enflame this love (cf. 1 Thess. 1:10; 2 Tim. 4:8; Tit. 2:13). So I believe that Revelation was written to help us to living in light of this great reality, the coming of our Lord in glory and final judgment and salvation As you will see, it is a modification of this approach that I will generally adopt in this sermon series.
Nevertheless, we must resist the temptation to see all of Revelation purely in terms of the future. The imagery of the book of Revelation does seem to point not only to a distant future but also to present realities. We shall see that the imagery of the beast would have reminded the original audience of various aspects of the Roman empire. And the call to endurance was a call to endure through the present tribulation that the believers in the seven churches were then experiencing.
So as we survey these different approaches, it seems to me that any one of them on their own is not enough. Rather, we should read the book of Revelation through a combination of each of these approaches.13 It is right to say that Revelation deals with issues that first century Christians were dealing with, and it appeals to them even in the imagery it employs through symbols they would have easily recognized, not only from their familiarity with the Old Testament but also from their familiarity with the culture in which they lived. Revelation also gives us spiritual principles that are always true no matter when you live, principles that can find multiple fulfilments throughout church history. So though I believe that Revelation is primarily about the Second Coming of Christ and the culmination of all things in the final judgment and New Jerusalem, this doesn’t need to take away from the insights that these other approaches give us.
To give you an idea of how this works, and anticipating future messages, let me take the beast of chapter 13 as an example. I personally believe that the beast is ultimately fulfilled in the Antichrist whom our Lord will personally overthrow at his Return. But the beast is also prefigured in every power and prince that persecutes the people of God. And so it should not surprise us that the way John describes the beast in Revelation would have reminded his readers of the Roman empire and the way it was at that time persecuting God’s people by its government and tempting God’s people by its idolatry. I think this is the outworking of the principle of 1 John 2:18, where the apostle writes, “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.” The Antichrist is prefigured and preceded by many antichrists. It is the same thing with the symbolism of the beast. Does the beast point to this final, eschatological figure, the Antichrist? Yes, I believe it does. But does it also find fulfillment in the many antichrists throughout history who prefigure the final antichrist, whether they be hateful persons or hostile powers? Again, yes, I think it does.
With all this in mind, let me try, as broadly as possible, to give you a quick overview of the book of Revelation. The book of Revelation is structured around four visions, in each case introduced by the phrase, “I was in the Spirit” (1:10) or something similar. So you have the vision of Christ in chapters 1-3. In this vision, the risen Christ appears to John and gives him messages to the seven churches. Then you have the vision in heaven (see 4:2) in chapters 4-16. In this vision, John sees three cycles of judgment (seals, trumpets, and bowls) which come from the risen Christ as he sits enthroned at his Father’s right hand. In these chapters, you also see the present struggle between the people of the Triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) and his enemies who are led by an unholy trinity (dragon, beast, and false prophet) who seek to mimic the holy, tempt the saints, and kill those who refuse to join them in their rebellion against God. The third vision is a vision in the wilderness (see 17:3) in 17-21:8. In these chapters, you see the fall of Babylon, the symbolic seat of beast, and the return of the King, Jesus our Lord. Finally, in 21:9-22:5, you have the vision in the great and high mountain (see 21:10), where we are shown “the bride, the Lamb’s wife” (21:9), and we see the descent of the New Jerusalem out of heaven where there will be no more tears or death and where God’s people will forever enjoy his immediate presence. In the final verses (22:10-21) we have the conclusion of the book which in many ways mirrors the introduction in chapter1, together forming bookends for the total message of the book.
How then do we summarize all this? What is John trying to communicate to us through these four visions? Just this: he is telling us that though the devil is our enemy and is doing and will do terrible things to God’s people on the earth, yet his time is short (cf. 12:12). John is reminding us that the events on the earth are not determined by the dragon but by the Lamb slain, by the Lion of the tribe of Judah. God is sovereign. He will save his people and judge his enemies. No matter how bad things look now, there is hope because God, the Almighty, reigns. Jesus is coming, Babylon will fall, the New Jerusalem will descend, and God’s people will enjoy him forever. That is the message of Revelation.
What is the application of the book of Revelation?
Well, we are to hear it and obey it (1:3). What are we to obey? We are to obey the summons to overcome. We are to obey the call for the endurance of faith. We are to obey the call to recover our first love, to repent of any lukewarmness and to come to Christ as our great treasure. We are to obey the implicit call throughout this epistle to resist the temptation to love this world and rather to love the Lord our God with all our hearts. We are to see the visions given here and to correspondingly calibrate our hopes thereby. We are to live life in light not only of Christ’s future distant coming but also in light of his present rule. He is not just going to be in some far future King of kings, but he is right now “the prince of the kings of the earth” (1:5). It means above all that our relationship to Christ is far more precious than all the riches and the power that could possibly be accumulated in this world.
Where are you at this morning? What is your relationship with Jesus Christ? Is he your Savior? Or have you plotted a course for your life that doesn’t include Jesus at all? Is he your Lord? Revelation tells us that Jesus is your Lord whether you want him to be or not. And one day he will be your Judge. And let me tell you that at the last day, you will want the Judge to be on your side. The book of Revelation tells us that Jesus Christ will certainly save his people and destroy his enemies. Are you one of his people or one of his enemies? There is no third category! To be careless about him is to be against him. To treat Christ with indifference is to treat him with contempt.
If you see that you are a sinner before God and need to be saved from future judgment, let me tell you the good news. The good news is that the rebel doesn’t get saved by placating the King through good works. Because we can’t. Every sinner that is saved is saved by free grace, grace that is given because the Lion of the Tribe of Judah is the Lamb slain. What John means by that imagery in chapter 5 is that Christ effects salvation for his people by dying for them, by taking their punishment upon himself. We aren’t justified before God by trying but by trusting, not by looking to ourselves but by looking to Christ, not by relying on ourselves but upon Jesus alone. You can find peace today, not in your good works but in the redemptive work of Christ.
So what is Revelation about? It is about helping us to gain a heavenly perspective on reality. It is about calling us to put our faith in King Jesus. It is about giving the saint real comfort and hope and courage in a world that is dominated by beastly empires because above and over them all God reigns in Christ for the eternal good of his people. I like this quote from Matt Smethurst that I recently read. He says that in the Bible, Jesus is called a Lion and Satan is called a lion. But the differences is crucial: one is on a throne and the other is on a leash. This is what Revelation reminds us.
And so in hearing we are blessed. Blessed indeed, for this is not man’s blessing but God’s, and the blessing of God is a blessing that makes rich and with absolutely no sorrow added to it (Prov. 10:22).
1 Qtd. in Thomas R. Schreiner, The Joy of Hearing (Crossway, 2021), p. 17.
2 Brian J. Tabb, All Things New: Revelation as Canonical Capstone (IVP Academic, 2019), p. 5-6.
13 I think Robert Mounce summarizes this nicely when he writes, “The author himself could without contradiction be preterist, historicist, futurist, and idealist. He wrote out of his own immediate situation, his prophesies would have a historical fulfillment, he anticipated a future consummation, and he revealed principles that operated beneath the course of history.” Mounce, p. 29.