In this post, we are going to start looking at the book of Revelation—the last book in the Bible. This book is probably one of the most difficult to understand and interpret. And for that reason, it probably has more differing interpretations than any other book of the Bible.
Briefly, there are four different ways of reading and interpreting Revelation:
- Preterism – the prophecies in the book of Revelation were largely fulfilled by AD 70 with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Rome.
- Futurism – events of the book of Revelation lie in the future and will occur immediately prior to Christ’s second coming and the end of the age.
- Historicism – Revelation is a visionary symbolization of the sequence of events that will occur throughout the course of the history of the church, from Christ’s first coming until his second coming.
- Idealism – events of the book of Revelation do not relate to any historical events at all, but rather symbolize the ongoing struggle between good and evil during the church age until Christ returns.
I believe that the futurist approach to Revelation best fits with the details of the book, and is the result of a more literal approach to interpretation. Most of the supposed fulfillments of preterism and historicism fall woefully short of the normal precision of biblical prophecy. However, that being said, each of the other approaches have some truth in them that we should consider as we approach this difficult book.
The book of Revelation was written to churches in the first century who were being persecuted by Rome. So, much of what was written reflects the events and circumstances of the early church, and it was relevant to them at that time.
And, as we’ll see below, there are great themes in the book of Revelation that are not limited to any one time in history, but are relevant to the church of any age in history.
Some of us may be afraid of the book of Revelation. After all, it’s so hard to interpret and understand! While that’s true, there is much in this book that is good and helpful for us. In fact, in Revelation 1:3 it says: “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.” There is a blessing promised to those who read and keep the words of this book.
Let’s begin our introduction to this book.
Title – The title is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” It is not the Revelation of John, or Revelations (plural). It’s one revelation and it’s about Jesus. If you’re Bible says the Revelation of St. John or the Revelation of John the Apostle . . . it is incorrect. It is the Revelation of Jesus Christ.
Greek Words for Second Coming
That word “Revelation” comes from one of the three main Greek words used for Christ’s Second Coming. The word is apokalúpsis. Apokalúpsis is a Greek New Testament word meaning a disclosure, a revelation, an unveiling. It is most often translated as “revelation.” We get the word apocalypse from it. It suggests that the Second Coming will make visible that which is already true of Jesus Christ but presently hidden from human sight. This particular word is in the name of the last book in the Bible which is The Revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 1:7; 2 Thess 1:7; 1 Pet 1:7, 13; 4:13; Rev 1:1)
In Matthew 24, which we looked at in a previous post, the disciples asked Jesus what the sign of his coming would be. That word coming is the Greek word parousia. Parousía is a Greek New Testament word meaning coming or presence. It is most often translated as “coming.” In common Greek usage, it referred to a royal visit, and the coming of a dignitary. (Matt 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Cor 15:23; 1 Thess 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess 2:1, 8; Jam 5:7, 8; 2 Pet 1:16; 3:4; 3:12; 1 Jn 2:28)
And then the third term is the word epiphania. Epiphanía is a Greek New Testament word meaning an appearance, a glorious display, brightness. It is most often translated as “appearing.” The term suggests coming out into view from a hidden background. We get our word “epiphany” from it. (2 Thess 2:8; 1 Tim 6:14; 2 Tim 4:1, 8; Tit 2:13)
These words are only ever used in the singular when referring to Christ’s return. As we’re beginning to see as we go through this series, there is one future coming, one glorious appearing, one revealing of Christ in power and glory. That is the day we are looking forward to.
Let’s continue our introduction to the book.
Author – Based on Revelation 1:1, 9 and early church tradition, the author of the book is the Apostle John, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, and the writer of the fourth Gospel and three epistles.
Audience – The book is addressed to God’s servants (v. 1) and then specifically to the seven churches in Asia (v. 4).
Setting & Date – The apostle John was the only one of the original 11 disciples to not be martyred. The Roman Emperor, Domitian, banished him to the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea for preaching the gospel. Domitian was the Caesar of his day, a ruler who saw himself as deity, as a god (little g). He would sign his letters as “the lord god, Domitian.” No wonder he greatly persecuted the early church and those who boldly proclaimed Jesus as the King of kings and Lord of lords. John received the visions of this book on Patmos in about AD 95.
When we think about the book of Revelation, we probably think of it as a book of prophecy—a book that tells us about events of the end times. And it is that. And we’ll look at those events in future posts. But it is so much more than that. Revelation is also a book about what was happening in the first century and what is happening right now. It was not written only for the end of the ages, but for all ages. It is a book that describes the tribulation and persecution that the church endures in this world, and it reveals the victory that Jesus has already won, through his death and resurrection, and the final defeat of his enemies.
When we read and study this book, we must be careful to not get so lost in all of the details that we miss the big picture. We don’t want to miss the forest for the trees, as they say. So, before we begin looking at seals and trumpets and bowls and beasts and dragons, I want us to get the big picture of this book. There are a number of key overarching themes that are brought out in the book and are repeated. We don’t want to miss them.
The Glory of Jesus Christ
As I stated earlier, the book is titled, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ,” or “The Unveiling of Jesus Christ.” This book, like no other, throws back the curtain and presents Jesus in his resurrected, glorified magnificence. The book of Revelation opens with a vision of the glory of Jesus—the sovereign Lord and Son of Man:
Revelation 1:9–17 9 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. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 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.”
12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 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. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 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. 17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.
Here is our Lord Jesus in his resurrected and conquering glory! The focus of this book is Christ and who he is. In the book of Revelation, Jesus is given many titles.
|The faithful witness||The Lamb who was slain|
|Firstborn from the dead||The Lion of the tribe of Judah|
|Ruler over the kings on earth||Faithful and True|
|The living one||The Righteous Judge|
|The Son of God||The Word of God|
|The holy one||King of kings|
|Lord of lords||The true one|
|The one who has the key of David||Alpha and Omega|
|The beginning and the end||The first and the last|
|The faithful and true witness||The bright morning star|
|The root and descendant of David||The one who is holy and true|
Jesus Christ is the focus of the book of Revelation. If we miss him as we read and study this book, we’ve missed everything. Jesus has won the victory. He is the coming King. And he will reign forever and ever.
A second theme is that of worship. This book is full of worship. And as we read the descriptions of God the Son and God the Father and the glories of heaven and the judgments of God, they should move us to worship as the four living creatures and the 24 elders worship.
Revelation 4:8–11 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”
9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
For eternity we will be worshiping God and the Lamb. We don’t have to wait until he returns to worship him. We can do that now. He alone is worthy of our worship.
The Faithful Witness of God’s People
A third theme is the faithful witness of God’s people. Eighteen times in the book of Revelation, the words witness or testimony or testify are used. This repeated emphasis reminds us of the importance of witness to the people of God throughout the ages.
In beginning of the book. John himself mentions that he was in exile on Patmos “on account of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”
Revelation 1:9 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.
The souls under the altar in Revelation 6 have suffered and been put to death because of “the Word of God and for the witness they had borne.”
Revelation 6:9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.
And later in the book, the saints gain victory over Satan. And we are told that they conquered him “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.”
Revelation 12:11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.
The original recipients of this book were under intense persecution by Rome. They lived in a thoroughly pagan culture and were surrounded by immorality and idolatry. Yet they witnessed boldly, often at the cost of their lives. And we, too, are called to bold witness. That’s what God’s people do. They witness to the truth of the gospel, to the glory of Christ, to all who are around them.
The Suffering, Victorious Church
The next theme is the suffering, victorious church. The book of Revelation consistently presents a picture of a victorious church. Even in the midst of great opposition and martyrdom, the church is seen as loyal to Jesus, operating in God’s power, interceding for God’s purposes, and worshiping as his judgments come. The words conquer, endurance, and faith are used over and over in the book.
Revelation 13:10 If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.
Revelation 14:12 Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.
Revelation 15:2 And I saw . . . those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass.
Jesus is building his church, and it will prevail. The gates of Hades will not overpower it.
The Day of the Lord
Another major theme is the Day of the Lord—the day of God’s wrath and judgment. As an encouragement to his people who are experiencing great persecution and tribulation, God details the pouring out of his wrath upon their persecutors during the Day of the Lord. Several chapters describe God’s final wrath as it’s poured out in seven trumpets of judgment and seven bowls of wrath.
Revelation 8:7 The first angel blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, and these were thrown upon the earth. And a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.
Revelation 8:8 The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood.
Revelation 16:2 So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and harmful and painful sores came upon the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshiped its image.
Revelation 16:3 The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea.
While we don’t enjoy seeing judgment fall upon the wicked, we do long for justice and righteousness in this world. We desire to see evil punished and God’s people vindicated. There are times when we cry out along with the martyred souls in heaven, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10).
The Establishment of God’s Reign
Next is the establishment of God’s reign. The word throne is used 38 times in the book of Revelation. God’s rule and reign is a major theme of the book. At the seventh trumpet, we see God reclaim rule of the earth from Satan, who is the temporary god of this world. And after God’s judgments, we see Jesus come as King of kings and Lord of lords to rule with a rod of iron and to reign as king forever.
Revelation 11:15 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”
Revelation 19:6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
Revelation 19:11, 15 Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. . . . From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.
The New Creation
Both the Old and New Testaments speak of a coming renovation of the heavens and the earth. And the book of Revelation details the new creation that God will make. God’s original creation was lost, cursed, and corrupted. But one day this corrupt creation will be remade, refashioned, and restored. God will create a new heaven and a new earth.
Revelation 21:1–4 1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Revelation 22:1–5 2 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
God is telling his people, he is telling us, that all of our sorrow will be over; all of our trials will end. Someday, it will all be worth it. The sufferings of this present age cannot be compared to the glories of the new creation in the age to come.
God’s Plan for the Nations
In addition to these seven great themes, there’s one more I want to mention in light of our missions emphasis this month at CFC. And it’s God’s plan for the nations.
John was a Jew, and most of the early church members were Jewish. But throughout the Old Testament, in the ministry of Jesus, and now in the book of Revelation, it is clear that God is a missionary God. His purpose is to seek out worshipers from around the globe.
In Revelation 5, we learn that the purpose and effect of Jesus’ atoning death on the cross are global. First we have the song of the 24 elders:
Revelation 5:9–10 9 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
We discover that heaven completely fulfills God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants that all the peoples and families of the earth would be blessed through them. And then we see a great multitude who came out of the Great Tribulation who are before the throne in heaven.
Revelation 7:9–10 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
At the end of history, Babel will be undone completely, as all the languages of the world are united in praise to God. All the promises of the Bible will be fulfilled, including the promise that God’s salvation would reach the ends of the earth.
From beginning to end, the Bible is a book about God’s plan for the nations of the earth, and about the mission he has given his people to bring the good news of salvation to all of them.
Brothers and sisters, we are engaged in a cosmic battle for the souls of men and women, of boys and girls. Yes, we have an enemy, but greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world. Yes, he may kill the body, but he cannot kill the soul. As the great reformer Martin Luther once wrote, “Lo, his doom is sure.”
Let us not be fearful of what may be coming upon the world. Christians throughout the ages have endured, shining the light of Christ in much darker times than these. Be encouraged! Christ has already won the victory, and he has promised that his Church will march on unfaltering. Whatever may happen, we will still be here preaching the gospel, building God’s kingdom.
Be brave. Preach boldly. Reach out with love. Be a bright lampstand. Continue to shine the light of the gospel in the dark places of this world. The gospel will triumph; it always does.
The Book of Revelation is a message of victory in the midst of persecution and trial. It is also a call to persevere. It is a pulling back of the veil to show us Jesus Christ, and how he will bring history to a close!
Evil may sometimes appear to win, but in the end, the purposes of God triumph. Jesus will return, all opposition to God will be overthrown, the people of God will be vindicated, and everyone who trusts in Christ will live with him forever in perfect joy in the new heaven and new earth.