Is there any purpose? Does any one care about the evil that’s in the world? Is faith in Jesus a grand delusion, a waste of time and life? And who’s got the energy to read Revelation, anyway?
Revelation is written for Christians who suffer. The Apostle John, the writer of this book, was being persecuted for his faith, as were many in the Early Church, and that’s the reality for millions of believers across the world today. John was sent to the island of Patmos, exiled for his faith in Jesus (1.9). What he saw and recorded is a message for all suffering believers. Whatever your trials, Revelation is for you.
The meaning of Revelation is startling clear: Jesus wins! Granted, some of the details get complicated. The key to the details is the Old Testament which John knew and loved, as he weaves its truths into the drama he records. Never lose sight of John’s great lesson, though, that however bad things get, God’s plans are always being worked out, and Jesus will be glorified. This book is God’s Revelation, and John urges us to take it to heart and to apply its message to our lives (vv.1-3).
God is still on the throne… When you are hated for being a Christian, when faith is hard, when temptation is strong, when prayer seems to go unanswered, He is still reigning, still good, and still assuring us of our hope through the resurrection of His Son (vv.4-5).
…and He will remember His own. In Jesus we are redeemed, and anointed with His Spirit to serve Him and to serve one another (vv.5-6). We are a royal priesthood (1 Pe.2.9). And we are waiting for Jesus. On the Day of Atonement the Old Testament priests waited to see their Great High Priest come from the altar guaranteeing their salvation after he made sacrifice for their sins. We are waiting for our Jesus to return, to bring us full salvation. He is coming in glorious power (v.7). Our mighty conquering God promises it (v.8). Hold on!
A Prayer to Pray
Lord Jesus Christ, You are the glory of the Father, shining out the beauty of His holiness, Lordship and saving grace into a dark world. Thankyou that you hold Your dearly-loved people in Your hands, and are coming back for them. Teach me by Your Spirit that nothing compares to the salvation which You have died to purchase for me. By Your Sprit, teach me to long for your Kingdom, and to be faithful unto death, to that day when life really begins with You in heaven. Amen.
At Hope Church we’re reading through the book of Revelation in February, as part of our Reading the Bible Together series. We’ll also be studying it on Sunday mornings in the summer. The following are some introductory notes I’m giving the congregation, to give us a handle on this less well-understood part of Scripture:
Revelation is not a roadmap of the future. It is a pastoral letter, urging believers in Jesus not to lose heart in their Saviour. Although we suffer, God is on the Throne, and He is working out His purposes, to bring all things together under the Headship of Christ in His New Creation.
Revelation was written for believers experiencing the joint persecution of Jewish and Roman authorities. John uses often highly symbolic language, but don’t let that put you off. He writes as a prisoner, and needed to veil his language so that he could be sure it wouldn’t be suppressed by the authorities. If it seemed like religious nonsense to them (which is probably what they thought it was), then that was fine. He knew that he has an urgent message for his fellow Christians, which was as comforting to them as it was challenging to the world. What he is writing is political dynamite: persecution, though so fierce, will not crush the church. Jesus is Lord, and will one day crush His enemies, and save those who trust in Him.
But isn’t it a confusing riddle?
Revelation’s purpose and message is clear. But so many Christians have been put off the book because of how they’ve heard it handled in churches.
The mistake modern readers make is to think that there is some sort of key they need to unlock Revelation with. They assume that a deeper grasp of world politics and current affairs will open up all of the figurative material to them. Worse still, many think that ‘their’ age is the one God has in mind in this book. This is futile, but Christians through the ages have tried this. In the 16th Century, Martin Luther’s insisted that Revelation spoke of the rise and final overthrow of the Pope, an event which he was sure was just about to take place. 250 years later, and readers were convinced that they were learning about the threat of Napoleon in the same book. Coming into the 20th Century, in the 50s Revelation was supposed to be about the Cold War. In the 70s it was allegedly about the global instability threatened by the oil crisis. The 90s and beyond have seen preoccupations with environmental damage and global warming, topics which, we were told, Revelation teaches us about. Who knows, somewhere there are people writing books telling the faithful that Revelation is all about the rise of militant Islam!
Thoughtful Christians will resist such temptations. They will also spot the pride lurking in these views, which says ‘but this has to be about me and my times’. A little humility, a clear head, and an open Bible, and we will be on the way to grasping and enjoying Revelation, in its details as well as in its overall message. And the keys for doing so are at hand.
Two keys for unlocking Revelation:
The Bible tells you so
The main key is the Bible. Revelation is chock-full of references and allusions to and quotations from the Old Testament (there are over 500 of them. Just think about that for a moment). Straightaway we have to conclude, then, that without our Old Testaments, we won’t understand Revelation. If, on the other hand, we patiently explore John’s use of the Old Testament, we can refute some of the nonsense we hear about the supposed meaning of the Book, and start to tread on safer ground. What we discover is that Revelation is the climax of God’s plans, which were declared long before. He has been working faithfully and amazingly to plan.
Remember, though, that Revelation isn’t a book for Bible scholars. Don’t be put off if the Old Testament is still foreign territory to you. As we study Revelation we’ll be learning together. And remember: we’ve already learned the book’s clearest message, which is that Jesus wins. The rest, as they say, are just the details.
Know the Times
John wrote for his first readers. That much is obvious. And although the book is written for all of God’s people, and so speaks to us today, we must remember its original context if we are to get its full meaning and apply it to our lives.
The persecution John was suffering was mirrored in the lives of many fellow believers. As we see in the book of Acts, persecution originally came from Jewish authorities, focused through the synagogues. As the first century wore on, the Roman authorities hardened their opposition to Christianity: this irritating new sect was growing at an alarming rate, and turning into a troubling challenge to Roman power. It must be stopped. Now the church was being persecuted from two sides, and that opposition got more deadly when they joined forces. As Jesus Himself warned, and as the church was starting to discover, all men really were hating His followers.
Jesus gave another warning, though, that God was going to do something unthinkable in the minds of Jews and Christians: He was going to bring His wrath upon those who rejected the Messiah, and upon the focus of that opposition, Jerusalem. Jesus gave a long discourse on this, which the Gospel writers recorded at length (see Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21). Read those passages carefully, and there’s no doubt that Jesus predicted the fall of Jerusalem. And His words came true. In AD70 God’s patience with the city ran out, just as the Roman authorities’ patience did. God’s wrath on a faithless people who rejected His Son was unleashed. The city was destroyed by Roman armies in scenes of utter horror.
This is the backdrop of John’s book. John is warning believers that persecution will actually get worse before God’s decisive strike against it. In language that is both veiled but clear (a beast and a harlot, anyone?), John tells us that Jerusalem and Rome will work together to destroy the church, before Rome turns on Jerusalem and devours her. Jerusalem’s end will come, and Rome’s is sure to come, too. That proud Empire will pass away. This crisis is the backdrop of Revelation.
A Book for us!
Knowing John’s times, and knowing that the burden of his writings was for his immediate times, does nothing to diminish the relevance of his book for us. Quite the opposite: we read Revelation and we see that God’s hand was at work, as Jesus promised and as John recorded, to bring deliverance for His church. We see persecution now, and Revelation’s message is equally powerful: hold on! We can have deep confidence in a God who does what He promises, as we see here, and who is always on the throne.
And the final vision of Revelation is of a new city, a New Jerusalem. John leaves us where we actually find ourselves living now, knowing the dwelling of God with us, knowing His peace, comfort and joy. The vision overlaps the ages, though: we taste God’s love here, but remember that this lasting new community will be experienced fully in the age to come. The King is coming for us, to take us there, and we will be at home with Him forever.