The time has come! Let the unveiling begin! I wish it were that easy. I wish that we could open the book of Revelation this morning and over the next thirty minutes lay out, in a systematic fashion, all of the answers that prognosticators, end-times prophets, earnest seekers, and soothsayers have sought throughout the centuries. Answers to questions like, “Are we in the last days?” “Was the book of Revelation written to the seven churches named in chapters 2-3 or was the book written for those who would be alive when the last days arrived?” “Is the beast of Revelation 17 really the Roman Catholic Church as some believe?” “Will Christians have to go through the Tribulation or will we be raptured before that horrible time in history?” “Was John a pre-millennialist or post-millennialist?” “Who is the Anti-Christ and is he alive today?” I could go on and on with the endless list of questions that many have asked and sought answers for, but it is my prayer that you will join me during the next several months as we seek to gain insight into this powerful book that closes out God’s Word. I will promise you that if you will make a commitment to join me in this study you will be blessed. Revelation is the only book in the Bible that promises a blessing for those who read the book, those who hear Revelations words and take them to heart. John writes,
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. (Revelation 1:3 NIV)
We need to study Revelation together. I don’t want us to accept the answers that others offer in books on eschatology or prophecy–it is my prayer that we will study the book of Revelation itself and let God speak for Himself. The book of Revelation has puzzled many a serious student of God’s Word throughout history. Martin Luther wrote in the preface to the 1522 edition of his New Testament,
My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. There is one sufficient reason for the small esteem in which I hold it–that Christ is neither taught in it nor recognized.
That is an interesting quote, a quote that we would think came from someone who never read the book. It is especially interesting when you consider that the chief subject of the book of Revelation is Jesus. Pastor John MacArthur attests to this in his commentary on Revelation when he writes,
But the book of Revelation is preeminently the ‘Revelation of Jesus Christ’ (1:1). It describes Him by many titles, including ‘the faithful witness’ (1:5); ‘the firstborn of the dead’ (1:5); ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth’ (1:5); ‘the Alpha and the Omega’ (1:8; 21:6); ‘the first and the last’ (1:17); ‘the living One’ (1:18); ‘the One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands’ (2:1); ‘the One who has the sharp two-edged sword’ (2:12); ‘the Son of God’ (2:18); the One who has eyes like a flame of fire, and ‘feet’ like burnished bronze’ (2:18); the One ‘who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars’ (3:1); the One ‘who is holy, who is true’ (3:7); the holder of ‘the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens’ (3:7); ‘the Amen, the faithful and true Witness’ (3:14); ‘the Beginning of the creation of God’ (3:14); ‘the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah’ (5:5); ‘the Root of David’ (5:5); ‘the Lamb of God’ (5:6; 6:1; 7:9-10; 8:1; 12:11; 13:8; 14:1; 15:3; 17:14; 19:7; 21:9; 22:1); the ‘Lord, holy and true’ (6:10); the One who ‘is called Faithful and True’ (19:11); ‘The Word of God’ (19:13); the ‘King of kings, and Lord of lords’ (19:16); Christ (Messiah), ruling on earth with His glorified saints (20:6); and ‘Jesus-the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star’ (22:16). (John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Revelation 1-11, pg. 8)
How could such a great student of God’s Word like Martin Luther say that the book neither teaches nor recognizes Jesus? That is a bigger puzzle than Revelation itself.
Some of the greatest theologians of all-time, men who wrote commentaries on most every book of the Bible and influenced their culture for the Kingdom of God, never dared to write a commentary on the book of Revelation. John Calvin never wrote a commentary on Revelation. Martin Luther, the Father of the Protestant Reformation wouldn’t attempt it, and neither would the Swiss theologian Ulrich Zwingli.
As I have been reading and studying the book of Revelation over the past two months I can certainly understand why these heroes of mine never attempted to write a commentary. Connie came through the room the other night while I was reading Revelation and I told her, “It’s too much. There is no way I can work through this book.” Connie’s encouragement strengthened my heart as she said, “When you told me you were going to preach through Revelation I thought you were crazy.”
I may be crazy, but I am more convinced this morning than ever before that the Lord has called me to this privilege. I want to make something very clear–I will not be teaching you over the course of the next few months, but I will be seeking to learn myself. I have always been fascinated by Revelation, but never understood it. I can really identify with Dr. Earl Palmer, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, when he said, “Revelation is hard to understand, but it is impossible to forget.”
I believe that one of the major hurdles I’ve faced in trying to understand Revelation is because the very first Bible study I attended in college, just after accepting Christ, was on the book of Revelation. The guy who taught the study came to my dorm and he had charts, graphs, artwork of beasts and demonic looking characters doing battle with angelic looking characters. He talked about the “Mark of the Beast: 666” and how we could take the English alphabet and attach a numerical value to each letter and determine who the Anti-Christ might be. I was so fascinated. It was like he had a direct line to God and I had never read the Bible so everything he said was the absolute truth.
Time passed and the study ended. Other teachers arrived on the scene. Popular Christian books like, “The Late Great Planet Earth,” were passed around. Hal Lindsey predicted the end of the world in the 1980’s. What’s interesting is that if you buy Hal’s book today that prediction has been removed. I read other books about Revelation and it seemed everybody had something different to say. Then, in 1988 I was a youth pastor in Plano, Texas and one of our church members gave me a copy of “88 Reasons Why The Rapture Could Happen in 1988.” It was written by a NASA scientist named, Edgar Whisenant. He predicted the rapture would happen between September 11-13, 1988. When it didn’t happen he moved the date back a month.
Confusion seemed to be the companion of everything I read about Revelation until I learned about the differences in interpretation of the book of Revelation. There are different schools of thought, different ways to interpret Revelation, and the viewpoints of the writer can be traced back to one of four ways of interpreting the book. Let me just briefly tell you about the four different interpretive approaches to Revelation.
The first approach is called the preterist approach. The preterists look at Revelation not as a series of future events or predictive prophecy, but as a history of the events that took place in the Roman Empire during the first-century. The preterist believe that Christ’s second coming was fulfilled in the destruction of the temple in a.d. 70, even though He did not appear on that occasion. Robert Mounce writes,
The major problem with the preterist position is that the decisive victory portrayed in the later chapters of the Apocalypse was never achieved. It is difficult to believe that John envisioned anything less than the complete overthrow of Satan, the final destruction of evil, and the eternal reign of God. (Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament. William B. Erdman’s Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1998. p. 27.)
The second way to interpret the book of Revelation is called the historicist approach. The historicist approach sees Revelation as a record of church history from apostolic times until the present day. In this method people try to make sections of Revelation fit in with specific historical events. The beast is seen as the current manifestation of the beast in society, whether that would be Saddam Hussein of a couple of years ago or the Roman Empire during John’s day. People who look at Revelation through this lens oftentimes allegorize or spiritualize the Scriptures and read into it events they think it is talking about. This view leads to some off-the-wall interpretations and robs the book of any meaning for those who received the letter in the first century.
The third model of interpretation is called the idealist approach. This approach sees Revelation as a document portraying spiritual principles of the timeless struggle between good and evil that is played out in every age. The idealist don’t believe that Revelation is a historical record or a predictive prophecy. To the idealist Revelation is a collection of spiritual stories to convey timeless spiritual truths.
The final approach is called the futurist approach. The futurist sees in Revelation 4-22 people and events that will arrive on the scene in the future. The futurist views Revelation as a prophecy of events to come. The weakness of the futurist approach is that it views most of the book as having nothing to do with the very people for whom it was written in the seven churches.
All of these views have their strengths and weaknesses. If you understand the four models of interpretation you can understand the lens through which modern-day writers of books on Revelation are looking through. Robert Mounce says,
From this brief survey it is readily apparent that each approach has some important contribution to a full understanding of Revelation and that no single approach is sufficient in itself. It is vitally important to see with the preterist that the book must be interpreted in light of the immediate historical crisis in which the first-century church itself. With the historicist it is important to notice the philosophy of history revealed in the Apocalypse has found specific fulfillment in all the major crises of human history up to the present day. With the futurist we must agree that the central message of the book is eschatological, and to whatever extent the End has been anticipated in the course of history, it yet remains as the one great climactic point toward which all history moves. This age will come to an end. Satan and his hosts will be destroyed and the righteous will be vindicated.With the idealist one must agree that the events of history give expression to basic underlying principles. God is at work behind the scenes to bring to pass his sovereign intention for the human race. (Robert Mounce, Revelation, pg. 29.)
There is so much for us to learn about this powerful book. Just in the past couple of months I have already learned so much that it excites me about the lessons that are yet to come. I have learned during the past two months that Revelation is filled to overflowing with the Old Testament. There are phrases and words from the Old Testament all over Revelation. Out of the 404 verses of the book, approximately 278 of them come from the Old Testament. Almost 75% of the book is related to the Old Testament. Great prophecies of the Old Testament find their fulfillment in the book of Revelation. When John refers and reflects on the Old Testament passages he never introduces the verses by saying, “Isaiah says” or “Daniel says.” Learning how much of the Old Testament is included in the book of Revelation has been confirmation to me that without an understanding of the Old Testament we cannot make sense of the New Testament. We must know the Old Testament to understand the book of Revelation.
Another interesting thing I have learned is that there are many similarities between Genesis and the book of Revelation. In Genesis the earth is created. In Revelation it passes away. In Genesis we find the first rebellion. In Revelation we find the final rebellion. In Genesis sin enters the human race. In Revelation sin comes to its end. In Genesis the curse begins. In Revelation the curse is ended. In Genesis death begins. In Revelation death is banished. In Genesis humanity is banished from the Garden. In Revelation humanity is brought back into the Garden. In Genesis the dominion of man over the earth is removed. In Revelation humanity is restored to his intended dominion over the earth. There are so many other parallels that we could take a look at this morning, but our time is short and we must move along.
This morning I want to give us an introduction to the Book of Revelation by trying to answer the “Who, What, Where, When, and Why” questions that we need to ask of all Scripture when we study God’s Word. “Who wrote the book? What is the intent of the author? Where was he when he wrote? Why did he write the letter?” and “How can we seek to understand what God is saying to us today?”
Let’s begin by trying to understand who wrote the book of Revelation. There has been little debate throughout the centuries that the Apostle John wrote Revelation. Scripture can answer this question for us as we read in verses 1-2,
1The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2who testifies to everything he saw-that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. (Revelation 1:1-2 NIV)
Again in verse 9 we see John identify himself as the author of the book when he writes,
9I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. (Revelation 1:9 NIV)
The author of Revelation calls himself John, a servant of God (1:1), a brother of his readers (1:9), and a prophet (22:8). Many of the early Church Fathers believed that John the Apostle wrote the letter. Robert Mounce says in his commentary on Revelation, “Early tradition is unanimous in its opinion that the Apocalypse was written by John the apostle.” (Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation, p. 11.)
John may have been the human vehicle to communicate the revelation to his readers, but the real author of the book of Revelation is God Himself. Go back and read Revelation 1:1-2 once again and you will see that this is the “revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave Him to show to His servants.” God gave the revelation to Jesus who in turn gave it to John so that he could give it to us.
The second question that I want us to address is, “What was the intent of the author?” As I have been reading Revelation it has become apparent to me that God’s intent in giving us this book is to confirm to us that He is the Lord of history. Regardless of what those in the seven churches were going through, regardless of what we will go through, God is the Lord of history. We are not alone! God’s Chosen People have never been alone in the midst of their suffering and we are not alone today. God is with us! The Beast was defeated in the first century, he has been defeated in every subsequent generation, and he will be defeated in the final chapter of history!
Thirdly, where was John when he was given this revelation? Once again, we can look to the pages of Scripture to find the answer to this question. John writes, 9 I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. (Revelation 1:9 NIV) John was on the island of Patmos out in the Aegean Sea, not too far from Ephesus. It was about 18 miles in circumference. Patmos was a place of banishment for those who had sinned against the mighty Roman Empire. John says that he was banished to Patmos because of the “Word of God” and “the testimony of Jesus.” The government grew weary of John’s preaching and they exiled him to Patmos to try and rid themselves of the nuisance. John MacArthur writes,
By the close of the first century, Christianity had become a hated and despised religious sect in the Roman Empire. Writing to Emperor Trajan early in the second century, Pliny, the Roman governor of Bithynia, scorned Christianity as a ‘depraved and extravagant superstition.’ Pliny went on to complain that the ‘contagion of this superstition (Christianity) has spread not only in the cities, but in the villages and rural districts as well.’ (cited in Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, London: Oxford University Press, 1967, 4) (John MacArthur, Revelation, p. 38)
The persecution that was taking place when John wrote was not the persecution of Trajan, but the persecution of Domitian, the Roman Emperor who ruled from 81-96 A.D. This leads us to our fourth question: “When did John write the book of Revelation?” In the second century, Ireneaus, one of the early Church Fathers, said that John wrote in the 14th year of the Roman Emperor Domitian who ruled from 81-96 A.D. The letter was written about 95 A.D. Domitian loved to have the people call him, “Our Lord and God.” One of the reasons the persecution of the Christians became so severe was because they would not recognize the Roman Emperor as a deity. Even though Domitian loved to hear the people proclaim him as “Our Lord and God,” the Christians would not bend on this blasphemy. The title, “Our Lord and God” is precisely the title John gives to Jesus.
In John’s glorious vision of the door opened into Heaven, in Revelation 4, he sees the living creatures giving glory, honor, and thanks to Him who sits on the throne. John writes in Revelation 4:9-11.
9Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, 10the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: 11 ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.’ (Revelation 4:9-11 NIV)
The title “Our Lord and God” belongs to One and only One: He is the King of all creation, the Lord of history, He is the Everlasting Father who rules and reigns forever! Domitian came and went, but our Lord and God reigns! The mighty Roman Empire folded and is no more, but He is still God! Those who were persecuted found great hope in clinging to the One who promised to defeat the Beast of their day and we must cling to the hope that the same God who defeated the Beast of the first century will defeat the Beast of each new generation! Our God reigns!
This leads us to the last question of the day: “Why? Why would God give to us this book? What is its relevance for us today?” Those are great questions! Let me take you back to the first century and let’s imagine that we are sitting this morning among the believers in the First Church of Smyrna. The situation at hand is bleak. Day-to-day living is tough. Slander awaits you as soon as you leave the sanctuary. Poverty is your closest companion. There are trial and troubles of every sort at every turn. Don’t believe me? Turn to Revelation 2:8-11 and let’s read together.
8 “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 9I know your afflictions and your poverty-yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death. (Revelation 2:8-11 NIV)
To the folks in Smyrna Jesus says, “I know…” He knows where they are. He knows what they are going through. He knows how they are suffering. He knows the tears they cry at night. He knows how horrible they are being treated. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid! Be faithful!” Jesus is with them. They are not alone. He urges them, their Lord, their King, their Messiah, their Suffering Servant, urges them-be faithful!
Let me ask you, “When you are going through severe suffering and you realize that you are not alone, how does that impact you? What difference does it make?” I’ll tell you that it makes all of the difference in the world! It doesn’t matter if you are a merchant in Smyrna suffering at the hands of slanders or a displaced resident of New Orleans living in a shelter in a strange city and realizing that everything you’ve known, all that you had, is gone. Jesus’ words make all of the difference in the world. I was watching reports about the people of the Gulf Coast last week when I saw an interview with a man who was asked, “What will you do?” The man looked into the camera and said, “I don’t know. I’ve lost everything. I’ve lost everything and it’s just me and the Lord now, but I will be all right.”
Why did God give His people this powerful letter? Oh, you can talk about the author, the place of writing, the genre and whether it is primarily apocalyptic, prophetic, or an epistle, but those questions won’t answer the real reason God has given His people this book. Why? Because throughout history God’s people, all people for that matter, have suffered and struggled. The struggles of those of the past and our struggles of today are not outside of the jurisdiction of Almighty God. He is Sovereign. There is absolutely nothing that lies outside of His control or power. There is nothing that has ever happened in the history of the world or in your life or mine that did not first filter through His fingers. The people of the world are looking for a way out of their troubles, but God desires to lead us through our pain, through our suffering, and through our heartaches. God desires for us to see purpose in the pain we endure as we trust Him and His great love for us. This is why Paul could write to the brothers and sisters in Rome and say,
1Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Romans 5:1-5 NIV)
Just three chapters later Paul encourages the believers once again by reminding them that they are children of God, children who share in Jesus’ sufferings and look forward to sharing in His glory. Paul writes,
16The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17Now if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 18I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. (Romans 8:16-18 NIV)
The struggles of our present time will not even be able to compare with the glory God has for us. Jesus is our conquering King. Hold on. Trust Him. Relentlessly pursue Him for as John tells us, “He is the faithful witness!”
I hope that you will join me during the next few months as we study this powerful book together, but I pray that if there is anyone here this morning who has never surrendered their life to the King of glory that you will do that at this time. Don’t try to stick it out on your own. The King has come! Let Him reign in your heart this day.
Britton Christian Church
September 11, 2005
Introduction to the Revelation of Jesus Christ