Today we embark on a series in the Book of Revelation. “But we didn’t finish the Gospel of Mark,” you are likely thinking. And that is correct. We will however return the to final chapters of Mark’s gospel during the season of Lent and complete the Book at that time. Until then we will be doing a high level overview of the Book of Revelation, which fits nicely in with last week’s sermon from Mark 13 on the end of time.
As we start this study I want to place the following caveats: 1) I don’t purport to have every detail, nuance, allusion or any thing else figured out in this book. It is a complex book in a literary style that we are not very familiar with any longer. That said, the book has a very discernable set of features – the victory of the Christ, the war on the church and godliness, and an encouragement to be faithful. Those will be the themes we will focus on over the coming months. 2) I bring a certain apprehension and fear to these sermons. Some of that, likely flows out of my personal history with the Book of Revelation, and some of it likely comes from a fear of the questions that will undoubtedly come my way which I may not be able to answer.
As it relates to my personal history with the book, when I was 14 my first real church experience that I can remember was in a small American Baptist Church in Aviano, Italy where the pastor preached for two years in the mornings on the book of Revelation and in the evenings on the book of Daniel and Ezekiel. That was my first introduction to serious bible study, replete with charts, pictures and diagrams of biblical prophecy and the end of time. IT was all packaged very neatly, with a belief in literal dragons coming out of the sea and the earth, giant armor clad-cockroaches marching across the creation and things like that. I have come to reject all of the interpretation that I was taught from those formative years, however until a year ago I refused to study the book, taking the all to common approach to Revelation called the pan-millennial view. Loosely translated, it goes something like this, “I don’t bother to study revelation; it doesn’t make sense. The arguments are too scholastic and anyway, “it will all pan out in the end.”” But a year ago, our small group began a study through Revelation that we are still doing and I have a better confidence that that book is understandable, applicable and desperately in need of understanding in our church culture today. I hope you will find these sermons encouraging, challenging and worthy of reflection in your faith walk.
With that introduction, let’s answer a few preliminary questions about the text: Who wrote the book? To whom was it written? Who or what is the book about and why was it written?
Who wrote the Book?
At first glance, it appears that John wrote the book. And we will come back to John in a moment, but there is an even greater author behind the book than John. Verse 1 tells us that God gave [John] the revelation of Jesus Christ. God is the author of this book, just as he is the author of every book of Scripture. As Paul reminds Timothy and Peter reminds the Church, “All Scripture is God breathed” (2Tim 3:16) “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2Pet. 1:21). So let us keep that point in mind. The words of the book of Revelation are God’s words and they “are useful for correcting, rebuking, teaching and training in godliness” (2Tim 3:16).
But God worked through John in order to record his message to the churches. Verse 4 begins like a normal letter of the day by identifying the author of the Letter followed by the recipients. John is our writer. It is commonly believed and church history attests that this is the very same John who was the brother of James and a disciple of the Jesus – John, one of the 12. John further describes himself as a “brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus” (Rv 1:9). He is on the island of Patmos. Eusebius, a church Historian tells us that John had been banished to the island of Patmos during the reign of Domitian (HistEccl 3.20.8-9). So John, a disciple of Jesus and a political prisoner of the Roman government, is writing this book. He writes as one who suffered for his beliefs and awaits the return of Christ to bring in the final destruction of sin, death and the devil.
To whom did he write?
And his recipients are people like himself. They are the members of the churches in Asia who are also suffering for their faith. We will explore more of this in the coming weeks, but let these descriptions of some of the cities suffice to show that the members of the church also live in a time when persecution and being a disciple go hand in hand. Smyrna is described as a place where the ‘synagogue of Satan’ dwells, Pergamum is the place where “Satan lives”, and Thyatira is a place where one can learn “Satan’s so-called deep secrets’.
But more than being simply people who suffer for the name of Christ, I love the way that recipients are described in these opening lines. In Verse 5, the churches are a people Jesus loves and has freed from sin. [To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.] This is a book written to a beloved bride. This is a book written for those Jesus has purchased from every tongue, tribe, language and nation among humanity. This book is written for those who have been freed from their sin and given liberty into a new life, a life where they are priests to serve [Jesus’] God and Father (Rv 1:6). Therefore, this book is for you and me and all who call on the name of the Lord Jesus. We are the apple of his eye. We are his special possession. We are his people, called by his name, seeking to extend his reign and rule in creation.
What is the book about?
So we know who wrote the book and to whom the book was written. But what is the book about? Or more specifically, who is the book about? Simply put, the book is about Jesus and his victory. The book is about God’s work to redeem his people through the reigning King – Jesus. John tells us that he testifies…to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ (Rv 1:2). This whole book is about God’s word and Jesus’ life. If we simply remembered that we would be spared a lot of difficulty as we try to interpret the text. It isn’t primarily about a chronological roadmap for the future. It isn’t a literal story where every element, no matter how fanciful it is must come true like a science fiction movie. No it is a story told in grand style, using great visual imagery that is meant to give the people of God a picture of the magnificence of their savior, the amazingness of their salvation and the battle they are caught in until Jesus returns to claim his own.
This is a book about Jesus, who is described with some great titles. He is the faithful witness. He is the one who testifies to the Father and his love for humanity. He is the one who gives us God’s word. He is the one who accurately judges between living and dead, good and evil, righteousness and wickedness. He is the dependable one, when all else fails and falls; Jesus remains faithful for he cannot deny himself (2Tim 2:13).
For a church suffering persecution, for a Christian struggling to remain faithful in the midst of opposition, to know that the Lord is faithful and paying attention to all that occurs to his people would be a word of Encouragement. But Jesus is more than that. He is the firstborn from the dead. We will see that throughout the book of Revelation God’s people are suffering greatly, suffering even death. They are portrayed as souls under the altar crying out, “How long Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Rev 6:10). The Christian may suffer persecution, even to the point of death (2:10). And yet, their Lord has conquered death. He is raised from the dead, the first fruits of all creation. Again, this title would be a message of hope for a people suffering jail and loss of life. There Lord has gone before them and been victorious, so there is nothing to fear. They too will be raised, just as he has been raised.
Their Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth. He is supremely sovereign over the principalities, rulers, authorities and governors in the world whom Satan uses to oppress the Church. But these authorities are not final. Jesus maintains the final say in all they do. Their times have been set by the reigning King and the boundaries of their influence have been carefully marked out as Deuteronomy 32:8 declares, “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.” Or as Paul declares, “From one man he made every nation of men that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 17:26). Again, this is a message of hope right at the beginning for the persecuted people of God. The Lord reigns. He is in control, nothing is slipping by, he hasn’t forgotten his people, in fact, quite the opposite, he remembers his people and is working for their preservation, protection and ultimate redemption from the cosmic battle which is warring around them.
Revelation was written to assure the people of God that Jesus is reigning on the Throne. He is seated in the heavens and he will come again on the clouds of the air and he will be honored and worshipped. For this is the story of the God who is, and who was and who is to come, he is The Almighty! (Rev 1:8).
And our Lord loves us. Jesus is the exact representation of God’s being (Heb 1:3), and what is that being? Well, the apostle John tells us in his first epistle that God is love (1Jn 4:8, 16). This book is about the Love the Father and the Son and the Spirit have for the church. This book is about the Love of God playing out in the battle for the souls of men and women. This book is about the love God displayed in redeeming people from sin by the shedding of blood. That is why the son is described as a lamb looking as if it had been slain (Rv 5:6). That is why the church is described as those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb (Rv 7:14). Why because this is God’s story of redemption through Christ. It is the story of the mystery that has been made known to the saints. It is the story of hope, Hope in Christ.
Why was this story written?
This is the story of God creating a people in the midst of severe and often violent opposition, even death. Which brings us to our last question? Why was the story written? There are a number of reasons. First, It is my belief that Revelation was written to comfort the people of God in the midst of the trials they were undergoing and to give the church forewarning about the trials still to come. Verse 1 declares, “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him, to show his servants what must soon take place.” Let’s think about those words for a few minutes. For a large part of the book, judgment, disaster, strife, difficulty and apparent defeat are articulated in this book. If that was the only point of the book, to declare suffering, then God’s people would be better off without the advance notice, don’t you think? But if the advance notice is grounded with an assurance that victory is assured, then suddenly all the bad news, becomes a message of comfort for a distressed people. Revelation is a story of written to comfort the people of God.
But revelation is also a book written to be taken to heart. 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…(Rv 1:3). Revelation was written to guide the people of God into a godly way of living and being in the midst of persecution, strife and difficulty. It is a book that is meant to be understood and applied to life, and to that end, it is an extremely practical book that will paint a picture in the clearest terms between darkness and light, good and evil, the kingdom of God and the work of Satan. And when that truth is grasped, then every action can be evaluated as either advancing the gospel or opposing the gospel. Revelation was written so that God’s people would undertake a life of holiness that advances the gospel, whatever the cost.
So are you ready to undertake a journey into the glory of God, the majesty of Christ, the seriousness of the battle we are in and what it means to worship the God who is, and who was and who is to come? If so, would you repeat after me, Lord God, You are The Almighty! (Rev 1:8). Teach us. Lead us. Change us. So that you may be glorified. Amen.