As John begins to wrap up his work, he brings to a close many of the themes he introduced in his prologue (Rev 1:1-8). He has not only been told what to say, but shown by an angel “what must soon take place . . . for the time is near” (22:6, 8, 10; 1:1-2 ESV). But the Revelation does not belong to John as a matter of authorship, for the One who gave it is himself “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (22:13; 1:8)—the book is in truth, “The revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1). And so John, in both his first and final benedictions, points out the blessings that come to those who read and heed the message of their Savior:
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, for the time is near. . . . Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book. . . . Blessed are those who [do his commandments], so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. (Rev 1:3; 22:7, 14; see ESV margin)
The readers of Revelation then watch as each of the main actors in the drama leave the stage for the last time: first the angel (Rev 22:6-11), then the Lord Jesus (22:12-17), and then John himself (22:18-21). As the angel departs, he reemphasizes the immediacy of what he has shown the apostle: “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near” (22:10). So near, in fact, that for many in John’s day it may already be too late to repent: “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy” (Rev 22:11; see Dan 12:4, 9, 10). Many had seen the plagues God wrought throughout history, but failed to perceive the power behind them, and so they too would be swept up in the destruction (9:20-21; Rom 1:18-23).
It may be at this point that the book of Revelation has much more to do with you than you think. Consider the list Jesus himself gives of those who live apart from God for eternity: they are “the dogs [male cult prostitutes; Deu 23:17-18] and sorcerers and [fornicators] and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev 22:15). But his list is not exhaustive; Paul tells us neither adulterers, homosexuals, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers or swindlers “will inherit the kingdom of God” (1Co 6:9-10).
But the good news of Christ is not that we must (literally or figuratively) sleep in the bed we have made; it is that through his grace, we have the opportunity to turn to him in obedient faith (Rev 22:14) for the cleansing only he can bring. As Paul continues in the next verse, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of our God” (1Co 6:11). Every saint has a past they’re not proud of, but in Christ God has a future prepared for every man, woman, and child who turns to him.
And as John tells us, that turning begins by accepting Jesus and everything he has said as the trustworthy, true, and sufficient revelation of God to man: “‘These words are trustworthy and true.’ . . . I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (Rev 22:6, 18-19). God’s word is spoken in creation (Gen 1:3), it lives in our hearts (Deu 6:6), it shapes our lives (Deu 32:47), and it will never pass away (Mat 24:35). The Scriptures are alone sufficient for all things because Jesus is alone sufficient for all things; he is the Word through whom all things were made, and through whom we have eternal life (2Ti 3:16-17; John 1:1; 6:68).
In the Bible, this obedient faith and heartfelt repentance receives the Spirit of Christ in the waters of baptism (Mat 28:18-20; Acts 2:36-38). Notice how John weaves together the themes of the Spirit, the church, faith, baptism, and grace: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come, let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev 22:17, emphasis added). This is that moment the Christians at Corinth had been washed of their sins, made holy in Christ’s blood, and declared innocent through God’s own righteousness (see Acts 22:16; Rom 3:21-26; 6:1-7). At the moment of our baptism we are clothed with Christ’s royal robes (Rev 1:6, 9; 5:10; 14:1-5; Gal 3:26-29), we are sealed with the name of his Spirit (Rev 7:1-4; 2Co 1:22; Mat 28:19), we embody the power of his resurrection (Rev 11:1-14; Rom 6:1-7; 1Pe 3:21), and we become his bride (Rev 19:7; 21:2, 9; Eph 5:25-27).
But there is also a message here for the church as “the wife of the Lamb” (Rev 21:9). We Christians must not only do a better job of reaching out to the lost with the gospel call, we must also recommit ourselves to praying for the coming of Christ himself. “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come Lord Jesus” (22:20)! For many of us, these words may be hard to pray. We love our family, we love our neighbors, we love our country, we may even love the world in the worst way (1Jo 2:15-17). So perhaps the last thing that comes to mind when we bow our heads is, “Lord, please come and judge the unbelievers and take me away!”
For John, though, that same love of family, of neighbor, and of place, was what helped him suffer for the sake of the kingdom while he proclaimed God’s word to “many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (Rev 1:9; 10:11). The immediacy of Christ’s coming gave John both hope in the midst of suffering and purpose in his mission to the lost. For eternal victory is reserved for those who “have conquered . . . by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (12:11).
The message of Revelation is really only confusing because we have made it so. Rather than seeing it from the perspective of the seven churches (Rev 1-3) and from God’s own throne room (Rev 4-5), man has made it about us in the worst possible way. And because of that, we have overlooked what Revelation actually does say about our situation. Whether we are lost or saved, whether we are comforted or afflicted, whether we have or have not, we need to understand Revelation as a description of the life we are called to lead between the first and second comings of Christ. As Ray Summers writes,
This message is particularly relevant today — the call to choose eternal rather than the temporal; to resist temptation, to refuse compromise with pagan secularism, to place the claim of conscience above all demands against it; to cherish the confidence of ultimate victory for the kingdom of God, not only in the age of Domitian but also in every other chaotic period of world history . . . . Find the greatest enemy of Christ (whether corrupt religion, godless government, social anarchy, or any other) . . . and see its eventual failure as the living Christ, the redeeming Lamb, marches to victory over chaotic world conditions—Worthy Is the Lamb. (Summers 93, 208)
The message of Revelation is the message of redemption. The Spirit and the Bride still say, “Come.” The ones who hear say, “Come.” And those who belong to the Christ say, “Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with [all the saints]. Amen” (Rev 22:21; see ESV margin).
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In the wake of God’s cataclysmic judgment against the city of man, how should the city of God respond? On one hand, Christians throughout the Empire inevitably lost friends and family as their communities and borders deteriorated. But for those who looked down from heaven upon the onslaught, their response was one of joy, of feasting, and of victory. When hell’s harlot had been defeated, the departed saints could cry out to their Lord, “Hallelujah! . . . Praise our God . . . !” (Rev 19:1, 3, 4, 5, 6 ESV). While judgment fell on Rome, the faithful rejoiced over her downfall (19:1-5); the battle had been won (19:11-21), and the reign of God confirmed (19:6-10).
And yet, surprisingly, it is this victorious reign of God over the rulers of the earth that poses the greatest problem interpreting the book of Revelation (Rev 20:1-6). But neither the actor, the set, or the prop is new: “the ancient serpent,” “the bottomless pit,” and “the key” (20:1). All three appeared before in Revelation 9:1, when Satan (“a star fallen from heaven to earth;” see 12:9) was “given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit.” From this pit, God allowed him to call forth his demon-driven armies for a time, but Satan’s assault soon focused on a target of God’s choosing: the very city that ruled by the strength of Satan’s power (9:1-21; 13:1-10).
But as John would no doubt remind us, Satan does not own the key to the abyss, it belongs to Christ (Rev 1:18); so we now see it back in the hands of an angel, who “seized the dragon . . . and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while” (19:2-3).
It’s this last sentence that confuses many people. After all, if Satan is still deceiving the nations (2Co 4:4), doesn’t that mean the millennium is still in the future? And if John says that he will be released again, won’t it be followed by a literal tribulation, then the second coming of Christ? Maybe so. But given Revelation’s symbolic use of numbers, and the breakdown of time throughout the book due to recapitulation, we can’t make confident claims about sequence from these words.
Instead, when we compare the numerical representation of Satan’s influence to the reign of God we are revealed the ultimate, ever-present supremacy of the Great I AM over our Enemy. Satan will trample us for only ten days (Rev 2:10) or maybe even 1,260 (11:2-3), but we will reign with God for one thousand years (10 x 10 x 10 = the number of perfection multiplied to the factor of heaven, 3; Rev 20:4-6). The difference is presented as quantitative because it represents a complete qualitative distinction between the influence of Satan and the reign of God—they’re not even on the same plane.
And for the first-century Asian believers suffering under the imperial cult, this was a great comfort. For in the face of death they found not defeat, but victory: “Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Rev 20:4). The disembodied souls who had previously cried out, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long . . . ?” (6:9-11) were now reigning with Christ awaiting the resurrection of the dead and the redemption of their bodies (20:-6; 1Th 4:14-17; Rom 8:23; Ecc 12:7; Php 1:19-23; Job 19:25-27).
The millennium therefore serves as a sort of hinge around which Revelation turns. On one hand, the city where God reigns has already been established through creation, and confirmed through Christ’s incarnation, miracles, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension (Heb 11:10, 13-16; Mat 2:2; 12:28; 16:28; Col 1:13). And all those who belong to Christ—whether dead or alive—are children of the heavenly King and heirs according to the promise (2Ti 2:11-13; Gal 3:25-29).
But on the other hand, there is a sense in which we wait in patience and purity for a kingdom yet to come (1Co 15:50; Eph 5:5; 2Ti 4:18; Mat 6:10); though limited in power and freedom, the devil is still on the loose, as are his servants (1Pe 5:8; 2Co 11:13-15). But just as God had destroyed the godless forces of Gog and Magog before (the Seleucids; see Eze 38-39, Summers 206-207), he promises John that he will do so again: “And [Gog and Magog] marched over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown down into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20:9-10; see 20:12-15).
And with evil and its servants shoved aside, everything we see will change, “a new heaven and a new earth” will appear, and the city of God will descend from heaven as the radiant bride of Christ (Rev 21:1-2, 9-11; Eph 5:22-27). It will be a place of perfect fellowship: where God descends to dwell (Rev 21:3), where the righteous are at home (21:4-8), and where the sea no longer stands between God and his people (20:11; 4:6; 15:2; 21:1). It will be a place of perfect protection: with 12 foundations, 12 pearly gates, 12 angelic sentries, an area and height of 12,000 stadia, and 144-cubit-thick walls. And the perfect paradise, in which the curses of old have been undone: the serpent has been crushed, the Seed has conquered, the woman is dressed in white, man walks and talks with the Lord in his garden, and God’s children partake freely of the un-forbidden fruit (Mat 19:28; Gen 3; Acts 3:21; Rom 8:18-25).
Whether we realized it or not, though, we’ve also just answered the most difficult question about Revelation: When does the book of Revelation actually talk about us today, and what about the end times? In short, everything until the millennium (Rev 1:1-19:21) found immediate fulfillment in the first-century church, and applies to us today only by extension. And everything from the millennium to the end of the book (20:1-22:21) applies to all Christians in every age, and the one hope all Christians share in an eternity with our Lord (Eph 4:4; 1Th 4:16-17).
In other words, the Book of Revelation has always been about us; we just have to shift our vantage point to see things from the throne room of God (Rev 4-5; 20:1-6). We too have been added by Christ to his kingdom of priests (Rev 1:6, 9), we share in his kingdom life and his kingdom victory (5:10), we are his innumerable army (Rev 7), the witnesses to his resurrection from the dead (11:1-14), the disciples clothed in his own righteousness (14:1-5), and the citizens of his own eternal city (19:1-22:5). As the church of Jesus Christ, we are the saints who live in the last days, the millennial reign of the Messiah (Acts 2:17; 2Ti 3:1; Heb 1:2; Jam 5:3; 2Pe 3:3).
And the promise of that city remains open to all: “The one who conquers . . . I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. . . . Blessed are those who [do his commandments], so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates” (Rev 3:12; 22:14; see ESV margin).
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One of the many themes throughout the book of Revelation is the concept of one’s city. And though the word appears often throughout the book (thirty times in the ESV), all but eight instances are concentrated in John’s sixth episode. On one hand, there is “the great city that [spiritually] is called Sodom and Egypt, where [the] Lord was crucified,” and where the blood of many would flow (Rev 11:8, 13; 14:20; 16:19 ESV, see margin). And on the other, there is “the holy city,” which would be trampled for forty-two months, but would ultimately triumph as “the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven” (11:2; 3:12).
Having witnessed the terrifying judgment of God upon his enemies in Revelation 16, several questions naturally arise in the mind of the reader, all of which revolve around these symbolic cities: Are these prophecies really fulfilled in the fall of Rome? Does this mean that Christians are to blame for the demise of the Empire in the West? And when does the book of Revelation actually talk about us today—what about the end times? We’ll take a look at these first two questions this week, and the others (Lord willing) in the week to come.
That Rome is the subject of John’s visions is clear from the description of “the great prostitute” in chapter 17. She is identified as “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth” (17:18); she sits upon seven hills (17:9); and she reigns over all nations, leading them into lewd and luxurious lifestyles of sin (17:2, 4, 15). Additionally, the description of the beast she rides upon parallels that of the first beast in chapter 13, which we have previously identified with the Roman principate, personified as Domitian. He is “full of blasphemous names” (17:3; 13:5-6); he has “seven heads and ten horns” (17:3, 7; 13:1); he has fallen in defeat, but regained his former strength (17:8, 11; 13:3); and he is the primary cause of persecution for Christians in the province of Asia at the end of the first century (17:14; 13:7-10).
This is not, though, all old information. John is told that the seven heads are “also seven kings,” plus an eighth (Rev 17:10-11). Ten other kings (probably ethnic rulers throughout the empire) will also make an appearance, sharing authority with the beast and joining in the war against the Lamb, but later turning on the city herself (17:12-17). The number ten appears to be used in the same symbolic sense that Daniel used centuries before (Dan 2:35, 44), but the interpretation John is given of the seven kings (and the eighth) seems to argue for something more specific. It is possible, for example, that the first five kings represent the Julio-Claudian emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Calligula, Claudius, and Nero); the fall of the beast refers to the civil war of AD 68-69 (in which Galba, Otho, and Vitellius vied for power); and the remaining three kings represent the Flavian dynasty: Vespasian “is” (he is still “on the throne” in the eyes of the senate), Titus is “to come” (always his father’s right hand and heir apparent) and the eighth is Domitian, who “goes to destruction” (17:11).
Whether taken literally or figuratively, however, what is clear is that Domitian (“soon;” Rev 1:1, 3; 22:6, 7, 10, 20) and Rome (eventually) would experience the Lamb’s judgment as a result of their systematic corruption. Though completely ignorant of the Lord’s designs, by the time the seven churches received the book of Revelation, the Romans knew Domitian’s time was coming. In AD 96 (within only months of John’s writing), Domitian was stabbed to death in his own palace by political opponents and members of his own household, and “the senate ordered that every reference to him on public monuments should be erased” (Freeman 485).
What the Romans did not see coming (or perhaps merely refused to acknowledge) was where their own (not-uncommon) pattern of sin and bad policy were heading. On the policy front, Rome outsourced her security to the very peoples she had been fighting, and when she no longer wanted to pay what the barbarians were asking, they made sure she wouldn’t forget it. In 410, the Visigoths carried out the first sack of Rome in 800 years. “It was a move which had a devastating shock effect on the Roman world, far beyond its importance as an act of destruction. Rome was no longer an eternal inviolable city” (Freeman 543, 611; see Rev 9:13-19; 16:12-16). And it only got worse from there: administration eroded, soldiers abandoned their posts when their pay failed to arrive, and the Germans simply moved south. By the time the senate dissolved in 580, Rome had shrunk from a metropolis of 100,000 people to no more than 40,000 (see Freeman 615, 616, 624; see Rev 16:19).
But as Revelation makes clear, Rome’s bad policy was only the means to her judgment; it was Rome’s sins that ultimately brought about her downfall. And for Christians (at least) this should not have been surprising, because God had done the same thing to Babylon and Tyre (and Sodom, Egypt, and Jerusalem, for that matter). Like them, Rome became an unclean haunt (Rev 18:1-3; Isa 13:21-22), she received a double portion for her sins (Rev 18:4-8; Isa 40:2), and her mirth was turned to mourning (Rev 18:9-24; Isa 47:7-9; see too Eze 27:32-36; Jer 51:49, 63-64; 25:10). Her persecutions, her fornication, her hedonistic life of luxury, and her blasphemous hubris had finally caught up with her (Rev 17:1-5; 18:3-8).
Edward Gibbon was only half right: Christianity didn’t cause the collapse of the Empire; Rome fell because of her own sins. Augustine, however, was much closer to the truth:
Augustine’s last great work, The City of God, was prompted by the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 . . . . Although the physical damage was not immense (and the Christian Visigoths [actually Arians—JB] left the city’s churches untouched [Rev 14:9-12?]), the psychological shock certainly was. It seemed as if the world as all had known it was at an end. Much of the book is concerned with pointing out the failure of traditional Roman religion to save the city or provide anything more than a self-glorification of the state. . . . Augustine argued that the true ‘city’ was, instead, that inhabited by the believers loved by God, a community which extended from earth into heaven. An earthly city, even one so great as Rome, was only a pale reflection of the heavenly one and it was to the heavenly city that the aspirations of men and women must be directed. (Freeman 603)
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As a message of judgment, the drama of the Apocalypse is as challenging as it is comforting. In his letters to the churches Christ suffers with them, but sees their sins. In his seals and trumpets he says that redemption is coming, but good people will die. In Act IV, he says that the dragon has been defeated, but still the one behind the curtain of Rome’s audacious claims to complete power. And in the seven bowls, God’s righteous judgment finally comes in its terrifying splendor—and he tells the churches it’s because of their prayers.
Primasius captures this well in his Commentary on the Apocalypse: “The very same bowls are said to hold both the sweetness of supplication and the wrath of destruction, for [prayers] are poured out from the saints for the coming of the kingdom of God, at which time the judgments of God will no longer be hidden” (15.7, ACCS; see Mat 6:10). So in the Redemption Chorus, John sees his people’s worship rising reverently into heaven, where both Father and Son can hear their songs and smell their prayers (Rev 5:8; Psa 141:2). But just three chapters later, these same embers are being poured out on God’s enemies: “Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (Rev 8:5 ESV).
Even when the heavenly host sings praise to Christ, there are hints of judgment in their song: “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God” (Rev 12:10; see 7:10-12). And as with Satan, so with his minions: our deliverance means their destruction, God’s power means their perdition, his kingdom means their calamity, his authority means their assault, the accusers have become the accused. So as we often sing, it will be a bright day for some, a sad day for many—but a great day for the justice of the Lord.
But how can kind, godly people pray for another’s destruction? Surely, we can pray for deliverance from trial and tribulation, but what about, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mat 5:44)? Peter Leithart asked this question recently in light of the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East:
But how should we pray?
So as the Lord himself says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom 12:19; see 12:14-21), and repay Rome he does. Just as in Egypt, the Lord has seen the oppression of his people and heard their prayers, and he will now deliver them from the house of bondage (Exo 3:7-10). His purpose thus remains the same as before: to be known as the one true God, and to give his enemies an opportunity to repent (Exo 7:1-5; Luke 13:3, 5). To this end, even the plagues reprise their roles: the sores (Exo 9:1-7), the blood (7:14-25), the darkness (10:21-29), the frogs (8:1-15), the hail (9:13-35)—together with a scorching sun. But, like Pharaoh before her, Rome does not repent (Rev 16:9, 11, 21; 9:20-21; see Exo 4:21; 8:19), so she would be defeated in battle (Rev 16:16; 17:14), her borders would be overrun (16:12; 9:13-19), and her empire would fall (16:19-20; 4:12-17; Dan 2:41-45).
The real battle we face as Christians, though, has never been a carnal conflict; it is a war for souls. So John tells the churches of Asia to prepare for the battle, not by arming themselves to the teeth, but by staying alert and keeping their garments white (Rev 16:15; see Mat 22:12-13; 24:42-43). Their battle would not won by feat of arms, but by the spiritual weapons of the Lord’s arsenal: truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, God’s word, and prayer (Eph 6:12-18). And as Leithart points out, such prayerful preparation is vital for every generation of Christians, because we know that when we pray for judgment, the Lord hears:
We live in a world where ISIS warriors behead Christians and release the film. We need an earthquake, and we should pray for it: “How long, holy and true, will you refrain from judging and avenging their blood? How long before you do some judging to prove you are Judge?” In the end, the message of the Psalms [and Revelation!—JMB] is Jesus’s post-[Resurrection] message: Fear not. Fear not: There is a God who judges. Fear not: God takes up the cause of the oppressed. Fear not: God raises the dead. (Leithart; see Rev 6:9-11; 1:17-18)
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As we enter into the twelfth chapter of Revelation, a new series of visions are presented to the apostle John. Christ has already revealed the condition of his churches (chs. 1-3) as well as the fate of their enemies (4:1-8:5), and despite the depth of their tribulations he was coming to judge the persecutors of his people (8:6-11:19). But the message had still not sunk into their ears; the faith of the people still wavered and the Lamb’s warnings went unheeded. John therefore draws back the curtain even further to show the church what is going on backstage, and how these trying times fit into God’s grand strategy in the cosmic battle between good and evil.
As always, John indicates this change in function by a slight change in form. Rather than tie the section together by a single symbol (a letter, a seal, or a trumpet), he now presents a flowing narrative to further reveal the causes and consequences of the Lamb’s judgment. Here, in his fourth act (or episode) the apostle’s work parallels Greek drama even closer than before, giving us seven scenes of judgment (including two choruses), each marked by a verbal clue and a change in scenery. Notice the pattern:
As the church soon realizes, God’s conflict with evil began long before Domitian came to power in Rome; it goes back to the beginning and perhaps even before the beginning. It is the story of a damsel in distress, a dragon, and a young prince. The serpent tempted and the woman sinned, but her punishment would also bring about the undoing of her curse (Gen 3). But the woman John sees represents not just Eve, but every woman since: whether suffering from a broken family like Leah and Tamar, fleeing a sinful past like Rahab, mourning the loss of a husband or a child like Ruth and Bathsheba, or enduring the shame of unwed motherhood like Mary, Eve’s daughters share in her pain. But they share in her glory, too, when they see their trials being woven into the plan of God’s glorious grace (Mat 1; 1Ti 2:15). From them a great nation arose (Rev 12:1-2; Gen 37:9-11) and from this people arose the Ruler of all nations (Rev 12:5; Gen 49:10; Psa 2:9). And so the bride of Christ can take strength in the thought that her sufferings, too, will not be forgotten, but will indeed lead to an even greater glory (Eph 5:22-27; Rom 8:18-30).
And though her enemy was old and powerful, God’s plan was too beautiful to be perceived by even one of the dragon’s terrible heads (Isa 27:1; 14:12-15). So he drives the woman to the wilderness to test her there, but God promises that her time will be short (Rev 12:6; 12, 14), and that he himself would be with her, protecting her, providing for her, and calling heaven and earth themselves to her aid (12:6-16; 1Co 10:1-11; Exo 16:13-15). But though Michael and his angels would fight the Devil, Satan’s defeat would come not through a feat of angelic arms, but by God himself coming as a child and being crucified as a criminal (Rev 12:5-11). And though Satan would send many saints to the grave, they would no longer have any fear of death, because Jesus had already been there, paving their way into a life the Devil had forfeited long before (Rev 1:18; 12:11-12; 17). The Lord’s people find shelter under the cross of Christ, because Satan stands before the Judge no longer as the Accuser, but as the Accused (Rev 12:10; Job 1:12, 2:6).
But while Satan has already begun his eternal sentence of suffering, his minions are still at work in the world around us (Rev 9:1-6). John therefore “stood on the sand of the sea” and watches as a beast emerges with seven heads (13:1; see ESV margin and NKJV). But it takes more than just one description of the beast to show how far he has fallen and how unjust his rule has become: he is a human king who has been crowned with the dragon’s own terrible power and authority (Dan 7:17, 23; 1Jo 5:19), he is a small and pompous horn (Dan 7:8, 11, 20), a “man of sin” and “son of perdition” (2Th 2), and the very enemy of Christ himself--the antichrist. John is the only one who uses this description in the New Testament, but intentionally avoids it in Revelation. The Rome of John’s day is one anti-Christian force among many, that denies the full divinity and humanity of Christ, and had even begun to persuade some in the church (1Jo 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2Jo 7).
Flushed with the heat of Hell’s fire, the beast wears “blasphemous names” and utters “haughty and blasphemous words” (Rev 13:1, 5). Domitian doubled-down on the blasphemies of his pagan forebears and called himself Deus (God), Tyrannus (Ruler), Despotes (Master), Ktistes (Creator) and Eirenopoios (Peacemaker). And so what he viewed as a story of triumph would sound the death knell of the Flavian dynasty:
The beast falsely imitates the Lamb, “standing, as though it had been slain” [Rev 5:6]. . . . Rome, the manifestation of the beast in John’s day, seemed to have been mortally wounded by Nero’s suicide (A.D. 68) and the civil chaos that followed, but experienced a “resurrection” in the reigns of Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian [17:8]. Then in Domitian’s reign (A.D. 81-96), Nero’s beastly persecution of the church also revived. (The ESV Study Bible)
Regardless of any good he did on the throne, Domitian’s fate would be the same as that of Nero: an ignoble death and an infamous legacy. But he would not act alone. In fact, others would usually initiate the atrocities in his name, seeking his favor by compelling others to worship him. And there were many paths down which this twisted loyalty flowed: from the shameless deluding of the people in pagan temples (13:13, 15; 2Th 2:9-12), to the pressure in the marketplace (Rev 13:16-17), at times even resorting to force (13:15; 11:9-10). And like Domitian, these provincial leaders in Asia (the concilia in Latin, the koinon in Greek) would act like animals, so they are depicted as such: having “two horns like a lamb,” but speaking “like a dragon” (13:11) and deceiving even some of God’s own people to wear the name of the emperor rather than the name of Christ (13:14, 18; see NKJV margin).
But God had never tolerated such blasphemy: Sodom had fallen, Egypt had fallen, Babylon had fallen, Jerusalem had fallen, and now Rome too would fall (11:8; 14:8; Isa 21:9-10). In life they had become slaves to their passion (Greek thumos) and so in death they would become subject to his wrath (thumos; 14:8, 10). They would be crushed as grapes, and then forced to drain the cup of their own blood (14:17-19; Isa 63:1-6). By the time the messengers of God’s providence were finished, their suffering would stand as an eternal warning for all to see and repent (14:11, 20; Mat 13:41-42).
But for those who remain faithful during these times of persecution, the Judge of the earth promises a different verdict. The dragon may be the bane of the church, but the Lord is her balm, dwelling and walking among them (13:6; 1:12, 16, 20). They wear an eternal name that cannot be removed by any man or angel (14:1; 7:1-4; 9:4). And even if death separates them from their loved ones, they will be gathered into the barn of the bounty of the Lord (14:13-16; Mat 13:30), where they will sing “a new song,” “of Moses . . . and. . . the Lamb,” which not even angels can sing (14:3; 15:3-4).
These saints, wearied from their earthly sojourn, therefore walk on water toward their Savior under a sky radiating his own beauty, as heaven and earth prepare to unleash the judgment of the Lamb (4:1-6; 15:2-8 NKJV; Exo 40:34-35; 1Ki 8:10-11). These are those, “who have not defiled themselves . . . who follow the Lamb wherever he goes . . . redeemed from mankind . . . and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless” (Rev 14:4-5). In other words, those who lived like Jesus: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1Pe 2:21-23).
And as John himself writes, “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (Rev 13:10).
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The Book of Revelation could very well have ended with the seventh seal. The angel of the Lord (Rev 1:1) could have completed his vision to John after God handed down his verdict to his Son (4:1-8:5). John would have recorded the message faithfully, immediately sent his work to the Asian churches on the mainland, and died in exile awaiting the judgment Jesus had revealed. But the Lamb of God was far from finished and John, too, had much work to be done.
The seventh seal was simply no place to end. If you recall, the opening of the seal begins with “silence in heaven for about half an hour,” but ends with fire being thrown to the earth, accompanied by “peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (8:1, 5 ESV). And as the first four angels blow their trumpets we see how God answers the prayers of his people (8:3-5): hail and fire, mixed with blood (8:7); a mountain of fire that turns the sea to blood (8:8-9); a falling star that poisons their drinking water (8:10-11); and a blackness that blots out the lights of heaven (8:12).
Of course, we have seen these symbols before, just two chapters earlier, as the outcome of the first six seals (Rev 6). But the angel does not merely repeat himself, he proclaims more completely aspects of God’s judgment that had before only been hinted at. As Victorinus wrote, “And although there is a repetition of scenes . . . this is not as though the events occurred twice. . . . For the sevenfold Holy Spirit [1:4], when he has passed in revue [God’s acts of judgment] . . . returns again to the same times and supplements what he had said incompletely” (Commentary on the Apocalypse 8.1-2, ACCS).
The trumpets are not, then, a second judgment, but a second look at the same judgment against the enemies of God and his people. And as John soon sees, it will be even worse than he thought. With the seals, we saw a fourth of the earth killed by sword, pestilence, and wild beasts (6:8), but now the breadth and magnitude of the judgment has grown: a third of the earth and its vegetation, with all green grass is burned (8:7); a third of the sea creatures and ships are destroyed (8:9); a third of the waters are poisoned, killing many (8:11); and a third of the sun, moon and stars are darkened (8:12). God is symbolically preparing for Rome the same plagues he brought against his old enemy Egypt (Exo 7:20-21; 9:24-25; 10:21-23). For those in the first-century, though, there was an even more vivid memory:
A few years before this writing Mount Vesuvius had erupted (August, A.D. 79) pouring forth a fiery flood which engulfed Herculaneum and Pompeii . . . . Ashes from the burning mountain fell on ships far out in the sea and upon the distant shores of Egypt and Syria. Pliny relates that there was first an earthquake followed by the eruption which sent an avalanche of fire down the mountainside into the sea. Many who eluded the streams of lava were suffocated by the sulphurous [sic] fumes which reached far away. The sky was darkened so that Pliny said, “It was now day elsewhere, but there night blacker and thicker than all night.” (Summers 156)
But just because they had seen this before, didn’t mean the vision was any less terrifying. In fact, the worst was yet to come: “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow” (Rev 8:13)! Satan is given keys to the abyss—the hellhole (in Greek Tartarus, 2Pe 2:4) prepared for him and his angels (Mat 25:41; Jude 6-7)—and a demonic swarm arises from the raging inferno: Satan’s army is on the move (Exo 10:12-15; Joel 1:4; 2:1-11; Gen 19:23, 27-28).
Behind the veil of Roman power is the oldest Enemy of mankind, but his influence is restrained by the providential hand of God. Satan has limited authority (he was given the key, Rev 9:1), limited power (only those not sealed by God, a third of mankind, 9:4, 15), a limited time (five months, 9:6), and limited resources (200 million, 9:16, vs. the multitude without number, 7:9). Even more remarkable is the target of his assault: the very city that worshipped him. Rome’s sins had reached new heights, and as before God would plunge his opponents into a destruction of their own making.
But they refused to see their fall for what it was, a punishment of sin and a warning of even greater punishment to come, so they refused to change their ways: “The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of the hands nor give up worshipping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts” (9:20-21; see Dan 5:22-23; Luke 10:19-20; Dan 12:3, 8-10). They had united the lies of demonic sorcery to the degradation of materialist luxury and the political absolutism of a worldwide empire (Rev 9:19). But God would now remind them to whom all worship should be directed, who owns all things, and who holds all power.
And through it all, the church of the Lord would persist in the mission she had been called to perform: to proclaim the message of salvation and judgment. An angel comes to John, speaking with the authority of Christ himself (10:1-3; 1:12-16), indicating that even these trumpets do not tell the full story—God’s judgment is still partially obscured (10:4-7). So John himself would be given the rest of the story, and then be empowered to preach to “many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (10:11). But the message was bittersweet, to some a promise of salvation and to others the warning of judgment (10:8-10). As Paul would say, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2Co 2:15-16).
But once again, the church would not be alone. As they proclaimed the gospel of Christ, his Spirit would dwell among them as his temple and empower their witness (11:1; Eph 2:19-22; Mat 28:18-20). The church today lives “in the court outside the temple,” moving freely from our common space-time to the sacred transcendence of spiritual worship, where Christ himself has entered by his own blood, tearing down the veil that separated us from God (Rev 11:19; Heb 8:1-2; 9:12; 10:19-25). We are the very furniture of heaven, adorning God’s temple as carved olive trees and golden lampstands, kings and priests who minister before our God both now and in eternity (Rev 11:4; 1:6, 20; Zec 3:1; 4:9-14).
And while persecution will still come to the holy city, the time is limited; we will be trampled for forty-two months, but we will reign for one thousand years (Gal 4:25-26; Rev 11:2-3; 20:4-6). As Oden reminds us: “Believers are already presently sharing in the coming reign of God. Nonetheless, amid continuing history there still remains this period ‘between the times’ in which the reign of God has been inaugurated yet not consummated as expected in the last days” (3.9.1, internal citations omitted; Rom 6; 1Ti 6:12; 1Jo 5). And yet the power we have, is the power of the kingdom, and the King himself. We have power in preaching (Rev 11:5; Acts 4:33; Rom 1:16-17), power in prayer (Rev 11:6; 8:3-13; Jam 5:15-18), and power in persecution, so that even when our dead bodies lie discarded in the streets, we know that we have conquered (Rev 11:7-13).
Then at the seventh and last trumpet, our bodies will welcome the return of our spirits; we will stand and strike fear into the hearts of our enemies; we will rise as pure and glorious as the One who raised us (1Co 15:51-57; Eze 37:4-10; Rev 7:2-3; 1Jo 3:2-3). And we will fall on our faces in the consummated kingdom of God, singing, “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations raged, but your wrath came . . . rewarding your servants . . . and . . . destroying the destroyers of the earth” (Rev 11:17-18).
The Lamb had revealed God’s judgment, the angels proclaimed it, and Rome would now feel the fury of his wrath. Satan’s strength was limited and waning, but God’s people possessed a power that would sustain them through it all: the power of God himself. “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. . . . For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (1Jo 4:4; 5:4).
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With the Seven Seals, the drama of the Apocalypse really begins to move forward. The first three chapters, of course, are vital for understanding the world in which these first-century believers lived, and in which some of them would soon die for the Lord. With the Seals, Christ reveals to John exactly what he would do about such a situation, but another question weighs heavily on their mind: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth” (Rev 6:10 ESV)? As Summers points out, the Lord’s reply is both dramatic and complete:
Now it is time to draw the curtain and reveal the stage set for the drama. From here forward, in rapid sequence, will be presented scenes to assure the persecuted Christians that the cause of Christ is not a lost cause. Hard and bitter is to be the struggle, but when the final curtain falls at the end of the play (22:21), complete assurance of victory is demonstrated. (Summers 129)
The curtain then raises to reveal a door, opened to the very throne room of God. The vision is both terrible and beautiful. On one hand, heaven is filled with “flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and . . . seven torches of fire” (Rev 4:5; see Exo 19:16-19). While on the other, the people of God sit in triumph, sharing in God’s own glory; twenty-four elders on twenty-four thrones, robed in white and crowned with gold (Rev 4:4). And yet the scene is also vaguely familiar: old men wearied from their journey, seated on the mountain, eating and drinking with Jehovah in the glow of a sapphire sky; joined now by their heirs as one family, around one throne (Exo 24:9-11; Mat 19:28-30).
Creation, too, cannot but cry out to her Maker; all life sings his praise: the beasts of the field, the livestock and the men who lead them, and the birds of heaven (Rev 4:6-10). Heaven and earth join in song, with all eyes on the Great I AM, perfect in character, and being, who alone is worthy of our praise (4:8; Isa 6:3; 1Ch 29:10-13). There he sits in his majesty, scroll in hand, while all await his voice (Rev 5:1). But he does not speak. Though God has come to a verdict, the judgment is sealed, “And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it” (5:3). So amidst the joy of the moment, John breaks into tears.
And then, he sees him once more: the Lion and the Lamb, the Root and the Branch, David’s Son and Lord (5:5-6; see Gen 49:9; Isa 53:7; 11:1, 10; Mat 22:41-46). And while John wipes his eyes and takes in the scene, the Lamb seizes the scroll as the elders and creatures break out in worship (5:7-14). He alone had walked among us without sin, had bled, had died, had descended to the grave, and had risen to his Father’s side forevermore, and so only he could open the scroll (5:9; John 1:14-18; 3:16; Luke 1:26-35; Acts 2:30-36; Rom 8:34; 1Co 15:1-8; Php 2:5-11).
Here lies the crux of the Revelation: without Christ, there is only mystery, weakness, and misery. But in Christ, mystery gives way to meaning, weakness to strength, and misery to hope. “And so, after the death of Christ every mystery was revealed” (Caesarius of Arles, Exposition of the Apocalypse 5.1, Homily 4, ACCS; Dan 2:28-29; Heb 9:16-17; Eph 1:7-10; 3:4-12). And a new song was sung:
It is new that the Son of God became man; it is new that he was given over into death by men; it is new that he rose again on the third day; it is new that he ascended in the body into heaven; it is new that he gives the forgiveness of sins to men; it is new that men are sealed with the Holy Spirit; it is new that they receive the priestly service of supplication and await a kingdom of such immense promises. (Victorinus of Petovium, Commentary on the Apocalypse 5.3, ACCS; see Psa 40:3-8, and below for an acapella arrangement of this song)
But before the victory must come the onslaught. The Commander of the Lord’s Army musters his forces for the march to war (Jos 5:13-15; Zec 1:8-10; 6:1-7). And as he opens the seals, his judgment is revealed: the enemy will be conquered (Rev 6:1-2)—by war (6:3-4), by famine (6:5-6), and by death (6:7-8)—as his people wait in patience and purity (6:9-11). He had heard their groans and cries for help, and he remembered the covenant he cut on the cross. Both Father and Son knew (4:8; 5:6); knew what they had experienced, and what true justice would require (Exo 2:23-25).
So, just as the earth had praised her Maker, she would then join in his cause. The judgment of the Lord would erupt in volcanic fury: the earth would shake, the lights of heaven would be tinted red by the ash and then fail, the blast of the wind would shake even the fruit from the trees, nothing would be the same again—and there would be no place to hide from his wrath (6:12-17; Hag 2:6-7). Israel had been destroyed, Babylon had been destroyed, Jerusalem had been destroyed, and now Rome would be destroyed as well (Isa 13:9-10; 24:21; 34:1-5, 12; Hos 10:8; Mark 13). The battle line was formed, and the host of heaven now awaited the call of the trumpet to charge her enemies (Rev 8:1-5).
But though they were called to fight, the army of the Lord would not suffer the loss of her faithful few: every warrior was numbered, every soul was sealed, every sin remitted, every servant purified and adopted (7:1-17). Here Christ draws on an event with which we are hopefully more familiar: the moment we were added to his number (Acts 2:41, 47), the moment he sealed us with his own name and Spirit (1Co 12:13; 2Co 1:21-22; Mat 28:18-20), the moment we were forgiven (Acts 2:38; 22:16), the moment we became a child of God, and heir (Gal 3:26-29)—when he saved us through the waters of baptism (1Pe 3:21-22).
We are that army, fighting to save our troubled world from itself, whose victory Christ has secured through the power of his own blood. But we must first turn to God for our own salvation. The doors to heaven are still open, and the invitation still stands: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. . . . The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev 22:14-17). For it is only in those waters that we find the blood of the Lamb (7:14; 12:11).
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The first three chapters of Revelation are probably the most familiar to Christians today. The text is fairly straightforward (especially compared to the rest of the book) and is therefore easily adapted as an introduction to church history, or for an examination of the state of the church today. But while both uses are reasonable applications of Scripture, the text performed a much more personal and immediate function for the first-century churches of Asia.
For John and other Asian believers, persecution was not just a possibility; it was a reality they lived with every day. The apostle calls himself their “brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus,” writing to them not from the comforts of his own home, but from his exile on “the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9 ESV). John knows firsthand that the churches are suffering, and that things will get even worse before they get better.
And yet the people of God would not face these travails alone. A “loud voice like a trumpet” speaks to John (v. 11). But it is unlike any voice uttered by the lips of man. It is not just heard, but felt—“like the roar of many waters” (v. 15), the breaking of the surge against the cliffs, the rumble of the falls as the water pours down its streams. It is a voice made visible, which John turns to see (v. 12), a sound that takes on form, and a familiar one at that: the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1, 14). In this time of great suffering—of isolation from his loved ones, of alienation from his neighbors—John sees Jesus.
But it is Jesus as most had never before seen him. It is not the babe in swaddling cloths, or the carpenter’s son, or the eccentric healer, or the crucified prophet. It is the glorified Son of God and Man (Rev 1:13). As Vincent once wrote, “Had He come into the world emphasizing His equality with God, the world would have been amazed, but not saved” (commenting on Php 2:5). But amazed the world would now be. The great High Priest showed himself, armed for battle and capable of killing with even a whisper or a glance.
And though John had seen this Jesus before, there was only one possible response: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev 1:17). But as he had done with both Daniel and the Twelve, the transfigured Son of Man speaks words of comfort and assurance (vv. 17-20; see Dan 7:7-14; Mat 17:1-9): “Stop fearing. I was dead. I am alive forever. More than that, I hold in my hand the keys to death and the grave. You should not fear to go any place to which I hold the key. You may be persecuted to death but I am still your king” (Summers 105; Mat 28:20; Rom 8:35-39).
Christ then tells his disciple that the visions he is about to see relate both “things that are and things that are to take place after this” (Rev 1:19). Jesus will therefore reveal to John what is happening now in the churches on the mainland (chs. 2-3) and in heaven (chs. 4-5), before showing him the course of events that will lead to the Lamb’s judgment (chs. 6-22). So while the message was written first to them, it remains equally relevant to us as well. As Summers writes, “The message is one of universal application. Wherever the conditions [present then] exist [today], the corrective procedure indicated will find application” (108).
So when we can see with our minds the temples and theaters of Ephesus and Pergamum (Acts 19:24, 29; Rev 2:13). When we can hear the guilds carousing in honor of their divine patrons (2:20). When we can travel through time and see the sentries at Sardis asleep at their posts, when first Cyrus then Antiochus struck (3:2-3). And when we can taste the lukewarm mineral water piped into Laodicea, or dress in the city’s black wool, or coat our eyes with its collyrium (3:15-18). Then we will begin to grasp the words of the Spirit of Christ to these churches (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; Rom 8:9; Php 1:19).
But with the exception of the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia, the message is not always positive. When the Christ returns both within history and at its end, he comes to both save and judge. And as Peter had written over thirty years before, this judgment begins within: “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And ‘If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’ Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1Pe 4:17-19).
The message to the church both then and now is therefore clear: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10). As Leo Trese reminds us, “All the just who live during this time have a first resurrection by Baptism and reign with Christ so long as they are in the state of grace; and they have [either] a second resurrection at the end of the world . . . [or a] second death in hell” (quoted in Oden 3.10.7). Therefore, “Let every person who does not wish to be condemned by . . . the second death hasten here to become a participant of the first resurrection” (Fulgentius of Ruspe, On the Forgiveness of Sins 2.12.3-4, ACCS; see Rom 6:3-7).
And as John writes, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Amen and Amen.
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Revelation is one of my favorite books of the Bible, not because of the controversies that surround it, but because of its splendid display of God’s cosmic work of creation, redemption and consummation. So when the opportunity arose to teach the book, I seized it! But as a good friend of mine once wrote, teachers are students that share, and that’s exactly what I plan on doing. So, Lord willing, as I teach through the book over the next few months, I’ll post a summary of each of the eight major sections of the book (see the link below for the handout), along with links to (1) the full audio recordings of the classes and (2) a PDF of the slide deck we used in class (plus some additional background slides not used). And hopefully, you’ll be following along with us!
The book was recorded by the apostle John in AD 95–96 during his exile on the island of Patmos, off the coast of modern-day Turkey. Some scholars have doubted, though, whether the John mentioned in Revelation is the apostle, or another man by the same name--usually referred to as John the Elder. But with the exception of three early Christian writers and most skeptical scholars of the last century or so, the vast majority of Christian teachers throughout history believe the book to be written by the Beloved Disciple himself. As the Venerable Bede points out, “History notes that John had been banished to this island by the emperor Domitian on account of the gospel, and that . . . he was . . . allowed to penetrate the secrets of heaven while prohibited from leaving a small space of the earth” (Explanation of the Apocalypse 1.9, ACCS).
John identifies his work as both an apokalypsis and a prophecy (1:1-3). But the Greek apokalypsis doesn’t mean “the end of the world;” it means “revelation, disclosure, unveiling.” Most Jewish apocalyptic works were written during periods of foreign occupation, so they were written to conceal the message from the outsider while revealing it to the chosen people. John therefore uses this literary form to stress the cosmic importance of an unswerving faith in the Lamb of God against the godless powers of corrupt religion, corrupt government, and corrupt riches--in both the first century and now.
Most of Revelation therefore consists of a series of dramatic visions symbolizing judgment, which parallel the structure of Greek drama--prologue, episodes, scenes, choruses, and an exodus. The sequence and meaning of these visions have been the cause of much confusion in the Christian world, but as Grant Osborne points out, God has already given us the key: “every symbol in the Book of Revelation was understood in John’s day and drawn from the stock of apocalyptic symbols stemming from the OT and intertestamental period as well as the situation in the first century” (240). Or as John himself points out, Christ revealed to him, “things that must soon take place . . . for the time is near” (1:1, 3 ESV).
Which brings us to the historical background of the book. Revelation is addressed to the troubled churches in the Roman province of Asia (1:4). For them, persecution was a daily part of their life, but was rarely sponsored by the Roman government, ranging from spontaneous mobs to economic discrimination. As Kevin Rhodes writes, “The persecution [recounted in the NT] was sporadic, generally arising from someone’s taking offense to the Christian message because he had something to lose if people converted. . . . While the Jews opposed Christianity for religious reasons, other opponents usually objected due to its economic impact on them personally” (148).
But soon the enemies of Christ would have their day in court. The Living God, the Risen Son, and the Spirit of Truth had spoken (1:5). Just as Christ had delivered his people from their bondage to sin and death, and fashioned them into a nation of royal priests, the Lord would again exercise his limitless power (1:5-6, 8). The irony of at all is that the judgment to come would be the judgment of the Lamb--the Lamb no longer slain, but living, victorious, redeeming and conquering: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen” (1:7).
There is, of course, much more to Revelation than what we’ve covered here (after all, it took me seven weeks to cover this material in class!), but hopefully this gives you a good place to start. Throughout, we must keep in mind the literary, historical, and theological context of John’s masterpiece, ever mindful that there is much we still do not know. As Osborne concludes, “God has revealed everything in symbols, and we can only do our best in interpreting the data in Scripture. He will reveal all in due time. Until then we must be humble and avoid turning eschatology into a new holy war between factions” (242).
And with our own speculations set aside, we can then focus on the central theme of the book: the Lamb of God. Then, as now, the church endures assaults from without and within but is assured of the final victory of Jesus Christ as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (19:16), bringing to ultimate fulfillment the reign of God in “a new heaven and a new earth” (11:15; 21:1). And for that reason, we can join our forefathers in prayer, that the Father “direct our steps that we may walk in holiness of heart and do what is good and well-pleasing in Thy sight and in the sight of our rulers. Yea, Lord, make Thy face to shine upon us for good in peace, that we may be shielded by Thy mighty hand and delivered from every sin by Thy uplifted arm, and deliver us from those who hate us wrongfully” (First Clement 60:2-3 ANF).
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