Getting Started on Revelation
The book of Revelation is a fascinating book. It has been interpreted in wildly differing ways. Our goal this morning is to begin our study of Revelation by understanding some background material for the book that will guide us through the rest of our study. Although it can seem mystifying, it was not God’s intent to confuse us with the material in this book. We will see in the opening verses a clear focus on Jesus Christ. John’s description of Jesus gives us a subtle exhortation from Jesus’ example. John’s opening words will help us understand the rest of the book.
Revelation is, for obvious reasons, most thought of as the book about end times. The book was written by John because Jesus told him to write what he (John) had seen and to send it to seven specific churches. This fact should point us to look for more than prophetic predictions of the future. There is something those churches were supposed to gain from this information about how they lived their lives at that time. We need to think in the same way. What is the book of Revelation telling us about our lives? This morning we will look at John’s first dramatic vision and see how it should dominate our thinking as we study the rest of the book.
The first vision in Revelation is a glorious picture of Jesus among the seven lampstands. We get the explanation that the lampstands are the seven churches to whom John is instructed to write. This week, we begin looking at these amazing messages. They reveal that Jesus knows His church, both the things that are good and the things that need to be corrected. They also contain great hope for the future. From these messages, we can gain great insight into our own condition and how we can move forward.
Jesus knows His church. This is clear from the specific words He uses for each of the seven churches in Revelation. As we considered the first four of these churches last week, we saw that He knows both the good and the bad, the strengths and the weakness. We also saw that He had a specific prescription for each of these churches in their situation. This morning we will look at the last three churches. As we study them we will find words to challenge us as a body of believers and words that challenge us as individuals.
Sometimes we use the word heaven in an everyday conversation. We say something like “That would be “heaven” for me.” But such uses display an inadequate view of the awesome presence of the living God. The chapter before us today is crucial for our understanding of the rest of the book of Revelation. This chapter gives us a glimpse of the majesty and glory of God as evidenced by the amazing scene around His throne. But more importantly, it gives us a glimpse of God’s very throne and the worship of heaven. Apart from understanding this picture of God’s rule and authority, we are ill-equipped to view this current world correctly and to know how to live in the Kingdom of God.
Revelation 5 has some of the highest expressions of praise to Jesus by the most amazing host of created beings anyplace in scripture. Every part of this vision plays out like a drama unfolding on the grandest scale imaginable. The stage was set for us in Revelation 4. The events take place in Revelation 5. Revelation 4 helps us understand God’s transcendence and the truth that everything has been created by Him. Revelation 5 helps us understand the great work Jesus has done to bring people back to himself. It is absolutely crucial to understand this description of the work of Jesus if we are to understand the rest of this book.
After John gives us an overwhelming description of God’s throne and the Lamb (Rev. 4 and 5), he describes the breaking of the seals. However you might want to interpret these visions, it is unmistakable that destruction and wrath are unleashed on the earth. But there are some strong elements of encouragement for the attentive listener even in the midst of what seems so destructive. The visions in chapter 7 give even more encouragement. This morning we will explore chapter 6 and glance ahead to chapter 7. Although these are sobering visions, they also should instill in us the greatest of confidence and hope in God for both our current situation and the future.
After the transitional glimpse of the great multitude before the throne of God in Revelation 7, the seals give way to the trumpets. It is clear that what was severe about the seals is pale in comparison to the increasing intensity of the Trumpets. But there are more important questions to answer than trying to determine the exact time of these events, or to explain them in human terms. The more important question is to understand “who do these judgments fall upon?” As Revelation unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear there will only be two sides. There will be no continuum. You are either with the Lamb or you are not. There is no third option.
It is hard to fathom the enormity of the judgments described in Revelation 8 and 9. Their severity affects a third of the earth according to John. Yet even more unfathomable is the continued rebellion of mankind in their continued commitment to worship demons and idols while committing murder and immorality. Yet, John does not leave us in the midst of this judgment. In the chapters we look at today, He pulls us back with the vision of the angel and the book. When we understand this vision, we will understand we are not at this extreme judgment yet, so we must be about God’s work now.
The familiar strains of Handel’s Hallelujah chorus should come to mind as we study the images of Revelation 11. The chapter begins with John measuring the temple and ends with the opening of the heavenly temple which shows the Ark of the Covenant. This chapter is one of the most difficult passages in Revelation to interpret because the language has to be understood as symbolic at some level by almost any interpretation. But it is helpful to remember that in the previous chapter, we were given a glimpse of the need to continue in Jesus’ mission to the nations. So we can conclude that this chapter gives us a richer picture of that ongoing mission with its ultimate victory. As we understand the victory we glimpse here, we should joyfully sing aloud the kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ.
We are in a battle. It isn’t a cultural battle. It isn’t a battle of world views. It isn’t a battle over ideas. It is a cosmic spiritual battle that affects each of these areas. There are two central figures in this battle portrayed in Revelation 12, the woman and the dragon. As we understand who they are our own role in this cosmic spiritual battle emerges. Even though this battle currently raging has already been won by Jesus Christ, we continue to fight against an angry but defeated foe. There are three vital factors that allow us to overcome.
In Revelation 13, John describes his vision of two beasts. These beasts are agents of the dragon identified as Satan in Rev. 12. Through these beasts, the dragon continues his war against the saints. These visions speak clearly to Satan’s strategy to use government and false worship to thwart the purposes of God and the people of God. The book of Revelation clearly points to the ultimate expressions of these strategies in the antichrist and the false prophet. But it should be clear that these strategies have been in play throughout history. The best way for the believer to stay strong in the midst of this onslaught is to heed the words of Daniel 11: 32.
From an earthly perspective, evil often looks very strong. The evil schemes of the dragon carried out by the two beasts described in Revelation 13 will result in worldwide deception. But this is not the last word. The next four visions, described by John in Revelation 14, show us the other side. These visions help us understand the larger picture beyond the dragon’s efforts, giving us information about the present and the future. Despite the appearance of these fierce and deceptive beasts, the powerful and righteous Lord, the Lamb of God will win. His sealed ones are safe with Him and judgment will come swiftly and thoroughly on the earth. Our clear and current duty is to join our voices with the angel declaring the gospel while we can.
The wrath of God is a difficult topic. Yet it always has to be understood in the context of God’s holiness. He cannot let sin be ignored. In the book of Revelation, we have already seen two sequences of seven: the seven seals and the seven trumpets. They are described as judgment and wrath. The chapters we explore today give us the final sequence of seven. The seven bowls are described as the last plagues because with them the wrath of God is finished. Intermixed with the scenes of this judgment are scenes of worship. This worship is not vengeful gloating, but wonder and glory at the long standing mercy and salvation of God as well as His justice. As with chapter 14, the focus is on people, not the systems of this world. The clear admonition from Jesus is to be ready for these events.
As we continue in our study of Revelation, we encounter the extended description of the fall of Babylon. Although the image seems to point to a city often understood as Rome, it stands for more than this. John warns the believer to come out of “her” and not to participate in her sins. In his epistle, 1 John, he warns us not to love the world for all that is in it is not of God. The vision John describes for us of the harlot riding a beast is a graphic picture for how blasphemous, vile and violent this “world” or worldliness is. The vision also shows this system’s ultimate defeat. As we understand the implications of these truths, we should see just how important it is that we avoid entanglement in the world. As we understand its seduction, we are empowered to be vigilant and to follow hard after Jesus.
Hallelujah is a familiar word isn’t it? Although this word is in many worship songs, not the least of which is Handel’s famous chorus, and scattered throughout the Psalms, it seldom appears in the New Testament. In fact, the word hallelujah only occurs four times in the New Testament and every occurrence is in Revelation 19. It is as if the word is saved to express the joy and intensity of worship for this final climatic scene. The worldliness of this age is finally judged and Jesus returns in majestic victory. In the midst of this chapter, we catch a glimpse of the Bride of Christ which serves as a sharp contrast to the harlot described in the previous two chapters. Hallelujah indeed. By the end of our time this morning, you will have many reasons to shout praise to God.
This chapter is one of the most written about chapters in the New Testament. Whole systems of theology are built on or interact with interpretations of these 15 verses. This morning, we are going to look briefly at four of them. By understanding the different views, we can see why genuine followers of Jesus disagree about some things, but we can also see where we do agree. This will help us focus on the most important truths of this chapter. It will also set us up to understand the last few verses of this chapter which describe the Great White Throne judgment of God. These verses are very specific and extremely clear. Our understanding of these events should deeply affect our attitude and actions toward the people and world around us.
We have reached the final message in our study of Revelation. Certainly we have not exhausted all that could be said of this important and challenging book. But as we consider the final two chapters, we will see the way forward to use what we have learned as a key focus for following Jesus in the present. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, instructs us to set our mind on the things above. With the vision John describes in these final two chapters of Revelation, setting our mind on the things above becomes an easier task. We have some idea of what God’s purpose is. The more we contemplate this purpose and the vision in these final two chapters, the more we will also understand why Paul tells us that it hasn’t even entered into the heart of man what God has prepared for those who love Him.