Introduction to the Book of Revelation
Tonight we are beginning a study on the book of Revelation. I know that this is something that several of you have specifically asked for, so I hope that this is a beneficial study to you. I don’t know exactly how long we’re going to be in this study, but I want to be thorough with it, since this is a book that most Christians want to know as much as possible about. And let me also say that I do not know nearly as much about Revelation as I would like to. Ever since I was a little boy, I have been fascinated with the vivid imagery of horseman, monster locust, and of beasts and dragons. But more important than all of that imagery is the image of Jesus Christ coming back on the clouds, ushering in a new heavenly kingdom that will last forever.
Before we get started, let’s pray.
But before we dive into the book itself, I would like to take some time to explain the different ways of interpreting the book of Revelation. Obviously, when you have a book this complex, there are going to be a variety of ways to interpret it, especially when you take into account that most of the events prophesied are still in the future. But in general, there are four ways of looking at the book of Revelation, and you may want to write these down for future use. The first way of interpreting the book of Revelation is called the preterist view. The preterist view means that John was merely speaking in code about the Roman Empire of his day. As you are well aware, the Roman Empire was busily persecuting and killing Christians across the empire. And some believe that John was simply using veiled language to tell them that one day they would gain final victory in the form of going to heaven. So essentially, people that believe this view generally say that Revelation is not prophecy at all, but is simply an epistle to a bunch of people who were suffering.
The second way of interpreting the book of Revelation is called the historicist view. The historicist view believes that the book of Revelation has been progressively happening for the last 2,000 years. The famous American theologian Jonathan Edwards believed in this method of interpretation. Edwards would carefully look at each week’s paper and try to see if any of the news matched up with Revelation prophecy. He did not believe that Revelation was in the past like the preterist. He believed that Revelation was in the present. Most people that hold to this notion believe that the Catholic Church, with the pope at its head, is the beast mentioned in Revelation.
The third way of interpreting the book of Revelation is called the idealist view. The idealist view believes that each generation sees the book of Revelation unfold before their eyes. This way of looking at things is similar to the preterist view, except for it is repeated for every generation. Essentially what this means is that the book of Revelation was written to comfort persecuted Christians with the promise of future victory, and since there are persecuted Christians in every generation, the book’s message is timeless. In this view, the beast refers to any group that persecutes believers.
The final way of interpreting the book of Revelation is called the futurist view. This view is held by the majority of American Evangelicals, and is most likely the view held by most of you. The futurist view says that the events mentioned in Revelation are specific events that precede the ultimate victory of Jesus Christ. In this view, the beast is literally the head of a world empire who is bent on destroying the followers of God.
So now that we have looked at all four views, we need to decide which method of interpretation we will study the book from. But to be honest, I don’t think that any one of these views perfectly sums up what Revelation is all about. I would say that you would have to take two or even three of these methods of interpretation to get an accurate grasp of what John was trying to say. As a matter of fact, I think the only method of interpretation that can be discarded is the historicist view. I do not believe that Revelation has been progressively happening for the last 2,000 years.
When interpreting the book of Revelation, we have to find a balance between interpreting things literally, and interpreting things symbolically. I think the proper way of interpreting any book of the Bible is to always take the Bible literally, when possible. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that some parts of the Bible are meant to be taken figuratively. So I think the best way to interpret Revelation is by using the futurist method to do the bulk of our heavy lifting, but always keeping the idealist method in the back of our minds.
And since all of those big words tend to make my head spin, I’ll sum up the approach that we are going to take. We are going to assume that all of the prophecies written down in the book of Revelation are indeed future events. The vivid prophecies of John would be pointless if the book was merely meant to be a condolence to suffering Christians. But at the same time, we also have to view the book of Revelation as having been written for us, even if Jesus does not come back during our lifetimes. While the book of Revelation is filled with prophecy, we also must view the book as devotional. Because while there are many steps along the way, the overarching theme of the book is that one day, Jesus Christ is going to come back and make everything right. Amen? So I am going to call this method of interpretation, for lack of a better term, the futurist-idealist view of interpretation. At each step along the way, we are going to look at what will be in store for planet Earth in the future, but also we will look at what this message means for us. Sound good? All right then, please open your Bibles to Revelation chapter one, verse one. Tonight we are going to examine the first eight verses of the book.
“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto Him, to show unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass; and He sent and signified it by his angel unto His servant John: who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw. Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand. John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from Him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before the throne; and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father; to Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Behold, He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced Him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of Him. Even so, Amen. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.”
So essentially, these eight verses form the introduction to the book of Revelation. These verses identify the writer of the book of Revelation simply as John. Now there has been some debate over the years over whether or not this was the same John that wrote the gospel of John and first, second, and third John. And while we won’t know for sure until heaven, the vast amount of historical evidence points to this being written by John, the disciple of Jesus. The reason I say is that it is highly unlikely that another John could have risen to this place of authority, and yet we know nothing about him from elsewhere; and also John speaks about Jesus with the same terminology that the gospel writer of John uses. Since we are pretty sure this was John the disciple, the book of Revelation could not have been written much after A.D. 90, because even at this date, John would have been a very old man. If John were even a teenager while he was with Christ, he would already be 75 years old at this point, but most estimates put him in the vicinity of 90 years old.
Look one more time at what verse three tells us. “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.” John is literally proclaiming a blessing on us in this verse! He blesses everyone who reads the book of Revelation, and blesses everyone who hears the book of Revelation. But beyond that, John blesses those who keep the things that are written. The fact that we are supposed to keep the words written is evidence that we should not merely read the book as prophecy, but we should also seek out the life lessons that this rich book contains. And at the end of verse three, John says that we need to keep these things because the time is at hand. Now obviously that was over 1900 years ago, but the point John was making is that the time is imminent, meaning that the events in Revelation could happen at any point from here on out. Jesus in the gospels gave some prophecies about some things that had to happen before the end came, like prophesying the destruction of the temple, but that has already happened. So what John is saying is that everything Jesus said would happen first has happened, and from this point on, Jesus could come back at any time.
Looking at verse four, who does it say John addresses this letter to? That’s right, the seven churches. Now, many people take this part about the seven churches symbolically, but for today, we are just going to take John at his word that he was writing to seven distinct churches in what is now the country of Turkey. Notice at the end of verse four, there is a reference to the “seven Spirits.” The prevailing opinion throughout history has been that this is a reference to the Holy Spirit, and perhaps the number seven is given because the number seven refers to “completeness,” just as there were seven days in creation. While that may be true, I tend to believe this was referring to the seven angels mentioned in the next passage.
Now that we’ve seen who wrote the book and who he was writing to, look at what the topic of John’s book is. Let’s read verses seven and eight once more. “Behold, He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced Him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of Him. Even so, Amen. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.” John in these two verses sums up the entire book of Revelation. Jesus Christ is going to come back, and it’s not going to be a secret. No, the Bible says that every eye is going to see Him. Whenever the Bible says that those who pierced Him will see Him, I think we have to take this symbolically, since the actual people that killed Jesus have been dead for centuries. This phrase refers to the people on earth who have symbolically pierced Jesus through their rebellion against Him. That’s why the next phrase says that all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of Him. When Christ finally does come back, He is going to judge the wicked for all of their evil deeds. That fact is what the book of Revelation is all about, and we must keep this in mind as we study this great book. Over the coming months, whenever we see prophecies that we don’t understand, or whenever we hear so many different theories that our heads spin, the rock-solid truth that Jesus Christ is coming back must be our anchor. Everything in this book revolves around that fact, and if we lose that focus, then Revelation is going to mean nothing to us.
So that will be a good stopping point for us tonight, I think. I hope that this introductory lesson wasn’t too dry for you. But the fact is, we have to know how we should understand Revelation is we stand any chance of interpreting it accurately, and part of our understanding Revelation is knowing the historical context that it was written in. But we’ll pick up in verse nine next week and talk about the seven candlesticks and seven stars.
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