An Introduction to the Book of Revelation
It might seem at first strange to begin a sermon series on the Book of Revelation from a passage at the end of the book rather than the beginning. However, there is a good reason for this. The book of Revelation is full of symbols and visions which are difficult to understand. This difficulty can be seen in the fact that there are so many interpretations of it. This is true among preachers and theologians who hold to the full authority and inspiration of Revelation and the rest of Scripture. The very fact that learned men and women who have spent their lives studying the Apocalypse should serve as a warning to us to be reverent and careful in the treating of Revelation. Revelation is full of what has been described as “word pictures”. These pictures make the book come alive and stimulate the imagination. It has been said that a picture paints a thousand words.” Here a thousand words paints a picture. The problem with a picture, of course, is that no two people can fully agree what thousand words the picture is saying.
So we come to this beautiful passage at the end of the book. It tells us that for those who persevere, everything is going to work out. This is an affirmation of the promise of Romans 8:28: “For those who love God, all things work together for the good, to those who are the called according to His purpose. We don't know what lies in our immediate future. There is much to be concerned about. And the Book of Revelation sounds scary. But Christians should not be frightened about the future as God will lead us on the way. If one is not a Christian, they should be very concerned.
I am not going to try to tell you that I have it all figured out. I can speculate as well as the next person. But our salvation in Jesus Christ is by grace through faith alone. It is certainly not earned even in the least part from our works. These include the works of the intellect. But at the same time, the fact that we are saved by grace through faith alone should not make us complacent as though our works do not count. One can be assured of this from Revelation 14:13: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord; for this saith the Spirit, they shall have rest from their labor, and their works do follow them”. We read elsewhere that God will not forget our labor of love. The text we have already alluded to in Ephesians that God has prepared good works in advance for us to do.
In the same way, we must be diligent to study God's Word. And this includes Revelation, even if it is difficult to understand. A Christian should be well informed by the Book of Deuteronomy that we must engage our intellect as well as our emotion. It is not just with all of our hearts but all of our minds and strength as well. And we are told in Revelation itself that it is God's will for His people to understand it. In Revelation 22:10: “Do not seal up the prophetic words in this book”. The very word “Revelation” means “to reveal”, not hide. So let us not be afraid to enter into the study of God's word.
The Apocalypse is addressed to seven churches which today would be located in the southwest part of Turkey. What did this letter mean to them? Was it written in some secret code that was meant for us today and was nothing but a riddle to them? Some have suggested that these seven churches represented seven ages in church history. On this view, the actual cities and recipients are unimportant. These cities serve only as an allegory. Would an imprisoned John who needed to comfort his churches who were beginning to suffer persecution and needed to be admonished not to compromise their faith write them a letter meant mostly for people living two thousand years later? It would seem fair to conclude that this letter was written to them and must have meant something to them. I think that interpreters of the book have made a big mistake in that thy treat the literal seven churches and their situations as allegory and the symbolic visions literally. So I am starting this study with the assumption that the letter, whatever it means for us in the 21st century, had meaning for them as well.
There are numerous examples in the prophecies of Scripture the idea of double fulfillment. One of the fulfillments would have its fulfillment in the near future which served as a type of a second bigger fulfillment in the future. Isaiah 7:14 serves as an example. We all know that Matthew records that this verse was fulfilled by the birth of Jesus: “Behold the virgin shall conceive and give birth to a Son who is to be named Immanu-El, which means, “God is with us”. But if one looks at Isaiah seven, he/she would note that in its original context, Isaiah was talking with King Ahaz who was being invaded by the kings of Israel and Syria. So does Ahaz need a prophecy about the birth of a Christ child seven hundred years later, or does he need more immediate aid? The correct answer is that he really needs both. The immediate fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy happened within a few years. The sign granted to Ahaz that a certain young woman that was known to them would have a child which would be called Immanuel. Before that child would be weaned, Ahaz would be delivered from his enemies. But there is a greater fulfillment to this prophecy that God had in mind which even Isaiah may have been unaware of. God was going to send a far greater deliverance to Israel in the person of Jesus Christ. The first fulfillment then served as a type to its ultimate fulfillment.
Another example of this double fulfillment pattern is also seen in Isaiah in the deliverance of Israel from Babylonian captivity. After King Hezekiah had shown the Babylonian envoys the holy things of God, Isaiah prophesied that Judah and everything Hezekiah had shown them would be carried away captive to Babylon. But Isaiah also prophesies that God would later deliver them from exile through a man named Cyrus. The deliverance of Israel from its captivity serves as a type to a greater fulfillment in Jesus who is the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.
A New Testament example of double fulfillment can be seen in Matthew 24 and the parallel treatments in Mark and Luke. Like the Book of Revelation, this passage has confounded and divided Bible scholars. Read at the surface level, a lot of what Jesus says there seems to have been fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD. But a reading of the text seems to indicate that Jesus has something much bigger in mind than that which would affect the entire universe. So has this prophecy already happened in 70AD, or does it fall in our future? If one holds to the former, then why was the prophecy only partially fulfilled? If the latter, then why does Jesus say that the current generation would not pass until it was fulfilled? If one holds to the double fulfillment pattern, there is no problem. Many of the details were indeed fulfilled, perhaps all of them, if we had more perfect knowledge of what happened in 70AD. This destruction of Jerusalem serves as a type of a larger and ultimate fulfillment in the future, perhaps even in our time. The catastrophe of judgment of the earth will be like what happened to Jerusalem, only worse.
I think if we will treat Revelation in a similar matter, we can reap much fruit. This book must have meant something to the listeners and readers of Revelation. Much of what is recorded in this letter to the seven churches had meaning to them and was fulfilled in their day. This serves as an example of what will happen in the last days on a grander scale. This is the way I intend to interpret this book to you. If I don’t get it all right, then we have read from the end of the Apocalypse and take comfort by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, it will be all right for us in the end, even if we don’t get all the details right.
We know to whom Revelation was originally written. Scholars are divided as to when it was written. Most take a statement of an early leader named Iranaeus who when questioned concerning the Antichrist made mention that seems to place the writing in the time of the Emperor Domitian who ruled from 81-96 AD. However, Ralph Bass in his book “Back to the Future” states that it is unclear whether the statement refers to the Book coming from Domitian’s time or that the Apostle John lived until the time of Domitian who could have been asked concerning the Antichrist. Bass and others also note that as much as Domitian wanted to be worshiped as a god, there just isn’t a lot of evidence that there was a lot of persecution of Christians during his reign.
Bass feels that the Book of Revelation was written during the time of Nero, somewhere around AD 67. This would better fit the details we find in Revelation itself. There is far too much detail to discuss here in this introduction, but you can buy Ralph Bass’ book from Amazon which would serve as a good commentary to go with this study. This is far from the only source I will be consulting, but I am in pretty good agreement with his introductory material and find it pretty convincing.
We will also be seeing several videos from Dr. Ray Van Der Laan in a DVD series “Faith Lessons from the Early Church” which provided excellent background commentary for 4 of the seven churches in Revelation. These can be purchased from either Zondervan.com or Focus on the Family. I strongly recommend all of his videos. We will probably see a PBS video on the Roman Empire from their “Empires” series. Other helpful sources will be announced as we go along.
I know that you might think that this evening’s sermon is full of detail. You can go online and see a transcript of everything I have preached tonight. I want to leave some time each Sunday night for questions you might have. I feel it is important for you to get a basic understanding of the framework behind the Apocalypse. You will get so much more out of Revelation if you do. Paul admonishes his younger colleague to “study to show yourself to be approved by God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, who rightly proclaims the word of truth.”
Next week, we will begin with the first chapter. So read ahead.
Rev. Mark Barber