The text for the sermon today is Revelation 1:1-3.
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 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. (ESV)
Imagine that tomorrow morning you were moving to a strange country you knew nothing about. One of the first things you’d have to do is learn a language. Vocabulary, sentence structure, colloquialisms. You’d also encounter a new culture: customs, dress, habits, gestures, holidays. You might be left-handed and learn that no one uses their left hand in your new home. You’re used to pointing with your finger, but your new neighbors find it highly offensive. It wouldn’t take long before you realize how much you have to learn. It would require patience and practice.
In many ways, we need to approach the book of Revelation the same way we’d approach moving to a new country. If you’ve only read the gospels or the NT letters, Revelation may sound like a completely different language. It’s full of symbolic numbers and visions of otherworldly creatures. At times is seems to lack any sense of chronology or logical arrangement. But, just like moving to a new country, if you will commit to being a learner, if you will be patient and practice reading this book, you will not only learn how to speak the language but your life will also be shaped by its message.
Many avoid the book of Revelation. Some are frightened by it. Images of beasts and dragons and plagues. Others are intimidated by it. There is no other book in the Bible like it. It’s difficult to read and interpret. Many are discouraged by the division it can cause between Christians who disagree over how to interpret the book. But John tells us that those who do read, hear, and obey it will be blessed. So, this book is not given that you might fear, fail, or faint. It’s given that you might be faithful.
The first three verses of Revelation give us the title of the book, as well as a summary of the book’s content as well as how we ought to approach this book so that its message can be clearly heard. As we wade into these initial verses we’ll unpack their meaning by seeing how they answer 4 questions:
1. WHAT IS IT?
2. WHO IS IT FOR?
3. HOW SHOULD WE READ IT?
4. WHY SHOULD WE READ IT?
1. WHAT IS THE BOOK OF REVELATION?
The first five words of the book tell us exactly what we are reading:
“The revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Revelation is a translation of the Greek word apokalupsis, from which we also get the word apocalypse. Unfortunately, for us, “apocalypse” has come to mean “a world-ending event.” Maybe you’ve read a post-apocalyptic novel in which a cataclysmic event has ended the world as we know it. But the Greek word apokalupsis doesn’t mean world-ending event. Rather, the word literally means “unveiling or uncovering that which was formerly hidden.” If you rolled up your sleeve you would bare your arm; uncovering that which was previously hidden.
In other words, even though Revelation is filled with symbols and visions, it was not written to be obscure, elusive, or enigmatic. Revelation was written to make something clear, plain, and obvious. Verse 1 says that God gave this revelation in order to show his servants. The goal of the book is to show, not hide, to reveal, not conceal. So, the visions of this book are not concealing information, they are revealing information.
Not only is this book an unveiling. We are told it is the unveiling of Jesus Christ. The book identifies itself as the revelation of Jesus Christ. This expression might mean a revelation with Jesus Christ as its source. Or it might mean a revelation with Jesus Christ as its principal content. Both possibilities express important truths.
This book reveals Jesus Christ. In Luke 24:27 we’re told that Jesus began with Moses and all the Prophets and he interpreted in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. Jesus is the key that unlocks all of the Bible, therefore he is the key that unlocks Revelation. As Joel Beeke put it: “This vision is about Jesus Christ, not the pope, Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Saddam Hussein, or any other person in world history.”
Certainly, it has much to say about world history, governments, motives and methods of world leaders, but first and foremost it is a revelation about Jesus Christ, and what God has accomplished in his resurrection in the past, and what God will accomplish at his Second Coming in the future. Rather than reading world histories and historic figures into the book, we ought to read history and historic figures in light of the main message of the book: that God is the author of history and will bring it to its final culmination on the day of Christ.
Revelation is not a horoscope, a Ouija board, or a cipher that must be decoded. Jesus is the theme of the book: the one who is revealed. He is the author of the book, for the Spirit of Christ inspired John to write it. Jesus is the revealer of the book, as verse 1 says “the revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave to him to show his servants.” It is not always an easy book to understand, but God is not hiding its meaning from you. Revelation declares that God alone is the author of history, and will bring history to its culmination through what Christ has done in his death and resurrection, the spread of the gospel, and the return of Christ to judge.
2. WHO IS THE BOOK OF REVELATION FOR?
Let’s look back at verse 1:
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,
Follow the chain of action: God gave this revelation to Christ to show his servants things which must soon take place. Jesus in turn gave this revelation to an angel who then relayed it to Jesus’ servant, a man named John, who in turn wrote it down for Christ’s other servants, the church.
Revelation was likely written in the late 90s A.D.. Several decades earlier, the church had endured one persecution under the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero. That was the persecution that resulted in the beheading of the Apostle Paul. Now, at the end of the Apostolic age, the Roman Emperor Domitian increases the persecution of the church to such a degree that to even be a Christian was a crime punishable by death. These servants, to whom John is writing, are walking precisely in the footsteps of their master, Jesus Christ who promised in John 15:16, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; for I have overcome the world.”
The human author of this letter gives us only one name. No title. No biography. We are only told that the angel delivered this message to a man named John. Of course, we know who this is because there is only one person in the time around Christ who could introduce himself as “John” and know that the church would understand who was writing. This is the brother of James, the son of Zebedee. Indeed, this is the same man who left his nets on the shores of Galilee to follow Christ as a fisher of men. This is the same author of the Gospel of John and the 3 letters of John at the end of the New Testament. This is the same John who sat with the mother of Christ at the foot of the cross. This is the same John who eventually made his way to minister in the city of Ephesus and there took care of the aging mother of our Lord. But the rise of Domitian’s terror meant that John could no longer preach freely about the gospel. In verse 9, John tells us where it is that he received this Revelation of Jesus:
9 I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
Just as Christ suffered, so did John, and so did all of the church under the reign of Domitian. So, the book of Revelation is for the church, but more precisely the book has a special meaning and message of a church in tribulation.
Friends, every year that passes we find ourselves in a nation more and more opposed to the rule and reign of Jesus Christ. And, because they cannot go up to heaven to attack him, they attack his bride on earth, the church.
A Biblical understanding of marriage is under assault. During 2020 we saw several governments unequally target church meetings as non-essential as pot dispensaries and abortion clinics remained open. Our society worships the state, and the state worships itself. There is no humility. There is little honesty. We are a nation that has blasphemed the name of God and forsaken his laws.
Sadly, we find most of the churches in our nation either compromised or apathetic. We have lost our prophetic voice. The teaching of the church no longer threatens the powers of the state. In the 16th Century, the Reformer John Knox said, “Give me Scotland or I die.” To which the Queen Mary said, “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than the assembled armies of Europe.” No heads of state fear the prayers of the church. Instead, today they mock and scorn them. The servants of Christ have forgotten their first love, embraced the world and its desires, and conceded on the truth in order to avoid ostracism. A few have kept the Word of God, and through difficulty, they will prevail with Christ.
By the end of the book, it becomes clear that God has given Revelation to bless every church in every age who reads this book.
6 And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.”
7 “And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” (Rev. 22:6-7)
Friends, this book is not for a future generation, it’s for us. It’s for every servant of Jesus Christ who must endure tribulation as they patiently wait on the return of the King.
3. HOW SHOULD WE READ IT?
As we study this book, we have to make sure that take the proper approach to understanding its message. For the next few minutes, I am going to overview the 5 predominant ways Revelation has been interpreted. I appreciate how the commentator Joel Beeke summarizes these views and helps us see the benefit of them all. He writes:
First is the preterist approach. This view sees Revelation wholly in terms of the circumstances that transpired in John’s day prior to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, without any reference to future events. The word preterism is derived from the Latin word praeteritum, meaning “that which is past.” Preterists believe that any interpretation of Revelation must be confined to the historic past rather than projected into the future.
This view interprets Revelation’s opening words, “things which must shortly come to pass,” as events that happened in John’s own time. Preterists argue that, just as the seven churches of Asia were real first-century churches to which letters were addressed, so the entire book of Revelation contains only things that came to pass in John’s day or shortly thereafter, with the exception of chapters 21–22, which clearly refer to the time of the new heaven and new earth.
The strength of this approach is that it strongly affirms the operative framework of the book as “things which must shortly come to pass.” Its weakness is that Revelation then has little to say to the church today in the midst of her struggles
Second is the historicist approach. This view, which was held by most of the sixteenth-century Reformers, sees the book of Revelation as a symbolic representation of the panorama of church history, from the first coming of Christ to His second advent at the end of the world.
A historicist might say that the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2–3 do not refer to seven particular churches in Asia Minor but to seven ages of church history. They would then conclude that today we live in the age of Laodicea or the era of the lukewarm church. They thus view Revelation as a chart of church history, offering a series of historical pictures moving from Christ’s first coming to the end of the present age. In Revelation 13, the beast rising from the sea could be the rise of Islam in the seventh century, while Revelation 17, several centuries further along, may refer to the Roman Catholic Church and the rise of the papacy.
The strength of this approach is that it embraces all of church history; its weakness is that it too easily assumes that Revelation prophesies a linear movement through church history, with no recapitulation of events seen from different points of view.
Third is the futurist approach. This was the most popular view of evangelicals at the beginning of the twentieth century, especially premillennial dispensationalists, but it has lost ground in recent decades. The futurist believes that the visions of Revelation 4–22 refer to events that are still future, but that they will transpire immediately prior to and along with Christ’s second coming at the end of history, ushering in the millennial age. Most futurists are premillennial; that is, they believe that Christ’s return will precede the millennial age.
The problem with this view is that it reads the book as almost entirely without reference to the needs and struggles of the churches to which John first sent this book. It also affords little consolation for the suffering church at any other point in church history, including today, because it is exclusively focused on events surrounding Christ’s second coming. The strength of this view is that it emphasizes the ultimate victory of Christ and His elect over the world at His second coming.
Fourth is the idealist approach, sometimes called the poetic or inspirational approach. This position is sometimes called iterism, from the Latin verb itero, meaning “to repeat,” because idealist interpreters hold that the events described in Revelation are repeated from time to time in the experience of the church from age to age.
This approach teaches that Revelation is relevant for everyone since it deals with principles and symbols that are always valid in our personal history and experience. The idealist scarcely wrestles with the problem of chronology in Revelation, preferring to see this book and its symbolism as a tract written for persecuted Christians of any period. The symbolism is interpreted loosely, in a very general way, to give comfort and encouragement to persecuted Christians.
The strength of this approach is its applicability to the church of all ages; its weakness is that it is difficult to affirm this view exegetically, based on the description “things which must shortly come to pass” (1:1).
In accord with many Reformed theologians, I propose an eclectic approach that accents the idealist or iterist approach. This approach has also been called the parallel or cyclical view of Revelation. Imagine a man with a video camera who is recording a church congregation. He pans over the people, starting on one side of the church and going all around. Then he goes up into the gallery and does the same thing. Then he goes to the back, comes from behind, and pans over everyone again. That is what we see in Revelation. The book offers us views of the entire history of the church but seen from different vantage points.
I believe there are seven parallel sections in Revelation. Each section offers a different view of the church in history, as we will see as we make our way through the book. With this parallel or cyclical view of the book, we will see how each section spans the entire dispensation of the gospel, from the first coming of Christ two thousand years ago down to His coming again at the last day.
Here are the 7 parallel sections of Revelation:
- The Seven Churches (1-3)
- The Seven Seals (4-8:1)
- The Seven Trumpets (8:2-11)
- The War with the Dragon (12-14)
- The Seven Bowls of Wrath (15-16)
- The Fall of Babylon (17-19)
- The Victory of Christ & His Bride (20-22)
One of the interpretive keys, if not the most important interpretive key to unlocking the message of Revelation is found at the end of verse 1 when John writes:
He (Jesus) made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,
That phrase, “He made it known,” may appear in your Bible as he “signified it.” It’s means to signify by symbols and is a direct quotation from Daniel 2:28 in which God has just given a symbolic vision to the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar. In other words, here in the first verse, John is telling us how to read and understand. This book is symbolic. Some ignore this book saying, “It’s too difficult. So many have gotten it wrong. I can’t possibly understand it.” Other obsess over this book, associating every detail with a geopolitical leader or event. Years ago, they found Henry Kissinger in Revelation as the anti-Christ, then it was Mikhail Gorbachev, then Saddam Hussein.
Dear church, there is a better way. You don’t have to ignore this book. It can be understood and applied. But you need not, indeed, you are not to treat it like a key to unlocking the politics of the Near East. Revelation is not a puzzle book. It is a picture book.
John’s witness to the revelation of Jesus Christ is not intended to be a secret, concealed curiosity, but an exhortation about how God wants Christians to live in light of the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ above all earthly powers. I love how Vern Poythress puts it: “Revelation is not intended to tickle our fancy, but to strengthen our heart.”
The goal of Revelation is not to solve a puzzle, it’s to behold a picture of that which is being revealed: Christ as the conqueror. It is his death, his resurrection, his ascension, and rule in the heavenly places, his Spirit empowering his church, his gospel, his mercy, his pardon, his truth, in all ages, and his soon return to judge the living and the dead.
If you keep Christ at the center, you will read and understand this book.
4. WHY SHOULD WE READ IT?
God promises to bless those who read this book.
3 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.
In the earliest church services, it was customary for one of the elders to publicly read aloud the writings of the Old Testament, or one of the letters of the Apostles because there were limited copies of the Scriptures and because many were illiterate. Verse 3 is an encouragement to pastors to read and church members to listen, and all to obey.
What is the blessing of reading, hearing, and obeying? John tells us in verse 3 that this book is a prophecy. Revelation 1:1 says God gave this revelation to Christ “to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.” At the end of verse 3, we are told that “the time is near.” Revelation is not about some distant future. It’s about today. It was applicable the moment the ink dried on John’s papyrus. The New Testament says the onset of the last days was marked by Christ’s pouring out His Spirit on the church on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17). That is when Christ inaugurated His kingdom, which is now spreading to the ends of the earth. The last days include the days in which we are living. (Beeke) The church is to proclaim Christ to the ends of the earth. Satan has no power to stop that proclamation or deceive the nations any longer. But he can persecute the saints. He can pursue the saints through wicked rulers and governments. He can tempt the saints with doctrinal compromise and spiritual complacency. He can thwart the evangelistic purpose of the church by sowing seeds of disunity all while this lost world careens towards hell.
And Revelation throws back the curtain on our lives so that we see what’s going on. There is a cosmic war being waged. Everyone must take a side. There can be no riding the fence. This book presents us with horrific pictures of beasts and dragons in order to portray the spiritual gravity of our present circumstances. The blessing of this book is that it wakes you up. Those who have ears to hear will perceive the seriousness of this situation and cease compromising. (Beale) Revelation speaks to spiritually anesthetized saints, through symbols, in order to shake and sober us to the reality that God rules history, and will bring it to its consummation in Christ.
Conversely, to neglect the reading, hearing, and obeying of this book is to be cursed. To fall prey to Satan, the lies of this present evil age, and to fail to prepare for the coming of Christ.
As we embark on this journey through Revelation, how should we respond?
Dear church, read this book. Do not neglect it. Read it with faith. Read it to build spiritual muscle and courage. Don’t wait until the time of tribulation is upon you. Dig the well of endurance before you are tested.
Obey Jesus Christ. The blessing of this book is not found in reading alone. It is not found in greater knowledge but in greater commitment to Christ. If you can speak as an expert on Revelation but have not love for members of the church, you’re a clanging cymbal. If you can trace every detail of this book, but you do not pray, you are nothing. If you can unravel the mysteries of Revelation, but take no time to disciple your children in the fundamentals of the faith, you gain nothing.
Be prepared for Christ’s coming. Examine yourself to see if you are truly in the faith. Have you been made right with God through faith alone in what Jesus Christ has done at the cross? Friends, the time is near, indeed it is at hand. The war of the cosmos is raging and you have a few short years to settle your accounts with God. After that, there will be no future opportunity.
Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
And when I am dying, how happy I’ll be,
If the lamp of my life has been burned out for Thee.