Revelation #1 — An Overview

In this blog I will argue that the body of Revelation shows us the events at the end of time from three different perspectives: that of the Church in Heaven, that of the Church on earth, and that of the enemies of God.

Remember that Revelation is “apocalyptic literature.” The purpose of apocalyptic literature was to keep alive the flame of faith during difficult times.

The word “apocalyptic” is a Greek word that means “to uncover, to reveal, to disclose” what is hidden.  And the purpose of Revelation is to reveal what God had kept hidden about the coming Day of the Lord and the Kingdom of God. That makes Revelation  “apocalyptic eschatology”, two big words that simply mean” Literature that reveals what will happen at the end of time” or “Literature that gives a perspective on how God’s future purposes will be worked out.” (Sometimes it’s just easier to learn and use the big words.)

The point of apocalyptic eschatology is simple: God is in control of history and is working out His purposes in it.  God is in charge.  No matter how bad things get — and they’re going to get VERY bad — nothing is happening to Christians and Christ’s Church that is outside of God’s control.  So trust Him, obey Him, and in the end all will be well. A simple message.

The visions of apocalyptic literature are complicated and difficult to interpret, but the message of apocalyptic literature is always a very simple one: things may look out of control, but they’re not.

When was Revelation written? Most scholars agree that The Revelation was written either after the death of Nero (after 68 or 69 AD) or toward the end of the reign of the Emperor Domitian, about 95 AD.  Most scholars think Revelation was written toward the end of Domitian’s rule.

To understand anything about Revelation, you have to understand something about Emperor Worship in the Roman Empire.  In many cities, annual festivals were held to honor the emperor; often these were held around his birthday. (Birthdays were a really big deal in the Roman Empire.) The language used to praise the Emperor at these festivals was equivalent to the language used for the gods: the Emperor was called “our lord and god” for example.

At these festivals, there was the opportunity to burn a little incense in a brazier before a statue of the Emperor. This was mostly seen as a form of good citizenship, not unlike voting or getting your driver’s license.  You would sacrifice a little incense in the fire before the statue of the emperor, you would get a little certificate saying that you had done so, and you could prove that you were a loyal citizen of Rome.  You had taken your loyalty oath: you had sacrificed to the Emperor.

This sacrifice to the Emperor was seen as something of great value to the Roman Empire. The ability to show that one had sacrificed to the emperor was about the only thing everyone who lived in the Roman Empire would have in common; it was pretty much the only thing that the Empire required from everyone in the diverse group of people who made up the Roman Empire.  Since everyone worshiped so many gods anyway, who could object to worshiping one more (namely, the Roman Emperor) as a show of loyalty? In fact, the Romans were pretty benevolent as empires go — the Jews were exempt from making this sacrifice because for their entire history they had worshiped only one God.  So, although the Romans required everyone else to sacrifice to the Emperor, the Jews were not required to do so. But then along came the Christians.

The Romans were convinced that the Christians had added a second new god to the One God the Jews worshiped.  The Romans listened to the Christians and thought, “If you can add Jesus Christ to the list of gods you pray to, you can add the Emperor as well.” This was the reason why the Jews wanted the first Christians to stop worshiping with them in the synagogues — the Jews kicked the Jewish-Christians out of the synagogues to stay on Rome’s good side.

The Roman Emperors took strong measures against those of their subjects whose consciences forbade them from showing their loyalty to the Empire by acknowledging the divinity of the Emperor. Consequently, the Christians’ refusal to participate in this empire-unifying ritual really set them up to be persecuted. The persecutions under Nero and Domitian were especially brutal.

In Chapter 1, Revelation begins with a prologue (1:1-8) and a vision of the risen Christ given to the prophet John (1:9-20).  As you read, you will notice that the description of the Risen Lord echoes the description of the Ancient of Days of Daniel 7:9 and the powerful angel of Daniel 10:5-62.  John is commanded to write what he sees, and he does: “I saw seven gold lampstands and among them there was what looked like a human being, wearing a robe that reached to His feet, and a gold band around His chest.  His hair was white as wool, or as snow, and His eyes blazed like fire; His feet shone like brass that has been refined and polished, and His voice sounded like a roaring waterfall.  He held seven stars in His right hand, and a sharp two-edged sword came out of His mouth.  His face was as bright as the midday sun.  When I saw Him I fell down at His feet like a dead man.  He placed His right hand on me and said, “Don’t be afraid! I am the first and the last.  I am the living one.  I was dead but now I am alive forever and ever.  I have authority over death and the world of the dead.”  The point of this vision of Christ surrounded by lampstands is simple: If you want to see Christ, look at His Church; Christ is always to be found in the midst of His Church.

This vision of Christ leads directly to a series of 7 letters to the churches.  These letters are brief and either praise the church for its good qualities or criticize it for its faults.  These 7 churches symbolize the whole Church of all time, and for this reason hearers are called to listen to what the Spirit is saying.

Then comes a Vision of the Heavenly Throne Room in Chapters 4 & 5, which leads directly into the main body of Revelation (Chapters 6-21).  As events lead to the unveiling of the final kingdom of God, seven seals are opened, seven trumpets are sounded, and seven bowls of wrath are outpoured.

Do these events follow in chronological sequence (first the seals, then the trumpets, finally the bowls) or are they three different perspectives on the same events (the perspective on the Church in Heaven, the perspective of the Church on earth, and the perspective of the enemies of God)?

I am of the 3-different-perspectives-on-the-same-event camp rather than the chronological-one-event-right-after-another camp.

I have to admit that not everyone agrees with those scholars who argue for this “accordion” understanding of Revelation. Many scholars argue for a “linear” understanding of Revelation.  They argue that first come the seals, and then come the trumpets, and then come the bowls of wrath — a linear understanding of Revelation rather than “an accordion” understanding of the book, where the three perspectives “fold onto” one another.  All of which is to say that you should feel perfectly comfortable disagreeing with me here, because there really is no scholarly concensus on how to understnd Revelation.  But this is the way that made sense to me, so I’m sharing it with you.

I’ll give you two examples that convinced me the “accordion” understanding was better than the “linear” understanding:

First, go look at Revelation 10: 1-5.  In this vision, John hears 7 Thunderclaps. Once the thunderclaps “had spoken” John prepared to write down what he had heard — but a voice from heaven stopped him.  The voice ordered, “Keep the words of the seven thunderclaps secret and do not write them down.” So John doesn’t write them down. So we have no idea what the 7 Thunders told John. So there is a big gap in any linear understanding theory of Revelation — a gap that cannot be filled. (The “linear understanding train” gets derailed at the point of the 7 Thunders.)

Second, each of the three perspectives concludes with a description of the Day of the Lord and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

For example look at 6:9-13, the conclusion of the way things look from the perspective of the Church in Heaven (the martyrs).  All this great multitude comes in white robes, singing, they fall down before the throne, and the Lamb shepherds them and leads them to living fountains of water, and God wipes away every tear from their eyes.  This sounds like what the coming of the Kingdom of God will look like to the Church in Heaven.

Now look at 15:1-7, the conclusion of the way things look from the perspective of the Church on earth. This sounds like a description of how  the coming of the Kingdom of God will appear from the perspective of the Church on earth: “After this, I looked at the sky and saw something else that was strange and important. Seven angels were bringing the last terrible troubles.  When these are ended, God will no longer be angry.  Then I saw something that looked like a glass sea mixed with fire, and people were standing on it.  They were the ones who had defeated the beast and the idol and the number that tells the name of the beast.  God had given them harps and they were singing the song that his servant Moses and the Lamb had sung.  They were singing: ‘Lord God All-Powerful, you have done great and marvelous things.  You are the ruler of all nations, and you do what is right and fair.  Lord, who doesn’t honor and praise Your name? You alone are holy and all the nations will come and worship you because You have shown that You judge with fairness’.” The Church on earth is rejoicing because Christ has taken up his power and has begun to rule on earth.

Now look at 18:21-24, which sounds like what the coming of the Kingdom of God will look like from the perspective of the enemies of God: “Then a mighty angel picked up a stone the size of a large millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, ‘This is how the great city Babylon will be violently thrown down and never seen again. The music of harps and of human voices, of players of the flute and the trumpet, will never be heard in you again! No workman in any trade will ever be found in you again; and the sound of the millstone will be heard no more. Never again will the light of a lamp be seen in you; no more will the voices of brides and grooms be heard in you,  Your businessmen were the most powerful in all the world, and with your false magic you deceived all the peoples of the world.  Babylon was punished because the blood of prophets and of God’s people was found in the city; yes, the blood of all those who have been killed on earth.”

You should feel perfectly free to disagree with me as I talk about these three different perspectives.  NOBODY has Revelation all figured out; certainly not me.  But this way of making sense out of Revelation makes sense to me.

In my next post I will talk more about the seals, trumpets and bowls because there is so much interesting, fascinating stuff there.

After the judgment(s) are over, The Book of Revelation reaches its climax in Rev. 21:1-8 with a description of the new creation: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.  The first heaven and the first earth disappeared and the sea vanished.  And I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared and ready, like a bride dressed to meet her husband.  I heard a loud voice speaking from the throne: “Now God’s home is with mankind! He will live with them and they shall be His people.  God Himself will be with them, and He will be their God.  He will wipe away all tears from their eyes.  There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain.  The old things have disappeared.” Then the one who sits on the throne said, “And now I make all things new!” He also said to me, “Write this, because these words are true and can be trusted.” And He said, “It is done! I am the first and the last, the beginning and the end.  To anyone who is thirsty I will give the right to drink from the spring of the water of life without paying for it.  Whoever wins the victory will receive this from me: I will be his God and he will be my child. But cowards, traitors, perverts, murderers, the immoral, those who practice magic, those who worship idols, and all liars — the place for them is the lake burning with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”(Rev. 21:1-8) The description of the City of God, the bride of the Lamb, is given in a deliberate contrast to the anti-Christian city that was described in Revelation 17.  In brief, the climax of Revelation is in the story of the harlot and the bride.

In Revelation 22:6-21, the concluding paragraphs of Revelation sum up and press home the practical lessons of the book. These paragraphs particularly emphasize the authenticity of this book as a true revelation from God, as well as the nearness of the fulfillment of its message: “Then the angel said to me, “These words are true and can be trusted.  And the Lord God, who gives His Spirit to the prophets, has sent His angel to show His servants what must happen very soon.” “Listen!” says Jesus. “I am coming soon! Happy are those who obey the prophetic words in this book!”

I, John, have heard and seen all these things.  And when I finished hearing and seeing them, I fell down at the feet of the angel who had shown me these things and I was about to worship him, but he said to me, “Don’t do it! I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brothers the prophets and of all those who obey the words in this book.  Worship God!”

And he said to me, “Do not keep the prophetic words of this book a secret, because the time is near when all this will happen.  Whoever is evil must go on doing evil and whoever is filthy must go on being filthy; whoever is good must go on doing good, and whoever is holy must go on being holy.”

“Listen!” says Jesus. “I am coming soon!” I will bring my rewards with me, to give to each one according to what he has done.  I am the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

Happy are those who wash their robes clean and so have the right to eat the fruit from the tree of life and to go through the gates into the city.  But outside the city are the perverts and those who practice magic, the immoral and the murderers, those who worship idols and those who are liars both in words and deeds.

“I, Jesus have sent My angel to announce these things to you in the churches.  I am descended from the family of David; I am the bright morning star.”

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come!” Everyone who hears this must also say, “Come!”

Come, whoever is thirsty; accept the water of life as a gift, whoever wants it.

I, John, solemnly warn everyone who hears the prophetic words of this book: if anyone adds anything to them, God will add to his punishment the plagues described in this book.  And if anyone takes anything away from the prophetic words of this book, God will take away from him his share of the fruit of the tree of life and of the Holy City, which are described in this book.  He who gives His testimony to all this says. “Yes indeed! I am coming soon!”

So be it.  Come, Lord Jesus!

May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with everyone.

And there you have the message of the Book of Revelation in a nutshell. Tomorrow I will be making one final post on the three perspectives of the coming of Christ and His kingdom that we see in Revelation: We see the End Time from the perspective of the Church in Heaven, from the perspective of the Church on earth, and from the perspective of the enemies of God.  Keep reading! We finish Revelation tomorrow.

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