(The First in a Series on the Book of Revelation)
Much ink is spilled over the book of Revelation because of its unusual nature. Unfortunately, much of that ink is spilled inappropriately because the interpretations offered by many are so far removed from the actual message of the book and are so sensationalized that they obscure the gospel message contained in Revelation. What I hope will happen over these next few weeks is that you will see that Revelation makes sense. Its message is straightforward and very accessible, once you realize and accept a few truths about the book. Today I want to try to answer the question: Why do we have a book like Revelation?
Because strange times call for strange words
Revelation is persecution literature. The people to whom this book was originally addressed did not wonder about a coming time of tribulation; they were already living in a time of tribulation. They were looking for a word to help them.
Revelation was written to real churches living in the real world. The book was apparently circulated among the seven churches in Asia Minor to whom “mini-letters” are addressed in chapters 2 and 3. However, we must always deal with the fact of symbolism in Revelation, and in Hebrew numerical symbolism, the number seven was a number of completeness. So, even though the book is addressed to seven historical churches of the first century, the book also communicates through its numerical symbolism that it is meant for all churches everywhere.
The tribulation that the book addresses probably took place during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian, who ruled from 81-96 AD. John himself was a victim of persecution, having been exiled to the small, rocky island of Patmos, some 40 miles off the coast of Asia Minor. So, as he himself said, he was brother with his readers, because he shared with them in persecution because of faithfulness to the Gospel (v. 9).
Because of the strange and difficult nature of a time of persecution, John used an old Jewish form of writing that was itself strange and, for the uninitiated, difficult. That form is known as apocalyptic. That is the literal Greek of the word translated in v. 1 of our English Bibles as “revelation.” The word means to uncover or to reveal. That form of literature had a long history among the Jewish people. Some parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah are apocalyptic. The book of Daniel is the only full-length apocalyptic book in the Old Testament. “Between the testaments,” though, many apocalyptic books were produced which also had an influence on the content of Revelation. Apocalyptic books are characterized by an interest in the fulfillment of God’s purposes and by abundant animal and numerical symbolism. Times of persecution were so hard and so unsettling that a different kind of language was needed to address it. That language was apocalyptic. But the message was not much different from any other book that presented the gospel message.
Because God’s people need a word from the Lord
Do not, under any circumstances, lose sight of the fact that Revelation is a presentation of the gospel message, just like Luke or Galatians or 1Timothy. It seems so different because it addresses a certain kind of situation using a certain kind of literary form. But when you boil Revelation down, what you have is a word from the Lord that his people need to hear.
In answering the question posed by the title, it is important to realize that we need help. The world is tough, and Christians who really try to live as Christians are going to have a tough time in the world. That is, fortunately or unfortunately, much more true in other parts of the world than it is here in our little part of it. It is universally true, nonetheless. It is also important to realize that the Book of Revelation was given by God to Christians to give us some of the help that we need. Therefore, our interpretation of Revelation should look for the ways that the message of the book helps us in our pilgrimage in the world. So, interpretations that are overly creative or that are overly subtle or that are overly mysterious are to be avoided. Why? Because they aren’t helpful. One thing that makes a book of Scripture a book of Scripture is that it spoke to its own time but continued to speak to later generations of God’s people. Revelation had a message that the people to whom it was originally addressed needed to hear, and that message is still applicable to people in every succeeding generation, including ours.
Make no mistake about it, though: Revelation is a word from the Lord. Verse 1 says that God gave it to Jesus to give it to his servants and that he sent his angel to show the message to John. So, the message of Revelation is a message that God wants us to get. It is a message that is divine in its origin and thus a message of good news. It is a message that is meant to be experienced. Notice that John “saw” the message (v. 2) and that it was to be “read aloud” in the churches (v. 3). It was a message that John experienced and we are in turn to experience it. Revelation must engage our believing imagination if it is to become the word of God for us that it is intended to be.
The people in those seven churches of Asia Minor needed a helping word from the Lord and so do we. The word from the Lord contained in Revelation is a word about how God was working his purposes out in the time and the lives of the original readers. It is also a word about how he is working his purposes out now. Is it a word about the “end times”? Yes, if you understand that the end times began with the resurrection of Jesus. We live as all Christians have lived since the beginning of the church: anticipating what God will do at the very end but also anticipating what he will do right here, today. Unless you keep both elements in mind you will miss much of the impact of Revelation.
Because we need to be reminded of who God is and of who we are
Vv. 4-5a reminds us that God is God in all of his awe-inspiring fullness: “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.” That phrase refers to God the Father. God the Father always has been, always is, and always will be. This affirms that God is in and over and thus in charge of all of history, including its ultimate outcome and what is going on right now. “And from the seven spirits who are before the throne.” Again, seven means completeness, and this is a way of referring to the Holy Spirit in all of his equipping and comforting and encouraging power. “And from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Here is the teaching that Jesus Christ in his resurrection power is the most authoritative individual in the universe. This, John tells us, is the God who is on our side, the God who is always with us: he is God in all his fullness, Father, Holy Spirit, and Son.
So John reminds his original readers, all Christians who have ever lived since, and we who are alive here today that the triune God, God in all of God’s fullness and power, is on our side. That in and of itself says something about we who are Christians. But John says more about what it is to be Christians, about what it is to be the church.
For one thing, he says that we are the forgiven ministers of the Lord. That’s what is affirmed by vv. 5b-6: “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” We are forgiven for our sins not because of what we have done but because of what Christ has done in the shedding of his blood. Having been forgiven, we are now to serve. We are to serve as kings and priests. How do we do that? Well, how did Jesus become the great high priest and the reigning king that he is seen to be in vv. 12-16? He did so by giving of himself, by serving, and by suffering and dying as the prelude to resurrection. That is how we serve, too. We are called to give of ourselves in service to God by serving the world. We are to embrace whatever suffering comes our way as our service to God. We are to know that on the other side of suffering comes resurrection. This is who we are to be as we live in this world of woe.
For another thing, John says that we are those whose lives are secure. In vv. 12-13, John says that he “saw seven lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands…one like the Son of Man….” Later the lampstands are explicitly identified as the seven churches (v. 20). What does this symbolism tell us? It tells us that Jesus Christ himself is in the midst of the church. That is a heavenly reality. That is, our place and our life are secure in heaven. But that is also an earthly reality. As will become clear as we work through the book, Jesus is always with his faithful churches right here and right now, no matter what we’re going through.
So there are some very good reasons that we have the book of Revelation. The bottom line for today is this: we have it because God knows that we need it. We need its encouragement, its challenge, its hope, and its assurance. We need to know what it tells us about God and we need to know what it tells us about us. May we know more and more the truth that Revelation makes sense, and may we grasp God’s word for us today.