Session 1

Revelation Study –Session 1

Someone has quipped that a study of Revelation either finds a person insane or leaves that person insane.  For that reason, I begin this study of Revelation with some fear and trepidation. 

This will be my fourth time to do a serious study of this book.  My experience has been that each time I go through Revelation I re-shape and modify my thinking about the book.  I want you to know the thoughts I will share as we journey through this book are not exclusively mine.  I have been influenced by the thinking of many different biblical scholars.  I have with me three resources from which I have heavily borrowed:  Worthy is the Lamb (Ray Summers), Revelation: Book of Mystery and Hope (C. E. Colton), and Revelation: Three Viewpoints (G.R. Beasley-Murray, Herschel Hobbs, and Ray Frank Robbins).  And there are other authors I have read over the years whose ideas I am sure have found their way into my thinking.

I want to begin by making some general statements that form sort of a set of guidelines for this study.  These are the “rules of the road” I intend to follow as we work through the book of Revelation.

1)      First, I want to remind you that mainline, orthodox Christianity has never made one’s view of end-time events a test of fellowship or faith.  In the great confessions of the church, details concerning the return of Christ are not spelled out.  There has been very little consensus among Christians as a whole concerning eschatology – the study of last things.  While evangelical Christians hold that belief in a personal, literal, and visible return of Jesus to this world belongs in the essential core of Christian doctrine, beyond that fundamental belief, consensus quickly breaks down.  I want to state clearly and unequivocally that I believe in the second coming of Jesus.  I take literally and at face value the promise in Acts 1:11 – “...This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”  To me that is a fundamental core element of Christian theology.  That is something on which Christians must agree to be in spiritual fellowship.  But that does not mean that we have to have the same views of such things as the rapture (taking away) of the church or the millennium or the anti-Christ or the tribulation period, etc.  As we progress in this study and you find that you disagree with my understanding of such things as I’ve just listed, that is fine.  But do not want anyone to conclude that I do not believe in the second coming of Jesus.  I want say emphatically again that without question I do!

2)      Second, we must avoid the extreme of being too dogmatic concerning every detail in Revelation. There are those who seem to know beyond any shadow of doubt exactly what every symbol means, and they insist that their’s is the only right answer. In a book so completely saturated with figurative language, no one can afford to be dogmatically certain about every detail. Beware of anyone who claims to have the final and authoritative answer to every detail in the book of Revelation. [Colton, pp.19-20]

3)      Third, we need to avoid the opposite extreme of looking upon the book of Revelation as some kind of mysterious book that can never be understood and thus has no value to us.  It may surprise you to know that is how many of the great leaders of the Protestant Reformation felt about Revelation. 

·         Martin Luther wrote no commentary on Revelation. His frank appraisal of the book, however, appears in the preface to a commentary he edited: “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. There is one sufficient reason for the small esteem in which I hold it—that Christ is neither taught in it nor recognized.”  

·         Ulrich Zwingli, another of the great reformers, was just as critical: “With the Apocalypse we have no concern, for it is not a biblical book ....”   

·         John Calvin passes judgment upon the book through his silence. He produced a commentary on every New Testament book except Revelation. [Ezell, p.15] 

This is the attitude assumed by too many Christians of our day. To them the Revelation is beyond human comprehension, so they just ignore it.  However, there is an important message in Revelation for God’s people.  Among other things, this book contains a message of:  

·         Warning to God’s people to keep themselves pure and free from worldly entanglements. 

·         Warning to the enemies of God’s people that all who oppose them will eventually be destroyed. 

·         Comfort to those who suffering and facing sorrow. 

·         Hope to those who are discouraged.

And as we study the book, in addition to focusing on what it meant for those in the past and what it means for the future, we must focus on what it means for our lives today. 

 

There are certain preliminary considerations that should be dealt with in the study of any biblical book.  At this point want to deal with two in relation to Revelation.

Historical Background

The entire context of the book is one of Roman persecution of the Christians in the Roman Province of Asia.  Early in the history of Christianity, Rome was looked upon with favor by Christians.   The book of Acts reveals that the Roman authorities time and time again provided Christian missionaries safety from the fury of the Jews and the angry mobs.   But then toward the middle of the first century that began to change.  The attitude of the Christians toward Rome began to change radically for three reasons:

1)      Nero (54-68) blamed them for the great fire in Rome and persecuted them severely

2)      Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in around 70 A.D. and neither Judaism or Christianity was looked upon with favor by the state

3)      The rise of emperor worship, which was an attempt to keep the empire together.   By the time of the Roman emperor Domitian (A.D. 8l-96) it was required that all men at least once each year offer incense and say "Caesar is Lord."   Of course many Christians refused to acknowledge anyone as Lord except for Jesus Christ.  The result was a great persecution broke out against them.  Christians were tortured, had property confiscated, exiled, and put to death. 

Revelation is God's word of hope to those Christians who seemed hopelessly over-powered and at the mercy of a greater power.

 

Methods of Interpreting Revelation

There are numerous ways to approach the book of Revelation.  In his classic book, Worthy is the Lamb, Dr. Ray Summers has an excellent chapter which overviews these methods of interpretation.  I want to quickly overview the two most prevalent methods of interpreting Revelation. 

 

Futurist Method – I am dealing with this method first, not necessarily because it is the most credible, but because it is the most popular.  The Left Behind series of books assumes this approach to Revelation.  Hal Lindsey’s well known book The Late Great Planet Earth helped popularize this view.  Proponents of this attitude are rather numerous, especially in the twentieth century. Those who take this approach view everything in the book of Revelation after chapter 3 as events to occur in the future, and in particular to the days immediately preceding the second coming of Christ.

      While there may be rather wide differences of opinions on the details, all of those who approach Revelation from this point of view, regard the book of Revelation as dealing with events that will occur at the end of the world. Most of them hold that the events from chapters 4-19 are to take place within the brief space of seven years immediately preceding the final return of Christ. However, there are differences of opinion as to whether or not the Christians will be involved in these seven years of tribulation. Basically, among futurist, there are two schools of thought:

1)      One group, known as “dispensationalists” whose roots can be traced back to John N. Darby (1800-1882), the founder of the Plymouth Brethren, contend that the church will be “raptured” from the world before (or perhaps half-way through) a seven year tribulation period which is to precede the return of Christ.  In this view, when Christ returns, He will establish a 1000 year reign on the earth, the Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem, and the Jewish sacrificial system will be re-instated.

2)      Another branch of futurist thought does not make a distinction between the rapture and the revelation (return) of Christ.  They say the church will go through a tribulation period and that the rapture (catching up) of the church and the return of Christ are simultaneous events. 

Nearly all futurists see the book of Revelation speaking primarily of the end-time.

      Two major objections to the futurist approach to revelation are:

·         It seems to contradict the very first verse of the book where we are told the things written in Revelation “...shortly take place.”  We’ll look at that phrase in-depth later on.

·         It makes most of Revelation virtually meaningless to the suffering Christians of Asia Minor to which it was first written.  One of the basic principles of biblical interpretation is asking what is the message to the original recipients of the book.  The futurist method, to a large degree, over-looks that principle.

 

Historical-Background Method – This is the method with which I am most comfortable.  This method of interpretation begins with the historical background of the Roman persecution of Christians in Asia Minor.  It views the book primarily as intended to offer comfort and encouragement to those beleaguered Christians.  Thus it takes seriously its message to the original recipients.  However, this view also sees in Revelation principles that apply to all Christians of any historic time period who suffer for their faith.  And this method recognizes the eschatological implications of Revelation, especially toward the end of the book.

 

OVERVIEW OF REVELATION

REVELATION – A DRAMA OF REDEMPTION

 Introduction - the writer, the director, and the audience (chapters 1:1 – 3:22)

Act 1 – Vision of God in seven symbols and the Lamb of God (chapters 4:1 – 5:14)

Act 2 – The breaking of the seven seals revealing the judgments of God (chapters 6:1 – 8:5)

Act 3 – The sounding of the seven trumpets showing additional features of the judgments of God (chapters 8:6 – 11:19)

Act 4 – The revelation of seven signs revealing the identity of the combatants in the conflict between good and evil (chapters 12:1 – 14:20)

Act 5 – The pouring out of the seven bowls of wrath revealing the totality of God’s judgment (15:1 – 16:21)

Act 6 – The revealing of seven scenes of celebration of God’s victory over evil (chapters 17:1 – 20:10)

Act 7 – The revealing of the destiny of unbelievers and believers, of unredeemed and redeemed (chapters 20:11-22:5)

 Conclusion (chapter 22:6-21)

  

Revelation 1:1-3

This introductory paragraph tells us something about the book, the writer, and the reader.

 THE BOOK - Four significant statements are made about the book in verse 1.

1)      It is a revelation - The very first word in the Greek text is "apokalupsis," which is translated revelation in almost all English Bibles.   It's made up of two words - a  preposition meaning "away from" and a verb meaning "to cover or  to  hide."  Thus it means to take away the covering, to unveil, or to reveal.  It is not a covering or a hiding of truth as some seem to think, but an uncovering.  This first word identifies the literary style of the book - it is not gospel or epistle or historical narrative or psalm.  It is apocalyptic.  This style was used by Jews to communicate with each other during times of trouble.   In a code or symbolic language known to each other but a mystery to their enemies, the Jews would comfort each other in difficult times.   There were many such writings in the pre-Christian and early Christian eras.

2)      It is a revelation of Jesus Christ  - That phrase can be interpreted in two ways—

--it can be taken in the objective sense, meaning it is a revelation about Christ.  He is the One being revealed.

--it can be taken in the subjective sense, meaning it is a revelation belonging to Christ.  He is the One doing the revealing.

I think that second approach makes more sense.  Revelation is an unveiling that is about to be made by Jesus through His angel to John.

3)      It  is  a revelation given by Christ  about  things which "must shortly take place"- Those who approach the book from the futurist perspective and those who approach it from the historical-background perspective sharply disagree on the interpretation of the word "shortly."   

--The futurists contend that "shortly" is not referring to time order but to certainty.  They hold that it's another way of saying that the things in this book will definitely occur.   

--Those who take a historical-background approach point out that such an interpretation is not consistent with how the word is used elsewhere in Scripture or with this statement as a whole. 

·         “must” is a verb used to describe something with of a moral necessity, take place.  It is not an option; it is mandatory.  It is the same word Jesus used when He told the disciples in Matthew 16:21 that it was necessary for Him to go to Jerusalem to die.

·         “shortly” is the same word used by Paul in 2 Timothy 4:9 when he wrote to Timothy, “Make every effort to come to me soon (or shortly)...”  According to how the futurist interpret that word, Paul would be saying, “Come to Rome...bring the coat I left behind... bring the scrolls...I’m anxious to see you...so just get here in the next two or three thousand years and that will be okay.”  No more absurd that John saying to the beleaguered Christians in Asia Minor, “I’ve got good news for you.  Don’t be disturbed.  In a few thousand years everything is going to be okay.  In the meantime, just hang-on.

The most natural way to interpret the word “shortly” is to take it for exactly what it means.  The bulk of the things described in this book are about to take place.  Otherwise there is no word of hope, encouragement, help for the 1st century Christians.  This word is best understood as a promise to those persecuted Christians that their persecutions would soon end (which in fact they did with the death of Domitian in 96 A.D.), and I believe it's a reminder to Christians of all ages that even though sometimes God's people seem to be on the losing side, ultimately the victory belongs to God.

4)      This unveiling given by Jesus Christ about  things which soon  take place is given in signs - The word which the NASB translates "communicated" literally means "signified."   Signified may well be pronounced "sign-i-fied" because it translates a Greek word meaning to show by signs.   In other words the message of the book is presented in symbols, and these symbols reveal the message to those who understand them.   The message is not found in a literal understanding of the words but through the interpretation of the signs or symbols.  Often the meaning of the symbols is revealed in the book itself, such as is the case in the vision of Christ in first chapter.  In other cases it is necessary to turn to parts of the Old Testament or to other apocalyptic literature to find meaning of the sign.   

 

THE WRITER - The traditional view is that the book was written by John the Apostle, the same man who wrote the Gospel of John and I, II, and III John.   Some have questioned whether John the Apostle wrote the book because the vocabulary and style differs markedly from the other books by him.  These people have suggested that perhaps it was written by John Mark or perhaps an elder at Ephesus or perhaps an unknown John.   I see no good reason for rejecting the traditional view, and I believe it was written by John the Apostle while he was exiled on Patmos.

 

A BLESSING FOR THE RECIPIENTS – A threefold blessing is pronounced in verse 3.

1)      For the one who reads – Probably not referring to the private reader (even though there is a blessedness in that too!) but to the one who reads aloud to the congregation.

2)      For those who hear - The idea here is for those who hear with understanding.

3)      For those who heed - It's never enough merely to hear and understand God's Word.  We must obey it.  Real Bible study will always lead to action.

 

I believe the book of Revelation contains a tremendous message for Christians in a world that is troubled such as ours.  The message of this book is always timely if we have ears to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying through it.   At a time when it appears that we are at the mercy of events outside of our control, at a time when our very way of life and civilization is under attack, this book is a reminder that God is still in control of this world.   And until the Lord comes again this book should give us encouragement, comfort, and strength.  And it's my prayer that our study of this great book will do just that for us!

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