Now we begin our excursion through the book of Revelation and some of the world of
eschatology. Eschatology is the theological word that is used to describe the events which have to do with the end of this age and the fulfillment of the kingdom of God.
In eschatological writings, biblical writers often used “end-of-the-world language metaphorically to refer to that which they well knew was not the end of the world” (G.B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible xii). This seemed to be a common practice among them. We must keep this thought in mind as we pursue John’s meaning in Revelation.
As we begin, we must remind you that we are not attempting to interpret each word or verse in Revelation, but to give you as a reader an interpretative guide which will help you uncover some of the mystery of the book and possibly help you in decoding some of the metaphors of the author so you can understand what he said.
Remember, the book is believed to have been written in about A.D. 95 by John the Apostle, from Ephesus after his imprisonment on the Island of Patmos. The Roman Caesar during the time was Domitian. He was the first in the long line of Caesars that decided to allocate to himself divinity while he was still alive. Folks were commanded to worship him, so he built temples in which he could be worshipped. The largest of these temples was in Ephesus. John, most likely the functional pastor of the Ephesian congregation, did not take kindly to this edict and refused to bow to any other god. Domitian could have martyred him, but martyred heroes only cause the followers to grow in fervor. So, instead of martyrdom, Domitian had John exiled to Patmos not far off the coast from Ephesus (today’s Modern Turkey) in the Aegean Sea. Rome, under Domitian, began to heat up the persecution of those in and around Ephesus. John wrote this book to speak to the churches and assure them that God was bigger than Domitian and that Domitian would eventually loose his grip over them.
INTRODUCTION (Rev. 1.1-8)
Superscription to the Book (Rev. 1.1-3)
The book of Revelation begins by telling its reader that it is a revelation of Jesus Christ. The simple definition of the word revelation is to uncover something that has been concealed. However, its use in the New Testament has a distinctly different connotation. The word usually means a supernatural revelation of divine truths, which are unknown to humankind and which individuals are incapable of discovering on their own, as Paul suggests in his book to the Galatians (Gal. 1.11-12) and at the conclusion of his book to the Romans (Rom. 16.25-27).
The book of Revelation was meant to be read in Christian worship (Rev. 1.3)
Notice that there is a blessing attached to the one who reads and to those who listen. We can deduce from that several things. There may have only been one scroll and it was passed from church to church and read aloud while others listened. This also may give us a clue as to how manuscripts were copied in those days: one reader several copiers. This would certainly account for the minor scribal errors that appear in the text of the manuscripts.
Try this on for size. Get a group of people together and read the text of Revelation aloud with this proviso: No discussion about the book, no attempt to interpret what it means, just read and listen. This is about a two hour exercise at the reading rate of five minutes for each of the twenty-two chapters. I took a small group through this process one time and divided it up into two evenings and also divided up the reading among anyone who felt comfortable in reading aloud. At the conclusion of the second week, the reaction was, wow! I heard and saw things that I never knew was there before. It is really worth the time and energy to do this. After all, there is a blessing attached to the reader and the hearers. So why not give it a try.
Greeting and Salutation (Rev. 1.4-5a)
John identifies himself in the typical ancient letter format as the author. He wrote to the seven churches in Asia wishing them grace and peace. This is the first occurrence of the number seven in the book. The number seven represents completeness or perfection. In Judaism seven had special significance because of the Sabbath (the seventh day), the sabbatical year, and the Year of Jubilee (the year of release after seven sabbatical years). It may be possible that these seven churches represent the complete church for which Jesus will address his commendation and condemnation. Grace and peace proceed from a threefold source: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The phrase seven spirits represents the Holy Spirit in his fullness of life and blessing. We will take a look at numbers as symbols in our next session.
A Doxology to Christ (Rev. 1.5b-6)
In this doxology, John gave praise for the resurrection, for Jesus being ruler of the world, for the freedom from sin, for making his followers a kingdom of priests. For these acts of God, Jesus deserves our praise.
Why not turn these into four days/weeks of spiritual practices. Try the following:
- Begin by meditating about the resurrection of Jesus. Ask yourself why the resurrection of Jesus is so important to your faith.
- Next, contemplate on Jesus as the ruler/king of the whole world/universe. How does thinking in a concentrated fashion demonstrate his “bigness” over against any “problems of life we face?”
- Then, think about what it means to have an available road that is free to our choice that is free from sin. I know, I know, folks think they have to sin. What if sin was a choice on our end and there was nothing mandatory about it?
- Finally, think about what it means to be a priests: one sent as a minister of Jesus to and for the sake of the world. What ministries for the world are you involved in? By that I mean what ministries for the sake of your community do you participate in? What I don’t mean is ministry to those in the church that you participate with, like Sunday School teacher, usher, choir member, etc. While those are important, we need to be ever reminded that the doors of the church should swing outward toward the community.
The Theme of the Book (Rev. 1.7)
The focus of the book of Revelation is that Jesus is coming again. Yes, it is true, John believed that Jesus who had ascended would return. We have many pictures in the church about what this will look like and only a few pictures in Scripture that gives us clues. Of course, we have found texts in Scripture that don’t provide the picture that we have developed around said text. Think about 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18
This is a favorite haunt where the pretrib folks love to hang out. They are ecstatic about the words “caught up together” and use it as a “prooftext” for rapture. They fixate on the word “we” and read it as “themselves,” when, in fact, it refers to Paul and the Thessalonians and points to a reasonable conclusion that Paul believed that he was going to be alive at the close of this age and the consummation of the age to come. By the way, I wrote a parody about the rapture and you can see it here: The Rapture Manifesto.
The Divine Imprimatur (Rev. 1.8)
The personal imprint of God is placed on the writing of this book.
THE FIRST VISION. Part 1: Rev. 1.9-3.22
The Revelator: The Glorified Christ (Rev. 1.9-20)
This section describes the occasion of Revelation. It is a vision of Jesus, exalted and glorified and caring for his church. These verses are the background and condition for the entire disclosure of “What must soon take place.” John was in the spirit on the Lord’s day. Believers are all in the Spirit. We live in the Spirit. We walk in the Spirit. Paul wrote, And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ (Rom. 8.9b). But, for John this phrase in the Spirit means to have an ecstatic experience, like entering into a trance as Peter (Acts 11.5) and Paul (Acts 22.17) did. Or, like the experience that Paul had when he was caught up into the third heaven (2 Cor. 12.2). John sees visions while in this ecstatic state and records the visions, which forms the text of Revelation.
Over the centuries, the Spirit has actualized again and again, and the results of his actualization in various groups has caused some serious discomfort with those who practice their Christianity from a cerebral-rational sphere. Don’t get me wrong here, there are always abuses of what the Spirit is actually doing at any given time. There are always cloners who try to duplicate what the Spirit is doing or has done. There are always mourners, who like attending a funeral and burial, have laid to rest the notion that the Spirit has the ability to move in a spontaneous fashion, today. Dispensational theology often fits into the latter category by suggesting that these kinds of ecstatic experiences for the most part have ceased to occur.
There is often a mess when the Spirit reveals himself in presence and power. But, abuse is not a reason for disqualification of activity that may be genuine from the Spirit. Those who make rules in advance to control the Spirit often miss what the Spirit is doing at any given time. Those who make no rules but work afterwards to clean up the mess often get rebuked by the populists who have chosen to believe that the Bible forbids the Spirit to move in a way that they do not understand from a rational standpoint.
Our worldview differs from the worldview of Scripture, which causes us to read what happened then as okay, but it’s not okay for the same thing to happen in the present. Within the groups where the Spirit once moved in a certain way, there is always a longing for the good old days and these groups often try to resurrect the move of the Spirit whose rhythm is no longer present in the same ways. Ever wondered why some always want to go back to the good old days and have difficulty going forward to better days? What gets my goat, (now there’s a figure of speech for you) is that those, in whose presence the Holy Spirit arrived to do his work in a specific way, have now made that way the form in which one is expected to receive from the Spirit or what has been received is not seen as authentic. How do we get there? I better move forward. As one might say in the South, I stopped teaching and have gone to meddlin’.
In this vision, John saw the glorified Christ and presented him to his readers in vivid word pictures. Word pictures are important in the book of Revelation.
Scripture is full of similes and metaphors. We use them in our speech often during the course of the day. We think nothing of it. We certainly don’t use them in a way in which we expect the hearer to whom we speak or write, to understand what we have said or written in a “wooden” fashion. Here are just a few to think about:
- A heart of stone.
- He has the heart of a lion.
- She is my compass.
- Love is a lemon – either bitter or sweet.
- She is rolling in dough.
- The lawyer grilled the witness on the stand.
- The boss was boiling mad.
- My desktop is cluttered with icons.
- In Seattle, it is raining cats and dogs.
No one expects us to take these metaphors in a “wooden” fashion; we just know what they mean when we hear them. The same is true for the metaphors in Revelation. The hearers knew what they meant. It is we who need a bit of help because metaphors don’t necessarily skip across centuries or even within a culture in the same century.
I once saw the following word picture of Jesus sketched out in a piece of art in which each detail was kept in a literal form. It was grotesque, well at least it was to me.
Here is John’s metaphorical picture of Jesus.
- Dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. Jesus wears the high-priestly garments. This suggests that the reader is to understand the high-priestly function of Christ as the one who is being revealed in this book.
- Hair white as wool. A description of God in the Old Testament (Dan. 7.9) is transferred to Jesus. The hoary head was worthy of honor and conveyed the idea of wisdom and dignity.
- Eyes like a flame of fire. This reflects the penetrating insights of the Lord who is sovereign over the churches.
- Feet as burnished brass. The bronze-like feet portray strength and stability.
- Voice of many waters. This represents the awe-inspiring power of a great waterfall. This kind of picture is used of God in Ezekiel 43.
- Seven stars. These are the seven angels (leaders) of the churches (cf. v. 20).
- Double-edged sword. A picture of the irresistible power of divine judgment. It is the word of Jesus that will ultimately prevail.
- Face like the sun shining in all its brilliance. This is a description of the glory of the exalted Christ. Not unlike what John witnessed at the transfiguration (Matt. 17.2).
When John saw the exalted Christ, he fell as dead. A bit different physical response than seeing the Buddy Christ in the film Dogma (1999).
Jesus reached out to John with his right hand and gave him a word of assurance. The laying of the right hand communicated power and blessing. Jesus declared himself alive and well and that he had power and authority over the domain of death and Hades. Keys in Jewish thought were a symbol of authority. Death had lost its terror. Jesus had the keys that would unlock the grave and lead the dead into life after, life after death. The vision ends with an interpretation by Jesus of the seven stars and the seven lamp stands. The stars are the leaders of the seven churches and the lamp stands are the churches.
Questions for Discussion
Use the comment section below to make comments to the following questions.
- Somewhere in the world, folks are persecuted for their witness of Jesus. Why do you think those in a free society are afraid to be clear witnesses in a culture where persecution is not a treat?
- What is a clear witness?
- The metaphorical picture of Jesus that John paints with words is majestic. What emotions do you sense when you see Jesus in this light?
- What emotions do you sense when you see the picture of Buddy Christ?