Tying up loose ends
Often a novel will develop various themes, ideas and stories which don’t get resolved until the last chapter of the book – there is a sort of climax accompanied by a ‘tying up of loose ends’. This is just what we see in the book of Revelation.
There are multiple themes in the bible: Mankind, the nations and Israel, the church, Satan, the world and so on. These themes remain unresolved in our day – they are well developed themes that have long histories, but they await a resolution: Revelation provides us with a picture of the way things will turn out.
The book of Revelation is not particularly well studied in the church today, it seems to be considered too controversial, or too obscure or too difficult, but I note that right at the beginning (1: 3) John writes: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it“. It seems as though John is specifically telling us not to neglect this book! So here we are!
How should we approach it? There are a variety of opinions. I heard a series on Revelation in which it was oft repeated that… this is a ‘picture book’ not a ‘puzzle book’. This seemed to be saying that we have to take a step back and not concern ourselves too much with detail, just get the pictures and that will suffice. What does the writer say about how we ought to approach it? I note in the 3rd verse of the first chapter quoted above that John says the blessing is for those who read “the words” of the prophecy: note the importance of the words. Moreover in the final chapter (22: 18-19) he states the following: “warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book”. Right from the start and with a clear warning at the end, there is an unambiguous steer that we should not mess with the words of this prophecy. It’s about the words. As I go through this book I will try to heed that warning and this means that the usual method of interpretation will be applied – the same method you are using as you read this right now. Let’s take God at his word, neither more nor less will do – enough said.
Before we look at the first chapter, just what are the themes that are tied together and resolved in this remarkable prophecy? The parallel with Genesis is striking. In Genesis we see the creation of the world: in Revelation we see the creation of the New Heaven and Earth – and the end of the present world. In Genesis we see the fall of man and in Revelation we see the judgement of man and the resolution of man’s rebellion. In Genesis we meet the deception of the serpent and the conflict with the seed of the woman, in Revelation we see the final judgement of Satan and the victory of the seed of the woman. In Genesis we see the formation of the nations and God’s people Israel, in revelation we see how their future works out. Revelation also covers many other themes of the entire bible, both Old and New Testaments. One writer reckoned that well over half of the verses in Revelation allude to Old Testament verses or themes, and as we will see, statements by Jesus and Paul on the ‘end times’ recur in this book.
The overall outline of the book seems to be in three parts: 1. The part that deals with the church (chapter 1-3). 2. The part that deals with judgement on earth (in which Israel is frequently alluded to) and finally 3. The part that deals with the return of Jesus to the earth, and the setting up of his eternal kingdom.
Now to chapter 1 which forms two distinct sections: The Introduction or prologue and John’s encounter with Jesus.
- The Prologue
The book is a revelation from Jesus Christ. The Greek word translated revelation is apokaluptien. Apo means away and kaluptien means to cover or hide. Thus we have the idea of unveiling or uncovering. This book as all about uncovering something that was hitherto unknown and unseen. What is to be uncovered is what the future will hold. In verse 1 John says that it’s about ‘what will soon take place’ and in verse 19 John quotes what Jesus says: ‘what is now and what will take place later’. This book is about the future. This raises a question about the timing of the book’s writing. There can be little doubt that the book was written towards the end of the first century AD – about 95 AD, during John’s exile on the island of Patmos. John must have wondered how everything would turn out. The nation of Israel was ruined, the temple had been destroyed and now the church was settling into a period of striving and struggling – how would all the loose ends be tied up? What would the future hold? John was given his own preview of what was to come and we have the chance to see it through his eyes! John would tell us what he saw, what was revealed to him, it would be ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ’. No wonder we are blessed if we read the words he wrote and take them to heart.
The book is written to seven churches in Asia. Note that there were seven. In the bible, seven seems to be associated with completeness. The Lord rested on the 7th day, there were 7 feasts in the Israeli calendar, and there are 7 seals, 7 trumpets and 7 bowls in the book of Revelation. The seven churches seem to speak of the completeness of the church. When we come to the specific passages written to the 7 churches we will think a bit more about what this idea of completeness might mean.
The address to the churches begins with a greeting of grace and peace from him who is, who was and who is to come – this seems to be referring to God the Father. The greeting comes also from the ‘seven spirits’ or the ‘seven fold Spirit’: a reference to the Holy Spirit. Some have noted that there is currently a five fold work of the Holy Spirit in regenerating, baptising, indwelling, sealing and filling, with two future works: resurrection and glorifying. Finally the greeting comes from Jesus Christ. Jesus is given three titles: ‘the faithful witness’, the ‘first born from the dead’ and ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth’. These titles come from the prophetic Psalm 89 that looks forward to the coming of the new King from David’s line. John praises God for his love, our blood-bought freedom from sin and the effect that this has: ‘made a kingdom and priests’. What does this ‘kingdom and priest’ idea mean? The prophet Zechariah (6:13) described the coming Messiah king as ‘a priest on his throne’. The idea is of a dual role of priest and king, and it seems that John is saying that we will share that role too!
Next John quotes two Old Testament passages: ‘Look he is coming in the clouds’ – a statement of the coming king who will set aside the great and powerful kingdoms of mankind. This sets the theme for this book firmly in front of us. It’s about how power will be taken from the present incumbents and will be vested in the eternal king. John then alludes to Zechariah’s prophecy (12:10): ‘every eye will see him, even those who pierced him’. This is unmistakably a reference to the people of Jerusalem and Israel for whom the prophecy of Zechariah was given – the arrival of this king will involve these particular people. At the time Zechariah was written, Israel was a sad little country trying to rebuild itself after a disastrous run of events which ended with their exile to Bablyon. The nation had descended so far from its glorious past that it seemed it was forever destined to remain of no consequence in the affairs of this world. But Zechairah points to an unlikely glorious future – a future that is uncovered in Revelation.
What about the church? John has something to say to the church too and we find it in the second part of this first chapter.
- John’s vision of Jesus
John was in exile on Patmos – and island in the Agean Sea west of Ephesus. He was suffering and waiting with endurance, a common theme in our church age. Whilst he was there he was given the revelation: he heard a voice like a trumpet – it must have been startling! The voice commanded him to write down what he sees and send the information to the 7 churches in Western Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
John turns around at the sound of the trumpet-like voice and sees seven golden lamp stands and someone like ‘a son of man’. The lampstands are single lamps, unlike the 7 branched lamp of Israel. John proceeds to describe the one ‘like the son of man’. The key features are as follows: 1. A robe reaching to his feet. 2. A golden sash around his chest. 3. White hair – like wool. 4. Eyes of blazing fire. 6. Feet like bronze glowing in a furnace. 7. Voice like the sound of rushing water. 8. His right hand held seven stars.9. Out of his mouth a sharp double edged sword. 10. Face shining like the brilliance of the sun.
Each of these 10 features is of some significance and are summarised below (some similar features are mentioned in connection with Daniel’s vision recorded in Daniel 10):
|Feature of Jesus
|Robe reaching to feet
|A garment worn by a king, priest and judge
|Part of the priest’s garment
|White hair like wool
|Cleansed sins are described as being white as wool.
|Eyes of blazing fire
|The seems to speak of judgement and righteous wrath.
|Feet like glowing bronze
|Thought to speak of judgement.
|Voice like rushing waters
|Suggests Jesus irresistible word.
|Seven stars in his hand
|Suggests a place of security for the stars which are associated with the 7 churches
|Double edged sword
|A reference to God’s word.
|Face like the sun
|Speaks of Christ’s glory (remember the transfiguration)
We will see when we come to chapters 2 and 3 that there is some connection with Jesus’ specific features as described by John and each of the seven churches.
So what was John’s response to this remarkable sight? “I fell at his feet as though dead.” I’m not at all surprised! But remember that this is the same John who followed Jesus around for 3 years and knew him as a close friend – what a different picture John now has of Jesus! What was Jesus’ response to John? He touches him and says ‘Do not be afraid.’ As we think of John and the amazing unveiling he was to experience we can imagine his concern and fear – these are big things! But note that Jesus touches him and says, do not be afraid. We will study some frightful things in this book – but if we are believers we need not be afraid. Jesus makes it clear to John who he is: “I am the living one; I was dead and now look, I am alive forever!” Not only is Jesus alive but he has control over death and Hades. We need not fear – he has ownership of death and Hades and in him we have eternal life.
John is given instructions to write: “write therefore what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.” These words seem to indicate that there was a current condition in which John inhabits (what is now) but there is a future that is distinctly different in character from the ‘now’: what will take place later.
John would have noticed two distinct objects as he met Jesus. The seven golden lampstands and the seven stars in Jesus’ hand. Jesus reveals what these are, the seven lampstands are the seven churches which are the subject of chapters 2 and 3. The seven stars are the ‘seven angels’ of the seven churches. The word translated angel is angelos which simply means messenger. It seems most likely that the stars were chiefly messengers of John’s message. Perhaps we ought to identify ourselves with these messengers as we bring the gospel to our generation and as we rest in the secure place of Jesus’ hand.