Introduction to Revelation (Revelation 1:1-8)

This evening I would like to begin a new study series with you, looking together at the last book in the Bible.  Why would we choose to look at the Book of Revelation now?  I have decided to do this for a couple reasons.  The first and most important is that there is so much misinterpretation and misinformation about Revelation.  There is a great lack of understanding about how one reads Apocalyptic literature.  Second, there seems to be even greater interest in all of this due to the beginning of a new millenium.  Revelation is relevant for us at this time, but probably not in the way many people have thought.  Third, I have recently been asked many questions about this book.

Of course, it would take us a long time to go straight through this book, so we will take it in sections.  The first section of 9 messages will cover the first three chapters.  Because it will be so divided up, and therefore a bit difficult to keep unified, I will continue to include outlines in the bulletin each time we studies this book.  For those of you who want to put it all together, this may help.

There are few books in the Bible that are as controversial, and about which there are as many questions.  Some people have never read it.  Others form their whole theology around it.  In studying and reading one quickly finds ours is not the only time where one finds mixed feelings about Revelation.  In 1552 Martin Luther wrote of this book, “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.”  No other book has aroused such equally passionate love and hatred.

More than this, one is almost overwhelmed when going for resources to aid the process of study.  There are almost as many interpretations as people who write.  As we study I hope to acquaint you with some of the radical interpretations that have split churches, created new sects, and given every new group that comes along a place to hand its hat.  Our approach will be to take them as they come and attempt to discern the spirits, in the light of the principles of scriptural interpretation and in the light of Scripture as a whole.  One of the first things we will see is that Revelation does not add anything of substance to what the New Testament says elsewhere.  It says nothing about Jesus that we haven’t already seen in the gospels.  It does come at it all from a new perspective.  However, “to understand Revelation rightly we must be prepared to hear it proclaim the same message proclaimed by the rest of the Bible.”  (Timmer, Banner, “Meditation)

We will often be forced to come back to this introduction because here we find keys to our understanding this Apocalyptic book.  Before we begin looking at the first few verses of the first chapter, there is one thing we must understand about this book.  It is not a jigsaw puzzle for theologians, nor was it intended to be the playground for every weird theory that comes along.  John, its author inspired by the Holy Spirit, was a pastor, a pastor writing with passionate concern for ordinary men and women that they might get a perspective on some of the devastating things that had begun to happen in their lives.

To begin, we can look at the rules of interpretation for all books of the Bible, while looking at the first couple of verses.   You notice the three steps of interpretation.

  1. Understanding
  2. Interpreting
  3. Application.

Of course, the great danger that so many have fallen into is to simply read a statement out of context and then begin with #3 – asking what does it mean to me.  The result of that will get you some really inept biblical interpretation such as The Late Great Planet Earth and other of Lindsey’s writings.  And, of course, there are numerous books that follow in this tradition that lack integrity with the text.

It is obvious that we will need to have some basic principles to work with in order to understand symbols of another time, concepts of another culture, and a type of literature that is all but foreign to us.  These will become clearer as we go along.


a. The type of literature:

The opening phrase is this:  “The Apocalypse or Revelation (which means unveiling or disclosure) of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.”  “Apocalypse” describes a type of literature to his readers that they would immediately recognize.  We all recognize that there are many types of literature in the Bible, each demanding its own approach.  We understand the history of the gospel differently than we understand the poetry of the Psalms.   Apocalyptic writing was used by the Jews during times of persecution.  It has its roots in Daniel, and was used during the 300 years between the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes (167 BC) and the destruction of the Jewish nation by the Roman Emperor Hadrian (135 AD).  The first, and probably greatest uses of this kind of writing was done by Daniel.  The PURPOSE was to encourage Jewish resistance to the paganism around them by showing that the national suffering was foreseen and provided for in the cosmic purpose of God, and finally God would vindicate them.  It was for comfort, encouragement, and a way of communicating that would not be understood by those doing the persecution.  It was a set of symbols and pictures understood by the reader and writer but not by those outside the community.

THE PRIMARY CHARACTERISTIC of these books was that they would portray a present crisis against the background of world history.  The present struggle is seen as a part of the agelong struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness.  The final victory of God is always shown for encouragement.

ANOTHER CHARCTERISTIC OF APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE is that it uses very symbolic language.  The writers portrayed every earthly person, institution and event as having a heavenly equivalent.  This would veil the subject from the persecutor.  The author is transported to heaven and sees in heaven the counterpart of the earthly struggle.  From this perspective the author could interpret the past and future for the struggling people.  For example, Daniel 10:20 speaks of a battle between the Prince of Greece and the Prince of Persia.  That would have been Alexander the Great and Darius III.  However, it is spoken of in terms of a battle between angelic rulers and representatives symbolic of the one on earth.

In order to understand an apocalypse we must first identify the earthy realities to which these symbols correspond, and then see how by the use of the symbol the author has tried to interpret history.

There are, however, great differences between most apocalyptic writings and this book.  One is that this one is well written, and we accept from the beginning that it is the Word of God.  Others, like the Book of Enoch in the Apocrypha has been called one of the worlds 6 worst books.  The Ezra Apocalypse, also in the Apocrypha, under the title 2 Esdras is responsible for many of the distortions that came about in Medieval theology.  Another distinction is that John claims to be a prophet of God.  THIS IS THE APOCALYPSE OF JESUS CHRIST.

In the opening sentence we are told what this book is about:

it has to do with current issues of the world in which it was written – “what must soon take place”

-God has told John to warn the Christians about what is bound to happen.

THE PURPOSE is declared – it is a witness to the Word of God.  This is the Word of God we are faced with, not just information, but rather the confronting, creative Word.  Isaiah 55:11 says, “My word shall not return to me empty-handed, but shall accomplish what I purpose and succeed in the task I sent it to do.”  This is our expectation in this study.  We will read it, think about it, compare other concepts from scripture, bring our questions, etc.  to search out God’s purpose for us in understanding this Word.

THE CULTURAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIAL CONTEXT OF REVELATION IS THIS: Domitian was the Roman emperor.  He was the first Roman emperor to give himself the title: God the Lord.  Everything he wrote that was distributed through the empire began with the words: “The Lord our God demands…”  Domitian was also the first emperor to systematically fight against the Christians.  In 95 AD the center of emperor worship was Asia Minor, particularly the city of Ephesus.  After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD Asia Minor (now Turkey) was also the center of Christianity.  When emperor worship was introduced in Ephesus, John was the pastor or the bishop of the churches in Ephesus.  Needless to say he opposed the emperor worship – one could not follow Christ and address the emperor as God.  We learn from Tertullian in the 3rd century that Domitian found out about John’s opposition to him and banished John to Patmos.  This was a scrubby, treeless, rock formation island in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Asia Minor.  It was about 10 miles long and 5 or 6 miles wide – a place where political prisoners were sent to waste away in the heat.  It was about 60 miles from Ephesus.  John is writing to his people in Asia Minor, led by the inspiration of the Spirit. The 7 churches were all cities on the main Roman road.  He wants to warn and encourage his people while not allowing the persecutors who are demanding emperor worship to understand what he is saying.

This is all about coming persecution.  The threat is set against the background of world history that goes from the vision of God at creation until the last judgment.  John’s expectation for that history ws that it would end very soon, and that everything he predicts would happen in a few years.  We’ve seen the same kind of expectation in the early writings of the Apostle Paul.  John saw this persecution of Domitian as the beginning of the end.  This would lead to a final crisis as the Anti-Christ (the Roman Emperor) fought with the Christ who was about to return.  John is predicting the coming persecution and with all the imagery is trying to show these prospective martyrs the real nature of the suffering and its place in the eternal plan of God.

Our goal then, in this study is to look behind the wall, to see what God will say to us as we begin to understand this book in its original context.  Then we will be ready to compare it to the rest of scripture and to interpret it for our encouragement to faithfulness in the time in which we live.

The real, final message is this: GOD IS IN CONTROL.  EVIL WILL LOST THE FIGHT.  This is the message we are meant to hear in so much of the Bible.  Do not be afraid, take courage, take comfort, understand clearly that God is in control.  Perhaps Revelation, with its imagery and artistic approach is given by God for those who not only have ears to hear, but eyes to see.  This is God’s multimedia picture show given to comfort and to bless.

We will proceed then next time, confident of the blessing in verse 3: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.”