Introduction to Revelation – part 2 (Revelation 1:4-8)

Last week we began our study of the book of Revelation together by looking at some of the basic issues of interpretation; that is, how we need to understand this book in its context, then we need to interpret it in the context of the rest of scripture, and finally apply it to our situation.  We saw that to reverse the order leaves us the victim of all sorts of imaginative interpretations that probably have little to do with the truth communicated in the book.  We began by talking a bit about the character of this book, noting that it is a PASTORAL LETTER from John to his beloved churches in Asia Minor (Turkey) while John was a political prisoner on the island of Patmos.

Someone said to me, “That message was more like a lecture than a sermon.”  They were right.  It is so important for us to start right if we are to really understand what we are reading.  We need to understand the circumstances of John as his church faced persecution from Domitian, who made himself Lord and God, in direct contradiction to Christian belief that only Jesus Christ can claim that title.

Chapter 1:1-2 reads:

“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants what must soon take place.  He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw – that is, the Word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ.

What is it about?  The words clearly indicate that a crisis is immediate.  It is the first systematic persecution by the Emperor Domitian, around 95 AD.  The Method that John will use is the apocalyptic method of seeing the action from a perspective of heaven.  An angel instructed John to communicate to his people in this way.  What is this book?  It is a witness to the Word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ.  This tells us that we are to take this statement seriously, to have integrity with it, because it is the word of God.  The question we face is this: What is this creative Word of God saying to us at our time in history?  As we enter a new millenium?  What is God’s purpose for us today?  The challenge is to read, to think about it, to compare with the rest of the Bible, and to search out together that questions that are raised in our minds.

“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.”

All of this leads us the question of how we are going to approach this book.  Very often people decide in advance what they are going to find, and thus find what they look for, rather than allow the book to speak for itself.  Some examples of approaches may help us be aware of the assumptions we begin with.

  1. THE PRETERIST VIEW:  This is an approach that decides in advance that all of the book refers to events in the first century.  It begins and ends there.  Therefore, everything is totally accomplished in the past tense.  This, incidentally, is the most common approach to studying revelation.  The obvious problem with it is that it does away with the possibility of the prophetic method that takes present events and uses them to speak of future times.
  2. THE HISTORICIST VIEW:  The book of Revelation points to all actual historical events which will be taking place from the end of the first century to the end of time.  This book is a forecast of the whole of human history.  The symbols are seen as an outline of the history of Western Europe until the coming of Christ.  We simply have to correctly identify the symbols wit the correct historical events.  Many recent authors have this approach.  The problem with this is that people look at current events and force symbols of revelation to refer to them.  It does not allow the book to speak for itself.  Frankly, it makes Revelation say a whole lot more than it was intended to say, ignoring the fact that it was given to those early Christians for their comfort and hope.  Is not this understanding that sees all of the significant things in the world happening around Western Europe a bit egocentric?
  3. THE FUTURIST VIEW: This view maintains that apart from the first 3 chapters, the book is exclusively concerned about events at the end of time when Christ will return.  Of course, then it has almost no meaning for the original readers, and is really only relevant for the last generation of people before Christ comes.
  4. THE IDEALIST or SPIRITUAL VIEW:  In the main, says this approach, the book deals with ideas and principles.  Few or no references in the book are about historical events.  It simply sets out the principles on which God acts throughout human history.  Thus it is relevant for the church of all ages.  Indeed, Revelation does show us some things about how God acts in human history, but does not this limit the book too much?
  5. OUR APPROACH: Personally, I feel that taking any one view by itself closes some doors and predetermines what one will hear and see.  There are historical references to events in the lives of people for whom it was written.  These are the basis to go out from there and see the principles on which God acts throughout history.  This is a basic principle of interpreting prophecy.  From time to time we will compare interpretations coming out of several different groups.

We have one more question about background before we begin taking this text apart.  WHY IS THIS REVELATION BEING GIVEN?  WHAT IS IT’S PURPOSE?  They had the Old Testament, the Gospels, the Letters of Paul and John, why this?  Why couldn’t they get what they need from reading the scripture they already had?  Facing uncertainty, persecution for their faith, God is giving them a glimpse through the symbols, through a glass darkly (to use Paul’s phrase) into the greater picture.

My hope in studying is for that to happen to us: to see the greater picture.  The meaning of this is captured beautifully in a quote from John Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress:

“Then I saw in my dream that the Interpreter took Christian by the hand, and led him into a place where a fire was burning against a wall, and one standing by it was always casting much water upon it to quench it; yet did the fire burn higher and hotter.  Then said Christian, “what means this?…. So he took him about to the backside of the wall, where he saw a man with a vessel of oil in his hands, of which he did also continuously cast (but secretly) into the fire.”

Our perspective is to see what God is showing us behind the wall.

IN VERSES 4-8 OF CHAPTER 1 two things immediately get our attention.  We are immediately introduced to a symbol that God will use throughout this book, and we see that it is clearly a letter of comfort.

It is addressed to the 7 churches of Asia Minor.  Why just to 7?  There were many more churches than that in Asia Minor.  We see here a symbol used consistently in Revelation: the #7.  It is the number of wholeness or completeness.  In other words, it is addressed to all the Christians in Asia Minor.

The opening comfort and reassurance of this book is the greeting from the triune God.  When we are in any kind of crisis it is comforting to know that our God is not limited to this time and this crisis.  In this we are immediately told that this is about the perspective of eternity.  Lets try to hear the beauty of this address -–the wonderful statements about our God and his approach to us. 

  1. Grace and Peace to you – grace, love freely given from God, and peace, shalom, quiet assurance, contentment in God’s embrace.
  2. From him who is and who was  and who is to come.  This message is coming from God who is greater than the present circumstances, this is the eternal God, the one above all, the one who worked through history in the past and who holds the future, and who is here right now.
  3. and from the seven spirits before his throne: again that number of wholeness or completeness, from all the spirits of the churches before his throne.  Again, this refers to the Spirit of God in fullness of power and authority and activity.
  4. and from Jesus Christ – faithful witness = THE TRUTH; firstborn from the dead = THE RESURRECTED CHRIST WHO IS GOING TO TAKE US WITH HIM IN HIS RESURRECTION; the ruler of the kings of the earth – THE ONE WHO IS ULTIMATELY IN CONTROL.  “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him.”  (Phil. 2)

These statement cause John to break out in PRAISE!

-to him who loves us

-to him who has freed us from our sins by his blood,

-to him who has made us a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father,


He loves us, he has made atonement for us so that we could be free from judgement and guilt, so we could be forgiven, and he has made us into a community of people where he is the Lord, and we are servants who serve each other and our God – the children of God.  Jesus Christ did all of this and John is overwhelmed with the love involved here.  He has given us LOVE, FORGIVENESS AND A NEW IDENTITY.

Then, in addition to all of that, John says he has given us the ultimate hope.  Typical of Revelation, John sees the end of the whole thing with the victory of Christ and his people.  This statement is consistent with what Jesus said of himself.   John says, here is hope – LOOK UP, look past this moment and this struggle, look beyond:

Look, he is coming with the clouds,

                        and every eye will see him,

            even those who pierced him;

                        and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him.

            So shall it be! Amen!

‘Mourn’ here refers to the lament that all people will have, that even in the joy of victory there is the reality of the pain that it was necessary for him to be killed for our redemption.

John is shouting at his readers.  “Keep faith.  Don’t give up!  Here is the comfort and the promise of vindication.  It would be foolish to give up your faith now!  Remember who he is.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come.”  He is the first – here before the creation of the world, and the last — here beyond its end.  He is the eternal God.  When it is all said and done, he is the one who has the power, not the people who are persecuting these Christians.  This is the Christ we serve, the one in whose power we go into our week and into the rest of our lives.  This is the Christ who loves us and holds us – in the face of difficulty, in the face of change, in the face of a world that does not know him nor does it know us.  Here is the comfort and assurance, no matter what we are facing today.  Here is the encouragement.  It is not about what we know.  It is not about our ability to figure out the future.  It is not our having some secret knowledge about what the future holds.  It is about who are God is.  This is the one for the whole book.

Next time we will look at the first vision.