We come finally to the last book of the Bible, Revelation or the Apocalypse as it is also known.
The book of Revelation is certainly not an easy book to understand. However, like all other parts of scripture, God intends us to search it out, to work on it (Proverbs 25:2), and for those who do there is a blessing (Revelation 1:3).
We shall not be able to look at the entire book this week, only a few chapters. The introductory notes below give some ideas if you want to read it further; do email if you would like more notes on the other chapters.
The Key to Understanding Revelation
The key to understanding Revelation is the same key we use to unlock all Bible teaching – we try to let the Bible interpret itself. Firstly we should look carefully at the text of Revelation itself: how does the book explain itself? What does the book say it is about? We can then compare it with other parts of the Bible and Bible teachings. Revelation contains hundreds of quotations from the Old Testament. By looking carefully at these quotations and their contexts, and then seeing how they are fitted into and modified in their new contexts, we can begin to piece together the themes of the book.
Many of the symbolic terms used in the Revelation are quotations directly from the book of Daniel. Before starting to read the book of Revelation it is therefore useful first to read Daniel’s prophecy, to become familiar with the language of prophecy and the way it is interpreted.
Three main themes
The purpose of the book is set out quite clearly by Jesus in the first verse: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him, to show his servants things which must shortly come to pass” (Rev. 1:1).
Revelation is a prophecy then, of events future to the time of the apostle John who wrote it.
We can think of other New Testament prophecies, and what they say about the future, since they must contain the same basic message as the Apocalypse.
Three themes soon become obvious. The great events prophesied in the New Testament are:
- error and false teachings arising within the church causing many to fall away (Matthew 24: 4-5, 11-12, Acts 20:29,30; 2 Thess. 2:2-12; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 2:16-18; 2 Timothy 3:13; 4:3; 1 John 4:3-6; 2 John 7 etc.)
- the persecution experienced by the believers (Matt. 24:9,10; John 15:19,20, I Pet. 4:12-19 etc.) and
- the return of Christ to the earth to carry out God’s judgements and to set up God’s kingdom (Luke 21: 27,28, Acts 1:11, 2 Tim. 4:1 etc.)
These are also the main three themes we find in the prophecy of the book of Revelation:
- the arising of error and false teachings (Rev. 2:2,4-6,9,14-15,20-22; 13:5-6,14-18; 17:3-6 etc.)
- persecution of the believers (Rev. 2:10, 13; 6:9; 12:17;13:7, 16:6 etc.)
- the return of Christ for judgement and to reward the faithful (Rev 1:7; 2:25-27, 3:11-12; 11:15-18, 14:14-20, 16:15-16, 20:4,12; 21:2-27; 22:1-21 etc.)
The Structure of the Book
Chapter 1 Vision of “one like unto the Son of Man”
Chapters 2-3 Letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor
Chapters 4-5 Vision of the sealed book, which can only be opened by the Lamb
Chapter 6 The opening of the seven seals to reveal prophecies of the future
Chapter 7 Vision of the sealing of the servants of God in their foreheads
Chapters 8-9 The seventh seal is opened to reveal seven angels with trumpets who sound one by one giving prophecies of Gods judgements
Chapter 10 Vision of an angel with a book and the seven thunders
Chapter 11 Vision of the two witnesses and the sounding of the seventh angel
Chapters 12-13 Vision of the dragon and beasts
Chapter 14 Vision of the Lamb and a multitude bearing the Father’s name
Chapters 15-16 Seven angels with seven vials bearing the seven last plagues
Chapters 17-18 Vision of the harlot and her judgement
Chapter19 Vision of the bride and the judgement of the beast
Chapter 20 The resurrection
Chapters 21,22 The kingdom of God established
The book of Revelation contains a sequence of prophecies detailing events that would happen from the time of the apostle John right until the time of the resurrection of the dead and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. The key prophetic events are contained in the seven seals which lead into the seven trumpets and then the seven vials.
These prophecies are interspersed with visions which provide further details about either the true believers, who will ultimately gain a blessing, or the false teachers who will eventually be subject to God’s judgements.
Sunday – Revelation 1
The first verse states clearly the origins of this book – it is God’s word, given to Jesus Christ who then sent an angel to show it to the apostle John so that all Christ’s servants would know it. When we find the book of Revelation difficult to understand, it is perhaps worth bearing in mind that it is the word of God and not the word of man; this is how God chose it to be written, and there is a blessing for those who do take it to heart.
The content of the book is also made clear from the introductory verses: it is a prophecy of future events, and one of these is spelled out clearly in verse 7 – the return of the Lord Jesus Christ to the Earth. This verse has two quotations in it, from Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 1:10. It is worth reading both of these chapters as general background to some of the themes in the book of Revelation. They make it clear that the return of the Lord Jesus is to set up God’s kingdom on the Earth, replacing all previous kingdoms (represented in Daniel and in Revelation by beasts). At that time all nations will be made subject to God and to Christ, including the Jews who crucified him.
The symbolic description of the ‘one like the Son of Man’ also uses descriptions straight from Daniel 7. If you have a Bible with marginal references you might try looking these up as you read through, as they give very helpful background into what the symbols mean.
Verses 19 and 20 show us that the words of Revelation are intended to have symbolic meaning. It is not a book about literal beasts and dragons, but it uses these figures to represent nations and powers. The seven lampstands, for example, represent the seven churches in Asia Minor to whom John was writing (v 19, 20). We might remember the seven-branched lampstand that gave light in the tabernacle in Old Testament times, and the instructions of Jesus that his followers must act as lamps giving light in the darkness of the world (Matthew 5:14-16; 2 Corinthians 4:6). The use of lampstands to represent churches is not only fitting but also provides us with an exhortation to make sure that our own lights are burning brightly.
Monday – Revelation 2
Chapters 2 and 3 contain Christ’s message to the believers in seven churches in Asia Minor. Each church in turn is commended for its good works or commanded to repent of its errors. In each case a reward is promised “to him that overcomes” – these rewards each link into details later in the book.
The letters to the churches in a way explain the purpose of the book. The book is showing believers what is to happen in the future so that they can reject falsehood and hold fast to the gospel. They are made to realise that there will be very difficult times for them before the return of Christ, (e.g. v3, v10, v13) but that all the terrible things that will happen are being controlled by God and they can take comfort that ultimately these events will lead to the establishment of God’s rule in the earth.
The believers in Ephesus are commended for the way they do not tolerate false teaching (v2). This is then a challenge to the other churches, who also are in situations where there are false ideas (such as the teaching of the Nicolaitans in verses 6 and 15). It is also a challenge to us – to be careful that we stick to what God’s word says and do not listen to those who seem to be godly but may be teaching falsehoods (v9). ‘Religious tolerance’ is often spoken of today as being a good thing – the message of this chapter, and of the Bible in general, says differently (e.g. v20).
The final blessing at the end of the chapter is taken in part from Psalm 2 – speaking of the time when Jesus will reign from Mount Zion in Jerusalem, and all his followers will reign with him.
Tuesday – Revelation 3
The words addressed to the churches in this chapter all contain warnings against complacency. We may think that we are alive (v1), when, as far as God is concerned, we are spiritually dead. We might think we are rich (v17), when in God’s terms we are really poor.
Whatever our weaknesses, however, God always gives us opportunity to repent, and we can be assured of his mercy and forgiveness. The rebukes of this chapter come from God’s love towards the churches (v 19), not wanting any of his sons or daughters to fall away (Hebrews 12:5-9). The trials they must endure will be hard, but God lays out clearly the rewards for those who overcome – blessings that are picked up in the prophecies later in the book, for example:
- to eat of the tree of life (Rev. 2:7; 22:2)
- to not be hurt of the second death (Rev. 2:10; 20:6)
- to have power over all nations to rule them ( Rev. 2:26; 19:15)
- to be clothed with white raiment (Rev. 3:4; 19:8)
- to have their names in the book of life (Rev. 3:5; 20:12)
- to be written with the name of new Jerusalem when it comes down from heaven (Rev. 13:12; 21:2)
- to sit with Jesus in his throne ( Rev. 3:21; 4:4)
Whilst the prophecies that follow in the rest of the book contain many terrifying pictures, the messages to the churches make it clear that God is in control, and that ultimately it is his purpose to bring about good for those who overcome the difficulties ahead.
Wednesday – Revelation 5
In many respects the book of Revelation is similar to, and a continuation of, the Old Testament book of Daniel. Daniel was given many symbolic visions and prophecies which he struggled to understand (Dan. 8:27, 12:8). At the end of his prophecy, Daniel is told that the book is to be shut up and sealed until the time of the end (Dan. 12:4. 9). The book of Revelation commences with a sealed book which is given to the Lamb who breaks the seven seals one by one, to reveal prophecies of the future (Rev. 5:1-10, 6:1 etc.). The prophecies of the seven seals are then further extended with prophecies associated with the blowing of seven trumpets and the pouring out of seven vials.
We recognise the Lamb to be a symbol for Christ, as this figure was used of him by John the Baptist (John 1:29). This is further brought out in the words of verses 9 and 10 which describe how through the death of the Lamb people from all nations have been redeemed, and given the promise of an elevated role in the kingdom of God: “we shall reign on the earth”. Christ is also symbolised in the same chapter (Revelation 5:5) as a Lion (quoting from Genesis 49:10.11) and as a Root (quoting from Isaiah 11:10). This demonstrates that more than one symbol may be used in Revelation to show different aspects of the same thing or person; in this case we see Christ as the only sacrifice for our sins (the Lamb), as the future ruler over all nations (the Lion), and as the means by which the promises to king David will be fulfilled (the Root of David, compare also 2 Chronicles 17:11-14). Finding the Old Testament quotations helps us to understand what the prophecies of Revelation are telling us.
Thursday – Revelation 19
The book of Revelation presents contrasting images of two women. In chapter 17, and in verse 2 of chapter 19, we have the image of a prostitute, sitting on the back of a beast. The beast is full of the names of blasphemy, and the woman is drunk with the blood of the saints – she clearly represents a religious power that opposes true believers (chapter 17:3-6). The identity of this women is made clear at the end of chapter (17:9, 18) – a city set on seven hills, which the reader may recognise as being a common description of Rome.
The other woman is described as the bride of the Lamb, a figure used elsewhere of faithful believers (2 Corinthians 11:2, Ephesians 5:25-32). The chapter describes how the false woman is judged by God, whereas the true bride goes in to the marriage (compare Matthew 22:11-14; 25:10-13).
In order to get herself ready for the wedding, the bride has to put on righteousness, represented as clean, white linen (see also chapter 3:4,5; 7:13-15): ‘to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteousness of the saints’. This righteousness is not something we have ourselves – that’s why it says ‘it was granted.’ We are all naturally sinners, the only righteousness we can have comes from God because of our faith in Christ (Philippians 3:9).
The chapter finishes with a vision of Jesus, described as the ‘Word of God’ (compare John 1:14) and ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’. We see him conquering all the nations of the world to establish the kingdom of God, defeating the kings of the earth and all those who teach falsehoods.
Friday – Revelation 21
Chapter 20 spoke of the Day of Judgement, when the dead are to be judged for their works (Revelation 20:4,12,13), and finishes with the destruction of death itself. Now in chapters 21 and 22 we see the culmination of God’s purpose with the earth and mankind. What a marvellous time this will be, with no more sorrow or crying or pain or death! The bride (see chapter 19 – a figure for true believers) is now represented as a glorious, jewel-covered city, the ‘New Jerusalem’, lit up by the glory of God. All nations and kings come there to bring honour to God (compare Isaiah 2:1-4).
Saturday – Revelation 22
The final vision of the kingdom of God likens it to the garden of Eden, with the tree of life and waters issuing forth. The removal of the curse refers back to the curse placed on the earth and mankind after Adam’s sin (Genesis 3:17-19). Jesus is presented in the Bible as the ‘second Adam’ (see 1 Corinthians 15:21-22; 45-49; Romans 5:15), his sinless life and obedience to God has enabled us to be saved from the condemnation of death which started with the sin and disobedience of the first Adam.
Revelation 22 explains how, at the return of the Lord from heaven, the nations are healed, and God and the Lord Jesus and his followers reign over the earth for ever and ever (compare chapter 5:9,10).
The Bible ends then with a beautiful picture of the hope shared by all true Christians – the hope of the return of the Lord Jesus to the earth (verses 7,12,20), a time for which we pray ‘Thy kingdom come’ (Matthew 6:10, compare v17,20). It leaves us too with a choice. The kingdom of God is not for everyone; those who do wrong, or are unjust (v10), who practise false worship (v14), or who seek to change God’s word (v18,19) will be excluded. But for those who ‘hunger and thirst after righteousness’ (Matthew 5:6), God will freely give them the water of eternal life (v17 compare John 4:13,14).
‘Amen. Even so come Lord Jesus.’
THE END – and a new beginning
If you have been following right through the Bible Reading Challenge then well done for having got to the end! Do get in touch to let us know you have completed the challenge; we would love to have your comments and questions. And please send for Step 7, the Bible Companion Reading Plan, which in one year will take you through the whole Bible, every single chapter (Old Testament once and New Testament twice).
And if you live in or near Bishop’s Stortford then do come along to meet us.