This introductory listening guide provides a foundational survey of some basic information that is helpful for understanding the book of Revelation generally, how to read and interpret the book, and the way we’ll be dealing with the text in the upcoming sermon series. This introductory material is much longer than the normal sermon notes/listening guide will be. The extra material is provided to give listeners and readers a little extra framework for everything that will be coming in the weeks and months ahead.
Overcome: The Hope of the Christian in the Revelation of the Lamb
December 3, 2014
Waking Up at the Start of the End of the World:
An Introduction to Eschatology, Apocalyptic Literature, and the Book of Revelation
I. A Book Most Mysterious: Why We’re Attracted to Revelation and Avoid Revelation at the Same Time
It sits at the back of the Bible, bringing up the rear of the canon, standing there like a sentinel guarding a valuable treasure. And it’s an appropriate ending point for God’s special scriptural revelation, because the last book in the holy library is unlike any other book. It’s a bit of a loner. It’s odd, maybe even a bit standoffish. It doesn’t seem as inviting as the gospels, even though Jesus incarnate is its focus. Nor does it seem as easy to follow as Paul’s letters, even though it is itself a letter to a particular group of churches at a particular place and time in history. No, whatever else we might say about Revelation, one thing is certain. It sure is different.
As soon as we open the pages of Revelation we immediately know that we’re in a foreign world. Everything seems strange and new. Instead of a normal letter that flows in a straight line from beginning to end, we get a set of letters connected to a glimpse into the secret counsels of God. Instead of a list of encouraging instructions, we get a graphic and vivid docudrama that seems to be equal parts fantasy and horror story. And above it all, we definitely get confused. In some ways if we read through to the end of this book we might be left rubbing our eyes and asking, “What was that?!”
Throughout church history this confusion has oftentimes created two very different responses from believers, two responses that we want to avoid. Some students of the Bible have been so attracted to Revelation that they never want to go anywhere else. These are preachers who never seem to preach a sermon unless it’s connected to some fantastic interpretation of Bible prophecy. They oftentimes want to use the book of Revelation as the lens through which the rest of the Bible is understood, rather than having the rest of the Bible be the lens through which the book of Revelation is understood! The opposite reaction is one of avoidance. The book is confusing. It’s controversial. Its correct interpretation is contested, so some just stay away from it. If the first group has an incessant obsession with the book, the second group seems to have a strong allergic reaction to it.
Both of these responses are two extremes that we want to navigate between. We want to acknowledge that the book of Revelation is a part of the biblical storyline and we want to understand it in context through the rest of the Bible. And at the same time, while we acknowledge that the book can be confusing and intimidating we want to always confess that the book of Revelation is a part of the biblical canon. It was inspired by God. It is given to believers. It is meant to be read, understood, and obeyed. We shouldn’t be afraid of it. Everything that is true about the rest of the Bible that is described in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is just as true about the book of Revelation.
So…we must read and hear the vision given by Christ to John on the Isle of Patmos. But before we do there are a few things we should introduce. We need to know what the book is (an eschatological apocalyptic letter) and we need to consider the underlying themes and purposes of the book:
II. Essentials of Eschatology: But…Finally
The book of Revelation is an eschatological apocalyptic letter. Eschatology is the study of last things or final things. It focuses on the point to which everything and everyone is headed, for both individuals (Heaven/Hell) and all of creation and history. And yet, there’s a bit more to it. It’s not merely a prophetic playbook that gives the details for the future. Eschatology in the Bible is centered on two things: The resurrection of Jesus is the climax of history and the truth about the culmination of all things compels us to live in light of the resurrection today, in the present, in the here and now.
1. First, eschatology understands the resurrection of Jesus to be the climax of all history. It’s all about the “last days,” but here’s the catch: from a biblical perspective everything after the resurrection is the last days (Acts 2:14-21; Heb 1:1-2).
2. Second, eschatology isn’t a “pie-in-the-sky” trailer for coming attractions for the Christian church. It’s not a Nostradamus-like preview of future events that are meant to merely inform us about what’s up next. Eschatology is always a message to God’s people that is a call to love the risen Christ, trust the risen Christ, and obey the risen Christ in the here and now. It is always applicable for where we are presently!
3. With these two foundations in place, we might then define eschatology, the type of eschatology that the book of Revelation is a part of, as “The biblical meditation on last things for the purpose of treasuring ultimate things, namely the person and work of Jesus Christ.”
III. The Apocalyptic Puzzle: Vivid Vagueness
And here comes the tricky part. The book of Revelation is an eschatological apocalyptic letter. That means that the book is in some ways in a class by itself. It’s not just an ordinary letter or an ordinary piece of prophetic literature. So that begs the question, what is apocalyptic literature? Well, it has a long history in Jewish writings (biblical and extra-biblical) and might best be characterized in the following ways:
1. It is written to encourage the people of God who are suffering through some type of trauma or cataclysmic event to give them hope in God’s reign over the present and his sovereign triumph over the future.
2. It flows out of a deep reliance on and reference to the Old Testament. So rather than merely being situated in the future, it is rooted in the past revelation of God.
3. It presents its message through vivid vagueness. The medium by which the message is communicated is through repeated patterns of truth that are communicated by symbolic and graphic images, and significant and representative numbers.
We will always lose our way through the maze of Revelation if we fail to recognize and remember these three crucial keys to understanding and interpreting apocalyptic writings, of which Revelation is the most famous example.
IV. Revealing Revelation: Sailing to the Island of Patmos
With that briefest of introductions to eschatology and apocalyptic literature, we can now give a summary introduction to the book itself. We want to briefly consider the basics of the books authorship, the particular way we will be studying the text, and the purposes for which the book was written in the first place:
1. A Preliminary Introduction
A. Author: John the Apostle
B. Date: Probably around 95 AD during the reign of Emperor Domitian
C. Place of Writing: The exilic island of Patmos, a little more than fifty miles off the coast of Asia Minor from the port city of Ephesus.
D. Original Audience: Unlike many of Paul’s letters, the book of Revelation is a circular epistle, meaning it was written to a group of local churches throughout Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and would have been circulated through those churches by messenger(s). The recipients of the book were the churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
2. Perspectives of Interpretation
This is a big question. How will we approach the book in this upcoming sermon series? That question really lies at the heart of what we believe about the book as a whole, and throughout church history there have been four major approaches:
A. The Preterist Interpretation: The book is primarily written about the historical situation(s) at the end of the first century. As such, this view typically argues that all (or most) of the prophecies were fulfilled shortly after the book was written and delivered.
B. The Historicist Interpretation: The book is primarily a prophetic outline of the entirety of church history from the time of the apostles until the return of Christ.
C. The Idealist Interpretation: The book is primarily a symbolic overview of the cosmic battle between good and evil, God and Satan, and presents timeless spiritual truths to equip believers to be a part of that struggle.
D. The Futurist Interpretation: The book is primarily a description of the ultimate “last days” including the final judgments of God on the fallen world, the eternal overthrow of Satan, and the ushering in of the new creation into eternity by Jesus Christ.
Different readers and interpreters have defended their views and attacked the others. Oftentimes the conflicts have centered on a belief that an interpretation demands an “either-or” approach. I believe that’s a mistake (especially when it comes to Revelation). As such, our approach will be an increasingly popular view known as:
E. The Eclectic Interpretation: The book is like a fine diamond with different hues and shades. As such, to be most faithful to the text we’ll be open to aspects of each of the interpretations listed above. The book of Revelation is multi-layered as it communicates the eternal triumph of Jesus, the ultimate defeat of evil, and the unending hope of believers, now and in the future.
3. The Purpose(s) of the Book
Finally, in wrapping this introduction up we need to ask why the book was written in the first place. What are the big themes of the letter? What was the purpose for which John took pen to paper? A few days ago I tried to summarize the main message of the book, and I did it this way:
The purpose of the book of Revelation is to confront the church’s crushing crises of the cosmic curse, catastrophic conflict, and cultural compromise through confidence in and commitment to the crucified, crowned, conquering, and coming Christ.
Now, let’s state the obvious. That’s a lot of “c’s.” So let’s take this a section at a time. The book of Revelation is written for believers who are suffering, hurting, and are always being tempted to give in to doubt, defeat, and despair. It confronts the church’s crushing crises of:
A. The Cosmic Curse – Believers suffer from the ordinary consequences of living in a fallen world and are constantly being threatened by sickness, death, suffering, sickness, sorrow, uncertainty, and anxiety.
B. Catastrophic Conflict – Believers are also always in jeopardy of suffering for not merely living in a fallen world, but particularly because they are believers. So Christians face the threats of ridicule, attack, censorship, marginalization, and persecution in our families, workplaces, and by society (or government) in general.
C. Cultural Compromise – Finally, the pressures of the curse and conflict always threaten believers (who are always sinners) with the temptation to compromise their faith and give-in to the call to look and act like the world around them. Sin, immorality, worldly accommodation, and complacency are siren calls that invite us to an “easier” life if we’ll just not take our calling to follow Jesus so seriously.
These are the enemies of the churches that John is writing to, and the way he confronts these dangerous threats is by calling believers to:
A. Confidence in: Believers are called to have faith and belief in, trust in, and love for Jesus Christ that gives us assurance and hope for the future.
B. Commitment to: This confidence in Jesus Christ is then lived out personally and publicly in our allegiance and obedience to and our profession and proclamation of Jesus Christ.
This confidence and commitment to is connected to one specific person. The believer’s hope is not to our wealth, health, self-esteem, nation, government, or any superficial situation that we find ourselves in. Our confidence is in Jesus, and our commitment is to Jesus, and in the pages of Revelation Jesus the Christ is revealed to be the one who…
A. Was Crucified – Jesus was killed, slaughtered as a substitute on a Roman cross to purchase for God a people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
B. Is Crowned – Jesus didn’t stay dead. The crucified one is also the resurrected on. After being slaughtered on the cross, Jesus was resurrected from the dead and ascended into heaven, being given by his Father a name that is above every name. He is currently reigning at the right hand of God as king over the universe. No other worldly power, person, or empire has the right to see itself as supreme. Only Jesus is worthy of the divine and royal worship of his people!
C. Is Conquering – Jesus will ultimately and triumphantly defeat all evil, the serpent, and he will rid the cosmos of every trace of the curse descended on creation as a consequence of our sin. Jesus (and all those who are his) has won the victory already and will completely overcome and conquer when all is said and done.
D. Is Coming – Jesus (God the Son) will physically and literally return to bring history to a climactic conclusion in which all things that the Bible has been promising and expecting are finally brought into full reality forever! God’s people will be resurrected bodily and all creation will be transformed into a new creation in which God’s people will dwell with him forever in the full beauty and pleasure of his presence. In his coming all the promises and prayers of the Bible will be eternally answered. The hope of Adam will be an eternal reality as Jesus, the seed of the woman, crushes the serpent forever and eradicates the darkness of rebellion from all creation. The hope of Abraham will be an eternal reality as Jesus, the promised heir, will be worshiped by an unnumbered multitude from every tribe, race, nation, and people. The hope of David will be an eternal reality, as Jesus, the physical descendant of Jesse, fully man and fully God, reigns as the supreme king over all creation. And finally, the hope of God’s people’s prayers that Jesus himself taught us to speak, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” will finally, fully, and eternally be answered as Heaven and earth are united in the unending reign of Jesus Christ!