[Text: The Book of Revelation]
Here’s a modest New Year’s Resolution for you: why not read (or reread) the Book of Revelation? What’s that you say? You’ve got reasons? I think I may know them –
…If you’ve ever read (or tried to read) the Revelation of John, you know that though it begins in a relatively straightforward way that anyone can follow, it soon transitions into descriptions of events and creatures that surpass comprehension, if not imagination. And while you might be aware of the different approaches that have historically influenced the Church’s reading of this book, the sheer number of interpretive options has likely overwhelmed you. In this you are certainly not alone!
…And then if you’ve never read the Book of Revelation – perhaps because its reputation has preceded it – you probably aren’t even aware that its beginning, at least, is actually pretty accessible.
What I’d like to offer, both to those who have tried it and those who haven’t, is sort of a lifeline to hold onto as you make your way through the bulk of the book. There are words and ideas in here that keep recurring, even in the midst of the wildly changing scenery, and watching for them will remind us that once upon a time this strange book was read by real people who needed encouragement to “hang on, ‘cause Jesus wins.” It’s a timely message that you can catch hold of for yourself as you enter into a new year full of events that will be possibly as difficult to understand as some of the craziest passages in this book.
First off, a general outline of what you will encounter in John’s Revelation:
Chapters 1-3 establish the context and characters and directly address Christians on planet earth in seven different local churches. This is the easy part.
Chapters 4-20 contain John’s description of dramatic visions involving heavenly beings, monstrous creatures, judgments, the saints at worship, wars and conquerors. This is the confusing part.
Chapters 21-22 wrap it all up with John’s word-picture portraying the New Heavens and New Earth, where sorrow and sighing have no place and every tear is wiped away. This is the beautiful part.
So in those first three chapters, we are introduced to the idea that John has been granted a heaven-sent vision while in exile on the island of Patmos. His first responsibility (for of him to whom much is given, much will be expected) is to relay directly the personal messages that King Jesus dictates for seven specific churches in Asia Minor (that’s Turkey today). Literally, John becomes the scribe who takes down letters to be delivered to these churches – so this part of the book is really a collection of mini-epistles.
And like any of the epistles that we encounter in the NT, these seven transcriptions are easy to follow in their outlines, if a bit mysterious in their details. We learn that the churches vary in their faithfulness and their present challenges, and that Jesus holds them to high standards, commending those who have remained true to their high callings and warning those who are wavering or who have lost their way. We don’t really have to know exactly who the “Nicolaitans” are, or the identity of the woman “Jezebel,” to get the idea that God’s people in these churches are beset with doctrinal and moral challenges and need to stay the course bravely.
Each little letter follows a pattern, with Jesus first introducing himself in a majestic way, then commenting on their present faithfulness (or not) and exhorting them to do what is right (or keep doing it, as in the case of Smyrna!). And each letter ends with a promise made to “the one who conquers” (or in some translations, “the one who overcomes”): fruit from the tree of life, escape from the “second death,” a white stone with a secret name, etc. Some of these promised rewards are mysterious, but at least we can tell that they are marvelous, worth holding out for in a season of persecution and temptation.
Then as chapter four begins, John abruptly changes what he’s doing with his words. Rather than taking dictation, now he is trying to describe a drama that is playing out before his eyes, beginning in God’s heavenly throne room and then eventually involving the stage of the whole earth and the created universe. This is where we are most likely to lose our footing, as we scramble to understand the things he is reporting; and this is the part of the book that has lent itself to the most varied interpretations over the centuries of the Church. Are the scrolls, bowls, trumpets, plagues, Beasts, and wars real things that will happen (or have happened) in real human and heavenly history, or do they merely stand for real (or spiritual) things? How you answer will influence your interpretation of John’s words in these busy chapters!
But rather than struggling to answer those interpretive questions this time through, I suggest that you read the Revelation alert for the way that the direct address of the little epistles continues to run like a silver thread through the tapestry of the visionary drama. Even though John seems to have done a genre-shift at chapter four, moving from epistle to vision, his purpose remains to communicate with the saints on earth something about their mission, the expectations their glorious Captain has for them, and the rewards that await them as they hold fast to their loyalty to their Lord. His opening words in the first chapter capture his ongoing goal for his readers, that they keep the command to endure:
“Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.”
So as you read, watch for phrases that echo the promises at the ends of the mini-epistles of chapters two and three. Look for further statements about those who “conquer” (or “overcome”), and for descriptions of saints who, like the believers in Smyrna, suffer faithfully even unto death and ultimately receive a heavenly welcome and reward. Be reminded that those who first read the dictated letters to the churches continued to read the confusing part that followed, and that the whole thing was meant as an encouragement to endure, all the way home. “Hold on,” Jesus continues to say through John, “because after even the worst of it, I win!”
Though I am not a prophet or the daughter of a prophet, I can say confidently that there will be events in this new year that will be as incomprehensible to us as some parts of John’s vision. It’s inevitable that we will grieve and ache and worry and fear and wonder as we move through our next days in this fallen world. But the gift of the Revelation is the persistent message of heavenly hope and reward that runs like a lifeline through the confusion and pain. Hold on, believers, ‘cause Jesus wins.
Quotations are taken from the ESV. (ESV uses “conquer,” NIV & NKJV “overcome.”)
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