Prophets possessed an inherently tough job. They were sent by God to offer stern warnings mixed with hope. Many of them were flat out despised (see Elijah, Jeremiah), while others were respected at times (see Daniel, John the Baptist). In this series, we’ve explored the life of John as a friend to Jesus, as an Apostle and author of the gospel, and as an elder (i.e. wisdom dispenser) to those he loved.
In this final installment, we examine the role of prophet. As he penned the book of Revelation, John more closely resembled those prophets of old than anyone else. His message came from the heart of God. It contained judgment, but also hope. It wasn’t easy to comprehend, but once it was understood, it has proven to be life-changing for God’s people.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: “For Your sake, we are killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 8:35-39
When Paul wrote those words to the infant Church in Rome, Revelation hadn’t been written, John wasn’t a prisoner of the Roman Empire, and the congregations of Asia Minor weren’t facing the harshest persecution imaginable. No one could imagine what was coming. In spite of all the facts, those words summarize the book of Revelation in a perfect way. Truly, Revelation proves that nothing can separate us from Christ. We are bound to Him in this world and then we get to share life with Him throughout eternity when all the awful mess of our world finally comes to an end. Several New Testament books contain passages written to encourage Christians as they faced persecution. Consider First Peter 1:6-9 which says:
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls.
and then James 1:2-4 which says:
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.
and don’t forget the words of Christ from Matthew 5:10-12 which say:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
We know that persecution was commonplace in the First Century. We know it wasn’t something resembling bullying. We know it was prison, death, separation, and despair. Since then, thousands, if not millions, of Christians have faced varying levels of suffering and heartache due to their obedience. We’ve lost loved ones, friends, and even comfort. We’ve seen what can happen, what will happen, yet we’re still here. I truly believe we endure because we know Christ did. We know He suffered. We know He endured. We know He cares. That encouragement motivates us to keep going.
While I’ve never faced physical harm or even severe mental anguish, I’ve been persecuted. I’ve made choices that drew the ire of those I hoped would respect me. I’ve left relationships behind and I’ve faced the whispers behind my back. In no way, shape, or form though, can I stand here today and say I understand what they went through. If I need encouragement daily, what did they need? They needed the book of Revelation. They needed hope that poured from the very throne of God. Encouragement is necessary to endure, to grow, and to remain faithful and that’s what the book of Revelation is – encouragement.
Revelation is victory – God’s victory, our victory, victory over death and evil and everything that comes from both of them. It is victory over this world and all the troubles that accompany our lives here. One theologian said, “the goal of Revelation is to bring encouragement to believers of every age that God is working out His purposes in the midst of tragedy, suffering, and the work of the devil. It is an encouragement to persevere in the assurance that a final reward is certain. It reminds us to worship and glorify God despite trials.”¹ I really love the idea that God is working among our tragedies. Recently, a man leading the public prayer at one of our services thanked God for the moments (both good and bad) that led each of us there that night. I couldn’t help but think how meaningful that thought truly was. We’re faithful Christians because of all the obstacles we’ve overcome, all the victories we’ve celebrated, and all the moments we still have left to endure.
I pray this study will bring each of you closer to those Christians across the ages who read these very same words and found hope, strength, and determination. I pray we’ll grow to appreciate God more because of what’s found. I hope we’ll marvel at His planning, execution, and faithfulness. I hope we’ll be encouraged by the simple promise of Revelation – our story ends with God’s victory and an eternity spent worshipping the ‘Lamb that was slain’ around the throne of God.
Revelation is the one book in the Bible that most students are cautiously curious about.
It contains stories, images, and ideas that sound familiar, yet also outlandish. It is used, albeit sparingly, in our sermons and Bible classes to validate God’s victory and Satan’s defeat. However, in the end, most of us just don’t know what to do with it. I know that many Christians struggle with the obscure details.
As we begin this study, know that Revelation requires work. Revelation, more than any other book in the Bible, brings together the history of God’s people, the immediate context of God’s Church, and the future of this world into one place. That past, present, and future represent the fullness of God’s work in this world and the world to come. As we study, we’ll see worlds collide, prophecies fulfilled, and futures secured. While we dig deep into the literal and the symbolic, we’ll need to ask difficult questions and come to resolute conclusions all while stating emphatically, ‘I just might not know.’ Revelation is not a conundrum, but it is complicated.
The first place to start is the audience. Obviously, the text explains this clearly in 1:4 when the salutation states, ‘John, to the seven churches which are in Asia.’ Even though it was originally written to them, it was intended to reach Christians in every age. We know these were not the only congregations in Asia Minor because congregations in Troas, Colossae, and Hierapolis are mentioned elsewhere (see Acts 20:6,7 and Colossians 1:2, 4:13). These seven were picked because they represent us, the Church-at-large. We’re not each of them, but we’re (more-than-likely) one or two of them.
The content of each individual letter sent to the congregations says ‘he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches,’ in 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22. That implication means the message was originally intended for a wider audience than just those Christians in those congregations. It seems this message was given to them because they faced some of the strongest persecution imaginable and they needed a “light set on a hill.” Several Old Testament books of prophecy were similarly directed to God’s people who needed both encouragement (see Daniel) and correction (see Jeremiah, Hosea). These letters serve the very same purpose. They needed to be reminded who they were and whose they were.
Each letter follows the same pattern: (1) Christ presented Himself with certain attributes; (2) the situation and particular problem were described; (3) an encouragement or a condemnation was presented and; (4) Christ urged them to listen and respond to His message. We also see the congregations fall into 3 distinct groups. There were those in grave spiritual danger – Ephesus, Laodicia; those somewhere in the middle (i.e. close to compromising their faith) – Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis; and those found to be faithful – Smyrna, Philadelphia.
As we see them individually, we can also view them as one combined representation. They are us. Some congregations find their circumstances bearable and remain faithful, others teeter somewhere between the right and the right now, not quite sure where to stand. Others, having long ago, lost hope, give in to the wishes of those around them and cheapen their faith, devotion, and relationship with God.
Harold Hazelip once said, “If we look closely, we’ll see that each letter has a distinctive note – a single poignant word or challenging phrase which sums up its whole message. If we combine these different notes, we can see a seven-point description of what Christ wants in His church today. Ephesus is love, Smyrna is suffering, Pergamos is truth, Thyatira is holiness, Sardis is genuine, Philadelphia is evangelism, and Laodicia is dedication. If we could combine these seven characteristics into one congregation – love, suffering, truth, holiness, genuineness, evangelism, and dedication – we would have an ideal community of God’s people.”² While I love that description, I think we can also see them this way. Ephesus was calloused. Smyrna was brave. Pergamos was conflicted. Thyatira was lazy. Sardis was dead. Philadelphia was stout. Laodicia was indifferent.
As a whole, we can see the following themes rise out of Revelation. First of all, God is sovereign. He sits on His throne and has control over this world and the world to come. His Son’s victory finds a place of praise, not shame. There’s a scene in chapter 5 that explores that better than any other in all of Scripture. Describing the scene, one author has said: John heard a lion, but no he sees a lamb. The two seem radically different. The lion is a symbol both of ultimate power and supreme royalty, while the lamb symbolizes vulnerability and, through its sacrifice, the weakness of death. But here, the two are now fused together, forever and ever. From that moment on, we are to understand the victory won by the lion is accomplished through the sacrifice of the lamb, and in no other way.³
Revelation illustrates that the trials of God’s faithful, the apparent victories of God’s enemies, and the eventual destruction of those who stand in His way are all under the control of our God. It shouldn’t be overlooked that another book of apocalyptic literature, Daniel, presents that idea clearly as well. When Nebuchadnezzar thought he was the greatest thing since sliced bread, God humbled him. Don’t be surprised when we see Revelation describe something similar for those who “make war against God’s faithful, overcome them, and kill them” in 11:7.
Secondly, as a servant of God, faithfulness is the path to ultimate victory. Even though it appears Satan wins when we suffer persecution, the final victory of heaven will be the reward to those who endure. It is through these trials that God refines His people. Notice that the final section of the book, 22:5-21 spends its entire message emphasizing faithfulness to God, that’s not coincidental. It says in 22:7:
Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.
Third, the new creation of the world to come is the final fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. All signs point to the Day of Judgment as the culminating act of God’s prophetic Word. God’s disciples will be a new creation in the world to come, the Church will be the new Jerusalem, and so on. The emphatic phrase in 21:3 which says, “the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God,” is a direct fulfillment of the redemptive plan put in place before the foundation of the world. When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, that plan was put into action and Jesus death on the cross and resurrection sealed its eternal fulfillment. Revelation points God’s faithful to that anticipated day with hope and confidence. We don’t have to fear the end of this world, we get to anticipate its arrival. It welcomes us to a new better world where, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away,” (see 21:4).
Finally, God’s victory is secure. The Greek word nikeo means “overcome, conquer, victory” and is found 17 times in Revelation. It’s culminating message is found in 12:11 which says,
They (God’s children) overcame him (Satan) by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.
In his introduction to the commentary on Revelation, G.K. Beale made a statement that summarizes Revelation better than most. He said, “those who read Revelation live in a worldly culture which makes sin seem normal and righteousness appear strange. Revelation was written because John (and the Lord) perceived a real danger that the Churches would conform to those ‘normal values’ rather than God’s transcendent truth. As believers are faced with the choice of lining their lives and conduct up with one perspective or the other, their eternal destiny depends on that choice.”4
I pray that this short study will reignite your curiosity towards Revelation. I pray it will cause you to turn back and look for the hope, blessing, and encouragement of Revelation. I hope it will remind you how awesome God is. I can’t help but think what it will be like to be there, surrounding God’s throne “with every creature” singing:
Blessing and honor and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, And to the Lamb, forever and ever!Revelation 5:13
¹ G.K. Beale, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 1.
² Harold Hazelip, The Lord Reigns: A Survey of the Book of Revelation, (Abilene: TX: Herald of Truth, 1975), 5.
³ N.T. Wright, Revelation for Everyone, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 53-54.
4 Beale, Revelation, 6.
All Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.