The Revelation of Jesus Christ
Two Questions to be Answered
When we approach the Book of Revelation, we need to understand that the book is basically addressing two issues: (1) how a Christian should respond when persecuted for the cause of Christ and (2) why that Christian should be willing to suffer persecution. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have faced incredible persecution at the hands of the enemies of God. Foxes' Book of Christian Martyrs details for us the several persecutions the early Christians faced during the first centuries of the church's existence. For example, Foxe relates the story of one Christian who was placed in a bag filled with scorpions and snakes, and then the bag was tied at the top and thrown into the sea. Another Christian who was about to be placed in a pot of boiling oil stuck his hand into the pot and asked them to increase the heat beneath the pot because the oil was too cold.
Persecution was not limited to the early church; what happened to the early church and what will happen at the end of Christian history are not unique events but rather occur throughout the history of the church. Modern Christian historians claim that although we focus much attention on the persecution of the early Christians, the truth is that more Christians died for the cause of this Christ in the 20th century alone more than all the other previous 18 centuries combined. Jews were not the only ones to suffer at the hands of Hitler and Stalin. The legitimate church in Germany and also Russia were forced to go underground in order to survive the lunacy of the late 30's and early 40's of the past century. Even today Christians in Communist China are persecuted because of their faith in Jesus Christ.
How then should Christians respond to such persecution? Is it all right for a teenager in Columbine, CO. to deny that she is a Christian when she is facing point-blank a gun wielded by a crazed teenager, or should she continue to confess Jesus? This book essentially addresses that question. Although the Book of Revelation refers in a large way to what happened during the days of John the apostle and to the end-times, it ultimately is a book which inspires Christians of all ages to confess Jesus Christ even on pain of death. Moreover, this book will explain why it is important for a Christian to remain true to Jesus Christ even if it means death. Your eternal destiny and my eternal destiny depend upon the way we respond to persecution.
Reason for Studying the Historical Background of the Book of Revelation
In just a moment we are going to discuss the historical background to the Book of Revelation, but before we do, we need to explain why it is so important to start at this point. Starting at the right place is important as any traveler can tell you. If I give you directions to get you from Waco to Abilene and yet you start off in Austin, you may follow the directions properly (for example, go to the first exit and make a left, then go as far as you can until you come to a T in the road, etc.), but you won't end up in Abilene. You'll end up in San Angelo or wherever. Starting at the right place is important if you want to get the right conclusion.
We will look at the time, place, and circumstances during which God moved upon the apostle John to write this book. We bother with such details because they throw invaluable light into our understanding of Revelation. No serious and credible scholar of the NT will ever divorce the study of a book of the NT from its historical setting. To divorce Revelation or any other NT book from its historical setting is to open it up to unbridled and uncontrolled interpretations of the book. It's the same approach that Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons take in interpreting the Bible. To be perfectly honest, even well-meaning Christians can make the Bible say whatever they want it to say by ripping it out of its historical context.
Unfortunately, many have discarded the historical background and have come up with some interpretations which they claim to be absolute truth but which may be absolute error. Whereas these interpretations may be true, they may very well be false and may lead many people astray when the events do kick into high gear. As we approach the Book of Revelation, we are going to speak about some elements in the book that we can say with absolute confidence is the truth. At other places, we're going to show restraint, offer some different views, plus show why we feel that certain views are correct.
Around 95 AD, the Roman authorities exiled John to a remote island off the coast of modern-day Turkey called Patmos. This island served as a penal colony for political prisoners much the same way Devil's island did last century and earlier this century. John had been found guilty of treason against the Roman government, and since he was too old to execute (probably well into his upper 80's or lower 90's), the Roman authorities did the next best thing and exiled him off the coast of Asia Minor. Unwittingly, the Romans did John a favor because they removed him from the heat of the fires of persecution sweeping across Asia Minor against the Christians and put him in a situation which freed him to receive incredible visions from the Lord without any obstacle.
For the first 30 years of its existence, Christianity enjoyed considerable freedom from persecution. To be sure there were radicals like Saul of Tarsus who would create trouble for the church; however, these times of persecutions seemed to be short-lived and directly mainly at certain leaders, for example, Saul who became Paul. Moreover, the only ones who really cared about persecuting the Christians during those first 30 years were the Jews. The reason that Christians enjoyed security was that the Romans viewed Christianity as a sect of Judaism, a religion protected under Roman law.
All this changed though in the sixth and seventh decades of the first century AD. The first break with this tradition occurred in the mid 60's when fire swept throughout the city of Rome and the people blamed Nero for the conflagration. In order to deflect any kind of criticism leveled against himself, Nero blamed the Christians for the deed. They were easy targets since (1) very few people knew about them and ignorance breeds suspicion and (2) what was known about the Christians was negative, for example, they were cannibals because they claimed to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. As a result, Nero strapped Christians to poles, covered them with an oily substance, and lit them, using them as torches to light his gardens. Other Christians suffered by being thrown to wild beasts in the Coliseum in Rome. Although this period of persecution was intense, it was short-lived because Nero soon died afterwards.
The second major outbreak of persecution against the Christians occurred in the last decade of the first century. At this point in time, Christianity was no longer considered a sect of Judaism. The final break between the Christians and Jews occurred when the Jewish Christians left Jerusalem before its final destruction by the Romans. The Jews never forgave the Christians for this act, considering them traitors. By the mid 80's, the relationship between the Jews and Christians was so bad that the Jews would close their worship services in the synagogue by reciting the 15th Benediction which cursed Christ. The final break was made, and once it was made, Christians no longer enjoyed the status of being a protected religion under Roman law; they were now completely exposed to the vicious tactics the Romans could launch against any who might be considered traitors to Rome.
So what led to the persecution of the Christians at this time? First, during the 90's, a series of catastrophes befell the Roman empire--natural and economic. Once more the Roman government needed a scapegoat. Who better to fill the roll than Christians who had served in this same capacity so well in the 6th decade? Second, the Jews were still hostile towards the Christians and tried to find every conceivable excuse they could to inform against them to the Roman authorities. (John will address that in his letter to the church at Philadelphia). Third, and most important as far as the Romans were concerned, Christians did not recognize the ultimate allegiance of the individual to the state. According to the Romans, the state was supreme. People could worship any god/goddess they wanted as long as they gave ultimate worship and allegiance to the state as personified in the Roman emperor. Claiming that Caesar was god was the same as saying that Rome was supreme. To deny the deity of the emperor was tantamount to rejecting the supremacy of the Roman empire. Whereas the Christians made remarkable citizens, they nevertheless could never claim that Caesar was lord without denying that Jesus was Lord. Although it meant certain persecution and possibly even death, Christians nevertheless held on tightly to their belief that Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord.
The persecution of the Christians in Asia Minor during the first century serves as the occasion for the writing of the book of Revelation. To rip it out of its moorings does extreme damage to any proper understanding of the book. I fear that a lot of Christians are going to be extremely disappointed when the end finally comes because they interpreted the book of Revelation only in light of the future and not in light of its historical setting. Some Christians may claim though that Revelation does not relate to the events of the first century. Those who claim this must then explain why so much of Revelation does correspond to the events of John's day. John is writing to those first-century Christians in order to exhort and encourage them to remain faithful to Jesus Christ, even if being faithful resulted in their being put to death. Being faithful was not academic; it determined whether they spent an eternity in the presence of Christ on a new glorified earth or else in the presence of Satan, the antichrist, and the false prophet in the lake of fire.
Just before we look at specific passages in Revelation, we need to spend just some time in how to interpret the book of Revelation. Revelation is basically looking at 2 events--the end of history with the coming of Christ in light of the persecution of those first-century Christians. Basically, what happened to those first-century Christians and their persecutors gives wonderful insight into what will happen at the end of time. The events and characters in Revelation primarily are those first-century Christians and their Roman persecutors. The plagues predicted in the book of Revelation especially refer to that first-century situation; however, the fact that the intensity of the plagues in Revelation never found ultimate fulfillment and the fact that Christ has not returned show that these events point beyond themselves to the final moment in history when Christ will return and consummate the kingdom of God which He established at His first coming. Moreover, we need to remember that these events relate to us as well today. Any ruler or dictator who exalts himself above Jesus Christ and demands ultimate allegiance to himself must be resisted. Christ alone is to be acknowledged as Lord even if it means certain death. That ruler or dictator will meet the same fate that the antichrist in John's day and the final Antichrist will meet--an eternity in the lake of fire and brimstone. On the other hand, the Christian who remains faithful to Christ will enjoy an eternity in the presence of Christ and the Father in the new Jerusalem.
Verses 1-3 serve as a type of heading for the entire book of Revelation. "The Revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave Him to show to His bondservants"--although the phrase "revelation of Jesus" can mean that the book of Revelation is a revelation about Jesus Christ, the immediate context shows us that this phrase means that this book and its contents belong to Jesus Christ because His Father entrusted its contents to Him. What we are about to study is not merely the word of man nor the wishful thinking of man. Rather, this is God's revelation, and as such, we need to take it seriously and remember that the way we respond to it really indicates the way we are responding to the God who gave it to us.
Exactly what does the Bible mean by the word "revelation"? The word literally means "unveiling." Whenever the NT uses it, it means an unveiling of information we could never come up with on our own; unless God revealed this to us, then we would never have never known this information. Moreover, revelation in the NT refers specifically to what God has revealed about Himself through Jesus Christ. God is in the process of establishing His kingdom. The kingdom is made possible only through the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ, and belief in Christ is the only way to enter that kingdom. After Jesus' ascension, God exalted Jesus to the status of Lord in the kingdom of heaven. All attention is to be focused on Jesus at this time. God is in the process of subjecting all things beneath the feet of Jesus. Christ will consummate His kingdom when He returns the second time. Only after He has reigned for a thousand years upon the earth will Christ then turn and subject all things to the Father, including Himself. On that day, God will be all in all (see 1 Cor. 15:22-28, esp. verse 28).
Next, John writes that the events described in the book of Revelation "must shortly take place." Some have twisted the meaning of the phrase en tacei (en tachei) to mean only "must surely take place"; such a translation of that phrase totally contradicts the way this phrase is interpreted in the rest of Greek literature including the NT. By interpreting the phrase this way, certain NT scholars are trying to rescue their system of belief which would come crashing down if they interpreted phrases like this one in Revelation the way they are used throughout the rest of Greek literature. John says that the immediate fulfillment of this book concerns the church facing persecution from the Romans during that first century and not some far-off persecution which will only occur before the second coming of the Lord. (Creating new meanings for words in the NT to rescue a system of belief is a dangerous way to interpret the NT. Whereas it allows us to come up with any interpretation we may want to come up with, it always destroys the interpretation the NT wants us to believe in).
The last word worthy of mention is "communicated." This word literally means to communicate by means of signs or symbols. For example, in chapter 13 when John writes about the antichrist, he describes him as having 10 horns and 7 heads; moreover, he has feet like those of a bear, the mouth of a lion, and a head wounded which has been healed. John could have sat down and written in a straightforward manner about the end of the age and its relationship to the Christians suffering persecution during that first century; however, he chose to use signs and symbols. Why? Again this relates to the situation in which John and the early church found itself in. If John had come right out and declared the Roman empire to be the great whore of Babylon and the Roman emperor the antichrist, he and the rest of the church in Asia Minor would have been executed summarily. To prevent this from happening, John writes the book using symbols and codes which reveal the meaning of the book to his readers but conceals it from the Roman authorities.
GREETING (REV. 1:4-8)
Just a brief word about the greeting. John describes Jesus Christ in such a way which relates directly to the situation facing the churches John serves. Jesus is the "faithful witness, the first-born from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth." Just as Jesus was faithful in bearing witness before the Sanhedrin and Roman governor Pilate even though it meant His death, so we are to be faithful in bearing witness to Jesus even though it might mean our death. As the first-born from the dead, Jesus will raise from the dead those who are faithful to Him during times of persecution. Every time there is a first, there is a second. His being the first-born means that we are going to be the second-, third-, fourth-born, etc. Finally, He is the ruler of the kings of the earth and not Domitian or some other self-styled ruler in the near future. Jesus Christ and none other determines the ultimate destiny of mankind no matter what the rulers of this world may claim.
VISION OF JESUS CHRIST (1:9-20)
After greeting the 7 churches in Asia Minor, John presents the first vision full of symbols which he received from the angel. It is a vision of Jesus Christ. Why this vision? First to encourage the Christians in Asia Minor undergoing tribulation. They are caught in the big middle of a war raging between Jesus Christ and Satan. They have thrown in their lot with Jesus Christ. Will He win the battle? This vision emphatically says, "Yes!" The One pictured here in chapter 1 will be victorious over any man or spirit which rises up in rebellion against God. The Christians in Asia Minor should take heart knowing that they serve this glorious Christ. On the other hand, the Christians in Asia Minor need to take seriously the warnings contained in this book against those who deny Christ and follow the antichrist (the beast of chapter 13). Rejecting Christ and following the beast in order to escape tribulation is perilous because one day all will have to face this glorious Christ described in Rev. 1. Facing in judgment the Christ of chapter 1 would be a terrifying prospect, especially if I had denied that Christ.
John introduces the vision of Jesus Christ he receives by first relating his own specific circumstances and his relationship to the contents of the book: "I John, your brother and fellow-partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Christ Jesus" (1:9). John claims that he is a fellow-partaker in the tribulation. In other words, the tribulation referred to in Revelation is not just some far-off event; while there are elements in the book which can be interpreted only in light of the future, yet there is so much of it which relates to John's day, and in fact to the situation of every believer who faces tribulation at the hands of God's enemies. Tribulation is not some far-off event but actually the common lot of Christians. Not only is he suffering tribulation at the hands of the enemies of God, he is also exhibiting the perseverance he wants his readers to exhibit. Perseverance is the only proper response to tribulation at the hands of Satan. No matter how rough tribulation gets, Christ always expects His people to persevere as He did while on earth.
On one Sunday while John is on the island of Patmos, he hears a voice which is like the sound of a trumpet--a loud, commanding sound demanding attention. This voice demanded that John write in a scroll the things he has seen, is about to see and send this scroll to 7 specific churches in Asia Minor. (Why the Lord chose these specific churches we'll examine next week). John turns to see the person who is speaking and sees 7 golden lampstands with one like the son of man standing in their midst. The lampstand was a prominent feature of both the tabernacle in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem. It signified that God of Israel was the light of the world. On the other hand, the Son of Man was the divine person who upon God's command came during the last days to rescue the people of God while delivering the enemies of God's people to judgment (see Dan. 7:14). This Son of Man is clothed in a white robe reaching to the feet and girded around His chest with a golden girdle, garments similar to the ones worn by the Jewish high priests.
Let's briefly look at the detailed description John gives us of the glorified Christ:
His head and his hair were like white wool, like snow -- these qualities are similar to those of the Ancient of Days mentioned in Daniel 7. By describing Jesus in this way, he is claiming that Jesus is nothing less than God Himself.
His eyes were like a flame of fire. In today's language, we would say that His eyes were like a laser beam which penetrates through every fašade and obstacle. During times of persecution, Christians can come up with every flimsy and sorry kind of excuse to justify denying Jesus. Jesus' laser-like vision though sees right through these excuses and still demands that we remain faithful to Him, even upon pain of death.
His feet were like burnished bronze or brass. A person's leg is one of the strongest parts of a person's body. Men who can lift 200 pounds doing chest press can easily out press that amount with their legs. The legs were a symbol of strength in the ancient world. Whenever one king conquered another king, he would place his foot either on the other king's neck or on his back to show his superior might. Unlike Domitian with legs of flesh and bone, Jesus' legs are powerful; one day He will crush Domitian and any other ruler who rises up against Jesus by persecuting His people.
His voice was like the sound of many waters. While exiled on the isle of Patmos, John would hear the mighty sea crashing upon the shores of the island. He knew full well the might and power of the sea. Well, Jesus' voice resembles the mighty sea, full of power and authority. He and not Domitian is the ultimate authority in the universe, much less the Roman empire.
In His hand, He held seven stars. In v. 20 John identifies the stars as the 7 pastors of the 7 churches in Asia Minor. This image is informing the pastors that Jesus and not Domitian controls their destinies. Their response to Jesus determines their ultimate destiny. To be sure, Domitian may put them to death, but that death will only be temporary.
Out of His mouth comes a sharp 2-edged sword. The sharp 2-edged sword was an offensive weapon. The Romans used the 2-edged sword to conquer the known world. Most armies wielded a long sword which had only one sharpened edge. These swords were unwieldy and cumbersome. On the other hand, the Roman soldier was able to maneuver easily and cut both ways with his sword. Well, as powerful as their sword was, it paled in comparison to the might of Jesus' sword--His word. Just how powerful that sword is in battle will be seen in chapter 19 when Jesus takes on the antichrist. With one word He will decimate His enemies.
His face was like the sun shining in full strength. This Jesus is majestic like the sun. Not like the sun when it is at its weakest at either sunrise or sunset but like the sun when it is noon, when the sun is at the zenith of its glory.