It is apparent to me, having had my mind biased by this since I’ve been alive, that we often take the book of Revelation to not be about the 7 churches it was written to, but about our modern time and future events yet to unfold on God’s “prophetic clock”. It is as if God didn’t really intend to give these churches anything of substance because it was all about us to fantasize over, trying to understand events that are all speculative. Revelation is an apocalypse (the word revelation comes from the Greek word apokalupsis), which is a style of writing that is designed to peel back or to reveal by using heavy poetic literary structures and a painting of a picture through symbolism and imagery that helps to convey what is being revealed. The prophet Zechariah is another type of this literature style, as well as other 2nd Temple Period literature works like 1Enoch (which Jude and Peter quote from) and 4Edras, etc. What makes Revelation unique is that it is not only an apocalypse, but is an epistle. This is a letter and as such, each of the 7 churches in Revelation were to read this as one letter (just as Corinth, for example, was to read the letters from Paul, in one sitting). That means we MUST allow the content of the letter to be understood from its intended audience first and then understand the greater narrative as it might apply to those throughout history, including us.
Revelation isn’t a fortune teller’s guide to figuring out specific events in the future (events largely manufactured by theological schools rooted in dispensationalism). Many approach the book of Revelation and read a few key verses in chapter 1, largely skip over the point of chapters 2 and 3, then jump to chapter 4 verse 1, call it the rapture of the church, then stumble through the rest of the book assigning a prophetic itinerary about events that lie ahead like exits on a highway. Then, we finally get to the last chapters of the book to find out what “eternity future” is going to be like. We spend our days trying to be astrologers – we look around us trying to interpret the “signs of the times”, despite Christ emphatically stating that no one knows when His return will happen. We freak out about bar codes and RFID chips because they are either the Mark of the Beast or the technology that makes his mark capable. We look at world political leaders and expect to find signs of who is the antichrist. We speculate about the 2 witnesses in Revelation 11, who they are and what their message will be. The cult of Jehovah’s Witnesses make doctrinal claims to the 144,000 thousand mentioned in Revelation 7. We try to use the 7 trumpets, bowls and vials to describe the “Great Tribulation”. We want the Millennial Reign to be literal 1,000 years that happens right after the Great Tribulation. We want the church raptured before all of this and our justification for that is either that the church isn’t mentioned after Revelation 4 or by interpretative extension of the language of Revelation 4:1. Yet, there are others who would see the book as all past-tense or only having a historical significance. But, in these approaches of treasure hunting, do we conceal the actual point of Revelation? I believe we do, and it is very ironic – the book is supposed to be unveiling Jesus Christ and through our interpretation demands, we veil the meaning of the book to ourselves. This akin to Paul’s comments to the Corinthians in 2Corinthians 3 where the veil that Moses placed in front of his face because of the reflection of God’s glory upon him and Paul says that that same veil remained in the reading of the Old Testament unto that day. There was a glory of the Old Testament that remained veiled that had they unveiled it, they would have recognized the greater, more glorious New Testament. For Revelation, the more quickly it tries to unveil Jesus Christ, the more we work to keep Christ wrapped up and miss the point of the letter.
Revelation 1:1 The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John: 1:2 Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw. 1:3 Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.
The purpose of the letter is to reveal Jesus Christ that God blessed John with in order to show it unto God’s servants (which are the 7 churches of chapters 2 and 3). The phrase “shortly come to pass” may refer to the immediacy of the rest of the book’s content being realized but could also refer to the immediate implications of the book’s message to the audience the letters were written to. I honestly favor a combination of both. There are some elements of the book that light upon a glorious future time, but likewise elements of the book that we often use as future but are actually describing the current state of Jesus Christ for the benefit of the 7 churches as they face their current state (and by extension, ours). There is blessing in not only reading and hearing the words of Revelation, but keeping the things written therein. If this is just some roadmap of futuristic events, “keeping those things”, as it relates to current blessing doesn’t make a lot of sense, but if reading and hearing the message of Revelation and keeping it therefore inspires perseverance in the face of persecution, there is blessing to be had even when the ashes of life are smoldering around us. The book is a revelation of Jesus Christ to 7 churches who were in the throws of persecution. It is designed to give hope and encouragement to those who might see nothing but darkness around them. By peeling back the veil, those in these churches can see why Jesus Christ is the True Overcomer, Conqueror, Lord and King. It is understanding His Victory that gives them the means to press on, knowing the ultimate battle is already won in Christ. John’s record of each church being told to “overcome” isn’t just an empty pep-rally, for the remainder of the letter shows just why these churches (and you and I) CAN overcome. Does this mean there is nothing future about the book? No, not at all, but its allusion to specific future events is arguably minimal in comparison to its primary purpose in revealing Jesus Christ. Don’t miss the beautiful message of Revelation by making it a prophetic roadmap. Allow the letter itself to unfold itself and just like those 7 churches, you can see Jesus Christ as the Victor.
If there is a summary to the book of Revelation, it is Paul’s words to the Romans. Paul closes chapter 8 of Romans with the truth of despite being in the creation that groans for the manifestation of the sons of God (to be what we should ultimately be), yet we are comforted and strengthened and stabilized by the fact that if God is for us, then who can be against?
Romans 8:31 What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? 8:32 He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? 8:33 Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. 8:34 Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. 8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 8:36 As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. 8:37 Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. 8:38 For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, 8:39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The next time you read through Revelation, hear the message of overcoming through Jesus. Put away from your mind ideas of prophetic clock or sequencing the “end times”. Keep Romans 8:31-39 in mind as Revelation reveals why Romans 8:31-39 is ever true.