Well thank you for joining me in this verse by verse Bible study, I’m Randy Duncan, and I’m excited for this episode, as we begin our study of the fascinating book of Revelation.
But before we just jump right in, I think a few words of introduction to the book are both appropriate and necessary. Because no book in the Bible has been interpreted in so many different ways as Revelation. And so it is wide open for speculation, spiritualization, prophecy enthusiasts, end of the world date setters, and just all sorts of varying interpretations.
Also, I think we often fail with Revelation in one of two extremes. One, we ignore it because we don’t think we can understand it. And so it is often overlooked or even ignored in our personal bible studies, and even in our churches. We think it is too complicated, or that nobody can interpret the true meaning or figure out all of the symbolic language used, so we just don’t bother even trying. Many churches never dip their toes into the water of Revelation because it’s much easier, much more comfortable, to stick with books we are more familiar with, like the Gospels, or Romans, Galatians, Corinthians. Look, it’s not easy. It’s not going to be easy now. But very few things in life that are worth doing ever are. Many times in life you will find that the most gains or biggest lessons are on the other side of the work that you are avoiding. And so this is the very reason we are going to do it!
But the other extreme in one’s approach to Revelation is to become so enamored with it that it’s all you want to spend your time studying. And you can see with some ministries or churches that Revelation is the primary topic of discussion. And with that often comes a continual and never-ending discussion of end times, prophecy signs, and potential end of the word date setting. And it’s normal for us to want to know what will happen in the future. Many people have a fascination with knowing the future. That’s why they read and study their horoscope, or go to fortune tellers, palm readers, they call psychic hotlines, or they even dabble in the occult.
Now, there is obviously a need for Christians to be aware of what is happening in the world, to be vigilant and informed, and to be able to discern the signs of the times. But I think we need to be cautious of that becoming our primary focus and fixation. It was never intended to be that way.
Revelation’s primary theological contribution is concerning the doctrine of the last things. And in it we are provided insights into things such as the final political setup of the world, the last war in the world, the antichrist, Christ’s thousand-year reign, the final state of those who have rejected Christ, and we get glimpses of the glory of heaven.
And so we need to put Revelation in its proper perspective, neither avoiding or being intimidated by it, but also not focusing so much on it that it leads to the ignoring of the rest of scripture. Because just like we read in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching,…”
And so, having said all of that, just a few words of introduction here before we get started.
First, the name of the book is Revelation…not Revelation(s). It is singular. Not plural. The book is a singular revelation given by Jesus
Now when most people think of Revelation, they immediately think of things like the antichrist, the number of the beast, 666, not being able to buy or sell, judgments, wrath, war, Armageddon, the millennial kingdom, the Rapture, etc. But before we get there, after the first chapter, we have two chapters where Jesus narrates seven letters to seven churches, giving them both positive and negative critiques and warnings.
This is followed by two chapters of a scene from God’s throne room in heaven, and then in chapter six, all of the action that we typically associate with Revelation begins. Not only do we often avoid Revelation, but when people do study it, they often ignore those early chapters, particularly the first three chapters. We are obviously not going to make that mistake here.
The last thing I want to mention before we dive in is in regards to interpretation. How do we go about interpreting Revelation? Well, you know the saying that where there are two preachers there are three opinions. And that’s not far from the truth regarding Revelation. It is probably the most controversial book in all of scripture, with more and varying interpretations than any other book.
Now like I said, no other book poses more challenges in interpretation. But in general, there are four primary views on how we should interpret Revelation. Within these four approaches, there are further variations of each, and there also exists some overlap between the four. But basically, these are the four approaches taken. The preterist view, the historicist view, the idealist view, and the futurist view.
Now, I’m not going to do a full-blown study and comparison of each of these, as that would be a full study in and of itself. But I want you to at least be aware of each of these approaches, and to understand that there is more than one way in which people interpret Revelation.
So, here is a Reader’s Digest version, or high-level fly by of each, just so you know what each approach believes. The preterist view interprets Revelation as a description of first century events in the Roman Empire. IOW, Revelation is describing only events that happened or were happening during the roman persecution of Jews back in the first century. They see the events of Revelation as having already been fulfilled, and it culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem.
The historicist view interprets Revelation as being a panoramic view of church history, from the time of the apostles up until present day. And so they see in the symbolism different eras, such as the overthrow of Rome by the barbarians, the rise of the Roman Catholic church, the emergence of Islam, and the rise and fall of civilizations.
The idealist view interprets Revelation as just sort of a timeless description of the battle of good versus evil. And the book is merely designed to teach us timeless spiritual truths. But it is not to be read literally.
Finally, there is the futurist view. This view believes that the events from chapter 6-22 are to happen at some point in the future, and that the events described actual real events.
Some people also believe that Revelation is simply John using all of these different symbols as communicating through some code language that only the Jews would understand in order to avoid persecution. However, it’s hard to believe that Roman authorities wouldn’t recognize this sort of anti-Roman perspective. Furthermore, most of the symbolism in Revelation is explained in Revelation, So that wouldn’t make the best code-language!
But in reality, most commentators will take an eclectic, or mixed, a blended approach to Revelation. In all transparency, that is the view I personally hold as well. Because some elements of Revelation are clearly future, such as the Second Coming and the resurrection of the saints. Some are in the past, and some are probably describing, at least the beginning stages or build up, of events we are witnessing in our present age.
Now, as we go along in this study, I may refer to one or more of these views, and attempt to share the best arguments for each of these views, as well as the best critiques of each of the views. But I don’t want to get bogged down doing this on the front-end of our study.
And so with those introductory words out of the way, let’s jump into the book of Revelation with the first three verses which read…The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 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 the book begins by stating this is a revelation of Jesus Christ. The word “revelation” in the Greek, is actually the word “apocalypsis”, which is where we get the word Apocalypse. Many people associate this term for the end times, or the beginning of the end. But it actually means “the uncovering or unveiling of something hidden”, something once hidden becoming visible”. IOW, a “revealing”, which is where we get the name of the book Revelation.
Although John will be physically writing, this also tells us who the ultimate author is. It’s the revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him. The revelation comes from God through Jesus Christ, who communicates it to John through an angel.
Verse 1 not only tells us who are the ultimate authors, but also the subject, which is to inform John ‘what must soon take place”. Now, just so you are aware, some people who hold a preterist view will argue that since John says that these things must happen “soon”, that it cannot possibly be speaking of events 2000 years in the future. And so Revelation isn’t talking about things that are future for us because it’s been 2000 years now and it still hasn’t happened. So all of the events described in Revelation are describing the persecution of the Jews by the Romans, and ultimately the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
However, the Greek word used here that is translated as “soon”, is the word tachos, which means “speed”. It’s where we get our word “tachometer”, which is what measures RPMs in your vehicle. And so critics of the preterist view would argue that it doesn’t mean that the events John is describing will necessarily happen soon, but rather, once they begin to happen, they will happen with speed, they will unfold quickly. And so this isn’t referring to “soonness”, but to rapidity of execution once it begins.
I think maybe part of understanding this is to understand the nature of prophecy itself. First, we know that God’s perspective of time is not the same as ours. As 2 Peter tells us, ‘you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief…”
And just an observation, but how does a thief come? Not necessarily chronologically soon, but suddenly, unexpectedly, quickly.
In verse 3 we see a special blessing promised. Revelation is the only book in the Bible that promises a special blessing to those who read it, those who hear it, and those who keep, or respond in obedience, to what is written. That alone should be enough to gain your full attention
But we continue with verses 4-6, which read…4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
So what we see in these verses is really a greeting from John to the seven churches which were in Asia. Now when you hear “Asia”, don’t think of the continent of Asia, as in China, Japan, India, and South Korea. Asia here is referring to the Roman province of Asia, in what we refer to as Asia Minor, which is essentially modern-day Turkey. There were seven key cities there, and it was to the churches in these cities that John is writing .
But John says to them “Grace to you and peace”, which is essentially the Greek equivalent of the Jewish expression shalom. But grace and peace to you from who? From him who is and who was and who is to come, which is clearly God, and hearkens back to God explaining to Moses that I am that I am, the self-existent and eternal one, whose name simply implies “being’. But not only from God, but also from the seven spirits who are before his throne. Now, the identity of these seven spirits is not fully clear.
Some believe, and early Judaism thought in terms of seven archangels before God’s throne. The problem with that view is that Revelation never uses the word “spirits” to refer to angels. And so for that reason most commentators take the ‘seven spirits’ as referring to the “sevenfold spirit” of God, or the Holy Spirit. Again, seven is the number of completeness, so John is most likely referring to the fullness of the Holy Spirit.
And then finally, grace and peace also from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead. And so John has now included all three persons of the Trinity, God the Father, the son, and Holy Spirit.
And right after, in the rest of verse five, John basically sums up the Gospel, by saying “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 6 to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” I mean that is basically a short one sentence summation of the Gospel message!
But John continues in verses 7 & 8, which read…7 Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. 8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
I mean, we are getting this seven verses into chapter 1. This sounds like what we should be ending the book of Revelation with! But this is only the end of the greeting John writes to the seven churches.
But John says that “he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him”. This sounds like the same sort of description the prophet Daniel provided in chapter 7, where Daniel, speaking of the Son of Man, says “and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
But John also says that “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the tribes on earth will wail on account of him”. Now understand, when it says “pierced” here, it is a reference to Jesus’ crucifixion. They pierced his hands and feet. In Psalms 22 we read “For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet – 17 I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; 18 they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.
So clearly this is an allusion to the execution of Jesus. But here we read that “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the tribes on earth will wail on account of him”.
Now when it says “even those who pierced him”, it is not talking about the Roman soldiers who actually nailed him to the cross, but most likely to the Jewish leadership responsible for his execution. As we just read above, even Zechariah identifies those who pierced him as being “the house of David ” and the inhabitants of Jerusalem”.
But John also says that “all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him”. Now Zechariah prophesied that the inhabitants of Jerusalem will weep genuine tears of repentance for what they did to their Messiah. But there will also be a mourning from the rest of the inhabitants of the earth. It may also be from a genuine repentance, but will most likely be from guilt of sin, and fear of coming punishment.
But what we see now as we wrap up verse 8, John has concluded his introduction and greeting to the seven churches, and beginning in verse 9, he transitions now to his actual vision. And we read in verses 9-11.. I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”
So he begins by identifying himself as a brother and partner in the tribulation and kingdom. John was a fellow sufferer along with these churches for the gospel. In fact, he says he was on the island on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
IOW, John was on the island of Patmos, exiled as punishment by the state for preaching the gospel. Patmos was a rocky, mountainous, crescent-shaped island located about 30 miles off the coast of Asia Minor, which is again, modern day Turkey. It’s about eight miles long and six miles wide.
The Romans used this island as a place of political banishment. Oftentimes, people of a lower social status were executed, enslaved, or banished to the mines or to die in the gladiator games. But rulers also used banishment to an island to rid themselves of influential troublemakers, without having to kill them
And so John had been banished to the island of Patmos. And unless the government lifted the banishment, those banished to the island would remain there until they died. Early Christian tradition says that the Roman Emperor Domitian sent John to Patmos, and that John was released after the death of Domitian, who was assassinated in AD 96.
But notice what John says. He says “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day…” Now when he says he was in the Spirit, this is most likely a reference to the Holy Spirit, and the resulting spirit-guided and spirit-empowered prophetic inspiration.
When he says “on the Lord’s Day”, he would have most likely been referring to Sunday, when early Christians gathered to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday.
But it’s interesting. John is aware that it’s Sunday, and he is in a spiritual way when he receives this revelation from God. He was spiritually prepared. And I wonder, how often do we potentially miss communication from God because he is drowned out in our lives by the loudness and the business of this world. Maybe we don’t ever receive deeper revelations from God because we are so occupied by all the noise in our lives.
Perhaps we would be wise to more often follow the wisdom of Psalm 46:10, which says “Be still, and know that I am God”. But I can just about guarantee you, that’s something that won’t just happen by accident. That will have to be a conscious decision on your part to make it happen.
Just an observation, but many Christians spend time talking to other Christians about God. But they don’t spend a lot of time actually talking to God.
But John hears a voice behind him say “ Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”
Interesting. John is told to write down what he sees and send it to the seven churches. Daniel was told to “shut up the vision” he had received. To shut up the words and seal the book, even until the end of the age”
But now John is told what? Write down what you see in a book, and send it to the seven churches. In Revelation 22:10 he is again told, ‘Do not seal the sayings of the prophecy of this book; for the time is at hand”
But these will be the seven churches in the seven cities John will write letters as he is told to do. One of the questions that’s asked is “Why these seven churches”?
Because we know that there were more than seven churches in this area at the time, so why these seven? What about the church in Rome? Or Jerusalem? Or Antioch? Interesting that 7 is the number of completeness. And so some argue that these seven churches were representative of all of the churches in the world. In fact, they argue that if you look at the letters, when we get to them, that in order, these churches represent the various eras of church history throughout history.
But critics argue that when you look at the order in which the letters are written, it actually follows the path that a messenger would take if he were in fact delivering those letters. IOW, the order of the letters follows the natural path you would travel to deliver the letters to each city.
But as we will see, even if these letters don’t portray the history of the church throughout the ages, most churches probably fall into one of the categories that Jesus calls out. And we will dive more into that over the next two chapters.
But John turns to see who is speaking to him, and we read his description in verses 12-16…12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
And so John turns when he hears the voice “like a trumpet”, which is probably just an expression of the clarity of Jesus’ voice.
But he turns and notices seven golden lampstands. Well what in the world is the meaning of the lampstands? Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate, because in verse 20 it tells us that the seven golden lampstands are the seven churches.
But in the midst of the seven lampstands, John saw “one like the son of man”. Now this expression, “son of man”, hearkens back to Daniel 7:13 and his vision of God’s agent. But “son of man” is also the title Jesus used of himself more than any other. He used it of himself 81 times in the Gospels.
I think the image of Jesus amongst the lampstands is an important one here. Again, the lampstands represent the seven churches. And there is God’s presence among them. In Exodus, the lampstand in the tabernacle had seven lamps, made to shine light in the holy place.
And now we see the lampstand as a church, living in God’s presence, and it is meant to reflect both God’s word and deed to the world. As believers, we are the church, and we are supposed to shine by the power of the Holy Spirit, giving the message of Christ for those people still living in darkness
And John says that he was “clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest”. This would of course recall the high priest, and suggests that Jesus is our high priest. But it also speaks of garments worn by Kings at the time. Which makes sense, because Jesus is our King and high priest
But John continues with his description of this vision of Christ, saying “The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze,…”. And we see here again that John uses a very similar description as Daniel did in his vision back in Daniel 7:9, where Daniel describes his vision of God, the Ancient of Days, with the white hair the emblem of age and honor, and possibly wisdom.
‘His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters..” All of this imagery depicts the radiance and brilliance of Jesus. I wonder if this is similar to how he looked to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration years earlier?
But look, the descriptions of Jesus here are not simply to describe what he looked like, but to declare his power. He is the Lord of the universe, the one who has power over life and death.
And John says in verse 16 “In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.” Again, his face shining like the sun makes sense based on what we just covered.
But what are the seven stars he held in his right hand about? Again, we don’t have to speculate, because we’re told in verse 20. They are the angels of the seven churches.
But what or who are the angels of the seven churches? This is much debated. On one hand, there is belief that the seven angels are actually the human leaders of the church, such as the pastors, elders, and so forth. They believe this because they argue angels are never leaders in the church
But others disagree, arguing that there are no instances in the New Testament, or in Revelation, where the word “angel” refers to a pastor or any human leader. And so the more likely interpretation is that these angels refer to what we typically mean when we refer to angels, creatures who are heavenly beings and play a significant role in serving God.
We know from other places in scripture, like Matthew, Acts, and Daniel, that angels serve in roles such as guarding individuals and nations. And so perhaps the letters are addressed to these angels because they play a special role in protecting the churches from the designs of Satan.
But John also says “from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword”. Now verse 20 doesn’t explain this one to us, but, Hebrews 4:12 does, telling us that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
And so how does John react when he turned and saw Jesus? The last four verses of the chapter tell us. 17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
So upon seeing this revelation of the glory of Jesus, what does John do? He falls at his feet as though dead. This is the same reaction men have had in other places in scripture. Other prophets had the same reaction when seeing even angelic beings. Ezekiel fell on his face when shown even the likeness of God’s glory. And Daniel, who stood up to and defied even Nebuchadnezzer, did the same when he saw the angel Gabriel.
None of these men were weak. In fact, based on their lives, we see just the opposite, that they were strong men. And so it shows us just how overwhelming the presence of divinity is in reality. It’s one thing to talk about what it’s like, and what you think you will do or say when you come face-to-face with God. But it’s an entirely different thing when you actually come face-to-face with ultimate reality. And my guess is that we will all do exactly as these strong men did, we will all fall on our face
But if you notice in scripture, every time men fall on their faces, what is the first thing they are told? “Fear not”, ‘Do not be afraid”. In fact, this is the most repeated phrase, or command, in scripture. “Do not be afraid”. Which should provide us with some comfort and reassurance. However, notice who God says this too, or has his angels say this to…Good men, God-fearing men. Or women, as is the case with Mary and the angel Gabriel. IOW, God isn’t communicating with evil men and reassuring them by saying “Do not be afraid”. Because they have every reason to fear.
But after telling John to not be afraid, he continues by saying, “I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore”. So if you thought that maybe this message came from anyone other than Jesus, then this should remove all doubt. This verse involves Jesus’ triumph over death, and identifies him as the first and the last, the Alpha and Omega. And so Jesus is opening his message by announcing his deity.
And because he conquered death, because he is God, he also says “and I have the keys of Death and Hades”. Death and Hades are sometimes used as synonyms. But death is the condition. Hades is a location. “Hades”is a translation of the Hebrew word “sheol”, and it refers to the realm of the dead.
But when he says “I hold the keys”, keys signify authority, because those who have keys are able to open and shut that which is locked up. Even in ancient times, the person who held the keys was an important official position, because they were able to admit or shut out people from the presence of the king.
Now death and Hades together represent death’s power. But it’s important to remember, especially when you look around the world today, Jesus told Peter that “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”.
Now, we have basically already tackled the last two verses, but for the sake of completeness, verses 19- 20 read…19 Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
So again, we already discussed these verses above. But I want to end this first chapter by just briefly reflecting on John. Who may very well be the last remaining apostle. All of the hardships he endured, seeing the death of all the other disciples, the execution of several of them. Now elderly, and sitting on the island of Patmos where he has been banished. Exiled. And yet, even after all he had endured, he was aware that it was the Lord’s Day. He was in a spiritual way, he was spiritually ready when God called.
John wasn’t surrounded by family and friends. There were none of his fellow apostles at his side. He had no home. And yet, he endured. And I wonder, can the same be said, will it be said, of us. When we see Christianity eroding in America, when we witness the increased persecution of Christians even in America, will we, like John, endure to the end….even in exile?