Dr. Richard L. Strauss
September 17, 1978
We are about to begin the great unveiling; the great disclosure. You see, that's what the word for "Revelation" means. It comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, from which we get our English word apocalypse, another name applied to the Book of Revelation. The word literally means "a disclosure, an unveiling," and it's applied to books which seek to unfold the future, whether Biblical or extra-Biblical.
There are many apocalyptic passages in the Old Testament, especially in books like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Joel and Zechariah. We can trust what they say because they give evidence of being inspired by God.
But there also arose in Old Testament Judaism and in the early church a great body of apocalyptic literature which we cannot trust, books which we know to be of fraudulent authorship which we call pseudepigrapha or false writings. These were writings that were purported to be written by people in the Bible but were not. Examples include "The Assumption of Moses," and "The Apocalypse of Paul." They are not inspired by God.
Now let me warn you, there are people today as well who claim that they can predict the future. These are also false writings. Sometimes they are right, but unfortunately this is not always the case because their information does not come from the Lord. Watch out for them. I don't know where they get their information. I have some ideas: Satan knows some things that are going to happen in the future. He can piece things together. He knows God's Word better than I do. And he knows about some future events, so he could be providing them with information. Or maybe it's just intuition. I'm not judging; I don't know where they get their information. But I know they don't get it from God because God doesn't make any mistakes. When God gives prophecies, they are 100% accurate and they come to pass exactly the way He gave them.
We are going to study the last divinely inspired prophecy ever written. It's the last genuinely God-breathed apocalypse ever given. It reveals in great detail the chain of events leading up to consummation of the ages and the ushering in of eternity. It is as up-to-date as tomorrow's newspaper, and every word of it is true. It is the last word of prophecy. It is prophecy's finale.
In this introduction, we are going to look at three things: the characteristics of the book, the circumstances of the writer, and God's command to write it.
1. The Characteristics of the Writing
a. The Prominent Person of the Book
Let's begin at the beginning. Read Revelation 1:1. "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to Him, to show His servants things which must shortly come to pass; and He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John."
This is the "Revelation of Jesus Christ," not as some of our versions erroneously call it "The Revelation of St. John the Divine." God gave this book its title. He called it the Revelation of Jesus Christ, and we ought not to call it otherwise. May I also remind you that it is not "The Revelations." You say, "Aw, come on, Pastor. You're getting awfully picky." Well, I'm a picky person--just ask my wife! And this is one of my picky things: This book is not "The Revelations." Please don't call it that! Call it by its real title, "The Revelation" or "The Revelation of Jesus Christ."
But does this mean that the book came from Jesus Christ or that it is about Jesus Christ? I think it's both. The rest of the verse tells us that it came from Jesus Christ. It originated with God the Father, it was given to God the Son, who then gave it to an angel, who committed it to John, who shared it with us. That's how we got it. It's in your hand today.
But our title does not only tell us that Christ is the revealer of these truths. It tells us that He is Himself the revelation. This book is about Him. He is its theme and central figure. We're going to learn about Jesus.
While future events are disclosed in its pages, these events revolve about Him. The purpose of the events is to reveal Him as the Supreme and Sovereign Ruler of the universe, to describe His complete and final triumph over all who would oppose Him, to exalt and magnify Him. We may learn many things from this book, but first and foremost, we are going to learn about Jesus.
b. The Prophetic Purpose of the Book
The fact remains, however, that much we learn about Jesus in this book is still future. It is a book of prophecy. It is called such in Revelation 1:3. "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy"--so we know it's predictive. Some people don't believe that. They think it's just a thinly veiled commentary on the situation of that day. No. It is a prophecy. It is predictive in nature. God said so; how can we deny it?
And right here John makes perfectly plain that this revelation concerns "things which must shortly come to pass." The word "shortly" has troubled some. It has now been almost 1900 years since John wrote this message (95 A.D), and all of it hasn't been fulfilled yet. That isn't exactly "shortly" by our way of thinking. But the word doesn't have to mean "soon." It can also mean "quickly." Some Bible scholars believe that when these events begin to happen, they are going to happen rapidly once they begin. They are going to happen quickly. But even if John did mean "soon," it is enough to know that the predictions concerning the churches in chapters 2 and 3 did come to pass very soon. Those things have already been fulfilled. In fact, you can visit the sites of these churches today and see the fulfillment of some of the prophecies in this book. They did "shortly" come to pass.
There is another thought in verse 1 that I also want you to notice. See that word "signified" in Revelation 1:1? "He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John." It's a word that has the idea of conveying truth by signs and symbols. And that is exactly what we find in the Book of Revelation.
Many have asked "Why did God write it in symbols? I mean, if God wanted us to know what He was going to do in this world, why did He couch it in symbolic languages so difficult to understand?" Why did He fill it with symbols and signs and figures of speech and metaphors and allegories and analogies of every kind? Why did He use these things?
Well, there are several answers to this question. For one thing, John saw things that were so far in the future that he couldn't really describe it in the language of that day. For example, suppose someone 200 years ago somehow saw in a vision a rocket--a big Saturn V taking off from the Cape. How would he describe that to his contemporaries? You figure it out. I maybe would have described it as a huge tree trunk, burning at its roots, and flying into the heavens. That's the way this book was written. Now please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that John saw atomic explosions. I don't know whether he did or not. I don't know how God is going to destroy this world. But John used the only words he could think of for something that in our day might be described as an atomic explosion. He calls it "fire and brimstone raining down from heaven."
There was also another reason why this book was written with symbolic language. The historical background of the book helps us with this answer. This book was written during the most difficult time of persecution the Christian church had experienced up to that day. It was persecution under the Roman Emperor Domitian. Christians were losing their lives for their faith. Oppressed believers needed the assurance of Christ's ultimate victory which this book would give them. King Jesus was going to put down all this sin and establish His righteous rule over the earth.
What if the book was written in a very straightforward way and fell into the hands of the Roman Government officials? It had to be written in such a way as not to incriminate the Christians, so God had John write it in symbols. Beasts and birds, trees and grass, sun and stars, mother and child, and so on--the average Roman official reading about these things in order to find evidence against Christians wouldn't find it. They'd read it like a lot of people today and think it made no sense at all. They'd probably throw down the book in disgust. But believers, who were students of the Old Testament Scriptures and who had the Holy Spirit living inside them would be able to understand the symbols, and their hearts would be blessed. They would be encouraged to know that God was bringing history to a meaningful conclusion that would ultimately bring glory to Him.
If you know Jesus Christ as your Savior, you can understand the Book of Revelation. You have the same Holy Spirit they had. We have the rest of the Scriptures to help us. God didn't use figurative language to confuse you. He's put clues within the book itself to help you comprehend it, and He's given you other books in His Word that throw light on this one. Approach it with an open heart and a Christ-controlled mind, and you will understand it.
You know what? You may need to understand it. The day may not be far off when you need the assurance it affords. I don't believe the church will go through the Great Tribulation. But that doesn't mean we won't experience some persecution and have to suffer for our faith. I don't know whether that suffering is coming in our generation or not, but it well could. There are other believers in the world today who are suffering for their faith. Why not us? It could happen. The day may come very quickly when we need to understand what this book is all about. That's why we're doing this series: to help you understand this Book of the Revelation.
c. The Personal Penman of the Book
There is little question but that the human author of this book is John. In Revelation 1:2, he says John, "who bore witness to the Word of God and of the testimony of Jesus Christ." There is no question that this is John, the son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved. John is the only New Testament writer who refers to Jesus Christ as the Word.
John's Gospel begins that way: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God" (John 1:1). He began his first epistle that way: "That which was from the beginning which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have handled of the Word of Life" (1 John 1:1). So we are not surprised to read in Revelation, "Who bore witness of the word of God." He's the penman: John.
He was in rather difficult circumstance when he wrote this book. He was in exile. He was in a chain gang--a labor gang. He was in his 90s, believe it or not. And then he sat down and wrote this book. He was faithful to share what God showed him. How we can thank God for a man like John who was willing to be the human instrument through whom God could communicate to us these things? We can face the future with confidence and assurance because he faithfully shared everything God showed him.
God will never use you or me to write a book in the Bible because the cannon of Scripture is completed. In fact, He warns us about adding anything to it. If you hear anyone giving a prophecy that is not found in the Bible, you can disregard it because God said He has given us His truth and He doesn't want us to add anything to it. Someday we'll know everything, but right now we know by studying our Bibles all that God wants us to know about spiritual things. But what we know, God wants us to share with others.
Do you do that? Suppose God teaches you something that you really get excited about. If you are faithful in sharing what God has shown you from the Word, God can use you to bring great blessing to somebody's heart (and maybe even bring them to the Savior), just as John was and is to us. The question is whether or not we will be as faithful as he.
d. The Promised Profit of the Book
There is an unusual promise associated with this book, the only such promise found in any book of the Bible. Read Revelation 1:3. "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it, for the time is at hand."
To my knowledge, there is no other book of the Bible that makes a promise that clearly. It says that those who read this book--and I take that to mean public reading--and to those who listen to that reading of this book and especially to those who keep it--that is, who obey it, who live in the light of what it says--there is a reward: a promised a special blessing.
Isn't it strange that the one book that promises blessing to those who read it, hear it, and obey it is one of the least-read books in all of God's Word, and likely the least read book in the New Testament? It is our intention to remedy that short-coming in this church with this series of messages on Revelation. And the time we spend in it can become one of the most blessed experiences of our Christian lives. God promises it to be so. Do you believe what God says? I want that blessing! Come faithfully, listen attentively, evaluate carefully, and obey implicitly. You will benefit with rich blessing from God.
e. The Providential Provision of the Book
The final characteristic I want you to see is the Providential provision. We now move to the salutation which identifies the author, and the addressee: "John to the seven churches which are in Asia" (Revelation 1:4). It's followed by the invocation of grace and peace: "Grace to you and peace." That's God's great provision for the believer: grace and peace.
Grace is God's willingness to freely forgive the undeserving, on the basis of Christ's death, that provides our only hope for eternal salvation. Because of His grace, we can be assured of eternity in His presence (Ephesians 2:8-9). There are so many people today who think they get to heaven by doing good things, by keeping the Golden Rule, by obeying the Ten Commandments, by being a good neighbor. God says His salvation is by grace. "By grace are you saved through faith and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). God wants you to do good works after you have come to know Him through His grace--but grace comes first. He knew you could never do enough to atone for your sins. He knew your very best efforts would fall so far short of His standards and His demands that you would never make it. So He sent His Son to Calvary's cross to pay for your sins. God's grace is free because somebody else paid your penalty for your sins: Jesus Christ.
If you have never opened your heart to God's grace, you can do it right now as we study this book of prophecy. When you do, you will then be the possessor of God's second great provision: peace. Only those who know the Savior can have genuine peace. You say you know non-Christians who have peace? No they don't. They may have lethargy or indifference, but anyone who knows what's going on in the world today has no peace unless they have peace with God and the peace of God. And that peace will grow as you learn more and more of God's great plan for the future as it is revealed in this book.
Did you notice John's reference to the trinity in this salutation in Revelation 1:4 and 5? "Grace be unto you, and peace, from Him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne. And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth."
It's phrased differently from what we are used to, but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all here as the source of grace and peace. The Father is referred to in His eternalness: "He who is, who was, and who is to come."
The Holy Spirit is referred to in His completeness as the seven-fold spirit before the throne. While some feel that "seven Spirits" is a reference to seven angels ministering before the throne of God, others remind us of the seven-fold reference to the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 11:2. "And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord." There are the seven titles of the Spirit. That's the Holy Spirit. This seems to be the logical interpretation.
And finally, this grace and peace is from our Lord Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:5), the third Person of the Trinity. There is much in this chapter about our precious Savior, but I want to tie it all together in our next lesson. For that reason we skip down to verse 9 now and note the circumstances of the writer of Revelation.
2. The Circumstances of the Writer
a. Oppressed by Men
The Apostle John was getting near the age of retirement--in his 60s in all probability--when he first came to Ephesus to provide some leadership for the churches in Asia Minor (69-70 A.D.). Most of the other original twelve apostles were dead when the persecution under Nero ended, but John had survived and now the heavy responsibility of strengthening and stabilizing the churches fell on his aging shoulders.
His primary sphere of ministry was in the city of Ephesus according to the writings of early second century church fathers, but his accurate and detailed knowledge of surrounding cities indicates that he must have made periodic visits to a number of churches where he ministered God's Word. It was an arduous trip over several hundred miles of mountainous terrain as he made the clockwise circuit from Ephesus to Smyrna to Pergamum to Thyatira to Sardis to Philadelphia to Laodicea and back to Ephesus. How many times he did it, we don't know, but his intimate knowledge of the people and their surroundings indicates some frequency.
It is possible that they were beginning to respond to his ministry when suddenly renewed persecution against Christians broke out under the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.). It was near the end of his reign (95 A.D.) when his vengeance against Christians reached the aging John for his outspoken allegiance to Jesus Christ, and John was banished to the rocky, barren island of Patmos some 15 miles off the coast of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) near Ephesus. "I, John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle of Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Revelation 1:9). He was now probably in his 90s.
History tells us that exiles so banished were usually put in chain gangs and forced to labor in mines. They were poorly fed and clothed and then were made to sleep on the bare ground at night. It was almost more than an old man could hope to bare. And how the heart of this dear old man of God must have longed for his sheep as he glanced off to the distant coast line of Asia Minor. The aches of his body could not compare with the agony of his soul for the believers beyond those mountains.
Unknown to John, it would only be a year until Domitian would be assassinated and a measure of peace and safety would permit him to return to his post at Ephesus. But at this moment the situation looked hopeless.
b. Occupied with the Lord
"I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet" (Revelation 1:10).
"In the Spirit" refers to "a supernatural state of consciousness in which he received a new disclosure of truth" (Tenney, Scripture Press Quarterly, p.789). Whether he was working or whether he was resting at day's end, I don't know. But in the most miserable and hopeless of circumstances, this man of God was conscious of the Lord's presence through the indwelling Spirit. He was meditating upon and worshiping the Lord. He was listening to the voice of God.
You know, this is the kind of situation where most of us are least aware of God's presence, right? If there is a time in our lives when we are not occupied with the Lord, not living in an attitude of yieldedness to His Spirit, it is often the moment of darkness--when the pressure of daily living squeezes in upon us, when sorrow strikes its stunning blow, or sickness lingers with its discouragement and discomforts, when disappointments cast their shadow over us. So often we turn to fretting and complaining in self-pity, lashing out critically at others with bitterness and resentment, rather than trusting, rejoicing, and worshipping.
God had a great ministry for John to perform, and he learned of it in the moment of deepest trial of his life--when his heart was right with God.
There are people here today and people who are listening on radio [and reading this message] who know Jesus Christ as their personal Savior from sin, for whom God has great plans. There are some tremendous things He wants them to accomplish, but they will never know them--they will never find out what they are. Do you know why? Because the first time a little trial comes into their lives, they will turn their backs on Him and begin to complain and worry and blame. They won't be open to Him and will not be listening to Him.
In his 90s, in a labor gang, with chains on his body, John is filled with the Spirit and he's willing to do the will of God, whatever it is. May God help us to learn from his example.
3. The Command to Write
(Revelation 1:11, 19)
a. The People for whom He Wrote
In the control of God's Spirit, John hears a voice as of a trumpet, "What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea" (Revelation 1:11b).
Why was John commanded to write to these particular churches? There were other churches in Asia Minor, such as Troas or Colossee. John was writing to meet the spiritual needs of these seven churches, but other churches had needs as well, didn't they? They could have been the ones on his circuit, so he knew them better. That's possible. Another possibility is what the New Scofield Reference Bible [called the The Old Scofield Study Bible as of 1999] suggests: that these seven churches each preview a period of church history--and there is a very interesting parallel when you study the periods of church history and these seven churches. But I've discovered some things in studying about them, and everything in every church does not fit neatly into its corresponding period. So while God may have done that to show us periods of church history, I don't think that's the primary reason for the choice of these seven churches.
I do think the number seven is significant. It has carried with it the idea of completeness from the beginning of time. God's complete and perfect creative week included seven days. Every seven years was a complete cycle, and the seventh was called the Sabbatical year when the land had rest. The number is used about 600 times in the Scripture, and often this idea of completeness or perfection fits the context. Maybe God led John to choose seven churches because what he was going to say to them has timeless application to the whole professing church of Jesus Christ in every age.
These churches represent the whole gamut of spiritual attitudes, from whole-hearted submission to Jesus Christ, to complete apostasy--and professing Christians from any age find themselves represented in one or other of these churches. In fact, in almost every period of church history there have been Christians who fit the description of every one of these seven churches. And the message to these churches in Asia Minor no sooner enters our minds than we realize that we are here, that Jesus Christ in speaking to us through His apostle. In other words, there are people here today who will find themselves represented by one of the seven churches. May God help us to see ourselves as we study these letters one by one.
The people to whom John wrote are seven churches, plus you and me. This is for us.
The command to write is repeated in verse 19, and we need to look at it in closing to see the plan of this book. Here is the divine outline: "Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter."
If you will look at Revelation 1:11-12 you will note that what John saw was the risen Christ in all His glory. "The things which you have seen" refers to the Lord Jesus. "I turned to see the voice that spoke unto me, and being turned I saw seven golden lampstands and in the midst of the lampstands one like the Son of Man" (Revelation 1:12). So the "things which you have seen" is the Lord Jesus, chapter 1.
"The things which are" is an obvious reference to the spiritual conditions existing at the very moment in the seven churches of Asia Minor in chapters 2 and 3.
"The things which shall be hereafter" are introduced in Revelation 4:1. "After this I looked and behold, a door was opened to me in heaven and the first voice I heard was, as it were of a trumpet talking with me and said, 'Come up here and I will show you things which must be hereafter.'" From chapter 4 to chapter 22, we have a description of things which shall be hereafter.
That's the divine outline of the book of Revelation:
- Things which you have seen (chapter 1)
- Things which are (chapters 2-3)
- Things which shall be hereafter (chapters 4-22)
You say, "Wait a minute. I don't like that outline. It's unbalanced!"
All right. God gave us a second outline to this book. Revelation has a second divinely imparted outline. Look at Revelation 1:10. "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day." "In the Spirit"--see that? Those words, "in the Spirit," are repeated three more times in the book: Revelation 4:2; Revelation 17:3; and Revelation 21:10. They offer us another divinely revealed division for the book.
- Revelation 1-3: Christ considering His church
- Revelation 4-16: Christ controlling His world, directing the affairs of men to the apex of the ages: the establishment of His kingdom on the earth
- Revelation 17-20: Christ conquering His foes
- Revelation 21-22: Christ climaxing His program of the ages and ushering in eternity
That's the second divinely-revealed outline. Use either one you want.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
How you outline the book is not nearly as important as this: that you know the central Person in the book. Do you know Jesus Christ? He said that to know Him is eternal life. Do you know Him?
You say, "How can I know Somebody who doesn't even live on the earth anymore? He's left the earth and lives someplace else in a place called heaven. How can I know Him?"
You can. You first need to be introduced to Him, and that happens, according to His word, when you acknowledge that you are a sinner, undeserving of His grace; when you believe that He died on the cross in your place to pay for your sins; and when you put your personal trust in Him. That's the beginning. That's when you come to know Jesus for the first time.
Oh, you may be a very religious person, but you don't know Jesus until you've acknowledged your sin and put your personal trust in Him as your Sin-bearer and Savior. Then you know Him. And then the knowledge grows--through His word, He speaks to us. Through prayer, we speak to Him and share our hearts with Him. Our relationship grows and becomes more intimate. That's real life. You don't know what it means to live until you know Jesus Christ. Do you know Him?!
If you don't, may I have the joy and privilege of introducing you this morning to the Lord Jesus Christ? He wants to become a part of your life. He wants to forgive your sins and give you everlasting salvation. Won't you put your trust in Him?
Continue to RV-01B: The Lord and the Lampstands