A VISION TO SUSTAIN US
Revelation 1:1-3, 9-11
Using Revelation, William Miller determined that Jesus would return between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. Miller later recalculated and said the correct date was October 22, 1844.
Using Revelation, Charles Taze Russell concluded Jesus would return in 1914, and that “millions now living will never die,” and spread that news with the Watch Tower Tract Society. World War I broke out in 1914 and between 85-100 million people died in the conflict.
David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians, said it was he, and not Christ, who would open the seven seals described in Revelation 6.
Others, who would certainly not be classified as “nut jobs,” using their understanding of Revelation, have influenced much of modern theology, among them John Nelson Darby, Cyrus Scofield, Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, and Jerry B. Jenkins. This later group uses Revelation – along with other prophetic passages – and current events to construct a straight time line which reduces Revelation to a jig saw puzzle to be assembled, and misses much of the incredible good news which John communicated to his original readers.
So many people who preach and teach about Revelation have everything pinned down – you are listening to one about whom that could have been said in years past. They know exactly what events of world history are prophesied by which images in the book of Revelation so that they can plot on the timeline exactly how close we are to the end of the world.
A careful study of Revelation will demonstrate that prophesying events 20 centuries after it was written is not the book’s primary message. The most obvious flaw of many interpretations of the Bible is that they begin with the 21st Century and move backwards.
John addressed Christians who were being persecuted because they clung to the Lordship of Christ. Would they have the courage to go on in the face of suffering? Would they give up and be assimilated? Would they make compromises so they could exist in both worlds?
John, who is a prisoner for his faith, communicates with Christians in Asia Minor through stories and visions which are filled with family history. They overflow with images identifiable to those who knew the family history, for Revelation is filled with stories and images from the OT and from Jesus’ teachings. Its pictures come from the traditions of Israel; they symbolize the ways in which God took care of the weak and despised Hebrews and made them a covenant people.
The original readers of Revelation would immediately recognize those images as well as the larger biblical passages from which they came. This is the literary framework in which we will look for the central thrusts of the message in Revelation.
God’s message to us in the book of Revelation is that in the present we are not always going to win; our lives will not always be characterized by triumph. That hard to accept – unless we balanced it on the opposite side with this hope: eventually we will win because Christ reigns.
Let’s try this.
The government in power is not the one you voted for.
Economically, the wheels are coming off. Luxuries are unaffected, but you are having trouble making ends meet.
Worst of all, your faith is increasingly marginalized and is constantly under attack. Holding true to your principles is an increasingly risky proposition.
What do you do? You have three basic choices. First, back away from the claims of faith and become assimilated into the surrounding culture. Second, be complacent – things are bad, but they are not that bad – and make small compromises. Third, resist the pressure of the world and society, and suffer the consequences for standing up for an increasingly unpopular belief system.
So your pastor, who is in the same boat you are in – and maybe his boat has a few more leaks than yours – wants to give you a message of hope. Because of his current situation, he is not able to come to you, so his only possible method of communication is to write a letter.
Now, what kind of a letter will he write? A letter with codes and symbols that people 2,000 years from now will try to use to predict their future? Or a letter with codes and symbols that you understand which will assure you that as bad as things are, God is still in control, and the forces of evil will not win – in fact, they are already defeated, and your victory is assured?
John used the second method to address fellow believers in Asia minor who were persecuted for their faith and were increasingly tempted to compromise or to give up altogether. He did not write a letter for you and me to decode in light of the 21st Century and beyond. If we are to understand what he was saying, we have to get this basic fact: we were in John’s heart when he wrote, but he did not write directly to us. Paul told Timothy:
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man or woman of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).
That means Revelation’s message is for us, as certainly as it was for John’s churches, but if we are going to understand it, we must understand what it meant to them. We cannot, we dare not, apply 21st Century ideas to a First Century document!
The title of this book – “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” – reminds us that by grace, God revealed through the seer and servant John, the truth about the Lordship of Jesus to comfort people who were facing situations in their lives which were almost completely out of their control. They were a people who needed hope.
Our culture needs the gift of hope, and Revelation, first of all, almost overwhelms us with hope – but it is accessible to us only if we can acknowledge our weakness, and that is awfully hard for us. We don’t want to shed our facades, our pretentiousness.
God is the focus of Revelation, and because he is, the symbols and images affirm the truth that victory lies in receiving divine grace for those areas of our lives where we are overpowered. Such an interpretation invites us to turn to the Bible’s last book when things are hard — when we are struggling with illness, or harassment at work, with financial shortages, or family difficulties. Such a perspective really offers profound comfort and hope. One of the great truths of Revelation is that Jesus Christ reigns especially in the midst of our suffering.
Revelation teaches three basic truths – the present opposition of the powers of evil; the resultant suffering on the part of God’s people; and the ultimate, final victory of God in Jesus Christ. These truths lead to the second important aspect of the theology of Revelation: we do not have to be assimilated, we do not have to compromise, we can endure our suffering and weakness because of the certainty of God’s ultimate victory.
Many twenty-first-century Christians find these convictions almost impossible to accept. Instead they have espoused a theology of “victory, healing, luxury, and blessedness” that Revelation does not teach. God does not promise us a rose garden – at least not one without legions of thorns. And though there are, of course, many roses in life, they fade, too – with the promise that they will come again next season.
To make sure that we understand the importance of receiving this revelation as it comes to us from God Himself, John offers this guarantee: “Blessed the one reading and the ones hearing the words of the prophecy and heeding the things which are written in it” (1:3). In other words, those who participated in the leading of worship by reading the seer’s letter to the early Christians would find blessing in that action, and those who participated in the worship celebration and who applied the word of prophecy to their lives in practical ways would also benefit.
The Christians suffering under persecutions in Asia Minor desperately needed a disclosure of God’s sovereignty to sustain them. The words of Revelation, recording the vision of the seer John, offered them the hope they needed. The text of Revelation 1:1 says that this is Revelation of Jesus Christ. From this book we will learn what Jesus is like in all the fullness of His glorified Lordship. That vision will fill us with hope. God gave Jesus this revelation to show the seer John what would happen, so that God’s people would be encouraged to trust His Lordship in all their struggles.
In Revelation 1:2 the contents of this book are declared to be “the witness of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.” John says it is not his witness, his revelation. The things that he is about to tell us are the very things of God, made available to us through the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
The Lord’s Table is proof that we share in the victory of Revelation!