The book of Revelation is the book in the Bible that is considered to be shrouded in mystery. Many people think that the book of Revelation cannot be understood. Many think that the book is intended to be hard. Before we begin our study, I am going to encourage you with the same words that I always offer. Please enter this study with an open mind. Try to erase any preconceived notions you may have. Study the book of Revelation for yourself. I believe this is one of the primary reasons that people have difficulty with the book. Many do not read and study the book of Revelation for themselves. Instead, they just listen to what everyone else has to say about the book. This leads to great confusion because everyone says something different about the book. You must read the book for yourself. If you have a question or disagree with what is said concerning the book, you will have an opportunity in the Wednesday night study to voice your question or disagreement and we can work together in our studies for a solution. I presented a study of Revelation back in 2002-2003. I have changed my position on some of the aspects of the book since then. I am not arrogant to think that I will not learn more and change my thoughts again down the road. Therefore you need to rely on God’s word and your own study of the book, rather than just on my teachings.
As noted in the introduction material to the class, one of the frustrating aspects of studying Revelation is determining the date of the book. The debate on when the book was written continues to rage. There are many persuasive arguments on both sides of the discussion. I encourage you to read both sides of the discussion. One of the frustrating parts of dating the book is that scholars disagree over when it was written. In the last 100 the predominant view has been a late date for the book (95-96 AD). However, during the previous 100 years the predominant view was an early date for the book (65-69 AD). My encouragement for you in your study (and the basis of our study) is to not begin Revelation with a date in mind. Beginning your study with a date in mind will color how you read the book. Instead, let the book tell you when it was written. Let the images and symbols speak and interpret them in the most natural way, regardless of the date. Once we are done and have read the images, only then let us determine when it was likely for Revelation to have been written. We will have much more to say about the date of the book as we study Revelation. Let’s get started with our study.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ (1:1)
“‘Revelation’ (apokalypsis) means to expose in full view what was formerly hidden, veiled, or secret” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary). This is a significant beginning to our study. The book of Revelation is revealing something that previously was concealed. Revelation is not code. Revelation is not hidden language. To suggest such violates the very name of the book. This is the book of unveiling. This is the book of revealing, not concealing. This information also set up our filter for our interpretation method. This book is explaining things that were previously hidden. While we do not know for certain yet, our most likely source would be Old Testament prophecies that were shrouded in mystery that the book is going to make plain. It is noted by all scholars that Revelation borrows heavily from the images of the Old Testament. Therefore, our interpretative model should be that the book of Revelation is an explanation of those Old Testament images. When we read language in Revelation that is found in the Old Testament, we need to go back to the origin of the image and understand it in its proper context. Then we can see how the book of Revelation is shedding light or revealing information about that prophecy. It is not “Revelations,” but “Revelation.” One unveiling of the things hidden in the past.
This is the revelation of Jesus Christ. Many will remark that this book is about Jesus. There are two ways to understand “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” One way is that the revelation is about Jesus. The other way is that the revelation is from Jesus. When we read the sentence it becomes clear that this is the revelation from Jesus, not about him. Verse 1 is awkward if it means, “The revelation about Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants….” God gave Jesus the revelation about Jesus? It makes far more sense to understand verse 1 to say, “The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants….” God gave this revelation to Jesus who gave it to his servants. The end of the book of Revelation makes the point again that this revelation is from Jesus. “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches” (Revelation 22:16). The TNIV and NLT translate verse 1 as “The revelation from Jesus Christ” because this is the way the verse makes the most sense. The point is that this unveiling is coming from God the Father. We will see this image made clearer in Revelation 4.
Time Markers (1:1,3)
There are two time markers in this preface. The first is found in verse 1, “To show his servants the things that must soon take place.” The second time marker is in verse 3, “For the time is near.” Carefully read those time markers. Verse 1 says that the revelation concerns things that must soon take place. The time is near for the events that are contained in the revelation and that is why those who read, hear, and keep the words are blessed. The point cannot be ignored. The things in the book are happening soon.
Define “soon” to you? If someone told you that these things are going to happen soon, how long do you think it will be? Would you think that it would be 2000 years later? Do you think it would be 300 years later? 100 years later? No, these things do not fit. Scholars are beginning to rightly reject the popular futurist view that the book of Revelation has not occurred yet because of these time markers.
“Therefore, John’s book is a prophetic work which concerns the imminent and inaugurated fulfillment of OT prophecies about the kingdom in Jesus Christ” (Beale, New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC), 183).
Those who want the book of Revelation to be about things that have not been fulfilled yet even today in the year 2010 try a number of ways to get around these clear time markers. Tim LaHaye, who is one of the most well known futurist advocates for the book of Revelation (popular as co-author of the Left Behind novels), makes no comment in his commentary, Revelation Unveiled, about these time markers. One method to keep a futurist view is to ignore these verses and just keep moving on.
Robert L. Thomas, defends a futurist view by arguing, “God is not limited by considerations of time in the same way man is” (Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary (WEC), 56). This point is absolutely correct. God is not bound by time in the same way that people are. However, this does not solve the problem. Remember, Revelation is supposed to be the unveiling, not the concealing. Revelation is not supposed to add to the confusion, but explain the concealed. Further, God is bound by time when he speaks to humans and reveals to them that something “must soon take place” and “the time is near.” God is not bound by time, but he is bound by his word when he speaks to humanity. If he tells humans that something must happen soon and the time is near, then it must be soon to us and near to us, otherwise God is false and is unable to communicate with his creation.
Beale states the point even stronger. Beale states, “Things must soon take place,” “…connotes neither the speedy manner in which the Daniel prophecy is to be fulfilled nor the mere possibility that it could be fulfilled at any time, but the definite, imminent time of fulfillment, which likely has already begun in the present” (Beale, NIGTC, 181-2).
The argument of those who take the book of Revelation as still in the future is that, “Things must soon take place” can also mean “things must suddenly take place.” That is, the preface is not saying that the things contained in Revelation will happen soon, but whenever these things do happen, they will happen suddenly. There are many problems with this position. This does not deal with verse 3, “The time is near.” Even if verse 1 does mean, “Things must suddenly take place,” there is no way to get around that God said the time is near.
Robert L. Thomas, a futurist, states well the problem with taking verse 1 to mean “suddenly.” “A major thrust of Revelation is its emphasis upon the shortness of time before the fulfillment. In the midst of persecution God’s people do not have long to wait for relief to come. To say that the relief will come ‘suddenly’ offers no encouragement, but to say that it will come ‘soon’ does” (WEC, 55). One of the themes of Revelation is relief from suffering will come soon. If not, the book of Revelation becomes an untrue and hopeless book since the martyrs will told a little while longer till they were vindicated. Hundreds or thousands of years will not work. Not only will the futurist position not work in light of these words, but I submit to you that seeing only the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD will also not work. If the book of Revelation is only about the demise of the Roman Empire, that would not happen for nearly 400 years or more. Four hundred years is not soon and is not near. If I were to tell you that Christ would come in judgment and relieve you of your suffering more than 400 years from now, would you have relief? No, not at all. The time marker is not only a problem for the futurist position but it is also a problem for those who see only the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD as the message of the book of Revelation.
Therefore, the book of Revelation is not about the rise of the Roman Catholic church. The book of Revelation is not about Iraq and Saddam Hussein. The book of Revelation is not about the European Union. The book of Revelation is not a book about current events. We must not read the newspapers and try to plug what is happening today as the fulfillment of the book of Revelation. The book of Revelation was relevant to the first century Christians who heard its message. Notice in verse 3 that those Christians in the first century who read, heard, and kept what is written in it would be blessed. If chapters 4-22 are yet to come still, then there is no blessing for those Christians who received this letter. This does not mean that there is nothing for us to learn. We learn from every book in the Bible even though there was an original audience to whom the book was written. We do not read Romans and discard its value because it was written to the Christians in the city of Rome in the first century. There is still great value, lessons, and applications for us. The book of Revelation is the same. Though written to the seven churches of Asia, there is still great value, lessons, and applications for us.
John signals to his audience how the book of Revelation is to be read. Notice that God gave Jesus this revelation “to show,” not to tell, his servants the things that must soon take place. The ESV Study Bible states, “The terms, ‘revelation,’ ‘show,’ ‘made it known,’ and ‘he saw’ prepare the reader and hearers for symbolic visions….” Many translations read in verse 1, “He made it known.” The HCSB and NKJV read, “He…signified it by his angel.” Our English word “signified” gets at the idea appropriately. He “sign-i-fied” the revelation, that is, he put it into signs and symbols.
Grant Osborne says the Greek word, “Yields the idea of making known by means of symbols” (Baker Exegetical Commentary, 55). Robert Thomas also states, “…in nonbiblical literature, it [this Greek word] already had a usage related to symbolic divine communications with men” (WEC, 56). This tells us we must adapt how we study this book. When we communicate with one another, we assume that we are speaking literally, unless something in our language demands us to take it symbolically. We study the scriptures the same way. We take the words of God literally and straightforward unless something in the text demands an idiomatic or figurative interpretation. When Jesus started talking about planks and logs in our eyes, we know that Jesus is speaking figuratively, using imagery to teach a principle. With the book of Revelation, the preface has told us to reverse our method. The book has been put into symbols and signs. Therefore we should read the book as symbols unless something in the text demands otherwise.
Now, let me make an important point. Just because Revelation is full of symbols does not mean that there is not a literal or historical fulfillment. The images represent a literal or historical event. The book of Revelation is not fanciful myths and stories. The symbol represents something actual and real. The red, octagonal stop sign represents the literal act of stopping one’s car. The point is that we should read Revelation seeking the meaning behind the images. We cannot take the numbers, locusts, scorpions, dragons, beasts and other images found in the book at face value. They represent something and our goal as readers is to determine the meaning of those symbols. We take the book as symbols representing something unless something clearly shows us that the image is not symbolic.
This Prophecy (1:3)
We need to observe one other point. While the book of Revelation is a letter to the seven churches of Asia, we must also recognize that it is prophetic in nature. Verse 3 describes this book as, “The words of this prophecy.” This book communicates the inspired messages of God and it is showing its first century audience the things that are about to come soon. This is important for us as we try to interpret Revelation’s symbols into a historical context. The things that the book reveals do not have to be happening at the moment the book is written. The book is speaking of things about to happen soon. This alleviates some of the issues concerning dating when the book of Revelation was written. The images are not necessarily describing current events (that is, when the book was written) but are describing images about to happen soon (after the book was written). Therefore, being exact as to the date of the book is not as important because the Revelation is about things to come soon after the writing of the book.
How exciting to read the book of Revelation which will unfold and unveil the prophecies concealed in the past! We stand at a fortunate time to look back and see the completion of God’s plan and are also blessed when he read, hear, and keep the things written in this prophetic book. The book of Revelation is a message of encouragement and hope during difficult times. Our faith will be bolstered by studying the messages contained in this book. Let us hear the words of this book, read the words of this book, and keep what is written in this book and be blessed in doing so.