Revelation: Introduction and Three Keys

May 15, 2011

Rev 1:9  I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
Rev 1:10  On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet,
Rev 1:11  which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”

The Revelation of Jesus Christ was given to the apostle John during his banishment on the isle of Patmos. Early church writers uniformly agree that this occurred during the reign of Domitian (AD 81-96). Here are a few sample pieces of evidence. Clement of Alexandria states that he returned from Patmos “after the death of the tyrant.”. Victorinus (third century AD) states that John was “condemned to the labor mines by Caesar Domitian.” Eusebius (AD 263–339) states that John was banished to Patmos in AD 95. On those and other similar pieces of evidence, we place the date of writing of Revelation around AD 95-96.

From the outset we see that Revelation will contain symbolic descriptions.

Rev 1:12 I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands,
Rev 1:13 and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.
Rev 1:14 His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.
Rev 1:15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.
Rev 1:16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

What a vivid picture! Who was this who spoke with a voice like rushing waters, with a double-edged sword in his mouth? He was “the first and the last.” He had been alive, and then died, and now is alive again. Hmmm… Obviously this was Jesus Christ. And obviously he expected John to conclude that from the clues he gave. And lest there be any doubt that the symbols represent something real, he explicitly told John that the stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the lampstands are the churches themselves. Thus Jesus illustrated for John how the message was to be understood.

We call this “apocalyptic” language, because it is the kind of language used in the Apocalypse (the Greek name for the book of Revelation). We see similar language in other books, especially the book of Daniel. While it may be difficult to define this language precisely, we know it when we see it. And Jesus explained by example how we are to view these vivid descriptions.

So here is the first key to understanding Revelation:

1. The exotic descriptions are symbols representing something real.

The second key addresses the timing of the events described:

(Rev 1:3) Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

(Rev 22:6) The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.

(Rev 22:10) Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near.

The events portrayed in Revelation were to happen soon. The time was near. The members of those seven churches would not have expected the events described to be two thousand years in the future.

Contrast the above passages with the prophecy of Daniel:

(Dan 8:26) “The vision of the evenings and mornings that has been given you is true, but seal up the vision, for it concerns the distant future.

Daniel prophesied at the end of the Babylonian captivity around 550 BC, about events that would be fulfilled in 164-165 BC, fewer than 400 years later. Yet that was the “distant future.” If 400 years is the distant future, how many years would be “soon”? How long would they have to wait for events that were “at hand”? Surely, those events would unfold much sooner than 400 years in the future.

So here is our second key to understanding Revelation:

2. The events described would happen soon.

For the third key to understanding Revelation, consider the following passages:

(Rev 1:9) I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

(Rev 2:10) Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.

(Rev 2:13) I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.

(Rev 6:9) When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.
(Rev 6:10) They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”
(Rev 6:11) Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.

(Rev 12:17) Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.

(Rev 20:4) I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.

Consider also the repeated references to persecution and the blood of the saints from chapters 13-18. Clearly, the focus of Revelation is on intense persecution of the church. That persecution had already begun but would intensify in coming years. In Revelation, Jesus delivered a message of warning and encouragement to the church. He urged each of the seven churches to persevere and to overcome. He encouraged them with promises of deliverance, and of resurrection and rewards.

So the third key to understanding Revelation is:

3. Revelation was written to encourage the saints to persevere, to endure and to overcome intense persecution that was about to fall on them.

We have identified three keys within the text itself helping us to understand Revelation. As we continue we will learn additional clues directly from the text. And then we will consider the narrative of Revelation in the framework of what we have found.

One comment

  1. […] summarize the information we’ve gathered so far.  We found three keys to understanding the […]

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