This is the first post in a series through the book of Revelation – a letter meant to bring comfort and encouragement during times of uncertainty and hardship.
What have you heard or read about the book of Revelation? How does that make you feel?
For many, their response to this book include feelings of uncertainty, confusion and anxiety. These feelings are precisely what the Revelation aims to address in its readers, leaving them feeling comforted, encouraged and hopeful in Christ’s presence and victory over evil in the world.
How then should we read Revelation to make the meaning clear, leaving us peaceful and hopeful during times of uncertainty and hardship? John states this clearly in his introduction: this document is an apostolic letter (1:4), containing prophecy from God (1:3), written in the Jewish apocalyptic genre (1:1). Reading the book with this in mind will leave you encouraged and exhorted to live confident in Christ through tough times.
THE NATURE OF REVELATION: A letter containing prophecy in the apocalyptic genre
Revelation is a letter of encouragement and exhortation to suffering believers. This epistle was penned by John (1:1,9; probably the Beloved disciple), while imprisoned on the island Patmos (1:9) addressed “to seven churches in Asia” (1:4; 1:11).
The meaning of the book becomes apparent when it is read from the perspective of the first readers – the seven congregations in Asia minor listed as recipients. Like every other apostolic letter by Paul, Peter, James, Jude and John, this letter answered real questions, brought instruction, warnings and encouragement to the first readers. The message was written to them, yet preserved for us. The truth becomes clear to us as we see what the letter meant for them.
Secondly, Revelation is called prophecy (1:3) – God’s Word to a people in a specific context. Like Isaiah, Amos, Malachi, etc. this book contains prophecy (God’s spoken word) to the seven congregations in the seven towns in Asia minor. This message from the Lord brought real comfort and confidence as the Lord revealed love and care for them, but also corrections and challenges as prophecy always calls God’s people to covenantal faithfulness.
Prophecy is often addressed to his people in a particular time and place. However, Revelation, like many old Testament Prophets, places this Word from God in the context of his cumulative redemptive work through the ages. It is said that 287 of the 404 verses in this book contain allusions to Old Testament texts, notably from Exodus, Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah. This means that John, here in a prophetic capacity, aimed to ground this accumulative message to these seven, suffering churches in the history of God’s great redemptive plan for his people. God is bringing his great work of salvation to a climax.
Again, the reader is invited to read this book primarily as a prophecy from God to the persecuted believers in these seven congregations. This message was clear and made sense to them. If we want to understand God’s word to us, we have to understand God’s word to them first.
Thirdly, this book is self-titled as “Revelation [or apocalypse] of Jesus Christ” (1:1). This Jewish literary style, of which Revelation, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah are prime examples, was at its most popular during the time of John’s writing. Apocalypse means “unveiling” or “uncovering” and aims to show that things are not entirely as they seem – there is more at play than meets the eye. More specifically, it reveals the heavenly drama behind our earthly struggles – that “our fight is not against flesh and blood but against principalities, powers, rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Note how Revelation starts with the earthly reality of the seven congregations and shifts realms to show the cosmic drama behind everyday events.
Apocalyptic writing makes use of symbolism through vivid imagery and representative numbers in dramatic scenes that aim to evoke powerful emotions, and a sense of participation in the story told. Secondly, this genre is rooted in Old Testament literature; Revelation is filled with Old Testament references (but not one direct quotation, as this is uncharacteristic of the style). Thirdly, Apocalyptic language is rooted in the historic-political context of its day; the message of the writing was clear to the 1st Century Greco-Roman believers of their day, and this ancient context is our key to unlock its meaning. Lastly, this genre (like most Jewish genres) is not chronological. The reader should not ask “what happens next?” but rather, “what does John see next?” The letter is written in the sequence of John’s visions, not chronological time – and therein is much meaning.
THE CONTEXT into which John wrote Revelation
The letter of encouragement and exhortation is set during the terrifying reign of Domitian, Emperor of Rome (AD 90-92). This egomaniac revived the Imperial cult (much like the infamous Nero thirty years earlier) and decreed that all his subjects worship him by offering incense, exclaiming “Caesar is Lord.” For most of the Greco-Roman pluralists, this was an easy instruction to comply with… unless you lived by the confession that “Jesus is Lord.” This led to the severe persecution of Christians, resulting in their imprisonment, torture and execution. Sadly, due to their hatred for the “blasphemous” Christians, Jews were often the first to turn their Christian neighbours over to the Roman authorities.
Suffering did not only come by Roman persecution. Many communities in Asia minor suffered from disasters such as earthquakes, droughts, barbaric raiders and widespread disease. People lived in fear. Convinced that these disasters were the result of followers of Jesus’ refusal to worship the gods of the elements, this led to the cruel treatment of Christians by their pagan neighbours, leaving them ostracized, excluded from public social life and the market economy.
This severe persecution and hardship caused many late 1st century Christians to lose hope in Christ’s return and to doubt his power over the affairs on earth. Is Christ’s kingdom indeed more potent than that of Domitian? If so, how?
However, a more significant threat was the seductive nature of the Greco-Roman lifestyle: sensuality, perversion and revelry were the order of the day and frequently associated with the worship of pagan gods. Against the backdrop of persecution and the pain and poverty resulting from social exclusion, the pleasure and prosperity associated with participation in this sensual society could seem attractive. Believers were naturally tempted to draw away from the public witness of Christ and blend in with this contemporary pagan culture.
In his apocalyptic letter, John describes this struggle as the intimidation from the Beast (worldly power), the seduction from Babylon the great harlot (sensuality), and the deception of the False Prophet (false religions and ideologies) – all three servants of the Great Dragon (Satan) warring against the church.
John, far from the churches in his care, was praying for these believers who were subjected to hardship and vulnerable to temptation. Then Christ invited him to see their present reality in the light of the cosmic struggle as it played itself out on earth. In and through this, His Kingdom was advancing!
THE AIM of the Book of Revelation
The Revelation shows Jesus Christ as victorious over the forces of evil, leading his church in victory over their enemies (17:14). This prophecy aims to firstly comfort the church in its struggle against evil by showing them that Christ is among them (1:12-20) and that he is intimately aware of their unique situations (ch. 2-3). He steers the world affairs in the interest of his church (5:7,8), in response to their prayers (8:3,4). The revelation shows that God sees their tears (7:17, 21:4) and will avenge their blood (19:2), yet their victory is assured (15:2). Lastly, the revelation reassures them that Christ is coming to take his people to Himself to live with them in His renewed creation (21:22), stirring confidence for His return (22:17).
Secondly, this prophecy is a correction of the church’s perspective in its struggle against evil. Though it may seem that their prayers are ineffective (6:10), we see God’s response (judgments) as a result of it (8:3-5). Though they seem defeated, they reign now on earth (5:10), and will reign with Christ (20:4) forever in the renewed creation (22:5). Though it may seem that the dragon (12:3), the beast (13:1), the false prophet (13:11) and Babylon (14:8) wield power on earth – they are all defeated (18:2; 19:20; 20:10) and will be bound forever. All is not as it seems.
Thirdly, this revelation calls for a renewed commitment to Christ in the believers’ struggle against evil, patient endurance in trials and steadfastness in resisting temptation. For this, there are great rewards (22:12).
HOPE TO THE CHURCH IN ANXIOUS, UNCERTAIN TIMES
The structure and layout of John’s Revelation letter brings much hope to fearful, confused believers during hardship. The Spirit shows John firstly that Christ is among his people (ch. 1-3), secondly that God is on his throne. Christ is unfolding his Kingdom reign in history (ch. 5-16), thirdly what this world is really like and how Christ will conquer it (ch .17-20), and lastly the renewed creation in beauty and peace, with rewards for the faithful (ch. 21-22).
1: Christ is with his church
The first thing John sees is that the church is not abandoned by God during their hardship. The Spirit reveals Christ walking among his people, between his suffering congregations (1:10-13). Then Christ reveals his intimate knowledge of every congregation’s faithfulness, challenges, struggles, and promises (ch. 2-3).
The comfort for every believer and believing community today is the same: Christ the Victorious One is with us, always among us. He knows our efforts and struggles and will reward our faithfulness.
2: God is on his throne, and Christ is unfolding his redemptive plan for creation
The second thing that the Spirit shows John is God on his throne in all his goodness and glory (ch. 4), and Christ receiving the Scroll of God’s redemptive plan with his creation (ch. 5). As Christ opens the seals, rolling out God’s kingdom reign with cosmic consequences, he calls the nations to repentance before the Great Day of Judgment (ch. 6-16).
This reassures the church during turbulent times that indeed God is in control, and that these events which shake our world is part of Christ’s work in establishing his peaceful reign on earth – even through the hardship we face. In some way, these events are answers to the cry of his saints (5:8; ch. 16).
3: The nature and spirit of this world (Babylon and her Beast)
The third thing the Spirit reveals to John is the true nature of this world, which is likened to seductive Babylon and her power-hungry Beast (ch. 17). John also sees her fall and judgment – with all who follow her (ch. 18-20).
The unveiling of this fallen world stirs our hope in Christ and strengthens our resistance to temptation because we know that the best this perverse, power-hungry world has to offer is corrupted and temporal. But one day, Christ will return to bring lasting justice and goodness and peace, to restore lasting joy to His people.
Furthermore, the knowledge of judgment on this greedy and oppressive world brings much comfort and hope to those suffering under this regime – as was the case in John’s day. Judgment of the consuming lust and abusive power of rulers (and their allies) means the vindication and deliverance of the oppressed. In God’s kingdom, the oppressed are freed, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed because their oppressors are judged.
4: The New Heaven and New Earth
The last thing that the Spirit shows John is God’s new creation (ch. 21-22) – the marriage between heaven and earth. John is encouraged to see that God’s creation will be reconciled with its Creator, and his image and reign will be restored in mankind. Indeed, John is comforted that the pain and sorrow of suffering and death that now marks the church’s existence will be no more, because “Look! I make all things new!” (21:4-5). The faithful are richly rewarded, the perverse are judged (21:7; 22:12-14).
This unveiling of Christ’s great renewal stirs much hope that our tears of suffering and sorrow are short-lived; he has conquered sin and death forever. Furthermore, overcoming the temptations of sin and terrors of persecution does not go unnoticed; our short endurance of hardship secures our eternal rewards in Christ’s eternal reign. This is great encouragement and exhortation to hold on to Christ’s promise: we will inherit His kingdom and receive His rewards.
TAKE IT TO HEART
Reading the Revelation as a letter to seven real congregations facing severe hardship on every front, as a prophecy of encouragement and exhortation from God about his redemptive work in and through them, in the emotive, unveiling genre of the apocalypse makes the main message clear. (Yet there are parts that are difficult to understand – as in every Bible book!)
Even this simple outline encourages me that Christ is always among his church, ready to comfort, correct and call his church to faithful commitment during hard times. It reminds me that God is still in control and that Christ is always busy unfolding his redemptive plan with creation. This unveiling calls me to see that this fallen world in all its splendour and power is at best corrupted and temporal, but Christ’s kingdom is eternal, and his reign will be marked with restored beauty, justice and peace, eternally. And the bonus: my faithfulness and your faithfulness during these hard times will be rewarded!
How do you feel about the message of Revelation now? Ready for a more in-depth look into chapter 1?
Quick links to full THE END Revelation Series posts