Welcome to the Future
Studies in the Book of Revelation
Dr. Jim Denison
John, Jesus’ beloved disciples, is the human author of this book. But this is not the Revelation of John—it is the Revelation of Jesus Christ. Jesus wrote a book! This is it.
John was on Patmos when he received this revelation. As he says, “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” (1.9).
Here, in this cave, he saw again the Lord he had last seen 60 years earlier. Domitian, the crazed Roman emperor, is on the throne of earth; but Jesus is on the throne of heaven. He shows himself to John. And he gives him seven letters for seven churches.
We will look at Jesus’ letters to them, each one in order. But first, we need to understand the nature of these letters, and of the book which contains them.
What Revelation says about itself
It is a “revelation” (v. 1). The word means “to unveil.” It is rarely used outside the New Testament; it refers to insight into truth (Ephesians 1.17), and also to the revelation of God or Christ at the Second Coming (2 Thessalonians 1.7; 1 Peter 1.7). This word points to the fact that everything we know about God comes to us from him.
Its subject is “Jesus Christ” (v. 1). This is not the Revelation of John, but of Jesus. He is the subject of everything we will read.
It is for believers: “to show his servants” (v. 1). The intended audience of the book is followers of Jesus Christ. More specifically, the audience is the churches: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches” (1.11).
It has relevance for the first century: “what must soon take place” (v. 1). The intent of the book is that it be understood in its first-century context. The events described here would begin to occur quickly, and would all have relevance for the first-century listeners.
It is a vision: “who testifies to everything he saw” (v. 2). We will do well to interpret the book as visionary and symbolic in nature.
It is a book: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it” (v. 3). In the Jewish pattern, one person would read the Scriptures to the congregation (cf. 2 Corinthians 3.14; Luke 4.16-17; Acts 13.15).
This was the early Christian model also: “On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things” (Justin, Apology ch 67).
It is a prophecy: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy.” Biblical “prophecy” is more forth-telling that foretelling. There are predictive elements in this book, but its primary referent is immediate action.
Its words must be obeyed: “blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it.”
Its readers will be blessed. “Makarios” is the Greek word, the promise of joy which transcends circumstances. Revelation is the only biblical book which specifically promises such a blessing.
Its message is urgent: “because the time is near.” Cf. Revelation 22.20: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”
John Newport: “Revelation does not intend to teach a program of events that pinpoints our exact location on the final track of world history. Rather, it teaches the imminence of the second coming of Christ to the churches of Asia Minor and to all churches in history” (Lion and the Lamb 127).
As mentioned in the previous study, here are the most common approaches to Revelation:
Preterist: the events recorded in Revelation have already been fulfilled.
Continuous historical: Revelation is a forecast of the entire history of the church; this view attempts to correlate passages in the book with specific historical events.
Theological principles: Revelation is a religious philosophy of life which demonstrates how things turn out in a world where evil seems to be in control but God is the actual ruler.
Social Interpretation: Revelation teaches a particular social agenda, in which God’s Kingdom overcomes the existing, hostile, godless powers.
Dispensational premillennialism: a literal approach wherever possible, separating Israel from the Church, and teaching a literal rapture, 7-year tribulation, and 1000-year millennial rule of Christ on earth.
Historic premillennialism: no rapture or 7-year tribulation.
Postmillennialism: Christ will return after the millennium.
Amillennialism: the prophecies of a future millennium are highly symbolic; seven sections move in parallel with one another.
An “apocalypticist” approach: Revelation translates “apocalupsis,” or “apocalyptic.”
“Apocalyptic literature” was first developed during the Jewish exile in Babylon, and was common from about 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. Apocalyptic writers transferred the Old Testament prophets’ promises of a better world from this world to the future. They foresaw the destruction of the present evil age and the rise of a glorious world of reward to come. Apocalyptic writings are found in Isaiah 24-27, Zechariah 1-6, Ezekiel 38-39, Daniel 7-12, and Mark 13.
Characteristics of apocalyptic literature
I believe that Revelation should be treated as apocalyptic literature in its interpretive method. There are several characteristics which make up apocalyptic literature:
It grew out of difficult times and spoke to them. The more we learn about the historical circumstances, the better we will understand this book.
It presented its message through visions and symbolic language. These symbols were a kind of code which was understood by the intended readers but concealed its message from those outside the church. Numbers, objects, and nearly any other element could be used symbolically.
It contained a predictive element, forecasting the destruction of evil and victory for the faithful.
It used dramatic elements, creating vivid and forceful images to impress the reader. In Revelation we read of rivers of blood, hailstones weighing one hundred pounds, a dragon so large he can knock down a third of the stars with his tail, and so on. These elements greatly heighten the suspense of the book and are intended to be interpreted as dramatic symbols.
It was usually pseudonymous—written by a fictitious person. This is the only characteristic of apocalyptic writing not found in Revelation, since John names. But each of the other elements is vital to understanding the letters’ intended meanings.
The prelude of the book makes clear that it is a “revelation” (1.1), a vision (v. 2), and a “prophecy” (v. 3). It reveals Christ through visionary means, to be preached and communicated to the churches.
And so, as we come to each of the letters of Revelation, we’ll ask how first-century readers would have understood the words and symbols. We’ll draw principles from the truths we discover and then apply those principles to our problems today. We will discover why we need to be ready for the future, and how.