Elon, North Carolina
Today, we are beginning perhaps the most important study that we have done in small group. We are beginning a study of the book of Revelation. Some of you have studied the book before and some of you have not. This study will be different from other studies you may have been in before. My focus is not on teaching a particular view of eschatology or chart on the end-times (the way it is often taught) but on teaching the book of Revelation.
There are two main approaches to Bible study, one is inductive and one is deductive. As much as possible, I want us to study Revelation inductively. One person wrote an inductive study bible (Kay Arthur). What does it mean to study the Bible inductively?
When many people study the Bible, they start with what they believe (Deity of Christ, Trinity) and then they turn to the Bible to find verses to support what they believe. That is the way most people do Bible study. That kind of bible study is deductive. There is some value to that but there is a danger. What is the danger?
When many people come to a passage, they read all kinds of things in it that are not there. Too many times we come to the text with preconceived notions and with theological biases. What we want to do is to get our theology from the text, rather than reading it into the text and that is called inductive bible study.
I want to begin with some introductory questions. Why is it that many people do not study the Book of Revelation? Some are obsessed with the book. That is all they preach on. Others go to the other extreme. Many pastors go through their whole ministry and never preach on the Book of Revelation and many Christians never study it. They have very little interest in biblical prophecy. Many act like studying bible prophecy is a big waste of time. Why is that?
Why The Book of Revelation is Unpopular
1) Prophecy has been abused.
It has been abused by false teachers and date setters. Part of the reason many feel this way is because there are so many religious crackpots (like Harold Camping) who make all kinds of false and ridiculous claims about prophecy.
2) It is hard to understand.
It is one of the most difficult books in the entire NT. It is the most controversial book in the NT. There are so many different views on the book. Christians have some heated debates on this book. Even conservative bible-believing Christians have different views on Revelation. It is a book written in code. It is a book that is full of all kinds of strange visions and weird symbols.
3) Much of the book is disturbing.
The book does end on a positive note with no sin, no sickness, no death, no tears, no hunger or thirst and Satan cast into the lake of fire. God wins in the end but much of the book is very alarming, if not depressing.
3) It has all these natural disasters
This book mentions the Sun turning black and the Moon turning red). It describes all kinds of divine judgments judgments (hundred pound millstones falling on your head, plagues, earthquakes, famines).
4) It is a very violent and bloody book
It mentions a third of the sea turning into blood and a third of the earth burned up. It mentions not only wars on earth but wars in heaven, not just wars among people but wars among angelic beings. Revelation is a war book. The Greek noun (πόλεμος) and verb (πολεμέω) for “war” are used fifteen times in the book and only eight times in the rest of the NT. The book of Revelation speaks of war more than the rest of the NT put together.
5) Some of it is gruesome.
Believers are martyred. The Battle of Armageddon produces a river of blood that is two hundred miles long and five feet deep (14:20). At the end of the battle. An angel invites all of the bird to come and gorge themselves on all of the dread bodies lying on the ground (19:17-19). The wicked are thrown ALIVE into a lake of fire where there is no rest day or night for its victims (14:11; 20:15). Why should we study it? What is the value of studying the Book of Revelation?
The Value of the Book
1. This book is inspired by God.
It is a book inspired by God (19:9; 21:5; 22:6). It is part of the Bible. It is in the Word of God, so God wants us to know it. We must read, study and preach the whole counsel of God. This book is inspired. John wrote the book but he did not write down his own ideas and thoughts. It was all revealed to him by Jesus Christ.
Notice how it was revealed to John. It was a four or five stage process (1:1). God gave it to Jesus. Jesus gave it to an angel. Who that angel was, we don’t know but at the end of the book, John tried to worship this angel (22:8-9). Angels gave it to John and John wrote it down and gave it to the seven churches who in turn gave it to us.
We don’t know for sure if this was written by the apostle John. The author is simply called John, not “John the Apostle” or “John the Son of Zebedee” or “John the brother of James.” John was a common name.
Furthermore, the Greek of the Book of Revelation is very different from the Greek of the Fourth Gospel. There is a long tradition going back to the second century which says that this was written by the Apostle John who would have been in his nineties when he wrote the book but the book came by Jesus Christ.
It is a revelation of Jesus Christ (1:1). What does that mean? Most preachers say it means this is a book about Jesus (objective genitive in Greek). It is an unveiling of Jesus. That sounds good and there are about 34 titles of Jesus in the book (e.g., the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, ruler of the kings of the earth, the lion and the lamb, the Son of Man, the Word of God, Lord of Lord and King of Kings, the Alpha and the Omega …) but that is not what this means in the context.
This is not primarily a revelation about Jesus. It is a revelation of future events (“things which must shortly take place”). “Revelation of Jesus” is a subjective genitive in Greek. He is the source of the contents of the book. He is the one giving the revelation and Jesus is described as “faithful and true” (19:11; 3:14). If it is a book that Jesus gave to the churches, then we should want to read it. Why study prophecy?
We study prophecy because one fourth of the Bible is prophecy. One fourth of the Bible deals with future events. You can’t study the Bible without studying prophecy. When Paul begins talking about the rapture he says, “I do not want you to be ignorant”. Many Christians are ignorant of bible prophecy. God doesn’t want that. He does not want us to be ignorant.
Often, we hear people say that we should not teach young Christians prophecy. That will just confuse them. Save that for the spiritually mature. It is better to give them the more simple truths of the Bible (e.g., how to live the Christian life, how to pray, how to witness, how to read their Bible).
Is that valid? Paul was in Thessalonica only a few weeks (Acts 17:1-9) and a little church is formed. He left the area and wrote two epistles to that church and in those letters he mentions the Rapture, the future resurrection of dead Christians, the Second Coming, the Antichrist, etc.). Paul taught prophecy to new Christians and so should we.
2. This book promises a special blessing (1:3).
This is the only book of the Bible that promises a special blessing, just for reading it. None of the other 66 books of the Bible contain a promise like this. This small group is promised a blessing because we will be studying this book. I remember reading about one man who deliberately read this book every six months of his Christian life to make sure that he did not miss out on this blessing.
This blessing is for three things: reading the book, hearing the book read and for obeying the commands of the book. The blessing goes from reading to hearing it read. Notice also the change in pronoun (“he who reads” and “they who hear”). Why does he add hearing it read? He adds it because not everyone could read and not everyone had a copy of the Bible to read. Some were illiterate and in the ancient world books were rare and expensive.
The printing press had not been invented yet and all books had to be copied by hand. We may have many Bibles at home in different translations. In John’s day, most Christians did not have this luxury. Each church would have one Bible. The blessing is not just for hearing and reading but for obeying the book. There are all kinds of exhortations in the book. Prophecy was designed to make an impact on our lives. It is designed to change our lives. Knowing that Jesus is coming back soon should change how you live.
That word “blessed” is the same Greek word used in Matthew 5:1-12 of the beatitudes (blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, etc.). There are nine beatitudes in Matthew. There are seven beatitudes in Revelation (1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7; 22:14). Revelation opens with a blessing. It ends with a curse or a severe warning (22:18-19).
3. This is book can be understood.
The very word “revelation” means the unveiling or “uncovering”. This book is not a hiding but a revealing. It was meant to be understood. The very word means disclosure. In fact, the book is not sealed (22:10). The book of Daniel was sealed (Daniel 12:9). It made absolutely no sense in his day until the time of the end but the Book of Revelation was to be different.
It was not sealed. The book was not intended to be a riddle and a puzzle that no one but the sharpest minds on the planet can figure out. Notice what Jesus says, “The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants (not his scholars) what must soon take place”.
This is not just a book for prophecy freaks and for seminary professors but for all Christians. Now there are parts of the book that are hard to understand. I would be lying if I said everything in the book was easy to understand but it can be understood.
Methods of Interpretation
What are the two main ways of interpreting the Book of Revelation? There are many ways people have interpreted this book but there are two main ways it is interpreted today. Unfortunately, there are extremists on both sides.
I. The Preterist Interpretation
The preterist view is that the book is just history. It was all fulfilled in 70 AD. There are extreme preterists who believe the entire book is history (called Full Preterists ). Full Preterists believe that Jesus will NOT return to the earth bodily. He already returned when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD. That is just plain heresy to deny the bodily return of Jesus. It is cultic. It is on par with the Jehovah’s Witnesses who also deny a visible, bodily return of Christ.
Partial Preterists, on the other hand, believe that most (but not all) of the prophecies of the Book of Revelation were fulfilled in 70 AD. They would say that the prophecies of the Second Coming, the resurrection of the dead, the destruction of the earth, the great white throne judgment and the prediction of the new heaven and the new earth have yet to be fulfilled. What are some reasons for believing that many of the prophecies of Revelation were fulfilled around 70 AD?There are allusions to Rome in the book.
It mentions the city of seven hills (17:9) which was a clear reference to Rome. The number 666 is a clear allusion to Nero (666 adds up to the Greek form of Neron Caesar written in Hebrew).
- There are many allusions to the first century in the book.
There was a great persecution of Christians in the first century and Roman emperors who claimed to be God demanding worship. There was exactly 1260 days (three and a half years) between the start of the Jewish War and the destruction of Jerusalem (67-70 AD).
- Furthermore, Revelation 1:1 says that these events would take place “soon” (τάχος).
Most futurists claim to interpret the Bible literally but they do not interpret this literally. If two or three thousand years go by before it is fulfilled, how can you say that these events will take place shortly or soon? If the Bible is true and if it says that these events would happen soon, the argument goes, then they must have happened in John’s day but there are some problems with this argument.
The Book of Revelation also said that Jesus would come quickly Jesus said that three times in the last chapter “I am coming soon” (ταχύς) in 22:7, 12, 20. Paul told the Christians in Rome that “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20) and used exactly the same word (τάχος) but that hasn’t happened yet. God measures time differently than we do and time is relative anyway. An old man can look back on his life and say “It went by so quickly”. Life goes by fast in some respect. In other ways, it seems to take forever.
II. The Futurist Interpretation
The futurist view holds that most of the events in the book are yet future. They were future to John and are future to us. They deal with events that will take place prior to the Second Coming of Christ. This view goes back to the second century (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus). All futurists are not dispensational. Nor do they all believe in the pre-trib rapture of the church but they all agree most of the events of the book are still future.
Some extremists, like E. W. Bullinger (1837-1913), a hyper-dispensationalist, believed the entire book is future, including chapters two and three which will not be fulfilled until the Tribulation. The majority of futurists believe most but not all of the book is future. What are some reasons for the futurist interpretation of the book of Revelation?
Revelation is a Prophecy
Five times we are told the book is a prophecy (1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19). In fact, Revelation is the only prophetic book in the entire NT. No other book of the NT is called a prophecy. No other book in the NT deals with end-time events as much as this book. The NT contains five historical books (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts), twenty-one epistles and one prophecy.
There were sixteen books in the OT that were prophecies but only one in the NT. Critics say it is prophecy but prophecy does not always mean prediction and that is true. A prophet is someone who has an authoritative word from the Lord (“thus says the Lord”) and that word could be about anything.
A prophet did not always predict the future. A prophet in the Bible was someone who had a message directly from God but sometimes that message was predictive. That is proof that the Bible is inspired by God. Many people claim to predict the future but only God can do it (Isaiah 46:9-10; 44:6-8). “The Bible is the only known religious document with historically verifiable prophecies that have consistently been fulfilled” .
How do we know that much of the book deals with the future? We know that from the first verse of the book. “The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place”. John is not writing past events or even current events. He is writing about things that have not taken place yet.
Revelation is an Apocalypse
We know that from the first verse of the book (“The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place”). The word “revelation” in Greek is άποκάλυψις. What is an apocalypse? It is a type of writing. There were other books in the ancient world that were apocalyptic (I Enoch, IV Ezra).
It is a type of writing that was very familiar to people in the ancient world but not very familiar to people in the modern world. Revelation is the only apocalyptic book in the NT. Daniel is an apocalyptic book in the OT. Parts of Zechariah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Joel are also apocalyptic. What do we know about apocalyptic books?
Characteristics of Apocalyptic
Most of them deal with the end-times. They do not deal with current events. They deal with the future. They deal with the end of the world and even talk about the eternal state. That is one of the characteristics of that genre of writing. There are some exceptions (Shepherd of Hermes) but most apocalyptic books are eschatological.
2. Symbolic Language
Revelation is a prophecy of the future but it is written in symbolic language with vivid images (a bottomless pit, a lake of fire, a river of blood, a sea of glass, streets of gold, a tree of life, a book of life). There are all kinds of symbols in the book. Colors are symbolic.
Names are symbolic. Animals are symbolic. I have a book in my library that boasts that it is “the most literal commentary on Revelation ever written”. There is a danger in not seeing symbols as symbols and instead taking them literally.
3. Angels and Visions
In apocalyptic books, revelation usually comes by dreams or by visions. Angels usually bear the revelation. God does not speak directly to people but speaks through angels in apocalyptic books and angels often interpret the meaning of the visions. Apocalyptic books have tons of angels. Revelation mentions mighty angels (5:2; 10:1) and angels numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand (5:11)
They deal with good and evil, God and Satan, Christ and Antichrist, Heaven and Hell, angels and demons.
Notice it is not a revelation of things which may take place or should take place or even will take place but is a revelation of things which MUST take place (1:1). God is in control. God is sovereign over the events of history. He is sovereign over sinful man. He is sovereign over the Antichrist. He is sovereign over Satan.