A Vision of Victory
In a time of declining faith, we need the Revelation message
Living faith in God is one of the burning issues of our time. That's because for all practical purposes God is dead to many Christians. They may profess to believe in God, but they think and live as if he did not exist.
Many see Revelation mainly as a forecast of specific events that can be pinpointed in our day. But Revelation does not offer — nor has it ever offered — a blueprint of future events.
Revelation was originally written to help the first-century church with its spiritual concerns. However, its message is applicable to all Christians at all times.
Revelation explains God's purpose and the causes of the world's problems, giving assurance and hope to those who follow God's will. Its main themes include:
1. God is Supreme Ruler.
2. Jesus is the Lamb of God who was slain to redeem his people.
3. Jesus is worthy of worship
4. Jesus is the Judge of the living and the dead. His final judgment of the nations will take place after his second coming.
5. God's faithful people must live in a spiritually corrupt world until Jesus returns. In spite of trials, his people remain spiritually secure.
6. Christians must remain faithful in their trials and not give their allegiance to the corrupt world characterized by "Babylon the Great."
7. The patience and faithfulness of the suffering saints will result in their receiving a glorious inheritance at the return of Jesus Christ.
Such a crisis of faith among Christians is not new. The first-century church also had its own problems of faith. Like today, some Christians of that time were dying spiritually. Many Christians were pressured to compromise with the pagan society they lived in. Many in the church were enticed by the alluring immoral world to break faith with God.
The church was still small, persecuted and hated. At times violent persecution tried the church's faith. With the passage of time, expectations that Jesus would return soon gradually diminished.
With uncertainty and evil abounding, the church was asking two faith-related questions: Why hasn't Jesus returned as promised (2 Peter 3:4)? How long must the suffering go on (Revelation 6:10)?
False teachers, meanwhile, advised accommodation with pagan beliefs and Roman politics. They led many converts away from Christ and back into the world.
Then a book we know as Revelation or the Apocalypse was written to encourage the church and to restore the faith of the members. Most conservative scholars believe the book of Revelation was written about A.D. 96.
Seven short, stylized letters in chapters 2 and 3 graphically describe the major faith-destroying ideas gripping the church. These letters, written to seven churches in what is now western Turkey, address problems symptomatic of the church as a whole.
We don't know, of course, whether most of the members in the first-century churches accepted the urging of Revelation to become rejuvenated in their faith. But those Christians who took the book to heart experienced the power of renewed faith.
Although Revelation was written to the late first-century church, its message speaks to us as well. The book can help stir us to a powerful faith in God. The message of Revelation helps us understand that Christ is the foundation of our faith.
Revelation's main concern is with spiritual survival. It reveals how the church can survive in a hostile world. The book proclaims the wonderful, faith-building news that, despite appearances to the contrary, God is in charge of history, the world and our lives.
Revelation assures us of a future in which evil will end, even though we may not personally live to see it.
The book tells us that the many adversities and sufferings Christians endure are not in vain. Christians may suffer in this life, but in the end the returning Christ will judge the world and save his people.
The final message of Revelation is that God will intervene in human history through Christ and forever eliminate evil and reward the faithful. It tells us the future belongs to those who put their faith in the crucified and glorified Savior of humanity — Jesus Christ.
J. Ramsey Michaels, professor of religious studies at Southwest Missouri State University, puts it well: "At the heart of the Book of Revelation is a story, the same gospel story that echoes throughout the entire New Testament, about a slain Lamb victorious over death and evil and a God who makes everything new" (Interpreting the Book of Revelation, page 147).
Lord of history
Revelation encourages persecuted and suffering Christians to find strength and hope in God's power, love and justice. To this end, in the book's fourth chapter, God is picture figuratively as sitting on the throne of the universe (Revelation 4:1-11).
In the fifth chapter, we see Jesus Christ, the Lamb, who has made salvation possible (Revelation 5:1-14). He is the key to the book of Revelation and safeguards the destiny of the church.
Chapter 5 closes with a chorus of praise for the glorified Christ: "Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!" (verse 12).
Revelation tells us Jesus Christ has won the victory over every evil. Through every trial, even death, his people are spiritually safe and secure through faith in him. Thus, the book of Revelation answers the question every Christian has asked: Where is God, and why are we suffering?
The book of Revelation reaches across the centuries to lift the hopes of those who trust in Christ the Lamb, and exhorts them to persevere. It has provided hope for many generations of Christians.
That same message motivates those who follow Jesus Christ today. No matter what happens to the church, God knows the needs of his people. Even though some are killed for their faith, he will vindicate the cause of the righteous. Despite appearances to the contrary, God rules in human affairs, and he will bring his people through every trial.
Revelation proclaims the joy of salvation in the midst of a turbulent and corrupt world. It focuses on the reality of the eternal kingdom of God — the new Jerusalem — in which "there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain" (Revelation 21:4).
God will then be with all his people in a final way when the kingdoms of the world will become the kingdom of Jesus Christ (Revelation 11:15). Until then, as members of the body of Christ, the church, we must be patient — follow God — keep the faith — trust him to work out his wonderful plan — and "wait a little longer" (Revelation 6:11).
Prophecy, Apocalypse and You
Terrifying beasts and heads, horns and dragons fill the books of Daniel and Revelation, making them some of the most controversial and least understood books in the Bible.
Unfortunately, many students of the Bible read their own ideas into these symbols and images. In light of this confusion, it is vital for Christians to understand the genre, or literary style, of these portions of Scripture.
Although Daniel and Revelation are sometimes designated simply as "prophecy," the two books are more accurately labeled apocalyptic literature, a specific type of prophetic writing.
However, neither book is entirely apocalyptic. The early chapters of Daniel are historical, and Revelation includes letters to seven churches in Asia Minor.
One distinction between apocalyptic and prophetic literature lies in the history of their development. Prophetic literature dates from the eighth century B.C. to the fifth century B.C. Apocalyptic literature, on the other hand, was popular among Jews living from the second century B.C. until the second century A.D. (This is not to say that apocalyptic was unknown before the second century B.C. Conservative scholars date the book of Daniel much earlier.)
The historical distinction between prophecy and apocalyptic is important. Most of the Old Testament prophetic messages went to Israel or Judah while the nations still retained some sovereignty.
Apocalyptic writings, however, flourished when Israel was no longer a sovereign nation. The Jews had spread throughout the known world, and those among them who produced apocalyptic writings were struggling to maintain their relationship with God while living under Greco-Roman rule.
A second distinction lies in the types of revelation on which the two different genres of prophecy and apocalyptic draw. Apocalyptic is a revelation, usually experienced through dream and vision. The book of Revelation reflects this facet of apocalyptic literature.
God inspired John to show that an angel revealed visions to him: "The revelation of Jesus Christ" who "make it known by sending his angel to his servant John" (Revelation 1:1). This supernatural revelation given to John is filled with symbols and imagery.
Although prophecy comes from God and is a type of revelation, it is most frequently expressed as the word of God rather than as a vision. That is why the phrase "Thus says the Lord" appears in prophecy so often.
Another difference between apocalyptic and prophecy is the type of imagery used. Prophetic imagery most often includes easily recognized symbols, like plants, animals and farm tools. Apocalyptic imagery is often strange and unknown.
In The Hermeneutical Spiral, Grant R. Osborne comments that "the purpose of esoteric symbols in apocalyptic is to turn readers from the actual event to its theological meaning. In other words, readers are expected to see the hand of God in the future but are not supposed to know the exact sequence of events."
Prophecy and apocalyptic both stir hearers to repentance and both encourage believers. Even so, the primary purpose of prophecy is to bring people to repentance, while the principal aim of apocalyptic literature is to encourage.
With these distinctions in mind, it is clear that prophecy and apocalyptic share a common goal — to point people to God. By condemning the nation's sins and seeking Israel's repentance, prophecy pointed the Israelites to their God, just as it continues to point us to God. Likewise, apocalyptic books pointed persecuted believers to God through an encouraging symbolic description of the triumphant, end-time return of Christ. Those same visions point us to God today.
For Christians, the most important message of Revelation and Daniel is not precise symbolic meaning and definitions of dragons and horns. The urgent message is that Jesus has not forgotten his elect and will, in due time, intervene in world history.
Worthy is the Lamb
One of the most paradoxical parts of Revelation is John's vision of the lion followed immediately by a slain lamb. As the vision opens in Revelation 5:1-5, John is told that the Lion of the tribe of Judah has prevailed to open the scroll sealed with seven seals.
But as John looks for a lion image, he sees a lamb instead (verse 6). It is a grisly sight, indeed, for the lamb appears to have been slaughtered. This is the first occurrence of the lamb imagery in Revelation. It's as though the image has been kept for its dramatic entrance precisely until this point.
The Lamb is Revelation's defining title for Christ. This lamb imagery, in turn, is connected to the Old Testament book of Isaiah. The imagery is central to the prophecy of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. There the future sacrifice for sin is pictured as a lamb being led to the slaughter. Jesus, of course, fulfilled this prophecy. He was the Lamb of God sacrificed for the sins of the world.
In the book of Revelation, this lamb metaphor has a double image. It tells us the slaughtered Lamb is coming a second time as the Word of God's wrath to demand the blood of all who oppose him (Revelation 6:16; 19:7, 9, 11-16).
But Jesus Christ, the Lamb, first shed his own blood. That is what makes him worthy to open the scroll and reveal the message of the book of Revelation. The angelic hosts of heaven praise the Lamb, saying he is worthy to open the book's meaning because he was killed. With his blood he has "purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation" (Revelation 5:9).
Thus, there is a paradox about the picture in Revelation 5. Though its central figure has triumphed (the Lion), he appears to have been conquered and killed (the Lamb). Jesus overcame the world by sacrificing himself. His supreme act of triumph was accomplished by shedding his own blood (Revelation 1;5; 5:9; 7:14; 12:11).
Jesus' death as the Lamb of God gained a victory over the cosmic powers in opposition to God. The Lamb of God defeated Satan, sin and the power of the grave. That is the message of Revelation 5: Jesus has won the victory over his enemies by sacrificing his life as the Lamb. Through this act he is worthy to return as the "Lion" to rule the nations.
Thus, Jesus as Lamb tells Christians — his lambs — that they are to suffer the outrageous darts of their oppression in patience. They must be submissive to God and place their unswerving allegiance with him. He will vindicate the cause of those whose faith remains in him.
The key of David
Christians of the first century lived in an uneasy relationship with Judaism. Most Jewish Christians probably attended the synagogue, took part in ritual worship and used the Hebrew Scriptures as their Bible.
At the same time, the church considered itself the rightful spiritual heir of Judaism — the new Israel (Galatians 6:16). It had accepted Jesus as its Lord, the Messiah spoken of in the Hebrew Scriptures. The church saw itself as composed of spiritual Jews who had received "circumcision" through the Holy Spirit (Romans 2:28-29). This naturally caused a rift between Christians and Jews, as they both claimed to be God's people.
That meant Jewish Christians often endured exceptional pressure and stress. They were, no doubt, called apostate Jews by their own people. Non-Christian Jews accused Christians of being usurpers. They insisted that Jews and not Christians had the open door to God's presence and the keys to the kingdom.
The Christians in the Asian city of Philadelphia were among those who took the brunt of these claims. Then, in about A.D. 96, John, in the book of Revelation, assured those in the church that they were, indeed, the heirs to salvation (Revelation 3:7-13).
John wrote that Christ is the One "who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open" (verse 7). Christ had set an open door before the church that "no one can shut."
What was this key that unlocked a door that could not be shut? The answer lies in analyzing the key and door metaphor, which is found in the writings of the prophet Isaiah. He referred to an individual of his time named Shebna who had charge of the palace of the Judean king. Today, we might call him the chief of staff.
The prophet Isaiah said the Lord would replace Shebna with a man named Eliakim. The Lord would "place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open" (Isaiah 22:22). Thus, Eliakim would be a kind of gatekeeper with power to control entry into the royal kingdom. As the king's steward, he would decide who could or could not have access to the king.
In the book of Revelation, John used this Old Testament metaphor to get across a vital message to the church in Philadelphia, and thereby to all Christians. That is, Christ has the key of David. He opens the door for the church — his royal household — and allows it to come into the presence of God.
In short, Christ has granted Christians access to God. No one can deprive them of that access, which really means God's bestowal on them of the gift of salvation.
The key in Revelation does much more than open the way to an audience with a national king. In Christ's hand, the key opens the door into the presence of God, his kingdom and eternal life. Not only does Christ open the door, he is the door to the kingdom (John 10:7, 9). Thus, it is Jesus who presents himself to the church as the way to salvation (John 14:6).
A second interpretation of the open door and key statements is that the open door set before the church was a wide-open opportunity to engage in evangelistic activity and preach the gospel. Paul used a similar metaphor in this manner (1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12; Colossians 4:3).
However, Revelation usually uses imagery from the Old Testament, and the Old Testament background of the key and door metaphor works against this idea. The prophet Isaiah was speaking of access, not evangelism. The concept of access is also more in keeping with the context of Revelation. There is no evidence to justify interpreting these passages as an explanation of the church's missionary activity.
The book of Revelation has a different purpose — that of providing much needed encouragement and comfort during trying circumstances. It presents the church not as a soul-conquering body but as an organism fighting for its very life in a hostile world.
But even as the church is persecuted — and its members martyred — it should remember the promises of its leader, Jesus Christ. He alone holds the key to God's presence and has opened the door to his kingdom and the church's salvation.