The following is adapted from a series of ten hour-long teachings given in the Oxbridge Church a few years ago
Part One: An Overview (Revelation 1:1-20)
“There was a man called John who knew all about this book and concealed it. Every commentator since has revealed the book whilst knowing nothing at all about it”
“…he has but the slightest foothold in the time-and-space world with which he is familiar. He is carried, not into some never-never land of fancy, but into the Ever-ever land of God’s eternal values & judgements ”
(J B Phillips)
Two of the myriad of views that have been expressed concerning this most baffling of books. Another commentator aptly calls it “John’s revenge” upon the learned scribes who had once called him “untaught” (Acts 4:13). Indeed, what better vengeance upon such academic snobbery than to produce a document that has baffled every scholar for 2,000 years!
“I, John” (v9)
There is a battalion of big names in the early Church who identify the writer as John the Apostle:
-Justin Martyr (who lived in Ephesus for some time around 130AD)
-Irenaeus who had known Polycarp a contemporary of John the Apostle
-Tertullian the great apologist
Doubts about its status as inspired scripture arose in the 4th Century after the era of persecution had ended, but without the return of Jesus. Was the Revelation a failed prophecy?
Confusion has always persisted in regard to the mysterious “John the Elder” mentioned by Papias, and the eminent Church historian Eusebius thought that this man was indeed the writer. Some who subscribe to this latter view assert that if it were the work of the apostle then he would say so. Why does he not simply call himself “John the apostle” but rather introduce himself only as “your brother & companion in tribulation” (v9)?
Actually that is probably the best argument for the writer being the apostle John! He thought that his name was sufficient, and indeed we know of no one else in the 1st Century Church who could say simply “I, John” without need of further explanation.
John, especially if he is writing as the last surviving apostle, had an authority in the Church that didn’t have to be established. It would have been far more suspicious if the writer had felt the need to go into a long declaration about whom he was and why you should listen to him as some of the later Gnostics would. The real apostle didn’t need to do that. “I John” was more than sufficient
That apostolic association would help the book in later years when people began questioning its place in the canon. A book would struggle for acceptance unless you could establish that it was either written by an apostle or by someone strongly associated with an apostle’s ministry like Mark or Luke.
Fascinatingly, the revelation of Christ is communicated to us through intermediate agencies. John wrote the words on the page, but the revelation was given to him through an angel (likely here a heavenly being rather than a human messenger). The angel was himself sent by the Father.
Most scholars date it sometime in the reign of the emperor Domitian 81-96AD with a few plumping for the time of Trajan (98-117 AD).
It belongs to that genre of writing that we call apocalyptic from “apokulupsis”: a supernatural unveiling of that which is about to take place. Apocalyptic literature was popular between 200BC & 100AD, a period of unrest & of persecution first of the Jews under Antiochus IV & later of the Church under Nero.
The apocalyptic era began after the last of the Hebrew prophets had fallen silent, and God’s people longed for the coming of their Deliverer. A major function of such literature therefore was to tackle the perplexing issue of why the righteous suffered, their enemies prospered…and God was silent.
The Revelation portrays the redemptive purposes of God in the midst of tribulation.
Tribulation “thlipsis” is almost definitionally in New Testament thought the suffering of God’s people. In our peaceful lives we cannot possibly appreciate the need for that comfort in the same way that a persecuted church can.
John wrote to comfort churches that were about to enter a period of severe persecution. The first warning signs are already present: John himself has been exiled to Patmos “on account of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (v9)
It behoves today’s Church to take note of an important fact: whenever persecution comes it removes Church leadership first. You all sit there wondering how your pastors will hold up in representing the faith & fighting your battles for you during the bad times. But you needn’t concern yourselves with that for your pastors won’t be here! You will be on your own defending the faith as best you know how. What you learn of your faith now is what you will know then. If you are learning nothing now, then you will know nothing then, and we will no longer be around to teach you!
Sporadic persecution would continue until the Edict of Milan in 313 AD when Constantine legalised the Christian faith. But just as the “war to end all wars” didn’t actually end all wars so the “Peace of the Church” didn’t secure permanent peace for God’s people.
It is actually normative for God’s people to suffer persecution. G E Ladd says: “the great tribulation will be only the intensification of what the Church has suffered throughout all history.” There are, of course, believers in tribulation this very day and they covet our prayers. But one day that tribulation will encompass all nations and all of God’s people
Those who read Revelation looking for a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for this coming calamity have completely missed the point of the book. In fact they are perverting the very purpose of the book! It was written to encourage those in every age who will undergo persecution for the sake of their Lord. It was written to teach them “patient endurance” (v9). Tertullian taught that John had been exiled to Patmos only because he had survived being plunged into boiling oil. That may well be fanciful but he certainly got the point of the book.
A “revealing” might be considered an ironic title given how difficult the book is to comprehend. However the unveiling is not primarily of some future events to those curious about how human history wraps up: primarily this is the revealing of Jesus Christ Himself.
Consider that aside from a brief glimpse given to His select disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, Christ's glory was veiled for the whole of His thirty-three year ministry. The last an unbelieving world saw of Jesus was when His battered corpse was taken down from the cross & laid behind a slab.But one day He is to be revealed in all of His glory!
Here the Revelator portrays Christ to us as the Lord of History. In the ancient world stars were believed to govern Man’s destiny, but Christ holds even the stars in His iron grip (v 18). He is Lord of time itself, governing past, present and future because He is “who is and who was and who is to come” (v4). He alone is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13:8). He is “Alpha & Omega” (v6). He spoke the worlds into existence and it is His word that will one day draw a line under the old creation & will create afresh.
“the time is near” (v3)
People have criticized the writers of the New Testament for thinking that the Lord’s coming was near in their own day. The critics miss the point: in prophetic thought the time is always near. It has been well said that in the Bible there are only two days:“Today” and “That Day”.
(v3) “reads aloud”
We have often pronounced a blessing over the person who reads the book of Revelation in their daily devotional time and that is OK, however is not thought that that is what is meant. It was normal in the ancient world to read aloud- even if you were reading on your own. But most people couldn’t read anyway so scriptures were read aloud in the church meeting. It became in time a formal role as “reader” or “lector” in the assembly. The blessing is upon this specific individual, though we do well to note it becomes the threat of a curse in the final chapter!
“the seven spirits who are before the throne” (v 4)
Or if it is to be seen as part of a trinitarian statement then we ought to prefer the alternative “the seven-fold Spirit.” Seven is going to be an important number in Revelation.
“the faithful witness” (v5)
Martus did not originally mean the same as our English word martyr. But it would take on that meaning as these witnesses gave their lives for the Gospel. They were imitating the faithful Witness, martyred for His own.
“even those who pierced Him” (v7)
I would see a primary reference to the Jews here who will in large numbers, have their eyes opened to the truth of their crucified Messiah in the Last Days (Zech 12:10). But the idea should not be limited to them for the Jews alone did not crucify Christ. His execution was the result of a conspiracy between Jews & Gentiles (Acts 4:27). In a sense all of humanity pierced Him, and so all the world shall see Him at His return
(v10) “the Lord’s Day”
The first reference anywhere to the first day of the week as the Lord’s Day. Other suggestions have been offered but are unlikely. That John would reference the day of the week when a pagan emperor was worshipped is preposterous!
(v14) “the hairs of His head were white”
It echoes the description of the Ancient of Days in Dan 7:9. The idea is not of great age for He is ageless but rather it speaks of eternity itself.
(v 14) “His voice was like the roar of many waters”
No Niagara or Victoria Falls could compare with the thunder of that voice!
(v16) “sword” speaks of the irresistible power of judgement. The short Roman sword was tongue-shaped
After such a description we are not surprised when we are told,
(v17) “I fell at His feet as though dead”
In the last chapter, when John is overcome by the spectacles he has witnessed, he falls to the ground before an angel and is rebuked on that occasion (Rev 22:8-9). However there is no rebuke here. Any more than Jesus rebuked Thomas for crying out “My Lord & my God!” (Jn 20: 28).
Revelation is one of the clearest affirmations of Christ’s deity in the whole of the New Testament. He is shown as the central object of worship for God’s people. He is not to be merely followed, admired, and respected: He is to be worshipped! John is face-to-face with the Lord of Creation, the One whom Isaiah saw & cried “Woe is me! I am ruined!” (Isa 6:5).
Nevertheless, “Do not be afraid” (v17)
John has heard those words from that voice before…he had heard them on the storm-tossed waters of the Sea of Galilee, he had heard them on the night of the Last Supper just before Jesus went to purchase a place for him in His Father’s House.
They are appropriate words for the reader of this book. Awesome demonic forces are on display in Revelation. Terrifying images of locusts with women’s hair & ferocious beasts. Each of these will have their brief day of power but none of these horrors will win the day.
In the end it is the slain Lamb who will be triumphant!