The Promise Fulfilled: Introducing Revelation

A sermon by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte NC, 2/6/2005

“The book of Revelation.” What comes to your mind when you hear those words?

Do you think: “Oh, that confusing, frightening book at the end of the Bible, with locusts and a dragon and beasts and bowls and trumpets! Someone tried to explain it to me once, but my head was just spinning.”

Or do you think: “Oh, great! Now we’ll find out when Jesus will return!”

Revelation is, in one sense, the most popular book in the New Testament and, in another sense, the least popular. The “Left Behind” series by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, a fictional account of the fulfillment of Revelation, has sold more than 62 million books. Other novels based on Revelation have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Non-fiction books giving particular interpretations of Revelation have also been popular.

Yet in our country’s churches, sermons on Revelation are relatively rare.

Indeed, how many sermons have you heard on Revelation in your life? Revelation is about one-fifteenth of the New Testament, but I’ve heard fewer than a dozen sermons from this book.

My experience is not unusual. One major online site has links to over 42,000 New Testament sermons. Controlling for the length of the book, Revelation has fewer sermons listed than all other New Testament books except 2 John and Philemon. Furthermore, most of those sermons are on chapters 1-5 and 20-22. Adjusting for length, there are fewer sermons listed on Revelation 6 to 19 than any other section of the New Testament.

So there is much interest in Revelation but relatively few sermons preached on it. Why?

One reason: There are major disagreements about the proper method of interpretation of this book.

You may ask, “So what’s unusual about that? There are huge differences in our understanding of, say, Matthew 1, the story of Jesus’ birth. Some pastors believe Jesus was born of a virgin, while others don’t.”

Yes. But Matthew 1 is absolutely clear in saying that Jesus was born of Mary before she had sexual relations with a man. The only question is: Does the preacher believe what the Bible says? In Revelation, two preachers who both believe that the Bible is true, that it is the word of God, can differ markedly in their understanding.

How does this affect preaching? Pastors may be confused themselves, not being sure where they stand on the debates. Furthermore, they know that in their congregations there are likely to be differences of opinion about the right method of interpretation. Some listeners might get angry if the preacher propounds a viewpoint differ from theirs. Some might leave the church. And so many pastors avoid preaching on it, or preach only on those sections where there is more agreement about interpretation.

So you may wonder: What about you, Coty? Are you confused about this book?

I certainly don’t claim to understand all the images. And I imagine in a congregation this size we also have a range of opinions about the right way to interpret this book.

So I have the same qualms as many pastors. Why choose it?

In part, because of 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, fully equipped for every good work.

All Scripture is God-breathed – including Revelation. All Scripture is profitable for us. All Scripture is part of God’s equipping of His people so that they might become like Him.

That’s our starting point. That’s the conviction that characterizes all of our preaching at DGCC.

But how will this particular book equip us?

Today I want to give you an overview of the book and its themes to whet your appetite. I pray you will be excited to come back to hear the details.

I also encourage you to read the book on your own, just looking at the text, avoiding commentaries or notes in a Study Bible. If possible, read through the book in one sitting, and ask yourself: What is John emphasizing? Amid all the wild imagery, what points of application are clear as can be? 

This morning, four questions will serve as our outline:  

·         Who is Revelation from and to?

·         What is the structure of Revelation?

·         What are some guidelines for interpretation?

·         What are the major themes of Revelation?

Who is Revelation from and to?

In the first century, letters began by stating the author, then stating the recipient. We see that, for example, in all of Paul’s letters.

Knowing that convention, look at the beginning of Revelation:

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,

So Revelation is first and foremost from Jesus.

Then consider verses 4 and 5:

John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.

This is a more standard beginning of a letter. John, after all, is the person writing this letter down. But John is a conduit, the person Jesus uses to publicize His message. The message is from Jesus Himself – as emphasized in verse 1. This is particularly obvious in certain sections, such as chapters 2 and 3. But these opening verses tell us the entire book is the message from Jesus through John.

What about the recipients? Verse 4 tells us the recipients are “the 7 churches,” and we later get a list of the names of those churches. They are in real cities in what is now Turkey.

But verse 1 says Jesus is showing “his servants the things that must soon take place.” Who are His servants? All believers!

So is Revelation written to these 7 churches, or to all believers?

Think more deeply about “7 churches.” In the entire Bible, but particularly in Revelation, numbers are important. They are often symbolic. Seven is the number of completeness. So seven churches might be a way of saying “the complete church.”

Furthermore, look at verse 3:

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.

Note that at this point in the book, the 7 churches have not even been mentioned! The promise of blessing is to whoever reads and hears and keeps what is written in it – no matter what century they may live in. So that includes you. You too are an intended recipient of this letter.

It is rare in the Bible for a particular book to include a promise of blessing to those who read it. It seems that God knew we would be tempted to neglect this book – and so He gives an explicit promise of blessing.

So the book of Revelation is ultimately from Jesus to the entire church of all ages. Its intent is to bless the church and to teach lessons for us to keep.

What is the Structure of Revelation?

Let’s walk through the book quickly, pointing out its major sections:

·         1:1-8 The introduction to the letter.

·         The rest of chapter 1: John sees Jesus; Jesus commissions His apostle.

·         Chapters 2 and 3: Seven letters from Jesus to the 7 churches. These are real churches, with real issues. But they are also seven types of churches that are present in all eras.

·         Chapters 4 and 5: John’s vision of the throne room of God. Jesus, the Lion and Lamb, is the only one worthy to take the scroll of history and open its seals.

·         Chapters 6 through 8:1: Jesus opens seven seals of the scroll of history, leading to judgment on the earth.

·         Revelation 8:2 through the end of chapter 11. Seven angels blow seven trumpets, leading to judgment on the earth. Note: Seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets.

·         Chapters 12 to 14: Satan’s attacks on God’s people, his beastly allies on earth, and God’s judgment.

·         Chapters 15 and 16: Seven bowls of God’s wrath are poured out on the world. “With them the wrath of God is finished” (Revelation 15:1).

·         Revelation 17:1 through 19:10: Judgment on the Great Prostitute, Babylon, and the marriage supper of the Lamb and His Bride.

·         Revelation 19:11 through the end of chapter 20: The end of the world as we know it: Final judgment on God’s enemies. Jesus is portrayed as the conquering king who defeats Satan and his cohorts.

·         Revelation 21:1-8 The beginning of the new heavens and new earth, and the first vision of New Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ. The previous sections have emphasized God’s judgment. From here through the end, the book emphasizes God’s everlasting grace to His people.

·         Revelation 21:9-22:5: Details of New Jerusalem.

·         The rest of chapter 22: The conclusion of the book, emphasizing the imminence of Jesus’ return.

Three Guidelines for Interpretation

Let’s turn now to examining what guidelines the book itself gives us for interpretation.

First: We’ve seen that Revelation begins with a promise of blessing to those who keep the words of the prophecy. The promise is repeated at the end of the book:

"And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book." (Revelation 22:7)

How does this help us to interpret the book?

However we interpret Revelation, it must be relevant for all of God’s people across the centuries, those living in 95 AD, 1600 AD, and today. All must receive a blessing through reading this book. All must receive instructions here that they should keep or heed.

One of my main goals in preaching through this book is to bring to the forefront the blessings that have been available to every generation, and the lessons that each generation must keep. For Jesus promises us they are here in the book.

Second guideline: Revelation is not chronological.

Some books of the Bible are chronological, others are not. For example, in the book of Acts, the succeeding chapters of the book generally describe what happened later. Just so with the book of Exodus. Jeremiah, on the other hand, does not follow a chronological pattern. The book often shifts back and forth in time. Most obviously, the events described in Jeremiah 44 are the latest chronologically, but there are eight more chapters in the book.

So we should not simply assume that Revelation is chronological. What can we discern from the text?

There are a few clear cases of events not being in chronological order. Consider, for example, Revelation 7:2-3. Here one angel commands four other angels who have power to harm the earth and the sea, telling them not to do so until all God’s servants are sealed on their foreheads. So the earth is not yet harmed in 7:2. Yet we read in 6:12-14 that, upon the opening of the sixth seal, the earth (and the sun, the moon, the stars, and the sky) are harmed. Thus, the events described in 7:2 do not occur after the events described in 6:12-14.

So: The sequence of chapters in Revelation describe the sequence that John receives the vision. But we cannot assume sequence in John’s vision implies sequence in the fulfillment of the vision.

Third guideline for interpretation: Consider again the opening verse of the book:

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.

The word translated “show” is an unusual word, used only 6 times in the New Testament as a verb. It means “to picture, to signify.” For example, Jesus uses this word in John 12:32-33:

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. (emphasis added)

By using the words “lifted up from the earth,” Jesus gives a verbal picture of how He will die.

John also frequently uses the noun form of this word, referring to Jesus’ miracles as “signs,” pictures, pointers to who Jesus is (see, for example, John 2:11, 3:2, 4:54, 9:16, and 12:37).

The use of this word in the opening verse shows that Revelation is a book of pictures – pictures of Gospel truths that help us see those truths in a new light. As one commentator puts it:

Jesus has given [the Revelation] to us as a sacrament of the imagination, to quicken the pulse and set the soul aflame over the gospel which all too often we take for granted. (Wilcock, 222)

Some of the pictures are defined for us. For example, in chapter 1 the lampstands are said to be churches, and in chapter 19 the fine linen clothing the Bride is said to be the saints’ righteous deeds.

Other descriptions don’t make literal sense: Chapter 1 describes Jesus as having a sword coming out of His mouth. The point is not that Jesus looks really strange. Our job as interpreters is to answer the question: What does this picture signify about Jesus and His word?

Similarly, the numbers in Revelation have significance. We’ve seen that “7 churches” may mean the “complete church.” Some other numbers that seem to be symbolic include the size of New Jerusalem, described in 21:16 as a cube 12,000 stadia to a side. That’s 1380 miles! A huge square on land, with each side longer than the distance from Charlotte to Minneapolis – but then also 1380 miles high! That’s more than 4000 times the height of the highest building on earth, 250 times the height of Mt Everest – and four times as high as the orbit of the Hubble telescope!

I don’t think John’s point is simply that this city is really, really big.

We need to ask: What is the point? What is the picture? What is being signified? One possible clue:  12,000 is 12x10x10x10, and each of those numbers appears elsewhere. So we should delve into what 12x10x10x10 might mean.

Note: My point is not, “God couldn’t make a city that big. And Jesus couldn’t have a literal sword coming out of His mouth.” Of course, anything is possible for God. But Jesus tells us right in the first sentence of the book that that He is “signifying” things. Our job is to discern the truths we need to heed, and to be moved and changed by the truths being pictured.

So throughout this series, we’ll use these guidelines: The applications must be relevant for all believers of all time; sequence in John’s vision does not necessarily imply sequence in fulfillment of those visions; and the book is a series of pictures signifying important truths.

Three Major Themes of Revelation

There are many themes we could highlight, but today we’ll focus on three:

First: God’s sovereignty:

Revelation presents God as the one who controls all things. John’s visions go back and forth between earth – where all seems to be chaos, where God’s enemies, indeed, seem to be in control – and the heavens, showing that God is in control even of the evil acts of his opponents on earth.

In this regard, consider Revelation 17:17, which refers to 10 kings and the beast, allies of Satan:

For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.

They are God’s enemies, but they carry out His purpose.

John shows God’s sovereignty also through his frequent use of the passive voice when speaking of God’s enemies. They are permitted, or are allowed, to do something. But who is allowing them? Surely God!

For example, look at Revelation 13:5-7

And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation,

God is the one who allows His enemy to exercise authority for a time. And God ends that authority, destroying the beast at the appropriate time.

So this is the first major theme: God is in control. Even the evil powers arrayed against Him are limited by Him; ultimately, His enemies are under His authority.

Second: God fulfills all His promises:

God exercises His sovereign authority in order to fulfill all His promises. He brings about the completion of His plan to create His bride from all nations on earth.

Recall what we learned from Genesis 3 several months ago. After Adam and Eve dishonor and disobey God by eating the fruit, God makes a great promise while speaking to the Serpent:

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:15)

Satan strikes Jesus’ heel on the cross; Jesus crushes Satan’s head, fulfilling this promise finally and completely, in Revelation 20.

And remember the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12?  God says, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Jesus, the descendant of Abraham, blesses those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and they give Him glory and praise in Revelation 7:9-12. God fulfills the promise to Abraham.

And then remember the promise to David? God speaks through a prophet:

And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever. (2 Samuel 7:16)

Much of the book pictures the state we are in today: The Kingdom of the promised descendant of David has been inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. It is among us but has not yet come in its fullness. So we live in tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” That’s why we pray, and the believers in much of the book of Revelation would be praying, “Your Kingdom come!”

This promise, this tension, is pictured at the beginning of the book, when John writes,

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come. (Revelation 1:4)

The promise is as yet unfulfilled. He is yet to come.

But then Revelation 11:15 records the fulfillment of the promise, in the words Handel uses as the text for the Hallelujah Chorus:   

The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.

This same verse emphasizes the fulfillment of the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Two verses later, we read,

We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. (Revelation 11:17)

Notice that God is no longer described as the One “who is to come.” He has come. The Kingdom is here in its fullness. The promise is fulfilled.

So Revelation emphasizes that God is sovereign, and He thus fulfills His every promise.

Third: All Mankind is Divided into Two Groups

John introduces this theme in the opening verses of chapter 1:

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.  Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. (Revelation 1:5-7)

Two groups: Those whom He loves, those whom He makes a kingdom of priests. And those who will wail on account of Him.

Elsewhere Revelation pictures the two groups as differentiated by marks on their foreheads. In 13:16, those who follow Satan and the bests get a mark on their forehead, while in 22:3-4, God’s servants, the Lamb’s servants, have His Name on their foreheads.

In the end, God’s people dwell with God. He wipes every tear from their eyes, and ends all mourning, all pain (Revelation 21:3-4). But the others – “the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars” – are all thrown in the lake of fire, experiencing the second death.

There is no intermediate group. All mankind experience either the wrath of the Lamb, or tender love of God for His people.

In conclusion, consider this last theme seriously. In our world, we see many shades of opinion about Jesus, which we might lay out on a continuum. On one end are those who are really on fire for Jesus, who lay down their lives for Him – our Christian heroes. On the other end are those who hate Jesus and all He stands for, who murder believers. But in between are most of the people we know – including ourselves.

But Revelation tells us: In the end, there is no continuum. All end up on one end or the other. All will have either the mark of the beast or the Name of God. All will experience either the wrath of the Lamb or the tender love of God.

Where are you? All depends on the answer to that question.

In Revelation 22:17 the Spirit and the Bride make a final appeal:

"Come!" Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.

That offer is available today. It won’t be available forever. At your death, it will be too late. Or when Jesus returns – He will come in judgment, not in mercy.

So will you wail at His return? Or will you rejoice?

Jesus redeemed those from every tribe by his blood, regardless of their past. He offers you that redemption as a gift – freely.

Today is the day of salvation – but the opportunity does not last forever.

So come to Him!