We’ve now come to the end of the Bible. The book of Revelation serves as the matching bookend to the book of Genesis. But just because this is the last book, we’re not done with the story of the Bible by a long shot. This last book packs a big punch!
Revelation was written about forty years after Paul’s epistles. It was written by the Apostle John from exile on a small island named Patmos. It wasn’t a book that he planned to write, but under the power of the Holy Spirit, he was given a message through a series of visions, intended for the churches of his day.
The first verse of the first chapter declares what the book is about and its purpose. “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” is the theme of this book. Some people incorrectly call the book “Revelations” – a plural version of the correct title. However, there is only one revelation in this book, Jesus Christ Himself.
In chapter one, John described how the book came about. While worshipping on a Sunday, he heard a voice at turned to see a vision of Jesus. John could make no mistake about who he saw. He spent three years with Jesus and was named as the disciple that Jesus loved. He even saw Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. So when he saw the vision, he knew exactly who he was looking at.
In Revelation 1:19 Jesus instructed John to write about three different topics.
- What John saw
- Things that were
- Things that were to come
What John Saw
In short, John saw a vision of the glorified Jesus. Standing amongst an array of seven lamps, Jesus dominated John’s vision. John reported that Jesus appeared as a human wearing a white robe with a golden sash. He had white hair and glowing eyes. His feet were dark but shiny and His voice washed over John in a rush of sound. In one hand he held seven stars and words came out of His mouth as sharp as a sword.
Over all this, Jesus’ face shone as bright as the sun. That wasn’t a gentle glow. It was a radiant light that hurt John’s eyes.
When John saw Jesus, the beloved disciple fell at His feet, unmoving. John knew he was unworthy to be in the presence of such glory and holiness. But Jesus, Himself, raised John and began speaking to him.
Jesus explained that he was standing in the middle of His church. The lamps represented seven churches, and the stars in His hand represented the messengers, or angels, of those churches. Here we see the continuing fulfillment of Matthew 16:19 where Jesus promised to build His church.
Further, He instructed John to write this down and send it to the seven churches around the Roman province of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). And this is exactly whom John dedicated the book to. (1:4)
Things That Are
In terms of current events, John was given specific messages to the seven churches. These were not all of the churches in existence. We saw many other churches that Paul planted in the book of Acts. However, the number seven represents perfection or completion, so in these seven churches, all the churches of John’s day (and through to our day) were represented.
Serving as Jesus’ scribe, John wrote down the exact message that Jesus had for His churches. How would you respond if Jesus sent a personal letter to your church? What if you could read Jesus’ assessment of the strengths and weaknesses, faithfulness, and disobedience of your church?
Each of the seven churches that Jesus chose had a different set of strengths and weaknesses. Some were doing well. Others were not on mission properly. So Jesus called what He saw in their corporate life and issued corrections and instructions for that church.
Our churches today are not going to get a specially dictated message from Jesus. But we can look into the seven messages that Jesus did deliver and find our church represented in that list and hear His message for us.
The Message to Ephesus
Ephesus was a significant metropolis and the commercial center of the entire province of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). It had a large port on the Aegean Sea and was famous for its temple to Diana, which was listed as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Paul founded the church and sent his protégé Timothy to be the pastor there. In all Paul visited at least twice and wrote three letters to Ephesus, one to the church and two to Timothy. John also spent many of his later years in Ephesus.
Jesus’ message to the church in Ephesus was a commendation of how well they held to the true faith. But they had abandoned their first love. They followed the rules very well, but there was no heart or emotion in their worship. Jesus calls upon this church to repent and return to how they were when they first believed in Him.
The Message to Smyrna
The city of Smyrna also had a port on the Aegean Sea and considered itself a rival of Ephesus. But the church’s similarity with Ephesus ended there. Instead of being powerful and dominant, the church was persecuted and the people who attended were poor, common people.
Jesus’ words to the church at Smyrna were exclusively that of compassion and commendation. He knew they were facing persecution and even martyrdom for their faith. Yet they persevered, and the church continued to flourish and grow.
The Message to Pergamum
Pergamum was an ancient city of learning and a cultural seat. It also featured multiple temples to the Roman emperors and a strong pagan culture. Despite this ungodly culture, the church there persevered. Even though they experienced sharp persecution (culminating in the death of a prominent believer named Antipas), they were not dissuaded from their faith.
However, Jesus accused them of tolerating false teachers. Jesus named several false teachers or systems of heretical thought. While the leaders of the church didn’t embrace these teaching s themselves, they permitted teachers in their midst and did not take action to apply discipline or remove them from the body.
The Message to Thyatira
The city of Thyatira had very little to commend it. It was not a major city but was located on a trade route. Many different trading guilds operated out of the city. Perhaps because of the power of these guilds, the church made compromises in their teachings. Jesus acknowledged that their later activities were better than their former activities. In other words, they were growing in zeal for their faith.
But Jesus had no tolerance for their compromise. Even worse than the ideas of compromise, they tolerated a “Jezebel” in their midst. This leader claimed to be Christian, but actively lead the church into sexual sin, most likely in pagan rites in the local temples. Jesus promises a strong judgment upon this person and upon all who aligned themselves with her.
The Message to Sardis
Sardis was a ruined city. Beset by pride and false confidence, it had been taken by the Persians and the Romans. In AD 17, a tremendous earthquake devastated the city and it never recovered. Now eighty years later, the church there resembled the city. Jesus had very little positive to say to the church. Beyond acknowledging a few individuals in the church who held to the true faith, His words were all judgment.
Jesus called the church at Sardis “dead.” Even though they were active and appeared to be vital, He could see the truth of their hearts and they were dead. He told them that if they did not wake up, He would come as a thief and take away even what they did have.
The church at Sardis stands as a warning for us today that just calling ourselves a church is not enough to please Jesus. He expects to see life and fruit coming from our service.
The Message to Philadelphia
The same earthquake which ruined Sardis also damaged Philadelphia. However, the city recovered and went on to be a leading city in the center of the Anatolian peninsula. The church here is the second of two which received no condemnation from Jesus. He recognized their perseverance, even though they had little power in this world.
Jesus promised to set straight the “synagogue of Satan” who afflicted the church in Philadelphia. This group of people, who must have advocated a form of Judaism as a prerequisite for Christianity, claimed to be loved by God more than the others. But Jesus promised to bring them low and show them that He loved His church, and not them.
The Message to Laodicea
Laodicea was a wealthy city, with a prominent banking guild. The city also had earthquake problems but was wealthy enough that it refused Rome’s offer to help them rebuild. In this, they were proud and self-sufficient. The church there was neither on fire nor dead. Jesus had no commendation for them. He knew their works and they were “neither hot nor cold”.
Because of their lukewarm faith, Jesus promised if they didn’t change, He would spit them out of his mouth. Were they to be on fire, He would appreciate the passion of their zeal. Were they to turn away from Him entirely, He would bring correction to them according to their deeds. But they were apathetic, in the middle, and therefore of no use to Him.
The Lesson of the Churches
In Jesus’ messages to these seven churches, we gain clear insight into the heart of our Lord. He valued passionate service. Often he commended churches for clinging to the truth in the face of persecution and opposition. Those churches that clung to Him and refused to turn aside from this faithful path were His favorites.
By the same token, He had harsh words for those churches which did not follow the gospel. The churches that allowed false teachers to take hold were particular anathema to Him. And the Ephesian church who left the passion of their first love received a similar judgment.
To the degree that churches today have similar characteristics, we can identify the opinion that Jesus holds of them. He is not grateful for any church that puts His name on the door. Even today He seeks churches that are sold out to Him and fully in love with Him.
Revelation chapters two and three stand as a testimony to us today for how we should function as churches. We are warned of the errors to avoid. We are told what our Savior desires of us. We would do well to take the admonition of these churches and apply them to our modern churches as well.
The Things That Will Be
Following the messages to the churches, John was given a vision of certain things that were going to happen. These events were portrayed in symbolic and apocalyptic images that John translated into words for us today.
In Matthew 24, Jesus’ disciples asked Him when He planned to come in power. Jesus told His disciples that no one knew the day or the hour that He would come as the Ruler. Only God in His omniscience knew that.
This coming of God to reclaim the Earth and establish His literal and direct rule is discussed throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, it’s often called “The Day of the Lord.” It’s the coming of God to right all wrongs, establish justice on Earth, and punish those who have earned His wrath.
Without revealing any of the timing, John was shown what must come to pass for the Day of the Lord to arrive.
This part of the book of Revelation is hard to read and even more difficult to understand. It communicates through image and metaphor rather than clear messages. But from it, we can draw some insights about the end of days and the advent of a new order.
Jesus Is Revealed as the Redeemer Lamb of God
Suddenly John was taken to a new vision where he witnessed the worship of God on His throne. John very carefully presents a vision of the royalty and majesty of God. The description is almost poetic, suggesting that it was too wonderful for a clear description. John was left to try to paint pictures with images and word pictures to give us a hint of what he saw.
Into this perfect worship scene, John discovered a problem. In His hand, God held a scroll, wound tight, and sealed to prevent it from being opened. Looking around the throne room, no one was found who satisfied the requirements to open the scroll.
John reacted to this with raw emotion. He broke down and wept. That the scroll remained unopened and it appeared that it would remain that way.
What was the scroll?
Based on the description of the scroll in Revelation 5:1, I believe that it was a scroll of title. The verse says that it had writing inside the scroll and on the outside of the scroll. We see a similar scroll in the book of Jeremiah 32:6-12. On the inside of the scroll was the title to a piece of land. The outside described the terms of who could open the document or claim it.
With God sitting on the throne, no one in His court could open the scroll. They didn’t meet the terms that were specified on the outside.
John, knowing that this was the deed or title to all of creation, broke down in sorrow that if the deed could not be contained then the prince of the power of the air would continue dominion over all of the earth. Ever since Adam had declared his allegiance to the serpent, Satan had been the ruler of the earth. He had even gone so far as an offer to trade that dominion to Jesus if Jesus would only bow down and worship him.
The vision takes us to the brink of despair that no one would redeem creation. But at the last moment, John saw a new figure emerge. Jesus, appearing as a lamb who had been slain stepped forward and claimed the scroll.
As soon as this happened, all heaven broke out in song. Everyone in the throne room bowed down and praised the worthy name of Jesus. Thousands upon thousands of angelic beings burst forth with one voice, singing of the worthiness and glory of Jesus. He had become human, satisfied the law, and paid the price to meet the terms of the scroll. He was able to reclaim the title and bring about the Day of the Lord.
Jesus opens the scroll and judgment is unleashed
As Jesus opens the seals on the scroll, God’s judgment begins to pour out upon the earth and the people who live on it. No longer is God restrained. But He unleashes the full measure of His judgment.
John saw this judgment but may not have understood everything he saw. He describes the judgments in apocalyptic and poetic terms that make it very hard to imagine how such things could happen.
What is clear is that God’s wrath touches everything. The sun, the moon, and stars will be reduced by one third. Earthquakes will shake the ground. The oceans and rivers will become poisonous and unfit for drinking or fishing. War and famine cover the earth and people die in multitudes. Demonic beasts will roam the earth, tormenting everyone they encounter.
John wrote of three rounds of seven judgments that God will unleash upon the earth. Each judgment on earth was initiated by an action in heaven (breaking a seal, blowing a trumpet, pouring out a bowl). He witnessed a fourth round, but when he started to write about it, an angel stopped him, saying it was too terrible to share.
Humanity responds to God’s Judgment
While God’s judgment rained down on the earth, John was allowed to see how humanity responded. A ruler of peace emerged to broker a treaty in the Middle-East. After only three and a half years, however, his treachery was revealed and instead of protecting Israel, he turned upon them.
With God’s restraining presence removed, John saw Satan place two leaders over the earth to bring about his wicked plan and attempt one more time to foil God’s plans. These two leaders, one political and one religious institute a one-world government and religion. In very short order, they copy God’s miracles to claim to be worthy of worship themselves.
As God’s judgment rains down, people on the earth do not turn toward Him in repentance. Rather they turn to Satan’s puppets and declare their allegiance to the ruler of the Earth. The harder God’s punishment affects them, the more they turn away from God.
Finally, in a last desperate move, John saw all the armies of the earth gathered in the Valley of Megiddo in Israel, to march on the last outpost of God’s covenant people, the Israelites. These armies would accomplish Satan’s objectives and prevent God from fulfilling His promises to His people. If they could be killed, God’s promise of an eternal covenant and an eternal kingdom would be broken.
Jesus Returns, Victorious
With the armies of the world gathered and on the brink of wiping out God’s people, John saw Jesus return to Earth. John knew Jesus in the first coming. Jesus was meek and mild. This time, however, Jesus comes in power and might, with an army of the redeemed at His back.
He did not need an army because when He spoke a word, John saw the armies defeated in a single stroke. The devastation of the battle of Armageddon represents a decisive victory for Jesus over Satan’s power.
This is the Revelation from which the book derives its name. Jesus is revealed as the Lord of all. He is God almighty and holds all power in His hands. None can stand against Him.
Revelation 20 describes the result of Christ’s return. He sits on the throne and rules over the Earth for a thousand years. His authority is absolute and cannot be denied. Of Satan’s rule, nothing remains for Satan himself is bound away and not allowed access to the Earth.
At the end of this time, Satan will be released from his restrictions one last time and will return to his pattern of opposing God. He will find followers on Earth and lead a short-lived rebellion. But Jesus will demolish the uprising and bring His final judgment upon Satan.
Jesus as the Judge
John saw Jesus sitting on a throne of power, judging the people of the earth will finally be called to account for their deeds. It does not matter how they fared in their life. Every living person is brought forth and must face the judgment of God.
In this judgment, there are only two outcomes. Some, those whose names were found in the Lamb’s Book of Life, will be accepted by God. Covered by the blood of Jesus, they will not suffer judgment but will be accepted as sons and daughters.
Everyone else will be found guilty and sentenced to punishment. As a holy God, He cannot overlook sin. Every sin demands punishment, and He can no more turn away from that punishment than He can sin Himself.
This scene is called “The Great White Throne Judgment”. It is the final judicial act of God over His creation. At the end of the judgment, the slate is clean, all sin will have been paid for. Some people will be invited to God’s household. Others will be sent to the lake of fire and brimstone for an eternity separated from God.
A New Heaven and Earth
John finally saw that the Earth and the heavens above it were destroyed. Tarnished by sin, they needed to be wiped clean. In a new act of creation that mirrors Genesis 1, we see God again creates a new Heaven and a New Earth. In this sin-free place, God’s glory is on display for all to see.
People will live on the earth and rather than a yellow star to provide their light, the glory of God will light their days. His light will shine through the walls of the city of the New Jerusalem, which seems to orbit the New Earth, bringing day and night with every rotation.
A Fitting End
Revelation brings us full circle from the book of Genesis. Here we see the culmination of God’s redemption and the promises He made to His people. We see how His plan is never thwarted and comes to pass just as He wills, even though from our human perspective, events around us might seem to be out of control and heading in the wrong direction.
In the book of Revelation, we see how God plans to bring about Justice and Judgment, in His own time and way. And we see it figuratively so that we cannot directly map our current events into a specific timeline that tells us when these things are going to happen.
But most of all, we see the glory of God on display. He will not stand by and turn a blind eye to sin. He keeps records of what has been done and will ensure that every act is called into account. But the blood of Christ covers sins so that those who have been forgiven do not go through this judgment. They are accepted into God’s family as sons and daughters.
Revelation ends on an optimistic, glorious note. God will dwell amongst His creation and those who have been forgiven will dwell with Him forever. And so shall we ever be with the Lord.