"The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings are like firmly embedded nails - given by one Shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end , and much study wearies the body."
In the light of this warning why should anyone add yet another book to a market that seems overfilled? Does anyone need another book on the Revelation of John?
I have written this out of my own need to know the Revelation better. It is the strange and mysterious final part of the Bible and has such an odd style compared to the rest of the New Testament. So many friends in our church were also fascinated (or repelled!) by this last book that they have generally been glad to study it with me. It seems to me that many others have a similar interest and I am sure many people have a healthy desire to know more deeply the treasures that are hidden in such an enigmatic but powerful piece of writing.
Yet curiosity about this book often lies close to repulsion. Many normal church goers have been repelled by the use (I would say abuse) of the Revelation by cranks, sects and cults. There have been far too many rash predictions of the end of the world coupled with a lurid enthusiasm for applying the difficult symbols in a way that suits pet theories and prejudices.
The present book grew out of studies appearing in our church newsletter over a six month period in 1989. These were developed, in turn, from some home bible studies delivered in the early 1980's. These studies were reformed and shaped into a book during the 1990's and revised in 2002. Behind these studies and a number of sermons and talks has been my own meditation over twenty five years with the help of many friends and books. We are planning a series of Multimedia presentations of this reading of John;s Revelation in the East of London (UK) in the winter of 2011/12. The provisional title is “Apocalypse in Bow”.
Why I wrote this book
This book exists for three reasons:
Firstly, there is a lack of good reading on the Revelation for the ordinary person.
The most rewarding books to me have unfortunately come from writers who believe in a "cyclical" interpretation of the difficult central chapters. This theory holds that the same period of time is repeatedly described in the Revelation from different points of view. "More than conquerors" by William Hendriksen is a very good example.
Like many people, I find that theory unconvincing. There really does seem to be a powerful flow of one main story through the book. It seems somewhat arbitrary to decide to stop the action mentally and rewind seven or eight times.
It is also unsatisfying because it reduces the flow of history to an idealistic and rather static model. In Scripture as a whole God is seen to be at work leading the story of humanity and creation along a path from Creation, Fall, Redemption and on to Glory in a new creation. The Revelation deals with the grand sweep of the Era from the work of Jesus on earth in the Cross and Resurrection to the wonders of the world to come.
To see the Revelation as a series of recapitulations giving the same story from several points of view is to impose a static and academic scheme on a living and impassioned piece of inspired literature. Although this bookish approach can provide lots of practical application and insight when someone like Hendriksen writes most of the other books based on this scheme seem a little pedestrian. The Wine of the Apocalypse becomes the water of reinterpretation.
In contrast, this reading is an attempt to do justice to the lively flow of movement that is described so vigorously in the Revelation from the moment of Christ's ascension to the completion of the new creation.
Secondly, sensational writers and preachers have actually frightened normal christians away from the Revelation.
The idea has grown up that the Apocalypse (a Greek name for the Revelation) is only for the specialist "student of prophecy". Some people feel it is so obscure that much of it will remain hidden until the Lord returns to enlighten us. It is my desire, as much as I can, to give this inspiring prophecy back to the people to whom it truly belongs, that is, ordinary christian believers.
Thirdly, I want to share some of the joy and encouragement I have drawn from this wonderful book of scripture.
Its view of Christ as the ascended and reigning Lord is one we all need to see again. The breathtaking sweep of God's purposes renews our faith and holy fear. The sight of every enemy being defeated by the power of heaven emboldens us for service and perseverance. The promise is true,
"BLESSED IS THE ONE WHO READS THE WORDS OF THIS PROPHECY"
Why John Wrote The Revelation
The trivial answer is because Jesus told him to (Rev.1:11,19).
The question we need to answer is what is the purpose of this long letter to the churches? Why was John inspired to send this message?
We are told that is a prophecy given
to show his servants what must soon take place.
In other words, the servants of Christ are to be forewarned - and therefore forearmed for the near future.
Christ had fulfilled the old prophecies
The reason why a new prophecy was needed so late in the day was because all previous prophecy had been fulfilled in the time of Christ. Christ was seen as the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures in every respect. The promises of prophecy were fulfilled in Him (Romans 15:8, 2 Cor 1:20) and the warnings of prophecy had fallen on His generation too (Luke 17:25-37, Luke 21:32).
The Christians were convinced that they were living in the last days at the end of the ages(Heb 9:26). The two great signs of this fact were the Exaltation of Christ, the Son of Man and the destruction of the Jewish Temple and religious system.
This does not mean they were expecting the imminent return of Christ (though we know some expected this). What it does mean is they did not know what to expect.
They knew they were living in the time of Gospel proclamation when God would gather His elect from the ends of the earth so that Jew and Gentile could enjoy fellowship in the renewed Kingdom of God. They were tasting in this new community the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and a new access to God through Christ apart from the old temple rituals. In some ways they were reigning with Christ and yet they were also subject to random persecution and vilification from both Jew and Gentile. The same old enemies of sin and death (and behind them, the Satan himself) which Christ defeated on the cross were apparently very active in the world and able to afflict the children of the Kingdom still.
The theme of the Revelation is the result of its historical context. Imagery used by the earlier prophets and Jesus is recycled and reapplied to the church age in the Revelation. This means that language previously used to describe judgement on Nineveh, Babylon, and Jerusalem is applied to the judgements which will fall on the present and future enemies of God's people. So the Revelation will offer to those who hear it an interpretation of the recent past, linked with a way of seeing the present and looking to the future (Rev. 1:19).
I realise many of my readers will be asking at this point, “what about the problem of unfulfilled prophecy?” Generations have been taught that there is a great fund of Old Testament prophecy which has not yet been fulfilled which will be cashed in as a series of cataclysmic events in the near future.
I believe the problem of unfulfilled prophecy is a problem of bad bible reading. Figurative and metaphorical prophecies by the Hebrew prophets have been read in a dull and literal way. To take one of a hundred examples:
4 All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shrivelled figs from the fig-tree.
It is apparent that this has not literally happened yet (we would have noticed) and so this verse is deposited into the bank of unfulfilled prophecy awaiting a literal fulfilment in the future. But Isaiah is talking about something which has already happened (the total destruction of Edom see the next verse). You will look in vain for the Kingdom of Edom in any modern atlas. The proper way to see this prophecy is to see it as colourful language which is basically saying the sky is going to fall on the Edomites and they will be crushed forever.
A similar verse occurs in the Revelation – Rev 6:14
14 The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
It is referring to a different event but the repetition of the image tells us what kind of event it is. (God destroying in judgement probably using human rather than miraculous means just as in the days of Edom's downfall).
Although we should deny the popular theory of unfulfilled prophecy we should admit that many of God's declared purposes seem incomplete. We do not yet see sin and death abolished, warfare ceased and God's will done fully on Earth as it is in Heaven. All I am saying is that the intermediate stages prophesied by the elder prophets were complete by the late 1st century and the pressing question was what will God do in history from now on?
Another confusing theory which seems to do away with the need for a fresh prophecy is the idea of multiple fulfilment This is the idea that the same passage could be foretelling two, three or more historical events centuries apart in the future. According to this theory Mark Ch.13 was fulfilled once in AD 66-70 but will be fulfilled again in the future. All we need to do is reapply it to our situation and read the signs of the times today.
Another example is the way Amos's promise of prosperity for Jerusalem is taken to mean more than one thing.
11 "In that day I will restore David's fallen tent. I will repair its broken places, restore its ruins, and build it as it used to be,
12 so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name," declares the LORD, who will do these things.
This was interpreted by James as being about the blessing of the church (Acts 15:16) but many say it is also about the modern nation of Israel.
If every prophecy has an unspecified number of possible fulfilments then words have lost their purpose and prophecy becomes useless. But, in fact, Jesus and his apostles have taught us how to read the prophets. We are not free to ignore their authority and erect our own alternative futures based on stitching together Old Testament texts. This is false prophecy and God will judge it the way he usually does.
Many of the false prophets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who confidently said Jesus is returning in our lifetime are already dead and their words have fallen to the ground, others are ageing fast but still have time to repent. Sadly, there are enough apprentice students of prophecy alive and ready to bend both scripture and history to their own purposes using this shabby theory of multiple fulfilment.
Because, the prophets words' had been fulfilled and because the churches did not have a theory of multiple fulfilment there was an urgent need for a new word from God.
Several obvious questions must have arisen, for example:
How long must the time of the churches trial continue? When will the Kingdom be consummated? The new humanity has partially appeared but where is the renewed creation promised by the apostles.
What is the purpose of our suffering? Apparently pointless and grievous disasters were happening to Godly and ungodly alike.
Even after all Jesus said had been shown to be true many people followed the Rabbi's rather than Christ. What is more, they were claiming to be the true people of God and the children of Abraham. Are they right?
The horrible fourth beast of Daniel's prophecy had a few bad years in the middle of the first century but now seemed as strong and brutal as ever with their Emperors making blasphemous claims to divinity. Why has the Kingdom of the Son of Man not yet broken Rome?
Why are the churches in a state?
Jesus defeated sin on the cross and makes sinners clean. Why then is there sin and failure in the church? Does forgiveness make any lifestyle acceptable to God?
Christians were now enjoying the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the gift of adoption as God's family and a renewed personal relationship with God. Should they therefore interpret the promises of resurrection, judgement, eternal life and a new creation spiritually Is there more to hope for in the future?
By the time of the writing of the Revelation the Christian message had already travelled thousands of miles to most parts of the known world. Apart from those called to publish the Gospel still more widely, what would it mean for the ordinary believer to serve Christ in those troubled times?
I hope we will hear answers to these questions as we read together.
Suggestions for using this book
This book has been written to help you read the Revelation of John. So the best way to use it is with a bible open at the relevant page. The chapters are fairly short and are based on natural divisions in the book rather than the standard chapters of the bible. This means you can use it for both personal bible study or as a basis for group study. I hope preachers will also find it stimulating.
I have resisted the temptation to write an academic book even though there are some points of my understanding that may be original. I hope people with an academic interest in the Apocalypse will forgive my simplicity and even find some helpful ideas for their studies. It seems more important to help Christ speak to his people through the Revelation rather than to contribute to the never-ending process of theological debate.
The Structure of the Revelation
Careful reading will soon show that the Revelation is as artfully constructed as any book of the bible. But it can not be reduced to a simple plan - like the natural world, it is full of patterns and reflections but not mechanically plotted. The repeated use of patterns of seven is one of the most remarkable features of the book. John seems to have had the seven days of creation (found in Genesis One and Two) in the forefront of his mind. A group of seven has the sense of completeness and fullness in it.
The final number seven is particularly significant.
The seventh day of creation in Genesis has no clear end in Genesis - unlike the first six which all end with the formula "and it was evening and morning, the xth day". By Day Seven the work of initiation is completed and God rests from it but God's purpose is not completed.
I believe we are meant to conclude that that day of rest includes the whole history of Earth. The writer of Hebrews, chapter four, tells us that the sabbath rest remains to this day. The seventh day of the heavens and the earth will finally end when this world ends and God creates the world to come on the first day of a new creation week.
The seventh day is the day of mankind when we are meant to 吐ill the earth and subdue it
The idea of an "open-ended" week awaiting completion at the end of the age seems to be mirrored in some of the other sequences of "sevens" in the Revelation.
In the long central section of the Revelation there are three great sequences of seven - the seals that unlock the scroll, the trumpets that are blown by seven angels and the bowls of God's wrath. In each case the seventh element of a sequence contains the next sequence of seven. Like a Russian doll, each sequence holds and leads on to the next.
So the seventh seal is opened and the whole of the scroll of God's will is implied in it. In the same way the seventh trumpet is sounded and it announces "the final woe" which is all seven bowls of God's complete wrath. The seventh bowl of wrath brings destruction on all God's enemies and the history of this age ends.
Here, then, is the idea:
The Seven Seals
1. The White Rider
2. The Red Rider
3. The Black Rider
4. The Pale Rider
The Riders are active all through the New Testament age, in fact they are characteristic of it, visiting and revisiting with blessing or disaster
5. The Old Testament martyrs clothed in white and told to wait 6:9-11
6. The "End of the Age" - The war which destroys Judea, Jerusalem and the O.T. world
7. The scroll unrolled. Which includes: -
The Seven Trumpets
1. The Plague on the earth.
2. The Plague on the sea
3. The Plaque on the fresh waters
4. The Plague on the sky
The Plagues come from heaven and, though they are severe, they are partial and are warnings - literally "portents" of what is to come. Like the four riders they are a feature of the whole period.
5. The plague of demonic locusts 9:1-11
6. The plague of destructive warfare 9:13-19
7. The Final Woe. Which includes -
The Seven Bowls
1.Wrath on the earth 16:2
2. Wrath on the sea 16:3
3. Wrath on the fresh waters 16:4
4. Wrath on the sky 16:8
5. The plague of darkness 16:10-11
6. The gathering of armies for Armageddon 16:12-16
7. The Last of God's Wrath. Which includes -
God’s enemies beaten
a. Babylon overthrown 17:1-18:24
b. The Beast and False Prophet overthrown 19:11-20
c. The armies of the world slain 19:21
d. Satan overthrown and damned 20:1-10
The final outpouring of anger from heaven which was signalled by the riders and the plagues. Creation swept clean.
e. The dead raised and judged 20:11-15
f. Death and Hades destroyed 20:14
h. THE NEW HEAVEN AND THE NEW EARTH 21:1-22:6
The City of God. God and mankind dwelling together. Sin, death and suffering ended. No more wrath. Creation renewed.