The Message of the Book of Revelation by Ryan Keating
Revelation is one of the books Christians are most curious about, and yet so many preachers are reluctant to approach it. I was one of those reluctant preachers for many years. Two years ago I moved to Cyprus and since that time I have been thinking deeply about Revelation. John was a teacher and theologian living as an exile on an island because the government wouldn’t let him live in Anatolia any longer. I think I especially identified with John because we have those things in common. I now live as an exile in Cyprus since I am no longer able to live in Turkey. I am glad to be where we are and God has used this season to broaden my vision and shape my soul for new things.
As a kid Revelation seemed scary and mysterious. Some of the people around me read it as if it were full of secret codes to be solved as a way of piecing together a picture of the future that was supposedly presented in scattered passages throughout the Bible and culminated with the book of Revelation. That kind of reading assumed that God had hidden a timeline of future events throughout these scattered passages. Intepreters of this persuasion often assign meaning to passages that the individual authors and audiences could not have understood or intended. Unsatisfied with that approach, I eventually started reading Revelation differently, and I came to love it. It is a balanced, bold, esthetically beautiful work of literature. It challenges corrupt systems and structures, it offers real hope, provides meaning to our suffering, rebukes us for our apathy and encourages us in our difficult situations.
I think there are a few factors that make this book so intimidating. Misunderstanding the historical context and the literary genre leads people to have the wrong expectations about it; and diving straight into the details without understanding the big picture leaves the real message lost for so many readers. In this short summary I don’t intend to try to solve all of the controversial issues in Revelation. But, I’d like to share some insights about context and genre and then offer a one line summary of every chapter of the book so that the broad message can emerge.
Historical Context and Literary Genre
In the second half of the first century, John, a follower of Jesus, wrote a letter to seven churches in Western Anatolia from his location in exile on the island of Patmos. The Roman Empire considered Christianity to be a threat, and openly tried to extinguish the movement entirely. Persecution intensified during certain periods, and sometimes those who weren’t willing to worship the emperor as god were prosecuted as traitors, punished, and even tortured and killed. Christianity was an oppressed but growing minority, struggling to survive, and offering an alternative narrative for the meaning of history and our basic identity in the world.
Revelation is an example of “apocalyptic” literature, a genre particularly employed by Jewish authors in antiquity. These works use complex symbols and fantastic elements to describe the significance of current situations as if from a divine perspective. In Revelation we see the meaning of history from God’s point of view, as if the curtain has been lifted and we are able to see the whole picture unfolding at once. In the Old Testament we see examples of this kind of literature in Daniel and Ezekiel, and apocalyptic writings multiplied throughout the period between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The book of Revelation is this genre’s most glorious example.
Revelation is also a prophetic book. It declares divine truths, predicts events that had not yet occurred at the time it was written, and some of the events it describes are still yet to be fulfilled. But, Revelation is not a book of secret codes. The first century readers understood its symbols and were able to attribute coherent meaning to its verses because they were familiar with the people, places, and situations being referred to symbolically. As we come to this book written in a foreign language, to a foreign culture, 2,000 years after it was written, we have to expend effort to close the gap of history, language, and culture, and sometimes our conclusions are still only tentative. I have found a helpful analogy in modern political cartoons. Newspapers today publish cartoons that employ symbolic images to refer to current events often in complex, nuanced ways. These cartoons are often offering a sharp critique of a politician or a situation. Readers who are familiar with current events immediately understand the message, accurately assigning meaning to the characters and symbols in the cartoons. However, if I were to show you a political cartoon from 100 years ago, or one from another culture, you might struggle to interpret it. In the same way, believers in the first century would have been able to make sense of the symbols much more easily than we can.
Of course, as Christians we believe that the book does have universal relevance as God’s word. It’s our job to unpack the intention of the author, attempting to discern what the original audience would have understood, so that we can apply its meaning to our own situations.
The Basic Message of Revelation
The author wants us to understand his message and take on for ourselves the way of living that is described in it. Two kingdoms are contrasted in Revelation. The kingdoms of this world worship economic prosperity and military power. People are tempted to worship those things, giving their allegiance to these kingdoms. Revelation uses the symbol of “Babylon” to describe these earthly kingdoms, even though literal Babylon hadn’t been a political kingdom since the Old Testament era. During the first century, it was the Roman Empire that represented these false values and opposed the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom is different because our king is different. As Babylon had done in the past, Rome ruled by violence and oppression. But Revelation reveals our king as a sacrificed lamb. Jesus doesn’t rule by oppression and violence, he defeats his enemies by dying for them. These two kingdoms represent two radically different ways of living. If we will live in the kingdom of God, we can’t continue to live according to the values of Babylon.
God encourages his people in Revelation, assuring them that even though they are persecuted and endure suffering, God is ultimately in control of the universe, and history will unfold just as God intends. God will bring about ultimate justice and his perfect kingdom of sovereign love will last forever. This is a valuable comfort to a people who are being oppressed and slaughtered. But there is also a warning throughout the book. Believers must remain faithfully committed to love and to live according to Jesus’ example and teaching, even when it costs them everything. Those who will remain faithful to Jesus, even to the point of giving their lives as Jesus did, will also participate in his ultimate victory. For now, we have an opportunity to repent, to place faith in Christ, and to join in his work in the world. And there will come a time when God’s justice is consummated and he will judge evil once and for all, rooting it out of his creation. Those people who reject God and live according to the values of the kingdoms of this world will unfortunately receive what they have been asking for all along.
God is actively at work in the world. He is drawing creation toward its ultimate fulfillment, turning evil and suffering around for his purposes, invisibly and sometimes imperceptibly transforming and renewing creation for his glory and for our benefit. His kingdom is coming. Sickness, corruption, poverty, oppression, pain, death and evil are all temporary realities. One day his work of renewal will be complete as Jesus returns to bring the kingdom in perfect fullness. One day even the evil in me will be gone. And for now we begin to live according to that reality.
Some Important Symbols
Apocalyptic literature is full of symbols and metaphors. Revelation’s use of numbers is a good example of this symbolic dimension. The number 12 features prominently as a symbol of the people of God. For example, in Revelation 4:4 we see 24 elders surrounding the throne of Jesus. Israel was composed of 12 tribes and Jesus chose 12 apostles. The 24 elders represent the Old and New Covenants, the whole people of God.
The number seven is used to symbolize completeness and holiness. For example, the letter is addressed to seven churches. These are actual congregations in real places, but at the same time it gives us a hint that the message is valid for all the churches. The number six represents evil, so the “number of the beast” is 666. In the Hebrew way of assigning numerical value to individual letters, 666 can represent the name “Caesar Nero.” In this way, the author is also making a sharp political critique, describing the Roman emperor as a satanic beast.
The narrative of Revelation unfolds in a pattern of four sets of seven. It begins with the seven churches we have already mentioned. Then we see a rolled up scroll sealed with seven seals. The scroll represents the meaning of history and we see that only God is able to understand the whole story and he is in ultimate control of everything. We can trust in his sovereignty even when the world seems out of control.
Then we see seven trumpets, from which we learn that despite the persistence of suffering in the world, God is bringing about his justice. In ways we cannot perceive, God is even able to use suffering as part of his perfect plan.
Finally, we see seven bowls. As each bowl of wrath is poured out we understand that God will ultimately judge evil. Although evil seems so strong at the moment, his eternal goodness will win in the end, so we should not give up on doing good and trusting in God.
A Short Summary of Each Chapter
1. In the midst of tribulation, Jesus is the king who is in control. Key verses – 1: 17-18
2. If his people will return to love as the priority, and if they are faithful to Jesus even when it costs their lives, they will join in God’s ultimate victory. Key verse – 2:4
3. We must keep our beliefs and our lives pure according to the example of Jesus. Key verses – 3:19-20
4. God is on his glorious throne overseeing the events of history and being worshipped by all his people.
Key verses – 4: 10-11
5. The victorious king is actually a slain lamb. Key verses – 5: 5-6
6. As the seven seals are opened we recognize that Jesus is sovereign over our current suffering. Key verses – 6:10-11
7. God’s chosen people include Jews and Gentiles – from every nation. Key verse – 7:9
8. The plagues and destruction continue, but all is in God’s sovereign hand. Key verse – 8:3
9. The people won’t repent even when God sends plagues to get their attention. Key verse – 9:20-21
10. God will turn suffering around as an expression of his justice. Key verse – 10:6
11. The prayers for justice are being finally answered through the work of God’s servants and the coming of his kingdom. Key verse – 11:15
12. God’s people are in a battle with the forces of evil, and God has already guaranteed the victory. Key verse – 12:11
13. Two beasts symbolically rival God and his Messiah with military power and economic success. Key verse – 13:18
14. The eternal gospel goes out in the midst of destruction and God promises rest for the faithful and judgment for the rebellious. Key verse – 14:13
15. God’s final wrath is about to be poured out against evil as if from seven bowls. Key verse – 15:7
16. God opposes the kingdom that leads people astray and persecutes goodness. Key verse – 16:19
17. Babylon is like a prostitute who leads the nations into sinfulness and is destined to fall. Key verse – 17:1-2
18. When the great empire falls, the nations lament because they benefitted from its corruption. Key verse – 18:23b-24
19. The heavens rejoice when Babylon falls because God’s victory over evil is on its way. Key verse – 19:11
20. God sets the limits of Satan’s power and brings judgment and justice. Key verse – 20:3
21. God transforms the universe into a new heaven and a new earth. Key verse – 21:5
22. The invitation to live in God’s perfect kingdom forever is open to everyone. Key verse – 22:14-15
As a kind of parallel to the beatitudes in Jesus’ sermons in the gospels, Revelation contains seven beatitudes of Jesus distributed throughout the book. A beatitude is a saying that begins with “Blessed is the one…” and it teaches a principle of living in the way of Hebrew wisdom literature. The beatitudes of Revelation can be read as a kind of internal summary of the message of the book. The first one is found in Revelation 1:3 “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” We are invited into a particular way of living. The author doesn’t just want to change our beliefs about future events. The message of the book should shape our values and behavior.
The final beatitude is found in the last chapter of the book. Revelation 22:14 “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.” Applying symbols that the author developed earlier, this beatitude encapsulates a central message of Revelation. If we place in faith in Christ, remaining faithful to him even unto death, we will have white robes of our own. God is at work renewing his world, bringing it to a sinless, incorruptible state. We will be able to enter that new creation and live there forever.
Revelation is a glorious, brilliantly crafted, beautiful, and practical book. It is full of hope and encouragement for its readers in the first century as well as in the 21st century. It also challenges the church and the world with its message. If we read it carefully, we should be moved to live out the hope and the challenge until Jesus returns.