My goodness! Revelation just keeps coming up in my life. It’s a wonderful mysterious book. Full of language not even Sgt. Peppers could muster up. The end of the world is probably one of the best selling ideas in cinema today. Every year, superheroes, and comedians take on some resemblance of judgement day and every election cycle, we hear that the opposing candidate is The Antichrist-the one forewarned to bring about the end of the age.
We are obsessed with the end of the world. And most of our ideas about the end of the world are from this short, little, and graphic letter written around the end of the first century.
Now many of the letters we find in the Bible can be informative and applicable without much study of the history surrounding it. You can read nearly all of the New Testament with little context of the sufferings of the early church and still come out with some great things you should apply to your life.
Many Christians have it as a source of pride that they have either taught through or group studied this book. Just yesterday I spoke with a pastor who’s first sermon series at his church plan was on Revelation. It’s become this religious seal of “Oh, you’re pretty serious about that Bible book.” But I’m constantly wondering…yeah, but did you discuss any of this stuff? In truth, I’ve never heard it shared from any pulpit. And by all means allow that to help you proceed with caution should you feel so. But I hope you would still take a step into it all with me.
Every time you study the history of these texts and audiences, The Bible becomes more colorful. You can get closer to the feel of the first ears that heard these words. Certain imagery becomes more apparent. Fig trees quit being just fig trees. Lost coins aren’t just lost coins. Sermons on mountains aren’t just sermons on mountains. Jesus mistaken as a gardener isn’t just some wrong assumption. You find there is an applicable purpose to these kinds of images. Things that without the context you might just throw assumption on or miss all together.
Perhaps no imagery has been received this kind of gloss over by the casual reader than Revelation. And very few churches have known what to do with it. Because it is a difficult reading. It’s weird. It’s intense. It’s hard to make sense of it all, and so- because we can’t make sense of it on any surface level – we take the assumption of literalness. It is God we are talking about. And if our faith has no limits, all things (even the bizarre) are possible.
The problem there is we overstep the imagery, and language. We overstep the history, and we turn assumptions into fact. And thus traditions are born that sell lots of movie tickets, books, paranoia, and billboards.
With all of that said, I’d like this post to help bring life to many of the Revelation texts in a bit of a casual way. If nothing else, give you some talking points for the next time Uncle Bob starts talking about the Liberals bringing about the end of all things.
Perhaps the grand declaration of the Christians in the first century was a very politically intrusive statement. The Christians grouped together around the declaration that Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord of Lords. That Jesus was the true King of Kings. That Jesus, was the Son of God. Now all of this is important because this was all language that belonged to the Empire. And soon after these followers of Jesus began their good news proclamations, that there was a new Kingdom, well that Empire starting wiping out as many of them as possible. These are the events that are taking place when the first of the four Gospels is written.
Mark is writing to the persecuted Christians in Rome around the time of Peter and Paul’s death. In the year 70AD, Jerusalem and the Temple protected by its walls were destroyed by the Romans. After a great fire in Rome, the Emperor Nero set out to blame and kill each of the Christians one by one. In Mark 13, you will find an account of Jesus foretelling, in detail, the events that took place. To the Christians he warned: Flee. All of these events are told with colorful and peculiar language. This type of language was apocalyptic in nature. The Greek word “apokalypsis” or “revelation” means in essence to unveil or take out of hiding; to uncover. The purpose of this language was rooted in a long tradition found especially in Judaism. Books like Ezekiel and Daniel share much of the same imagery of “one like a Son of Man coming on clouds” or “abominations of desolation.” It is recycled and reinterpreted language to speak of enemies and heroes of God. The point of such language like “stars falling out of the sky” and “periods of darkness” is to point the reader to reflect on the past when such similar language was placed on events that had taken place before. Apocalyptic language-like the Prophets- often would challenge the reigning political powers of the age. “That abomination would soon be defeated by one like a Son of Man coming on the clouds.” In other words: “Right now it feels like God is absent. Enemies have taken over the Temple where God should be. But believe in this promise: God will win.”
Now the language wasn’t some sort of strange code. It was language that would have been understood by the original audience. We, now being removed 2,000 years from this particular writing, have to dive deeply into the tradition and political history to understand what would have been quickly known in the final years of Domitian’s reign.
So before diving in, think about what is going on.
Christians are being Killed. It’s not safe to be a Christian if you live in the Empire. Often it’s easier to be a Jew. So why not abandon the faith and return to the former way.
This is actually what happens in 70AD when the Jews decide they will be their own Messiah and attempt to overtake Rome and push them out of the holy city. The Enemy, The Evil one, destroys them and their city for “not enduring with the faith.” Like. Jesus. Warns.
In the same way that the Gospel of Mark was written to encourage Christians in Rome to endure and persevere to the end, so is this apocalyptic letter named Revelation.
Romans grew their Empire by taking over territories but allowing them to take part in what was called “The Roman Peace.” This allowed these territories to keep their religions and their temples, provided they pay tax to Caesar. And for the most part, it kept these tribes peaceful towards the Empire and allowed them to be far-spread throughout the world. In the years following the death of Christ, Emperors like Caligula, Nero, and Domitian began to end this Peace. They demanded you put your faith in the Roman deities-themselves. Now many of those called Christians refused to take their allegiance away from Christ. If the opposition to the Empire wasn’t killed, they were imprisoned, which is where tradition places the author of this text. John was believed to be imprisoned on the island of Patmos (a Roman Penal colony) just off the coast of the seven churches he writes about. They aren’t just random churches that God pulls out of a hat, they are the churches experiencing the same local persecution that places John in prison. So John writes to them, to help them endure this persecution. Remember the promises of our Kingdom and the renewal and reconciliation of all things. Remember the promise of Resurrection. That each of us will share in the victory of Christ. Remember the promise so that you can endure this violent and painful persecution. Look to the cross for action. Look to the resurrection for victory.
Now the “end of the age” was not the end of the world. It was the end of Roman dominance in the world. God will return to his throne where seemingly he has allowed Rome to sit. And so John writes to inspire endurance. Imagine being defeated by the enemy. Imagine all your people being down and out on a battlefield. Hope seems to be lost. Compromise seems to be your only option. And then a leader arises and shouts to your people:
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
7 “Look, he is coming with the clouds,”
and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
So shall it be! Amen.
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Rome’s dominance was fastly spreading. Culture as a whole was changing. Greco-Roman traditions snuck their way into Jewish and Christian life. To be a Christian was simply not practical. Nor was it safe. John writes to tell the Christians the final battle between Satan (Rome) and God is fastly approaching. So you MUST endure. Do NOT lose hope. Things will probably get worse before they get better. More of us will die. Persecution will increase. But stand for Christ. Stand for his kingdom. Even to death. Remember what we have been promised. Christ will return in full power and glory and we, not Rome, will be victorious. We are his people. We must live as he called us to live. Let us not delve in the practices of the pagans. We must not grant Rome such simple victories. We must remain pure. We must remain holy.
The first church John writes to is Ephesus. Ephesus, being a port city, had greatly been taken over by Roman culture. One of the primary features were two massive statues to Titus (destroyer of the temple in Jerusalem) and his brother Domitian. Domitian was known for demanding worship of the Jews and the Christians. He fought to be called “Lord and God.” (4v11) Six of the seven cities in John’s letter had pledged their allegiance to worshiping this Emperor. And so the language John writes with will directly address the “Lordship” of Domitian.
Here you find Domitian with seven stars in his hand. As often is the case, the New Testament authors rob all divine language associated with the Emperors and place it on the true Lord that is Christ. Caesar wore a sash and a robe. The double-edged sword the destructive tool of the Roman soldier. In just the first chapter of Revelation we find these power images taken from Rome and placed on Christ.
John begins with seven letters to seven Churches; prophetically speaking (like the OT prophets) of how God views their dealing with the current political climate. He praises, rebukes, and admonishes them for how they have lived their faith in the face of persecution and cultural shift.
Ephesus: Ephesus had gone through much cultural and religious change. In Acts we find this church displaying great loyalty to God as they denounce their former ways. They were passionately on fire for the Lord. We find in Revelation 2 that this passion has fizzled away as the Greco-Roman culture has become more common in the daily lives of the church. While their faith and perseverance has not caved, they haven’t shown the boldness they once had when they burnt their sorcery scrolls publicly as told in Acts 19.
Smyrna: In AD 26, Emperor Tiberius placed a temple and cult within the city. There were many Jews who were rather indifferent to the inclusion of this cult and shared in their practices. The Jews in Smyrna were practicing with the pagans while claiming to be part of a synagogue. The loyal ones who would not adapt to Roman’s Emperor worship were arrested.
Pergamum: This was the home of the Roman governor of Asia Minor (the location of the seven churches). “I know where you live-where Satan has his throne. (2v13)” The white stones (2v17) were commonly used to post declarations of the Empire. The governor was the one who decided upon capital punishment known as “the right of the sword.” Here this language is given to God’s victory. (2v12).
Thyatira: John here is using OT characters (Balaam, Jezebel) to describe a person or group of people who have been leading the people of God astray. John, still practicing Jewish law, was condemning the churches of Pergamum and Thyatria forsaking their purity by practicing sexual immorality (likely in religious practice) and eating food that had been sacrificed to the Roman idols. These churches have not remained set apart from the unholiness of the Empire. John writes in 2v24 that not all have been led astray. To those who remained pure, endure to the end, and you will find victory. But not just victory, this kingdom will rule the nations. (They will receive the promise of the Israelites.) The star and scepter are illusions to Numbers 24.
“I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
a scepter will rise out of Israel.
Sardis: In the year 17 AD Sardis suffered from a great earthquake that nearly devastated the city. John is implying that they have shown strength in greater destruction than their current one. They overcame before and they can again. They had a reputation of being alive and overcoming, but now they are dead in the face of Rome’s power. (3v1) John draws back to the scene of the Israelites worshiping the golden calf and God speaking of his “book” that those loyal to his deliverance will find their names in. The book is often a tool to inspire the hearer to endure through all kings of hardships. Like the hardships of Moses who stood for the ways of God and rebuked the ungodly people.
Philadelphia: Also victim to the great quake of 17 AD, Philadelphia was known for always being on the edge of destruction. The Pillar is a symbol of something stable; a symbol of endurance for the city that had so little. To them the promise of the new Jerusalem comes. A kingdom unlike yours-a kingdom that has no end- is coming down from heaven and will soon be in your midst.
Laodicea: Colossae was known for it’s cold water supply. Hierapolis was known for its hot springs. Laodicea being found in the middle was known for having water with a high mineral content. Being found in the middle, their water supply was lukewarm. Neither hot like that of Hierapolis, nor cold like that of Colossae. Both hot and cold water is useful, but the lukewarm water of Laodicea was despised and know to have caused vomiting. Jesus compares the Christians in Laodicea to their water supply. Seemingly they just exist and have no purpose or action in their world. After an earthquake in 60 AD, the Laodiceans refused Roman aid and built their city up using their own resources and thus building up an independence and a great wealth. John rebukes them for not using this wealth to help those Christ has called into his kingdom. Hot water has a purpose. Cold water has a purpose. But will you Laodiceans submit to your purpose?
John finishes his letters to his churches and moves into describing God’s victory. He does so by using all sorts of imagery already found in the Old Testament scriptures. The language gets weirder going forward as John uses popular literary techniques to describe judgement and the realm of the gods.
The Coming Kingdom
In the fifth chapter of Revelation we find The Lamb- who was crucified under Roman authority-now standing in power and glory over all things. The Lamb now speaking power into his followers, reminding them that THEY the followers of Jesus, have been made to be a kingdom and priests, that those who follow Jesus will reign on the Earth. The end of the Roman dominance and the beginning of the new creation would have been an incredible vision of endurance to all the persecuted Christians.
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain (BY ROME), to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”
Rome my dear friends, has not won and every creature on heaven and earth will know this to be true. The Romans-who displayed death as entertainment in the arena. Killing men by use of beasts-their evil will be returned onto them. The blood of all the Christians who have been slain by Rome will be avenged! (6v10) God will come on those who persecuted his Children. Stand fast in this hope my brothers!
In (7v9) we find that God has taken back the world from the Empire. People from every nation, tribe, every tongue now stood before the throne of God.
9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
The good news of the Romans was “Salvation can be found in none save Caesar” but here we declare “Salvation belongs to OUR God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” The one YOU killed. The Palm branches were symbols of the last time the Jews defeated the Empire by pushing them out of the temple. The Maccabees defeated the Seleucids and entered the holy city waving their palm branches.
7 But now, carrying green palm branches and sticks decorated with ivy, they paraded around, singing grateful praises to him who had brought about the purification of his own Temple.-2 Maccabees 10
As the trumpets are sounded (ch8,9) an eagle (the symbol of Rome’s military) comes flying in announcing Rome’s destruction. Soon following we have imagery of a NEW Exodus. Fitting in the drawing out much of the OT imagery. We have the sacrificial lamb of Passover-the symbol of judgement for all who oppose God. And salvation for all who do not. John writes of seven plagues that will destroy the earth and demand the people repent and turn to the Lord. But again the people refuse salvation.
The story of Revelation is the new Passover. Those who endure for the Kingdom of God will be saved and those who persecute and reject the kingdom will not be spared. Be marked with the new blood. The blood of Christ.
John is saying “My friends, God will take care of Rome and every enemy that may ever persecute us. We will be the victors. Endure to the end!” As the Israelites were delivered from Egypt so too will we be delivered from Rome. God did not forget his people in Egypt and he has not forgotten us!
In Chapters 11-13, the language that continues captures many other traditions of “the end of the age” many of them not Christian or Jewish. The Woman and the Dragon draws from the birth of Apollo narrative where a dragon chases a pregnant woman. Here the Messiah is born. And the dragon pursues the mother and attempts to kill her Children-Christians. In the thirteenth chapter, like Rome, this beast of Revelation wages war on the Jewish people and the temple and rules the entire world. “Who is like Rome, who can wage war against them?” (13v4) The forty-two months is likely a reference to the Jewish Revolt that went from 66AD to 70AD and culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Chapter 13 picks up many of the events and beliefs that surrounded the Emperor Nero. Whose name “Neron Kaisar” in Hebrew has the numeric value 666. The other beasts are those under Rome (governors) who enforced the powers of the Emperors on the people.
“Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great, which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.”
All who do the evil of Rome will be destroyed.
“This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.”
This reveals the purpose of John’s apocalypse. To call the faithful into patient endurance. Into hope that God will take care of the enemy and bring salvation to His people. Like the days of the Exodus.
“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”
Even in death you will find victory.
Chapters 16-18 redraw the events of Exodus again. What happened to Egypt will happen to Rome.
“The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits.”
Rome was built on seven hills. Once Rome has fallen, a period of grace will fall on its people. “Come out of her. So you will not share in her sins.” God will cast his judgement. And the reign of the Empire will cease. (18v21-24)
And now John instills the image of hope for the people.
“19 After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting:
Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
2 for true and just are his judgments.
He has condemned the great prostitute
who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.
He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”
3 And again they shouted:
The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.”
4 The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God, who was seated on the throne. And they cried:
5 Then a voice came from the throne, saying:
“Praise our God,
all you his servants,
you who fear him,
both great and small!”
6 Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
8 Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)
9 Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”
The fall of Rome will be like a wedding feast for those who have endured the hardships of the empire for the sake of Christ. On that day God will be found near his people. If you endure to the end you will be invited to the wedding supper. Do not forsake hope.
John declared Christ is coming in power to defeat the beast. The white horses-used by Romans to celebrate their victories-stood before the open doors of Heaven. And on this horse stood the Word of God. God Judges Rome. God Judges the Dead. Those who held true to the kingdom were spared and those who served the enemy were condemned. All were judged according to what they had done. And those who were not loyal would share in the defeat of Rome.
And when this day came, the new heaven and the new earth would stand. God’s dwelling place would be HERE. Out of the ashes of the old new life would spring out. From death would come resurrection.
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
Once Rome was defeated John insisted that all would be under God. The evil of the Emperor wouldn’t even slightly exist. Because Christ has reconciled the entire creation. And God has returned to his people. And the holy city that was once destroyed by the beast has been renewed. And in this holy city there will be no need for a temple. Because God’s dwelling place will be in and with all things.
God will re-root the tree we were taken from; the Tree of Life. This tree will be the tree that unites humanity with one another and with God.
Creation will be restored from it’s fall.
Come, Lord Jesus.
How Revelation was received and what are we to do with it?
Rome did not fall in the lifetime of John. Nor in the lifetime of those who first heard this writing. History shows that in the 100 years that followed, Christians had filled the Roman Empire. Tertullian writes “We have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods.” Christianity was illegal in the Empire, this large presence of Christians led to great persecution. But for some reason, the movement expanded.
How in the face of all of this persecution did the Christians endure? What inspired them?
Revelation. Revelation inspired them.
Revelation is a call for Christians throughout history to believe that good will always win. It should inspire us to face any and all persecution for the sake of the Kingdom. The hope of everything placed right. The hope of the renewal of all things. That we, like Christ, absorb the evil of the world onto ourselves. And that we never forsake what is right, and true, and good. Because we have a mighty God. Because we believe in love.
And we believe in justice.
Endure my brothers.
Endure till the end.
Come, Lord Jesus.