We are reading the first three verses of Revelation 1 from the Majority Greek Text.
1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His slaves — things that must occur shortly. And He signified it, sending it by His angel to His slave John, 2who gave witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ — to all things that he saw, and things that are and those that must happen after these. 3Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and keep the things that are written in it; because the time is near.1
In these introductory sermons I have been trying to give an overview of the whole book of Revelation through the lens of each of John's principles of interpretation. And there is a good reason why we have been spending this much time on them. I believe that most of the confusion people experience on this book is because these principles have been ignored. And I believe that these thirty foundational principles rule out all interpretations but one. And the principles we have already covered in verses 1-2 are probably the most important. But I think you will find the remainder to be quite beneficial.
Principle #16 - when rightly understood, this book brings great encouragement to believers (v. 3a - “Blessed”)
We are up to principle #16, which states, "when rightly understood, this book brings great encouragement to believers." And you can see that in the word "blessed." "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and keep the things that are written in it; because the time is near." The dictionary defines the Greek word for "blessed," as "blessed, happy because of circumstances, fortunate, privileged." He's going to be bringing them good news - news of Christian vindication against their enemies in history and of the success of their ventures. In other words, this is a book of encouragement, comfort, and hope. It is not designed to make the Christian depressed and frightened. He doesn't say, "Discouraged is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy." He says "Happy." As one writer put it,
...would it surprise you if I told you that the book of Revelation isn’t a horror story at all, that instead it’s written to increase your delight and joy in God forever? The book of Revelation is meant to be reveled in! It is the fountain for the future’s happiness.
And I say, "Amen!" Seven times this book gives this beatitude of blessing or happiness on those who pay attention to its contents. One time it pronounces happiness on saints in their worship. Another time it blesses them in their dominion labor. Another time it even blesses them in their death - yes, even their death. Revelation 14 gives such a perspective of victory that believers can even face death with great anticipation. It says,
"'Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them.”"
Death can't even rob them of their works! Do you want to be able to face your own death with joy? Well, the book of Revelation tells us how. So if your interpretation of the book frightens you, discourages you, or removes hope, or takes away your happiness, you are definitely looking at the book wrongly. It is par excellence the good news.
But the interpretation many people give brings a sense of foreboding and hopelessness. Over the last 45 years I have read hundreds of teachings on Revelation that not only promise the end of the world, but that convince people that there is nothing we can do to change culture - that it is a hopeless situation. As one amillennialist told me, "The church is guaranteed to be defeated in history, but it will be victorious in eternity." So he was saying that it gives depressing news for history but very encouraging news about heaven. Well, praise God that he sees encouraging news about heaven, but this gives encouraging news while people are still alive. When are they blessed? It is while they are reading, listening to, and keeping the things written in this book. It's before death. Another teacher of Revelation said, "The church wins by losing." How do we win by losing? He says that when we are all martyred, we will enjoy our reward in heaven. OK - well, there is a certain aspect of truth to that. But this book does not just give us good news for heaven; it gives us good news for planet earth.
But that is so contrary to most of the commentaries on Revelation that I have read over the past 35 years. Their teachings have been unbelievably discouraging and demotivating. One recent commentary (published in 2013) continues this tradition and says,
No book in the world is more frightening than the Revelation Prophecy... It is the last book of the Bible, and it is a book of events, which are yet to take place. What is foretold is so horrific I could not even imagine living through it. Residing in these last days is difficult enough...
While all judgment prophecies are harsh and frightening, the Revelation prophecy stands out as the most terrifying. It ends in the cataclysmic destruction of the earth...2
And the commentary goes on to give anything but encouraging news for those who are alive on planet earth. And it's not just in the past two years that people have been spreading news of discouragement and despair. Even when I was a teenager I was being told that the tribulation would happen in my teen years. And their teachings scared me to death. One person told me not to bother getting married and for sure don't bring kids into this troubled world. His viewpoint on Revelation was anything but blessed or happy. One writer said that famine would be so severe by 1986 that "Human body parts will be sold in stores.”3 Well, obviously his message of despair did not turn out, but because people took him seriously, they abandoned any attempt to influence American culture in a positive direction. And you can see the horrible results of this false hope (or anti-hope). Back in 1977 Salem Kirben's understanding of Revelation was so discouraging that he basically told people to give up trying to influence culture. He said,
“We have reached the point of no return. We are on an irreversible course for world disaster.”4
“Without the hope of our Lord’s return...what future do any of us have?”5
And I say, "No. We have every reason to be hopeful. This book gives us reason to be hopeful." "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy." And if you are tempted to feel our cause is hopeless after this most recent Supreme Court decision, you need a healthy dose of the blessedness that comes from truly understanding this book.
Now, that is not to deny that this book speaks of persecution, and bad times, and judgment. The book is divided up into seven parts, five of which describe rather horrible judgments in the first century. But who is being judged by God? It's the enemies of the church who are being judged. It is the persecutors of the church who are being judged. In answer to the prayers of God's persecuted saints, the husband of the bride raises Himself up in jealous indignation and He destroys those who dare to touch the apple of His eye. He shows Himself to be the vindicator of his bride when she is willing to cry out. That was required of a rape victim in Deuteronomy - to cry out - not to take a who cares attitude. In this past week I have read articles on eschatology that rejoice in the Supreme Court decision because it means that Christ is coming back any time. That's a bride being raped that refuses to cry out; that treats the rape as God's will. Well, in this book, none of the saints take a "who cares?" attitude. They cry out. And when the church cries out to her husband, He cares. That's good news.
And even the way the book is structured shows hope, encouragement, and victory for God's people. I've given you an outline of the book of Revelation.
If you pull that out, I want to give you an overview of why this is such a hopeful book. There are many other intricate substructures that I have kept off of the chart for now. I'll keep adding to this chart as we go through the book. But I've tried to keep the outline as simple as possible for today.
You can see on the chart that the book is constructed as a giant chiasm. A chiasm is where the first part and the last part of a passage or of a book are parallel in subject matter. So they are both labeled A. And the second section and the second to last section are both labeled B, because they are parallel in subject matter. And the parallelism progresses until you get to the center of the book, which is the central theme. It's an ancient way of structuring literature. But if you look at the E section, you will see the center of the book. At the heart of the chiasm is the guaranteed victory of the church in chapters 12-14. And it is guaranteed in the midst of terrible times. Though there is a cosmic battle between Satan's kingdom and Christ's kingdom, the saints of Christ's kingdom are guaranteed to win and to progressively advance the cause of Christ.
And for purposes of seeing why this book brings such joy, you don't need to just look at the last section of the book. Everything in blue constitutes the introductions to each of these sections. And those blue introductions are filled with faith-building statements. So in chapters 2-3 we have some discouraging news about the church militant. This is not a pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye book. It is realistic about troubles. So it describes compromises in the first century church that are very much like the compromises in the modern American church. He speaks of apathy, persecution from liberals, materialism, idolatry, sexual immorality, a woman by the name of Jezebel who teaches Christians that it's OK to engage in sexual immorality. We've been hearing that message recently, haven't we? And there were churches that were compromised doctrinally in the first century, and there were good churches that seemed to be the minority. That's the first B section. It's describing the church militant and pointing out that it has weaknesses. So it is a mixture of discouraging things and very encouraging things.
But if you think that chapters 2-3 are the only chapters on the church, you are missing the most blessed part of His message to the churches, which includes the introduction in chapter 1 and the parallel in chapters 19-22. He will end the book with a parallel B section on the church triumphant that is very positive. That's the trajectory that the church is heading towards. We don't want to go back to the New Testament apostolic church. It was a mess. We want to move forward to the calling given to us in this book.
But in any case, John gives us basis for being hopeful and positive in the blue introduction to the first B of the chiasm. That introduction shows that Christ is present with His church. He is not an absent husband. He cares for His church, will fight for His church, will purify His church, and will be the one to guarantee the eventual triumph of the church. So even though in chapters 2-3 you will see some pretty messed up churches in the first century, he starts in chapter 1 by giving a Christ-centered perspective of the church. That's where our focus must be - on the Christ who will build His church so that the gates of hell will not prevail it. The gates of hell will not prevail against the church because Christ is walking in the midst of the candlesticks. Christ is walking in the midst of the church. That's the blessed good news.
Let's move on. The first C section of the chiasm deals with the seven seals. Those seven seals deal with pretty horrible judgments. But you will notice a blue letter introduction to those seals in chapter 4:1 through chapter 5:14. John introduces those seals with an awe-inspiring description of the throne room of God and shows how Jesus was found worthy to open the scroll and to begin the judgments on Rome and Israel that He had prophesied while on earth. And each of the seven seals deal with historical judgments starting at Christ's first coming and leading up through Nero. Every one of those seals was the release of heaven's Courtroom Judgments.
The first D section of the chiasm shows an intensification of judgments against God's enemies. But before those trumpets are opened, he gives a joyful introduction in chapter 8, verses 1-6. That introduction describes how the prayers of God's saints rise up to heaven and are directly related to angels being permitted to go forth into battle on our behalf. No prayer means no battle. It speaks of the silence that exists in heaven. It's almost like heaven is ignoring the plight of the church. But they are not ignoring the church. In heaven the angels have sword in hand and trumpets ready, waiting for the church to pray. And as soon as the incense of the church's prayers ascend, angel regiment after angel regiment begin to blow their trumpets and begin to bring judgments on earth. It's an incredibly encouraging introduction to the seven trumpets. The seven trumpets sound like bad news until you read them in light of The introduction. That introduction makes those trumpets incredibly good news if the church is willing to cry out.
And chapter 12 forms the introduction to the central section of the book - the E section. So chapter 12 is the heart of the heart of the book. And it is a very positive introduction. And since chapter 12 is also structured as a chiasm, you see that verses 10-11 of chapter 12 are the heart, of the heart, of the heart of the book. And what is that central message? That Christ is progressively extending His salvation and His kingdom to the ends of the earth, that Satan has lost the battle and has been cast out of heaven, and that the saints are victors - even in their death they are victors. It's the beginning stages of Joshua's conquest of the land of Canaan - tough times, yet exciting times, because Jericho is falling, falling, falling, and humanism is proving itself to be impotent. Is this book good news? Yes it is.
I won't go through every blue introduction to the seven main sections of the book of Revelation, but if you read them, you will see that each section fills the Christian with faith to triumph even in the midst of the most difficult of circumstances. This outline is your road map as you read the book that will help you to read it for blessing instead of discouragement. And by the way, I believe this outline is a major contribution to Revelation studies. If you don't understand John's structure for his book, it will mess up you interpretation. And this outline is the result of studying over 50 scholarly attempts to outline the book, where various scholars have the bits and the pieces, but this resolves the tensions in those attempts. So hang on to the outline. I think you will find it helpful.
But in terms of the overall blessing that this book brings, think of it this way: the saints of the first century had far worse set backs than we have received from the Supreme Court of our nation, but they were not discouraged. They were not discouraged because they knew that they were on the winning side and that no effort they made was lost - it was all advancing the kingdom. They knew that their labors in the Lord were not in vain. Any interpretation of Revelation that fails to give hope, encouragement, and pronounce blessing on the labors of the church militant is an interpretation that has failed one of John's fundamental purposes for the book.
But there is a caveat in each section of the book. This blessing is not automatic. And the blessing in chapter 1:3 is not automatic. It doesn't say blessed is he who reads and ignores the words of this prophecy. The later sections of this book only promise the joy of victory to those who are willing to pay attention to God's Word and obey it. So let's look at two other principles in verse 3.
Principle #17 - this book is meant to be read aloud in the worship of the church ("read" = ἀναγινώσκω) and thus has a liturgical function
Principle #17 is that this book is meant to be read aloud in the worship of the church and thus has a liturgical function. That is hinted at by the word ἀναγινώσκω, which one Greek dictionary defines as "to read aloud (in public worship)"6. Another dictionary says, "for the most part it is used with the sense of reading or public reading."7 And so the one who reads is in the singular because it is referring to the pastor and those who listen is in the plural because it is the whole congregation.
And because of the liturgical nature of that word, David Chilton, David Wallace, and a few other authors say that this is the first clue that the book as a whole is structured liturgically. They say that it follows the normal order of a worship service. Most authors are skeptical of that, and I'm still on the fence on that one. But it does at least point to three other things that are not that controversial. The first thing it points to is that this book is certainly appropriate for reading in worship. This is not a book that should be relegated to a specialty Sunday School class. It was intended to be read in public worship. This is a book for all God's people.
The second implication is that if we are commanded to read it out loud (which most dictionaries give as part of the definition of that word), there must be something about the "out loud" part that is beneficial. And I won't be getting into it this morning, but in future lessons we are going to be seeing that both worship and spiritual warfare were intended by agod to be out loud experiences. We will see that even our private worship was intended to be out loud. When I started engaging in my private devotions out loud - singing out loud and praying out loud it hugely improved my worship.mwhen I began engaging in spiritual warfare out loud, my spiritual warfare hugely improved. Revelation 12 and other passages seem to indicate that when Scriptures are affirmed out loud, it increases our faith. We won't have time to get into it, but the "out-loudness" of our Christianity is important for growing from faith to faith and from strength to strength.
And then, thirdly, even if the book as a whole does not follow the liturgical pattern, it certainly is filled with liturgy, doxology, prayer, and dialogical worship. Indeed, we will later be seeing that the worship of earth is somehow connected with the worship of heaven, and we will see that the worship of heaven is a pattern for the worship of earth. That much is clear. And there are enormous implications for our worship. For example, it gives us guidance on both the content of song and the instrumental music that accompanies our songs. And there are many other implications for worship that will become clear later in the book.
But because there is debate on how far we can take the word ἀναγινώσκω, I will stop with those three applications. I don't think those three are that controversial. It's enough to know that this book was intended to be part of the church's worship.
Principle #18 - this book is a book on ethics (v. 3c - "hear...keep")
But the 18th principle is that this book is a book on ethics. And that can be seen by both the words "hear" and "heed" (or as the New King James translates the second word, "keep"). When the Bible uses the term hear or pay attention, it is not asking you to simply take in information. When a mom says to her children, "You're not hearing me," you know that she means that the child is not doing what she has instructed that child to do. The dictionary says about the first word for "hear," "faith and obedience are the marks of real hearing."8 It says, "faith and obedience are the marks of real hearing." So most commentaries acknowledge that John is calling Christians to ethical obedience to the demands of this book. And certainly the second word, "to heed," or "to keep" emphasizes that. The dictionary defines τηρέω as "to persist in obedience, keep, observe, fulfill, pay attention to." This is not a book for idle curiosity seekers. It is a book on ethics par excellence. And we need to understand it to be able to obey it. And let me give you some examples of the broad range of ethics covered in this book.
Chapters 2-3 deal with church ethics. Chapter 4 shows how ethics must be God-centered and must flow from God's throne. There is no natural law in this book. The only ethics that Revelation is interested in is the ethics of Scripture. Chapter 5 shows how our ethics must flow from grace. It is the Lamb of God alone who is able to accomplish the things of this book, and He is the one who will strengthen His saints through the rest of the book. And chapters 6-19 show that God is not neutral to people who keep or who disobey His Word. There are always judgments that flow from disobedience and there are always blessings that flow from obedience to God's Word. These chapters show that the very created order responds to God's call for sanctions (just as Deuteronomy 28 would predict). Sanctions are historical blessings and cursings. This means that it is impossible for humanists to escape from God's ethics. They may disbelieve God's ethics and even fight against God's ethics, but ethics will grab them and shake them whether they believe the ethics or not. It is impossible for America's courts to ignore God's laws without God doing something about it - impossible.
But what kinds of others things does the book of Revelation speak to? What specifically are believers commanded to pay attention to and obey? Well, the church is called to sing. And those who don't like to sing and keep their mouths closed during worship are failing to hear the words of this prophecy and keep the things that are written in it. And specifically, the church is expected to sing the songs of Moses, or the Old Testament. Revelation does not call us to have New-Testament-only kind of worship. It calls upon the church to sing the songs of Moses. But it doesn't just call us to sing the song of Moses. Chapter 15:3 says, "They sing the song of Moses, the servant of God and the song of the Lamb, saying..." (v. 3) and then comes a new song that you won't find in the Old Testament Psalter. So it instructs us on how we are to sing.
Various chapters call the church to prayer. And most controversially, they call the church to pray judgments against God's enemies. Over and over the saints call upon God to avenge them against those who want to exterminate the church. And people wonder how that is compatible with loving our enemies. But it is totally compatible. For example, in chapter 14, God destroys His enemies by converting some of those enemies in verses 14-16 and killing others in verses 17-20. Even His judgments against Israel are that way. The 144,000 Jews that were spared the seven year tribulation had Christ bearing the curses of this book on their behalf, whereas the rest of the Jews bore those judgments themselves.
But it is God doing so, not us. Scripture says, "'Vengeance is mine; I will repay' says the Lord." We are not to take vengeance into our own hands. But when we ask God to take care of our enemies, we are freed up to love them. This is what David did with King Saul. He loved king Saul and no doubt hoped Saul would repent and find forgiveness. But Saul's tyranny could no longer be ignored. So David (by divine inspiration) wrote many imprecatory Psalms against king Saul, just as the book of Revelation does with Israel and Rome of the first century. And the point of this book is that God hears such prayers when the church is finally willing to pray them. It is in direct response to the prayers of the saints that God's judgments fall on His enemies. Why are judgments not falling upon God's enemies in America? It's because the church is disobeying this books instructions on how we are to pray against His enemies.
I mentioned tyranny, and this book of Revelation gives saints ethics for handling tyranny. You don't just passively wait to see if the tyrants will kill you. Instead, the book of Revelation brings prophetic rebuke to tyranny. Calling Rome the ugly beast from the sea is hardly polite teatime chit chat. John pulled no punches when he described the demonic evil controlling Rome. But he also described the beast from the land, which was Israel. And he exposed the deceptiveness of that form of statism. Israel was a beast that looked a little bit like a lamb, yet had dragon's breath. Like Democrats and Republicans who wave the Bible while engaging in horrible anti-Biblical statism, the beast from the land claimed to be a lamb of God and to speak for God. And yet Israel, the beast from the land, was just as controlled by the demonic as the beast from the sea was.
So Revelation helps people to see through the pretensions of statism and to oppose it. That's part of Christian ethics - to resist the idolatry of statism. I think statism is the biggest idol in America. Christians who refuse to tear down that idol within their own political party are part of the problem. You are either part of the solution to the problems in our nation or part of the problem. And the silence of the church in America is certainly part of the problem.
In any case, this book has ethical calls to confront, to flee, to pray against, to teach against, to refuse to submit to the state's demonic demands. And yet, in chapter 13, there are limits to that resistance. God warns Christians not to take vengeance into their hands and not to be revolutionaries who use the sword against the state without authorization. That is forbidden in Revelation just as we saw that it was forbidden in 1 and 2 Samuel. In other words, this book is an incredible resource on how to be balanced in resisting tyrants. It totally agrees with America's founding fathers that resistance to tyrants is obedience to God. But it warns about the dangers of throwing off all authority in the process. It's a fabulous resource on the ethics of interposition and resistance.
But this book gives ethics related to a Christian's personal walk and holiness. It gives ethics related to business and even the evils inherent in international banking. Yes, believe it or not, it even talks about ungodly international banking. And those who pull the strings behind governments are not omnipotent according to this book. God takes them out. You especially see those principles in chapters 13, 18, and 19.
It gives guidelines for bypassing Fascism and how to use an alternative economic system when the state tries to force conformity through Fascist economics. The Satanic Fascism of Mussolini, Hitler, and modern America is not a new thing. It's almost as old as the devil. When we later discuss the mark of the beast and the prohibition of any commerce that was not approved by Rome, we will see that Rome and Israel had Fascism with a vengeance. And simple logic will tell you that if no one was allowed to buy or sell without the mark of the beast, and if true Christians lived through that tribulation without the mark of the beast, that they engaged in a black market. There is no other alternative conclusion. Black markets have a bad rap, but they are authorized in Scripture. They are inescapable during times of incredible repression. And Corrie ten Boom's book, The Hiding Place, shows the necessity of it. This book makes clear that the Christians in this book refused to go along with that Fascist system. And chapters 18-19 give amazing insights into the world economic system of our modern day - even though it was describing a first century world economic system. So you can see that there is a ton of stuff that is going to have to be covered in the next couple of years.
But to summarize this point, Revelation is a book on ethics for all of life, and to miss the ethics (as many commentaries do) is to ignore the admonition in chapter 1:3, which says, "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and keep the things that are written in it; because the time is near."
Next time that I preach on this chapter, I will try to finish off verse 3 and begin verse 4. But let's go to the Lord and thank Him that this is a book of blessing, a book that governs church government and worship, and a book that applies the ethics of the Bible to all life. Let's pray.
Reginald Dunlop, The Coming Russion Invasion of America - Why? (1977) ↩
Salem Kirban, Countdown to Rapture (Irving, CA: Harvest House Publishers, 1977), p. 11. ↩
Salem Kirban, Your Last Goodbye (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1969), p. 252. ↩
Newman, A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. “ἀνἀγινώσκω,” n.p ↩