A Brief Re-Telling of the Book of Revelation
It is a singular circumstance that the man who walked the isle of Patmos in the Spirit of the Lord, that epoch-defining Lordâ€™s Day, was not a broken man. Well, he was in fact broken and humble â€“ just not in the sense that one may have expected. He was broken before Christ, his only Master; but the threats and persecution, even the strenuous exile that had been brought upon him by the fearful sway of the Roman Emperor, had left him as serenely confident in the ultimate victory of Christ, and of those who were in Christ, as if all the might of Rome had no power to touch him, or to cause him any harm. He was, perhaps, broken in body; and yet he remained untouched in spirit. He was confident that he was an overcomer, in the final analysis; and this unreasonable confidence, in place of the brokenness and servile fear that must have been expected, could not have been other than a source of amazement to all who knew him.
Why was it that this man, with every reason to be in awe of the mighty dominion of Rome, stood in awe of no one, feared no one, except a humble Jewish carpenter that had himself died on a Roman cross? In a word, he had eyes to look at the things which are not seen; and the things which are not seen are eternal, governing the very course of a history which seems to be wrapped up in the highly visible, but impotent and ephemeral, realities of nations and kings and the powers of earth. John the Apostle had seen Christ in his glory. And the glory of Christ is a far more compelling and fearful glory than any other glory which purports to reign on the earth.
It is to be assumed that John had given much study and deliberation to the revelation granted to the prophet Daniel so many years before; and that by this revelation, he had come to learn that, in the days immediately subsequent to the cutting off of the Messiah, the Kingdom of Christ would at once begin to spread until it filled the earth, grinding to powder, in the course of its growth, every kingdom of man. He must have known this â€“ but why, then, did the Roman kingdom still seem so formidable? Had the ancient prophecies failed? Not only was the Roman power unabated, but more to the point, many Christians â€“ in fact whole churches of Christians â€“ were perilously close to bowing before the visible might of human authority, and forgetting the blessed visions of the prophet of old. In light of this massive assault on the newly-formed Christian faith, a clarifying revelation of the means by which this Danielic Kingdom should grow was in desperate need. It was paramount that the apocalyptic expectation for the world be told once more. It was vital for the hard-pressed and persecuted Christians of the first-century Church that one be chosen to hear the words of God, one who could take up the old prophetic story where Daniel left off. In brief, it was vital that those early, afflicted Christians be taught to feast their eyes on the things which are unseen â€“ the eternal realities of Christ and his unstoppable reign. And thus, on the isle of Patmos, the glorified Christ made a staggering appearance and disclosure. The effects of this first-century visit still reverberate today. God grant that they may reverberate ever more deeply in the hearts of Christians who are, even now, being tempted to bow before the powers and pleasures of the earth! In pursuance of this soul-deep petition, let us reconsider, briefly and simply, the message that changed the faltering spirit of Christianity so many centuries ago.
The book of Revelation begins with a description of the glorious Christ, who is in very deed reigning over the earth, holding the churches in his hand, ready to judge or to succor as he sees fit (Revelation 1). This basic truth, that Christ is all-powerful, Christ is always present, Christ is actively judging in the affairs of the earth, even though unseen to the carnal eyes of men, is the requisite and unshakeable foundation for the revelation which was to follow. Understand this one point, and you are well on your way to understanding that enigmatic book of Revelation. Fail to meditate deeply enough on this one point and, no matter how sophisticated your treatment of that which follows, you are doomed to an irrelevant understanding. The basic message of the book is that, even when he cannot be seen, even when kingdoms and authorities are raging never so violently, yet the invisible Christ is still reigning, sovereignly bringing the course of history to his own desired end. And this message has a specific application to individual believers and individual churches in any geographical or historical context. Hence, John begins his monumental work with letters of specific import for specific churches of his day (Revelation 2-3). In all of these letters, the ways (often subtle) in which the church was tempted to give practical obeisance to imposter powers was noted; and then that characteristic of Christâ€™s person and reign was adduced which was sufficient to serve as the corrective to that particular problem or temptation. After nearly two thousand years of further history, it is apparent that Christians and churches are still assaulted on every side by the same kinds of temptation. And so let us learn that, when we are tempted to bow to the popularity of false doctrines, to the compromise which seeks leniency from a Christ-centered government, to the fleeting securities and pleasures of earthly wealth and prosperity, we have no recourse but to reflect upon who Christ is, and how infinitely more able he is to judge or to help those who are treacherous or else faithful to him.
The vision of Christ omnipotent has laid the foundation. The letters to the seven churches have secured the application. Now let us pass into the fearful visions and revelations which form the substance of the message which we need today as desperately as the churches of Asia Minor needed it in the first century.
But first, one more point: it is a unique difficulty, in recounting the spiritual realities that are eternal, as opposed to those ephemeral and visible things of earth, that they do not readily lend themselves to concrete terms and descriptions. Hence, God has often found it useful, when revealing his own actions and governance over the universe, to accomodate our weakness by wrapping up his message in symbolical visions. He signified to Daniel his future raising up of the king of Greece by showing to his mindâ€™s eye a swift and mighty goat, with one horn. And to us, as well, he was pleased to signify his unfolding plan of world governance, that is, the true sphere of reality in which worldly powers operate, by showing to his servant mighty, spiritual visions, the substance of which he could then write down so that we might encounter those same symbolic visions in our own minds. This manner of speaking is vital for us to recognize. And when it is apprehended, it is of much use to the simple Christian. Tell him that, Rome appears to be reigning, but Christ will be ultimately triumphant, and he has nothing graphic and enduring which he might grasp. But reveal to him the real warfare behind Rome and Christianity â€“ tell him of a woman clothed in righteousness who gives birth to the Man who would rule with a rod of iron, and is subsequently pursued by a hideous beast, but preserved in the wilderness â€“ and suddenly, he has a picture in his mind which he might ever recall to his faltering consciousness, a picture of an Enemy which rages against Christ, and a Church who suffers want but is preserved against the fiercest attacks of the great Dragon. And whenever he is tempted, he may be comforted, by means of this symbolic vision, with the knowledge of the real forces at play behind his affliction. Now, keeping this principle in mind, let us tell again the story of these fearful visions, everywhere strange and terrifying, and yet full of hope and comfort for him who looks to them with an eye for seeing the reign of Christ.
John the elder was given seven series of visions, which displayed the true nature of the world and the forces which struggle to control it, and demonstrated with certainty the final outcome of the struggle. Here is the first.
Vision the First: The Lamb and the Scroll (Revelation 4:1-8:1)
The church met together in secrecy to worship Christ, fearful of the authority of the godless government to put to death all who dared to resist. But what is the unseen reality which characterized this timid gathering? In the fourth chapter of Revelation, we find that Christians who gather together in worship are transposed to a heavenly place, indeed, the very throne room of God. They come together â€œunto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfectâ€ (Hebrews 12:22-23). The visible things of earth would lead one to believe that they are meeting at the mercy of earthly dominion; but the unseen reality of Christ is that, they have met together before the One who in fact does govern, who raises up and puts down governments as he sees fit, and in whose hand is all earthly authority. At the end of history, all who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb will be gathered together before him in worship; and in their worship here on earth, the persecuted churches are able to taste the first-fruits of this now unseen reality.
But who is this mighty Lord before whom they are gathered? It is the Lion of the tribe of Judah, fearful and powerful; and it is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, meek and merciful. Do the churches meet in spite of the powers which govern the world, or do they meet before the only One who does indeed unfold history according to his own will? Does the unseen reality indeed govern all, or is the visible world in control of their fate? This is answered by the first vision granted to John, in which One man alone possesses the authority to remove the seals and unroll the scroll in which is written Godâ€™s plan for the world. And this he does, before the spiritual eyes of those who worship him. The Lamb opens the scroll, removing in order one seal after the other. And as these seals come off, the governance of God over the world is mightily displayed. God is Judge, and he pours out his fearful judgments upon the world, terrible judgments exacted by the evil horsemen of war and bloodshed and economic oppression and unnatural death of every sort. In the midst of this judgment the martyred saints cry out to their God for vengeance; and God is in control: he reveals his plan for a determined number of his followers to be put to death, and demonstrates his willingness to avenge their blood when the appointed number is complete. Then come more judgments: earthquakes and fires and stars falling from the sky, until the whole world of evil men is utterly dissolved before the wrath of the great King. Then there is silence; for Godâ€™s judgment is complete, and the world of men has been paid back in full for their rebellion against Christ and his people, in which they thought, for a time, that the fate of the world was in their hands. Oh how different is the picture when this unseen reality of Christâ€™s unsealing the determined history of God is apprehended!
In the meantime, the true worshipers of the Lamb are sealed and set apart from Godâ€™s wrath. Every last one of them will be preserved from Godâ€™s judgment, and will be led to a place in which all tears and pain and sickness and death are wiped away forevermore. The cruel opposition of the world, even the multitude of martyrdoms, has not prevailed against Christâ€™s Church. They are overcomers at the last.
Vision the Second: The Seven Trumpets (Revelation 8:2-11:19)
The saints cry out to God in fiercest affliction; but the world continues to rage against them. Are their prayers unheard? No, God has indeed heard them, and will answer their cries, as we can see from the second vision given to John. The angels take in a censer the prayers of the saints. They mingle these prayers with fire from the altar, and cast the coals of Godâ€™s judgment upon the earth. The issuance is a mighty display of Godâ€™s judgment, which culminates, once again, in the climactic end of the world of evil men.
Seven angels sound seven trumpets, which herald the arrival of Godâ€™s sovereign judgments: lightnings and earthquakes, hail and fire, bitter stars and meteors fall to the earth, making bitter the good gifts of God, the grass and waters and heavenly bodies which are essential to life. And these fearful works are not the end; for God employs the wicked demons and spiritual authorities of the earth to perform his will, wreaking pain and sorrow and affliction and final death upon the inhabitants of the world. How fitting it is that these men who have worshiped Satan, and not Christ, should be destroyed by Christ through the very powers to which they had bowed down! The seventh trumpet sounds, heaven and earth are dissolved, and the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of Christ forevermore!
In the meantime, the apostle John eats the book of Godâ€™s will, which is at once sweet and bitter, and thereby understands that the true witnesses of God, and the true temple of his presence, although trodden under and put to death by wicked men, are not finally defeated. Christâ€™s Church has unstoppable power, which cannot be hindered even by death; for out of the death wrought by their enemies, Christ brings about a true and eternal life. And in this mighty victory, the whole world is forced to acknowledge the reign of Christ and the victory of his witnesses.
Vision the Third: Seven Signs (Revelation 12:1-14:20)
How easy it must be for the Church to operate as if the visible powers of this world are the ultimate reality! But in this vision, Christ reveals the true realities which, though unseen, are the ultimate forces at play behind world history.
Behind the persecution of the Church of old and the fierce attempts of Herod and others to destroy Christ is the invisible and ferocious Dragon, who rages against the Messiah and against the Church that has been in great pangs to see him come into the world. This fearsome Dragon is not successful in his designs; but by his defeat he becomes enraged, and attempts to destroy the Church, first, through terrible persecution; and then, through a flood of lies and false doctrines. But through all his opposition, God mightily preserves his Church, preserving her from his attacks, albeit in a desolate wilderness, and swallowing up the floods of heresies, so that no one of his true saints should be deceived by them.
From the sea which is the nations and peoples of the world (cf. Revelation 17:15), there arises a Beast, in the image of the Dragon, which does the will of the Dragon, and rages against the Church. To this Beast, who is the powers of the world which are governed by a Satanic hatred of Christ and a lust for power and autonomy, the multitude of men bow down in worship. Oh how blind they are to the spiritual world, that they seek ultimate security and peace in human government, which can never conquer the Lordâ€™s Messiah! This beast makes war with the saints, and is given authority over the world â€“ but his days are short.
Arises a second beast, with great spiritual powers and deceptions, who causes the first beast to be worshiped. This beast is a mocking imitation of the true Lamb, but his allegiance is to the Satanic powers of the world governments. And oh how effective is the power of this beast of false religion, who claims to be the true Church, but is in fact allied with the Beast, and against Christ. Multitudes of men are deceived by this false religion, and in their worship are in fact worshiping the Dragon, even when they think that they are worshiping God. Oh how fearsome a thing is false religion, the cunning masterpiece of Satan the Adversary!
But not all are deceived: for the full number of Godâ€™s elect are sealed on their foreheads and preserved from worshiping this beast of power and deception. These have not committed fornication with Babylon, the world City who is the whore of the Dragon, but have been preserved blameless as the chaste Bride of Christ. In spite of persecution, economic oppression, and martyrdom, they remain true to their Bridegroom, and saved from the coming judgment of God.
There appears an angel on the scene, who turns his eyes to Christ, the Son of man, as the time has now arrived in which he will reap the full harvest of Godâ€™s good grain, and gather them up from the earth.
And another angel, who reaps the wicked men of the earth, which are then cast into the winepress of Godâ€™s wrath, and made to undergo his fierce and eternal judgment. Oh, if men could only see the true end of history, if only their eyes were opened to the governance of Christ! Then they would turn in horror from the terrible Beast whom they laughingly worship, unaware of his hideousness and fearful demise.
Vision the Fourth: the Seven Bowls (Revelation 15:1-16:21)
How certain is the fact of Godâ€™s sure judgment against the world, but how prone is his Church to doubt, when they see the visible powers of this Satanic earth still holding sway. And thus God succors his people once again, strengthening their faith by means of another vision of the unseen reality of his fierce and final judgment against all who oppose him.
To the seven angels in Johnâ€™s vision, God gives seven bowls filled with his wrath, with instructions to pour them out in order upon the earth. There follow the fearful judgments of world disasters and cataclysms, coupled with the spiritual havoc wrought by the unclean spirits of Satan. These judgments are not sufficient to turn men to the one true God, and hence the legions of Satan gather them together to make war against the Lamb. But the outcome is determined; Satan, his legions, and the people he has deceived â€“ indeed the entire world City, wicked Babylon, which is the evil counterpart to Zion, the City of Godâ€™s people â€“ is utterly destroyed and cast into eternal judgment Heaven and earth pass away, for the wrath of God against the world has been completed.
Vision the Fifth: The Great Whore is Judged, but The True Bride Feasts (Revelation 17:1-19:10)
There follows hard upon these visions of John another mighty and symbolic vision of a great whore who sits upon the waters of the world in enticing array, committing fornication with all the earth, and who is drunk with the blood of the saints. This Whore is the Dragonâ€™s Prostitute, the world system which delights in the Beast rather than in Christ. She governs all the nations and peoples of the world, who are enticed to love her power and prosperity, and so to seek her pleasures rather than the lasting pleasure of Christ. She is in league with the Beast, who has horns which are the wicked rulers of the earth; and those whom he causes to worship the Dragon, by fear and persecution, she entices to worship the Dragon through alluring and unlawful pleasures. But this great Whore is utterly destroyed, and all the merchants of the earth, who found their delight in her illicit pleasures, are left to mourn.
How different is the outcome of those who have not slept with the Whore! These all, who are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, and who have not loved the world more than him, are called to the marriage feast of the Lamb. They have not found fleeting and idolatrous pleasure in the arms of the world Whore, and are thus deemed worthy to enjoy true and lasting pleasure in the arms of the Lamb, their eternal Bridegroom. Blessed are they who are clothed in Christâ€™s righteousness, faithful unto death, called to enjoy the eternal pleasure of marriage to their Savior! Let us ever be careful to abhor the false and wicked pleasures of the world; which we can only do when our eyes are opened to see the invisible things of Christ, the one true and lasting Pleasure, who can ravish our hearts with great joy and sweet fellowship for all eternity. The destruction of Babylon and the feast of the Lamb are soon to appear: will you now love the world or Christ? Your eternal destiny hangs upon this question.
Vision the Sixth: The Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet are Judged (Revelation 19:11-20:15)
If the Dragonâ€™s whore is finally to be judged, what may we suppose of those unholy realities behind her deceptive appeal? In this sixth vision of John, we find that they, too, will be eternally judged. The King of kings and Lord of lords will ride out in glorious array to destroy the Beast and the False Prophet (Satanic government and Satanic religion), and to cast them into hell. And into that same hell will be cast all who worshiped them, and had no love for Christ the king.
But what of the Dragon, the old Serpent Satan, who raised up this Beast and False Prophet in his own image? We see, by this symbolical vision, that he has already been bound in his influence by the decisive victory of Christ on the cross; and that all those who have experienced the first resurrection, namely, spiritual regeneration, are in fact reigning with Christ throughout this whole epoch of world history. Oh how different is this unseen reality, in a world in which Satan and his Beast appear to exercise all authority! Let us be grateful that, in these apocalyptic signs and visions, God has been pleased to impart to us an understanding of the ultimate, invisible realities governing the course of history. For in reality, those very Christians who are persecuted by the Dragon are indeed reigning over him. His power is chained by the will of God, and his outcome is defeat. The true worshipers of Christ are the final victors, those who in fact reign over the course of history. But those that worship the Dragon, who now possesses all visible power, are destined to share his fate in eternal torments.
Vision the Seventh: The New Heavens and the New Earth (Revelation 21:1-22:21)
Thus we have seen that the end of this world, which falsely appears to be governed by the Dragon, the Beast in his image, his False Prophet, and his Whore, the world City, is fearful wrath and eternal punishment. But what of the end of those who have been faithful to Christ unto death? This final vision sums up the goal and end of all history, and contains within itself fulfillment of all the promises of old. For those who have been called by God to be worshipers of Christ, the ultimate end of their afflictions and troubles is wrapped up in this one verse: â€œBehold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away (Revelation 21:3-4).
For the saints, there is no more expectation of judgment and wrath: for the Lamb has taken all of that upon himself, in their place. Instead, there is the promise of a new Jerusalem, a place in which they might forever enjoy the perfect presence and blessed fellowship of God himself. This is the true nature of the world, seen only by those who have eyes to gaze upon the invisible things which are eternal and unchangeable. The application of the book of Revelation, for all its deep mysteries and enigmas, may be summed up thus: in a world in which human government appears to have control, false religion is acceptable and well-pleasing, and illicit worldly pleasures are sweet and deceptive, the reality is that Christ has control, true and faithful worship to him is all that is acceptable and good, and the pleasure of knowing him is all that is lasting and true. Let us, therefore, be aware of the deceptive wiles of Babylon, this world system. Let us be resolute in the face of the persecution and violent raging of the Beast, knowing that his end is determined. Let us be faithful to Christ until the end, for in doing such, we will be shown to be heirs of eternal life.
A Conclusion and a Poem:
The churches of Asia Minor, or at least many within those churches, having been made aware of the unseen realities of the world by means of symbolic signs and visions, were strengthened to pursue true and acceptable worship to Christ, holding fast to their witness even unto death. Thus the book of Revelation secured for them its divinely intended effect.
More than nineteen centuries later, the Christian scholars of the world perused the book. They were ingeniously able to trace the intricate visions and posit detailed and articulate arguments for their understandings. The gazed in rapt fascination at the unfolding events of the Middle East, purporting to find in everything signs of the times and fulfillments of the visions. In the meantime, the great Whore Babylon, the City of this world, whispered in their ears the delights and security, the peace and prosperity that could be enjoyed in her embrace. How many of them, without ever realizing who she in fact was, succumbed to her pleasures, worshiped the Beast, found this earth more delightful than Christ â€“ all the while studying the details of this book? The details of Revelation are many, and unexceptionally profitable. But when the details are understood apart from the basic and overwhelming message and application, they profit nothing. How many scholars of Revelation are even now flirting with the Whore, and standing in awe of the Beast? I fear the answer may surprise us.
The death-stroke fell; still reeling at the blow,
The Dragon roared in mortal agony
And spewed hot venom at the womanâ€™s seed,
Contesting fiercely him who crushed him so.
Ah, vainly! for his people straight did flee
Into the arms that stripped their ancient Foe:
Yes, he was strong to save the faltâ€™ring least,
And he was fairer than the Dragon dread,
And his sweet strength prevailed against the Beast.
Arose the Dragonâ€™s whore; lips full and red
Dripped honied sweets into the perfumed air,
Hot overtures suffused with fragrant breath;
Her silken robes with playful hands she spread,
Enrapturing white breasts thus laying bare:
Could no one smell the burning hell beneath?
None but the wisest. Look! the nation races
To throw themselves upon her hot embraces;
â€œHow blessed we are!â€ they laugh, â€“ â€œThe Beast is dead!â€
Is all the world come thronging to her bed?