From my visiting churches to preach on the book of Revelation, I’ve discovered something. People tend to talk more about the book of Revelation than about the message of the book.
Many people hear Revelation and, like a word association test, their minds immediately go to their position on the millennial reign of Christ. Most recently when a congregant heard that I was there to speak on Revelation, he felt compelled to identify himself as a premillennialist, as though that settled the matter and satisfied the book’s purpose. On another occasion, a member of the congregation lingered to inform me that he was a staunch partial preterist. He went so far as to say that Revelation cannot be understood apart from an early date for its writing.
While hermeneutical approaches and questions of date are worthwhile considerations, are they necessary to glean benefit from the book of Revelation? I believe that our Lord’s message to us in the book is apparent apart from these considerations, and a preoccupation with them can lead us to miss the substance our Lord has for us.
A Pastoral Letter from Our Lord
Imagine going off to college. While unpacking, you discover a letter from your parents. The letter contains counsel to you at this stage of your life, telling you what to expect, what challenges you will face, and how to conduct yourself. They assure you of their love and provision for you. They paint a picture of what your future could be like. As you read the letter, you hear echoes of things your parents have taught you your entire life.
That sort of letter is what our Lord Jesus has given to us in the book of Revelation. Just as college can hold many dangers through worldviews contrary to the Christian faith and temptations to indulge in self-serving ways, so this fallen world presents challenges for us who bear the name of Christ. In the final book of the Bible, our Lord speaks to equip us for life as His disciples in what can be a hostile and inhospitable world.
Revelation is often seen as a cipher, an answer key to the future. While things to come are certainly in view, the primary focus is not tomorrow but today. John lays out how we are to approach the book. “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (Rev. 1:3).
John instructs us to read, hear, and keep what is written. We handle the “word of God” and “testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 1:2) properly when we give ear to it. We are not to neglect it but must take it in hand and take note of the message our Lord has packed for us for the journey we face as those who are in the world but not of the world.
Not only are we to take note, but we are to take heed. We must attend to what our Lord says, and especially in the book of Revelation, what He shows us. Revelation is filled with evocative imagery that brings to mind Old Testament anticipation. Like that letter from parents to their student at college, we have heard these things before and are eager to see them at hand. We are to incline our ear to God and dig deep to plumb the depth and richness of the redemptive landscape in which we find ourselves in these last days (Heb. 1:1–4).
One other element is necessary for rightly approaching the book of Revelation. We are to keep it. In case we lose sight of this aspect, our Lord Jesus reminds us at book’s end: “And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book” (Rev. 22:7).
We don’t typically think of Revelation as something to keep. We treat it more like a blockbuster movie that awes and entertains than something we look to apply. But Revelation is an intensely practical book, relevant to everyday life for us as disciples of Jesus Christ, encouraging us along the way and also equipping us for what we encounter.
Not only is Revelation relevant, but it is necessary, and therefore neglecting it is detrimental to Christ’s church. Much of the church’s ineffectiveness can be chalked up to disregard of our Lord’s counsel to us in the book of Revelation, specifically our tendency to forget that Jesus is reigning right now.
How do we keep what our Lord has written to us in Revelation? We keep it in two primary ways. Foundationally, we keep the perspective of redemption in mind. When we see today the turmoil of this world, the nations raging, and the people plotting in rebellion against God and His Christ, we can fall into despair and doubt. But Revelation reminds us that Jesus reigns over the nations, having been given all authority in heaven and on earth and under the earth. He is the risen, reigning, returning Lord. This means that we have no need to despair of the future or doubt that He will fulfill all His promises.
In addition to keeping perspective mind, we are to keep Christ’s counsel in play for the conduct of our lives. Much of our Lord’s counsel is laid out in the letters to the seven churches recorded in chapters 2 and 3 and is exhibited throughout the body of the book. In this sevenfold message to the church throughout the world and throughout the age, we learn of Him and what He wants of us through what He commends and the corrections He gives.
A Panoramic Portrait
Ultimately, what our Lord wants of us is for us to know Him. Overarching the book of Revelation is a portrayal of our Lord Jesus Christ. From the detailed portrait of chapter 1 with its vivid brushstrokes from the palette of Old Testament prophetic word all the way through the book, Jesus Christ is presented to us as our hope and stay. In Him are victory and deliverance, and that redemption is ours through faith in Him.
Beholding Jesus beckons us to worship the true and living God, to rest in Him for sure and certain hope, and to rely on Him for strength, comfort, and courage to press on. As we share in His sufferings, so we share in His victory, both aspects reason for rejoicing (1 Peter 4:13).
Christ’s letters to the seven churches can at first glance seem to hold a litany of disciplines required for us to overcome and so inherit the blessings featured. However, we do not overcome by these efforts. Rather, we overcome by the blood of the Lamb. Our Lord highlights what He does to draw us near to Him against the enemy’s efforts to draw us from Him.
When He speaks of leaving our first love, our Lord warns us against sterile orthodoxy and woos us to Himself who first loved us. He wants us to understand repentance not merely as a change of behavior but a return to delight in Him. In our travail, He wants us to keep our eyes of faith on Him who endured the cross for the joy set before Him. He enjoins us to walk in a wisdom that exalts Him rather than in that which is right in our own eyes. His enticements to overcome create in us not merely an eagerness for the glories to come but particularly a longing for Him.
Tale of Two Cities
When we think of the cities of Revelation our minds, typically go to the seven mentioned in Revelation 1. But the prominent city of the book of Revelation is not among the seven. It is an eighth city, a city of a different kind, a city of a new creation—the new Jerusalem. The seven cities share the confines of this fallen world, the localities in which Christ’s churches are located as outposts for His kingdom. But the eighth city is of the age to come.
When the new heavens and new earth are ushered in, when sin shall be no more and all things made new, this eighth city shall prevail unto all eternity. The struggles we face now in this world, we who are found in Christ will face no more.
The heavenly city will be populated by those who overcome, whose citizenry has been recorded from the foundation of the world. There we will participate in full and uninterrupted enjoyment of our God.
For now, however, we are sojourners with this pastoral letter from our Lord in hand. Paul’s benediction to the church at Thessalonica captures well the relevance our Lord has for us in the book of Revelation: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word” (2 Thess. 2:16–17).