Revelation 1:1-3 – “The Book of Revelation: An Overview”

“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 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.” -Revelation 1:1-3 (CSB)

What if you could know the future? Not just in the sense of knowing who you’ll meet in the grocery store tomorrow evening, but in the sense of knowing the ultimate destiny and trajectory of the world and everything in it. Many people have predicted. Many others have imagined. However, God has revealed.

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The word, “Revelation,” comes from the Greek term “Ἀποκάλυψις”[1] (apokalupsis), which means to make fully known, to uncover, or to reveal.[2] In a nutshell, this is precisely what the book of the Revelation is all about: to make fully known the person and plan of the Lord Jesus Christ. The book of Revelation is often called the “Revelation of John,” as it is John the Apostle who was the likely author of the epistle.[3] However, this remarkable book is most accurately thought of as that identified in its first line: “the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Several weeks ago, I began leading our church through a verse-by-verse study of the book of Revelation. Few books of the Bible have received as much attention, fear, misinterpretation, misunderstanding, and misapplication as Revelation. The errors that abound concerning Revelation range from innocent misunderstandings of the book (beginning with its title, Revelation, which is singular and not plural; there is one Revelation of Jesus Christ and not multiple Revelations) all the way to grossly misinterpreted and misconstrued depictions of the book in film, media, and popular literature. However, beyond correcting misunderstandings and misinterpretations, a large part of my motivation as a pastor in studying and leading others to study this incredible book is to also dispel the intense fear that many believers harbor concerning the book of Revelation. That fear tends to take place on two levels. First, many Christians are afraid of thinking about the sometimes strange, frequently awe-inspiring, and occasionally terrifying events described in the book. And second, many Christians are also afraid that attempting to understand the content of the book will be too difficult – that the Revelation is “above their heads” and beyond their ability to grasp. As we will see in exploring this incredible book of Scripture, both fears are dispelled and overcome through reading, studying, and rightly understanding what the book of Revelation communicates to followers of Jesus Christ.

Revelation, viewed from the broadest perspective, divides into two major sections. The first, contained in Chapters 1-3, consists of letters to seven first century churches addressing their strengths and weaknesses, providing encouragement and correction, and yielding powerful insights, lessons, warnings, and exhortations for Christians of all eras and ages. The second major division of the Revelation, contained in Chapters 4-22, outlines a prophetic vision of the Lord Jesus Christ and his ordering of a series of breathtaking cosmic events. Exactly what those events are and what that ordering means is subject to the interpretive views of the reader. Briefly summarized, there are five major schools of interpretation when it comes to the book of Revelation: the historicist, the futurist, the preterist, the idealist, and mixed views. A variety of resources and reference materials are available that provide an in-depth description of these major schools of thought and their various nuanced positions. A particularly helpful resource for believers seeking to understand these interpretive perspectives is available in the ESV Study Bible published by Crossway, which provides an outstanding summary and appropriately detailed description of these major schools of thought without being overwhelming in both volume and content. However, to frame our study of Revelation, I will attempt to briefly summarize these views here.

Historicism understands the events described in Revelation 4-22 as a series of historical events – some of which have already occurred – spanning the entire era from the first-century apostolic church up to the return of Christ and the advent of the new heaven and new earth. The second view, Futurism, understands the events described in Chapters 4-22 as being still in the future from the perspective of 21st-century readers of Scripture. Similar to historicism, Preterism believes that the Revelation describes past events but argues that most of Revelation’s visions already occurred in the distant past, during the early years of the Christian church. Idealism holds that the events of the Revelation are primarily symbolic in nature and depict the conflict between Christ and His Church, on the one hand, and Satan and the forces of evil on the other. However, Idealism’s highly symbolic approach argues that the literary order of the book’s events do not need to reflect the actual historical order of events. Rather, Idealism holds that the forces and conflicts symbolized in the visions of Revelation occurred in the form of events that were to take place “soon” from the perspective of first-century Christians but also find expression in the church’s ongoing struggle of persevering faith in the present and foretell a still-future escalation of persecution and divine wrath leading to the return of Christ and the new heaven and earth. Lastly, the mixed view combines features of various positions into what are, essentially, hybrid views. Examples of mixed views include those who hold that many events in the Revelation have both present and future fulfillments or those who argue that many events have past fulfillments but that there may still be a future personal Antichrist. These positions combine elements of the four previously mentioned perspectives.[4]

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For purposes of disclosure and perspective, I affirm the futurist view and interpret the events of the Revelation as a pre-tribulational, pre-millennialist. While I’ll provide more detail on exactly what this means in some future posts, a pre-tribulational, pre-millennialist, futurist (try saying that five times fast…) believes that these coming events include a point at which Christ will return to the earth to claim the church and take the church with Him to heaven (an event commonly known as the rapture of the church described in 1 Thessalonians 4). The rapture is followed by a seven-year period of intense tribulation known as the Great Tribulation (Rev. 6-19), which is then followed by a period known as the Millennium, or the Millennial Reign of Christ (Rev. 20:1-6). Finally, the Millennium is then followed by the general resurrection of the dead and the inauguration of the new heaven and earth (Rev. 20:7-22:5).

Regardless of one’s interpretative view, the first three verses of this remarkable book of Scripture announce four things concerning the Revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ.

First, the Revelation is given by Christ Himself (v. 1). While John is the human author of the book, it is ultimately the Lord Jesus Christ who is the author of all that the book contains. As verse 1 explains, this revelation is given to the Lord Jesus, as the Son, by God the Father. As Patterson summarized it, “Jesus was the mediator revealing the Father’s message…God then is the source of all contained in the book, while three intermediaries—one divine, one angelic, and one human—collaborate in the communication of the material.[5] Thus, the Revelation contains and concerns the things that God Himself wants His people to know. This book is not a random, fictionalized prediction of how the history of the earth and all in it will one day conclude, but is instead the personal revelation of God to His people concerning His perfect and glorious plan for His creation.

Second, the Revelation concerns the things that must soon, or shortly, take place (v. 1). The Revelation largely concerns future events: things that have not yet happened but will happen. Early believers looked for these events to take place imminently – even in their own lifetimes. However, Christians of all ages are called to remember and recognize that God measures time differently than human beings. While we view events through the lens of finite lives measured in years or decades, God also sees from the perspective of eternity. However, even in acknowledging this fact, the expression can be challenging to interpret, given the roughly 2,000 years that have passed since the writing of Revelation. Theologians have argued that there are, essentially, four ways of understanding “soon,” as used in verse 1:

“(1) They [the expressions of “soon”] may indicate that the author anticipated immediate fulfillment of the prophecies. If anything more than a highly spiritualized, or allegorical, interpretation of the book is endorsed, this imminent anticipation was tragically in error. (2) Those who adhere to preterist or historicist interpretations…advocate an immediate beginning for the fulfillment of the prophecies but see full realization of the prophecies after about a decade (preterists) or only at the culmination of the church age (historicists). (3) Futurists have generally found the expressions troubling and have sought to explain them as carrying the sense of “certainty,” meaning that the prophecies must certainly take place. (4) Another approach is to find the significance of the expression “soon take place” (en tachei) to be “quick” in the sense of “suddenly.” When least expected and with minimal warning, these events will occur.”[6]

Regardless of one’s interpretative position, what is absolutely clear is the expectation that these events, from the Lord’s perspective, are both certain and imminent. Accordingly, Christians are to live faithfully and obediently in the expectation of Jesus’s return and the fulfillment of the events prophesied in this remarkable book.

Third, the Revelation was given to John as the human author of this book (vv. 1-2). While John the Apostle was chosen by the Lord as the recipient of His divine revelation, it is also important to note that John models for Christians today the appropriate posture of willingness. That is, John was willing and available to receive the Lord’s revelation; he didn’t run from Christ or reject the calling of Christ to do what was commanded of Him. Before any Christian can be fully used of God, the Christian must be listening, surrendered, and obedient. As Christians, we are called to be listening for the will of God: praying for Him to give guidance and engaged in the study of the Scriptures, as His Word, to receive His guidance rather than trying to metaphorically put words in God’s mouth by arbitrarily declaring our preferences to be His will. We are also called to be surrendered: submissive to God’s plan and purpose for our lives, even when His plan and purpose do not align with what was originally our own plan and purpose. And, finally, we are to be obedient: not just seeking His will and submissive in posture to His will, but fully willing and desiring to do and carry out His will. The posture of the listening, surrendered, and obedient Christian is perfectly summarized by the magnificent words of Isaiah, “Here I am! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8 ESV). Because of John’s faith demonstrated in his listening, surrendering, and obeying, the Lord chose Him, the Lord’s angel revealed to Him, and John faithfully bore witness to that divine revelation of the Lord.

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Finally, the Revelation is a blessing to all who read, hear, and obey its message (v. 3). The blessing pronounced upon “those who read aloud,” along with “those who hear,” is not some mystical formula of incantation requiring the verbal expression of the book in order for the blessing to be received. Rather, it is the Lord’s promise of blessing combined with His compassionate awareness of the condition of His people in the form of the first-century believers who would have originally received the words of this book. In the first century church, there were no printing presses to run off multiple copies of the Revelation such as contemporary readers benefit from today. There was only the original copy written by John, along with a likely handful of other hand-produced copies, passed among believers in first-century churches for circulation. Accordingly, the reading spoken of in this verse is a reference to the letter being read before assembled local church congregations as they received these words as Holy Scripture.

As believers read, hear, and obey the message of the Lord’s Revelation through their study and application of the truth of this book, they will experience the remarkable blessings of God upon their lives. This is not just a blessing in the general sense of the word, as there are seven specific blessings pronounced throughout the book of Revelation: the blessing of obedience (Rev. 1:3), the blessing of eternal life (Rev. 14:13), the blessing of watchfulness and purity (Rev. 16:15), the blessing of heaven (Rev. 19:9), the blessing of the resurrection of the dead (Rev. 20:6), the blessing of faithfulness to God’s prophetic truth revealed in the book of Revelation (Rev. 22:7), and the blessing of obedience to the commands of Christ (Rev. 22:14). What is clear from each pronouncement of blessing is that, despite the challenges of living faithfully for Christ in a fallen, sinful world, God is not blind to our obedience. God sees the faithfulness and obedience of His people. And God honors the faithfulness and obedience of His people through divine blessing.

It should never be missed that this magnificent book of Scripture, largely known in the minds of most people for its apocalyptic images of judgment and divine retribution, begins and ends with the words of blessing.

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.” (Rev. 22:21 ESV).

[1] Barbara Aland et al., eds., The Greek New Testament, Fifth Revised Edition. (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2014), Re 1:1.

[2] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 112.

[3] Paige Patterson, Revelation, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, vol. 39, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2012), 20; Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 28. See also that the Revelation is appropriately classified as epistolary in nature (E. S. Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985], 23; Paige Patterson, Revelation, 24).

[4] Lane T. Dennis and Wayne Grudem, eds. The ESV study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2456-2460.

[5] Paige Patterson, Revelation, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, vol. 39, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2012), 51-52.

[6] Paige Patterson, Revelation, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, vol. 39, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2012), 53–54. Patterson also noted, “D. Chilton presents a view of Revelation as a “covenant lawsuit” of God’s wrath on Jerusalem, suggesting that the book contains primarily those events that John expected his readers to see immediately (The Days of Vengeance [Fort Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1987], 51). For a variation of the idea that the expression is intended to mean that the events of the Apocalypse were expected to take place immediately, including the return of Christ and the consummation of the age, see G. B. Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 12. M. E. Boring agrees with Caird but goes further by saying, “Does this mean he was wrong? Yes, Christians … ought not to hesitate to acknowledge that its author made errors” (Revelation, IBC [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1989], 72–73). As usual, no criteria are offered for distinguishing between reliable and unreliable data. G. E. Ladd joins Caird and Boring in their conclusions and then attempts to soften the reality of John’s expectation by explaining that in prophecy both near and distant perspectives form a single canvas (A Commentary on the Revelation of John [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972], 22); Advocates of one or the other of these last two views include J. F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody, 1966); Henry Alford, The Greek Testament, vol. 4 (Chicago: Moody, 1958); W. A. Criswell, Expository Sermons on Revelation: Five Volumes Complete and Unabridged (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969); R. H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977); and R. L. Thomas, Revelation 1–7: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1992). All of these cite passages where ἐν τάχει seems to mean “suddenly,” such as Luke 18:8 and Rom 16:20. Criswell adds Jas 5:8, in which the coming of the Lord “draws near” (ἐγγίζω), a form of the expression translated in v. 3, “the time is near.” ” (Paige Patterson, Revelation, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, vol. 39, The New American Commentary [Nashville, TN: B&H, 2012], 53–54).

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