Knowing the final outcome of redemptive history is intended to give God’s people great comfort in times of trial, as well as motivate us to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. But we will only secure these blessings if we read this book in the right way and for the right reasons. We must keep Jesus Christ–not speculation about current events–as its central theme.
The Book of Revelation is the last book in the Bible and completes the New Testament canon. This easily overlooked fact directs us to view the Book of Revelation as one of the most practical and important of all the New Testament epistles. John’s apocalyptic vision is Jesus Christ’s final word to his church until he returns.
Likely written near the end of the first century, Revelation comes in the form of a circular letter addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor (chapter 2-3). The order of Jesus’s prophetic word of encouragement and rebuke to each of these seven churches mentioned follows the postal route from Ephesus to Laodicea reminding us of both the letter’s purpose and its original audience.
The Christians in these churches lived in an empire that was openly hostile to all who proclaimed that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. This guaranteed a wary eye from Roman officials who often, but mistakenly, saw Christians as insurrectionists. These Christians lived in the midst of a pagan culture which worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator. It was an age of bizarre rituals, magic, and sacrifices. Christians also faced the ire of those Jews living in the area who saw Christians as a threat because so many of their fellow Jews had become followers of Jesus. This book is written to them, surely, but also to the people of God across the ages. There is no book quite like it in all the Bible.
Yet, Revelation is much more than a mere letter of comfort to persecuted Christians, although it is certainly that. This book is prophetic in content (describing the course of human history in highly symbolic terms) and apocalyptic in style. Typical of apocalyptic literature, Revelation is filled with images of mysterious creatures, dramatic symbols, and uses numbers to make important theological points. On one level the book deals with the persecution these Christians faced, while on another, the images in Revelation describe the conflict between the people of God and Satan, their arch-enemy, playing out across the centuries before the Lord’s return at the end of the age.
Because the Book of Revelation is symbolic in nature and contains apocalyptic themes and images, many have been tempted to use this remarkable book as a springboard for all kinds of fanciful interpretations. A book of comfort has become an odd and esoteric bok requiring prophetic sages to interpret it for God’s people. Although John cautions his readers that he is writing to the seven churches mentioned in the opening verses of the first chapter to reveal to them that which God “gave [to John] to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1) and then immediately states that the “time is near” (Revelation 1:3), sadly, Christians often overlook this vital context.
Throughout the history of the church it has been common for Christians to assume that John wrote this letter to reveal the hidden meaning of those wars and tragedies which, in the providence of God, occur throughout the course of history (cf. Jesus’ warning in Matthew 24:3-14). This sincere, but misguided approach to reading this book, has led many to approach the Book of Revelation through the lens of current events and geo-political upheaval, rather than seeing the Book as a divinely given commentary on those themes left open-ended in the Old Testament, and as interpreted by Jesus and the Apostles.