We don’t read the news to decode Revelation’s mysteries. It’s the other way around: Revelation gives us profound resources to make sense of our world and live with wisdom and hope through difficult days. So beware the beast, follow the Lamb, and long for home. Come, Lord Jesus!
This calls for a mind with wisdom… (Rev 17:9)
In these difficult days marked by deep divisions, deadly diseases, and societal decay, we need discerning wisdom and dogged hope. There is often more heat than light in our social media feeds and regular news cycles, which offer vast oceans of drama and worry but with tiny islands of wisdom and hope. As Jeffrey Bilbro writes, “We don’t just need the media to cast a more piercing light; … we need to reevaluate the light we rely on to understand our times and discern how to respond.”1 To that end, let’s reflect together on the Bible’s last word in the Revelation of Jesus Christ. My claim, as suggested in the title, is that Revelation offers God’s people wisdom and hope in difficult days. I’ll begin with some orientating comments about reading this magnificent yet mysterious book, then reflect on the need to hear and heed Revelation’s offer of true wisdom and lasting happiness, and finally conclude with several pastoral appeals for wise, hopeful living.
1. How to Read Revelation
For many Christians, Revelation is a fascinating yet frustrating puzzle.2 Interpreters have proposed different keys to unlock this enigmatic book. Many popular authors and speakers commend reading Revelation in the light of current world events. One recent book discusses “the countdown to the End of the Age.”3 Another elucidates “ten prophetic issues as current as the morning news,” explaining to readers “where we are, what it means, and where we go from here.”4 Yet the confident analysis from so-called “prophecy experts” often misses the mark and seems far removed from Christ’s revelation to John and the seven churches. Alternatively, biblical scholars typically stress that it is important to understand the situation of Revelation’s first readers in the late first century AD. So, “the beast” is not a future antichrist arising from the European Union or the UN but the Roman Empire with its idolatrous emperor worship and economic oppression. While rightly seeking to understand the historical-cultural context of the book, many scholarly treatments fail to read Revelation as the capstone of Christian Scripture for the enduring benefit of the church in each generation.
Revelation is unique among the NT Scriptures, and the book’s opening verses signal that it is an apocalyptic prophecy packaged as a letter to be read in corporate worship.5 “The revelation of Jesus Christ” (Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ) serves as a title or summary of the book while clueing readers in to its genre. In the NT, the term ἀποκάλυψις (the basis for “apocalypse” in English) consistently refers to divine revelation or disclosure of hidden or unseen realities.6 Revelation resembles biblical and extrabiblical apocalyptic writings in at least three ways: (1) it discloses God’s ultimate purposes in salvation and judgment, (2) it presents a transcendent, God-centered perspective on reality, and (3) it challenges the people of God to evaluate their troubles in light of God’s present rule and future triumph. Revelation is also “a book of prophecy” to be heeded by God’s people (1:3; 22:7). John receives this genuine prophecy “in the Spirit” and writes what he sees and hears about “what must soon take place” (22:6) in order to comfort struggling saints and warn those who are in spiritual danger. This apocalyptic prophecy comes in the form of an ancient letter addressed to seven churches with a greeting and benediction resembling many NT epistles. Douglas Webster aptly calls Revelation a “prison epistle,” penned by a prophet, poet, pastor, and political prisoner who was immersed in the prophetic Scriptures.7
I argue that Revelation’s canonical context—not current events or ancient history—is the most decisive for understanding its mysterious and magisterial visions. As Dennis Johnson states, “Revelation makes sense only in light of the Old Testament.”8 John stands in the line of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and other faithful prophets as he writes down the divine visions and messages he has received. But John also uniquely receives a “revelation from Jesus Christ” (1:1) and is commanded not to “seal up the words of the prophecy of this book” (22:10), reversing the command to Daniel to “seal up” his prophecy until the end of days (Dan 8:26; 12:4, 9). Thus, John is a true prophet writing at the culmination of redemptive history. This book reveals how Christ has begun to fulfill the prophetic hopes through his death, resurrection, and heavenly reign, and how he will soon return to consummate God’s purposes to judge evil, save his people, and restore all things.
Revelation’s remarkable and perplexing prophetic pictures of a diabolical dragon, a seven-headed sea monster, a seven-horned lamb, a sealed scroll, a lake of fire, and a happily-ever-after paradise stretch our minds and stir our hearts. These visions should make us hate what is evil and love what is true, good, and beautiful according to God’s perfect standards, beckoning us to live counterculturally as faithful witnesses who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev 14:4).9 While many seek to decode Revelation’s riddles with the key of current events or ancient history, we must remember that God has given us this book with its apocalyptic imagery in order to decode our reality, to capture our imaginations, and to guide our way in this world.
Revelation is written for embattled Christians who need endurance, wisdom, and hope.10 The messages to the seven churches present various threats facing God’s people. Christ calls believers in Smyrna to “be faithful unto death” (2:10), and he refers to the martyrdom of Antipas “where Satan dwells” (2:13).11 There are also more subtle and insidious dangers: the Ephesian church loses her first love (2:4), false teaching exerts its seductive appeal in Pergamum and Thyatira (2:20), Sardis is spiritually sleep-walking (3:1–3), and Laodicea is proudly self-reliant (3:17). The risen Christ urges his church to remember, to repent, and to remain steadfast that we may receive all that he has promised. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7).
2. Hear and Heed Wisdom
Those who hear and heed the revelation of Jesus Christ are counted truly happy. The book contains seven beatitudes or macarisms, statements featuring the Greek term μακάριος usually translated “blessed,” “happy,” or “favored.”12 These sayings summon us to wise living and lasting joy. The beatitude in Revelation 1:3 sets the tone for the whole book:
Blessed [μακάριος] 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.
A similar saying in Revelation 22:7 calls believers to obey God’s revealed message:
Blessed [μακάριος] is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.
These foundational beatitudes offer timely wisdom and call for obedient action motivated by confident hope. Revelation calls us to seek true wisdom and happiness, to keep Christ’s words, and to read the time correctly.
2.1. Seeking True Wisdom and Lasting Happiness
In my title, “Wisdom and Hope in Difficult Days,” the stress on hope may seem obvious since Revelation has much to say about the return of Christ and the restoration of all things. But you may wonder what the apocalyptic visions of this book have to do with wisdom. What is wisdom? According to Scripture, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 1:7). More than book smarts, wisdom is true understanding that enables us to navigate life in this world.13
Before examining explicit references to “wisdom” (σοφία) in Revelation, let’s first consider how the book’s beatitudes hold out true wisdom and happiness. The book opens by ascribing divine favor or blessing to “the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy” and “those who hear, and who keep what is written in it,” much like the first two psalms introduce the whole Psalter:14
Blessed [אַשְׁרֵי] is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked …
but his delight is in the law of the Lord. (Ps 1:1–2)
Blessed [אַשְׁרֵי] are all who take refuge in him [the Son]. (2:12)
Commentators rightly classify Psalm 1 as a Torah psalm and Psalm 2 as a royal psalm. But the beatitudes “blessed is the man…” and “blessed are all…” are proverbial expressions of true wisdom and happiness, contrasted with the folly and ruin of wickedness.15 In other words, those who experience God’s favor rightly respond to God’s word and his Son, while the wicked fail to heed God’s law or serve his King. The beatitudes in Psalms 1–2 “serve as a paradigm” for the Psalter’s two dozen other uses of the Hebrew term אַשְׁרֵי (“blessed” or “happy”).16 The stakes could not be higher in this contrast between wisdom and folly:
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish. (1:6)
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (2:12)
The OT Poetic Books include many beatitudes using the same terminology, אַשְׁרֵי in Hebrew and μακάριος in Greek translation. Consider, for example, Proverbs 3:13, 18:
Blessed [אַשְׁרֵי] is the one who finds wisdom,
and the one who gets understanding…
She [wisdom] is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called blessed [מְאֻשָּׁר].
Other psalms and proverbs ascribe blessedness to those who fear, trust, seek, and hope in the Lord, who delight in God’s instruction, who experience forgiveness of sins, and who walk according to God’s ways.17 These macarisms are invitations to learn true wisdom and thus experience true life with God.
There are also a few beatitudes in the OT Prophetic Books. Consider three examples:18
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed [אַשְׁרֵי] are all those who wait for him. (Isa 30:18)
Thus says the Lord:
“Keep justice, and do righteousness,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my righteousness be revealed.
Blessed [אַשְׁרֵי] is the man who does this,
and the son of man who holds it fast.” (Isa 56:1–2)
Blessed [אַשְׁרֵי] is he who waits and arrives at the 1,335 days. (Dan 12:12)
These prophetic sayings are noteworthy parallels with the beatitudes in Revelation because they commend wisdom and waiting for the Lord’s promises to be realized. Said another way, these expressions of present happiness have an eschatological emphasis.
The most well-known biblical beatitudes are found in the Sermon on the Mount, where Christ presents the poor in spirit, mourners, the meek, those who long for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted and reviled as truly “happy” (μακάριος). As in the first two psalms and the prophetic blessing statements, Jesus’s Beatitudes have an eschatological thrust, ascribing present blessedness to disciples based on their coming reward and reversal of circumstances. Consider one example:
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted. (Matt 5:4)
It seems paradoxical to present mourners as “blessed” or “happy.” Yet this counter-intuitive claim is based on the sure hope that God will one day comfort his sad, suffering servants (cf. Isa 60:20; 61:2–3). This is the very hope vividly expressed in Revelation:
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (21:4; cf. 7:17; Isa 25:8).
The beatitudes in Revelation point to comprehensive eschatological blessing, “to a joy that overflows and satisfies,”19 which contrasts sharply with the ruin of Christ’s adversaries who align with the beast and share its fate. This eschatological expectation fosters wise living and patient endurance in the present.
Consider Revelation 14:8–13, which begins with the angelic announcement, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great” (v. 8). Another angel warns of the eternal consequences of worshipping the beast and receiving its mark (vv. 9–11). Then the prophet writes, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus” (v. 12). This sober appeal is followed by a word from heaven in v. 13: “Write this: Blessed [μακάριοι] are the dead who die in the Lord from now on, for their deeds follow them.” I’ll say more about Babylon and the beast a bit later. For now, note that as Psalm 1 contrasts the ways of the righteous and the wicked, so Revelation 14 presents the sure demise of Babylon, the beast and its devotees alongside the joyful bliss of those “who die in the Lord.” The deceased saints are happy “because [γάρ] their works [ἔργα] follow them.” Jesus asserts earlier, “I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (κατὰ τὰ ἔργα ὑμῶν, Rev 2:23; cf. 20:12–13; 22:12). Christ will judge or reward people in accordance with their deeds, which demonstrate the true nature of their faith.20 This is why the saints must persevere with wisdom and hope, no matter the cost.
Let’s turn now to the four explicit references to “wisdom” (σοφία) in the book of Revelation. In 5:12, the heavenly multitude exclaims that the Lamb is worthy to receive power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing. Then in 7:12, the angels, elders, and living creatures worship God saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Wisdom fittingly appears among seven divine attributes ascribed to the Lamb and the Almighty, since according to Daniel 2:20–21 God is praiseworthy because “wisdom and might” belong to him and because he “gives wisdom to the wise.” The wisdom of God and his servant Daniel contrast with the king and sages of Babylon, who cannot comprehend the king’s revelatory dream. In Revelation, the power, honor, and wisdom of Jesus the slain Lamb and God on his throne are at odds with worldly expressions of power, glory-seeking, and pseudo-wisdom.21
Later John makes explicit readers’ need for “wisdom” (σοφία) and “understanding” (νοῦν) to grasp important spiritual truths about “the beast” who wars against God’s people (13:18; 17:9). The point of the first call for wisdom is not only to decode the beast’s symbolic number (666) or the meaning of its seven heads but also to show the way for the saints to conquer the dragon and the beast in the end: “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (12:11; 15:2).