Today we will begin the book of Revelation. The book is a letter dictated by Christ to seven churches in Asia Minor (1:11). Authorship of the book has been disputed from almost the beginning. Some attribute it to the Apostle John, some to an elder named John known in the late first century, some to another otherwise unknown John.1 The book was the last of the New Testament written, in the late first century A.D. The book is an apocalyptic vision (the “revelation” of 1:1 is the first word in the book, and it is the Greek word apocalypsis from where the genre gets its name). From about 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. apocalyptic writings were commonplace in Israel and the Ancient Near East. The genre is highly symbolic and reveals physical realities and the spiritual realities behind them, usually through the mediation of angels. The genre is not intended to be read literalistically.
Though one overall vision, the book is broken down into seven related visions (or vision cycles) that reveal various aspects the time between Christ’s two comings and into the eternal state of man (especially in the last vision cycle). There are common themes throughout that are meant to prepare Christians for life in the here-and-now so that we may persevere in our witness to Christ through the persecution we will face in this world. There are several hundred Old Testament allusions in the book, and many theological systems that influence one’s interpretation, so we can only take a very broad look at the book. We will take the symbolic view, which was historically the most common view of the church until the 19th century.2
The book begins by introducing what will be covered. It is an apocalypse that God revealed to John to let the church (“His servants”) know what to expect in the last days that began with Christ’s finished work at His First Coming (1:1). That it was mediated by an angel who was sent to John follows the apocalyptic formula. In verse 2, John says that he bears witness to everything he sees in the vision. That these things will “soon take place” (v. 1) and that the “time is near” (v. 3) refers to the things John will see in the vision and how they are relevant to the church of all time. In other words, Christians needed to be prepared then for the reality of life in this world a a Christian, which has not changed in almost 2,000 years from our perspective.
John then opens the letter with a greeting. He addresses the seven churches in Asia, each of which he addresses individually later. These seven churches were actual churches who received this letter, but they represent the universal Church of all time: every true local church of all time consisting of the true elect of all ages. The number seven represents fullness or completion, which we will see often in the book. Note that he addresses the letter not from himself alone, but from the Triune God (vv. 4-5). The letter is from John, from the eternal God (the Father), the Holy Spirit (the seven spirits) and Jesus Christ (God the Son). Christ is the faithful witness, Whom this book calls us to imitate. He is the firstborn from the dead, which guarantees our final resurrection. He is the Ruler of all earthly powers, which means that contrary to appearances and circumstances in this world, He is sovereign over all.
Then John addresses the church. We are those freed from our sin through Christ (v. 5). We are a kingdom of priests (v. 6 – see 1 Peter 2:9). We are to give glory to God, and to always be looking for the coming of our Lord (vv. 6-7). This coming will include the judgment of the wicked (who will wail). That God is the Alpha and the Omega Who was and is and is to come (v. 8) is not just a reference to the covenant name of God – YHWH (“He will be what He will be”) – but it is a promise that God always has been in control, always will be in control, and is in control now (whenever “now” is!). This is an encouragement for the church, who God has ordained suffering for in this world. We suffer as a means to God’s ultimate end.
John then describes the vision of the glorified Christ. Note first that we get some background information on John. He is a brother in Christ and partner in “the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus.” This is another call to faithfully be who we are called to be through tribulation. We will see that the idea of “tribulation” in the book is used to speak most often of the sufferings of the church. Any idea of a “tribulation” that excludes the church is foreign to the book. John first hears Christ before He sees Him (v. 11). When he turns to look, he first sees lampstands (v. 12). These represent the seven churches (v. 20). Christ is in the midst of His church (v. 13). In fact, Christ’s presence is necessary for a church to be a church.
John calls Christ “one like a son of man,” a reference to Daniel 7:9-14 where it represents Christ in His humanity. John’s description of the risen and glorified Christ (vv. 13-16) calls back to many Old Testament descriptions of YHWH, many of which focus on His role as Judge. Christ has come as Savior. When He comes again, He will come as Savior and Judge. The seven stars represent the elect of all time (v. 16). They are “angels” which is the Greek word for “messengers.” We carry the message of Christ in the here-and-now.
Christ then speaks. He repeats His most often repeated command at His First Coming: fear not (v. 17). We have no reason to fear, because everything is in His control, He holds each one of us in His loving and sovereign hand, and is with His church (v. 18, 20). With that in mind, the church needs to hear a few things, which He is now about to dictate to John (v. 19). This is those things that are (in this age) and those that are to take place after this age (at His Second Coming). Jesus is now about to address each of the seven churches individually, but each address is for every church of all time. In each address, Christ reveals something about Himself, rebukes and/or encourages the church, calls us to repentance where necessary, and then calls the us to persevere.
He begins with the church in Ephesus (2:1). Christ says He is the One Who protects and preserves the church, and Who is present with His church. He is with the church in our toil for the kingdom as we patiently await His coming without abandoning our faith (v. 2-3). True believers discern right doctrine from false doctrine. But in many cases, the church has fallen away from the love we first had (v. 4). History bears this out. So He calls the church (of the 1st century and the 21st) to return to our full devotion to Christ through our actions (v. 5). The threat to remove the lampstand is a warning that He will remove His presence from any church that does not heed His rebuke. Yet, He commends them for hating what He hates (v. 6).3 In each address, Christ says that His rebukes and encouragements are for those with ears to hear (v. 7). He also promises rewards for those who persevere in this life. Here, He promises eternal life.
Next is the church in Smyrna. Christ says He is the eternal sovereign God, and also the resurrected One (v. 8). Again, we see that the church in this age is in tribulation (v. 9). That this church is both in poverty and also rich means that they value the heavenly above the earthly. The people “who say they are Jews but are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” refers to false teachers deceived by Satan. In the book of revelation, the church is presented as the spiritual Israel, or spiritual Jews. This is why Christ can use this language writing to a Gentile church in Smyrna. Christ tells the church plainly that because of false teachers, some of us will suffer captivity (v. 10). This has happened historically, happens today around the world, and will happen to many near Christ’s Second Coming. But this trial will prove out our faith. That this tribulation is for ten days is assuring us that this suffering is temporary. For those who hear and persevere, we will receive eternal life (vv. 10-11).
Next is the church in Pergamum, Christ describes Himself as the One with the “sharp two-edged sword” (v. 12). This is the Word of God (see Heb 4:12) which will be His means of judgment (see 1:16, 19:15, 19:21). Christ knows the church lives in a dark world where Satan hold power over most (v. 13). But He commends those who keep their testimony of Him even in a world that hates us (v. 13). The teaching of Balaam refers to idolatry (v. 14 – see Num 25:1-3). Sexual immorality is used throughout the Bible and in the book of Revelation as a metaphor for all sin. There were some in Pergamum that had spiritual idols that led them to sin. This includes the sin of the Nicolaitans that Christ hates (v. 15 – see v. 6). Christ warns those with these idols to repent of be judged (v. 16). To those who hear and persevere, Christ will supply their need (which is Him, the bread from heaven!) and give them eternal life in His presence (v. 17). The white stone represents acquittal, and the new name designates us as belonging to Him Who names us.
Next up is the longest address, which goes to the church in Thyatira (v. 18). Christ is the Son of God, Who is coming in judgment (eyes of fire) and glory (feet of burnished bronze). This church is continuing to work for Christ (v. 19) but are too tolerant of sin (v. 20). This “Jezebel” is a woman who was leading others into sin, perhaps actual sexual sin, which the church was turning a blind eye to. God has given her time to repent (v. 21). Since she will not, God will punish her, along with all those who do not repent (v. 22). Her “children” are speaking spiritually (v. 23). These are false converts like her that live lives of sin. Each is judged according to his or her own works, because their works reveal the heart behind the works. But those who are truly Christ’s in the church who do not buy into sin (Satan’s deception) are to keep on doing what they are doing (vv. 24-25). Those who hear and persevere will join Christ when He comes in judgment (vv. 26-27). Giving them the morning star is giving them Himself – His eternal presence (v. 28 – see 22:16).
Chapter 3 begins with the address to Sardis. Christ is He Who works by His Spirit to preserve His church (3:1). This church has a reputation of being alive, but they are dead. There are plenty of churches that are busy with programs and that attract a crowd – churches we would consider healthy and alive from the outside. But many of them lack true faith. Christ calls for them to take the little faith that remains and grow it by doing what they are called to do (v. 2). They are to obey His Word and repent, or they will prove to be among the reprobate (v. 3 – see 1 Thess 5:1-4 where those who are surprised by Christ’s coming “like a thief” are contrasted with true believers who will not be surprised by His coming). Yet even within this mostly nominal Christian church, there are true believers (v. 4). They will receive eternal life. Those who hear and persevere will be given this eternal life, and will be presented by Christ to His Father before the divine council as His own (vv. 5-6).
Next is the church in Philadelphia (v. 7). Christ is the Greater Son of David Who has all authority (the “key”). What He ordains is irreversible. And He has ordained that this church, though small in number, through their commitment to Christ will do great things for Him (v. 8). He will use them to bring false converts to shame, and possibly true repentance (v. 9). Because of their faithfulness, they will be preserved through the tribulations of this world (v. 10). They will pass through the trials with their testimony intact. Christ says to remember He is coming soon so that they will be encouraged to persevere (v. 11). Those who hear and persevere will be marked by Christ: they will be sealed for redemption and will also display the fruits of salvation (v. 12). The New Jerusalem is the church in eternity. Once again, the new name means they belong to Him.
Finally is the church of Laodicea (v. 14). Christ is the truth and the source of all that is. Christ then tells the church that they are neither cold nor hot (v. 15). This is not, as is commonly believed, talking about how on fire for God they are or not. Christ would certainly not prefer complete cold over some passion for the things of God. This is talking about usefulness. Laodicea had aqueducts that ran to it carrying hot water from nearby hot springs and cold water from freshwater springs, but because of where they were, by the time the water reached them, both were notoriously the same lukewarm temperature. Neither water served its purpose. That was the church in Laodicea. Christ will reject those that prove to be useless for the kingdom (v. 16). They, living in a very wealthy city like Laodicea, were preoccupied with the things of the world and had no zeal for God (v. 17). Christ calls them to return to Him and repent (vv. 18-19). Verse 20 is often plucked out of context and used to speak of one’s initial salvation – like Jesus calls everyone, and we just have to open our hearts to Him. But this is speaking to believers! If we think we are saved but have no fellowship with Christ through our manner of living, we are fooling ourselves. Christ calls for His own to open the door to Him to rule their lives. To those that hear and persevere, Jesus will give authority over His creation in eternity (vv. 21-22).
These corrections, exhortations, commendations, and calls to perseverance are the first vision cycle As we will see, because of our mission and because the world is against us, we must all turn wholeheartedly to Christ and maintain our testimony as the Church and as individuals. We will need to work, to suffer, and believe in order to carry out God’s will for us.
1 I do not believe this is the writing of the Apostle John, for various internal and external reasons.
2 We do not have the time to explore fully all the reasons why the Bible requires the view I take. I will simply explain the meaning of the symbols in most cases. For a full explanation of the symbols and their use throughout the Bible, please see the book I will be releasing in 2023 on the book of Revelation. Details to follow.
3 There are varying views on who the Nicolaitans were. The two most common are that they were a group of elders who sought to elevate themselves above the “laity” of the church, or that they were a group that encouraged syncretism between Christianity and the polytheism of Rome.