The book of Revelation is God’s final Scripture to mankind. It covers the time of the days of the apostles up to our day, and even the future beyond us, to the very end of time and beginning of eternity.
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.” (Rev 1:1-2)
God gave to Jesus this revelation, and Jesus sent an angel to give it to John. Most translations (including the New American Standard that I am using here) say “communicated” it, but the King James Version says it best, for instead of “communicated,” it says the revelation was “signified.” To signify means to show by means of signs and symbols, and that is exactly what occurs in the book of Revelation. There are signs and symbols throughout it.
Keep in mind, though, that a sign or symbol, though figurative (i.e. symbolic), has a literal (i.e. actual) meaning behind it. When driving in the United States, every driver will see a sign posted on the side of the road, usually at intersections. It is mounted roughly as high as a man; has 8 sides; is painted red; and has 4 letters on it: S-T-O-P. While the familiar STOP sign is only a symbol, it has a literal meaning behind it. The driver of a motor vehicle is to use brakes to bring the vehicle to a complete stop.
The signs and symbols used in Revelation have literal meanings behind them. Fortunately, we are not left in the dark as to what they mean. The interpretation is either within Revelation itself, or can be found elsewhere in the Bible where the same symbols are used. Hence, to understand Revelation, you must use the rest of the Bible.
“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near,” (Rev 1:3)
There are seven blessings in Revelation, and this verse is the first of them (see Rev 1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7; 22:14). The letter was meant to be read in a church, and people were to hear it. More importantly, they were to heed it. James wrote:
“Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer, but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:21-25).
Just as James teaches us that “an effectual doer…will be blessed in what he does,” so Revelation gives a blessing on “he who reads…and those who hear…and heed.”
“John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace, from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood–and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father–to Him be the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Rev 1:4-6).
John greets the seven churches, of which more will be said in Rev chapters 2 & 3, with the familiar Christian ‘grace and peace’ greeting found in nearly all the epistles (see Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2; Phil 1:2; Col 1:2; 1 Thes 1:1; 2 Thes 1:2; 1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philemon 3; Heb 13:25; 1 Pet 1:2; 2 Pet 1:2; 2 John 3; 3 John 15; Jude 2).
I was taught that the greeting is a combination of Greek and Hebrew cultures. The Greeks greeted each other with grace, while the Hebrews greeted then (and still do today) each other with ‘shalom,’ which means ‘peace.’ The Church is a blend of Jew and Gentile, and the greeting reflects this.
After John’s greeting, he says from whom comes that greeting – none other than each member of the Trinity: “Him who is and who was and who is to come” is God the Father; “the seven Spirits” is the God the Holy Spirit; and “Jesus Christ” is God the Son. John tells us things about Jesus.
He is the “faithful witness.” During His time on Earth, Jesus faithfully did the task God had given Him, and had been a witness to who God is:
“I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work You have given Me to do” (John 17:4).
“I manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world…” (John 17:6a).
Jesus is the firstborn of the dead. This speaks of His resurrection, of which He is the first to be resurrected, and that we who believe will also follow.
Paul wrote of the resurrection:
“But each in his own order: Christ, the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming” (1 Cor 15:23).
Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth. One day, Jesus will rule the nations:
“Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (1 Cor 15:24).
“I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD. He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance and the very ends of the earth as Your possession’” (Ps 2:7-8).
John gives praise to Jesus, telling how He loves us and gave His blood to pay for our sins. Notice when it says “released us from our sins,” the verb tense is past tense. Jesus has ‘released’ us. It is an accomplished fact; it is not something that will hopefully happen some day in the future, but is over with and finished. We are made ‘priests.’ A priest takes the things of people and gives them to God; a prophet takes the things of God and gives them to people. So it is that we as Christians, when we pray, we are acting as priests as we take our concerns and those of our fellow man and bring them before God in prayer. Peter wrote: “Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
“Behold He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth mourn over Him. So it is to be. Amen” (Rev 1:7).
Daniel prophesied of Jesus in His Second Coming, saying:
“I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him” (Dan 7:13).
When Jesus was before the Sanhedrin in His trial, they put Him under oath to answer their question of Who He was, and Jesus answered from that prophecy in Daniel:
“But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to Him, ‘I adjure you by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said it yourself; nevertheless, I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven’” (Matt 26:63-64).
Now, in Revelation, that ancient prophecy in Daniel is repeated again. Every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him. This speaks of the entire human race, particularly the sons of Israel, whom Zechariah prophesied would pierce Jesus:
“I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of Grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn” (Zech 12:10).
The piercing happened at the crucifixion, when nails drove through His hands and feet, and a spear pierced His side.
”I am the Alpha and Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty’” (Rev 1:8).
Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, and their use represents the eternal nature of God. He was there before anything was created, and will always be there, even beyond the end of the world. Almighty means that He is all-powerful. Someone has said that almighty means that God can do everything there is that can be done, all simultaneously, and it is not even an effort for Him.
“I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev 1:9).
At the point of writing Revelation, all the other apostles had died as martyrs. John was the last apostle. Instead of executing him, the Roman Empire exiled him to a prison island called Patmos. It might be they did this because each time they executed a Christian leader, it only made the ‘sect’ of the Christians to grow all the more. Perhaps they thought that executing John would give it the biggest growth of all, and figured ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ might cause this irritating thing called Christianity to die out. Whatever their thinking, John says it was directly because of ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.’
“I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet, saying, ‘Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea’” (Rev 1:10-11).
For John, perhaps it was just ‘another day’ serving the Lord. It was a Sunday, the ‘Lord’s day.’ Have you ever heard a trumpet blow? If so, you know how loud it is. If as a prank, someone sneaked up behind you and blew a trumpet, you would likely just about jump out of your skin. Imagine poor John, startled, his heart stopping for a beat or two as suddenly from behind him, a voice speaks, a voice so loud that it has the power of a trumpet blowing an announcement.
“Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned, I saw seven golden lampstands; and in the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girdled across His chest with a golden sash. His head and hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters. In His right hand He held seven stars, and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength” (Rev 1:12-16).
The elements of the vision of Jesus have meanings. The seven golden lampstands (vs. 12) we are told in vs. 20 are the seven churches. The robe and golden sash (vs. 13) speaks of His authority. His head and hair being white like white wool, like snow (vs. 14a) speak of his wisdom of ancient ages. In the prophecy about Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, we also hear of His ancient age.
“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler of Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity” (Micah 5:2).
“His eyes were like a flame of fire” (vs. 14b) speak about His eyes being able to burn through things that would conceal, piercing all barriers. We are told in Hebrews:
“And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Heb 4:13).
“His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace” (vs. 15a), reminds us of the bronze of the altar of the burnt offerings and the sacrifices of the Law. The bronze altar burned up offerings placed on it; the glow of Jesus’ feet tells of purity like metal so hot that all impurities are burned away from the metal. Such metal is pure and unblemished, spotless. Jesus is pure and spotless, and His sacrifice of Himself on the cross was the perfect sacrifice, meaning there is an end now of offerings on bronze altars.
“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4).
“His voice was like the sound of many waters” (vs. 15b) is almost deceptive. We think, ok, lots of water. I have had the experience of visiting the world-famous Niagara Falls. In a tour, they made the group put on hooded raincoats, and took us down stairs beside the falls. The water falling beside us in its vast quantity was a continuous rumbling roar. It was so loud that our tour guide had to shout to be heard over the roar! With this in mind, when it says Jesus’ voice was like “the sound of many waters,” it is saying Jesus’ voice is a vast, powerful sound, a sound as loud as a roaring massive waterfall or a trumpet blowing right behind you. It is a voice of power!
“In His right hand He held seven stars” (vs. 16a), of which we are told, are the seven angels of the seven churches (vs. 20). More on that later. “Out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword.” We find in Hebrews:
“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
In Ephesians, Paul teaches us about spiritual warfare, saying, “And take up the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Eph 6:17).
Jesus doesn’t merely give us the Word of God. He IS the Word of God.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14a).
Scripture also says of Jesus:
“For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things have been created though Him and for Him” (Col 1:16).
Jesus, the Word, created all things. How did he do it? By speaking it into existence.
“Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light’” (Gen 1:3).
Near the conclusion of Revelation, Jesus, Who is the Word and spoke all things into existence, fights with the nations assembled against Israel at the battle of Armageddon. That same power He exercised to speak the universe into existence is now turned against His enemies.
“From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations…” (Rev 19:15a).
Finally, in the vision, we find “His face was like the sun shining in its strength.” On a hot summer day when the sun is directly overhead, have you ever accidentally looked at the sun? You yank your eyes away from it, and have spots before your eyes. The sun’s power actually comes to us from about ninety-two million miles away, and even at such a great distance, it blinds us. Yet, here is Jesus, the One Who created that sun, and uncountable billions upon billions more suns out in the vastness of the universe, the One Who merely spoke to create and put that incomprehensible numbers of stars into existence. This is the Jesus Who appears to John.
What is John’s reaction upon seeing Jesus in His power and glory?
“When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. And He placed His right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades’” (Rev 1:17-18).
Is it any wonder that John “fell at His feet like a dead man?” Would not you and I do so also? I know I would. Yet, Jesus is gentle with John, and places a reassuring hand on him, saying, “Do not be afraid.” Jesus then tells John truths about Himself. “I am the first and the last.” As we said earlier when the terms Alpha and Omega were discussed (vs. 8), these words speak of His eternal nature. He was there before the universe began, and will be there for all eternity. He also says He is “the living One, and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore.”
This is no ghost, but Jesus truly alive from the dead. He has resurrected, and now lives eternally. When He says “I have the keys of death and Hades,” He is indicating that He has the final word on who lives and who dies. This is a comfort for us, who live in fear of the devil. Hebrews talks of how Jesus shared our flesh and blood nature in order to defeat death:
“Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb 2:14-15).
Jesus is master over even death itself, and one day He will defeat death when He resurrects us who believe in Him:
“But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?’” (1 Cor 15:54-55).
“Therefore write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things” (Rev 1:19).
This verse is the key verse of Revelation, for it enables us to know how Revelation is divided, time-wise, in the purposes of God. There are three parts to Revelation:
“The things which you have seen:” This is John’s vision of Jesus in chapter 1.
“The things which are:” This represents the present age, the Church Age, as explored through the seven letters to the seven churches, as found in Revelation chapters 2 and 3.
“The things which will take place after these things:” This is the future that follows the Church Age after the Pre-Tribulation Rapture has removed the Church from the Earth.
“As for the mystery of the seven stars, which you see in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Rev 1:20).
At the beginning of this study, we found that the signs and symbols of Revelation are interpreted either by Revelation itself, or by the other places in Scripture where those symbols get used. This passage is of the former, where Revelation interprets itself. The seven churches are seven actual churches in John’s day. A major trade route through Asia Minor would come upon all seven cities, in the order specified. The seven stars are angels of those churches.
Scholars have debated whether these are literally angels, though. The Greek is aggelos (pronounced ang’-elos), which means messenger. The mighty angels of God are, of course, God’s messengers, and thus is the usual interpretation of this Greek word. However, it is also valid to interpret this as a human messenger. Since Jesus was directing John to send the letter to those specified seven cities along the ancient trade route, John would have sent the prophecy of Revelation by a human messenger (or more than one messenger) so that a copy of Revelation would arrive at each city’s assembly of believers.
Another interpretation that scholars debate is whether the word simply is meant for the head elders of the churches. Given that Jesus had some strong criticism for some of the churches, the ordinary use of ‘angel’ is unlikely as the correct meaning for the ‘angels’ of the seven churches, as it is unlikely the holy angels who stayed faithful to God, not joining Satan in his rebellion against God, would be the fitting recipients of rebuke, as some of those seven churches received. More likely then, it was the human leadership that is meant by the Greek aggelos in this context, and human leadership (i.e. elders and deacons) would then be fitting to receive either encouragement or rebuke.
However it works out, Jesus was communicating by signs and symbols important spiritual truth for the congregations at those seven cities.
We will see more on this as we look at chapters 2 and 3.