September 15, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 18:20 in the audio file.
Or, Blessing Is at Hand
I made a couple personal commitments for teaching through Revelation, and it is already time to break one of them. But it’s important. It’s also pertinent. And hopefully it’s the last time.
Last Sunday I promised that I would not use the phrase, “If you just read the Bible….” Then I realized in a conversation after the service that I missed a key criticism that I want to get in before my self-imposed ban. Typically the ones who posture themselves as the best Bible readers are the more literal types, and they tend to see Revelation with Futurist colors. That in itself is fine, and like I said last week, this is the group that I identify with. The problem is that this group, my group, are really bad at reading other parts of the Bible literally, like the parts where God’s Word commands all His people to be joyful and thankful and hopeful in God. Those who take the high road in principles of interpretation are often not on the high road of application.
That also includes tone in how we talk about things. If you knew nothing about their eschatology but just listened and watched many “literal” Bible-readers, you would conclude that they thought being right was the most important thing, and also that calls for patience and gentleness didn’t apply to them (see 2 Timothy 2:23-24). They wouldn’t know sweetness of speech (Proverbs 16:21) if they fell into a 50 gallon drum of honey. I can’t say that every post-millennialist is optimistically winsome, nor all amillennialists. But my kind of people have been and are some of the least kind of pleasant or persuasive people. It doesn’t require changing eschatological positions, it requires reading and obeying all the verses.
We who think that evil is not quite finished still shouldn’t be anxious. We who think God is sovereign shouldn’t be bullies, or proud, or impatient. We who think Jesus will win shouldn’t be defensive. We who think that God’s Word always accomplishes God’s purpose (Isaiah 55:11) should let the Word do its work.
This is no less the case with the last book of the Bible because God gave us Revelation for good. As we look at the first three verses today we’ll see what this book is and what this book is good for. It will also give us the opportunity to consider a little more of the book’s background.
Unlike many New Testament books, Revelation includes its own title: The revelation of Jesus Christ. There is a lot in this, actually.
The word translated revelation is the Greek word apokalupsis, from which we obviously get our English word “apocalypse.” When we hear APOCALYPSE, we think about THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT! When the hearers of the words of this prophecy heard apokalupsis, they heard “unveiling.” Whatever else the book of Revelation is, it is a book of revelation. In other words, it is not a covering but an uncovering, and it is for the church.
Interestingly, when the Lord gave prophetic vision to Daniel, the Lord told Daniel to “shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end“ because it wasn’t time (Daniel 12:4). Now the words are opened up and disclosed (see also Revelation 22:10 – “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near”).
This is “the apocalypse of Jesus Christ.” There are two ways to take this phrase: either the apocalypse that is from Jesus Christ or the apocalypse that is about Jesus Christ; He does the revealing or He is the one being revealed. Both things are true. Revelation is most certainly a disclosing of things about Jesus, namely that He is alive, with snow white hair and eyes like fire, that He is Lord of the Churches, that He is Lord over all the earth, and that He is Lord for eternity. But as the book opens, and with the qualification of the next phrase in verse one, this is better understood as “the apocalypse from Jesus Christ.”
It is revelation which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. This prophecy is an unveiling of certain things in the future that the Father gave to His Son so that the Son could give it to His servants. God wanted Jesus to have the apocalypse and then for Jesus to pass on the apocalypse to His people.
Isn’t that interesting? Let’s come back to why in a moment.
The process of passing along the apocalypse went through a couple more stages. He [Jesus] 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. So there are four transmissions: 1) God to Jesus, 2) Jesus to an angel, 3) an angel to John, 4) John to Jesus’s servants.
The verb made it known, “to report, communicate” (BAGD), is a form of the Greek word σημαίνω, which the KJV translates as “signified.” On this word many heavy expectations have been place. For example, “This should warn the reader not to expect a literal presentation of future history, but a symbolic portrayal of that which must yet take place.” (Mounce) Really?
“Some commentators contend that since Revelation sometimes explicitly explains the meaning of an image in a vision there is a ‘presumption that, where expressions are not explained, they can normally be interpreted according to their natural [i.e., literal] meaning, unless the context clearly indicates otherwise.’ Therefore, a number of authors of both popular and scholarly commentaries contend that one should interpret literally except where one is forced to interpret symbolically by clear indications of context. But the results of the analysis above of 1:1 indicate that this rule should be turned on its head: we are told in the book’s introduction that the majority of the material in it is revelatory symbolism (1:12–20 and 4:1–22:5 at the least). Hence, the predominant manner by which to approach the material will be according to a nonliteral interpretative method. … 1:1 programmatically introduces the pictorial visions of the book as having a symbolic meaning without any one-to-one relation to literal historical events.” (Beale)
This is quite an overstatement that skews one’s expectations for the rest of Revelation.
An angel, sent by the Jesus Christ, guided John to see the things that must soon take place. There is something grand about this, majestic and official. It is also promising. Having read the whole book, we know that the Father is sharing with His Son the plan for His Son’s ultimate triumph over every rebel power and for the Son’s eternal worship by those He’s atoned for. The battle is not over, but it will be, and the outcome is secure. The things that must soon take place are both hostility from evil and the glory of the Lamb who is worthy and who will conquer.
So, the nature of Revelation is a supernatural unveiling of what things will happen soon for the vindication and worship of God’s Son.
There have been a lot of pages written about the author of Revelation. He’s named as John in verse 1, and John names himself again in verse 4, and again in chapter 22. The author is the apostle John, and there is some more we can say about it, but all the content of Revelation is from God. This is the word of God. This is the testimony of Jesus Christ. This is what God wants all those who serve His Son to know. The only way for God to show the Son so that the Son can transmit the story is for God to know the pace and the conclusion. He knows the end, and He knows how He will bring all things to the consummation.
The testimony of Jesus is Jesus’ testimony, as in Revelation 22:16 and 20. “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’” The word and the witness are the apocalypse.
The revelation is for clarity, for uncovering, for explanation and anticipation. This is full disclosure.
I stress that because many make a new category for the apocalyptic genre. But this is the only time in the book apokalupsis is used, though numerous times the Apocalypse is self-described as “prophecy,” as early as verse 3. There are parts that are different than epistles, than the Gospels. But the goal of the apocalypse is for us to see, as John wrote what he saw, what God’s plan is on earth. The nature of revelation is to reveal, not to conceal.
Understanding is a prerequisite to the goal of the apocalypse, but our being accurate is not the end of the world. The promise is not better punditry, or “I told you so-isms,” but blessing.
This is quite a promise: 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.
Blessed is the Greek word makarios, the same word used in the Beatitudes (the Latin word is beatus). There are seven beatitudes in the apocalypse, starting with here with these basics. Two groups are specified, and one reason is supplied.
The first to be blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy. Christians didn’t have their own copies of God’s Word for centuries. Many churches didn’t have complete copies of the canon for centuries. So to get a hold of this inspired apocalypse, which John expected would happen for at least seven different churches, would be a privilege. John did not want the leaders to shy away from it either, but to share it by reading it for the people.
I think it’s interesting that John doesn’t pronounce blessing on those who explain the prophecy, but simply for those who read it, as in, an assumption that just reading would do a lot. Perhaps it is the many commentators who have made a bigger mess….
The second group are identified by two things: blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written. Hear and keep together mean obey. To obey means to listen, with attention, and with remembrance, yes. “Take it to heart” (NIV). But turning the aural cavity in the direction of the speaker is not enough. Don’t be a hearer only, but a doer. Again, the assumption is that this is possible based on the nature of revelation. The what to believe and how to act is unveiled.
And this apocalypse is quite promising. Those who have faith and who live faithfully in light of this apocalypse will be blessed by God.
The reason given at the end of verse 3 is the nearness of the end: for the time is near, “the time is at hand” (Tyndale, followed by the KJV). It parallels “the things that must soon take place” in verse 2, as well as the things “that are to take place after this” in verse 19.
Soon could mean quickly, the manner of the events not timing. Soon could mean definite, the certainty of the events not timing.Soon could mean the start, a beginning of persecution not necessarily all the things.
Those who are Preterists, an approach that understands the book of Revelation to be describing things that John’s original readers would live through, explain that soon and near were fulfilled within years, not within centuries, let alone millennia. In fact, the weightiest argument against reading Revelation as full of still-to-us future events is how John could have possibly expected such far off things to his readers to encourage his readers. They heard John say soon, which meant soon to them.
But consider these three things:
First, who says that John knew the specific timing of these events other than that, from his perspective, they were imminent? Soon meant that they could happen at any time, which could be as true for us as it was for him.
Second, there are many encouragements in the epistles, in writings outside of “prophetic” literature, intended to comfort the original readers that did not happen in their lifetimes. The promises in 1 Corinthians 15 about our resurrection bodies are not fulfilled. The pronouncement that “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” in Romans 16:20 has not happened yet. But we don’t say that the Corinthians and Romans were deceived, or that knowing the future was useless to them because they didn’t know the exact when of the future. Future encouragement is more what than when.
Third, everyone who believes the Bible must acknowledge that not everything in Revelation happened “soon” or was “near,” because Christ has not returned to earth. So Preterists say that the majority of Revelation was fulfilled “soon,” but not all of it. But isn’t the return of Christ the best and most emboldening part of Revelation? Likewise with the Idealist approach, Jesus’ return cannot be just a symbol.
So saying that “soon” as understood by John’s hearers means that almost 2000 years later it must be behind us is a leaky argument. We may disagree on where the door to the future parts are (chapter 4? Chapter 21? Elsewhere?), but we must all agree that not everything happened soon and that need be no hindrance to our heightened expectancy.
The promise of Revelation is that those who conquer are blessed and will be blessed for eternity.
The apocalypse was not given by God for our bewilderment or our belligerence, rather for our blessing. The words of this prophecy are not for confusion, but for our comprehension and even more for our keeping that we might conquer.
The last book of the Bible is a call to keep hearing God’s Word and to keep looking to Him for blessing. There ought to be no voluntary gloom. Blessing is at hand.
Beloved, the story is not done. The battle has begun, there is more race to be run, but the ending is promised by the Son to be won. Just conquer.
The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (Romans 16:20, ESV)