Revelation 1:3 (New International Version)
3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
Revelation attracts and repels. Some are drawn by the book and see it as the key to unlocking all history, are fascinated by it and elevate it to the most important place. Others are threatened by it, or don’t know what to do with it, neglect it or ignore it. Most agree on this point: the book is difficult.
Revelation might be the most difficult book of the Bible to understand, which is ironic, since the opening word of the book, taken as the title, is ‘Revelation’, or making known. In the original language it is ‘Apocalypse’, a word that has acquired a meaning in popular culture related to death and destruction and the end of all things. While there is much dark and desperate in Revelation, and the Christians to whom it was addressed were struggling under persecution as they read it, the emphasis of the book is not on the power of evil but on the triumph of Jesus Christ over it. While the end of all things is spoken of, this is not the point of the book. Rather, Jesus Christ is presented as the first and the last, the beginning and the end. The subject of the book is thus not essentially us and our struggles; or history or prophecy; but, rather, like every book in the New Testament, Revelation is essentially about Jesus Christ. That said, it was written to a particular group of first-century Christians and, in trying to understand it today, a good principle to apply is that it should have made sense to the original readers. Of course, as God’s word, we expect it to speak to us, today, as well; but it must have first spoken to the original recipients.
Revelation contains a lot of numbers, many of which may be used symbolically, that is, to represent something else. One of the most common is the number seven. This is usually taken to stand for completeness or wholeness. Thus John writes to the seven churches is Asia. (This is the Roman Province of Asia, not the continent of Asia). There are seven lampstands and seven stars, one for each church. At the time of writing, it is estimated there were more than twenty churches in Asia. So John is writing to the church as a whole and the seven specific assemblies named serve as representatives of all the churches. Likewise, the sevenfold Spirit in verse 4 is often taken to be the whole or perfect or Holy Spirit.
Revelation sometimes interprets the symbols for us. Thus, at the end of chapter 1, we are told that the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. However, we are not told how to interpret all the symbols in the book. The ones that are interpreted provide a starting point; trying to get the perspective of the original readers also helps.
Revelation contains a lot of time references, starting in verse 1, with ‘things that must happen soon’ and then in verse 3, ‘the time is near’. Some readers understand the whole book to be arranged along the lines suggested in verse 19, ‘the things that were, the things that are now, the things that are to come’; that is, that the book treats, in sequence, past, present and future. Whether or not the book is arranged along these lines, and whether or not we can identify all the times and events mentioned in the book, one thing is clear: God is the God of time, ‘the one who is and who was and who is coming’ (verse 4 and verse 8), the God of the past, the present, and the future. Jesus spans time: he is first, living, and last: thus he rules past, present and future (verses 17 and 18). He was dead at one time in the past, is now alive in the present, and will be in future for ever and ever (verse 18). He has unlocked death and Hades (verse 18). Jesus Christ is the focus of the Revelation.
The most stunning imagery is taken up describing Jesus. He has a long robe, a golden sash, snow-white hair, flaming eyes, shining feet, powerful voice, incisive tongue – an altogether overwhelming figure, like the sun at noon. This figure is the central figure of Revelation. It is this one that the book of Revelation is about (verses 13-16).
Revelation is very visual. John writes about ‘everything I saw’ (verse 2). He is told to write down what he sees (verse 11, 19). New sections in the book are introduced by expressions such as ‘I turned to see’ (verse 12) and ‘then I saw’ (verse 17). Repeatedly the command is given ‘Look’ (or ‘Behold’), for example, verse 7. The use of so much visual language means the book is referred to as a ‘vision’. But other senses are involved, as well. John hears a loud voice speaking (verse 10, 11, 12, 17-19).
Revelation contains several forms of writing. In reading the book it helps to bear this in mind. The literature now known as ‘apocalyptic’ is characterised by vivid images of the end times. The book also contains prophecy, as verse 3 declares. In addition, as verse 4 indicates, the book is addressed to churches, as a letter, as is particularly evident is chapters 2 and 3. Revelation also contains a lot of songs or poetry or worship passages. Verse 7 is of this character. Reading Revelation should affect us, and move us to worship.
And the book of Revelation contains great blessing. Blessed are those who read and heed this book (verse 3)!