Keep What is Written (Revelation 1:1-22:21)(overview)
Topic: Revelation Passage: Revelation 1:1–22:21
Keep What is Written
(One Mission: Until I Come)
November 22, 2015
I. Summing It Up
As we turn, one last time, to the book of the Revelation, I want you to think for a minute about how you might summarize this book. If a friend found out you just studied this book, and asked you what it's all about, what would you say?
It's one thing to slog through each verse, passage, and chapter, bit by bit. That was hard enough, wasn't it? But to then look back and try to summarize all of it? Well, that's precisely what we will attempt to do this morning. Whether you've heard all or some of the messages in this series, even if you haven't heard any of them, I hope our time together this morning will give you a better sense of the big picture of Revelation.
So buckle your spiritual seat belts and turn to Revelation chapter 1.
II. Revelation by the Numbers (1:1-22:21)
Given everything we've learned about the use of numbers and the importance of numbers in this book, it would only be fitting to boil the whole book down to seven key features, and then to use numbers to describe those key features. As you will see, most of these features are directly connected to the actual structure of the book. But the first and last points are different. Let me explain by taking us right to the first key feature.
1. Five Firm Footholds
The first feature is not based on just one part of the book, but rather, on thinking about the book as a whole. You may recall that as we began this journey, and at different points throughout, we've talked about using Five Firm Footholds to safely reach the top of Mount Revelation. Do you remember those footholds? Well here they are again:
Foothold #1: Revelation is the Revelation of Jesus Christ
Foothold #2: Revelation was Given to Seven Real Churches
Foothold #3: Revelation was Conveyed Through Symbolic Numbers and Images
Foothold #4: Revelation Should Always be Taken as a Whole
Foothold #5: Revelation is Meant to be Kept
There is, of course, much that could be said about every one of these points. And I do hope that now, after having worked through the book, you can see even more value in these interpretive guidelines. But instead of expanding on them at this point, let's see if we can work them into our discussion this morning. Look with me at key feature number two.
2. Two Bookends (1:1-20; 22:6-21)
As we get into the actual text of the book, one of the things we talked about in our previous study was that the first chapter of Revelation, and the last chapter of Revelation, serve as (Feature #2) two bookends to the entire letter. Both chapters have at least seven points of similarity. One similarity is how the book begins and ends with a vision of Jesus.
Another of those similarities is the similar blessings or benedictions we find in each chapter. You may remember that there are, you guessed it, seven such blessings scattered throughout this book. But look at verse 3 of chapter 1. We read:
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.
That's blessing number one. Now listen to the sixth blessing of the book, found in the last chapter of Revelation. Listen for any similarities:
“And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” (Revelation 22:7)
What these two blessings have in common, two blessings found in the two bookends of Revelation, is directly connected to Foothold #5: Revelation is Meant to be Kept. That's not something most people think about, is it? But if it's true, then what does it mean to keep Revelation. Well let me suggest that the whole point of the book is:
To provide a powerful perspective on our trials in order to promote a patient endurance in our trials.
3. Seven Mini-Letters (2:1-3:22)
But it's the third key feature that helps us ground that purpose statement in biblical history. Foothold #2 reminds us that Revelation was Given to Seven Real Churches. As Jesus himself communicates in the opening vision of the book (1:11), this Revelation was given for, and was to be written down and sent to, seven actual churches in the Roman province of Asia Minor.
As you may know, if you just scan your eyes over chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation, you will find that this longer letter for all the churches actually begins with (Feature #3) seven mini letters; seven individualized letters, one for each church. Now, when we hold on to Foothold #4 (Revelation Should Always be Taken as a Whole), and do in fact work through the entire book, we realize just how important these mini-letters are.
Why are they so important? Because they help us understand the actual trials these churches were facing. Some were being persecuted by outsiders, while others were being led astray by insiders. This entire book was communicated to these churches because this was the Revelation they needed. To stand firm in the face of whatever test they faced, they need the “powerful perspective” this book could provide. Now that perspective was given in a limited fashion in chapter 2 and 3. But bigger picture begins in chapter 4.
4. One Throne, One Lamb (4:1-5:14; 19:6-21:8)
So as we've seen, most of Revelation is composed of a large block of text describing a series of visions given to the Apostle John. If you look at 4:1, you'll see how Jesus describes this series of visions to John:
After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”
So beyond these short letters about the present trials afflicting each church, the majority of Revelation is about trials that were still to come. But it's critical for us to see that the beginning and the end of this series of visions is dominated by (feature #4) one throne and one Lamb. As you can see if you look over chapters 4 and 5, clearly God the Father is the one pictured on the throne, while Jesus is portrayed in 5:6 as a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes...
And as we saw in chapter 5, the Lamb was the only one worthy to take the scroll from the hand of the One seated on the throne. Now to be clear, this throneroom scene is simply setting up “what must take place after this”. This picture of the Lamb taking the scroll is a symbolic way of describing what happened after Jesus died on the cross, rose from the dead, then ascended to the right hand of God. As both Messiah and Son of God, only Jesus can implement the decree of God symbolized by the scroll. To be specific:
The scroll represents the decree/plan of God to bring ultimate justice to the earth by unleashing His wrath on unrepentant sinners, and lavishing reward and rest on His people.
And as I mentioned, when we get to the end of this large block of visions, when we get to 19:5 through 21:8, we read about the fulfillment of this decree; we read about the Lamb conquering His enemies and each person standing before the very throne pictured in chapter 4. But in chapter 20, each person stands for a full and final judgment before God's throne.
Why is all of this important? Because for the seven churches, and for every reader of Revelation, we need to be reassured by the images of authority and sovereignty that bracket the main visions of the book. Both the Father and the Son are called “the Alpha and the Omega”, “the first and last”. Everything begins at the throne and ends at the throne of God.
5. Seven Seals, Trumpets, and Bowls (6:1-16:21)
But if visions of the throne and Lamb are brackets, what do we find in between? What dominates the center of this book? Well, Foothold #3 reminds us that Revelation was Conveyed Through Symbolic Numbers and Images. Not only was this book originally written in Greek, but we might say it was also written in 'apocalypt-ese'; a language of symbolic imagery. And the book itself gives us clues about how to interpret these symbols.
Why point that out now? Because the center of this book is built on three sets of seven symbols, symbols of how God's ultimate judgment is and will be implemented.
Specifically, we find (#5) seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls (remember the number seven represents a divine completion or perfection, and the number three speaks of a full testimony). So from 6:1 to the end of chapter 16, the reader is confronted by the image of seven seals being broken as the scroll is opened, then seven trumpets being sounded by God's appointed angels, and finally, seven bowls of wrath being poured out on the earth.
But how are these different sets of judgment connected? Well that's where we need to 'follow the fractions'! Let me explain what I mean. Look at 6:8. There we read:
And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.
That's the fourth seal being opened. Keep that in mind and turn to 8:8, 9. There we read
The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood.  A third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.
But if you look ahead to 16:3, you will see a connection between that trumpet judgment and one of the bowl judgments. We read there: The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea.
Do you see that progression? The first four seals ('Four Horsemen') represent the familiar manifestations of God's judgment, the very ones Jesus spoke of in regard to the days leading up to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple; you may recall that He talked about “wars and rumors of wars”, and that “There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.” But he also explained “These are but the beginning of the birth pains.” (Mk. 13:5-8)
As the OT confirms time and time again, God often uses these very things to judge nations and individuals. Even Paul declared, For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Romans 1:18) But the fifth seal reminds us of God's main concern: His suffering people. That's why the sixth seal reminds us that God's full and final judgment is coming.
But as the scroll is fully opened with the breaking of the seventh seal, we discover, not the end of the world, but now, fuller manifestations of God's judgment. From severe natural disasters to genocide and increased demonic influence, these kinds of judgments are symbolized as trumpets because they serve, not only as expressions of God's wrath, but also as announcements of the fullness to come.
And that fullness comes with the bowl judgments of chapter 16. These are the final manifestations of God's judgment. They describe the unraveling of the created order and the breakdown of the world system in its opposition to God. And what the sixth seal decreed, the seventh trumpet fully implements. One day, all of God's enemies will be stopped, apprehended, and fully and finally judged.
So if we 'follow the fractions', this is what we discover about the familiar, the fuller, and the final judgments of God. Why is it important to understand these? Because they give God's suffering people a clear sense and a firm assurance that God is at work, even now, to reverse the curse of sin and put down everyone and everything that opposes His redeeming purposes. We will not suffer and struggle and strain for ever. God is answering and will answer those who cry out, “How long?”
6. Three Expanded Explanations (12:1-15:4; 17:1-19:5; 21:9-22:5)
Now it's important to see that in the middle of this main series of visions, we also encounter (Feature #6) three expanded explanations. For example, the first expanded explanation is found in 12:1-15:4. It, in a sense, interrupts the flow between the seven trumpets and the seven bowl judgments. Why the interruption? Because God wanted to show John and show us the true nature of our trials.
This first interruption introduces us to three enemies of God. John's vision of a great dragon reveals the persecuting agenda of the devil. But how does Satan persecute God's people? Well, Revelation 13 introduces us to two beasts he uses to accomplish his work. The first beast represents the dominant political and military powers of every age. This beast uses the sword to persecute God's people.
But this “beast” was not alone. Revelation 13 also introduced another beast, a second entity. And just as the devil used the first beast to accomplish his global influence, that first beast used the second beast to exalt himself, through both civic and commercial pressure; through religious deception and financial ultimatums. As we saw in chapter 16, this second beast is also called (not surprisingly) the “false prophet.”
But in chapter 14 we also hear of Babylon the great. But it's not until the second expanded explanation, the one we find in 17:1-19:5, that we meet Babylon, who is represented by the image of a prostitute. We come to find out this is a fitting symbol, because she persecutes God's people, not by coercion, but by seduction with earthly pleasures.
So in addition to Satan, all three of these symbolic entities are used by Revelation to describe what the rest of the Bible calls “the world”. What is the world? It is the common beliefs, the collective effort, and the corrupted institutions and traditions that exalt human beings over their Creator.
But there is a third expanded explanation. At the very end of the book, in 21:9-22:5, God provides John with a fuller vision of another woman. In contrast to the prostitute, John is shown a beautiful bride, the wife of the Lamb. As we learned, she represents the church of Jesus. And as we discover from the book, her wedding day is coming.
7. Two Destinies
And it is precisely that fact that leads us to the final feature, feature #7. Again, like feature #1, this idea is not taken from just one section of the book. In fact, the whole book drives us to face this sobering reality. In the end, there are only two destinies. Beyond the wedding day of the Bride, there is a blessed eternity of enjoying God and His blessings; a “new heaven” and a “new earth”. (21:1)
But for those who submit to the Beast, for those who follow the false prophet, for those who compromise with Babylon, for those whose lives are marked by that trajectory, there is the promise of eternal judgment. There is the full and final judgment of God to be poured out on this world. But after standing before the Judge of all the earth, there will be an eternity of torment.
It is those two destinies that should compel us to live differently today. That is why Revelation provides us with a powerful perspective in order to promote patient endurance. What we do now has eternal consequences.
It says to us if you go down this path, along with the world, if you fall before the Beast, if you give in to Babylon's temptations, if that's what characterizes your life, then in the end, you will share in their judgment; because we know clearly from this book that God is victorious, that Christ overcomes all of his enemies. But instead, if you will come and wash your robe in the blood of the Lamb, that is, if you will come and put your faith in Christ and the victory He already secured on the cross, if you live your life with eyes fixed on Him, then one day you will be blessed with a heavenly reward; an eternal reward.
Two destinies. Revelation is often thought to be all about the future, when in fact it's all about right now.
Jesus says, “Look around and believe; look ahead and believe; trust that I am at work and will bring all of this into submission underneath me. I will right every wrong. I will address every injustice. And I will fully and finally one day bring the transformation this world needs.
And He calls us now to do one thing: endure. Keep going. Stand firm. Don't give up. Don't give in. Persecution on the outside; false teaching on the inside; all of those things that tempt and test us. Will we fail? Yes. All of us will stumble and struggle and fail. That's why we have the Lord, who is the Lord of the Church, the Lord of chapters 2 and 3, who comes to speak to us, who writes letters to us, and says, “Turn around, repent, change what you're doing. Don't you know how much I love you? Don't you know that I'm knocking even now? If you open the door come in and I'll eat with you. Don't you know I have a glorious future in store for you?”
Don't accept counterfeits.
III. Summiting Up
So having looked at the key features of this book, let me take you back to an exercise we did in the very first lesson on Revelation. I asked you this question: “When you think about the idea of reading and attempting to understand Revelation, would you say that such a task is comparable to...A. An especially long walk through a haunted house...B. Taking a class on quantum mechanics...as a fourth grader...OR...C. Summiting a majestic, but technically challenging, Himalayan peak.”?
My hope was that we would see, by going through this book, that the answer should be C. Don't you think? As we attempted to summit Mount Revelation, did you take in the spiritual scenery and the spiritual vistas revealed throughout Revelation? Did it take your breath away? Are you awestruck to look around and see the wonder of God's purposes, that He has, is, and will carry out?
This brings us back to Foothold #1; because when we get to the top of that summit we find there Jesus Christ in all His beauty, in all His glory, in all His power; because Foothold #1 brings us back to the opening lines of the book, the opening words of the entire book: this is “the revelation of Jesus Christ”. (1:1)
Chapter 19 tells us “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” (19:10) What does that mean? It means this whole book, when you dig down right into the core, the essence of it, the heart of it is all about Jesus. When we simply walk away looking for signs, and looking at charts, and newspapers, and arguing about blood moons...we have totally missed the book. We have totally missed it, because it's all about our heavenly Husband; it's all about Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.
And so we come back to where we began, and we fall before him in worship, in awe, with gratefulness, and by His grace, with a deeper affection and a deeper commitment to endure.