Making Sense of the Book of Revelation, Part 2
Updated: Nov 28, 2020
In part one of this post last week, we learned why the book of Revelation seems so cryptic to our modern ears – because it was purposefully written in code (symbols).
The book portrays the Roman government (and all world systems that oppose God’s people in every generation) as evil.
So, God gave John a series of visions, full of symbols from the Old Testament, which would make perfect sense to the Christian community of his day, and yet not get them in any further trouble with the Roman Emperor, Domitian, who was already putting Christians to death for not worshipping him as “Lord and God”.
So, that explains why most of us today, who are not as well versed in things like Jewish numerology, would be just as dumbfounded as the Romans of John’s day.
Hopefully that background information from last week was helpful to you. You can read all of part one here: https://www.anchorpointtampa.org/post/making-sense-of-the-book-of-revelation
But what’s the point of the book? What’s the sweep of the story? What’s the Cliff’s Notes version of Revelation? And what are the main spiritual lessons God wants Christians of every generation to get from this strange and fascinating book?
That’s where we left off last week, and that’s what I’ll try to explain as simply and clearly as I understand it. (Of course, there’s much I don’t understand, but as a fellow student of God’s Word, I’m simply offering what has helped me in the hopes that it will help you as well.)
So, here’s how I understand the big picture of Revelation (Note: much of this material is taken from Tim Mackie of the Bible Project)
A) Chapters 1-3 (Jesus addresses the seven churches of Asia)
Christians are being heavily persecuted, and the temptation is to deny Jesus or water down their commitment and become like the world around them.
Jesus says the persecution is going to get worse before it gets better in order to test them, and so they need to overcome (or conquer) these trials.
Those who do not overcome will lose their place in his kingdom, and those who do overcome will be greatly rewarded forever.
B) Chapters 4-5 (the throne, the slain lamb, the key to understanding human history and our part in it)
John is shown an awe-inspiring vision of God’s heavenly throne – with angels, creatures and faithful Christians surrounding the throne and giving honor and allegiance to the king of the universe, who sovereignly rules.
God holds a sealed scroll in his hand. The scroll contains the revelation of human history – what is happening now, what will happen next, and what will happen to mankind in the end.
But as much as we all want these mysteries to be revealed, all of heaven is breathless as we find that no one can open the scroll. No one has the wisdom to understand it and explain it to us, or the power and authority to bring it about. John weeps.
And then, suddenly, John hears that one has stepped forward – the only one worthy to open the scroll – it’s the lion of Judah.
But when John turns to look, he sees not a conquering lion, but a slain lamb – symbolic of one who has given his life as a sacrifice to God.
This is crucial for understanding the book – and for understanding human history and our role in it.
It’s revealed to us that the key to human history is love and sacrifice. Just as Jesus overcame his enemies not by hating and killing them, but by loving and sacrificing for them, so those who will overcome in every generation must follow the way of the slain lamb.
That’s the victory: love over hatred, peace over violence, God’s way of sacrifice and trust over the World’s way of power and dominance.
What’s defeat? Just the opposite: hatred over love, violence over peace, Satan’s way of power and dominance over God’s way of sacrifice and trust. That’s how we lose our distinctiveness and become just like the world.
This is the real story of human history; like Adam and Eve, people of every generation are given a choice: to obey God and trust him with their lives or follow the way of Satan by taking matters into their own hands, redefining good and evil for themselves, and becoming their own God.
The slain lamb comes and unlocks the scroll. He’s unlocking the meaning to human history. And John is told to write down what he sees and hears so that the church can understand it – thus the “unveiling” or “Revelation” to us.
The rest of the book is the spiritual view of human history and how it will all end. It’s pulling back the curtain on what’s really going on in the spiritual realm. It’s revealing the puppeteers who are pulling the strings behind the scenes so that the church can know who the real enemies are (Satan and his demons) and that eventually God will destroy them and vindicate and reward his people, who proclaim their testimony and stay faithful unto death.
So, what’s in the rest of the scroll?
Jesus says to Christians: you’re focused on your government and the people who are persecuting you, but the real enemy is Satan, and while it looks like he’s getting away with murder, God is actually judging evil and injustice all the time with all kinds of punishments and trials he sends to humanity.
But will those judgements bring the world to repentance? And will God’s people stay faithful through the trials? This is what the scroll reveals in the next section.
C) Chapters 6-16 (the judgements of God on mankind and their refusal to repent)
As the scroll is opened, it reveals God’s wrath and punishment on a corrupt and rebellious world.
It’s a series of seven judgements, pictured in three cycles of sevens: 7 seals, 7 trumpets, 7 bowls. (So, the judgements are chronological, but then repeated from three different perspectives.)
And these judgements roughly correspond to the plagues God brought on Egypt to judge them (hail, blood, darkness, locusts, etc.).
But the people of the earth don’t repent of their rebellion. (Just like Pharaoh, they harden their hearts.)
The fifth seal depicts the murdered Christian martyrs before God’s heavenly throne, crying out: How much longer till you finish them off and correct all the injustices, abuses, and wrongs of the earth?
And God says: Wait a little while longer… (Of course, 2 Peter 3:9 explains to us that the reason it’s taking so long for the final judgment is because of God’s patience, since he wants more people to repent and be saved).
The sixth seal depicts Judgement Day, and the people of the earth cry out, “Who is able to stand?” And John pauses the action to answer that question in chapter 7.
An angel with God’s signet ring (showing he has the delegated authority of God) marks God’s people to protect them from God’s judgement. 144,000 are sealed with this ring, simply meaning “all of God’s people”.
And when John turns to look, he sees all kinds of different people, from every tribe and nation, following the slain lamb and his ways.
This worldwide army of Jesus can alone stand before the awful judgement of God because they have been redeemed by the lamb’s blood (just like the lamb’s blood over the doorway of the Israelites during Passover in Egypt when the Angel of Death killed every first born who was not marked for deliverance).
This army of Jesus is called to conquer - not by slaying their enemies, but by suffering and preaching to them, just like the slain lamb (“They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” Revelation 12:11)
D) Chapters 17-18 (The Fall of Babylon)
It all culminates in this final scene depicting Babylon, the arch enemy of God’s people, which is code for the Roman empire during John’s day and human empires of every generation.
Babylon is judged and violently destroyed by King Jesus as the rest of the world looks on in astonishment and amazement that such a seemingly invincible world power could fall like that.
E) Chapters 19-20 (The wedding of the lamb, the final battle to defeat evil, and final judgement)
The victorious lamb is presented with his beautiful bride – the faithful Christians who have not given in to the world but have kept themselves pure for him.
Then the final battle between Jesus and Satan is depicted where evil is finally and fully destroyed and Satan is thrown into the lake of burning sulfur – never again to contaminate and lead astray God’s good creation.
And we see a great, white throne set up for judgement, and every human being who has ever lived standing before the throne to be judged according to what they have done, as recorded in books. Another book is opened, which is "the book of life". "Anyone who's name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire." (Revelation 20:15)
F) Chapters 21-22 (The New Jerusalem - heaven)
The story ends with a beautiful depiction of God making everything new again - a restored creation that’s healed of the pain and corruption of our evil human history.
We are ushered into a new Garden of Eden – a paradise of eternal life with God.
But it’s even better than the original garden because it’s the new Jerusalem – a great city and civilization where human cultures, in all of our diversity, work together in peace and harmony with God, fulfilling his call to rule and reign over the universe with Christ, as we take God’s creation into new and unchartered territory.
Take home points
1) John is writing to the persecuted Christians of his day and giving them hope that their persecution will eventually end, and that Jesus will return to punish their enemies and vindicate and reward their faith. But they must persevere through these trials because it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
2) Like every New Testament letter, there is application to every generation – including ours – because human history repeats itself over and over again, and the spiritual battle is always the same.
3) So, the curtain to the spiritual realm is pulled back and we are shown that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)
4) And we are urged to not give in to the ways of this world, but to follow the way of the slain lamb, who “for the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:2b)
5) The vision reveals history’s pattern of rebellion, God’s punishments and trials, and God’s warning that all human kingdoms eventually become Babylon (puppet evil empires with Satan pulling the strings) and must be resisted by the way of the slain lamb.
6) But the slain lamb is also the lion of Judah, the mighty warrior who will not let Babylon go unchecked. He will return one day to destroy evil, judge every human being, make everything right, and make all things new.
7) Heaven will be worth the wait! It will be everything you ever dreamed of or hoped for – and far, far more – it will be beyond your wildest dreams!
8) Jesus says, “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” (Revelation 22:12-13)
9) And we cry, “(Maranatha!) Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” (Revelation 22:20)