The Revelation of Jesus Christ
We’ve all experienced it—that feeling of discomfort when you encounter the unfamiliar. Sometimes it might be a new place. Things look different. You don’t know the way around. You feel lost and just want to leave. Other times it’s a different culture. The ideas shaping the people differ from what you’re used to. It keeps relationships a little awkward. Instead of drawing nearer to understand, we keep our distance.
Sometimes that happens with stuff we read as well. If all you’re used to is, say, the funnies and Sports Illustrated, encountering something like Homer’s Iliad or Shakespeare leaves you feeling lost. “What is this imagery? Wherefore does he speak thus?!” Instead of drawing nearer to understand, we shy from the less familiar.
People do that with parts of the Bible as well, especially Revelation. To encounter Revelation is to enter a world with an array of heavenly creatures, a seven-headed beast, a great red dragon, war-horses released, a scroll eaten, a lion that’s really a lamb with seven eyes, bowls of wrath poured on the earth, a beautified people comparable also to a glorified city—“What is this?” we might think, “Where am I, and what do I do with these things? How do they help me as a Christian?” Then, instead of drawing nearer to understand, it’s easier to stick with the familiar.
That plays out in church history as well, especially in our circles. A number of the old confessions and lectionaries refer to Revelation but do so in a very limited manner. They cite the passages related to Christ’s redeeming work or the New Heavens and Earth. But at large, they stay away from the rest of the book. On Sunday gathered, have you ever participated in a corporate reading of the war in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting the Dragon? What about the seven bowls of wrath or Babylon hurled into the sea? No? We tend to stay away from that which unsettles us, disturbs us.
But in doing so, we miss the promised blessing of God’s revelation in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God promises great blessing for those who read, hear, and keep this prophecy. By preaching through it, my hope is not only to equip you to understand its language and symbols and themes and use of the Old Testament; I want you to keep returning to its message to know more of Christ, to find endurance in the face of persecution, to gain discernment in overcoming the Beast, and to receive comfort of the new-creation glories. We’ll cover the first three verses today. They introduce the book and tell us what Revelation is. Read them with me:
1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 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.
What is this book?
Only three verses, but there’s much to cover. Let’s do it by answering four questions. The first is this: What is this book? Verse 1 tells us plainly; it’s a “revelation of Jesus Christ.” Some take that to mean it’s a revelation about Jesus; and that’s true at one level. But the rest of the verse clarifies that the “of Jesus Christ” means “given by Jesus Christ.” God the Father gave the revelation to Jesus, in order that Jesus would then show that revelation to his servants. Right away, we recognize a theme that sounds much like John’s Gospel: God’s revelation comes in and through the person of his Son. If you want to know God, listen to Jesus. Jesus reveals God, his character, and his purpose in grace.
Also, by using the word “revelation,” we discover that Revelation is not a book that aims to shroud things in mystery. Throughout the New Testament, this word has to do with unveiling what’s hidden, disclosing what you couldn’t see before. It has to do with pulling back the curtain, so that we can see things as they really are—as how God wants us to see them. We might even compare it to a sealed scroll that’s then opened for you to read. Such a word draws you nearer, doesn’t it? In his wisdom, God does keep some things hidden and sealed from us. But some things he chooses to reveal. He wants you to see what the Spirit enabled John himself to see.
Now, this notion of unveiling, this “pulling back the curtain” so to speak, is characteristic of some other literature floating around in John’s day, which much later became labeled “apocalyptic.” Read any commentary, study Bible, and you’ll likely find Revelation labeled this way. They’re trying to make sense of its genre. Sure enough, read 3 Enoch, Apocalypse of Abraham—there’s some overlap: angelic mediators, symbolic imagery, the unveiling of the heavenly perspective, a focus on end-time judgment. Where this literature overlaps with Revelation, we might gain some insights.
But be careful. Revelation is also distinct from this literature. For starters, the author doesn’t write under a pseudonym, like we find in that other literature. John names himself in verses 2 and 4. Revelation also interweaves imagery from the Old Testament more often and in a manner far richer than the other literature. But most importantly, Revelation is unique in its focus on the lordship of Jesus Christ, and how the redeeming work and reign of Jesus bring all of Old Testament prophecy to its climax.
Speaking of prophecy—that’s the more helpful category, I think. Notice that verse 3 even identifies Revelation that way: “Blessed…are those who hear the words of this prophecy.” Far more common is what Revelation shares with Old Testament prophecy, especially books like Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Joel, parts of Isaiah. If you want to grasp this book, if you want to understand its imagery and symbols, you don’t have to be a scholar in apocalyptic literature; you simply need to saturate yourself with Old Testament prophecy. The Old Testament prophets are some of your best teachers in understanding Revelation. John laces nearly every sentence with the Old Testament. At times he’s mirroring the structure of an Old Testament narrative (like Exodus), while also pulling imagery from one prophet while combining multiple texts from another, to then show how Jesus’ person and work bring all the threads to their intended goal.
Read Revelation as you would Old Testament prophecy. When you think about Ezekiel being carried away in the Spirit, or Daniel 7’s four beast-like nations, or the night visions of Zechariah 1-6, all of a sudden Revelation doesn’t seem all that strange from the other prophecy in Scripture. But it’s how these prophecies interact with one another in light of Christ that gives us understanding into God’s character and purpose.
Now, there is one further genre to address when it comes to Revelation. When we get to verse 4, the whole book is also a letter written to seven churches. That too will affect how we read this book—more on that next time. For now, one further remark on what this book is. As a revelation from Jesus Christ given to the church by way of prophecy, it is the word of God. Notice verse 2: “[John] bore witness to the word of [given by] God and the testimony [given by] Jesus Christ…” Think about that.
In verse 1, God the Father stands as the source of Jesus’ revelation, which Jesus then has his angel deliver to John. But in verse 2, “the word given by God” parallels “the testimony given by Christ.” In other words, Jesus’ testimony further describes God’s self-revelation. God’s word and Jesus’ testimony are not different things; they’re equal things. Right here, John starts a theme that spans the whole book: Jesus’ words belong to a category reserved only for Yahweh. So, what is this book? It is a revelation given by God through Jesus that comes to the church by way of prophecy. It’s not a book written to conceal, but to uncover the things God wants us to see.
How did it come?
Second question: How did it come? Verse 1 tells us that God (the Father) gave the revelation to Jesus to show to his servants. But he also adds that Jesus made it known by sending it through his angel to his servant John who then bore witness to the church. So, it comes from God to Jesus to an angel to John to the church.
What’s so significant about that? Well, it does remind us of other places in Scripture where God gave his word by way of angels. Acts 7:53 and Galatians 3:19 tell us that God delivered the Law-covenant through angels—Moses was key, but angels helped. Also, both Daniel and Zechariah have visions where an angel then comes and interprets for them what they’re seeing. The same with John in Revelation. John stands in the line of God’s authorized prophets, who received God’s word in visions and was helped to understand those visions by angels.
But John is also doing something more. Have you ever watched a movie that begins with a snapshot of something that’ll take place later, then it rewinds and starts from some point earlier in the narrative? That’s what John does here. Chapter 4 is the scene with God enthroned holding a sealed scroll. In chapter 5, Jesus receives that scroll from the Father. Chapters 6-8 are then the breaking of those seals, so as to disclose the contents of the scroll. In chapter 10, we then find a mighty angel descending from heaven with an opened scroll in his hand. That same angel then gives it to John that he may eat it and then speak it to others. In a sentence, here, John has just summarized how the book will unfold—it unfolds just as the revelation came to him.
Something else about how it came. Verse 1 says God gave it to Jesus “to show his servants.” The same language appears in Ezekiel—like when God shows him the cherubim and his glorious throne-chariot departing the city. We find it in Zechariah when the Lord shows him the four sets of horsemen or the four craftsmen. It’s the language of prophetic vision. That continues with the next word as well. It says that Jesus “made it known.” That language appears in Daniel 2:23 when the Lord makes known to Daniel the meaning of the symbols in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.
Likewise, the contents of Revelation are the stuff of prophetic vision. It’s highly symbolic. The images and signs represent certain realities familiar to John’s readers. To be clear, John isn’t writing in code—as if he sees one thing but symbolizes it with something else. No, he’s writing exactly what he sees, but in those images are realities that either John or the rest of Scripture help us understand.
Often Revelation tells you exactly what the images represent. For example, we’re told in 1:20 that the seven lampstands are the seven churches. In 5:8 the golden bowls of incense are the prayers of the saints. The fine linen of the saints are their righteous deeds in 19:8. The book itself tells you what the symbols represent.
And where it doesn’t, those symbols can often be discerned from where they appear elsewhere in the Old Testament. The Old Testament context helps you understand the symbols. If, for example, a beast in Daniel 7 stands for a rebellious kingdom, an evil political power, that helps us understand the Beast in Revelation. Or, if the Psalms associate a ruler or king with the powerful horn of an ox, that helps us understand how John uses horns in Revelation to represent rulers. So, Revelation itself and the Old Testament are your best helps in discerning the realities that the visions stand for.
What’s it about?
Third question: What’s it about? Verse 1 says that God gave it to Jesus “to show his servants what must soon take place.” I just mentioned Daniel 2—the Lord making known to Daniel the meaning of the images in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. The words, “what must soon take place”—those appear in Daniel 2 as well, and they help us understand what Revelation is about. So, let’s go there, Daniel 2.
The context of Daniel 2 is this. King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream. He wants it interpreted, but none of his magicians can figure it out. But Daniel seeks mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery. And it says in Daniel 2:19 that the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night. God revealed to Daniel “deep and hidden things,” verse 22 adds. So, Daniel goes to the king. The king asks whether Daniel has the dream and its interpretation. And verses 28-29 record Daniel saying this: “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days…” That’s our allusion. The Greek translation of Daniel has “what must take place in the latter days.”
Glancing back at Revelation, you’re probably noticing the shift. Daniel says, “what must take place in the latter days.” John says, “what must take place soon.” There’s a reason for that. The latter days were far away for Daniel. But for John they were taking place “soon.” They were taking place “soon,” not in the sense that he thought they’d all happen tomorrow. But in the sense that Jesus’ first coming had set in motion those latter days. In light of the Christ event, the latter days are upon us.
What is it, though, that must soon take place? Well, if we keep reading Daniel 2, we learn both the dream and its interpretation. Verse 32, there was a great image: “The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”
That was the dream. It’s shrouded in mystery. But God is one who reveals mysteries. He tells Daniel what it means. The different parts of this image represent various kingdoms, one of them being Nebuchadnezzar’s own kingdom. One kingdom ends up conquering another; and then that one gets overthrown by another…until God sets up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed. In the latter days, God’s kingdom will shatter all these rebel kingdoms and bring them to an end, until only the Lord’s kingdom stands forever. God’s kingdom will rise like a great mountain and cover the whole earth.
By alluding to Daniel 2, John is telling us that in the person and work of Jesus, God’s mountain is rising. That’s what must soon take place. That’s what this book is about. It’s about God’s work in Jesus Christ to replace all rebel kingdoms with his own kingdom that will cover the earth and last forever. That doesn’t mean the message of Revelation sticks only to the distant future. There’s a progression of end-time events included within the “soon.” Within Revelation those events include the current situation (e.g., John’s vision, the tribulation, the state of the seven churches), the near future (e.g., persecution and martyrdom, gospel proclamation), and the more distant future (e.g., Jesus’ return and the new heavens and earth). Together this progression of historical events related to Jesus are bound up with the “latter days,” in which God has purposed to replace all rebel kingdoms with his own.
What’s the goal?
Final question: What’s the goal? Look at verse 3: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy…” Revelation was written as a circular letter, so it makes sense that it would be read in the churches. “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.” In other words, the stated goal is not mere foresight into God’s unfolding plan; it’s to awaken obedience in God’s people and to assure divine blessing on those who act accordingly until God’s plans are complete.
Revelation has an ethical goal—fidelity to Jesus until the end. Hearing has to do with your spiritual attentiveness to the words spoken. You hear them for what they really are—the words of God—and then follow them. Hearing and obeying were so interchangeable in the Old Testament, that not to obey means you didn’t actually hear. “Keeping” is the other word. It has to do with observing the ethical demands placed on Christians and following through. Those largely involve resisting the rebel kingdoms’ idolatry and persevering in allegiance to Jesus in thought, word, and deed.
Faithfulness to Jesus is also urgent, “for the time is near,” John says. What time? The time of Christ’s kingdom breaking into the present. If the mountain of God’s kingdom is going up, your participation in any rebel kingdom must stop. All of us alike must turn and give total allegiance to Jesus.
For those persevering this way, God offers his blessing. This is the first of seven beatitudes in Revelation. By reading the others, we come to understand the blessing in view. In 14:13, those who die in the Lord find rest in Jesus’ presence. In 19:9, the faithful ones get to share in the marriage supper of the Lamb. In 20:6, it’s a share in the first resurrection and escape from the second death. In 22:14, it’s the divine right to the tree of life, entrance into the New Jerusalem. So, the blessing of verse 3 includes all that’s bound up with receiving God’s reward in the kingdom.
But I think we can say even more. In addition to the future reward for endurance is the present reward of seeing Jesus’ glory in the revelation itself. You are blessed when you read this book, because in it you see the glory of what Jesus’ sufferings purchased for countless multitudes, you see the glory of his presence as he walks among the churches, you see the glory of his victory already over the Dragon, you see the glory of his sheltering presence for the martyrs already before his throne. And when you see that glory, it blesses you. It gives you courage to endure to the end, too.
A Few Takeaways
Okay, we’ve answered our four questions. Let’s discuss a few ways these answers should affect us going home. To begin, saturate yourself with the Old Testament. Read the Law. Learn its narrative shape. Pay attention to its events and the various metaphors used to describe those events. Notice the descriptions of the tabernacle and see how that relates to some of John’s heavenly visions. Notice how the number seven pops up. Notice the plagues on Egypt and whether the plagues in Revelation sound similar and then determine why. Then learn how the Prophets refer back to the Law, sometimes using imagery from the past to describe the future.
Also, give special attention to those books which share much in common with the symbolic world of Revelation. Let me give you a few reading assignments. Start with Ezekiel, Daniel, Joel, and Zechariah—Bryan can point you to some good commentaries on those books; you can even re-listen to the sermon series on Zechariah or Joel from the church website. The goal is to steep yourself in the language of prophetic vision and recognize how it works. That will equip you to understand Revelation. Many of us don’t get Revelation because we haven’t yet saturated our minds with the Old Testament.
Something else to take home is this: obey the revelation. We saw from verse 3 the need for hearing and keeping this prophecy. In Scripture, prophecy includes prediction. But we can’t reduce prophecy to prediction. Prophecy also includes insight to the readers’ own circumstances and how they ought to respond in them. Some views of Revelation push so much of the book into the future—usually from chapter 4 onwards—that it doesn’t have much to say to the church now. But that’s not how prophecy works. Prophecy regularly addresses the community where they are. It critiques political idolatry, it unmasks false ideologies, it exposes the dangers of compromising truth, it calls people to repentance and deeper faithfulness in the here and now.
In other words, Revelation isn’t written to tickle your curiosity about the future. It’s not there for you to amaze others with prophecy charts. Revelation exists to help a suffering church remain faithful to Jesus in a very deceptive, worldwide assault by the Dragon and his Beast-like minions. It’s very sad when Christians shy from Revelation because they’re less familiar with it. But it’s also very sad when Christians, fascinated with Revelation, can fill up a whiteboard with end-time events, and yet never speak to their neighbor about Jesus, rarely serve their local church, hardly contribute to the needs of the saints. I’m not saying working it out on the whiteboard is wrong. I’m saying that prophecy, by its very nature, demands an obedient response.
The real mark of those who understand this book is that they keep the words written it. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes, and in his footsteps, they bear public witness to his name in the face of suffering and death. Listen to these words by Brian Tabb, from his book All Things New: “Revelation is not a riddle to be decoded by experts or marginalized by those in the pews. It is a book…of Christian Scripture meant to decode our reality, capture our imaginations and master our lives with the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”[i] Start praying now, that the message of Revelation would master our lives. Pray the Lord would use these messages to decode our reality and to further align our hearts with the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Here’s something else to pray for: pray for an ear to hear. Again, hearing has to do with spiritual attentiveness to the words of God. Several things can hinder that attentiveness, though. For instance, in John 8:47, the reason the Jews couldn’t hear Jesus’ words is that they weren’t born of God. Without the new birth, it’s impossible to hear God’s word the way it’s meant to be heard. Also, in John 5:38-44, the reason the people can’t hear Jesus’ words is that they loved the praise of man. Man-fear can hinder us from hearing as we ought. Then, not too long ago, we learned from Hebrews 3 that a heart hardened by sin will also hinder us from hearing God’s word.
So, what opens the ear to hear God’s word is the Spirit, humility, and new desires to follow Jesus instead of doing our own thing. As we enter this series, then, pray for the Lord to change our hearts so they’re not stubborn. Pray that we concern ourselves with the Lord’s glory and not our own. And pray that we keep ourselves from sin and its deceptive ways of persuading us not to listen to God’s word.
Finally, take heart that Christ’s kingdom is rising. Some of you are walking faithfully with Jesus. But that faithfulness has also meant choosing to love a very difficult, uncaring person. Faithfulness has meant choosing to love in relationships where that love isn’t reciprocated. Following in Jesus’ footsteps has meant walking a road where the closest of friends has abandoned you.
Or perhaps you labored hard for years to see others come to Christ, but evil leaders have made it impossible for you to continue that work in the same country. Maybe the Lord has given you eyes to see the craftiness of Satan’s influence in our culture—perhaps how the church has even compromised with the enemy at times—and you’re grieving. You hate how the enemy steals, kills, and destroys—so, faithfully, you speak into situations but it’s like nobody listens. Maybe your heart breaks for the next generation; and, seeing what they’re up against culturally, you wonder what hope they have. Maybe you’re just hurting over the brokenness of this world—like a man I met this week in Sprouts, weeping over all the sadness in the world.
Revelation doesn’t ignore any of this darkness. If anything, its earthly visions bring us face to face with that darkness, suffering, evil, and death. Even more, it exposes it for what it really is and how it fits within the Beast’s plot to overthrow the saints. But then it pulls back the curtain to help you see the one truly in control, to help you see the Lord Jesus ruling history, to help you see that evil is limited, and that the evil will end. More than that, Christ’s victory at the cross and in resurrection assure us that Christ’s kingdom is rising. The stone of his kingdom will not only shatter the darkness but replace it with a kingdom that floods the earth in glory. With Jesus on the throne, there’s always hope. Take courage, dear ones. We have the revelation of Jesus Christ.
[i] Brian Tabb, All Things New: Revelation as Canonical Capstone (Downers Grove: IVP, 2019), 2.
other sermons in this series