How do you go about writing an introduction to one of the most mystifying books in the Bible? In this book we have the culmination of all of God’s purposes for this world portrayed in an awesome, heavenly spectacle before the spiritual eyes of the Apostle John. Yet it begins with a direct, clear address to ‘the seven churches’ of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea (Rev. 1:11) all of which are in modern-day Turkey. Why these particular churches were singled out is not explained and is perhaps not the important question. Although specific problems and plus-points are noted with respect to each of the churches to which they are addressed, it is also clear that these seven letters are intended for all Christians to take on board. Each church will share characteristics of those seven and should take note of what ‘the Spirit says to the churches’ (Rev. 2: 7, 11, 17, 29).
From receiving letters for encouraging and correcting the Church, the door of heaven is opened for John to see inside to the plans and purposes of God revealed in the midst of his throne room. Elders, living creatures and angels populate this mysterious realm all of which express the awesomeness of God (Rev.4:11). Yet there is a familiar face amongst them- glorious though it is in its heavenly appearance- the ‘Lion of the tribe of Judah,’ the ‘root of David,’ the ‘Lamb’: all of these titles referring to the glorified Jesus whom John had encountered by the Sea of Galilee, travelled with for three years, seen crucified and with whom he’d then been amazingly reunited after Jesus’ resurrection (Rev. 5: 9-12).
The following visions of seals being opened (Rev. 7-8:1), trumpets blown (Rev. 8:7-11:15) and plagues unleashed (Rev. 15:1- 16:21) are a terrifying spectacle of destruction and judgement coming upon the world that has rejected God and his people. The pregnant woman crowned with twelve stars (Rev. 12:1), the Dragon (Rev.12:4), the Beast (Rev. 13: 1) and the drunk woman (Rev. 17:5) along with the various acts of judgement have been interpreted in different ways over the years. Edgar F. Parkyns suggests they should be understood in the light of Church History in His Waiting Bride (1996) while I come from a Church tradition that saw Revelation in terms of events all of which were yet to come. It’s even been quoted in recent cinema in the context of a secret, political order under the evil influence of Lord Blackwood. More seriously, people have tried to pin down the symbolism of these things to specific events happening around us and to identify the Beast. There has equally been a great deal of debate over the Thousand Years (Rev. 20) and whether this refers to a literal, physical thousand years peace when Christ rules on earth but this is all really missing the point. These heavenly visions are symbolic e.g. Jesus ascended as a man and will return as a man not a literal lamb but we should be less concerned with nailing down the precise meaning of the visions which are not given to us than grabbed by the wonder of God’s power and purposes as was John. There is also much that is very clear.
Running throughout the Book of Revelation and interspersing the mysterious imagery is the theme of encouragement and hope in adversity. John himself received this vision in the context of being persecuted for the sake of his faith in Christ as the Word of God (Rev. 1:9). This is its ultimate purpose, not as a step by step guide to the End of the World. Jesus never intended to give us that (Cf. Matthew 24:36-41). However, what is clear is that there are tough times for the Church ahead yet God is tougher and all his purposes- which are for his glory in fulfilling his promises for the good of his people- will ultimately be fulfilled. Just as he was there in the Beginning (Genesis 1:1) so he is there at the end. Indeed, he is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega (Rev.1:8) and is coming back quickly (Rev. 22:12). He is as faithful and true as his word (Rev. 22:6) so let us be faithful and endure and be ready for his return. There is hope.