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Today we are starting a new series that I am excited for: Revelation: Rooted in Tribulations. This will actually bring this year to a close, which will mean that in the course of this year, we have walked through all of history, starting in Ephesians 1, before the foundation of the earth, moving from creation to Christ as we surveyed the Old Testament, then in Acts, Ephesians and Philippians we learned of God’s mission for this age, the church’s place that mission, and the joy of partnering in that mission. Now we move to the last book of the New Testament, the one most associated with the end and the return of Christ which will mark the end of history.
A little more orientation before we begin: In Acts 14 we have as you know our clearest exposition of what we call “the Pauline Cycle.” In verse 21, you see them preaching the gospel and making disciples in a town called Derbe. In 22, the established the souls of the disciples, encouraging them in the faith. And in verse 23, they entrust these new churches to faithful men who will carry on the establishing process as they leave to plant new churches. We have taken this cycle as a description of our core work as a church and in fact it is becoming the basis for everything we do here at OCBC and has been the structural framework through this entire Rooted series we’ve been doing.
But I want you to notice one thing in particular this morning. As Paul returned to the churches, strengthening the souls of the disciples, notice what he taught them: through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. That is why he needed to encourage them to continue in the faith, because they were facing tribulations, and would face tribulations, and it would be through many tribulations that we enter the kingdom of God. This was part of the instruction that was laid down in churches by the apostles, and I think it is very necessary to keep this teaching in mind as we come to the book of Revelation. Revelation is a difficult book to read, but I think the main reason why it is hard to understand is because we have approached it from a Western mindset in which the church occupies a privileged station in our society, rather than what has been more normal around the globe and in the early church in which the church and culture relationship is not one of privilege but conflict. As the church in Canada and USA rapidly loses its position of privilege, I believe we will need to rediscover the message of Revelation and it will become a powerful guide to lead us in uncertain times.
1) Revelation is Directed To Us, That We Might Read, Obey, and Be Blessed
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, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 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.
Notice that the message of revelation is directed toward us, Jesus’ servants. The angel and John were merely intermediaries through whom God conveyed his message. This is a letter from God to you, yet how neglected it sometimes is because we perceive it to be difficult to understand. Yet it is also the only book in the Bible with an explicit blessing attached for any one who reads it, specifically for those who hear and obey what is written.
For this is the function of prophecy. We often confuse the function of the two aspects of Biblical prophecy. Although prophecy does include a fore-telling element, it only shares what is necessary to draw us to God. As George Beasley-Murray points out, “Prophecy never has the purpose of satisfying the curiosity of men about the future. It is given always to call forth repentance, and faith, and obedience in living.” This is sometimes referred to as the forth-telling element of prophecy, God speaking forth into our hearts to convict is of sin, or encourage us toward faith. So when we read the book of revelation, it is safe to assume that God is not most interesting in satisfying all of our curiosity about the future, or that we can have all the details filled in our wall charts, but that we hear his message for us today, so that it changes our hearts and inspires us to godliness.
However, we also understand that there is a future element to this book. The revelation is given to show his servants what must soon take place … for the time is near. The question that many people have asked is, “How soon?” which has led to quite a bit of controversy in interpretation. The Preterist View says, “quite soon” believing that nearly the entirety of the book of Revelation deals with issues before the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. There are three major things going for this view: (1) It seems that Jesus, the apostles, and the early church all spoke of the end as very near (within a generation or two). So that guy with a cardboard sign would read, “The end* is NEAR” with emphasis on the NEAR. (2) It takes Israel’s role in prophecy very seriously, as the end* in this view is the end of the nation of Israel. (3) The book would have been extremely relevant to the early church. However, this view also has severe deficiencies: (1) Most scholars view revelation as written after the fall of Jerusalem. (2) The book seems to portray universal judgment on a scale much larger than the fall of a city. (3) If the book was entirely fulfilled in the first century, very little significance remains for us today. The Futurist view places the emphasis on “the END is near*” with an asterisk over the word near, which they take to mean (*about 2000 years). In this view, almost all of Revelation (Chapter 4 onward) is still yet to come. The strengths of this view are that: (1) it takes seriously the universality of judgment, which appears to be the prominent theme in the book, (2) It seeks a clear, literal understanding of Revelation, while allowing for obvious symbolism, (3) It neatly ties up the grand story of revelation; what began in Genesis finds its conclusion here. Two major weaknesses are: (1) that it seems to limit most of the application to a future time; it inspires us more toward making wall charts than unto godliness, (2) in its noble attempt to interpret the Bible literally, it stretches the meaning of the words “soon” and “near”. The Idealist View seems to offer the best solution to the problem of relevance by suggesting that the book of revelation is not specifically about events in the past or the future, but about the battle between good and evil that plays itself out in every generation, within which we are called to remain faithful. In this sense, the book of revelation would have been application during the fall of Jerusalem, just as much as it would today, as well as at the end of history. This view interprets most of the book of revelation symbolically. There sign might read, “The end* is (always) near*” noting that both the words “end” and “near” are to be taken symbolically.
How should we read Revelation? Because the prologue promises a blessing to all who read it, we should be careful of holding to tightly to any position which places us at a distance from the relevance of the book, either by assigning it wholly to the past or to the future. Perhaps a hint of how to interpret it is given in another writing of John’s, his first epistle. In chapter 4 verse 3 of that letter, he warns us of false prophets who speak in the spirit of the antichrist, “which you have heard was coming and is now in the world already.” The spirit of the antichrist is coming and is now already here. This would suggest that although the ultimate consummation of biblical prophecy is yet future, the church faces what might be called analogous prophetic events at every point in its history, such as the fall of Jerusalem, the struggle of the Reformation, the persecution of our brothers and sisters in the world, the temptation to fuse the church with the state, and the final coming tribulation all at once. Thus revelation speaks to us now in our situations and gives us details about the final judgment and deliverance.
2) It’s helpful to observe the images of revelation with a big-picture view
We need not be intimidated by the imagery in the book of revelation. Although we will not be able to grasp the full significance of the language and imagery employed throughout Revelation, as its initial audience would have been, that should not discourage us from reading and studying the book. In learning to read, one of the key strategies of reading comprehension is to not allow yourself to focus on one or two obscure words, but to read quickly to get the big picture first. You will actually comprehend more by focusing less on each individual word. In reading revelation, the same principle applies. Focusing on the obscure images may lead you to miss the clear message. Irving Jensen gives some helpful advice in suggesting that the reader first pay attention to the clear commands and exhortations found in the book, before moving on to clear movements and events, before getting entangled in the less clear material.
3) The letters to the seven churches call us all to remain steadfast.
In that respect, by far the clearest and least controversial section of the book of Revelation is the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor in chapters 2 and 3. We are used to reading letters, and its nice that revelation starts our clear for us! While it is definitely worthwhile to study these churches individually, in surveying them as a whole a clear message rings out. Notice that though these letters were sent to a particular church, they are written to us, as every letter contains the phrase, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Reading the letters together, a few things stand out:
1) Jesus is very concerned for his churches: The body of every letter begins with the words of Jesus, “I know”.
“‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary.
“‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
“‘I know where you dwell, where Satan's throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.
“‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.
“‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.
“‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!
I know your works. I know your tribulation. I know your endurance. I know your love and faith and service. I know that you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead. I know that you are weak. I know that you are neither cold nor hot. Jesus is the master diagnostician. He is here with us, in our church. And he can put his finger exactly on the pulse of our church and know the state of our fellowship. The scariest thing for me? Many commentators believe that the letters were actually addressed to the pastor.
2) There are Warnings and Encouragements:
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.
But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.
But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality . . . But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come.
Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.
Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you. Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.
So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.
3) The Message to us is to Overcome All Tribulation through repentance, obedience and faith:
To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’
The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’
To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’
The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. And I will give him the morning star.
The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.
The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.
The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.