Studies in Revelation (Summer 2009)

For suggestions for useful commentaries on Revelation, see bottom of page.

For background notes to each reading, see here

Session 1 – Revelation 1:1-8

Of all the books of the Bible, the book of Revelation is one that perhaps presents the greatest difficulties. It is full of obscure images and strange creatures. It has the strongest and most terrifying pictures of hell and damnation. And it has been a source of controversy amongst Christians for many centuries. Is it a codebook with secrets about the end of time? Is it a work aimed to encourage persecuted believers in any age? Or is it simply a letter to churches in first century Asia Minor with no real significance today?

Some important clues come from the opening 3 verses of the letter …

Verse 1. This book is designed be a revelation (or if you prefer the Greek, apocalypse). The aim of the letter was never to befuddle or to puzzle the uninitiated. So it is a book which has a meaning, even if that meaning is less clear to us today as to those who first heard the letter read out in their churches. And it is a revelation, not simply from the apostle John, or indeed any other human author. It is the revelation of Jesus Christ given from God the Father through Jesus and through His angel to John the Apostle. And inasmuch as this is a book about Jesus, who is our Lord and Saviour, this is a book for us. We’ll be thinking more over the coming weeks about the events which must soon take place and what that might mean but we must not lose sight of the fact this book is designed to help us know the plans and purposes of Jesus better.

Verse 2. Secondly, this is a revelation which John saw. Revelation is a highly visual book, and it is as much designed to engage our imagination as our cognitive faculties. This does not mean however there is no control over the images John uses. Many of the pictures he paints in words are drawn from the Old Testament and we will need to understand some of these references if we too are to correctly interpret what he is saying. And alongside the Biblical material he uses a lot of symbolism familiar to his audience but less accessible today. For example, the use of the number 7 in this passage – the seven churches in Asia, the sevenfold Spirit – is highly deliberate. Seven is the number of perfection, of completeness, so the sevenfold Spirit (or the seven spirits, depending on your translation) is in fact none other than the Holy Spirit Himself.

Verse 3. Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. Reading the book of Revelation is not meant to be a spectator sport, for those who have the leisure to puzzle out what it means. Like any prophecy, it is meant to produce a response in those who have ears to hear, and eyes to see. Once we grasp what Revelation is all about we need to heed its message and take urgent action. That is why sprinkled through this book there are seven occasions where John uses the word “blessed” (see also 14:13, 16:15, 19:9, 22:7,14), and as we saw just now, the number seven is in itself highly significant. To put it simply, these seven beatitudes form a perfect response to what John is saying.

Read verses 1:4-8

  • How does John’s description of God the Father in verses 4 and 8 serve as an encouragement to Christians whose faith is under pressure?
  • Following on from this, why does John describe Jesus in verse 5 in the way that He does?
  • How does the world tend to view the church? How according to verse 6 should we think of ourselves?

Verse 7 contains references to one of the those Old Testament passages which inform so much of John’s writing. Turn to Daniel 7:1-14 and think about the following questions:

  • How does Daniel describe the various empires and their leaders?
  • Why is God described in the way that He does?
  • In what ways does this passage point forward to Jesus? Does it refer to His first or second coming? (You will find plenty more references to Daniel 7 in the weeks to come.)
  • Why is that the people of the earth will mourn?

Spend some time reflecting on all that you have learnt from this passage, and consider what it means for you to be a faithful witness to Christ in your own daily situation.

Session 2 – Revelation 1:9-20

Have you ever had to write a letter for someone else? Maybe a letter you had to write in the boss’ name, or a thank you note on a behalf of a child, or a piece of correspondence for a frail relative. Whatever the circumstances, it’s always tricky making sure we adopt the right tone and write in the style the person himself would have used. We have to remember, for example, that a child will only use short, simple sentences, or that the boss will tend to use formal, business-like speech. And if we don’t know the child particularly well, or have only just started working for the boss, then the task gets all the harder. Everybody has their own particular way of using words, and if we don’t know someone’s quirky habits, then it becomes pretty obvious this letter was not written first-hand.

Imagine then the task that John faced in writing down the revelation he saw. As we noticed last time, he was only the human agent for a revelation from God about Jesus Christ delivered by an angel (Revelation 1:1). So how could he adequately convey the message that he could be given? And just as importantly, how could he write in such a way that the seven churches to which he was writing would recognise this was the voice of the Lord?

There are several answers to these questions. First of all, John makes it plain that He was in the Spirit (Rev 1:10) and so he wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Secondly the revelation he was given tied in with what John and the churches already knew of the Lord, through books like Ezekiel and Daniel. Thirdly, John himself had been walking for many years with the Lord, and had himself a living knowledge of His character and purposes.

So in this session we are going to look at the similarities between this passage and the visions of Ezekiel and Daniel, and then consider what relevance this letter might have to us today.

  • Read Ezekiel 1:1-4, 1:22 – 2:4. What was the situation Ezekiel and the people of God were facing? How would Ezekiel’s vision addressed this situation?
  • We looked last time at Daniel 7:9-14 (but there’s no harm looking at it again!). What was the situation Daniel and the people of God were facing? (see Daniel 1:1-2, 7:1). How would Daniel’s vision have addressed this situation?
  • What were the circumstances which John and the churches were facing?
  • How would John’s vision of Jesus in Revelation 1:12-18 provided both an encouragement and a warning to the churches to which he was writing?
  • How does Revelation 1:19 help us to understand the book of Revelation? Should we expect it to speak to us in our circumstances today?

In the course of the seven letters, John picks up one aspect of the vision of Jesus as he addresses each church. (See here or download here). Although his vision is very other-worldly, and although his description seems very general, actually it is of direct practical consequence to the everyday life of the seven churches. Spend some time thinking how this vision of Jesus should impact on the life of our two churches today.

Session 3 – Revelation 4-5

Worship. It’s something we as Christians all experience and talk about. We know there is such a thing as good worship. We know there is such a thing as bad worship. We know what act of worship is, and those of us who have married may even have promised to worship our beloved. But what exactly is worship? How do we define what worship is? As we move into a new section of Revelation in this session, let’s spend some time brainstorming how we understand the whole concept of worship.

OK, now we have drawn out what we understand worship to be, let’s read Revelation 4 and see how what we have discussed compares with what we find in this chapter. Instead of following the text, you might like to close your eyes and (without falling asleep!) try to imagine what John saw and experienced.

  • How do you respond to this vision of heaven?
  • What does this passage teach us about worship?
  • What does it mean to call the Lord God Almighty ‘holy’?

John here has been granted unprecedented access into the Holy of Holies. Like the proverbial fly on the wall this passage offers us a unique insight into the realities of heaven. And one day as believers we will be part of this worship in heaven. But in the meantime the history of this earth has to be played out, and that presents a problem, as chapter 5 makes clear….

  • What is this scroll? Why can no-one else open it?
  • Read verses 5-6 again. Why is Jesus described in this way?
  • The spoken worship of chapter 4 is supplemented by the exuberant singing of chapter 5. What lessons for our lives here on earth can we learn from this heavenly worship?
  • How does it affect your daily life that Jesus to receive all the things listed in verse 12?

(See here for additional notes to Chapters 4-5)

Session 4 – Revelation 6

Here is the news. There are reports of massive troop movements in Asia. A new survey shows shocking levels of violence in our cities. We report exclusively on the growing gap between rich and poor. Analysts reckon a fourth of the world’s population are going hungry. Christians are facing increased persecution in the Middle-East. And now for the weather… increasing storms, with violent winds and possible structural damage. Thank you for listening. Good night.

How do we as Christians respond to such a bulletin? (Other than turning the radio off!)

If the events of the world are an issue for us, then we need to remember they have an issue for Christians from earliest times. And the book of Revelation is an attempt to answer them. John uses several sequences of images to lift the veil of human history and show what’s really going on. So we have:

* Chapters 6:1-8:5 The seven seals

* Chapters 8:6-11:19 The seven trumpets

* Chapters 15-16 The seven last plagues

As we discussed in our opening session, none of the events John describes are meant to be pinned down to one particular historical event. Nor do the plagues follow in logical order on from the trumpets and the seal. John is writing to reveal the ultimate realities beyond the chaos and confusion of this present existence, and to give believers hope that one day the Lord’s plans will come to absolute perfection. So the aim of our study is not to produce a timeline where everything falls into place, but to show us the way God works and how we as Christians can persevere in the most difficult of times.

With all that in mind, read Revelation 6 and then before answering any questions, think about your reactions to what we’ve just heard.

  • If the opening of the first seal reminds us that all power and authority is given by God, why do those with power and authority so often seem to forget that fact?
  • If war, poverty and injustice are part of human history, then what should motivate us as Christians to campaign for change?
  • How should the opening of the fifth seal encourage believers faced with extreme persecution?
  • What is your understanding of the wrath of God?
  • How would you answer the question of verse 17?

(See here for additional notes to Chapter 6)

Session 5 – Revelation 7:1 – 8:5

Have you ever worshipped in a really large gathering? Can you remember what was the occasion? How did you react to the worship? Spend some time talking about the services you have attended – what was good about them, what was not so good.

And then turn to our reading from Revelation today – Revelation 7:1-8:5 which is all about a huge worship gathering, in fact one so huge it is larger than anything ever known on earth. It is the worship gathering in heaven, which one day we as believers will all take part in. There will no problems in getting a good view, or being able to hear, or the microphones not working. We all will be able to participate perfectly, and the style of worship will be one that everyone will be able to enjoy! The reason for this is – as we have seen in Revelation 4-5 – that our worship will be centred on the throne of God.

But this of course leaves the question – who will take part in the worship? Will it be a hand-picked congregation like the one selected for Songs Praise? Will it be those who have managed to buy a ticket? On what basis exactly will you and I be admitted? This is the question our passage today seeks to answer.

Read Revelation 7:1-8:5

  • What is the importance of the seal of the living God?
  • What do we make of the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel?
  • We have already come across the white robes of the saints in 6:11. From verses 9 and 14 explain why this image is so important for us as Christians.
  • How can Jesus be both the Lamb and the shepherd?

Read Revelation 8:1

  • What role does silence play in your understanding of worship?
  • How should this vision of heaven encourage us to pray?

(See here for additional notes to Chapters 7-8)

Session Six – Revelation 18

There is a BBC advert which runs through some of the great events of recent history and shows what people were doing when, for example, JFK was shot dead, or Nelson Mandela was released from jail. It’s making the point, of course, that, whatever happened, or whenever it happened, the BBC was there. And it got me thinking about memorable events in world history that we particularly remember. Have you got particular memories of a piece of news? Can you say what you were doing when you heard it and how you reacted?

Today we have moved forward towards the end of Revelation to chapter 18 which describes the fall of “Babylon”. By the time John was writing Babylon itself was fast disappearing into the sands of the Iraqi desert, but he was using the name as a codeword for Rome, the decadent and wealthy superpower of the day, and his vision of the fall of Rome was meant to be an encouraged for the persecuted and suffering Christians to which he was writing. However his words here are more than of simple historical interest. They look forward to the final overthrow of regimes and governments that oppose God’s will, and they ask the question of believers: where will you be when that happens?

Read Revelation 18.

  • What was so attractive about the lifestyle of Babylon?
  • What was its dark underside?
  • How far should we positively affirm the culture and lifestyle of our nation?
  • Read verse 5. How do we as Christians avoid sharing in the sins of society around us?
  • Read verses 19 and 20. Why are there two such different reactions to the fall of Babylon?
  • Is it right to rejoice at the destruction of others?

(See here for additional notes to Chapter 18)

Session Seven – Revelation 19

What does the season of Advent mean to you? Is it simply a time to get everything ready for Christmas? Or an excuse to open the door of a calendar each day and enjoy the goodies we find inside? Is it a time to bring out the traditional carols we all love each year or start warming up the mince pies? Or there is some deeper meaning and purpose behind the season? Spend some time discussing what Advent means to you.

Advent, I believe, is a church season whose meaning and purpose in grave danger of being lost behind the ever increasing commercialisation of Christmas. Maybe this is because we prefer to concentrate on the beauty and charm of a baby born in a manger rather than on the fact of his second coming. Maybe it’s safer to think about Jesus as Emmanuel and Saviour than as Judge and King. But if we ignore Advent, if we downplay its importance, then the danger is that ultimately we fail to put our faith and our lives in their proper perspective, and we lose sight of what exactly we are looking forward to.

And so it is with Advent in mind that we are coming to the closing chapters of Revelation. Not easy chapters, and ones that perhaps with good reason we tend to ignore (except for the nice bits about heaven!). But important ones nonetheless that remind us just who Jesus is and what one day He will do. I said right at the beginning of our studies, the purpose of Revelation is not to confuse or obscure our faith, but to reveal the will of God, and even if we may find some of the details difficult or distasteful we need to understand both the importance and the urgency of John’s overall message.

Read Revelation 19.

  • How would you answer the charge that John’s understanding of God is completely different from the one Jesus presents in the gospels?
  • Read verses 6-8. What practical difference should it make that we have been invited to the “wedding supper of the Lamb”?
  • Read verses 13-15. Why does John describe Jesus here as the Word of God?
  • Why is such gruesome punishment meted out on the people mentioned in verse18?
  • Who are the beast and the false prophet? (You will need to look at Revelation 13 to fully answer this question)

(See here for additional notes to Chapter 19)

Session Eight – Revelation 20

Imagine for a moment there’s a famous evangelist speaking this Sunday. You’ve heard he has brought many people to the Lord in other parts of the country. You know he’s famous for the power and eloquence of his speaking, and as you arrive at the church, possibly with a few guests, you are eagerly looking forward to what he is about to say. What will his message be tonight? Will he talk about love? Will he preach on the unconditional acceptance of the Father? Will he focus on the wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit? You sit down, full of anticipation of when the great man will begin to speak. But to your surprise he talks about none of these things. He begins to talk about hell and judgement, about the wrath and the power of an angry God. Let’s listen to a short excerpt from his sermon and then talk about your reaction.

God has laid himself under no obligation, by any promise to keep any natural man out of hell one moment. God certainly has made no promises either of eternal life, or of any deliverance or preservation from eternal death, but what are contained in the covenant of grace, the promises that are given in Christ, in whom all the promises are yea and amen. But surely they have no interest in the promises of the covenant of grace who are not the children of the covenant, who do not believe in any of the promises, and have no interest in the Mediator of the covenant.

So that, whatever some have imagined and pretended about promises made to natural men’s earnest seeking and knocking, it is plain and manifest, that whatever pains a natural man takes in religion, whatever prayers he makes, till he believes in Christ, God is under no manner of obligation to keep him a moment from eternal destruction.

So that, thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger, neither is God in the least bound by any promise to hold them up one moment; the devil is waiting for them, hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash about them, and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up; the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out: and they have no interest in any Mediator, there are no means within reach that can be any security to them. In short, they have no refuge, nothing to take hold of; all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance of an incensed God.

This was part of the famous sermon Jonathan Edwards preached on 8 July 1741 at Enfield, Connecticut which was instrumental in the New England revival at the time. It is interesting to note that although this is the sermon Jonathan Edwards is best remembered for, it is apparently not typical of his style. The historian George Marsden wrote: “Edwards could take for granted…that a New England audience knew well the Gospel remedy. The problem was getting them to seek it.”

And maybe this explains some of the reason why Revelation 20 presents hell and judgement in such graphic terms. If we go back and look at the 7 churches to which John was writing, several of them needed to repent and rediscover their first love. Others needed to be rid of the false teaching that had infiltrated their congregations. Revelation is not written primarily to unbelievers, but to believers who needed to wake up and realise the importance and the necessity of their salvation.

So with all that in mind, read Revelation 20, as we consider how we can apply this chapter to the life of our church today…

  • Look at Rev 20:1-3. In what ways can we say that Satan has been restrained?
  • Look at Rev 20:3-6. How are we to understand John’s reference to the first resurrection?
  • How does Rev 20:7-10 give us confidence for the future of the church?
  • How are the dead judged according to Rev 20:11-15?
  • What place should hell have in our gospel message?

(See here for additional notes to Chapter 20)

Session Nine – Revelation 21, 22 – Meditation

Listen to a recording of these two chapters, or read it aloud … what is it about God that leads you to worship?

You might like to listen to this setting of part of the reading … click on the underlined link.

If you have any questions about the book of Revelation you may find these commentaries useful … click on the picture to open a link to Amazon.co.uk

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