Background to Revelation, and the letters to the seven churches

Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation

Ezekiel had been taken into exile to Babylon in 597BC along with the most able people of Judah (1:1). Jerusalem meanwhile still existed as an independent city, and would struggle on until it was finally conquered and destroyed in 587BC. To the Israelites of the day, it would have seemed that those exiled were under God’s judgement, whereas those still living in Jerusalem still enjoyed God’s favour. But it is in Babylon that Ezekiel receives his vision – a clear lesson that the Lord was not simply God in Judah, but sovereign over the whole earth. And actually while those living in Jerusalem thought they were still occupied a privilege place in God’s sight, the reality was they were under judgement and about to face a terrible disaster.

The book of Revelation builds on this vision of Ezekiel by emphasising the universal sovereignty of God. It aims to encourage those who have been persecuted by their faith (2:10, 3:10), but it also contains strong words of warning to churches who feel secure in their current situation. (see Rev 3:2,15)

Daniel was taken into captivity when Jerusalem fell in 587 BC (1:1). He had watched the kings of Babylon come and go, and the balance of power in the region would soon shift to the kings of Persia (Dan 5:30). It was many years since he was exiled, and whole empires seemed to be coming and going. But what had happened to the great promise of restoration God had made to His people? Had history simply passed them by, or forgotten them? The vision Daniel received served as a welcome reminder that all empires are under the sovereignty of God, and that at the time the Lord decrees, His kingdom will be established forever.

The book of Revelation also picks up on the themes of Daniel. The early churches would have been aware of the many promises about Jesus’ return, and they must have wondered when exactly this would happen. The years were passing by, the persecution was increasing, but still nothing seemed to be taking place. The message of Revelation is about endurance, and about waiting patiently for the Lord to fulfil His purposes.

John’s description of Jesus to the seven churches

Revelation 2:1

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands:

Revelation 1:16, 1:20

In his right hand he held seven stars, The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

Revelation 2:8

To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.

Revelation 1:17,18

I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!

Revelation 2:12

To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.

Revelation 1:16

In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword.

Revelation 2:18

To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.

Revelation 1:14-15

…his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace…

Revelation 3:1

To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.

Revelation 1:4

To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne (we met the seven stars above – see Revelation 1:16)

Revelation 3:7

To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David.

Revelation 1:18

I hold the keys of death and Hades.

Revelation 3:14

To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.

Revelation 1:5

Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

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Additional notes to chapters 4-5

Worship:

  • Ascribing value or worth to someone or something else (and not just on Sundays or in the music!)
  • Acknowledging the greatness of God our Maker and Redeemer
  • Accepting His authority over our lives
  • Allowing our experience of Him to transform us

The vision of heaven:

  • Ezekiel 1 – the four living creatures (vv.5-14), the crystal sea (v.22), the rainbow (v.28)
  • Isaiah 6 – an unknown number of living creatures crying out “Holy, holy, holy”
  • 24 elders represent 12 tribes of Israel + 12 apostles i.e. whole covenant history of God comes together in heaven
  • Thunder and lightning – symbols of God’s presence (Ex 19:16 – although under the old covenant people had to stand at a distance)
  • Sight, speech, hearing all combine to provide a multisensory picture. Worship never meant to be 2-dimensional. Meant to be response of whole person to an awesome God

Holiness:

  • Absolute purity of God
  • His total separation from sin
  • Our inability to approach Him
  • His essential unchanging character (hence 3 fold repetition of ‘holy’)

Scroll:

  • The unfolding of human history
  • We are prevented from seeing it because we are sinful and mortal

Jesus:

  • Lion of Judah – obscure oracle in Gen 49:9-10 fulfilled in Jesus power, strength, self-sufficiency (“Aslan is not a tame lion”)
  • Root of David – see Is 11:1-5
  • Has already triumphed over sin and death and evil
  • Yet triumph only possible by the cross surprisingly Lion is also lamb who was slain for us. The idea of the lamb slain and redeeming us by his blood takes us back to the Passover in Egypt (Ex 12)

Relevance:

  • Jesus’ death for us gives us a new identity and calling to be a kingdom and priests (v.10)
  • We are to give Jesus His worth with all of our lives, including, for example, our wealth, our wisdom, our strength (v.12)
  • We too are to bow down in humility and adoration, and make the worship of Jesus our one constant goal

Additional notes to chapter 6

Although the introduction sounds like another product of my over-heated imagination, if I’m not mistaken the news bulletin reflects in contemporary terms the events described in Revelation 6. The opening of the third seal has puzzled many people. Probably the best explanation is that the wheat and barley are staple foods, while the oil and the wine are luxury goods. The exercise of power without reference to God leads to violence (2nd seal), inequality (3rd seal) and poverty (4th seal). We can argue how literally we should take the 6th seal but we can say they are unprecedented, destructive natural phenomena at the very least that lead people (when it’s too late?) to recognise their own mortality.

Old Testament background

  • Zechariah 6:1-8 – four horsemen on four horses (although their function is not clearly explained there)
  • Psalm 21:3, Zechariah 6:11 – giving a crown (although there to the ruler of God’s people)
  • Isaiah 34:4 – the sky rolled up like a scroll, stars falling like leaves (quoted by Jesus in Matthew 24:29)
  • Hosea 10:8 – people pleading to the hills and mountains to cover them (quoted by Jesus on the way to the cross – Luke 23:30 – reminding us that the cross is about judgement as well as salvation)
  • More general references to the wrath of God, for example Zephaniah 1:14-18

Abuse of power

  • Consistent testimony of Bible that those in power see themselves as self-sufficient and unaccountable to anyone else. For example, see the attitude of Nineveh in Zephaniah 2:15, of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4:30, of Assyria in Is 10:13-14.
  • Human structures affected by sin. The greater the concentration of power, the more the pervasiveness of sin. Hence people of Israel warned not to have a king (1 Samuel 8).

Social justice

  • We will always have the poor among us (Mark 14:7), but we still have a duty to love our neighbour as ourselves, and to give generously to those in need.
  • However a gospel of purely social transformation is not enough, because there is more to life than this earthly reality
  • Best Christian outreach involves both care and concern for the poor, and proclamation of the gospel. Not a case of either/or

Encouragement to the persecuted

  • Being under the altar (v.9) being in the presence of God forever. This is our reward.
  • White robe (v.11) is the robe of purity and of victory.
  • In God’s eyes a thousand years is as a day (2 Peter 3:8). In the eternal scheme of things, God is not slow in keeping His promises.

Wrath of God

  • Follows on from the holiness of God we discussed last time
  • It is His settled reaction to all that is impure and unholy.
  • Wrath is a logical consequence of a refusal to acknowledge who God is (Romans 1:18-20)
  • Not in opposition to the love of God. See Ephesians 2:3-5.
  • Challenges an easy approach to the gospel.

Who can stand?

  • This is evangelism! People reaching a point where they recognise their need of God. Our job is to able to answer when the questions arise.
  • Romans 3:23 is a good answer!

Additional notes to Chapter 7:1-8:5

The seal

  • protection from God’s judgement – see Ezekiel 9, and also the story of the Passover where the Israelites were spared the angel’s judgement by the blood of the lamb (we’ll come across the Lamb later on!)
  • a mark of ownership – 2 Cor 1:22, Eph 1:13. As Christians the Holy Spirit is confirmation we belong to the Lord and a guarantee that one day we will be with him for ever. The idea of a seal is that it is something permanent and indelible.

The 144,000

  • The 144,000 is 12*12*1000. The number is not to be taken literally, but symbolises the completeness of God’s people. It is another description of the multitude in verse 9.
  • Two issues here: firstly – does it literally refer to Israel? Unlikely because verse 9 includes people from every nation, and also does not explain why these people have been sealed as if believers. Better to see Israel as the people of God, the church. This would explain why Judah is the first tribe in the list, because Jesus is our great high priest from the tribe of Judah (Matthew 1:1-16).
  • Secondly – what about Jehovah’s Witnesses? They hold that the 144,000 is the exact number of followers who will get into heaven, while the multitude of verse 9 represents those who will enjoy an earthly paradise. There is nothing in this passage to indicate verse 9 represents anything other heavenly realities.

The white robe

  • Old Testament idea of “robes of salvation” (Isaiah 61:10) to show new status before God. See how the prodigal son is given a robe once he returns to his father and confesses his sins (Luke 15:22).
  • Whiteness is a sign of purity and sinlessness. Image in Zechariah 3:1-5 of Joshua being given clean garments and Satan’s accusations refuted. We are counted sinless through the blood of the Lamb. It is His sacrifice that gives us a new status before the Lord.

Lamb and shepherd

  • Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep (John 10:11).
  • But Jesus also becomes fully one of us in order to do this.
  • Lamb imagery takes us back to Passover where the blood of the Lamb spared the Israelites from God’s judgement (Exodus 12). Jesus is the one who makes propitiation for our sins, and takes away the wrath of God which we all deserve.

Silence in heaven

  • An appropriate response to the presence of the Lord (e.g. Zepaniah 1:7a)
  • Comes in 8:1 as a culmination to praise
  • A recognition that we are in the presence of someone infinite, beyond music or even words.

Prayer

  • 8:3-4 remind us that our prayers do actually reach God! The image of incense refers back to the incense burnt before the Lord as a sign of His presence and His holiness (Exodus 30:1-8, Leviticus 16:13)
  • The angels themselves are not, despite what some think, the ones who act as intermediaries between us and God. The saints pray in Jesus’ name.
  • Prayer is powerful! The prayers here unleash the judgement of God – understandable when you consider what the saints have been through (6:10). We too need to have confidence that “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).

Additional Notes to Revelation 18

Much of the language from this chapter is based on Old Testament relating to the fall of superpowers such as Babylon and Tyre.

  • For general oracles of destruction on Babylon see Isaiah 13:1-14:23
  • For the condemnation of Tyre as a trading nation, where she is compared with a prostitute, and where Babylon is held up as an example of judgement, see Isaiah 23.
  • For the command to come out (verse 5), see the command to the exiles in Is 52:11
  • For the image of the goblet as a symbol of God’s wrath, see Isaiah 51:17-22, Jeremiah 25:15-29.
  • For the lament of merchants, see Ezekiel 27:1-28:19 (where the king of Tyre is compared to Satan)

There are clearly other Old Testament passages. But the aim of this study is not to work through all the possible allusions, but to tackle one of the hardest questions we face as Christians – how to be in the world, but not of it.

The liberal response is basically to embrace culture and to see human developments as the work of God’s Spirit at work in the world. The conservative view would see culture as intrinsically fallen and something to be avoided. Personally I think we need to engage with the world in order to win the world for Christ. When Paul visited Athens he was able to quote some of their poets, and he took time to study their objects of worship (Acts 17:22-31). However as John writes in his first letter we are not to love the world or anything in it (1 John 2:15-17). We need somehow to get the balance between being informed and aware, without being unduly attracted by what we encounter. This is where we need wisdom from God, especially when we are accused of either being killjoys or of enjoying ourselves too much! (Matthew 11:18-20). We also need to recognise that we are under immense pressure to conform, and John’s warning to the readers of Revelation is as real to us as it was to them all those centuries ago.

Additional Notes to Revelation 19

This is the last time we come across the great multitude of heaven, because John is reaching the climax of his book which unveils a new heaven and a new earth. We may find some of the images in this chapter difficult or disturbing, but they are based on Old Testament passages which describes the final triumph of the Lord and the overthrow of His enemies. So, for example,

  • the reference to the great prostitute harks back to judgement upon Tyre in Isaiah 23:15-18
  • equally smoke rising forever would have reminded John’s readers of the judgement upon Edom in Isaiah 34:9-10
  • the gruesome image of birds eating flesh comes from an obscure oracle in Ezekiel about the defeat of Gog (Ezekiel 34:18-20)

However literally we may interpret them, they are all ultimately about God’s righteous judgement on those who have opposed Him and oppressed His people. This point is made even more clear by the quotation from Psalm 2 in verse 15 which early Christians saw as a prophecy about the Son of God, Jesus, being given authority over the nations who in rebellion against the Lord and His Anointed One. John has already quoted it in Revelation 2:26-27 in the letter to the church of Thyatira and for him it is obviously a significant text to understand the purposes of God.

Jesus and the gospels

  • Jesus spoke more about hell than any New Testament writer.
  • He saw hell as a place of enduring fire and torment (e.g. Mark 9:43-48)
  • He talked about angels being involved in the final judgement (Matthew 13:38-39, 49-50)

The wedding supper of the Lamb

  • Worth comparing this to the parable of the wedding banquet – Matthew 22:1-14. Heaven compared to feast. Rejection of the invitation brings judgement. Not enough simply to turn up. Need to have the wedding garments of righteousness. Faith has to issue forth in good works.

Word of God

  • Link here to John 1:1-4. Jesus is the pre-existent son of God. He is nothing less than the powerful agent of all creation. Our response should be fear and awe (see also Psalm 33:6-11)
  • Also brings out the reliability and dependability of God’s purposes (see Isaiah 55:10-11). As the word of God Jesus can be trusted to do what He says He will do.
  • Is also an instrument of judgement discerning our inmost thoughts and actions, for which we will be called to account (Hebrews 4:12-13).

Gruesome punishment

  • This is not arbitrary punishment. These are people who have tried to escape the wrath of God (Revelation 6:15-17) and who have refused to repent of idolatry and wickedness (Revelation 9:20-21).
  • We do not need to read this passage literally. It is simply a graphic illustration of the final consequences of rejecting the Lord.
  • God would always much rather we would repent and live.

Beast and false prophet

  • Beast – an empire or human institution given authority by the dragon, Satan (Revelation 13:2). Claims power over death and authority over nations and so sets itself up as a rival to Jesus (Revelation 13:3,7)
  • False prophet is the second beast given authority by Satan. His role is to force others into worshipping the first beast and to punish those who refuse to do so (Revelation 13:14-17).
  • Obviously a reference to the Roman empire. But are there ways we are often pressurised to compromise with the world’s values, to give our worth to people and institutions other than Jesus?

Additional Notes to Revelation 20

This is one of the most controversial chapters in the Bible! However the aim of the study is not to rehearse the arguments for or against the various interpretations on this passage, but to try and recover the authorial intent of John the Evangelist.

Briefly the three classical views of the passage are as follows:

Pre-millenialists see the first resurrection happening at the return of Christ. They will reign on earth for 1000 years before Satan is released. Then after a short while the rest of the dead are raised, leading to the final judgement.

Post-millenialists see the return of Christ happening after the millennium has elapsed. This may be either a literal period of 1000 years, or 1000 years simply may refer to the present period where the gospel is preached.

Amillenialists see the 1000 year period as symbolic, and the first resurrection referring to the new birth of the believer.

It is the third position that these studies are based upon. We have already seen that John uses many different numbers in Revelation symbolically. For example, the 144,000 or the 7-fold Spirit. Secondly, we need to tie the teaching of Revelation 20 in with the rest of the book. We have already met the souls of those beheaded in Revelation 6:9 in heaven. It would be hard to see how they could be in heaven, and not yet resurrected. Also verse 6 indicates that the first resurrection is something we take part in now. According to Revelation 1:6 we have already been made priests to serve God our Father and the promise in Rev 20:6 is meant to be an encouragement to believers. And thirdly we have to place the teaching of Revelation in the context of the whole of Scripture. Colossians 3:1 teaches that believers have been already raised to new life. 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 6:15 that if we are in Christ we are a new creation. Jesus Himself tells us that “He who believes has eternal life”. Eternal life is not something that begins at a future point, but at the time when we place our faith and trust in Christ.

Restraint of Satan

  • The book of Job tells us how Satan is under the authority of the heavenly council.
  • Satan not strong enough to maintain his position in heaven (Revelation 12:7-9)
  • We have the gospel hope that God will soon crush Satan under His feet (Romans 16:20)

The first resurrection – see above notes

The future of the church

  • We will certainly come under attack, both overtly and in a spiritual sense.
  • We are however the city of God and have the protection of heaven.
  • God’s purposes and promises will not fail. Even if we are worried about the state of the visible church today!

The judgement of the dead

  • First of all, our name has to be written in the book of life. This happens when we become disciples of Christ (Luke 10:20).
  • However, as we saw last time when we looked at Revelation 19 and Matthew 22, we need to produce good deeds in accordance with our faith.
  • This position ties in with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:22 and Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 5:10

Hell and the gospel

  • Hard to talk about in an age where “all you need is love”, where people do not believe their actions have eternal consequences, and where the church does not present a consistent message
  • Maybe it should be more a motivation for us as believers to present the message, than a central part of the message itself.
  • Certainly it should encourage us to pray more boldly and more fervently for Christ to open eyes and hearts to His good news.
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