Light sabers flash, galactic forces clash, futuristic spacecraft engage in deadly combat—control of the universe is at stake. “Long ago, in a galaxy far away”—so begins one of the most famous film series of all time—Star Wars. But while the movie series is science fiction, there is in actual fact an intense struggle going on for rulership of this world, and ultimately the universe, that is definitely not fictional, a concept which may be frightening and unsettling to some. It is a struggle of cosmic proportions even though it is mostly invisible unless you know what to look for. It involves “alien” life forms, which can be seen only in rare and unusual circumstances, but which seek to influence us (and some of them even seek to destroy us)–and which make “War of the Worlds” look like child’s play. While science speculates about, and actively seeks for, life beyond our planet as we know it, the Bible pulls back the curtain, as it were, and reveals what science does not know—there are other life forms in our universe, extraterrestrials if you please. There are two “forces” at war with each other. As active, and perhaps unwilling, participants in this epic conflict, we are forced to take sides.
The challenges we face are: How can you identify the two sides? Which side is right (or does it matter)? Can we know now which side will win in the end? Why do we have to take sides? And how can we be survivors in the final episode of this real-life reality drama? This is no video game or Hollywood blockbuster—it’s for real, and our decisions determine whether life terminates for us in the near future or if we live forever on a re-born planet.
So what does this have to do with Revelation? Revelation reveals (that’s what the name means) to us the true nature of the conflict and its final outcome. Many people are afraid to study the book, notwithstanding its admonition to “read and understand,” or else they get hopelessly bogged down trying to decipher the mysterious symbolism. At the same time, there are views of end-time events portrayed in the media and recently published books that are terrible misrepresentations of the true biblical picture, with potentially fatal results. You will be able to sort out fact from fiction as a result of our study together. You will also see a picture of Jesus you’ve likely never seen before. Assuming you may be a beginner in this study, we will take time to explain everything in a user friendly way and will not fly through the book at warp speed.
Before we begin exploring this mysterious book of the Bible, there are a few pitfalls to be aware of. Some people try to interpret Revelation by reading the daily newspaper or watching the latest TV news broadcast. That can lead to highly speculative and inaccurate conclusions. It is not a biblical method. It is important to note that this book is different from most books of the Bible in that it is strongly symbolic in nature—you cannot take everything literally. We will learn how to decode these symbols. Another factor many overlook is that it borrows heavily from the Old Testament in its language and imagery—it sort of assumes you have a knowledge of the Old Testament (hereafter referred to as OT). We will need to frequently refer back to the OT for help in our interpretations. Another major tool that most people are not aware of is that the book of Daniel (also rich with prophetic symbolism) is critical in setting patterns and paradigms for the interpretation of Revelation. The connections between the two books are many. Consequently we will spend much time there in order to lay the foundation for an accurate decoding of the last book of the Bible. And since Revelation begins by saying it is a revelation of Jesus, not just by Him but also about Him, then we should also be able to get a clearer picture of Jesus, His character, and His work in our behalf as we near the close of earth-time as we now know it.
This series of studies will guide you through a galaxy of prophecies that will startle, amaze, and yet also inspire and reassure. If you take them seriously, you will never be the same again. There are also many vital spiritual lessons to be learned in this book that can help us now as well as in the future. I would encourage you to begin every study with prayer: “Lord, please give me wisdom and understanding as I study Your Word. Help me not to twist it or ignore it. Guide me in applying its principles to my daily life. Help me to see Jesus through it all. Thank you for what you will be doing to help me in this process.” This appeal to the sovereign of the universe will bring to your aid a “force,” a divine power and insight into the interpretation. Now, let’s begin!
With a deluge of information competing for our attention, sometimes an author tries to pick a clever title for a book to catch our eye, such as “Where Does a Mother go to Resign?” or “Plant a Geranium in Your Cranium”. But those who compiled the books of the Bible were living in a different age and weren’t so concerned about sound bites and catchy phrases. Consequently, the book we’re looking at is simply titled, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine” in the King James Version (hereafter referred to as KJV). That’s not a title John would likely have picked himself—he certainly wasn’t divine and he himself starts the book with the words, “The revelation of Jesus Christ…”
But what is a “revelation” anyway and why does this book carry that title? Another word used for this book is “Apocalypse,” a word we typically associate with the imminent end of the present world, usually in some type of violent ending. You may recall a movie title, “Apocalypse Now”, portraying such a theme. The term “Armageddon”, used in Revelation to refer to the final battle of earth’s history, is often connected with it. Actually, the original word translated “revelation” is from the Greek (the original language of the New Testament—hereafter referred to as NT) word “apokalypsis”. You don’t have to know Greek to see the linguistic connection there. It literally means “to take off a cover or veil, an unveiling,” sort of like taking off the covering of a new statue or painting at its dedication, which before was hidden by the cover. In other words, the book of Revelation (“apokalypsis”) is an unveiling, a revealing of things previously hidden to our vision—in this case, a revealing of the future to us.
You are, no doubt, anxious to know the future right now—What is the Mark of the Beast? Who is the Anti-Christ? What does 666 mean? etc., but please be patient. This book is encrypted in a coded language that must be deciphered before we can correctly interpret it. This is not like the fictional “Davinci Code,” but it is for real, and the Bible will give us many clues to help us along the way. We also need to go through the decoding process so you can be assured it is valid and not just someone’s wild speculation or made-up story.
But before Revelation gets into specifics about the future, it wants us to get better acquainted with the source of the book—Jesus. In fact, without the personal acquaintance, saving relationship with and commitment to Him, the rest of the book could scare us to death! And we would miss the whole point of Scripture. So God wants us to get to know the only One who can provide us true security in a terrorized world, and demonstrate a divine compassion beyond our understanding—desperate needs as we go through the mind-boggling events yet to come. It will be well worth our while to spend some time in the first three chapters of Revelation getting to know Jesus better. That must be relevant to us getting safely through the end-time or John wouldn’t spend so much time on it. The first chapter includes a special vision of Jesus. Chapters 2 and 3 show how He relates to His people all through the many centuries that follow His encounter with John, down to His people in the very last days of earth’s history—our day. Chapters 4-12 deal with mainly historical events from our perspective today (but were future in John’s day). Chapters 12/13 and onward emphasize primarily events of today and the future. You don’t want to miss out on any of this, so hang in there!
We need to keep in mind the setting of this book. It had been about 60 years since Jesus had promised to come back to get His followers. It is likely that only John was left out of the original 12 apostles. Christ’s followers were no doubt beginning to wonder about that promise—they had expected it to take place in their lifetime. And now the last of the “pioneers” was nearing the end of his life—what would happen next? Was Jesus still coming like He said? Was the promise still valid? What was He doing now, anyway? And what would happen to the church? Would it survive after John was gone? How would it all end? Revelation would provide some answers to these questions as well as reveal to them a picture of Jesus they were not so familiar with. In addition to all this, they were also facing a variety of issues in their own local congregations and needed some counsel, especially in view of the cosmic conflict as revealed in Revelation, counsel that still has meaning for us today.
And by the way, if you really want to know Jesus better yourself, be sure to read the 4 gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And read them not just for information, but for personal application.
When I was a kid, a friend of our family gave me an old Wards Airline vacuum tube table model radio, about the size of a 19” television set. It had AM and shortwave bands displayed on a projection screen looking something like our modern LCD displays. In reality it was created by a light bulb shining through a circular film listing radio stations around the country and projecting them onto the screen in coordination with the tuning knob. It also had a “seeing eye”, a green tube (a cathrode ray tube someone tells me) with lines that would narrow down when the station was precisely tuned in to a particular station. Since it had no built-in antenna, my dad helped me (or rather, I helped him!) put up a single wire aerial 100 feet long and 20 feet in the air from the front of our house to the top of the swing set at the far end of the back yard. When the switch was turned on, it provided surprisingly good reception, so much so that I had to install a switch on it to turn it off when tuning in local stations. We lived in central California at the time and one evening as I was carefully tuning the dial, I picked up very faintly an announcer giving the call letters of his station—WBZ in Boston, Massachusetts! I was thrilled to get an AM station from the opposite side of the country. While today’s technology is different (note the fact you are reading this online), the process is similar.
There are three major elements in this transmission process. First, there must be a transmitter. Second, there must be a receiver. Third, there needs to be a listener.
Now read verses 1-3 of chapter 1. Who is the true source of Jesus’ revelation? How was this message delivered? Who was the receiver of this delivery?
“1The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John, 2who bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, to all things that he saw. 3Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near.” NKJV (New King James Version)
So what’s the big deal about all that? Did you notice who was involved in this process? God (the Father), Jesus, His angel—i.e. this message must be really important to them if both Christ and His Father collaborated and sent it via a trusted messenger. If you were to receive a message signed by, let’s say the President of the United States, the Vice-President, and the head of the FBI, you might get the idea it was a vital message. We might note in passing a verse in the OT—Amos 3:7. “Surely the Lord God does nothing unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets.” So when He does reveal something, it is not just busywork, but it indicates He is planning to do something and wants us to know about it. Apparently God is not trying to sneak up on us and catch us off guard so He can punish or kill us. It seems He is actually anxious for us to know His will and purposes so we can plan accordingly. And the angel referred to—perhaps it was the same one who brought visions to Daniel (Dan. 8:16; 9:21). It was this same Gabriel who also announced the births of John the Baptist and Jesus (Luke 1:19, 26). Angels have an incredible ministry to God’s people and there are many stories, both ancient and modern, regarding their activities—but that is another subject. In today’s lingo we would call these beings “extraterrestrials.” So in essence, we on earth have indeed received messages from outer space, though quite different from what scientists are looking for in their SETI program (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence).
As we now look at this passage again, we can see that heavenly beings have a vital message to transmit, the prophet John becomes the receiver, and all that is needed is an active listener(s). Note v. 3—“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near.” NKJV Note that it is not enough to simply hear the broadcast or read the book. It is not sent merely to entertain or give us interesting information—it anticipates that we do something about it, putting into practice the lessons learned, the principles presented, and responding appropriately to the prophetic outline. So if you read Revelation “just for fun,” it is unlikely it will be of much benefit to you. It must be studied with a sincere desire to know God’s truth and make it part of the life. In 2005 hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast with devastating power. Before it ever developed, studies had been done in the New Orleans area to determine what to do if such a catastrophe ever occurred. However, little or nothing was done with that information in a timely manner. Consequently, the price paid for inaction was high, frequently fatal.
The story is told of a young man who went into a telegraph office years ago (one version says it was Thomas Edison) to apply for a job. There was already an office full of applicants, all talking with one another. A loudspeaker in the room was blaring a steady stream of code, but no one was paying any attention to this background noise. Suddenly, young Tom got up and walked into the inner office. When he came out, he had the job. When the others in the room protested that they had been there before him, he simply stated, “you should have been listening. The coded message coming over the loudspeaker said that the first person to hear the message should come immediately into the inner office. I was listening, I got the job.” Are we listening to God’s coded messages in Revelation? Are we ready to act on them? They could be life-changing.
In verse one it says that a purpose of the book is to show His “servants” things which are shortly to come to pass. And then John is listed as one of those “servants”. Just who are they, anyway? Are they the only ones who can understand it? Do they have an advantage in grasping the concepts of the book? When we think of the word “servant” perhaps the vision of a person hired to work in someone’s house comes to mind, maybe to be the cook or stand fanning a perspiring head of household. But in the original language (Greek) the word translated “servant” (Gr. “doulos”) actually means “slave.” For probably most of us, that has all kinds of negative connotations. We think of slaves as property, frequently abused by their owners. And we are reminded of the ugly history of slavery in the United States and elsewhere. So why is that word used here and what does it have to do with end-time living? Stay with me.
One of the critical principles in interpreting Revelation, or any other part of the Bible for that matter, is that the Bible is its own best interpreter. While history may help us validate the fulfillment of prophecy and archaeology may shed light on cultural customs, when it comes to spiritual issues and explaining symbols, it is best to see what the Bible itself has to say about it first rather than impose our 21st century perspective. So let’s take a look.
While the term “slave” can certainly be used in the Bible in the traditional understanding (see Philemon 16 and Revelation 6:15 for example), it is also used in a symbolic spiritual sense as one of several metaphors illustrating the Christian’s relationship to God. Other metaphors are used in the Bible, such as “friend,” “saint,” and “disciple.” Let’s see how the Bible uses the slavery concept in the spiritual sense. By the way, Paul (Romans 1:1) and Peter (2 Peter 1:1) apply the same term to themselves also.
In Romans 6:16 the Bible says, “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin to death , or of obedience to righteousness?” Verses 20 and 22 continue, “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness….But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.” In other words, we are all slaves one way or the other, whether we like it or not. We are either slaves of sin (the devil) or righteousness (Christ)—there is no neutral ground. This passage indicates that our default position is as slaves to sin, but through Christ another choice is available to us. Joshua in the Old Testament once invited the people to “choose you this day whom you will serve.” In Revelation 3:20 Jesus is represented as standing at the door of the last-day church and knocking—He does not force His way in, He awaits our decision, He respects our choice. We are not saved apart from our choice to respond to His initiative. Serving Him doesn’t mean we become heavenly robots or never make mistakes. But it does mean we are absolutely committed and loyal to Him. If we make mistakes, we seek forgiveness and power to do better. And why would we want to become His “slaves”? We will see more about motivation in verses 6-8.
This brings up another major theme in Revelation, what is sometimes referred to as “The Great Controversy Theme.” In essence it is with regards to an intense spiritual battle going on right now, not over Mid-East oil, not even the war on terrorism, but over the allegiance of our minds. What happens in our minds is far more important than what happens in the world—in fact it is a life or death matter as far as eternity goes. 1 Corinthians 6:20 reminds us that “you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” This text invites us to dedicate ourselves totally (mind and body) to God. If we do not accept that invitation, we remain in the default position—slaves to sin, a slavery from which there is no escape apart from the power of God. And the price paid to open up the salvation option was immense. More about that later.
We sometimes pride ourselves on our independence and of course in the United States we celebrate Independence Day (4th of July) with a great deal of fervor. But in the absolute sense, there is no such thing as total independence. We are dependent on a power outside of ourselves to sustain life and there is a great deal of interdependence in society. Imagine what it would be like to try to survive totally alone in this world. The prophet Daniel once reminded a king in rebellion “the God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways, you have not glorified.” Daniel 5:23. The only absolute independence we have is in our power of choice—we have absolute freedom to choose whom we will serve. God will never force the will when it comes to personal salvation and the one we choose to serve. While we are free to choose, we are not free from the consequences of our choices, and the Bible tries to point those out so we can make intelligent choices. In Deuteronomy 30:19 God pleads with His people, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.”
To come back to the original question—who are the servants and does it make any difference in understanding Revelation? In summary, the servants are those people who in loving response have submitted their lives to the sovereignty of God, who are absolutely loyal to Him. They actually enjoy being His “slave.” Does that give them an advantage? Of course. Because they know Him and are in communication with Him, He can give them special insights to what He is revealing to them. When the book was first written, one reason there were so many symbols was so that hostile opponents of the Christians couldn’t understand it and use its messages against the followers of Christ. But the Christians could interpret it because they knew the Bible and the principles of interpretation. Those who are not Christians can learn from those who do know the Bible, yet unless they submit to Christ personally, they can never know the true blessings of studying this amazing book.
There is an old story I read a number of years ago that to me helps illustrate this concept. During the ugly days of slavery in America, an auction of slaves was being held. They were treated just like property, and usually not very well at that. But one man, called “Old Joe,” was being auctioned off. The auctioneer was pointing out what a good workman he would be while Old Joe was muttering under his breath, “I won’t work.” One man seemed bound and determined to purchase Old Joe and the bidding went up much higher than usual. But Old Joe still kept grumbling, “I won’t work.” Finally the high bidder was successful in purchasing Old Joe. Yet as they rode out to the man’s plantation, Old Joe kept saying, “I won’t work.” He had come to the end of his rope and he determined not to yield to the usual demands no matter what the consequences. When they arrived at the plantation, the owner took Old Joe to a comfortable cottage and told him this was where he could live. Thinking perhaps that the owner was just trying to bribe him, Old Joe responded, “But I still won’t work.”
“That’s ok,” the owner responded. “You don’t have to. You see, I bought you to set you free.” As the story goes, Old Joe, dumbfounded at the kindness showed him, replied, “Master, I’ll work for you the rest of my life.” What made the difference? No longer was it a matter of force—Old Joe now had a choice, and as he recognized the love and care the plantation owner had for him, he became a willing worker—because now he had the freedom to stay or leave as he wished. There was no coercion and he decided he would be happy to spend his life working for someone who demonstrated that kind of benevolence toward him. We, too, have been “bought with a price.” How do we respond?
Psychics, mediums, and channelers claim to be able to speak with the dead. A prophet claims to communicate with the living God. Just how does that happen? Revelation 1:2 speaks of “all things that he (John) saw.” How did he “see” these things—was he, as we sometimes say, “just seeing things”? Was he hallucinating? Was he taken bodily to heaven? Did God give him a Power Point presentation? In Old Testament times a prophet was sometimes called a “seer,” 1 Samuel 9:9–(“Formerly in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he spoke thus: “Come, let us go to the seer”; for he who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer.”). In other words, he was one who could “see” things and events others could not.
In Numbers 12:6 God says, “If there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak to him in a dream.” So what is the difference between a vision and a dream? As we know from experience, dreams typically happen while we are asleep, whereas a vision can happen any time, day or night. It usually happens while the prophet is awake. Daniel 10:17 also adds something Daniel experienced while in vision: “My lord, because of the vision my sorrows have overwhelmed me, and I have retained no strength. 17For how can this servant of my lord talk with you, my lord? As for me, no strength remains in me now, nor is any breath left in me.” Apparently there is a supernatural aspect to the visionary experience—he could be alive and yet not be breathing. This is not the result of too much pickles and ice cream for supper, but rather it is a direct revelation from God to the mind of the prophet accompanied by supernatural phenomena. But the vision apparently seems real to the prophet—perhaps it is somewhat akin to “virtual reality” experiences, i.e. information and pictures are transmitted to the mind which the mind interprets as something actually being experienced. The prophet may not know whether it is actually happening or he/she is just “seeing” it. The apostle Paul one time tried to describe what it was like in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4: “1It is £doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: 2I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. 3And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—4how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” Apparently he couldn’t tell whether it was an actual experience or only something he was seeing on the video screen of his mind.
It may be somewhat like when you are dreaming—it seems real, you even experience emotions (like fear, joy), and may even attempt to move physically or try to speak (you have no doubt heard of someone talking in his sleep, or sleep walking), all in response to what the mind is projecting on its internal video screen.
So the prophet John didn’t just sit down and decide to write a best-seller. He saw in visions many symbolic representations of the future given to him by God which he then wrote down and tried to describe as best he could. He also provided a different picture of Jesus than we have previously seen. And due to the heavenly origin of the visions, we need to pay attention. They are not given for entertainment or to provide fodder for the latest Hollywood blockbuster. They are serious information for serious times.