It is said of one of the famous composers that he had a rebellious son who used to come in late at night after his father and mother had gone to bed. And before going to his own room, he would go to his father's piano and slowly, as well as loudly, play a simple scale, all but the final note. Then leaving the scale uncompleted, he would retire to his room. Meanwhile the father, hearing the scale minus the final note, would writhe on his bed, his mind unable to relax because the scale was unresolved. Finally, in consternation, he would stumble down the stairs and hit the previously unstruck note. Only then would his mind surrender to sleep once again.For many the Book of Revelation is frustrating with symbols and visions that leave one waiting for a note-- a word-- that completes vision so that one may understand. Filled with symbolism and wild imagery, interpreting this vision of John has proven to be a difficult exercise. The Protestant Reformer, John Calvin wrote a commentary on every book of the Bible except for 2 and 3 John and Revelation. It was reported that he did not write on the last book of the Bible because he simply could not understand it. Martin Luther in the Preface to his commentary on Revelation writes, "I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it." The founder of Methodism, John Wesley had a much higher view of the book than Luther and rightly notes its value:
The chief value of the book seems to lie in its testimony to the faith and hope of persecuted Christians and in the comfort and inspiration it has brought to sorrowing and oppressed souls of every age.Even though more than a few in the church throughout the ages have wanted very little to do with the last book of the Bible, the church has included it in our canon, our standard, of books we call "Scripture." The church has not left us the option of ignoring it.
Of course, many have not ignored it. A large industry of Revelation literature has been produced in our day claiming just the opposite of Calvin and Luther-- that Revelation is rather easily understood and that its visions and symbols parallel events in our contemporary age. These folks read the book of Revelation as if it is a road map naming the signs of our current times and what it not only says about what will take place, but is taking place right now. Such literature has been a lucrative endeavor for those writing and publishing, and in my view, a misleading effort on how to interpret it. To assume that somehow Revelation speaks specifically to our situation is to ignore the truth that it was not written to us-- it was written to seven churches in Asia Minor, what we know today as the country of Turkey. Any interpretation of the Book of Revelation that bypasses what it would have meant to its original hearers and readers is a misinterpretation of the book. Those who tell us that they know clearly what the Book of Revelation means today have too much trust in their own abilities.
But, John Wesley was right. Revelation has value for the contemporary church. It has value for us in two ways. The first, Father John has already mentioned: "The chief value of the book seems to lie in its testimony to the faith and hope of persecuted Christians and in the comfort and inspiration it has brought to sorrowing and oppressed souls of every age." But I would add that there is a second value for us-- it reminds us that Jesus Christ is at the center of Christian faith, it is an affirmation that in Jesus, God is ultimately in control, and that Jesus is Lord of the world regardless of life's circumstances. It is because of the centrality of Jesus that John encourages the suffering and persecuted of these seven churches to remain faithful because as John states in verse 1:5, Jesus himself is THE faithful witness, whose life and death make it possible for his followers to be faithful, and to look to his example to know how to be faithful. The word for "witness" here is martus, hence our word "martyr."
But notice that John adds after Jesus as faithful witness that Jesus is the first-born from the dead. In his resurrection he has conquered death and is the first born. If one is the first born, that clearly implies there are more births to come. Jesus' resurrection is the guarantee of our resurrections, our victory as long as we remain faithful.
At the beginning of the book, John (the Apostle?) states that his vision came to him on "the Lord’s Day," (Sunday) while exiled on the island of Patmos "because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" (v. 9). John is clear to state this revelation that came to him was the revelation of Jesus-- it was from Jesus and about Jesus. The Book of Revelation is Jesus Central. That must be kept in mind throughout the reading of the book.
John writes to these seven churches, who in varying degrees appear to be experiencing discrimination and/or persecution because of their faith and their refusal to acknowledge Emperor Domitian, and in some cases their refusal to worship him. This revelation is given to them as encouragement to remain steadfast, to be faithful, not to give in because Caesar is not Lord; Jesus is-- and regardless of what happens to them they are victors because Jesus has already been victorious in his resurrection.
Think of that claim. Here are seven Christian churches in a portion of the Roman empire, under the thumb of Caesar, and who are either suffering economically because of their faith and some perhaps dying because of their faith, and John tells them to persevere because they are the ones who are victors. That’s not the way the world works! Those on the wrong end of the sword are not considered the conquerors. That's not the way the world works! But apparently that is the way God works! Jesus' victory is not secured by the sword and execution, but by death and resurrection.
Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, 'Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?' And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, 'Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.'
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.They sing a new song:
‘You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.’
Emperors, Kings, Queens, Presidents, and Prime Ministers come and go. So often, they think and act as if the destiny of the world is in their hands, but as Psalm 146 reminds us,
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
Caesar Augustus is dead, Herod the Great is dead, Pontius Pilate is dead, and Domitian is dead. Jesus is alive. And because Jesus is alive, John’s counsel to these seven churches is to remain steadfast and faithful come what may. The slaughtered Lamb is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. The slaughtered Lamb is the Victorious Lamb.
That's the way things work in God's Kingdom and should also work in the Church.