The book of Revelation is associated with the end of the world. While not every Christian believes this, a vast majority believe that Revelation is about the final days of the earth. Some even go as far as to map out what the final seven years of the world will be like in what they call “The Tribulation.” A 16 volume novel series has been written featuring characters in this time period called Left Behind. But if Christians step back and actually look at Revelation without an end of the world scope, will they come away with that viewpoint? Is it really about Iraq, nuclear bombs, and a worldwide government? Revelation features pictures of Jesus reigning in glory, people of all nations worshiping around God’s throne and reigning with Jesus, and those who reject Jesus receiving harsh judgment, culminating in a lake of fire. Based on all of this, no matter one’s interpretation of Revelation, it shouldn’t be a call for Christians to map out the end of the world. Revelation should be a treatise demanding that Christians take the message of the glory of Jesus to all nations to help bring about this picture of all nations worshiping Jesus.
To better understand the urgency of the Christian to take the Gospel to the nations, the message of Revelation must be examined in detail. Revelation opens saying that it is from Jesus, sent to John by an angel (Rev. 1:1). Aside from his name, nothing is known about John except that he was a Christian and was on the island of Patmos when he received the visions of the book. He never identifies himself as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” seen in the Gospel of John, so it cannot be assumed that they are the same person. “There are substantial linguistic differences between the Gospel of John and the Revelation—differences in grammar and diction, words used to express the same idea and the meaning of common words” (Lansdowne 221). Perhaps the writer was the disciple John, however there is no evidence for it. The important thing to be understood here is that no matter whom the author is, Jesus gave him a message and he wrote it down and sent it around. The message of this book is a timeless one that Christians today must grasp on to.
The book of Revelation’s primary message is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and the implications of that. Based on these events, Jesus has become the one who has conquered. This is the essence of the Gospel and Revelation is rich with it. “The good news is that the King of the Universe (The Lord), the Messiah (Christ), has come to be a Savior” (Piper 28).
In Revelation 4 and 5, John is taken to the throne room of God and sees an epic scene of angels along with all of creation worshiping God. This all culminates with a scroll being brought forth (5:1-3) and no one being found worthy to open it. At this, John falls and weeps, but an angel tells him not to worry because the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered (5:5) and John looks to see a Lamb standing as though it has been slain (5:6). Joseph Trafton says that this lion-like-lamb is a representation of Jesus:
…the astonishing juxtaposition of a conquering Lion with a slain Lamb can only be intended to indicate how Jesus, in fact, conquered: by being slain. And the fact that the slain lamb is “standing” –i.e., alive—reminds the reader of Jesus’ self-identification as the one who died but is now alive (1:18). (Trafton 65)
This theme of Jesus being a conquering lamb is apparent all throughout the book. All of it culminates in chapter 19 with Jesus riding out of heaven on a white horse and defeating his enemies with a sword that comes from his mouth. It is important for Christians to understand this image of a glorious, conquering Jesus that has gained his authority through his death and resurrection. This image goes far beyond the good, moral teacher that most have painted him only to be and the implications of this are huge.
The glory of Jesus in Revelation produces two sets of people: those who follow and those who reject. In chapter 7, a great multitude is introduced. This group is an amount that no one can number and it consists of people from every tribe, people, and language worshiping the Lamb upon his throne. These people are clothed in white robes, which symbolize that they are clean. John Martens makes an interesting observation about this group:
…in the first century, no great multitude of people had yet been converted; there were not yet saints “from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” John’s vision represents not only the hope of eternal life, but a sign of hope for the early church in their missionary task, which is a sign of hope for the whole world. (Martins 39)
This great multitude is a major theme throughout the entire book of Revelation. Chapters 2 and 3 feature John addressing seven churches in Asia and he ends each letter with the phrase, “to the one who conquers…” John records Jesus’ words promising that whoever endures in him will receive eternal rewards, which are different for each church (i.e. hidden manna, not being hurt by the second death, etc.). The core message of Revelation is that because Jesus has conquered through his death and resurrection, whoever follows him and endures in him will reign with him.
However, for those who don’t follow him, judgment and death will come. God’s judgment is described in many ways upon those who don’t follow the Lamb. The book features judgments poured out in the form of seals (chapters 6 and 8), trumpets (chapters 8 and 11), and bowls (chapter 16). These judgments come and strike both nature and people. Those who don’t follow Jesus end up in the lake of fire at the end of the book (Rev. 21:8).
Many of these judgments are symbolically said to have a time limit on them. The fifth trumpet features scorpions coming upon the earth and tormenting humans for five months. However, as Jesus does not physically look like a lamb, it is safe to say that these five months are symbolic. The overarching idea presented in this book along with the rest of scripture is that judgment upon those who don’t repent will be everlasting. Archbishop of Caesarea, Andrew, says that in reading a passage like this, it must be combined with other passages in scripture like Isaiah’s writing “Their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched” (Archbishop of Caesarea 89).
As with Isaiah’s passage, if Christians wish to understand the book of Revelation, they must have a firm understanding of the Old Testament. A lot of John’s imagery in Revelation is pulled straight from the Old Testament. These images include the use of the number 7 in relation to the Genesis account of creation, the images of the Lamb being enthroned in relation to Daniel’s son of man vision in Daniel 7, and visions of the city at the end of Revelation in connection with the temple that Ezekiel reports in the final 9 chapters of his book.
Two main things can be noted from Revelation in connection with the Old Testament and Revelation. First is the inheritance that those who follow Jesus receive. It is a common misconception that the main thing the Jews were looking for at the time of Jesus was the messiah. They were looking for him, but there was something bigger. They were hoping for a return to Jerusalem (Ezekiel 36:24). The Jews did live in Jerusalem, but it was ruled by the Romans in the days of Jesus. The Jews wanted the messiah to come so that he could take over Jerusalem and get rid of the Romans.
In the Old Testament, Abraham was promised land. This was eventually inherited by Joshua, but lost after Israel disobeyed God too many times. At that point, Ezekiel made his prophecy that God would bring the Jews back into the land and the promise to Abraham would be fulfilled. This was one of many things the Jews were hoping for that the messiah would ultimately establish.
What the Jews did not know was that with Jesus coming, a new people would be formed. Israel would still be God’s people, but Israel would not be same people. This is where Revelation comes in. The great multitude that has already been mentioned is described in two ways. The latter way it is described is as a “great multitude that no one could number.” However, prior to that, it is described symbolically as 144,000 from Israel. John is making the statement that there is a new people of God. There is a new Israel and that is the people who follow Jesus. It is no longer an ethnic people, but a spiritual people.
This is crucial in understanding Revelation. Jesus is reigning and those who follow him will reign with him. They will finally inherit the land that was promised to Abraham, but what is meant by that land? In the Old Testament, it would have meant physical land, however, Revelation is putting a symbolic spin on things. Pulling from Old Testament imagery, the land that Israel will now inherit is something else. Samuel Rico argues that what Israel will inherit is not physical land, but God himself (Rico 418). Rico sites Numbers 18:20:
And the Lord said to Aaron, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.
Rico argues that this passage is connecting inherited land with the portion that God speaks of. There is one more thing to note. This passage is specifically speaking to priests, so one might ask how this connects to those who follow Jesus in Revelation. Revelation 5:9-10 speaks of Jesus being worthy because he has ransomed people from every nation and has made them a kingdom and priests. Once more, John is connecting followers of Jesus to Israel. As Rico argued, Israel will inherit God himself, thus meaning that the inheritance that followers of Jesus will receive is Jesus himself. “What makes the gospel good news in the end is the enjoyment of the glory of God in Christ” (Piper 31).
The second main connection to the Old Testament in Revelation (though there are dozens) is the idea that Jesus and his followers are the new temple. In the Old Testament, the temple was the place that God dwelt. Heaven and Earth met in the temple. Priests would go into the temple to make offerings to God. However, the temple was destroyed in the Old Testament when the Jews were taken into exile (2 Kings 25). Along with the inheritance and the messiah, Jews were also looking for the rebuilding of the temple (Ezekiel 40-48). Nehemiah came along after the exile and built a temple, but it was nothing like the glorious image that Ezekiel described. After this second temple was completed, it was destroyed in 70 A.D. during a war. This certainly isn’t the temple Ezekiel talked about, so what is it?
The New Testament, Revelation along with other books, would describe Jesus and his followers as being the new temple. “…the joining place, the overlapping circle, was taking place where Jesus was and in what he was doing. Jesus was, as it were, a walking Temple. A living, breathing place-where-Israel’s-God-was-living” (Wright 133). As God dwelt within the temple before Jesus, God now dwells first in Jesus and in his followers through the Holy Spirit. This is why when Jesus died on the cross, the curtain of the temple tore in two (Matthew 27:51). The temple was no longer needed because through the death of Jesus, the kingdom of God had come to earth and his followers would now be the kingdom, priests, and the temple.
This temple of what John is dealing with is described in detail in Revelation 21. It is more commonly called the New Jerusalem. It is commonly misconceived that this scene is describing heaven. However, the description of the dimensions of the city brings up images of the temple:
…the very shape of the New Jerusalem evokes, as we noted earlier, the Holy of Holies. One would normally not expect a city to be over two thousand kilometers high, but the equal length, breadth, and height of the city reinforces the allusion of the holy of holies. When God promises that he will dwell with his people there (21:3), he portrays the city not only as a temple but as the holy of holies itself! (Keener 89).
The Holy of Holies was the center part of the temple and was the actual place in the temple where God dwelt. This image of the temple is not describing a physical city at all. Rather it is describing the church. The followers of Jesus are now the new temple, the new Israel, and the kingdom of priests. This is made very apparent when right before John is shown this city, an angel tells him that he is about to show him the Bride of the Lamb (Revelation 21:9).
In the midst of all of this Old Testament imagery in Revelation, John is showing the implications of what it means to follow Jesus. He is showing that those who follow Jesus and endure with him receive a reward far beyond imagination. Revelation 12:11 says that they will conquer with Jesus because of Jesus. This culminates in the picture of the book of life.
This book appears in several areas of Revelation. Revelation 3:5 holds one of the seven “To the one who conquers” messages which says that whoever conquers will not be blotted out of the book of life. So the one who follows Jesus and endures to the end in him will be in this book of life which will ultimately put them in the group that receives this inheritance of being the temple and the kingdom of God.
A major point in Revelation at which this book of life is brought up is in Revelation 5. The Lamb is given a scroll that only He is worthy to open. This scroll is never mentioned again in Revelation until chapter 20 and 21. The book of life is specifically called “the Lamb’s book of life” in 21:27. The Lamb has never been said to have received a book of life in Revelation. However, he was said to have received a scroll. In the first century, there would not have been a distinction between a book and a scroll.
So it can be said that the scroll in Revelation 5 and the Lamb’s book of life are the same thing. It may or may not be the same one featured in Revelation 10 as that one is called the “little scroll” so the language is different (Baynes 805). No matter the case, Revelation suggests that this book of life is what secures the deal for the followers of Jesus receiving the glorious inheritance of Jesus himself and all the things that come along with that. However, those whose names are not written in the book of life will be cast into the lake of fire, not receiving this inheritance. They will receive everlasting judgment.
So the message of Revelation is not that Christians have been given a timetable for the last seven years of the world. The message of Revelation is twofold, both centered on Jesus. He has conquered by his death and resurrection and is now worthy through that. And those who follow him are conquerors through him, are being made new, are part of the new Israel, the kingdom of God, the temple, and will reign with Christ forever. The hard message of Revelation is that those who don’t follow Jesus receive a death that never runs out, not because they didn’t worship Jesus, but because they were dead already.
All of this brings huge implications for Christians today. In view of Jesus being who Revelation says he is and seeing the glorious inheritance that followers of him receive, but the judgment that those who don’t follow him receive, every Christian should be compelled to take the Gospel to people in every nation who don’t follow Jesus. The only thing that makes sense is to make Jesus know to a world who doesn’t know him that those who are dead can be made alive. David Platt is very adamant about this:
Every saved person this side of heaven owes the gospel to every lost person this side of hell. We owe Christ to the world—to the least person and to the greatest person, to the richest person and to the poorest person, to the best person and the worst person. We are in debt to the nations (Platt 74).
The message of Revelation reflects that of the Great Commission that Jesus gave his disciples in Matthew 28. He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” In view of the authority of Jesus, one can only follow or deny him. If one follows him, they must be centered on making him known to the world.
While there are multiple interpretations of Revelation in the Christian community, Christians can do one of three things with what Revelation has to offer. Firstly, they can look at it and try to map out what the end of the world is going to look like. Based on all of this, they can kick back and wait for Jesus to return and “rapture” them to heaven. Secondly, they can seek to study the book more and more, accumulating knowledge that is never used. Thirdly and most importantly, Christians can see Revelation as a treatise to make Jesus known to the world. Revelation is not saying that the Kingdom of God is coming in the future. Revelation is saying that the Kingdom of God has already come through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The promises of the Old Testament have come to the world. All of the things that Israel longed for (a new temple, land, an inheritance, etc.) have come and God is present on earth, living in those who follow Jesus. So what can Christians do but advance the Kingdom of God throughout the world?
Archbishop of Caesarea, Andrew. Commentary on the Apocalypse. 112. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2006. Print.
Baynes, Leslie. “Revelation 5: 1 and 10: 2a, 8-10 in the Earliest Greek Tradition: A Response to Richard Bauckham.” Journal of Biblical Literature. 129.4 (2010): 801-817. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.
Keener, Craig. “One New Temple in Christ.” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies. 12.1 (2009): 75-93. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.
Lansdowne, Zachary. The Revelation of Saint John: The Path to Soul Initiation. San Francisco: Weiser Books, 2006. Print.
Martens, John. “The Great Multitude.” America. 208.12 (2013): 39. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.
Piper, John. God is the Gospel. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011. Print.
Platt, David. Radical: Taking Your Faith Back From the American Dream. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Multnomah, 2010. Print.
Rico, Samuel. “Thirsting for God: The Levitical Inheritance Motif in the Apocalypse.” Westminster Theological Journal. 74.2 (2012): 417-433. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.
Trafton, Joseph. Reading Revelation: A Literary and Theological Commentary. 12. Macon: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2013. Print.
Wright, N. T. Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.