How to Understand the Book of Revelation in the Bible
by David Jeremiah
Like most preachers and teachers, I enjoy books. I collect them, I review them, I read them, I examine them, and I have even written a few of my own. I even appreciate the craft of bookmaking and book publishing—how books are put together, how the story they tell is laid out. Books in our modern day follow a fairly predictable pattern on the outside as well as the inside. Components of a book are consistently the same: the title, a preface, an indication of whom the book is written for, perhaps an introduction, the name of the publisher, a dedication page, and so on. Interestingly, most of those same components can be found in ancient books as well, including the book of Revelation.
In the first eight verses of Revelation we find the information that you would normally find informing you about a book published in our day, information to help you get excited about reading and enjoying the book. So in this lesson we’ll get an introduction to the book as a whole by studying the first eight verses and discovering the preface, the people addressed, the publisher, the personal dedication, and the purpose of Revelation.
THE PREFACE TO THE BOOK (1:1-3)
“Preface” means “to say before.” Therefore, the preface of a book contains the comments made by the author before getting into the book’s contents.
It Is a Prophetic Book (1:1)
The word “revelation” comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, or “apocalypse.” When we hear the word “apocalypse” we think of horrible and frightening disasters associated with the end of the world. But Hollywood’s definition of the word is different from the Bible’s. In Greek, the word “apocalypse” simply means “an uncovering, unveiling, setting forth, or manifestation of.” Therefore, the “apocalypse of Jesus Christ” is the “uncovering or making known of Jesus Christ.” The primary focus of the book of Revelation is not to paint a picture of the end times, though it does help us do that. It is primarily to unveil the Lord Jesus Christ in His role as coming King over all the earth.
The preface continues in verse one to say the book will reveal “things which must shortly take place.” The word translated “shortly” is from tachos, from which we get our word “tachometer”—the gauge which measures revolutions per minute (R.P.M.) of an engine. In the Greek it refers to something which will happen suddenly or quickly. It doesn’t mean quickly as in “tomorrow”—but quickly as in a succession of events once they begin to unfold.
It Is a Pictorial Book (1:2)
Three or four times in Revelation we are told that these are the things which we are to be shown, a demonstration. This is not just a book that is written in words but in pictures as well. It is a visible book that demonstrates in symbols and in images what’s going to happen in the future. The author John is writing about things “he saw.” The images and pictures God showed John on the Island of Patmos are the images he describes for us in Revelation. Notice the chain of communication of these images. Verse one says the Father gave the message to the Son, and the Son sent it to John by way of an angel.
It Is a Profitable Book (1:3)
There are many different blessings promised to the reader of the book of Revelation, and verse three contains the first of those promises. Verse three contains four ways in which Revelation is profitable for us.
- It is profitable for personal application.
Revelation is a book the devil hates. It tells of his ultimate doom and the ultimate victory of the Lord Jesus Christ. He does not want anyone to read the book of Revelation. If I heard from God that by reading the book of Revelation I could be blessed, I believe I would read it. I’d read it out loud. I’d read it as often as I could. It is the only book in all of the Bible that has its own special blessing promised for reading and obeying it.
- It is profitable for public assembly.
The book of Revelation is profitable not only for reading but for hearing. It is sad that we don’t read the Scriptures aloud in our churches much these days, for that was apparently the practice of the early church. Justyn Martyr, a leader in the early church (ca. A.D. 140) said that “the memoirs of the Apostles were read in the local assembly,”referring obviously to their epistles. Public reading may also be what Paul referred to when he told Timothy to “give attention to reading” (1 Timothy 4:13).
One of my friends has an eight-foot bookshelf filled with current motivational best-sellers. I asked him if he had ever considered one of the greatest motivational treatises in the world, the book of Revelation. He probably thought I had flipped out, but I hope he reads this book.
Escape the Coming Night
- It is profitable for practical admonition.
Those are blessed who “keep the things which are written in it.”The book is not only to be read and heard, but to be obeyed. A phrase repeated often in Revelation is, “He who has an ear, let him hear . . .”(e.g., 2:7, 11, 29;3:6, 13, 22;13:9). It’s similar to what we mean when we say, “If the shoe fits, wear it.” John means to say that if what you are reading applies to you, then you need to obey it and appropriate it for your life.
- It is profitable for prophetic anticipation (1:3).
John says “the time is near.” It’s like the small boy who heard, for the first time, the family clock chime all the way to 12 and exclaimed to his mother, “Mom, it’s later than it’s ever been!” That’s the message of Revelation—it was later than it had ever been when John wrote the book, and it is later than it has ever been now. People get caught up in trying to set a date for the return of Christ, but that is futile. All we need to know is that it “is near”—meaning nothing else has to happen on the prophetic calendar before Christ returns.
We will move quickly now through the rest of the information about the book of Revelation presented by John.
THE PEOPLE ADDRESSED IN THE BOOK (1:4A)
While the apostle Paul wrote separate letters to seven different churches, the apostle John wrote one letter and sent it to seven churches. The entire book of Revelation was sent to seven churches in Asia (they are listed in verse 11). Once again we find the number “seven”—the number of completeness—which is so prominent throughout Scripture. Looking at a map, you will notice these seven churches take the shape of a rough circle. These churches were representative of all the churches of John’s day.
THE PUBLISHER OF THE BOOK (1:4-8)
The name of the publishing house today might be “Triune Publishers” since Revelation was published by the Father, Son, and Spirit of God.
From God the Father
God is Him who is and who was and who will be (verse 4), the “I am” of Exodus 3:13-14 who introduced Himself to Moses at the burning bush. We know this is the Father since the Son is mentioned separately in verse 5.
From God the Spirit
The “seven Spirits” before God’s throne (verse 4) refer to the fullness, or completeness, of the Holy Spirit. In Isaiah 11:1-2 we find seven characteristics of the Spirit of God listed. We think of the Spirit as one, which He is, but He is also manifold in the manifestations of His character.
From God the Son
Christ is “the faithful witness” of verse 5 and the final publisher of the revelation John received. Throughout the book John ascribes title after title to Jesus Christ who is the theme of the book. Here there are three: faithful witness, the first born from the dead (referring to the Resurrection), and the ruler of the earth.
THE PERSONAL DEDICATION OF THE BOOK (1:5B-6)
John dedicates his book “To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father.”
Who Loved Us
While not incorrect grammatically to translate “love” in the past tense, it is a present participle in the Greek language: “the one who loves us.” His love continues as much for us today as when He loved us on Calvary’s cross.
Who Loosed Us
Because of His love the guilt of our sins has been washed away, and we are loosed from the penalty of sin.
Who Lifted Us
Being loved and being free qualifies us for citizenship in God’s kingdom as kings and priests.
THE PURPOSE OF THE BOOK (1:7-8)
Verses 7 and 8 are from the inside cover of the “book” we are previewing. In these two verses is found a synopsis of what the book is all about. There are two primary purposes of the book of Revelation: the presentation of the king and the program of His kingdom.
The Presentation of the King (1:7)
Verse 7 describes in a short sentence the one-day coming again of Jesus Christ. Every eye on earth will see Him and every “tribe” will mourn for Him because of His prior treatment and death in His first coming. The persecuted believers in churches throughout the Roman Empire would have read this verse and taken heart that the Savior who was pierced is coming back to present Himself as king—even king over the Emperor of Rome!
The word “coming” is the Greek word parousia. It is the normal word for “coming” or “advent,” but came to be applied to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. This is not the Rapture of the Church; it is Christ’s physical appearing in the heavens and specifically, it refers to a coming which changes the situation into which the coming is made. Like the return of a teacher into a disorderly classroom from which she has been momentarily absent—her coming changes everything. Jesus’parousia will make all the difference in the affairs of the world. Whenever God speaks from within a cloud, or uses clouds to accompany His purposes, it is always to make a statement or bring judgment into the situation (Exodus 19:16;40:30; Daniel 7:13; Matthew 17:5; Acts 1:9). And that is exactly what will happen at Jesus’ Second Coming. He will be “coming with clouds” to judge the world. He is not seen by every eye because of television, but because of the radiance of His glory across the heavens. It is hard to imagine what that day will be like.
The Program of the Kingdom (1:8)
The program of the kingdom is that Jesus is “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” He is saying, “I am in charge. I just want you to know before I come and while I’m coming and after I’ve come, I’m the King and I’m in charge.” When He uses the words Alpha and Omega, He is using the first and last letter of the Greek alphabet to say, “I am the A-to-Z, the beginning and the end and everything in between.”
The beginning and the end has reference not only to the eternality of Christ but also to His authority. He is the One who is totally in charge. His inclusive power, pictured by the expression “Alpha and the Omega,” shows He is greater than the process of time. As “the First and the Last,” everything we conceive of as “time” is contained in Him. He preceded the creation of the earth and will succeed its re-creation when the new heavens and new earth are set in place. Revelation is the account of Jesus’ campaign for the rulership of earth. He was appointed by the Father, won the victory over Satan, and will establish His eternal kingdom when He comes again. He is El Shaddai, “the Almighty.”
The message of Revelation is that Jesus is coming back and He is in charge. That’s why every believer should study this book until the excitement of Jesus’ return begins to grow and bear fruit in him.
- Read 2 Peter 3:3-15.
- What can we anticipate as the time of Christ’s appearing draws near? (verses 3-4)
- How can the “slow ”movement of history be deceiving? (verse 4)
- How should we understand the “delay” in Christ’s second coming? (verse 9)
- What will happen when He returns? (verses 10, 12)
- How should we be living in light of His return? (verses 11, 13-14)
- What should we be looking forward to? (verse 14)
- Christ will return to earth as King of Kings. Describe the aspects of His kingship as found in the following verses.
- Daniel 4:37
- Matthew 2:2
- John 1:49
- 1 Timothy 1:17
- Psalm 24:7
- Revelation 15:3
- Revelation 19:6
Speaking of the Future . . .
What would you do if you were the only one in town with a storm cellar, and a tornado was approaching in the distance? No doubt you would act to get your loved ones underground as quickly as possible. You’d get on the telephone, urging every friend and neighbor you could to join you in the storm cellar. Eventually the door would need to be closed. Those inside would escape, but the ones outside would not.
On Sunday, December 26, 2004, a tsunami rolled across the Indian Ocean and killed hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia and other nations. How do you think the people in those lands would have acted had they received advance warning of the devastation to come? They would have done everything in their power to escape the massive waves.
The prophetic portions of the Bible are like an early warning system for the human race. Judgment is coming upon the earth for all who fail to heed the warning signs that God has been giving for two millennia. The Day of the Lord will come upon us “like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2, NIV), but we have been warned ahead of time that the Day is coming.
Are you one who will be found safe in Christ, or one who will fail to heed God’s abundant warnings?
For this cause everyone who is godly shall pray to You in a time when You may be found; surely in a flood of great waters they shall not come near him. —David in Psalm 32:6