The book of Revelation can be frightening. There are wars, dragons, beasts, demons, fires, plagues, strange creatures of all sorts, swords, judgments, strange symbols, and gruesome depictions of death. Many people struggle to read Revelation because they believe it is too intense, too terrible to think about the world actually being like that, even in a symbolic way.
But this is not how we have to feel about this book. There are many indications that we could easily see Revelation in a new light. In 2001, the film series The Lord of the Rings, based on the books by J.R.R. Tolkien, debuted in theaters around the world. Millions of people flocked to the theaters year after year to watch a trilogy of three-hour-long movies about … wars, goblins, beasts, demons, fires, plagues, strange creatures of all sorts, swords, judgments, strange symbols, and gruesome depictions of death. But while many scenes in The Lord of the Rings can be very frightening and disturbing, people consistently left the theater not feeling afraid, but inspired.
The depiction of the great struggles and pains that the characters go through helped people to appreciate their eventual triumph. The horrible circumstances portrayed in The Lord of the Rings create an opportunity for the characters to display courage, hope, loyalty, wisdom, selflessness, and many other virtues. The story is inspiring, not fearful.
We can think of the book of Revelation in a way that is similar to this. The early Christians lived in very difficult times. Their movement was deeply misunderstood. Some people thought they were simply Jewish movement, while others saw them as a dangerous threat to society. The Roman Empire especially took offence to the idea that the Christians believed in Jesus as the ultimate King instead of Caesar. They faced many forms of violent oppression and persecution because of being so deeply misunderstood and distrusted.
To comfort a group of people going through violence and oppression, God gave them a message that acknowledged their circumstances. He gave them a story that would give them the strength to hold on, to fight spiritually through the pain. Jesus says these words to his people:
“I know all the things you do. I have seen your hard work and your patient endurance.” 2:2 “I know about your suffering and your poverty [...] I know the blasphemy of those opposing you.” 2:9 “Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. The devil will throw some of you into prison to test you. You will suffer for ten days. But if you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life. 2:10 “I know that you live in the city where Satan has his throne, yet you have remained loyal to me.” 2:13 “Because you have obeyed my command to persevere, I will protect you from the great time of testing that will come upon the whole world to test those who belong to this world. I am coming soon.”
One of the big mistakes people make when reading the book of Revelation is getting lost in the frightening details of catastrophe and war on the earth. There is an entire other side to the story of Revelation - the events taking place in heaven during the conflict. A lot of the most important action in this story takes place in God’s throne room, surrounded by angels, who are sent out to earth to resist evil.
At the beginning of the book, Jesus tells John about many of the problems facing the Christian church on earth. John is forced to confront the cold, sad fact of the corruption and imperfection of his fellow Christians. Those early followers of Jesus were a realistic but discouraging mix of good and bad. John knew this, and had worked through his life to encourage the good and correct the errors. Now as an older man, weary and broken by many trials, it would be easy to lose hope for the church.
But then John is given a look into heaven itself. Far above the problems of planet earth, John sees God’s throne room, the choirs of angels singing, and a paradise beyond his comprehension. This place is full of goodness and peace. This place is good. This is a place where someone could feel safe from the problems of earth, a place of refuge. You could say, this place is a sanctuary.
And the most important thing John sees in this heavenly temple is a Lamb. As a Jewish person, John knew the customs of his people. For generations, Jewish people had brought lambs to the temple in Jerusalem as sacrifices when they sinned. This stretched all the way back to the Exodus and the first Passover festival - when the slaves in Egypt covered the doors of their homes with the blood from a sacrificed lamb so that the angel of death would ‘pass over’ instead of entering their homes. The blood of a lamb was a powerful symbol of one innocent life being exchanged in place of a guilty one - giving the guilty person a second chance at life. Now, in the very heart of heaven, John sees a Lamb standing with God. This Lamb is very much alive, but has scars and injuries that make it clear that at some point it had been killed.
This Lamb, of course, is Jesus - the innocent one who had been killed, but ultimately defeated death itself and rose to life again. Jesus experienced the worst of humanity’s evil, and yet was not defeated. The angels sing over and over that Jesus deserves to rule heaven and earth - that he was proven himself to be the one who can oversee the rest of human history. He sacrificed himself for humanity and gave them a chance to be redeemed. The task of judging the human race will be given to the one who joined the human race and died for us.
While observing the events in heaven, John sees that Jesus is given the ability to oversee all the upcoming events of human history - both good and bad. The message here is one of hope: no matter what happens now, human history is in the hands of a God who loved humanity so much that he actually became one of us, and the final judgment of human beings will be carried out by the one who gave up his own life in order to give each of us another chance. Our judge is also our defender. And he lives in a place of peace and goodness. Jesus already lives in victory - far above evil and the devil. He has already proven that death, the worst thing that the devil can threaten us with, is not the end. The lamb had been killed, but he is alive again, and promises to give us all that same option.
Revelation invites us to look up, far above our present circumstances, and to know that everything is in the hands of Jesus, who loves us enough to give up everything to make things right. Revelation encourages God’s people to hold on and and do the right thing even through the hard times. It is the same inspiring message for us today. Trust God; let the world do its worst.
- The book of Revelation has several literary genres. There is apocalyptic prophecy in here, but there are also a number of songs whose lyrics are written in this book, and chapters 2 and 3 contain letters to seven churches. These letters were written down by John on behalf of Jesus to a group of churches in the western part of Anatolia (which today we know was the country of Turkey). In these letters, Jesus tells the churches what they are doing well, and the areas where they need to improve.
- Read these concluding lines from each letter (2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:26-29, 3:5-6, 3:12-13, 3:21-22). What patterns do you see? Why might it have been important to say these things to the churches?
- Read Revelation 3:7-22. What differences do you see between the letter to Philadelphia and Laodicea? What lessons can we learn from comparing these two groups?
- When looking at these passages, what questions come up for you about Jesus? How does he come across to you? What things do you like? What things are challenging or difficult?
- One of the interesting facets of Revelation is the way that the story alternates between events taking place on earth and events taking place in Heaven. But the things that John sees in heaven may seem strange to our eyes.
- Look at Revelation 4. What does the environment look like? What kind of description does John give? Does it seem like a situation that John full comprehended, or is it possible that his language fails to fully capture what he saw?
- In 4:6-8, there are "four living creatures" that are quite strange. Read Isaiah 6:1-8 and compare it with Revelation 4. What similarities are there in what John and Isaiah see?
- See also Ezekiel 1:1-14. What similarities do the creatures here have to the other passages? What role do they seem to have?
- Look at this helpful video from The Bible Project, which talks about Spiritual beings. What did you learn from this video that you did not know before? Which elements did you recognize from Revelation, Isaiah, and Ezekiel?
- Revelation 2-3 describes events taking place with human beings on earth. Revelation 4 transfers John up to heaven, where he observes the activities of spiritual beings around God's throne. What similarities or differences do you notice between the two settings? How are the two locations different from each other? What kind of lessons, encouragement, or hope could be gained from catching a glimpse into heaven? How would that help strugglign people?
- Feel free to also skip ahead and read some of Revelation 5, which continues directly out of Revelation 4. Who is the main character who appears in chatper 5?