Here's an extract from a handout from a recent Bible study designed to introduce the book of Revelation in one hour. OK, it ended up taking two hours (quite a lot of the handout isn't here), but it was a noble aim...
1:1 Authorship: Revealed by God through an angel to John
1:2 John wrote it down
1:3 Revelation is a blessing: “Blessed... reads aloud ... hear ... keep”
1:4a To the seven churches of Asia
Seven churches in chs 2-3
“Seven” = “totality”? “The whole church”?
1. The covenant-historical context of Revelation
How does Revelation fit into the historical story-line of the Bible as a whole, and how does it relate to major events in world history?
• Revelation is about events that were imminent at the time it was written (before AD 70)
1:1 “the things that must soon take place”
1:3 “the time is near”
22:6 “what must soon take place”
22:10 “the time is near”
22:12 “I am coming soon”
22:20 “Surely I am coming soon”
• What events are in view? Why do they matter?
“Behold, he is coming with the clouds” (1:7)
Revelation 1:7 explains that the big event on the horizon was the “coming” of Jesus, the Son of Man, which at the time of writing was “soon” to take place (see the above passages, especially 22:12, 20). Many people assume that this “coming” in Revelation 1:7 is a reference to Jesus' so-called “second coming” or “final coming” at the final Day of Judgment, when Jesus will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. But although the Bible does speak of this “final coming” of Jesus (e.g. Mark 13:32-36; Matthew 24:36-25:46; 1 Corinthians 15:23-28; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17; Revelation 21-22), this is not what Revelation 1:7 is talking about.
The clue is found in the phrase “he is coming with the clouds” (Revelation 1:7), which alludes to an important passage in Daniel 7:13-14. Daniel 7 contains a vision of four beasts (matching the vision of the four-part statue in Daniel 2), which represent four kingdoms (Babylon, Persia, Alexandrian Greece, Rome), each of which is overthrown by the one that comes after it, before the fourth beast-kingdom is finally overthrown by the Son of Man (or, in Daniel 2, the Kingdom of God, which amounts to pretty much the same thing). The Son of Man receives all authority when he “comes with the clouds” into the presence of the Ancient of Days in heaven (Daniel 7:13-14) – exactly the same as the phrase found in Revelation 1:7. Notice that (according to Daniel 7) Jesus isn’t “coming” to earth; he’s “coming” into the presence of God the Father (the Ancient of Days) in heaven, where he is enthroned and “given dominion and glory and a kingdom” (Daniel 7:14).
But although Jesus isn’t coming physically to earth, his “coming” into the Father’s presence in heaven is nonetheless connected with events on earth. But what events are these? In Mark 13 (and Matthew 24 and Luke 21), Jesus himself tells us, for he uses the same imagery again: “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26). This is part of a well-known conversation between Jesus and his disciples about the Temple in Jerusalem (v. 1), when Jesus predicts that the Temple itself will “be thrown down” (v. 2).
So then, the heavenly “coming” of Jesus mentioned in Daniel 7 and Revelation 1:7 has a visible manifestation on earth: the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the final end of the Old covenant order associated with it. These are the historical events that Revelation has in view. Obviously these are connected with Jesus’ final sacrifice for sins (he “has freed us from our sins by his blood”, Revelation 1:5), which brings to an end the ongoing sacrifices of the Jewish Temple. Only towards the end of the book (from about chapter 19 onward) does the perspective shift towards the final coming of Jesus.
Daniel 7 further explains that when Jesus receives “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him” (v. 14), the church will share in this authority. “the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them” (Daniel 7:27). Revelation also picks up this theme from Daniel. Jesus “has made us a kingdom” (Revelation 1:6), and “they shall reign on the earth” (5:10).
So then, this is the message of the book of Revelation:
Jesus has overthrown the kingdoms of the world, and brought to an end the Old Covenant order of Temple worship. He now reigns in heaven, and is sharing his rule with his people in earth, while his kingdom continues to grow as history marches on towards his final coming in glory.
2. The literary structure of Revelation
What is the overall “shape” of the book of Revelation?
And how does an understanding of this shape help us to interpret it?
• Multiple structures, highlighting multiple layers of meaning
• Seven letters, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls
Letters: preparing the churches for the coming judgments
Seals: unveiling the coming judgments
Trumpets: announcing the coming judgments
Bowls: pouring out the coming judgments
3. Some significant imagery in Revelation
How should we seek to understand some of the significant imagery in the book of Revelation?
• A huge task! (Almost?) every biblical image and every biblical book
• Some important biblical passages to get started with
Daniel 7. See above.
Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21. See above.
Daniel 2. Corresponds to Daniel 7 in the structure of Daniel 2-7, and highlights the growth of the Kingdom of God (the rock that becomes the mountain that fills the whole earth) throughout history following the heavenly enthronement of Christ.
Psalm 2. An enthronement Psalm, speaking of the rule of the Davidic king over all the kings and nations of the world.
Exodus 19. Israel as a priestly kingdom, a vocation taken up by the church following the resurrection and ascension of Christ (e.g. Revelation 1:6).
Next, I’d encourage you to try to immerse yourself in the imagery of Exodus 26-40; Leviticus 1-11; Ezekiel; and Zechariah.
• Some important biblical images
Trumpets. Exodus 19; Leviticus 23; Numbers 10; Joshua 6. Announcement of God’s presence, whether in worship, judgment, leading his people out to war, etc.
Mountains. Associated with Eden, Jerusalem / Zion, Mount of Olives, and figuratively with the Tabernacle . Places of encounter with God.
Ugly, distorted beasts (e.g. dragons, many-headed monsters). Daniel 7. Distorted creatures, powerful but twisted. Associated with ungodly political powers.
Powerful and beautiful animals (e.g. lions, oxen, eagles). Ezekiel 1. Manifestations of created strength and beauty. Associated with godly power.
The earth. Often better translated “land” in Revelation (except Revelation 21-22); often referring to the first-century land of Israel.
4. Interpreting a sample passage from Revelation
Bearing in mind everything we’ve looked at so far, how should we approach a particular section of the book when we come to look at it in detail?
• Revelation 12
v. 1 “Woman ... sun ... moon ... twelve stars”; Genesis 1; Twelve tribes of ______________?
v. 2 “Pregnant” – who is her child?
v. 3 “Dragon”, cf. v. 7; Genesis 3
v. 4 What does the dragon want to do to the child?
v. 5 Who is the “male child” again?
“Rod of iron”, from which Psalm? _________ Why is this significant?
v. 6 What happens to the child?
1260 days? Cf. 11:3?
Where does the woman go?
vv. 7-12 What happens during the “war in heaven”? What happens afterwards?
“Michael” – echoes of Daniel 8; 10?
v. 13 What does the dragon do next?
v. 14 How does the woman escape?
v. 15 What does the dragon do next? Waters of judgment; Genesis 6-8; Exodus 14?
v. 16 How does the woman escape this time?
v. 17 What does the dragon do next?
Who are “the rest of [the woman’s] offspring”?
Will the dragon will succeed in capturing the woman and her offspring?
• Revelation 20:1-6
vv. 1-3 What happens to the dragon next?
vv. 4-6 What happens to those “who had not worshipped the beast”?