The Historical Context of the Book of Revelation

Behind any piece of music there is a story. A love song is written out of an experience involving an intimate relationship, or at least the hope for one. A song of lament arises out of some personal or national tragedy. A ballad tells a tale. Likewise, the book of Revelation has a fascinating story.

The backdrops for all of Revelation’s songs are stories involving God and his people. They are the accounts of John and other servants of God who lived in a hostile and seductive world at the end of the first century. Jesus no longer walked the dusty roads of the land of Israel. In John’s day, Jesus walked among the lamp-stands of seven churches located in Roman Asia Minor. What was the narrative of the church at the end of the first century? How did the stories of the individual congregations fit in with the larger story God was writing? We will see that a careful reading of the book in light of its situation challenges us to reflect on how the stories of those ancient Christian communities are similar to our own.

Yesterday before Today

Revelation did not appear in a time–space vacuum. It is not to be read first and foremost in light of our historical situation but in light of the one Christians faced at the end of the first century. The book was written by a real person to real people who identified themselves with congregations in Roman Asia. Every effort must be made to understand the culture in which the original author and recipients lived. What was going on in John’s life and in the lives of the members of the churches dwelling in the seven cities in Asia Minor? Why was the book written? Was there more than one reason?

Because some are so focused on learning how the book speaks to our day, the above questions are often ignored. To do so places the Bible student in great peril. Such an approach will lead the student to ask the wrong questions of individual passages, as well as the entire book. And in asking the wrong questions, we may very well miss the point of what John communicated. Bible students know that we must seek to understand the historical setting of every other book in the Bible. Why should we not do so with Revelation? Indeed, I believe when we take the time to explore the situation in John’s day, the book becomes even more exciting and encouraging to Christians living in the twenty–first century.

When we fill in the historical background of a biblical work in order to understand how it spoke to the original receivers, it is like using a film–making technique called “the green screen” (some use a “blue screen”). Anyone who has seen a special on how a movie was made is familiar with the green screen. Whenever a scene calls for a backdrop that cannot safely be shot or reproduced on location, the director will film the actors in front of a completely green background. Later, using usually computer technology, the background is filled in wherever the green appears.

Reading a book of the Bible without understanding the historical background is like watching actors perform before such a screen. Until we fill in the green, the scenes do not make any sense. When it comes to Revelation, many fill in the green with situations drawn from their own day rather than John’s. When they fill in the background with their own beliefs, prejudices, behavior, and practices, they are likely to distort the author’s intended meaning. Sadly, when the book is interpreted primarily in light of what is going on today, current events are read back into a first–century text. And then when the newspaper headlines fade, newer headlines are inserted in a vain attempt to give Revelation an up–to–date look and relevancy.

The necessity of interpreting Revelation in light of the situation in John’s day remains one of the hardest fought battles. As Bible students, we may be tempted to take what is thought to be the easiest path. But the shortcut to application that ignores John’s situation and focuses on our own day has consistently resulted in misunderstanding the book’s message. Before there can be application, there needs to be investigation of what each book of the Bible meant to the original recipients. This is a fundamental principle. We do this, for example, when studying Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth or Philippi, and we must do so when studying God’s message to the seven churches in Asia Minor.

As we attempt to comprehend the historical setting of John and his recipients we find ourselves blessed for at least two reasons. First, Revelation itself is a key source for understanding the conditions in which it was written, for both John and his audience. It describes the situation Jesus’ disciples encountered at the end of the first century, specifically their trials and temptations—past, present, and future. John’s work is a very reliable guide to understanding the place the church occupied in the ancient pagan world amidst the ocean of conflicting influences threatening to overwhelm many congregations.

Second, among the resources outside of Scripture, we have access to an exchange of letters between a Roman Emperor and a provincial governor. The correspondence gives an account of events of the early years of the second century, shedding light on how Roman politicians and people in general viewed Christians.

In John’s day, disciples of Jesus faced both internal and external dangers. Externally, John describes opposition Christians experienced at the hands of Jews and Romans. The internal menace concerned the temptation to compromise with culture and involved such issues as doctrinal, ethical, and spiritual problems found in the congregations. These external and internal perils are related: For where there is tribulation without, it is important to deal with the temptations within.

Persecution

The term “conflict” describes the circumstances involving Christians and Romans at the end of the first century. I am using the word to refer to a clash between two opposing forces, powers, ideologies, or kingdoms because they cannot peacefully coexist. They cannot occupy the same space at the same time without strife. As the Kingdom of God expanded, it was increasingly perceived to be a danger to the Roman Empire. The very lifestyles of Christians challenged the Roman culture, which emphasized worshiping gods, embracing materialism and hedonism, and showing loyalty to the Empire by worshiping Caesar as a god.

The opening and closing chapters of the book present in a general way the nature of the conflict. Even though John sets himself apart as a prophet who receives visions, in Rev. 1:9 he aligns himself with the recipients of the book on three levels. First, the author and audience are brothers and sisters and companions because they are in the Kingdom. Second, because they submit to God’s rule, together they share the same end, experiencing persecution and opposition. Third, side by side they are called upon to demonstrate steadfastness.

John also alludes to the difficult conditions at the time of writing in Revelation 22:9 and 11. In verse 9 the angel associates himself with John, the other prophets, and with all Christians by declaring that together they are those “who keep the words of this book” (see Rev. 1:3). The teaching in verse 11 is to be understood in the context of the whole document. John is drawing a contrast between those disciples who show unyielding perseverance (“let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy”) and those who refuse to be faithful in their worship of God as well as those who never worship God and instead pledge their allegiance to Satan (“let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile”). Evil and evildoers are a part of this world, and Christians must not compromise but remain constant in their loyalty to Christ (Rev. 22:14–15).

We can be more specific. Consider the Jewish opposition to the Christian movement. From its beginnings the church not only won converts among the Jews (Acts 2:41; Acts 5:14; Acts 9:1ff.; Acts 14:1), but it also suffered at the hands of those Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 5:17ff.; Acts 7:57–8:3; Acts 9:1–2; Acts 12:1ff.; Acts 14:4ff.; Acts 17:1ff.; Acts 18:5ff.; Acts 28:17ff.; 1 Thess. 2:14ff.). Such opposition continued up to John’s day, as evidenced in Revelation 2:9 and Acts 3:8–9.

In Smyrna and Philadelphia, the Jews slandered the Christians by saying they were not God’s people. Perhaps they argued that only those who were associated with the Jewish synagogue belonged to God. The irony is that Jesus calls the synagogue of the Jews a “synagogue of Satan.” Furthermore, Revelation 2:9 refers to the afflictions and poverty experienced by Christians in Smyrna, a possible reference to physical and economic pressures exerted by the Jews (Heb. 10:32–34).

Even though we should not minimize the harm done to Christians by Jews in the first century, it was the Roman attitudes and actions toward Christians that deserve special attention. Revelation suggests that at the end of the first century, Roman toleration of Christians was fading and was being replaced by growing suspicion and vindictiveness (see also Acts 16:37ff.; Acts 19:35ff.; and 1 Peter). The Christians in Asia Minor found themselves in a period of transition where the response of the Roman government and populace toward them was changing for the worse.

Rejection and oppression came about because disciples faithful to Jesus realized they could not compromise their loyalty by pledging their allegiance to the Roman government. Faithful Christians simply could not worship the Emperor as a god, nor could they accept the Roman way of life filled with idolatry and immorality.

Let’s first consider the importance of the imperial cult. The Roman imperial religion was ultimately concerned with the welfare of the state, especially maintaining unity and peace in the Empire. As long as people expressed their loyalty to the superpower by participating in the imperial cult, then diverse customs and religious beliefs and practices were tolerated.

The overwhelming majority of scholars agree that the Roman cult in which the Emperor was worshiped as a god is the background behind such passages as Revelation 13:1–18; 14:9–11; and 19:19–20. It was this state religion that provided the means of securing the loyalty of the people and maintaining the unity of the Empire.

The Christian faith stood in clear opposition to the idolatrous claims of the state (along with the idolatrous and pagan lifestyle it sanctioned). John challenged the followers of Jesus to spurn the state religion since they acknowledged an authority greater than the Emperor in whom the authority of the government was incarnate. Furthermore, it is well known that the imperial cult was especially strong in Asia Minor, the region where the seven churches were attempting to live out their faith.

Written correspondence between the Roman Emperor Trajan and Pliny, the governor of the Roman province Bithynia, located north of Asia Minor, illustrates the nature of the Roman state religion and the threat it posed to Christians. What is remarkable is that the exchange of the letters took place less than twenty years after John wrote the Revelation (around A.D. 95). Trajan was Emperor A.D. 98–117 and Pliny was governor A.D. 111–112.

The two letters are reproduced here in their entirety for two reasons. First, they make for fascinating reading by shedding light on how Roman officials viewed the Christian faith. Second, many Christians have never had the opportunity to read a document outside of Revelation that helps us understand the environment just a few years after John’s writing had circulated among the churches in Asia Minor.

These letters are the key records we have concerning the official policy toward the Christians in the two centuries from Nero (A.D. 54–68) to Decius (A.D. 249–251), in whose brief reign the organized imperial persecution of Christianity was begun. The correspondence highlights the political charges against Christians (e.g., disobedience of imperial officials, violation of the laws on illegal meetings, and so forth) and popular grievances against the disciples (e.g., Christians were accused of being atheists because they did not worship the gods, and they were also suspected of cannibalism, due to a misunderstanding concerning the celebration of the Lord’s Supper).

The two letters reproduced here demand little comment due to their clarity. The first is Pliny asking Trajan for guidance in dealing with the trials of Christians. He writes:

It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.

Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ—none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do—these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty–five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but to not commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not to falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food—but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved excessive superstition.

I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchases could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.

Trajan’s response to Pliny is brief but sharp in its tone:

You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it—that is, by worshipping our gods—even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with [the spirit of] our age.

The letters reveal that Trajan as Emperor had no legal precedent to appeal to with regard to Pliny’s questions concerning the treatment of Christians. Christians aroused suspicions for two reasons. First, they were viewed as members of an antisocial cult or, in the words of the governor, a “superstition” or “disease.” Second, Christ’s disciples were suspect because they refused to participate in the worship of the Emperor as a god. For a Christian, only Christ could be addressed as “Master and God.”

A note of caution is in order. It may surprise you, but there is no clear support for the view that Christians in the first century were being persecuted in a systematic way. However, there had been outbursts of persecution. For example, Nero’s persecution of the Christians living in Rome in the mid 60s is well known. It seems reasonable to assume that Christians living outside of Rome would have grown anxious, wondering if they too would soon be attacked.

When we read through Revelation, sometimes the antagonism seems to refer to events in the recent past (Rev. 2:13; Rev. 6:9–11), sometimes ongoing (Rev. 1:9), and at other times there are hints of persecution to come (Rev. 20:7–10). Sometimes there is lack of clarity (Rev. 13:1ff.). The past and present acts of hostility hint at more difficult days ahead (Rev. 13:1ff.; Rev. 14:9–13; Rev. 15:7; Rev. 17:4; Rev. 19:20). Revelation teaches that resistance will become more organized and widespread; times will become tougher for Jesus’ disciples.

Cultural Seduction

We now turn to what I believe was the greatest menace facing the Christians in John’s day. It was not from direct persecution, but from temptation to compromise with their culture. The threat of cultural seduction lies behind many of the passages of the book.

The specter of compromise has followed God’s people throughout the centuries. For example, as the Jews in Daniel’s day faced the threat of “Babylonization,” so the Christians in John’s day faced the threat of “Romanization.” John saw Roman culture, like Babylon of old, as seductress, using all of its moral, social, economic, religious, political, and military might to lure Christians into complacency in serving God and loving one another (Rev. 14:8; 17–18). Resisting the power of cultural seduction is sounded again and again in the book.

The situations faced by the early Christians were not unlike those faced by ancient Israel in both the Old Testament (the influence of the Canaanites, Assyrians, Babylonians, and so forth) and intertestamental times (the period between the last of the Old Testament writings and the coming of Christ where Greek influence especially was a threat). Fidelity to God when confronting adversaries and alluring cultures was a note sounded time and again in the Scriptures. Hence, it is not surprising that John uses the language and images from Old Testament writings like Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel to portray the nature of the conflict and the demands made of God’s people.

It is especially in the messages to the seven churches, though not limited to them (Rev. 14:4–5; Rev. 16:15; Rev. 18:4; Rev. 21:8; Rev. 22:11, 14–15), that the reader can see the temptations facing Christians to go along with Roman culture in order to get along with their neighbors. Church members in Sardis (save a minority) and Laodicea had grown complacent, having abandoned their earlier faith and zeal (Rev. 3:1–4, 15–19). Their complacency had provoked little, if any, response from the communities in which they lived.

Ephesians Christians had displayed doctrinal and moral purity (Rev. 2:2–3, 6), but their zeal for truth caused them to forsake the love they had for God and other disciples at the beginning of their pilgrimage (Rev. 2:4–5). Perhaps they had forgotten to heed Paul’s earlier counsel to speak and live the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).

Acceptance of false teachers and their teachings had resulted in Christians at Thyatira and Pergamum practicing immorality and idolatry (Rev. 2:14–15, 18–23; see also Rev. 2:6). These two churches probably provide evidence of the power of trade guilds in the ancient world. It was expected that workers associated with certain occupations would worship the gods and goddesses who blessed their labors, and that worship often resulted in committing acts of immorality with the temple priests and priestesses.

Only disciples in Smyrna and Philadelphia escaped censure. Ironically, their refusal to compromise had led, or was going to lead, to attempts to destroy them (Rev. 2:10; Rev. 3:10).

Revelation divulges that some Christians had clearly capitulated to culture, while others had conspicuously remained ardent in their loyalty to Christ. In between these two extremes were followers who needed to be shaken from their spiritual lethargy and challenged to accept the cost of discipleship. All the churches in Asia Minor were admonished not to reflect the character of the cities in which they lived. Why? These cities were fashioned in the image of Rome, the capital of the Empire, a city noted for its depravity and violence. On the contrary, the Christians were called upon to repent and remain uncontaminated by the sins of a culture opposed to God (Rev. 2:5, 16, 21–22; Rev. 3:3, 19; see also Rev. 9:20–21; Rev. 18:4).

By rejecting these lifestyles Christians highlighted the distinctiveness of their way of life: Idolatrous and licentious living was not tolerated. Their separatism combined with their customs led to misunderstandings in which Christians were accused of numerous offenses, ranging from immorality to atheism to cannibalism to anarchy.

Thus Revelation presents a picture of the Roman way of life versus the Christian way of life (Rev. 2–3; Rev. 9:20–21; Rev. 13:1ff.; Rev. 18:1ff.; Rev. 21:8; Rev. 22:11, 14–15). The former involved recognition and acceptance of other religions and behaviors opposed to the Christian view while at the same time supporting the right of the Empire and Emperor to command supreme allegiance through the Roman state religion (Rev. 9:20–21; Rev. 13:1ff.).

The Christian faith stood in direct opposition to idolatrous claims of the state and the idolatrous and libertine living it sanctioned. To become and to remain a Christian demanded absolute faithfulness to God and the way of life ordained by him. Hence John’s readers were exhorted to turn their backs on idolatry, immorality, and other practices so readily accepted by the Roman people. Moreover, Christians were admonished to spurn the state religion since they acknowledged an authority greater than the Emperor, in whom the authority of the state was incarnate.

Accordingly Christians were not acceptable to the Roman government and its people politically, religiously, and socially. Politically, Christians were viewed as a danger to the unity of the Empire by their refusal to worship the Emperor as a god. Religiously, Christians repudiated the legitimacy of other religions. Socially, Christians rejected the pagan way of life. By their very lifestyles Christians opened themselves to attack. Rejection and oppression were unavoidable. Revelation called upon believers to demonstrate the separateness of the Christian life, a life that demanded absolute devotion and obedience to God. Ironically Christians were viewed as aggressors. They sought to win converts, and, in turn, those converts were to become witnesses to the lordship of Christ.

Today in Light of Yesterday

Once we have reconstructed the first–century culture in general, it is appropriate to cross the bridge to our own century. Indeed, a reading of church history reveals that the twin threats of government persecution and cultural seduction have been present throughout the centuries. Whenever we as Christians seek to be countercultural, we will be perceived to be enemies of the status quo. As a result, we should not be surprised to experience the world’s enmity.

As I have stressed, the starting point for interpreting Revelation correctly and applying it meaningfully rests in understanding how it spoke to disciples in the first century. It does not take much effort to realize that the book still speaks to Christians. Rather than reading with today’s newspaper in one hand and Revelation in the other and seeing contemporary events predicted in a first–century document, we should understand the “newspaper headlines” in John’s day first and foremost. Our common ground for understanding the book is not current events but the interpretation of the Bible in light of ancient events, specifically the events in John’s day and in the decades immediately following the writing of Revelation.

It dawned on me that a Polish preacher, for example, would not necessarily preach what an American would preach, especially if the latter were using an American newspaper to interpret the scenes in Revelation. If the Polish preacher were to use a native newspaper, the conclusions could very well be different because the headlines may not be the same as those found in the American paper. For example, on August 29, 2005, one of the worst hurricanes in history struck southern portions of the United States. The damage from Hurricane Katrina was incalculable. Many American preachers used its occurrence as a springboard to deliver dire predictions that the end of the world was near. In the mean time, that hurricane never made it to the front pages of the Polish newspapers. Preachers living thousands of miles away in Poland would not have been able to use a catastrophic storm that had hit the United States to indicate where history was on the prophetic timetable!

When we understand the setting of Revelation, we see that John’s work emphasizes a message found throughout Scripture. The God we worship is the God of “the underdog.” This theme is found in the Old Testament: Moses confronting Pharaoh; Joshua and his ragtag army fighting the forces of the Canaanites; David challenging Goliath; Elijah rebuking the prophets of Baal; Isaiah and Hezekiah rejecting the claims of Sennacherib and the mighty Assyrian army; and Daniel not bowing before the might of Babylon. The story continues in the New Testament: John and his band of Jesus–disciples refusing to compromise with Rome; Peter and John ignoring the threats of the Jewish leaders; Paul confronting the Athenians; and, supremely, Jesus himself reigning in victory in spite of all the forces of evil allied against him.

The book of Revelation opens against the backdrop of Patmos where an aged apostle has been banished, all alone, where there is no city (Rev.1:9). In the succeeding chapters we read of Christians dwelling in cities, cities that lived in the shadow of the greatest city of the ancient world, Rome. And we see the forces of the imperial city, Rome itself, and the seven cities of Asia Minor aligned against the small congregations, either persecuting them or threatening to do so while always attempting to seduce them to worship false gods and what the world offered. Is it not paradoxical that John’s final vision is that of the holy city, the New Jerusalem, a symbol for the people of God?

But until we dwell perfectly with God, we continue to live in cities alienated from God due to ungodly living of their citizens. We must heed the voice from heaven that warned Christians about the perils of living in Babylon: “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues; for her sins are piled up to heaven and God has remembered her crimes” (Rev. 18:4–5). These verses serve as a reminder through the centuries that the people of God must never compromise their identity. Jesus’ followers know that the delights found in Babylon are doomed; someday its music will cease (Rev.18:22). They also know that someday there will only be songs offered in praise to God when evil is abolished and goodness reigns (Rev. 19:1ff.).

I have used designations like “Babylonization” and “Romanization” to describe ancient situations facing God’s people. As a Christian who is an American citizen two questions haunt me: Is one of the greatest threats to the integrity and witness of the church the “Americanization” of disciples of Jesus? Do Christ’s enemies find the American church enough of a threat to bother opposing?

[Quoted and edited from: Lowery, R. (2006). Revelation's rhapsody : Listening to the lyrics of the lamb : How to read the book of Revelation (62). Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub. Co.]

 

The Book of Revelation in Biblical Context

To begin our journey of understanding the Book of Revelation, we need to place this last book of the Bible in the larger context of the other books of the Bible. John’s message in Revelation does not contradict the larger revelation from God. Rather, it complements it, although in some unique ways. In particular, we need to know what it means to live between God’s redemptive actions rooted in the first and final comings of Christ.

Does John’s Revelation sound a discordant note when compared with the other biblical works? Is he out of tune with the other books of the Bible and their teachings about God and His people? Is he marching to the beat of a different drummer?

Some would argue that John’s voice ought to be heard above all others. The songs he sings and the instruments he plays ought to dominate those sung and played by others. His solo, so to speak, is the most important one in the symphony of Scripture; his work provides the key to understanding the entire Bible.

Even though this point of view is a dominant one in certain parts of the church, there are other viewpoints. It is well known that Martin Luther dismissed the book’s importance because he did not find Christ in it. Neither he nor John Calvin wrote commentaries on Revelation. Another perspective is that Revelation is certainly not as important as other books found in Scripture; not much is missed if it is not preached or taught.

The goal of this study is to show how the Book of Revelation enriches the message of the other books of the Bible without looking down at them or elevating “Revelation” above all other books.

Revelation complements the other biblical authors who write about Christ’s final coming. John occupies a key chair in the orchestra that plays the symphony of God’s Word. Indeed, the decision made by early Christians to place it as the last book of Scripture is fitting. The whole Bible with its emphasis on creation, covenant, Christ, church, and other themes reaches its crescendo in the final book’s message about the consummation (i.e., Christ’s final coming and the end of the world). Scripture closes with what it means to live as God’s people in a hostile and seductive world, between Christ’s first and final comings, while anticipating a new heaven and a new earth free from the presence of evil and the curse of sin.

When we study a book of the Bible, or even a specific passage, it is necessary to see how the book or passage fits with the rest of Scripture. This task is called canonical exegesis. “Exegesis” is to draw out the meaning of a biblical text and explaining it. “Canon” refers to the list of books viewed as Scripture. Therefore, canonical exegesis seeks to determine the contribution a passage or book makes to the whole of Scripture. In other words, we seek to see the connectedness between Bible books or between a passage and the rest of Scripture.

We usually make connections between the individual books of the Bible without giving much thought. For example, we readily connect 1 and 2 Samuel or 1 and 2 Thessalonians. We link the books of the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) or the prophetic books associated with particular periods in Israel’s history, such as the eighth–century B.C. prophets Hosea, Amos, Micah, and Isaiah. We do this with Matthew, Mark, and Luke when we identify them as the “synoptic gospels” (“synoptic” means “to have a common view” with regard to their telling the story of Jesus) or with the writings of Paul that are called the prison epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon). These examples emphasize canonical exegesis on what may be called a micro level. What we need to do, of course, is see how all of the writings fit in with God’s revelation as a whole, that is, the macro level. For example, how do the books of the New Testament fit in with those associated with the Old?

How do we apply the notion of canonical exegesis to Revelation? Does it stand apart from the rest of the Bible, either to be ignored or to be used as the lens through which we read all other Scripture? I believe that neither position is ultimately valid. Instead, we should focus on how the five documents associated with John are connected and then ask how Revelation, in particular, is linked with the rest of Scripture. John’s works can be viewed from the following perspective. The Gospel of John is a book about faith, the letters (or epistles) of John are about love, and the book of Revelation is about hope—the confident certainty that God will judge and reward or punish.

But what about Revelation’s connection with the other documents found in Scripture, especially the New Testament? How does it fit in with the other biblical writings? I believe that John’s message fits in with the larger biblical message—that God desires and acts to bring people back into proper relationship with him through Christ—even though its literary style may jar some of us. John’s book has a unique style that affects the way he communicates God’s message, but that makes it no less authoritative.

How, then, does Revelation fit in with the rest of Scripture? For sake of space, I want to focus in particular on John’s connection with three themes in the New Testament: “the last days” (and synonyms such as “last times”), “eschatology,” and the relationship between “the already and the not yet.” When properly defined, these ideas can help us see how John’s message fits in with other biblical authors. But there is danger in using these expressions. For example, there is risk in using the phrase “the last days” because it is frequently used in a narrow way, at least on a popular level. Also there is peril in using the word “eschatology” because its meaning is often vague, and even when it is defined, it is usually used in a restricted way, on both popular and scholarly levels.

The Last Days

Many refer to “the last days” as a period immediately before the final coming of Christ. However, through the centuries, countless Christians have felt they were living in the last days: They expected Christ to return in their lifetime. This can be healthy if Christians do not get caught up in “date–setting” but live with a sense of expectancy that Christ can come anytime. Truly, His final coming is possible any day.

Unfortunately, however, we often hear today that we are the generation living right before Christ comes to establish His kingdom. Many times we hear preachers say we are the end–time generation or we are living in the last days. No doubt, other believers in previous generations felt the same way. But is this the language we should be using? I think not.

When we look at the use of the phrase in the New Testament, we must conclude that we have been living in “the last days” since the first coming of Christ. By using a concordance of the Bible, we can see that there are several places where the notion of “the last days” or “the last times” is used only in this sense (Acts 2:17; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1; Heb. 1:2; James 5:3; 1 Pet. 1:20; 2 Pet. 3:3; 1 John 2:18; Jude 18). Except for 1 Pet. 1:5 where the phrase “the last time” (note the singular “time”) refers to the final scene of this age, the phrase “the last days” is never used to speak of the time immediately preceding an appearance of Christ. The “last days” or “the last times” are leading up to the time of the Final Judgment. That event is described in a number of ways: the end of the age (Matt. 13:39, 40, 49; 24:3; 28:20), the end (Matt. 10:22; 1 Cor. 1:8; 10:11; 15:24; Heb. 3:14; 6:11; 1 Pet. 4:7; Rev. 2:26), the day (Matt. 25:13), the day of the Lord (1 Cor. 1:8; 5:5; 2 Cor. 1:14; Phil. 2:16; 1 Thess. 5:2), the day of God (2 Pet. 3:12), the great day (Acts 2:20; Jude 6; Rev. 6:17), the day of wrath (Rom. 2:5; Rev. 6:16–17), the day of judgment (Matt. 10:15; 11:22, 24; 2 Pet. 2:9; 3:7; 1 John 4:17), the day of redemption (Eph. 4:30), and the last day (John 6:39, 40, 44, 54; 11:24).

Let me highlight three individuals who stress that Christians in the first century lived in “the last days.” First, consider Peter’s sermon following the ascension of Christ. On the day of Pentecost, upon the giving of the Holy Spirit, Peter announced to the crowds that the display of the work of the Spirit was to be fulfilled in “the last days” (Acts 2:17), a reference to Joel 2:28ff. Nearly thirty years later he describes the same period as “the last times” (1 Pet. 1:20; see also 1:5; 2 Pet. 3:3). In other words, be it 30 years or 2,000 years later, we are still living in the last days.

Second, in Paul’s thinking, humanity is heading toward “the end” (1 Cor. 1:8). But the time between Christ’s first coming and the end is a period designated “the latter times” or “the last days” (1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1).

Third, St. Paul in Hebrews places himself in the last days. In Hebrews 9:27–28 he refers to Christ’s first coming, summed up in the reference to his sacrificial death (Hebrews 9:27), along with Christ’s appearing “a second time.” This is the only place in the Bible where the adjective “second” is used with Christ’s final coming. At Christ’s final coming, he will “bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28). This fits in with the opening verses of the document where the author refers to God’s past spokespersons, the prophets (Hebrews 1:1). He then writes that God has spoken decisively in Jesus: “but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe” (Hebrews 1:2).

I am regularly asked if I believe that we are living in the last days. I answer with a decisive “Yes! We have been living in the last days for nearly two thousand years.” There is usually an acknowledgement (“Well, yes!”) followed by another inquiry: “But do you believe that we are living in the very last days?” My response? The Bible does not provide an answer to that question because it does not use such language, and it would be presumptuous of me to answer a question the Bible does not pretend to answer. Besides, I do not want to outdo Christ (Matt. 24:36)!

So, even though many refer to “the last days” as a period immediately before the final coming of Christ, the witness of New Testament Scripture is that we are living in it now, have been for two thousand years, and will be until Christ returns. Events associated with “the last days” cannot, therefore, be narrowly ascribed to the period just before the return of Christ. We must view Revelation’s contribution in light of this, namely that the book was written to challenge and comfort Christians no matter how long “the last days” last.

Eschatology

The use of the term “eschatology” frequently creates confusion because of a failure to define it clearly. Moreover, this term never appears in Scripture, it is frequently used by scholars to describe the events associated with Christ’s final coming, ironically like the phrase “the last days.”

The term comes from two Greek words, “eschatos” which means “last” and “logos” which means “word,” “teaching,” or “study.” Eschatology, then, is the teaching concerning “the last things” or “the study of the last things.” Defining what constitutes “the last things,” however, can be quite slippery. Sometimes the word is used in a narrow sense to refer to death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

Others use it in a broader sense, saying that it also includes the nature of the Kingdom of God, especially as it relates to the history of the world, the coming of Christ, the end of time, and the surrounding events like the Final Judgment. The Greek word “parousia”, meaning “coming,” “arrival,” or “presence,” often refers to the final coming of Jesus (1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:3; James 5:7; 2 Pet. 1:16; 3:4; and 1 John 2:28).

In theology books, the topic of eschatology is usually covered at the very end; after all other major doctrines have been discussed. This is done apparently because the narrow definition of the term has been adopted.

Similarly, many who focus their study on the book of Revelation evaluate its eschatology from a narrow perspective. For example, some demonstrate a misconception when they argue that most of the book deals with the events immediately preceding a coming of Christ to reign on the earth for one thousand years.

But I believe the topic of eschatology should not be defined so narrowly. The last days and eschatology can be used to help us place Revelation in the larger context of Scripture. I suggest that together these terms deal with God’s acts of redemption, especially those associated with the first and final comings of Christ and everything that happens between these two momentous events. In other words, the concepts should not be used in a narrow way to refer either to events immediately preceding an earthly reign of Christ or to the Final Judgment. Ultimately, “eschatology” has to do not with “the last things” but with the person of Jesus Christ, who is the First and the Last (Rev. 1:17). Later, I will discuss how the book of Revelation fulfills one of its greatest purposes: to help the first–century Christians, and all Christians through the subsequent centuries, live responsible lives between Christ’s first and final comings.

The Already and the Not Yet

I must develop the concept in the title of this section gradually. This will permit us to see how John’s writing fits in with the rest of the New Testament. An analogy first offered by a theologian decades ago is helpful. God has revealed himself in history through a series of redemptive acts. For the Old Testament believer, the midpoint of history lay in the future, but for the New–Testament–era disciples and succeeding ones, this midpoint now lies in the past. The first coming of Jesus is the great midpoint of history; it lies behind us.

Scripture clearly teaches that Christ has already won the victory (1 Cor. 15:1ff.; Eph. 1:15ff.; Col. 2:15; and Heb. 2:14ff.). The crucial battle has been fought and won in the incarnation and the resurrection. The cease–fire is yet future. Jesus’ followers continue to fight against the principalities and powers (Eph. 6:10ff.) until he comes again to bring about the final end of the war. We do not know how long the warfare will continue. As we battle the forces of evil, we also witness in the shadow of Christ’s victory on the cross and his ultimate victory to be achieved at the final coming. We fight with the conviction that someday all weapons will be placed at the feet of Jesus. This concept should encourage all believers. It can also exhort all to be faithful to Jesus and his cause.

We live in the overlap of two ages, this present age and the age to come. We already live in the new age, and yet we do not fully live in the new age since Christ’s final coming has not yet occurred.

We who follow Christ live “between the times.” We know that Christ is Victor and Deliverer now, but we also know that there is more to come. This fits in with the definition of “eschatology” and a proper understanding of “the last days.” The biblical notion of eschatology embraces both an “inaugurated” emphasis (we are already in the Kingdom and enjoy blessings as disciples of Jesus) and a “future” accent (we await future events like the final coming, the resurrection, the Final Judgment, the new heaven and new earth, and so forth).

I am reminded of the cartoon depicting a person walking around the city, carrying a sign that reads “The End is Near!” According to Scripture, there should be three characters carrying signs. Their messages would communicate Scripture’s testimony: The End has come! The End is near! The End has not come! We live confidently with this tension between what we already enjoy and what we do not yet possess, all with the sense of expectancy that the end is always near.

The hope of the final victory is so much the more vivid because of the unshakably firm conviction that the battle that decides the victory has already taken place.” Despite such conviction or hope, the New Testament authors did not commit themselves to any time-scale. They stressed the urgency of the time in which they lived, suggesting that we must be ready for Christ’s final coming at any time (1 Thess. 5:1ff.; Heb. 10:23ff.; 1 John 2:18ff.).

This notion of living between the times is developed in the writings of the nine authors associated with the New Testament. Actually there is not a New Testament writer, John aside for the moment, who does not speak about what it means to live between Christ’s first and final comings (e.g., Matt. 28:16–20; Mark 13:32–36; Acts 17:30–31; Titus 2:11–15; Heb. 10:19–25; James 2:1; 5:8; 1 Pet. 1:13–25; Jude 3, 14–16, 18, 21).

Consider some specific themes in which this already and not yet tension is found. Christians are already in the Kingdom, and yet they await the coming of the Kingdom in its totality (Col. 1:13–14; Rev. 11:15). Already we experience God’s presence through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but we await the complete presence of God (Eph. 1:13–14; Rev. 21:3). Already we worship, but we know that someday there will be perfect worship (Rom. 12:1; Rev. 22:3–5). Already we have fellowship with God and one another, but the perfect fellowship is yet to come (1 John 1:5–7; Rev. 21:1–22:6). Already we experience peace, joy, and love, but these will be perfect some day (Gal. 5:22–23; Rev. 22:3). Already we have experienced a resurrection, but we await a future one (Rom. 6:1–10; Rev. 20:4–6, 11–15). Already we participate in a special meal with Christ, but we await the wedding supper of the Lamb (1 Cor. 11:23–26; Rev. 19:9).

We find this theme in the writings of John as well. The tension between the now and the not yet is found in such passages as John 6:39, 40, 44, 54; 11:24; 12:48 and in 1 John 1:2; 2:18, 22, 28; 3:2–3. We already have eternal life, but we await the total fulfillment of eternal life (John 6:26ff.; 11:25; 12:23ff.; 14:1ff.). We already receive blessings because we belong to Christ, but we anticipate even richer blessings at his coming.

In Revelation, John writes about the victory that Christ has won in the past (Revelation 1:5, 18; 5:5–7, 9–10; 12:1–4, 7–12), as well as the final victory at the final coming (Revelation 1:7; 6:12–17; 7:1–17; 11:15–19; 16:15–21; 19:1–21; 20:7–15; 22:7, 12, 20). Reflect on the following examples in the next few paragraphs:

  • In (Revelation 1:5–8) there is a clear reference to Christ’s first coming (v. 5 announces that he is the one who is “the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” and the one who “has freed us from our sins”). There is also mention of Christ’s final coming in Rev. 1:7 (“Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him”). Wedged between the references to the past and the future is a call to Christians to realize that now they are part of the Kingdom and now they are priests who belong to God (Rev. 1:6).
  • The theme of the kingdom and Christians reigning is an important one (1:9; 5:10; 11:15; 12:10; 16:10; 20:4, 6; 22:5, and so forth), as well as the imagery of Christians being priests who serve God (1:6; 5:10; 20:6; see also 3:12; 7:14; 22:3).
  • Further, consider the structure of the messages to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3. The descriptions of Christ found at the beginning of each communication draw from the vision in Rev. 1:12ff., one that is rooted in the first coming of Christ and all that He accomplished when He lived on earth, along with the ongoing consequences of his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Each message ends with a promise concerning the future where final victory and blessing will be experienced. Between the two comings, the followers of Jesus are called upon to overcome such temptations as doctrinal error, immorality, idolatry, and complacency and such pressures as rejection and persecution. The term translated “to the one who overcomes” has a military background.
Finally, we can ponder this scheme from another vantage point. The following passages focus on the tension of living a life in the middle, that is, a life between the two comings of Christ as depicted in Revelation:

  • Because of Christ’s first coming, how much richer are we than the Old Testament people of God (1 Pet. 1:10–12)! Even though we enjoy blessings now because of Christ (Rev. 1:5ff.; 2:9; 3:7ff.; 5:9ff.; 12:10), there is still the “not yet.” We still are not free from sin (2:4ff., 14ff., 20ff.; 3:1ff., 15ff.; 18:4), and many Christians still suffer even to the point of dying for Christ (1:9ff.; 6:9ff.; 11:1ff.; 12:11; 13:9–10; 14:13; 17:6; 20:4–6). And yet we anticipate even richer blessings (7:9ff.; 21:1ff.), looking forward to a new heaven and earth where there will be no evil or sin (20:11ff.; 21:1–22:6).
  • Any signs John provides with regard to the final coming of Christ are sufficiently ambiguous to keep us living as if Christ’s coming is possible any day, even if we do not know the timing (Rev. 3:3; Rev. 16:15). As one reads through Revelation, it appears as if the world will grow increasingly worse (e.g., Rev. 16:16ff.; Rev. 20:7ff.), that there will be a succession of evil kingdoms in the image of Rome leading up to the end. In the meantime, the church is reminded of its responsibility to worship and witness and make war against the forces of evil as it waits for Christ to come. I believe there are hints that the conflict will intensify before Jesus’ final coming (Rev. 20:7ff.), but it is difficult to speculate when it will occur (or even if it is occurring in our time).
  • In Revelation, the disciple’s life is one of imitating the life of Christ, a life that bears faithful witness to God (Rev. 1:2, 9; Rev. 6:9; Rev. 11:7; Rev. 12:11, 17; Rev. 19:10; see also 14:4ff.) while also acknowledging that the disciple will not achieve perfection in this life. Nevertheless, there is a persistent pressing on in the pilgrimage (Rev. 2:10; Rev. 17:14; Rev. 22:11). John summarizes the Christian life in terms of salvation as a past fact, a present duty, and a future hope. Because Christ has saved us (1:5b) and because someday that salvation will be complete (Rev. 19:1ff.), Christians must be faithful in living out the implications of their salvation.
There will be conflict between Christ’s first and final comings. The conflict involves God and his servants and the Dragon and his servants. Accordingly, Revelation was written to help Christians remain loyal to Christ, a notion that we will explore more fully in the chapters dealing with genre and the historical setting.

This reminds us that the numerous references to Christ’s final coming in Scripture are not there to satisfy our curiosity about the future or enable us to work out a detailed schedule leading up to the end of the world. After all, hasn’t there been consistent failure on the part of those who have made such attempts? Then what is the main purpose of those references? The New Testament writings teach that the present and future are secure in the hands of God because of his faithfulness in the past. What more did the original recipients need to know, be it those who read Romans or those who heard Revelation? For that matter, what more do we today need to know? What matters is the certainty of God’s triumph when Christ is confessed as Lord and the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Lord, rooted in the first coming of Christ. His return is certain regardless of our knowing the time of the event.

There is a common theme found in passages that speak about Christ’s coming a second time. It is especially applicable to the book of Revelation: Whenever and wherever Scripture speaks about Christ’s final coming, its purpose is always to challenge Christians with regard to belief and behavior or to provide comfort. As disciples, we are called to worship God as creator and redeemer and to offer faithful witness to him. When we face trials, we should be comforted by the conviction that God still reigns and that he will have the final word concerning evil. We are to live lives that reflect that God has come and that he is coming again. So whenever we come across a passage addressing the final coming of Christ, we should look for a word of comfort or a word of challenge, or perhaps a bit of both.

The Bible is, both biblically and literarily speaking, significantly more rich with Revelation. The trumpets that are sounded and the harps that are plucked are in tune. The whole book is in accord with the whole of Scripture.

Revelation provides a grand, symphonic finale to the Bible taken as a book or as one great narrative. And it corresponds nicely to Genesis. You have “protology” (the first things) and “eschatology” (the last things). Even though God’s purposes in the beginning were defiled by sin, God will have his way. In the beginning there was the garden (Gen. 2:8), the tree of life (Gen. 2:9), and a bride and a groom (Gen. 2:21–25), and so there will be when Christ comes a final time (Rev. 22:1–5). In the beginning there was the serpent (Gen. 3:1–4, 14); in the end, the serpent will be crushed (Rev. 12:9; 20:10).

If we are truly followers of Jesus the Lamb, we must listen to the lyrics he has provided John. We have heard enough when God ceases to speak; we have learned enough when we have learned to do his will.

[Quoted and edited from: Lowery, R. (2006). Revelation's rhapsody : Listening to the lyrics of the lamb : How to read the book of Revelation. Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub. Co.]

When was the Book of Revelation Written – Dr. Eugenia Constantinou

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Dr. Jeannie answers the Challenge that some make on whether the Book of Revelation was written during the reign of Emperor Domitian or Emperor Nero
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Understanding the False Teaching of the Rapture- Dr. Eugenia Constantinou

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Dr. Jeannie responds to questions and comments concerning the past lessons on the Rapture. She also takes a close look at the verses in Thessalonians which are often cited to support this heretical, modern teaching. For Orthodox Christians in North America, this is a must-listen podcast!

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With Angels and Archangels: Worship in the Book of Revelation By Dr. Charles A. Gieschen

Heaven is understood too often as a faraway place with which Christians have no contact until after death. The Book of Revelation, however, helps us to see that heaven is not an “up there” and purely “future” reality, but an accessible and present reality that we participate in through the Divine Service. For where the Holy Trinity comes through His means of grace and is present, there we are brought into the reality of heaven. It is no accident that we often use the scriptural songs of angels in our liturgy (e.g., “This Is the Feast,” the Gloria in Excelsis, the Sanctus) and also acknowledge that we sing with them: “Therefore, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Your glorious name, evermore praising You and saying…” (Conclusion of the Proper Preface). The Book of Revelation, because of its recurrent scenes of heavenly worship that are regularly punctuated by hymns of praise, is one of the church’s richest resources for understanding her worship.

The accessibility of heaven is emphasized in the Book of Revelation with the imagery of the “open door” (3:8, 20; 4:1). After the Risen Christ appears on the island of Patmos and speaks to John, thereby demonstrating He is the living Lord of His Church who is not absent nor confined to a heavenly sphere (chapters 1-3), then John sees an open door: “After these things I looked, and, behold, a door that has been opened in heaven, and the first voice that I heard as a trumpet was speaking to me, saying, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what will necessarily happen after these things’” (4:1). John is brought by the Spirit through this open door and beholds the divine throne room. There he sees and hears what is normally not perceived with our five senses: the brilliant mystery of God (the Father) enthroned, angels gathered around Him singing “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God” (4:8; cf., Is. 6:3), and saints casting their crowns before Him as they sing, “Worthy are You, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power” (4:11).

This amazing open-door-to-heaven scene climaxes with the revelation of the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” who can open the sealed scroll in the right hand of the Father (5:5). One expects to see the spectacular “one like a Son of Man” who appeared earlier to John (1:12-18), but instead he sees in the midst of the throne: “a Lamb who is standing, [bloodied] as though it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes” (5:6). This portrait, without doubt, is the most memorable and powerful among the ever-changing scenes of this book. The entirety of the person and work of Christ is flashed before the eyes of the faithful in order that they see and believe: His almighty divinity (seven horns and eyes), His true humanity (a lamb who died), and His sacrifice for sin on Calvary’s cross (slaughtered) that resulted in the resurrection victory (standing and enthroned). Because the Lamb is understood to be of the mystery of the one enthroned God, He is worshipped with words and actions that parallel the earlier worship of the Father: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (5:12). The oneness of this Lamb with the Father as the object of worship is further emphasized as the whole cosmos joins in praise: “To Him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever” (5:13). Although Revelation overtly confesses the trinitarian nature of God (1:4-5), the Lamb remains the visible focus of the worship of this one true God.

In light of this open-door-to-heaven scene, some of us may say, “Oh, how I wish I could be John and see what he saw!” We, however, should not feel this way. John was commanded to write down what he saw in order that, through this book, others would truly “see” what John saw (1:11). By means of reading or hearing this holy revelation (1:3), we, too, pass through the “open door” and behold the mystery of God.

Furthermore, this experience of heaven does not result solely–or even primarily–from reading the Book of Revelation. It is not insignificant that John had this experience on the Lord’s Day (Sunday), the typical day for Christians to gather for worship that includes the Lord’s Supper (1:10). The understanding that other faithful Christians can pass through the “open door” of heaven in the context of Lord’s Day worship is the basis for the two invitations of Christ concerning this “door” given to the congregations in Philadelphia and Laodicea (3:8, 20). The Book of Revelation calls those who have been washed and clothed in white through the sealing with the Divine Name in Holy Baptism “a kingdom and priests to our God who reign on earth” (5:10; cf., Ex. 29:4-9). Christians on earth, therefore, are “priests” who have an “open door” to the heavenly sanctuary!

There is a fairly widespread misunderstanding that the various scenes of the Book of Revelation describe future realities. The worship in chapters 4-5 and elsewhere, therefore, is sometimes understood to be depicting only what it will be like when the saints are brought into heaven, and not present reality. Jesus clears the fog on this issue when He states: “Write down what you see, (namely) what is and what is to come” (1:19). John sees scenes that depict present reality (“what is”) as well as those that portray future reality (“what is to come”). These worship scenes depict a present and eternal reality: the God “who is, was, and is to come” and the Lamb who has already been sacrificed for our sin, raised in victory, and enthroned in glory. These scenes are not merely what heaven will be like some day; while they are certainly that, they also depict what heaven is now as God brings us into His presence through the Divine Service. They serve as a vivid commentary on what is happening in the Divine Service, especially in the Lord’s Supper, where the Paschal Lamb who shed His blood and gave His body is present sharing His victory. This bloodied and standing Lamb depicted in Revelation is the same one in whose real presence we stand as we sing, “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us” and then partake of His life-giving flesh and blood.

There are those who view Christian worship as an escape from reality, almost like taking a weekly fantasy trip to Disney World in order to enjoy a reprieve from the “real world” of work. The Book of Revelation helps us to see that such an assessment could not be further from the truth! Rather than escaping reality, worship leads us to experience reality in its fullness. Revelation helps us to “see” that the reality of God and angels, the Lamb and His victory, is as real as–and more determinative for the future than–Satan and this world’s powerful rulers. “Seeing” this reality helps us to recognize, face, and conquer the chaos of this sinful world. Richard Bauckham, in his fine book The Theology of the Book of Revelation, states:

Worship, which is so prominent in the theocentric vision of Revelation, has nothing to do with pietistic retreat from the public world. It is the source of resistance to the idolatries of the public world. It points representatively to the acknowledgment of the true God by all the nations, in the universal worship for which the whole creation is destined (pp. 160-161).


There is evidence in Jewish literature written in the centuries immediately before the Christian era of a significant debate concerning how time should be reckoned, either by a lunar calendar (354 days) or a solar calendar (364 days). Why was this an important debate for particular Jews? Because they were very concerned that their worship be in synch with the worship of heaven; they did not want to be observing Sabbath or a festival on earth out of step with the heavenly observance. Such a concern for the congruence between worship in heaven and on earth hardly characterizes much of the church today. Rather than worship reflecting the ever-changing cultures of this earth and whims of men, it should reflect that which has been revealed by God as eternal and of heaven, such as we find in the Book of Revelation. The description of worship in heaven in Holy Scripture is prescriptive for the church on earth, even as we pray: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” One day the congruence between worship on earth and in heaven will be complete: “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (7:17)