The terrors of the Antichrist and the white throne judgment described in the book of Revelation were mainstays for sermons based on Revelation in my childhood church. Other preachers have dropped in these frightening scenes before the altar call in order to pack a punch of urgency for salvation decisions. The pastors of the evangelical church I attended throughout my teenage years rarely touched on Revelation—perhaps we were all a little burned out from the scare tactics.
The thought of worldwide destruction, a future in the lake of fire, and a Satanic world leader have caused one too many sleepless nights for Christians who have only found violence and terror in the pages of Revelation.
Is this how we should preach from the book of Revelation? Most importantly, was this even close to the original message of Revelation?
When we preach the Bible, our first task is to discern the original context and the message of the book in that context. For instance, we are careful to note how Matthew presented his gospel to a Jewish audience, while Luke primarily targeted Gentiles. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize that Paul wrote the book of Romans to people living in, yes, Rome. The context and audience shape how we understand each book of the Bible.
Looking at Revelation, we should ask: Was John trying to scare his readers into salvation by presenting a terrifying future? Is such a use of Revelation completely obscuring the original intention of this book?
The Context of Revelation
The readers of Revelation weren’t expecting a coming tribulation or Antichrist because both were already present. The beast had risen from the sea, the false prophets had struck and the dragon was clearly on the loose. In fact, nearly everything John wrote about spoke directly to their struggles against false teachers, persecution and the threat of death because of the menacing Roman Empire.
The seven churches of Asia Minor, who are addressed at the start of Revelation, needed to know that Jesus was king despite all appearances to the contrary and that their faithfulness would be rewarded. They were trying to make sense of their suffering despite the reality of Christ sitting on the throne.
The original readers of Revelation needed to know that Jesus would be present among them while they endured suffering and that he would one day reward them, while simultaneously punishing their attackers.
The Message of Revelation
Through a series of symbols and scenes, John “revealed” the spiritual realities around the seven churches of Asia.
The conflict between the woman and the dragon were playing out in their midst: “Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus” (Revelation 12:17, NIV).
The martyrs were standing around the throne of God pleading, ““How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Revelation 6: 10, NIV)
As relevant as Revelation was for them in the midst of their suffering and in the promise it offered that Jesus was all-powerful and would one day win, it also spoke to the future. Jesus would come to rid the earth of evil, render true justice and restore the ravaged creation. They looked back to the victory of Christ in Revelation 12 and ahead to the final triumph of Christ in Revelation 19-21.
While our distance from the original events and symbols prevent us from speaking in terms of specific timelines or correlations between every single symbol/scene and particular events, we can grasp the overall message of Revelation: John encouraged the churches to trust in Christ and the future manifestation of his present victory.
Those who endured suffering, rejected false teachings and waited for Jesus to return as King could expect to enjoy the full benefits of his restoration and justice.
The Meaning of Revelation for Us Today
By seeing the original message of Revelation, we are better able to see its relevance for us today. We too live with the tension of suffering and evil in a world where Jesus is Savior and Lord. While Jesus is on his throne, the beast continues to attack believers all over the world, and we continue to struggle over a central crisis in Scripture: Why do the wicked prosper? (Psalm 73:3).
Believers are called to persevere through suffering: Revelation is not a prediction of escape from suffering. Rather, it’s a promise of future deliverance and reward for those who remain faithful while suffering. The point isn’t even that there will be a specific “great tribulation.” Rather, John acknowledges the suffering and chaos of our world that was prevalent in his own day and continues into our present time.
Perhaps our tribulation and suffering will grow worse, but all of the same players in Revelation have already been doing their worst since the days of the early church, and God has never abandoned his people even as they have endured suffering.
Our faithfulness to God and service to one another will be rewarded. Those committed to doing evil will receive their due. Revelation promises that our tears will be wiped away, our enemies sent away and our world restored to harmony. We will continue our priestly calling alongside Christ, bringing healing to the nations. God will dwell among us here on earth.
Revelation doesn’t solve all of our problems today. However, it doesn’t add to our problems either. Revelation acknowledges the suffering and pain we see and experience. It offers us a message of hope that the darkness of today will one day relent when God’s all-powerful light will restore creation.
We may struggle to believe, but John anticipated that. He closes the book of Revelation with a statement from an angel:
“The angel said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place. Look, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy written in this scroll’” (Revelation 22:6-7).
Perhaps we don’t struggle to believe that these words are trustworthy and true. Perhaps our greater struggle is to believe that these words are good news for all of us.