Summary: Revelation is God’s answer to the question asked of the martyred saints in chapter 6, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" It is heaven’s answer to the age old question, “What on ea
Dr. Roger W. Thomas, Preaching Minister
First Christian Church, Vandalia, MO
How Long, O Lord?
Overview of Revelation—Revelation 1:1-8
A woman went to the doctor’s office, where she was seen by one of the new doctors, but after about 4 minutes in the examination room, she burst out, screaming as she ran down the hall. An older doctor stopped her and asked what the problem was, and she told him her story. After listening, he had her sit down and told her to go relax in another room. The older doctor marched down hallway to the back where the first doctor was and demanded, "What’s the matter with you? Mrs. Terry is 63 years old. She has four grown children and seven grandchildren, and you told her she was pregnant?" The new doctor continued to write on his clipboard. Without looking up, he said, "Does she still have the hiccups?"
Revelation might be a good cure for the hiccups, too. At first reading, it looks pretty scary. Ultimately, however, Revelation is not about curing your hiccups, but giving you hope—here, now, and forever.
We’ve been a long time getting to this book. We started our journey though the Bible over four and half years ago (on January 13, 2002, to be precise). That night my message was “The Whole Bible in Thirty Minutes.” We’ve spent the last fifty-four months working our way through the Bible. We spent two years in the Old Testament and the last two and half in the New Testament. As with some of the other New Testament books, we spend more than one night in Revelation. I will overview it this evening. I will try to give you the big picture. Then for at least several more weeks, I will come back and zero in on some of the particulars of the book.
First, the obvious. Revelation is not your ordinary book of the Bible. Reading it proves that. Many of you have probably dabbled around in Revelation. It is filled with graphic pictures and images—multi-headed beasts, sword wielding angels, fire-breathing dragons, gardens, palaces, thrones, streets of gold and pearly gates. The uniqueness of the book led Martin Luther to argue that Revelation didn’t belong in the Bible. He thought its images and symbols were not sufficiently Christian.
One doesn’t have to read long to realize that a lot of this is more than meets the eye. Many of these images are symbols for something bigger than themselves. Symbolic or poetic does not mean unreal or make believe. Rather, it is a way of writing and talking that tries to paint pictures with words. Scholars call this kind of writing apocalyptic literature. It was part poetry, part science fiction. Parts of the Old Testament books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah provide examples of a similar style. In fact Revelation owes much to these books.
Some of this appears violent and bloody; others unbelievably beautiful. A lot of moderns are turned off by the bloody pictures of judgment and the horrible depictions of hell toward the end of the book. We want to believe that everyone is good and that everyone gets saved in the end. That would be make-believe. Revelation is about the truth.
A part of this symbolism involves the use of numbers. The number of the antichrist is 666. The Spirit of God has seven eyes. The foundation of the heavenly city has twelve stones. Seven, in particular holds a special place in Revelation. In fact, the entire book is organized around the number of seven. H. H. Halley (Handbook, 627) lists a few of them: seven letters to seven churches, seven seals and seven trumpets, seven vials, seven candlesticks, seven stars, seven angels, seven spirits, a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, seven thunders, a red dragon with seven heads and seven crowns, a Leopard-like beast with seven heads, a scarlet-colored beast with seven heads, seven mountains, seven kings.
I won’t go into the details of all these numbers. Scholars tell us that many of these numbers had special significance in the ancient world. We use numbers in a similar way. Thirteen implies bad luck; seven good luck. For the ancient Jews, the number came from the seven days of the week. It stood for something complete, total, and finished. Six, on the hand, was incomplete. Three sixes was ultimate evil. Twelve was a very spiritual or religious number because of the twelve tribes of Israel, the foundation of the Jewish people.
The uniqueness of Revelation and all of the symbolism can present a few obstacles to modern readers. The same was probably true for the ancients as well. We face a few additional obstacles as well. Symbolism by its nature is often driven by current events and culture. Today, we would all understand a political cartoon that depicts and argument between an elephant and a donkey. We know who the guy with white goatee in the star-spangled suit and the top hat represents. Several years ago, a bear in such a cartoon always represented the Soviet Union. We are less likely to recognize the symbols from a political cartoon representing the Whigs and the Know Nothings parties of by gone days.