In his book, Discover the Book that God Wrote, Bill Bright writes about Anne Sullivan, introducing her blind and deaf student Helen Keller the concept of God:
Using a unique form of “finger language,” Anne began “spelling” words into the child’s hand, and eventually Helen recognized the link between the words and objects. Once Ann Sullivan had given Helen the names of several physical objects, Miss Sullivan attempted to explain the existence of God. She tapped out the symbols for the name God.
Much to Miss Sullivan’s surprise, Helen spelled back, “Thank you for telling me God’s name, Teacher, for He has touched me many times before.” Even in her darkness, Helen Keller already knew that God existed. With the help of Anne Sullivan, the young blind girl had the ability to “see” and learn more about who God is and what He does for us.[i]
Like Helen Keller, each of us feels spiritually blind and deaf at times—like we know inherently that God exists, but we need help understanding. We need God to take off our blindfolds, to lift the veil so that we can know Him better. 2 Corinthians 4:4-5[ii] says that the Gospel is veiled to those who are perishing. Satan “has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” While unbelievers are blind to God’s glory and deaf to His voice, even believers can be a bit impaired when it comes to experiencing the Lord. It’s like we’re wearing blindfolds and ear muffs, that we need God to remove.
2 Corinthians 3:16-18 says, “…Whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” Yet the mirror that Paul refers to is still darkened, and our image of Christ is a bit foggy at times (1 Corinthians 13:12). Yet there are times when God lifts the veil completely, when God cleans our looking-glass and shows His glory the way that it really is.
I love the story where the prophet Elisha was beset by the soldiers of Aram. His servant went outside the tent one morning to find them surrounded by enemies. In fear, he cried out. But the prophet could see something that his servant was unable to imagine. When Elisha prayed that God would remove the veil from his servant’s eyes, the man saw horses and chariots of fire—the host of heaven protecting them.[iii] Ordinarily we can’t see this kind of thing, but every now and then, God lifts the veil.
Unveiling—this is what the book of Revelation is all about. In fact, embedded in the word revelation is the word reveal—to lift the veil and show what’s underneath. When a bride walks down the aisle and her veil is lifted, everybody can see her beauty. Her loveliness is there all along, but it remains hidden until the groom revealed her. So too the church—the Bride of Christ—needs our Groom to lift the veil so we see clearly and be clearly seen.
For the next several weeks, we’ll be looking at an overview of the book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse of St. John. This word apocalypse has taken on a real negative meaning, evoking fear in those who hear it. People think that apocalypse means worldwide disaster, tragedy, and suffering. Movies depict the end of the world coming through global warming and floods, super-volcanoes, mutated viruses, technology run amok, and asteroids hitting the earth. The term zombie apocalypse is on everyone’s lips. Yet the word apocalypse simply means the same thing as revelation—it means an unveiling of God’s person and purpose in creation.
Apocalyptic literature was a genre of Hebrew literature in biblical times. The book of Revelation is one example. Other examples of Old Testament apocalyptic are found in the books of Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, and Zechariah. In the New Testament, we find apocalyptic literature in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and 2 Thessalonians 2. But before the Biblical books were canonized, other apocalyptic books were also popular. In that library we find books like Gabriel’s Revelation, The Apocalypse of Elijah, and The Apocalypse of Thomas. Canonical and non-canonical apocalyptic literature follows themes of persecution and endurance, natural disaster and war, death and judgment, and the Messiah ushering in God’s kingdom on earth.
Today, there are so many different theories on the book of Revelation (we’ll restrict our study to this book alone) that it is impossible to say which one is correct. In a group of five Baptist preachers, I recently took a poll and got six or seven different views. Some are preterists, who believe that Revelation refers all or mostly to the situation in the Roman empire at the time it was written and that it isn’t really about the end of days. Some are futurists, believing in a literal unfolding of prophecy in the future. Others who follow historicism believe that symbolically the narrative is being fulfilled in the scope of all of the church’s history. Still others are idealists, seeing an ongoing fulfillment in symbolic or allegorical ways.
Literalists are divided as to the timeline of events found in the Bible’s apocalyptic literature. Post-tribulational premillennialism sees future events one way, while Pre-tribulational (dispensational) millennialism views it another way. Then there are postmillennialists and amillennialists, and people who have long ago given up trying to figure out the timeline. Since there are so many good Christians with so many views, I intend to take a different approach with this study of Revelation. Instead of trying to figure out a timeline of future events, I purpose to look at a few themes within the book of Revelation, and ask three questions:
1. What did it mean to the first generation of Christians who received the Revelation?
2. What does it mean in my life today?
3. What will it mean to the last generation of Christians, before the return of Christ?
While it will be impossible for me to not display my biases, the goal is to dispense with dispensationalism or any other time-sensitive view and simply seek to understand what our life-altering take-away might be from a study of this remarkable book. At the risk of oversimplification, we’ll spend several weeks in Revelation, not digging too deeply into the details, but learning to live its principles out in our lives.
Within the first five chapters of the Book of Revelation, we read about several apocalypses, several unveilings, or revealings, or revelations of Jesus. First, in 1:4-5, John says that the book of Revelation isn’t from him alone, but also from “Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ.” This book is divinely inspired, and adds a blessing for those who read and follow it (1:3), and a curse for those who adds to or takes away from them (22:18-19).
Next, we find a promised apocalypse, or unveiling, in 1:7, where Jesus promises to come in the clouds. (We’ll talk more about that later).
Then, in 1:9-20, Jesus unveils His glory by appearing to John on the island of Patmos, who was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day (1:10).” Instead of donning His earthly appearance as the Carpenter from Nazareth, Jesus displays his divine glory in a way that makes John fall to his feet like a dead man. His hair is white and his eyes are flames of fire. Bronze feet glow like they’re in a furnace, and his voice is like many waters. He holds seven stars in his hand, and from his mouth comes a two-edged sword. Despite His unearthly appearance, Jesus tells him not to be afraid, but to write everything he sees and hears. The rest of the book is a record of that vision.
In chapters two and three, Jesus continues to reveal Himself by personally writing messages to the seven churches in Asia. In each of these letters, Jesus greets them, reminds them who He is, gives some insights into their personal lives, gives criticism if necessary, warns them of danger, exhorts them, and gives them His promises and assurances.
Then in chapter four the scene shifts to the throne room in Heaven, which reveals God seated on the throne, surrounded by the heavenly court who praise His name. Chapter five peels back more of our understanding of Jesus’ cosmic role as both the Lion of Judah and the Lamb of God who offers Himself as our sacrifice. He alone is worthy to open the book with seven seals. 5:10 reveals something about the future of believers as well. Addressing the Lamb, the heavenly court sings about the saints: “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.”
Revelation’s first five chapters are full of apocalypses, unveilings of God’s character and humanity’s identity in Christ. To the first generation of Christians who suffered persecution under Rome’s cruel thumb, this strange book gave assurances that there’s more going on in the heavenly realms than what we can imagine. Spiritual realities that were actually “more real” than their physical suffering promised that God was with them to see them through.
The take-home for believers today is that just as He did in the past, God continues to reveal Himself to the churches. God is still speaking to each believer today, if we’ll listen to His voice and seek His vision. Believers can still get a glimpse of glory as we pray in the Spirit. Of course, when God reveals Himself to us, it is often what we think of as a personal apocalypse—in the more common usage of the world. We experience a real apocalypse—now. God’s revelations are often devastating. Like Isaiah, we often respond that we are undone by our own sin in the face of His holiness. Our egos are devastated when we come face to face with the Alpha and Omega. God’s revelation changes everything.
The final generation of believers that witnesses the veil’s last lifting will be astounded as they see heaven and learn that it was all that they’d read about in this great book of Revelation. If there are those who are “left behind” after the Rapture (as some interpret eschatological literature), then books like Revelation will reveal God’s purposes and His plan of salvation to those who remain.
What a marvelous book is this Apocalypse of John! I look forward to the next few weeks with you, learning from God’s Word and discovering what it has to say in our lives today. As we begin our journey, let us be reminded of the blessing God gives to all who seek to understand this great book: ‘Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it: for the time is near[iv].’