I have always been fascinated by the Book of Revelation. I remember as a young boy reading Philip Mauro’s commentary “Of things which must soon come to pass”, and jotting down copious notes in the margin of my Bible. Although I don’t necessarily agree with Mauro’s preterist interpretation, I credit him with whetting my appetite for this remarkable book.
If the past fifty years has taught me anything, it is this: Revelation is not just a book for the end-times, it is a book for all times. It’s not just a book for studying, it’s a book for living. Furthermore, it’s not just a prophetic book; it’s also an historical book. It was written by a real person to a real group of people who lived at a real point in history and were experiencing real challenges in their lives.
In his book ‘God Centred Biblical Interpretation’, Vern Poythress, Professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, posits that interpretation of Scripture should comprise three elements:
Original time and context
The personal perspective of the writer, the normative perspective of the text, and the situational perspective of the original audience.
Transmission and its context
The message being communicated through the text, including the concerns of individual writers/translators and its broader role in the unfolding narrative of history.
What God is saying now to individuals as well as to the modern church.
The basic message of Revelation is that regardless of what happens on earth, heaven is in control! It’s a revelation of Jesus Christ, not the antichrist. It’s a reminder to the church, whether in the 1st century or the 21st century, that He is King of kings and Lord of lords, the architect of human history, and the beginning and end of all things. The essence of the book is encapsulated in one verse: “Alleluia! For the Lord our God Omnipotent reigns!” (Rev 19.6).
Three words that unlock a whole book
In the first chapter, the writer of the book, John, identifies himself as a believer who is in exile on Patmos, a small volcanic island in the Aegean Sea, which the Romans used as a penal colony for political prisoners. His crime? Preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and subverting the Imperial Cult.
I, John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet, saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last … What you see, write in a book and sent it to the seven churches which are in Asia.” Rev 1.9-11
In his introduction, John uses three words that help frame or contextualise the rest of the Book: “tribulation, kingdom, patience”.
The Book of Revelation is a story about the clash of kingdoms: God’s kingdom and the kingdoms of this world (11.15). God’s kingdom is ‘coming’ (Mat 6.10); ‘invading’ a sphere that hitherto has been under the control of Satan, the prince of this world (Eph 2.1; 6.12).
War produces suffering. The effect of spiritual conflict is tribulation. The Greek word ‘thlipsis’ denotes pressure, stress, anguish, oppression and adversity. It literally means to crush, squash or squeeze, and is used of crushing grapes or olives in a press.
In order to endure suffering and survive tribulation, we must have patience. The Greek word ‘hupomone’ denotes patient endurance, the ability to persevere under difficult circumstances. It is a characteristic of God himself (Rom 15.5), and a virtue that is cultivated in our lives by the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Eph 3.16; Col 1.11).
The writer to the Hebrews identifies faith and patience as the ‘power twins’ by which we inherit God’s promises and complete the course that is set before us (Heb 6.12; 10.36; 12.1). Patience does not exist in a vacuum — it is the product of our hope in the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess 1.3). It comes from knowing that He is in control, and that His kingdom will ultimately triumph.
According to Jesus, patience is the key to living a sane and balanced life in the midst of social and political upheaval. Addressing his disciples just before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus described the events that would take place over the next forty years: the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem, the dispersion of the Jewish people, the emergence of false prophets, wars and earthquakes and famines and pestilences, fearful sights and signs in the heavens, the betrayal and persecution of believers …
Then Jesus said: “By your patience possess your souls” (Luke 21.19). Patience is the key to standing strong when the world around you is falling apart. Patience is the key to controlling your thoughts and emotions when all around you “people’s hearts are failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth.”
A man from another world
One afternoon in 1978, there was a knock on the door of our family home in Doncaster, in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. When I opened the door, I nearly fell over. Standing there was a man who looked like he had just stepped out of the pages of the Bible or early church history. He had long grey hair and a long grey beard, and was clothed in a black cassock and had a silver cross around his neck.
The man’s name was Father Lazarus, and he was a Russian Orthodox priest. He had come (unannounced) to see my father on behalf of a missionary he had met whilst he was in India some years earlier. I can still remember the impression he made on me. His voice was soft, idyllic, almost angelic. I felt like I wanted to sit at his feet and listen to his words as though he was some kind of saint. But in actual fact, he was extremely shy and rather awkward in his social interactions.
Although I never got to know Father Lazarus very well, I felt there was a depth to this man, and the faith he professed and the church he represented, that was unlike anything I had encountered in the western church. Indeed, a careful reading of history reveals the extent to which the Russian Church suffered in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution. It is no exaggeration to say that believers “went through great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7.14).
It is estimated that between 1918 and 1922, 28 bishops and 1200 priests were executed. The persecution of Christians intensified following the death of Lenin in 1924 and the consolidation of power by Joseph Stalin. Church property was confiscated, seminaries were closed down, believers were harassed and prosecuted on trumped up charges, and tens of thousands of priests, monks, and nuns were tortured, sent to labour camps, or simply executed. To put it in perspective, approximately 130,000 priests were arrested over an 18-year period, of which an estimated 95,000 were murdered. By 1940, the number of Orthodox churches in Greater Russia had fallen from 29,584 to less than 500.
Like the souls under the altar, these believers must have been crying out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev 6.10). And yet, as Russian writer and political prisoner, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn observed, the most unexpected and inexplicable thing happened: instead of dying out and becoming extinct, the practice of Christianity flourished — albeit in secret, and at great risk to its devotees.
Accepting the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1983, Solzhenitsyn said: “As is always the case in times of persecution and suffering, the awareness of God in my country has attained great acuteness and profundity. It is here that we see the dawn of hope: for no matter how formidably communism bristles with tanks and rockets, no matter what successes it attains in seizing the planet, it is doomed never to vanquish Christianity.”
This, then, is the message of the Book of Revelation: God is on the throne! His kingdom has come, and is coming, and will continue to come until it ultimately fills the whole earth. And in that day, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord!
Herein is the faith and patience of the saints!