(Today’s post by Wayne Bunting)
The book of Revelation. One of the greatest, if not the greatest, of literary compositions in the world. I don’t feel like I will ever do this book justice with anything that I write on here. In the last 2000 years this book has been poured over relentlessly, giving rise to both guidance and confusion. Many people have held to bad and hasty interpretations of various parts of this often confusing book of the Bible. I’m sure that we can all think of some who have predicted the return of Jesus only to be proven wrong when their predictions did not come to pass. Or some who said that certain people or entities represented certain characters in Revelation, only to see history move on and leave those people in the dust. But we as the church must not shy away from seeking out the truth that is in this book because others have messed up in the past, especially since it, and the message in it, has been given to us the church to guide us.
Revelation seems very complex and confusing. But when one dives into its message and purpose one will find that this book is a wonderful masterpiece that is written to guide, lead, and comfort the church at large through the course of its existence. Revelation seems confusing to our 21st century literary understanding because it is written in the style and form of a 1st century literary composition. Specifically, the book of Revelation is written in the literary form of an apocalypse (Revelation is called Apocalypse (“Apokaliptou”) in Greek). An apocalypse is a letter that was written detailing certain events and messages. These are described using metaphors and imagery to paint the picture of what is going on, or of a certain message that the author was trying to get across, or of certain events that would happen in the future. There were many other apocalypses written other than the book of Revelation, and several cultures embraced this literary form, including the Jews. And with that in mind, the book of Revelation uses an incredible amount of Old Testament imagery to communicate its message. One cannot understand Revelation without first understanding the Old Testament imagery that it uses to communicate its message.
Think of it like the Chronicles of Narnia books. The characters and imagery in these books are used as metaphors, or vehicles, to communicate a message about other things and people. Anyone who is familiar with these books knows that the characters in the story represent other things, and are not literally these characters in and of themselves. For example, the most obvious character that comes to mind is Aslan the lion. His character represents Jesus. Another character, the white witch, represents Satan. Taking this story literally would cause the reader to miss out on what this story is all about, or more importantly what this story represents. Now fast forward 2000 years. What if someone found the Chronicles of Narnia books and tried to understand them? Being 2000 years removed from our culture would cause the reader to have a big gap in their understanding of what this story is all about. His tendency would probably be to take the story literally, and only at face value. He would probably think that Narnia and all of the characters in the Chronicles of Narnia did exactly what they did in the story without any further meaning or purpose. To them the story would point to nothing further than what they plainly read in the text unless they studied, did some research, or were somehow prepared to understand the meaning that is in these books.
The same is true with the way most people go about understanding the book of Revelation. Being 2000 years removed from the culture that it was written in, we have a tendency to take what happens in this book in only a literal way, which causes us to completely miss the purpose and the message that the author intended to convey through his use of symbolism.
So what do we do? We learn to properly interpret Revelation by understanding how and why it was written, especially with regards to how its first century audience would have understood it. I’m not saying I have this all figured out; sometimes I think that John was hanging out with Bill Clinton in college when he wrote this. But I am saying that the employment of certain strategies will help one glean a greater understanding of this book, and will in turn help the church as a whole to understand the message that is contained in it for them.
Revelation is a literary art form. It is an apocalypse, a vehicle that is used to carry the message and meaning that the author is trying to get across. The importance is in finding what the numbers, colors, symbols, and names etc. represent in Revelation so that we can understand its meaning. It is also important to understand that this is a vast and immensely deep book. And as such one can spend their entire life studying it and still find that they are learning new things. It is very important to use help, starting with the Holy Spirit, and also with resources that will steer you in the right direction with regards to interpreting this incredible piece of writing. Be careful though, as Jesus warned us there are wolves in sheep’s clothing, false teachers willing to pervert the truth of Christ and lead Christians astray.
The interesting thing about Revelation is that it is also written in the form of an epistle (or letter), similar to other epistles in the New Testament. Also, most apocalyptic writings have within its content instructions by an angel to be sealed up so that its message is not known until a later time. In Revelation, however, an angel tells John not to seal up his writing. This suggests that it was written to an immediate audience, the church of the time, and that it was meant, at least in part, to have an immediate message to them. Though the message written in Revelation 2-3 is written to specific churches of that time, the purpose of those messages is relevant to the Church as a whole throughout history. Also, in addition to viewing Revelation as an epistle, one may also view Revelation as a book of prophecy written to the church in the same way that God used Old Testament prophets to speak to His people. So in a sense we can view Revelation as a New Testament form of an Old Testament prophetic book.
With this in mind the Lord speaks in this way to various churches in chapters 2-3. In 2:1-7 Jesus speaks to the church of Ephesus. In chapter 1 Jesus appears to John in a very noteworthy form. He sees seven golden lampstands and seven stars in Jesus’ right hand. Jesus says that “The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” Seven is the number of perfection, completeness, or wholeness. In this case I think it means the wholeness of the church, or the entire church.
Jesus is shown to be walking among the seven lampstands, meaning that He is with His people, the whole church. He is in their midst, walking with them. You will see this imagery of Jesus being in the midst of His people expressed in a different way again in chapter five. The seven stars are shown to be the angels of the seven churches. In Greek the word for “angel” can mean either angel or messenger. It’s probable that the “angel” he is referring to is the pastors or bishops (messengers) of these seven churches.
Jesus says that this church has some good in its favor: “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.” However, through all of this the church of Ephesus has lost its first love. Despite its religious zeal it is no longer passionate about Christ.
The church of today in the western world, much like the church of Ephesus, has lost its first love. It no longer burns with absolute love for Jesus like a couple that is first in love burns with love for each other. I’m not saying that the church has to always be on fire and feel immensely close with Jesus, but its love for Christ as its “first love” is not evident. It has lost its commitment to Christ and is no longer passionate about Him. Of course this does not absolutely apply to every Christian in the church of the western world, but it certainly applies to the majority. Notice what Jesus says what result will be if the church of Ephesus did not repent and do the things that it did at first. He said that He will “come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” In other words the church will be disbanded, it will lose its light, and will no longer be the church. It will no longer be one of the places where Christ walks among.
If you look at a map at the location of all seven churches that Jesus wrote to in chapters 2-3 they were once thriving churches that are now almost non existent. Their lampstand was removed because they ceased to pursue Christ, and as a result the church died off.
Is this evidence of what is happening now in the western world? I think so. I think we are seeing our lampstand removed at a rapid rate. Of course this does not have to happen. People can choose Christ and the light of our lampstand can burn bright again, and Christ will walk in our midst. But we have taken our eyes off Christ. He is no longer our singular devotion, and we have supplanted His lordship in our hearts with the ways of the world. The result of this is that you will see the church die out. Look at the once thriving churches of Europe, a place that was a Christian stronghold for well over 1000 years. It is now a bastion of humanism, socialism, and is marked more by sin sickened human potential than by Christ. The church in Europe is dying off at a sickening rate, and some would say that it is already dead. Look at the churches in Asia Minor (Turkey), and the Middle East. Think of Syria, the birthplace of the gentile church, now a stronghold of Islam. Canada is right behind Europe, and we in America are beginning to descend into those same depths.
I don’t say this just to point blame. I’m no perfect Christian myself. But that is not the point. The point is that so much of the church has removed Christ from the Lordship of its heart, and has replaced Him with the world. I say these things to raise awareness to what is happening. Just as Christ told the church of Ephesus that they should repent so that it could remain the lampstand that He would walk among, so too does the church here and now need to make Christ the absolute Lord of its heart. We have compromised who Christ is for the comfort of the world. And as a result we are beginning to look more like the world than Christ. This is not happening by chance.
I believe that if the church turns wholeheartedly to Christ then He will turn wholeheartedly towards us. So the charge I leave you with now is to pray for the church. Pray for revival and for the wholehearted renewal of our hearts towards Christ. Speak it out to your fellow Christians. Beg God for it. We can see God heal our land and see the light of Christ burn brightly in the church again. There is no greater thing than to know Christ. And to see Him walk among the churches is to commune with Him. And to commune with Him is to make Him known to the world. So pray for revival.