How to Read and Understand RevelationMarch 13, 2009
by Vern Poythress
In this guide, we will look at the Book of Revelation. We will start with Revelation 1, setting the groundwork and trying to come to grips with how you can read the Book of Revelation for yourself.
Our main goal in interpreting Revelation is to understand the role of Jesus Christ in teaching us what God plans for the future.
Many scholars and pastors have written about this topic, such as Vern Poythress in his book “The Returning King: A Guide to the Book of Revelation.” Poythress’s Revelation interpretation may vary from yours, but studying others’ exegesis is a helpful way to develop your own thoughts on the subject.
And so now, we will focus on the beginning of Revelation 1:
“The revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him to show to his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw. That is the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it because the time is near.
John to the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and has made us be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father. To him, be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.
Look, he is coming with the clouds and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him. And all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him, so shall it be. Amen.
‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’”
Exploring the Method of Introduction
In verse 4, John addresses the letter to the seven churches in the province of Asia. That verse is the beginning of the way in which you would write a letter.
In our time, we would usually put the date at the top and then “Dear John” or “Dear Mary.” After we wrote what we had to say, we would sign our name at the bottom.
Well, people in the first century wrote letters differently. They put their own name right at the top, in this case, John, and then right after that, the person they were writing to. So this is the first century equivalent of, “Dear Seven Churches in Asia.”
Now, the puzzling thing is that, before the beginning of the letter, there is one paragraph. The first three verses are sitting there all alone. It’s as if you wrote a letter to your friend John, but instead of starting out, “Dear John,” you wrote a paragraph at the top.
That would be a very strange thing to do, even today, and it struck the readers in the first century. So what is this lonely paragraph doing out front? Well, I can compare it to the kind of a sign you may have seen or say you may have seen, “If all else fails, read the directions.”
This saying normally applies to Christmas presents that you’re trying to put together. However, it can also very well be used to talk about life in general, and the Bible is a book of directions for life. If all else fails in your life, read the directions — the Bible, which is intended to be the directions for your life.
In the same way, you could say that the Book of Revelation has its own mini set of directions, which is the paragraph at the beginning. Of course, there is other help throughout the book, but this strange and lonely paragraph is probably put there because the book has some special difficulties. So, it’s to help you to get a start in understanding the book, to clue you in about what you may expect, and to understand how to read Revelation.
We’re going to spend time looking carefully at these three verses, which are a kind of set of directions for reading and understanding the Book of Revelation. We’ll go piece by piece, starting right at the beginning, the revelation.
What Does “Revelation” Mean?
As some background, the word “revelation” means “unveiling.” This book is an unveiling of something that did not come simply from John, who was the human writer, but from Jesus Christ which he himself received from God the Father.
The word “unveiling” can mean talking about things that are somewhat known already. For example, in Luke 2:32, there is a statement by Simeon saying that Christ will be a light for revelation to the Gentiles. A revelation of something which was only obscurely known before that. The Gentiles should have known about the true God, but they had obscured what they had known before, and now a greater light is coming.
Likewise, the Book of Revelation unveils by laying out what is already somewhat known and making it known more clearly. Now, that is already an encouragement to you and me, because I think in our day, there are a great many of us who have a hesitancy about this book for one reason or another and feel we can’t understand it.
Well, this book is meant to be a disclosure or a revelation, not concealment.
The next line is a revelation from Jesus Christ which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. God is the ultimate source of the contents of this book.
What Can We Expect From This Book?
Now, if you know anything about the Bible as a whole, you know that there are certain implications about what you can expect in this book. For one thing, you can expect a message of God, who is exalted, that has depths you may not fully understand. Even I may not fully understand this message because it is the message of our Creator, who knows all things.
At the same time, this very God who is your Creator has come near to you. In Psalm 131, for instance, David says, “My heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high. I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me but I have calmed and quieted my soul as a child quieted at his mother’s breast like a child.”
David knows that God is on intimate terms with us and that He speaks in a language that we can appropriate and understand. He has come near to us in Jesus Christ. Even a child can understand those things which are the most important, those things which we most need to know for our lives.
Now, the other thing is, not only is God the source of the message, but there’s a certain channel for the message — Jesus Christ, who is the only mediator between God and man. And it’s Jesus Christ who is both exalted and is nearer to us because he is fully man. He’s identified with us and it’s he who brings the message to us.
How to Understand the Book of Revelation
One of the keys to understanding the Book of Revelation is the same key to understanding all of the Bible. Namely, it speaks of Jesus Christ, who can enable us to understand.
So, when you read Revelation and the other books of the Bible, pray to the Lord that he will give you the humility of a child and the wisdom, which is his, that will enable you to understand.
The Book of Revelation is not only a book that is given to us through Jesus as a channel, but it is about Jesus Christ and God the Father. The exaltedness of Jesus Christ is evident in this revelation in Chapter 1 and in other parts of the book.
To illustrate this, I’ll use a section from C.S. Lewis’s book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” I would recommend the book to any of you, young and old, if you have not read it yet. But in that book, there is a certain dialogue that takes place about Aslan, a figure in this story who stands for Christ.
The dialogue says a lot about who Christ is, the same kind of thing that the Book of Revelation is interested in communicating. There are talking animals in the story, for those of you who have not read the book. As background for this section, the children have met some of these talking animals and they’ve just begun to discuss Aslan and ask who Aslan is.
“‘Aslan a man!’ said Mr. Beaver sternly. ‘Certainly not. I tell you, he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion — the Lion, the great Lion.’
‘Ooh!’ said Susan, ‘I’d thought he was a man. Is he — quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.’
‘That you will, dearie, and no mistake,’ said Mrs. Beaver, ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.’
‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy.
‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver. ‘Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’
‘I’m longing to see him,’ said Peter, ‘even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.’
‘That’s right, Son of Adam,’ said Mr. Beaver bringing his paw down on the table with a crash that made the cups and saucers rattle, ‘And so you shall. Word has been sent that you are to meet him, tomorrow if you can, at the Stone Table.’”
And so the story goes on.
But there, I think, you get a little flavor, which we can sometimes forget in our reading of Scripture. The flavor of the majesty and hesitancy on the part of these children saying, “Is he safe?” I think one of the benefits of the Book of Revelation can be to remind you of just this aspect of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Who This Book Is Written To
Now, there’s something else that I want you to notice in the first verse. Did you notice who this book is written to? It’s written to show his servants what must soon take place. And this book is available to us who are servants of Jesus Christ.
Revelation is meant to be understandable to everyone who is a servant of Jesus Christ. This book, according to its own set of directions, is not simply for the chosen few. It is not simply for the experts. It is not simply for people who study prophecy for years and years or for people who can puzzle everything out. If you are a servant of Christ, the book is for you.
In this post, I’m going to give you some other help and you will be able to read this book and understand it for yourself. You won’t be able to understand every detail, but I hope that we will get a start and you will be able to understand the basic points of the book.
How to Understand the Book of Revelation
If the Book of Revelation is for us who are servants of Jesus Christ, then perhaps understanding the book doesn’t mean quite what some people have thought it means.
For one thing, I don’t want to say that the book is meant to be read only in private. This is a book for us corporately as a people together, and that means we can receive aid from one another in understanding some of the details. By God’s grace, I hope to help you with that.
It is a matter of corporate understanding, in part, but I think it is also for you individually. Understanding is for the humble. It’s for servants of Christ. In fact, in Luke 10, Jesus prays, “Father, I thank thee, Lord of Heaven and Earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them today. Yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will.”
I think there’s something of that same note in the Book of Revelation — that you don’t need special skills to understand the main things about this book.
Well, what are the contents of the book? Go on to verse 2. “John is set to testify to everything he saw. That is the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.” That’s one description of the content.
The Book of Revelation is the authoritative Word of God. It is the testimony of Jesus Christ. That means also that it will be concerned with the truth of the Gospel, which other places in the Bible teach in other ways.
One aspect of understanding the book is realizing that it affirms God’s control over history. If I could give you a summary of the theme of this book, it would be this — that God rules history and He will bring it to its consummation in Jesus Christ. The comfort of that is in knowing that God is in charge, partly, even when things don’t go right.
Now, there are some events described in Revelation, such as wars, famines and disasters, that are very distressing things. The assurance of the Book of Revelation is, even when those things happen, it is like the knife of a surgeon. It’s not a thug beating you over the head when something bad happens in the world, but it is a surgeon’s knife in God’s own hand to accomplish His good and wise purposes.
Now, you see already that the content can be a comfort to you, letting you know that you can understand and appropriate the information even without figuring out every single detail in the Book of Revelation.
The Rule of God in History
Verse 1 says: “He has to show his servants what must soon take place.” What does that mean? Well, it means, for one thing, that the Book of Revelation is predominantly about the future. It’s predicting what will happen.
But also, I want you to notice the word “must” — “what must soon take place.” Now, what must soon take place can be only what’s in God’s control. Once again, we come back to this idea that this is a book whose key and whose focus is on God Himself.
There’s one other puzzle right in the same verse, and that’s the word “soon.” John prophesized about what “soon” will take place, but for some of you that might have already struck a point of difficulty, because you say, “Well, it seems the Book of Revelation is prophesying partly about the Second Coming. Now, it’s been nearly 2000 years.”
I think one of the easiest ways to understand this is to understand a little bit about the way in which prophecy operates. Often, a prophet will talk about something that is near but is a more distant event as well.
In John’s day, there were trials that were going to come to the church, including serious:
A judgment was going to come on the enemies of the church, and in particular, on the Roman Empire. So there was both a revelation of God’s glory and judgment on the enemies of the church.
Likewise, at the Second Coming, there has to be a supreme revelation of God’s glory and a supreme judgment on God’s enemies. John may well be prophesizing what is coming soon, but it’s nevertheless like a model for that great Second Coming, which is more distant in time.
Jesus told us to watch, to be ready. And that was as true for the disciples who were alive that he spoke to as it is now. We have to be ready at any time for the Second Coming.
One of the things about the Book of Revelation related to the fact that it is about the rule of God in history is that it’s a book not simply to be read, but a book to rejoice over, a book to be sung about. There are quite a few songs in the Book of Revelation.
One of them near the end is in Revelation 19. It’s a song accompanying the marriage supper of the Lamb. A song that expresses the joy of God’s people — a joy which we can share as we look forward to that marriage supper, and a joy which will be full when the marriage supper takes place.
Interpreting Revelation: Literal vs. Figurative
In the first verse, there is the phrase “He made it known.” Some translations may differ, but the word there is a bit of a special word. It’s not the ordinary word for making things known in the original text. You could also translate it as “intimate” or “signify.”
This phrase suggests that not everything is said in quite a straightforward or literal manner. A good verse to compare it with is John 21:18, where Jesus is speaking to Peter.
“‘I tell you the truth, when you were younger, you dressed and went where you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you and lead you where you did not want to go.’ Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death via which Peter would glorify God.”
Now, what my translation has is to indicate there, to signify, to intimate. Outside the Bible, we learned that Peter was crucified upside down. In this verse, Jesus is intimating what kind of death Peter will die, but he does not say it in a straightforward way. He doesn’t say, “You will be crucified,” but he uses the language of stretching out your hands and another will tell you where you do not wish to go.
So, he intimates and he says it indirectly, rather than saying it so directly. I think we have a little hint, then, in Revelation, that we can expect some symbols and indirect ways of saying some of the things.
The Angel’s Role
Now then, God sends His angel to make known this message. Why does an angel come in here? I’m not sure we can say all the reasons, but we’ve got quite a train of people involved in this message. I think the importance of the message and its exalted character is reinforced by the number of people who are involved.
The basic pattern of the giving of the message is:
- God, the Father, is the source of the message.
- He made it known to Jesus Christ.
- Jesus sent his angel.
- The angel made it known to John.
- John, of course, is writing and he asked for this message to be read publicly in order that all may listen and know.
- Behind this communication, we know the Holy Spirit is sent to enable us to understand the methods.
The Importance of Reading and Applying the Message
John bore witness to the Word of God and to the testimony of Jesus. Then there comes a blessing, “Blessed is he who reads the words of this prophecy.”
I believe the reference is primarily for people reading aloud in the congregation. In those days, not everyone could read for himself. It was more important that the message be read aloud so that all could hear.
The verse continues, saying, “Blessed are those who hear and do keep what is written in it.”
It is striking that this is the only book in the Bible, as far as I know, that gives the blessing to those who read. It suggests that God knew we would have difficulties with this book and put in a little special encouragement — a blessing — for readers.
Also, notice that reading is not the only thing you could do with this book. You are to keep what is written in it.
Now, what can that mean? I believe it’s a hint that what we are given here is not simply a newspaper report of the future that may tickle your fancy for a little while before you go away and basically say, “Oh, that was interesting.”
If we’re to keep what is written in it, it means that there is directly or indirectly an exhortation quality to it. This book is meant to change our lives. How can that be? Well, we are meant to get a vision of who God is — a renewed sense of who He is and His charge over history.
How to Approach the Book of Revelation
I believe that some people have made the mistake of approaching this book as if it were a newspaper report that you read and then you go away as the same person. But if we seize on the real heart of this, that God rules history and He will bring it to its consummation in Christ, then we won’t go away the same.
I’ll guarantee, if you read the Book of Revelation looking for the exhortation, the assurance, the call of faithfulness, then you will profit from the book and understand it. You may not necessarily understand every detail, but you will understand that basic message.
You see, that’s the way to go the right-end forward. Some people make the mistake of going back-end forward. They seize hold of the blade of the knife instead of the handle — they get occupied with the details before they have the big picture — and then they can get cut by the blade. If you seize it by the handle, the main idea, then you will make progress.
I will tell you a little story about this concept:
It was some years ago now, and I was presenting a series like this series. There were children in the audience. I said what I said tonight, then I went a little further and I said, “In fact, for you children, I think you may be able to understand it better than your parents.” Because I think that many times we who are adults have the sense of symbolism washed out of us by our culture. The children are sometimes better able to appropriate it.
After the service, a young man about 12 years old came up to me. He said, “Do you know what you said about the children? That we could read the book and understand it?”
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “I know exactly what you mean because a short while ago, I read the Book of Revelation and I understood it.”
I had to resist asking him, “What did it mean?” Instead, I said, “Praise the Lord.”
He said, “I read it just like a fantasy, except I knew it was true.” And I thought that’s exactly it. He knew how to enjoy the book, how to get into it, how to treat it as a story, a story about the work of Christ on our behalf.
Well, there’s a sequel to that story, too, because one of the seminarians heard me tell this story. He came up to me and he said, “I can remember reading the Book of Revelation when I was a young person. When I was about 12, I can remember reading it and I thought I understood it. Ever since then, I have been understanding it less and less.”
What I’m trying to get at by the stories I just told you, is something like this — the Book of Revelation is not a puzzle book. It’s not something that is meant to hide things and make you sit down and laboriously put pieces together.
Now, there is room for intensive study of the Book of Revelation, I don’t deny that. There’s room for appreciation of the Old Testament background that’s used in the book. But the Book of Revelation is not a puzzle book, it is a picture book. I’m convinced the Book of Revelation is not difficult because it’s too hard for us, but because it’s too simple for us, at least in its basic methods. We’re not used to that kind of thing.
Now, I have got a little statement written by someone who is not trustworthy in his attitudes toward Scripture in general. However, what he said at this particular point is worth thinking about. It is some indication of his artistry that the author of Revelation never fails to make a profound impression, even on those who imperfectly apprehend his meaning.
Much of the New Testament is written for those who have ears to hear but this book is written for those who have eyes to see. For a generation whose middle eyes have been starved of imagery, it is, in some ways, the most important book in the New Testament.
The Book of Revelation’s Theme
This is a book of the vision of God’s victory. It’s the kind of thing you can sum up in the language of 1 John 5, “Who is the victor over the godless world? Who but he believes that Jesus is the Son of God, the victory that defeats the world, his own fate.” That’s, in a sense, part of the theme of the Book of Revelation.
Or I can take language from the Book of Revelation itself to help summarize the message of this book as a whole. Revelation 17:14: “They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings — and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.”
Or again, Revelation Chapter 12, Verse 10: “Then I heard a loud voice in Heaven, say, ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They have overcome him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.”
God rules history and will bring it to its consummation in Christ.
My final story is a true story about seminarians who were playing some basketball in the church gym.
As they were finishing, they noticed the janitor was seated in a corner reading a Bible. I suppose he was waiting for them to finish so he could close up. They went over to him and said, “Hello, what are you reading?”
He said, “The Book of Revelation.”
Some of the seminarians sort of stuck out their chest and thought, well, maybe we can help this poor fellow understand.
One of them said, “Well, do you understand what you’re reading?”
He said, “Yes.”
Of course, this took them aback and took the wind out of their sails a little bit. They said, “Well, what does it mean? What do you think it is saying?”
He said, “It means that Jesus is going to win.”
Isn’t that precisely the point? That janitor really had understood. He got ahold of the center.
Near the beginning, Revelation 4:11, you have a song of praise. The angels and living creatures are around the throne praising God because He created the world. That demonstration of power is already a guarantee of God’s victory.
If we look for the central message about the Lord Jesus Christ, about the rule of God over history, then we can profit from the book — even from those things that may be more mysterious.
In the first chapter of Revelation, we see that Christ himself is our teacher. If we want to understand the Book of Revelation, we can pray for him to enlighten us. He is the mediator, the one who gives us this message in the Book of Revelation.
Now, we will look at Chapter 4 and what I consider to be the major theme perhaps of the whole book, that God rules history and will bring it to its culmination in Christ.
We Live in a God-Centered World
The first part of this chapter shows us that we live in a God-centered world. Note that we are skipping over Chapters 2 and 3, which contain the Letters to the Seven Churches. They’re important for understanding the historical circumstances in which this book was written because they’re relevant to churches and to individuals now, but some of the more challenging aspects come beginning with Chapter 4.
So, beginning with Chapter 4, Verse 1:
“After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’
At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and cornelian. A rainbow resembling an emerald encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads.
From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also, before the throne, there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stopped saying,
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.’
Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say,
‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.'”
Seeing the Whole Picture
There are many questions you could ask yourself concerning this section. I think one of the helpful things when studying the Book of Revelation is to see the whole picture and let the splendor sink into you before you focus on any of the details.
So, what does this picture say? Well, I think I can best communicate it by contrasting this picture with two others.
The first of them is a picture of this world, an understanding of human beings that was popular when the Book of Revelation was written. It originated in the work of a man named Ptolemy. He was an astronomer and, in part, his theory was about the motions of the stars and planets.
Now, there was nothing wrong with that, but often I think this theory became more than just a method for calculating the position of the planets — it became a total worldview. Man was regarded as the center of the universe, and therefore it was logical to think of the Earth as also the center of the solar system.
In our day, of course, scientists have discovered that is not an altogether accurate picture. If you want to know what’s replaced it, don’t ask yourself simply about a narrow scientific theory. Ask yourself how many people can see for themselves where they locate themselves in the world around them.
Most people know that the sun, rather than the Earth, is the center of the solar system. In turn, the solar system isn’t really the center of anything, in geometrical terms. It’s part of the huge Milky Way Galaxy. If you ask people about the galaxy, they may not be able to say whether it’s the center of things or not, but behind everything is often the assumption that there is chaos.
In other words, the second picture is that there is no rhyme or reason. The Milky Way Galaxy itself came into being as a product of chance. Chaos is the origin and the destiny of all things.
I think one of the reasons why you are seeing a decay of moral standards and other changes in the United States nowadays is related to the fact that people have lost their route in terms of understanding their place in the world. If the whole world, including human beings, rose out of chaos, then what difference does it make whether you do right or wrong?
Well, the picture which the Bible gives is neither of those. It’s a picture which, in a very obvious way, says the thing that ought to be obvious to us, but often we forget or fool ourselves into saying that it isn’t so, and that is that God is the real center of the universe.
Of course, that’s not being said in quite the way an astronomer would be interested in. The astronomer is interested only in calculating the positions of various planets. The Bible is interested in something deeper than that. Not simply the center, in terms of making your mathematical calculations of positions easier, but the center in terms of the real root of things.
How do I really understand what’s going on in the world? Where is the control, the source of control for what’s going on? You see, in Revelation 4, if you take it together, especially with Chapter 5, the picture that you’re given is a throne in the very center. This picture says: “Here is God and He is in control, and around the throne are circles of creatures from which His commands go out.”
So, there are four living creatures and twenty-four elders. Then, we meet myriads of angels in Chapter 5, and then finally, every creature in Heaven and on Earth, and under the Earth, and in the sea all singing praises to the one who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb.
Now, what is this saying? Well, I think it’s important, first of all, for the whole Book of Revelation. As you read through the book, you will find that the sequences of things that happen all in some way link back with and are rooted in this vision of who God is.
You may find, for instance, that the first sequence of events is the breaking of seven seals on a scroll. Where did that scroll come from? Where did those seven seals come from? They came from the right hand of Him who is seated on the throne. In other words, it was saying these things which you see in the Book of Revelation, as they work out, they all stem out from this one center.
Another thing about this picture is, it’s a picture not only of God’s authority, but of rest and beauty. It’s a picture to bring comfort to anyone who is a true servant of God.
I also believe that it’s a plan — a kind of prototype for God’s plan for the whole universe. All things are destined to be summed up in Christ, but that’s really not saying anything different from saying all things are to submit to the rule of Christ, which is also the rule of the Father, because the two are one.
God’s Kingdom to Come
Now, what does it mean for God’s Kingdom to come? What does it mean for Christ to return? It means that God’s rule, as it’s now exerted around that throne and His Word that is perfectly abiding by the spirit beings, the heavenly beings around His throne, that rule will have extended to the whole Earth.
“Your Kingdom come on Earth, as it is in Heaven.” That’s what we pray. So, the coming of all of God’s purposes is nothing less than the extension of this picture of beauty, rest and God’s authority to other regions, these other circles, and saying, “God will be the Lord, exclusive Lord of all.”
Or you can put it in another way, as the extension of the voices of that throne outwards — the divine voice instructing the angels, “Do this and do that so that God’s Will will be done, His Word will be heard and obeyed.”
Or you can put it still another way, as the extension of the response of praise. If you go all the way to the end of Chapter 5, you will see a beautiful climax at the end.
Verse 13: “Then I heard every creature in Heaven and on Earth and under the Earth and on the sea, nothing left out. All that is in them singing to him who sits on the throne to the Lamb. He prays in Honor, in Glory, in Power forever and ever.”
The goal of history is that the entirety of creation would be caught up in the song of praise and express the glory which God deserves. So you see, this picture around the throne is a prototype. It’s a model of where you’re headed and where I’m headed — something to give us a vision of God’s purpose.
Or still, a final way for the Second Coming to happen, all things in God’s Word to be realized and the prophecy to be fulfilled, is that the knowledge of the Lord’s glory will cover the Earth as the waters cover the sea. That’s the way the Scripture itself expresses it.
Now, have you ever thought about how the waters cover the sea? There’s no part of the sea where there isn’t water, right? So likewise, God has promised, “My glory is going to fill the earth, no part left, just as the waters cover the sea.”
Now, can anyone be sure of the fact that God is alive? Of course, we may ourselves doubt, but that is our weakness. God is binding Himself by the thing, which is as sure as anything in all of the universe.
As surely as I live, there could be no higher surety in God’s own mind than that, and as surely as the glory of the Lord fills the whole Earth, or will fill it, depending on your translation. You see, there is a certainty there about the fact that the glory of the Lord is to fill the whole Earth.
Isaiah 40:5, a familiar passage, says: “The glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Now, that’s fulfilled in a preliminary way, in a glorious way in fact, in the first coming of Christ.
Christ is real, first of all, to the Jews — his own people — but eventually to Gentiles also, to most of you who are not Jews by birth. The glory of the Lord has been revealed to you, but it is also still advancing, and there will come a day when Christ will visibly return and his glory will be manifested to all flesh in the most literal way.
Now, come back to our picture in Revelation 4, and what is it saying: “Here is a picture of the glory of the Lord.” Again, that’s the pattern, what you will experience at the return of Christ. At the summing up of all things in Christ, what you will experience is nothing less than the extension of that amazing glory of the Lord to the holder.
Now, you see, that’s already one of the key aspects of the message from the Book of Revelation. Sometimes I think our tendency is to pass on from these pictures of God, but we really shouldn’t do that too fast because, in a sense, the picture of God Himself is at the heart of it all.
We Have Access to God’s Wisdom and Power Through Christ
Let’s look in a bit of detail at the first three verses of Revelation 4. The point here is going to be, “Through Christ, you have access to God’s wisdom and power.”
How did we come to have the revelation of what we’re told about in Revelation 4? Well, listen to the first verses, which are from John’s perspective: “After this, I look, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven.” Not the whole heavens opened to public view, but a small door through which John alone is going to go.
There will come a time when the heavens themselves are open, according to Revelation 19, and Christ himself appears. However, for the moment it’s only John. He is to get, as it were, a preview of that scene, as it will be revealed when Christ comes.
Now, earlier on in Chapter 3, Verse 8, you will see another door. “‘I know your deeds.’” This is Christ speaking. He continues: “‘See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.’”
He may be speaking here about a door for evangelism, a door for church growth of some kind. It’s not the same door as the one in Revelation 4, but there is a connection. In both cases, it’s an open opportunity, and who provides that opportunity? Well, it’s Christ Himself who does. It’s Christ who’s also in charge of this vision that John is given.
Where does John go? Well, the first voice speaking like a trumpet said, “‘Come up here to heaven. I will show you what must take place after this.’” Why is John taken to heaven? Well, it’s as if he’s taken behind the scenes.
If you have ever been at an airport like the Philadelphia airport or even Kennedy in New York and had the opportunity to see the planes coming in from an observation deck, you could watch the baggage being taken here and there. You could probably watch a long time there and it would be fascinating, perhaps even awesome. But you may have the feeling that you don’t really know what’s going on.
Now, suppose that instead of being on that observation deck, you had someone who was able to take you up into the control tower of the airport. You could sit or stand behind the people and watch as they work their instrument panels and radar. You would see how they send and receive messages back and forth to plot out how the planes would come in and so on.
By going behind the scenes, you will be given a position where the plans of the controllers would be open to your understanding. I see that’s exactly what’s happening. It is as if you, through the medium of John himself, are taken up into the control tower, this time of the universe. You see what is going on behind the scenes. And you see the plan that is behind what happens on Earth.
Now you see, even though we still do not understand all the time why God does what He does, it’s of immense importance to understand that God is at that control tower.
God Is in Control
Distressing things happen in this world now and later on, of course, in the Book of Revelation. There are famines, wars, conquests and plagues.
Why? Well, the Lord never has provided all the answers in so many words to the wise or suffering. Job struggled and struggled over this. It is a struggle that comes up here and there in the Old Testament. But God says in a sense, “I’ll give you my own pledge. I’m in charge, and this universe is going in the direction I intended.”
Now, we’re not ready yet to talk about the role of the Lamb here, but the Lamb, you see, is also the guarantee. He’s the one who loved us even to the point of death. The one who, in his own life, experiences the same struggle of suffering, saying “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
He suffered deeper than any of us ever have in order that we, among other things, might have a guarantee that our God is the God who in every circumstance, including the blackness of what Christ went through, will bring His work to completion and His glory to full manifestation for our enjoyment.
The Shorter Catechism says that our purpose is to serve and glorify God and enjoy Him forever. To enjoy the glory of His Majesty. So, we are taken up in heaven, we are taken behind the scenes by virtue of Christ himself.
Now, let’s go on and look at the first thing that John sees. What does he see? He sees a throne, doesn’t he? “At once, I was in the spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it.”
It’s reminiscent. Again and again, the revelation picks up passages from the Old Testament. This one is reminiscent perhaps most, among others, of Psalm 47:9, “The nobles of the nations.” In this case, it’s earthly peoples, but now in this throne scene, it’s heavenly peoples, and in the Old Testament, it was “Earthly peoples and nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham, for the kings of the Earth belong to God, he is greatly exalted.”
To have the vision of God seated on His throne is to have the vision of God’s rule and the fact that He will judge the world in the future. In fact, the picture I had with God in the center is to say God’s rule even now is comprehensive in its effects.
There is yet to come, a fuller manifestation of that rule, but even now, the hand of God is at work in every circumstance of your life. This concept is one of the major elements we need to work with and wrestle with within our own lives as we’re thinking about the Book of Revelation.
How to Relate Revelation to Real Life
What does this book mean, for instance, as we think about international politics? There’s a great interest among some prophetic interpreters about the relationship of the Book of Revelation to events in the Middle East.
I myself do not intend to get into that very far, partly because I’m not confident that the spotters have it all right, and partly because we can miss what is a more important message of the Book of Revelation. That it’s less a matter of our being able to plot out what’s going to happen in the Middle East.
Regardless of whatever happens in the Middle East, South America, Russia and the United States, international politics is in the control of the Lord.
These books don’t say that much about international politics either. What about watching TV? I know many families have trouble regulating their TV watching. They’re concerned about what the young people are seeing. You ought to be concerned about what you yourself are watching because many of the world’s ideas are there, especially in advertising. Do you have trouble there?
Well, the Lord God, the God who is on the throne of the universe, is God also over TV watching. Or do you feel you never have enough money? The Lord is the Lord of all resources. He knows your situation financially. Do you have frustrations about cooking? The Lord is the Lord of the kitchen. Is your car a lemon or is your transmission about to give out? The Lord is the Lord of areas of difficulty in our lives.
The Lord God is whom we ought to trust, knowing that He is in charge. More positively, take a simple thing like a leaf. Have you ever thought about what the Lord has put into the making of a leaf?
Here is a tremendously efficient machine for converting energy from the sun into useful forms of energy for mankind. In fact, no engineer has been able to duplicate it. It’s non-polluting, non-toxic, biodegradable, self-reproducing and self-repairing. What kind of machine can you find like that?
Think now about the wisdom of God you see that goes into even a small part of our world. Find one thing in your life that no one else has ever thought about as being related to God, where you can see the hand of the Lord.
It can be as simple as a leaf or the web of a spider. Some little thing even so small that no one else has ever recognized it before, or at least try for that. Because I think part of the challenge of the Book of Revelation is to see our lives, from top to bottom, as under the hand of God.
The Meaning Behind the Precious Stones
I want to go on to one little detail now not of your lives, but of this vision of God. That detail is the precious stones that are found in this description in Revelation 4. After he sees the throne, this is what it says in verse 3, “The one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, a rainbow resembling an emerald encircled the throne.”
In those short lines, there are three precious jewels or jewel-like colors that are mentioned in association with the throne. I will go over two approaches to understanding these stones in the Book of Revelation.
H3: The International Character of God’s Throne
Now, this section is typical of a lot of small details that you will see in the Book of Revelation. How do we go about appreciating a detail like that of these precious jewels if we have the time? Well, I have already given away what I think is the answer.
Our God is magnificent. Really. Sometimes the most obvious meaning is the best. This really is a book that you’re meant to think about and say, “What would my reaction be if I saw this?” Well, the reaction I think most of us would have is, “What a magnificent and beautiful display.” That’s exactly what it’s intending to say about God.
This book shows the glory and beauty of our king seated in His courtroom with His assistants, those angels and living creatures, around him. There is also an extra little note that we might miss if we didn’t know the Old Testament very well.
Ezekiel 28:12 in the Old Testament says: “Son of man, take up a lament concerning the king of Tyre, and say to him: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘You were the model of perfection full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you.’’”
See, we have a similar note being struck. The verse continues “‘‘ruby, topaz, emerald, chrysolite, onyx and jasper, sapphire, turquoise and beryl. Your settings and mountings were made of gold; on the day you were created they were prepared.’’” In the immediate context, this is a critique of the king of Tyre.
Tyre was a trading city, sort of like Philadelphia. It was a port city or trading city, and in those days, you would have all kinds of goods coming from the nations of the world there. It was a fact that you could not find all these precious stones in any one place.
So, the place where you are most likely to find the greatest concentration and varieties of precious stones would be a place of international power. There may be a suggestion in our passage in Revelation of the international character of God’s throne, of this many-colored splendor corresponding to the splendor an earthly king can have only if he has international connections.
H3: Assessing the Stones’ Colors
Now, I want to contrast the notes that I have struck with a different kind of approach. I think it may be useful because sometimes you will run across people or you may come across books that take a different kind of approach to the Book of Revelation.
These individuals will focus on particular details like the carnelian there in Revelation 4:3. Now, that was a reddish type of semi-precious stone also called sardius. One person may say, “Sardius is here employed to represent the punitive righteousness of God, His anger. That cannot be doubted when we look at the fundamental and parallel passages.” Well, I looked at the parallel passages and they didn’t seem to be so convincing to me.
What I want to point out about this approach is there can be a tendency to say, “I must take each little detail of each precious stone and figure out that it represents one particular thing.”
I will read another example that’s from the green one, the emerald color. Bangle says that this green is, of all colors, the most agreeable. If other things have made the eyes weak and tender, we find them refreshed by turning them on the green.
The other two stones’ colors of white and red affect the vision much more. If we hold long before us anything a little fiery red or shining white, the site is soon injured, but the green color is intermediate between the two and a chaster description.
When God represents Himself as the jasper and sardius, as He exhibits Himself in His holiness and glory, in which respect He is frightful to man, but the green rainbow is a mark of the divine condescension, palpability and forbearance, and he goes on.
Well, I’m not saying that those things are not true of God. Obviously, they are true of God. Nor do I suppose it is outside the realm of possibility that even those things might be possibly suggested by these precious stones.
I want to encourage you not to be deflected from the main point and not to be worried by people who seem to be getting all kinds of very deep and strange things out of the Book of Revelation. They’re letting their imaginations run.
Stay Focused on the Big Picture
We should let our imaginations run a little bit in order to have the images sink into us. However, we need to grasp that the main points are there in a more immediate fashion to be grasped, and it’s not mainly a matter of burrowing until you figure out to which divine attribute, which characteristic of God, each of these stones corresponds. The importance is to get the big picture.
In getting that big picture, you have seized on the main point and you can let any subordinate points fall in place from there.
Bible and Science, Part IIFebruary 26, 2009
by Vern Poythress