As we begin this book of Revelation, I have mingled feelings. I am actually running scared as we come to this, one of the great books in the Word of God. Candidly, I must also say that it is with great joy that I begin it. Let me explain why I say this.
It has long been my practice, when I need a time of relaxation, to read a mystery story, a detective story. I confess that mystery stories have been more or less a hobby of mine over the years.
I do not read much of Agatha Christie anymore for the very simple reason that I have read so many of hers that I can usually figure out who the killer is, who committed the murder. Now I read Dorothy Sayers. By the way, she is a Christian, and she gets a great deal of Scripture into her books. The unsaved are reading the Bible without realizing it. Anyway, I have always enjoyed mystery stories.
When I began my ministry, I was a single man, and on Sunday nights after the evening service, I would get into bed and read one of the mystery stories.
Well, about one o’clock in the morning I would get to the place where the heroine has been tied down to the railroad tracks by the villain, and old Number 77 is going to be coming along in about twenty minutes. She is in a desperate situation. I think that the hero is going to be able to get there and rescue her, but I find out that he is in that old warehouse down by the pier, tied to a chair under which is a stick of dynamite with the fuse already lighted! Well, I can’t leave the hero and heroine at one o’clock in the morning in that kind of position. But, since it is time for me to turn over and go to sleep, I slip over to the final page. A different scene greets me there. I see the hero and the heroine sitting out in a yard. I see a lovely cottage encircled by a white picket fence. They are married now and have a little baby who is playing there on the lawn. What a wonderful, comfortable scene that is!
So I would just turn back to the place where I stopped reading, and I would say to the hero and heroine, “I don’t know how you are going to get out of it, but I tell you this: It’s going to work out all right.”
My friend, I have a book in the Bible called the Book of the Revelation, and it tells me how this world scene is going to end. I will be frank to say that I get a little disturbed today when I see what is happening in the world. It is a dark picture as I look out at it, and I wonder how it is going to work out. Well, all I do is turn to the last book of the Bible, and when I begin to read there, I find that it’s going to work out all right. Do you know that? Emerson said that things are in the saddle, and they ride mankind. It does look that way. In fact, it looks as if the Devil is having a high holiday in the world, and I think he is, but God is going to work it out. God Himself will gain control—in fact, He has never lost control—and He is moving to the time when He is going to place His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, upon the throne of His universe down here. It does look dark now. I think that any person today who looks at the world situation and takes an optimistic view of it has something wrong with his thinking. The world is in a desperate condition. However, I’m no pessimist because I have the Book of Revelation, and I can say to every person who has trusted Christ, “Don’t you worry. It’s going to work out all right.” My friend, the thing is going to come out with God on top. Therefore, I want to be with Him. As Calvin put it, “I would rather lose now and win later than to win now and lose later.” I want to say to you, friend, that I am on the side that appears to be losing now, but we are going to win later. The reason I know this is because I have been reading the Book of Revelation. And I hope that you are going to read it with me.
As I have said, I approach the Book of Revelation with fear and trembling, not primarily because of a lack of competence on my part (although that may be self–evident), but many other factors enter into this feeling. First of all, there may be a lack of knowledge on the part of the readers. You see, the Book of Revelation is the sixty–sixth book of the Bible, and it comes last. This means that we need to know sixty–five other books before we get to this place. You need to have the background of a working knowledge of all the Bible that precedes it. You need to have a feel of the Scriptures as well as have the facts of the Scriptures in your mind.
There is a second factor that gives me a feeling of alarm as I enter this book. It is the contemporary climate into which we are giving these studies in Revelation. It is not primarily because of a skeptical and doubting age—although it is certainly that—but it is because of these dark and difficult and desperate days in which we live. We see the failure of leadership in every field—government, politics, science, education, military, and entertainment. Since the educators cannot control even their own campuses, how are they going to supply leadership for the world? Business is managed by tycoons. And the actors can be heard on the media talk programs. Listening to them for only a brief time reveals that they have nothing to say. They do a lot of talking, but they say nothing that is worthwhile. None of these groups or segments of our society have any solutions. They are failures in the realm of leadership. There is a glaring lack of leadership. There is no one to lead us out of this moral morass or out of the difficult and Laocoon–like problems which have us all tangled up. We are living in a very difficult time, my friend. In fact, I think that it is one of the worst in the history of the church.
Knowledgeable men have been saying some very interesting things about this present hour. Please note that I am not quoting from any preachers but from outstanding men in other walks of life.
Dr. Urey, from the University of Chicago, who worked on the atomic bomb, began an article several years ago in Collier’s magazine by saying, “I am a frightened man, and I want to frighten you.”
Dr. John R. Mott returned from a trip around the world and made the statement that this was “the most dangerous era the world has ever known.” And he raised the question of where we are heading. Then he made this further statement, “When I think of human tragedy, as I saw it and felt it, of the Christian ideals sacrificed as they have been, the thought comes to me that God is preparing the way for some immense direct action.”
Chancellor Robert M. Hutchins, of the University of Chicago, gave many people a shock several years ago when he made the statement that “devoting our educational efforts to infants between six and twenty–one seems futile.” And he added, “The world may not last long enough.” He contended that for this reason we should begin adult education.
Winston Churchill said, “Time may be short.”
Mr. Luce, the owner of Life, Time, and Fortune magazines, addressed a group of missionaries who were the first to return to their fields after the war. Speaking in San Francisco, he made the statement that when he was a boy, the son of a Presbyterian missionary in China, he and his father often discussed the premillennial coming of Christ, and he thought that all missionaries who believed in that teaching were inclined to be fanatical. And then Mr. Luce said, “I wonder if there wasn’t something to that position after all.”
It is very interesting to note that The Christian Century carried an article by Wesner Fallaw which said, “A function of the Christian is to make preparation for world’s end.”
Dr. Charles Beard, the American historian, said, “All over the world the thinkers and searchers who scan the horizon of the future are attempting to assess the values of civilization and speculating about its destiny.”
Dr. William Yogt, in the Road to Civilization, wrote: “The handwriting on the wall of five continents now tells us that the Day of Judgment is at hand.”
Dr. Raymond B. Fosdick, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, said, “To many ears comes the sound of the trump of doom. Time is short.”
H. G. Wells declared before he died, “This world is at the end of its tether. The end of everything we call life is close at hand.”
General Douglas MacArthur said, “We have had our last chance.”
Former president Dwight Eisenhower said, “Without a moral regeneration throughout the world there is no hope for us as we are going to disappear one day in the dust of an atomic explosion.”
Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, ex–president of Columbia University, said, “The end cannot be far distant.”
To make the picture even more bleak, the modern church has no solutions for the problems of this hour in which we are living. There was a phenomenal growth in church membership, especially after World War II, but that took place for only a few years. The growth went from 20 percent of the population in 1884 to 35 percent of the population in 1959. That was the high point of Protestant church membership. And it would indicate the possibility of a church on fire for God. Then it had wealth and was building tremendous programs, but recently the church has begun to lose, and it certainly is not affecting the contemporary culture of the present hour.
As far back as 1958 the late David Lawrence wrote an editorial which he entitled “The ‘Mess’ in the World.” He described it very accurately, but even he did not have a solution for it. As we look out at the world in this present hour, we see that it is really in a mess.
For a long time now men in high positions have looked into the future and have said that there is a great crisis coming. (I wonder what they would say if they lived in our day!) As a result of this foreboding, there has been a growing interest in the Book of Revelation.
Although good expositors differ on the details of the Book of Revelation, when it comes to the broad interpretation, there are four major systems. (Broadus lists seven theories of interpretation and Tregelles lists three.)
1. The preterist interpretation is that all of Revelation has been fulfilled in the past. It had to do with local references in John’s day and with the days of either Nero or Domitian. This view was held by Renan and by most German scholars, also by Elliott. The purpose of the Book of Revelation was to bring comfort to the persecuted church and was written in symbols that the Christians of that period would understand.
Now let me say that it was for the comfort of God’s people, and it has been that for all ages, but to hold the preterist interpretation means that you might as well take the Book of Revelation out of the Bible, as it has no meaning at all for the present hour. This viewpoint has been answered and, I think, relegated to the limbo of lost things.
2. The historical interpretation is that the fulfillment of Revelation is going on continuously in the history of the church, from John’s day to the present time. Well, I believe that there is a certain amount of truth in this as far as the seven churches are concerned, as we shall see, but beyond that, it is obvious that the Book of Revelation is prophetic.
3. The historical–spiritualist interpretation is a refinement of the historical theory and was advanced first by Sir William Ramsay. This theory states that the two beasts are imperial and provincial Rome and that the point of the book is to encourage Christians. According to this theory, Revelation has been largely fulfilled and contains only spiritual lessons for the church today.
The system we know today as amillennialism has, for the most part, adopted this view. It dissipates and defeats the purpose of the book. In the seminary of my denomination, I studied Revelation in both Greek and English from the standpoint of the amillennialist. It was amazing to see how the facts of the Revelation could be dissipated into thin air by just saying, “Well, these are symbols.” But they never were able to tell us exactly what they were symbols of. That was their problem. The fact of the matter is that some very unusual interpretations arise from this viewpoint. One interpreter sees Luther and the Reformation in a symbol that to another student pictures the invention of the printing press! In my opinion, interpretations of this type have hurt and defeated the purpose of the Book of Revelation.
4. The futurist interpretation is the view which is held by all premillennialists and is the one which I accept and present to you. It sees the Book of Revelation as primarily prophetic. Most premillennialists follow a certain form of interpretation that conforms to the Book of Revelation. (We will see this in the outline of the book.) It begins with the revelation of the glorified Christ. Then the church is brought before us, and the whole history of the church is given. Then, at the end of chapter 3, the church goes to heaven and we see it, not as the church anymore, but as the bride which will come to the earth with Christ when He comes to establish His Kingdom—that thousand–year reign that John will tell us about. It will be a time of testing, for at the end of that period Satan will be released for a brief season. Then the final rebellion is put down and eternity begins. This is the viewpoint of Revelation which is generally accepted.
In our day there are many critics of this interpretation who not only attempt to discount it but say rather harsh things about it. One recent book of criticism, written by a layman, quotes me as being unable to answer his argument. Well, the fact of the matter is that he called me at home one morning as I was getting ready to go to my office. I wasn’t well at the time, and I didn’t want to get involved in an argument with a man who obviously was very fanatical in his position. In his book he makes the statement that I was unable to answer his question. If he misquotes the other Bible expositors as he misquotes me, I would have no confidence in his book whatsoever.
In his book he maintains that the premillennial futurist viewpoint is something that is brand new. I’ll admit that it has been fully developed, as have all these other interpretations, during the past few years. When I was a young man and a new Christian, I was introduced to the theory known as postmillennialism. The postmillennialists believed that the world would get better and better, that the church would convert the whole world, and then Christ would come and reign. Well, that viewpoint is almost dead today. After two world wars, a worldwide depression, and the crises through which the world is passing, there are very few who still hold that viewpoint. By the time I enrolled in the seminary of my denomination, every professor was an amillennialist, that is, they didn’t believe in a Millennium. It was to that view that most of the postmillennialists ran for cover. There was one professor in the seminary who was still a postmillennialist. He was very old and hard of hearing. In fact, when they told him that the war was over, he thought they meant the Civil War. He was really a back number, and he was still a postmillennialist.
At the risk of being a little tedious, I am going to give you the viewpoints of many men in the past to demonstrate that they were looking for Christ to return. They were not looking for the Great Tribulation, they were not even looking for the Millennium, but they were looking for Him to come. This expectation is the very heart of the premillennial viewpoint as we hold it today.
Barnabas, who was a co–worker with the apostle Paul, has been quoted as saying, “The true Sabbath is the one thousand years … when Christ comes back to reign.”
Clement (A.D. 96), Bishop of Rome, said, “Let us every hour expect the kingdom of God … we know not the day.”
Polycarp (A.D. 108), Bishop of Smyrna and finally burned at the stake there, said, “He will raise us from the dead … we shall … reign with Him.”
Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, who the historian Eusebius says was the apostle Peter’s successor, commented, “Consider the times and expect Him.”
Papias (A.D. 116), Bishop of Hierapolis, who—according to Irenaeus—saw and heard the apostle John, said, “There will be one thousand years … when the reign of Christ personally will be established on earth.”
Justin Martyr (A.D. 150) said, “I and all others who are orthodox Christians, on all points, know there will be a thousand years in Jerusalem … as Isaiah and Ezekiel declared.”
Irenaeus (A.D. 175), Bishop of Lyons, commenting on Jesus’ promise to drink again of the fruit of the vine in His Father’s Kingdom, argues: “That this … can only be fulfilled upon our Lord’s personal return to earth.”
Tertullian (A.D. 200) said, “We do indeed confess that a kingdom is promised on earth.”
Martin Luther said, “Let us not think that the coming of Christ is far off.”
John Calvin, in his third book of Institutes, wrote: “Scripture uniformly enjoins us to look with expectation for the advent of Christ.”
Canon A. R. Fausset said this: “The early Christian fathers, Clement, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus, looked for the Lord’s speedy return as the necessary precursor of the millennial kingdom. Not until the professing Church lost her first love, and became the harlot resting on the world power, did she cease to be the Bride going forth to meet the Bridegroom, and seek to reign already on earth without waiting for His Advent.”
Dr. Elliott wrote: “All primitive expositors, except Origen and the few who rejected Revelation, were premillennial.”
Gussler’s work on church history says of this blessed hope that “it was so distinctly and prominently mentioned that we do not hesitate in regarding it as the general belief of that age.”
Chillingworth declared: “It was the doctrine believed and taught by the most eminent fathers of the age next to the apostles and by none of that age condemned.”
Dr. Adolf von Harnack wrote: “The earlier fathers—Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, etc.—believed it because it was part of the tradition of the early church. It is the same all through the third and fourth centuries with those Latin theologians who escaped the influence of Greek speculation.”
My friend, I have quoted these many men of the past as proof of the fact that from the days of the apostles and through the church of the first centuries the interpretation of the Scriptures was premillennial. When someone makes the statement that premillennialism is something that originated one hundred years ago with an old witch in England, he doesn’t know what he is talking about. It is interesting to note that premillennialism was the belief of these very outstanding men of the early church.
There are six striking and singular features about the Book of Revelation.
1. It is the only prophetic book in the New Testament. There are seventeen prophetic books in the Old Testament and only this one in the New Testament.
2. John, the writer, reaches farther back into eternity past than does any other writer in Scripture. He does this in his Gospel which opens with this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Then he moves up to the time of creation: “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). Then, when John writes the Book of Revelation, he reaches farther on into eternity future and the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
3. There is a special blessing which is promised to the readers of this book: “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand” (Rev. 1:3). It is a blessing promise. Also, there is a warning given at the end of the book issued to those who tamper with its contents: “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Rev. 22:18–19). That warning ought to make these wild and weird interpreters of prophecy stop, look, and listen. It is dangerous to say just anything relative to the Book of Revelation because people today realize that we have come to a great crisis in history. To say something that is entirely out of line is to mislead them. Unfortunately, the most popular prophetic teachers in our day are those who have gone out on a limb. This has raised a very serious problem, and later on we will have repercussions from it.
4. It is not a sealed book. Daniel was told to seal the book until the time of the end (see Dan. 12:9), but John is told: “Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand” (Rev. 22:10). To say that the Book of Revelation is a jumble and impossible to make heads or tails out of and cannot be understood is to contradict this. It is not a sealed book. In fact, it is probably the best organized book in the Bible.
5. It is a series of visions expressed in symbols which deal with reality. The literal interpretation is always preferred unless John makes it clear that it is otherwise.
6. It is like a great union station where the great trunk lines of prophecy have come in from other portions of Scripture. Revelation does not originate or begin anything. Rather it consummates and concludes that which has been begun somewhere else in Scripture. It is imperative to a right understanding of the book to be able to trace each great subject of prophecy from the first reference to the terminal. There are at least ten great subjects of prophecy which find their consummation here. This is the reason that a knowledge of the rest of the Bible is imperative to an understanding of the Book of Revelation. It is calculated that there are over five hundred references or allusions to the Old Testament in Revelation and that, of its 404 verses, 278 contain references to the Old Testament. In other words, over half of this book depends upon your understanding of the Old Testament.
Let’s look at the Book of Revelation as an airport with ten great airlines coming into it. We need to understand where each began and how it was developed as it comes into the Book of Revelation. The ten great subjects of prophecy which find their consummation here are these:
1. The Lord Jesus Christ. He is the subject of the book. The subject is not the beasts nor the bowls of wrath but the Sin–bearer. The first mention of Him is way back in Genesis 3:15, as the Seed of the woman.
2. The church does not begin in the Old Testament. It is first mentioned by the Lord Jesus in Matthew 16:18: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
3. The resurrection and the translation of the saints (see John 14; 1 Thess. 4:13–18; 1 Cor. 15:51–52).
4. The Great Tribulation, spoken of back in Deuteronomy 4 where God says that His people would be in tribulation.
5. Satan and evil (see Ezek. 28:11–18).
6. The “man of sin” (see Ezek. 28:1–10).
7. The course and end of apostate Christendom (see Dan. 2:31–45; Matt. 13).
8. The beginning, course, and end of the “times of the Gentiles” (see Dan. 2:37–45; Luke 21:24). The Lord Jesus said that Jerusalem will be trodden down of the Gentiles until the Times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
9. The second coming of Christ. According to Jude 14–15, Enoch spoke of that, which takes us back to the time of the Genesis record.
10. Israel’s covenants, beginning with the covenant which God made with Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3. God promised Israel five things, and God says in Revelation that He will fulfill them all.
Now I want to make a positive statement: The Book of Revelation is not a difficult book. The liberal theologian has tried to make it a difficult book, and the amillennialist considers it a symbolic and hard–to–understand book. Even some of our premillennialists are trying to demonstrate that it is weird and wild.
Actually, it is the most orderly book in the Bible. And there is no reason to misunderstand it. This is what I mean: It divides itself. John puts down the instructions given to him by Christ: “Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter” (Rev. 1:19)—past, present, and future. Then we will find that the book further divides itself in series of sevens, and each division is as orderly as it possibly can be. You will find no other book in the Bible that divides itself like that.
To those who claim that it is all symbolic and beyond our understanding, I say that the Book of Revelation is to be taken literally. And when a symbol is used, it will be so stated. Also it will be symbolic of reality, and the reality will be more real than the symbol for the simple reason that John uses symbols to describe reality. In our study of the book, that is an all–important principle to follow. Let’s allow the Revelation to say what it wants to say.
Therefore, we have no right to reach into the book and draw out of it some of the wonderful pictures that John describes for us and interpret them as taking place in our day. Some of them are symbolic, symbolic of reality, but not of a reality which is currently taking place.
The church is set before us in the figure of seven churches which were real churches in existence in John’s day. I have visited the ruins of all seven of them and have spent many hours there. In fact, I have visited some of them on four occasions, and I would love to go back tomorrow. To examine the ruins and study the locality is a very wonderful experience. It has made these churches live for me, and I can see how John was speaking into local situations but also giving the history of the church as a whole.
Then after chapter 3, the church is not mentioned anymore. The church is not the subject again in the entire Book of the Revelation. You may ask, “Do you mean that the church goes out of business?” Well, it leaves the earth and goes to heaven, and there it appears as the bride of Christ. When we see her in the last part of Revelation, she is not the church but the bride.
Then beginning with chapter 4, everything is definitely in the future from our vantage point at the present time. So when anyone reaches in and pulls out a revelation—some vision about famine or wars or anything of that sort—it just does not fit into the picture of our day. We need to let John tell it like it is. In fact, we need to let the whole Bible speak to us like that—just let it say what it wants to say. The idea of making wild and weird interpretations is one of the reasons I enter this book with a feeling of fear.
It is interesting to note that the subject of prophecy is being developed in our day. The great doctrines of the church have been developed in certain historical periods. At first, it was the doctrine of the Scripture being the Word of God. This was followed by the doctrine of the person of Christ, known as Christology. Then the doctrine of soteriology, or salvation, was developed. And so it has been down through the years. Now you and I are living in a day when prophecy is really being developed, and we need to exercise care as to what and to whom we listen.
When the Pilgrims sailed for America, their pastor at Leyden reminded them, “The Lord has more truth yet to break forth from His Holy Word…. Luther and Calvin were great shining lights in their times, yet they penetrated not the whole counsel of God…. Be ready to receive whatever truth shall be made known to you from the written word of God.” That, my friend, is very good advice because God is not revealing His truth by giving you a vision or a dream or a new religion. Therefore, we need to be very sure that all new truth comes from a correct interpretation of the Word of God.
As I have indicated, the twentieth century has witnessed a renewed interest in eschatology (the doctrine of last things) which we call prophecy. Especially since World War I, great strides have been made in this field. New light has fallen upon this phase of Scripture. All of this attention has focused the light of deeper study on the Book of Revelation.
In the notes which I have made on this book, I have attempted to avoid the pitfall of presenting something new and novel just for the sake of being different. Likewise, I have steered clear of repeating threadbare cliches. Many works on Revelation are merely carbon copies of other works. In my own library I have more commentaries on the Revelation than on any other book of the Bible, and most of them are almost copies of those that have preceded them.
Another danger we need to avoid is that of thinking that the Book of Revelation can be put on a chart. Although I myself have a chart and have used it in teaching, I will not be using it in this study. The reason is that if it includes all it should, it is so complicated that nobody will understand it. On the other hand, if it is so brief that it can be understood, it doesn’t give enough information. I have several charts sent to me by different men in whom I have great confidence. One of them is so complicated that I need a chart to understand his chart! So, although I won’t be using a chart, I will use the brief sketch below to attempt to simplify the different stages of the Revelation and also give the overall picture.
As you can see, it begins with the cross of Christ and His ascension. In chapter 1, we see the glorified Christ. In chapters 2–3 we see the church. In chapters 4–5 we see that the church is in heaven. Then on earth the Great Tribulation takes place, chapters 6–18. In chapter 19 we see that Christ returns to the earth and establishes His Kingdom, and chapter 20 gives us the thousand–year reign of Christ. Then the Great White Throne is set up, the place where the lost are judged, and in chapters 21–22 eternity begins. That is the Book of Revelation.
Stauffer has made an important observation:
Domitian was also the first emperor to wage a proper campaign against Christ, and the church answered the attack under the leadership of Christ’s last apostle, John of the Apocalypse. Nero had Paul and Peter destroyed, but he looked upon them as seditious Jews. Domitian was the first emperor to understand that behind the Christian movement there stood an enigmatic figure who threatened the glory of the emperors. He was the first to declare war on this figure, and the first also to lose the war—a foretaste of things to come.
The subject of this book is very important to see. To emphasize and reemphasize it, let me direct your attention to chapter 1, verse 1—“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass” (italics mine). Let’s keep in mind that this book is a revelation of Jesus Christ. In the Gospels you see Him in the days of His flesh, but they do not give the full revelation of Jesus Christ. There you see Him in humiliation. Here in Revelation you see Him in glory. You see Him in charge of everything that takes place. He is in full command. This is the unveiling of Jesus Christ.
Snell has put it so well that I would like to quote him:
In the Revelation the Lamb is the center around which all else is clustered, the foundation upon which everything lasting is built, the nail on which all hangs, the object to which all points, and the spring from which all blessing proceeds. The Lamb is the light, the glory, the life, the Lord of heaven and earth, from whose face all defilement must flee away, and in whose presence fullness of joy is known. Hence we cannot go far in the study of the Revelation without seeing the Lamb. Like direction posts along the road to remind us that He, who did by Himself purge our sins, is now highly exalted and that to Him every knee must bow and every tongue confess.
To that grand statement I say hallelujah! For the Lamb is going to reign upon this earth. That is God’s intention, and that is God’s purpose.
As I have said, the Book of Revelation is not really a difficult book. It divides itself very easily. This is one book that doesn’t require our labor in making divisions in it. John does it all for us according to the instructions given to him. In verse 18 of the first chapter the Lord Jesus speaks as the glorified Christ: “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.” Notice the four grand statements He makes concerning Himself: “I am alive. I was dead. I am alive for evermore. And I have the keys of hell [the grave] and of death.” Then He tells John to write, and He gives him his outline in chapter 1, verse 19: “Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter.” My friend, this is a wonderful, grand division that He is giving. In fact, there is nothing quite like it.
He first says, “I am he that liveth.” And He instructs John, “Write the things which thou hast seen.” That is past tense, referring to the vision of the Son of Man in heaven, the glorified Christ in chapter 1.
Then He says, “I was dead, and, behold, I am alive.” And His instruction is, “Write the things which are.” This is present tense, referring to Christ’s present ministry. We are going to see that the living Christ is very busy doing things today. Do you realize that He is the Head of the church? Do you know the reason the contemporary church is in such a mess? The reason is that the church is like a body that has been decapitated. It is no longer in touch with the Head of the church. We will see Christ’s ministry to the church in chapters 2–3.
Thirdly, Christ said, “I have the keys of hell and of death.” And when we get to chapter 5, we will see that no one could be found to open the book but one—the Lord Jesus Christ. So chapters 4–22 deal with the future, and Christ said to John, “Write the things that you are about to see after these things.” It is very important to see that “after these things” is the Greek meta tauta. After what things? After the church things. So in chapters 4–22 he is dealing with things that are going to take place after the church leaves the earth. The fallacy of the hour is reaching into this third section and trying to pull those events up to the present. This gives rise to the wild and weird interpretations we hear in our day. Why don’t we follow what John tells us? He gives us the past, present, and future of the Book of Revelation. He will let us know when he gets to the meta tauta, the “after these things.” You can’t miss it—unless you follow a system of interpretation that doesn’t fit into the Book of Revelation.
As you will see by the outline that follows, I have used the divisions which John has given to us:
I. The Person of Jesus Christ—Christ in glory, chapter 1.
II. The Possession of Jesus Christ—the church in the world is His, chapters 2–3.
III. The Program of Jesus Christ—as seen in heaven, chapters 4–22.
The last section deals with the consummation of all things on this earth. This is what makes Revelation such a glorious and wonderful book.
In the first division of the Book of Revelation we will see the person of Christ in His position and glory as the Great High Priest who is in charge of His church. We will see that He is in absolute control. In the Gospels we find Him to be meek, lowly, and humble. He made Himself subject to His enemies on earth and died upon a cross! We find a completely different picture of Him in the Book of the Revelation. Here He is in absolute control. Although He is still the Lamb of God, it is His wrath that is revealed, the wrath of the Lamb, and it terrifies the earth. When He speaks in wrath, His judgment begins upon the earth.
The person of Jesus Christ is the theme of this book. When the scene moves to heaven, we see Him there, too, controlling everything. Not only in Revelation but in the entire Bible Jesus Christ is the major theme. The Scriptures are both theocentric and Christocentric, God–centered and Christ–centered. Since Christ is God, He is the One who fills the horizon of the total Word of God. This needs to be kept in mind in a special way as we study the Book of Revelation—even more than in the Gospels. The Bible as a whole tells us what He has done, what He is doing, and what He will do. The Book of Revelation emphasizes both what He is doing and what He will do.
The last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, closes with the mention of the Son of Righteousness which is yet to rise. It holds out a hope for a cursed earth, and that hope is the coming again of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Book of Revelation closes with the Bright and Morning Star, which is a figure of Christ at His coming to take the church out of the world. The Rapture is the hope of the New Testament, just as the revelation of Christ was the hope of the Old Testament. And the Book of Revelation will complete the revelation of Christ.
Notice also that there is a tie between Genesis and Revelation, the first and last books of the Bible. Genesis presents the beginning, and Revelation presents the end. Note the contrasts between the two books:
In Genesis the earth was created; in Revelation the earth passes away.
In Genesis was Satan’s first rebellion; in Revelation is Satan’s last rebellion.
In Genesis the sun, moon, and stars were for earth’s government; in Revelation these same heavenly bodies are for earth’s judgment.
In Genesis the sun was to govern the day; in Revelation there is no need of the sun.
In Genesis darkness was called night; in Revelation there is “no night there” (see Rev. 21:25; 22:5).
In Genesis the waters were called seas; in Revelation there is no more sea.
In Genesis was the entrance of sin; in Revelation is the exodus of sin.
In Genesis the curse was pronounced; in Revelation the curse is removed.
In Genesis death entered; in Revelation there is no more death.
In Genesis was the beginning of sorrow and suffering; in Revelation there will be no more sorrow and no more tears.
In Genesis was the marriage of the first Adam; in Revelation is the marriage of the Last Adam.
In Genesis we saw man’s city, Babylon, being built; in Revelation we see man’s city, Babylon, destroyed and God’s city, the New Jerusalem, brought into view.
In Genesis Satan’s doom was pronounced; in Revelation Satan’s doom is executed.
It is interesting that Genesis opens the Bible not only with a global view but also with a universal view—“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). And the Bible closes with another global and universal book. The Revelation shows what God is going to do with His universe and with His creatures. There is no other book quite like this.
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 58: Revelation (Chs. 1-5). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)