Sermon: Things Are Not Always As They Appear: Revelation 1:1-3

New Testament Reading: Revelation 3:1-3

“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” (Revelation 1:1–3, ESV)


If you would have asked me five or six years ago if I had any desire to preach through the book of Revelation I would have said, “absolutely not!” I believed the book to be inspired by God. I knew that it was given to the church for good reason. I even knew that I should want preach through the it, for “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16–17, ESV) This certainly applies to the book of Revelation as much it is does to any other book of the Bible.

And it was not that I hadn’t studied it. I had. I’ve always been intrigued by this letter which brings the cannon of scripture to a conclusion and provides us with a glimpse into heavenly and eternal realities. The book is truly fascinating.

The problem was that I found it to be incredibly confusing. I would read it and study it but things would never quite click.

Also, I knew of far to many preachers who had made fools of themselves trying to tie particular portions of the book of Revelation (as well as Daniel and Ezekiel) to specific current events saying, “this prophesy is being fulfilled in this event; the return of Christ is imminent!”, only to be proven wrong. I call this the “crystal ball” approach to the book of Revelation. I began to wonder, when these men would learn? When would they see that their method of interpretation was consistently producing bad results? And more than that I began to wonder, when will the people who listen to them would learn? When would they see that the “Nostradamus” method of interpretation is flawed to the core? The “crystal ball” approach does sell books, though. And it does fill conference centers and churches. But really what ultimate gain is there in selling a million books when future generations read those books only to laugh at the false and absurd claims contained within them. I knew that I wanted no part of that.

The final reason that I had no desire to preach through the book of Revelation is that I could not see the real value of it for the church today. I knew that it must have value – it is indeed the word of God. But I could not see what it was. In my experience the book of Revelation (maybe with the exception of the first 3 chapters) had produced three things within the church. One, unbridled speculation. Two, confusion. And three, fear.

By “unbridled speculation” I mean the obsession with trying to tie specific portions of the book of Revelation to specific current events, saying “this must be the fulfillment of that!” The thought is that you are to read with Revelation (or Daniel or Ezekiel) in one hand and the newspaper in the other looking to current events as the specific fulfillment of specific prophesies.

We will see that Revelation does indeed have relevance for today and for tomorrow. It certainly applies. And I would agree that there is a connection between the things that happen in the world today and what is signified in the book of Revelation. I am not opposed to that idea. But it is troubling to see Christians grow obsessed with making specific speculations concerning the future. Over time I began to wonder if there was really any spiritual benefit to this obsession. What good does it do? Is it not a distraction from the real task at hand?

Also the obsession with predicting the future seemed to be in direct contradiction to the plain words of Christ. He himself said, “But concerning that day [that is, the last day] and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Matthew 24:36, ESV) “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matthew 24:42, ESV) “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matthew 24:44, ESV) The practice of making speculations concerning the specifics of the end times seem to me to run in direct contradiction to the clear teaching of Christ.

When I say that Revelation produces “confusion” in the people of God I mean that, although some pretend to have a handle on the book, it seems to me that they really do not. Their interpretations of it, when challenged, are found to be filled with gaps and inconsistencies. They certainly have a system of doctrine that they are committed to. They have lots of charts. But when pressed to exegete the text of scripture itself, there seems to be much confusion, fogginess, and uncertainly.

However, in my experience, most Christians don’t even pretend to have a handle on the book. Most will willingly admit that the book is utterly confusing to them, even to the point of being, in their minds, incomprehensible. How many Christians do you know who are like this? They love the Gospel of John. It feeds their soul. They love 1, 2, and 3 John. But when it comes to the fifth book written by John – that is, the book of Revelation – they throw their hands in the air and say, “forget it.” That is what I mean by “confusion”.

And when I mention “fear” I mean that the book of Revelation seems to keeps Christians up at night more than helping them to sleep well. It was a year or two ago that I had a conversation with a lady from another church. She shared with me that they were studying the book of Revelation at church, and so I asked, “what are you getting out of it?” Her only reply was that she hoped that she and her family would not be alive to experience the things described in the book. The book scared her. How sad. How backwards and upside down. One thing I knew about the book even then was that is was intended to strengthen, not scare – fortify, not frighten – the saints.

These three things combined – the confusion, the sad legacy of speculative “crystal ball” preaching, and the damaging, as apposed to edifying, effect that the book has upon Christians – made the thought of preaching through the book very unappealing to me.

But here we are beginning what will probably be a year long study through the book of Revelation. Something has obviously changed.

The thing that changed was my understanding of the book of Revelation. And I am not just referring to a change in my interpretation of a passage or two, but a significant shift in my view of the book as a whole.

To use technical terms, I used to be a futurist. That is what I was when the thought of preaching through Revelation was unappealing to me.

When I read the book of Revelation I assumed that it was almost all about events yet to happen in our future. I say “almost” because I recognized that the first three chapters of the book were indeed addressed to churches and to Christians that lived long ago. John the Apostle was to “Write what [he saw] in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” (Revelation 1:11, ESV) It is in chapters one through three that those churches are specifically addressed. But as a futurist I believed that chapters four through twenty-two were filled with descriptions of events that are yet in our future.

Now I am, what some have called, an idealist (or a modified idealist).

I’ve come to see that the book of Revelation is not mainly about the future, but is rather mainly about the past, the present, and the future. There are certainly portions of the book that describe events that have not yet transpired. The second coming of Christ is, of course, in our future. The final judgment is yet future. The new heavens and new earth are something that we long to see in the future. But those future events are described periodically in the book of Revelation. They do not dominate the storyline. In fact the majority of the book is about the past, the present, and the future. What is described in chapters four through twenty-two is not confined to the brief period of time (some say seven years) immediately preceding the end, but rather describes the reality of things as they have been experienced by the people of God from the first coming of Christ up to this present day. In others words, the book of Revelation primarily describes how things will be in the “last days”.

Friends, please understand and do not miss this vital point. The entire time between Christ’s first coming and second coming are “the last days.” Listen to Hebrews 1:1-2, for example. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” (Hebrews 1:1–2, ESV) The “last days” are not confined to a period of time yet future to us, but are also, from our vantage point, past, present, and future. This is why Paul wrote to Pastor Timothy warning him that “in the last days there will come times of difficulty.” (2 Timothy 3:1, ESV) Did Paul warn Timothy of this so that Timothy might be concerned for those who would minister 2,000 years or more after him? No, he warned Timothy because the man was himself ministering in the “last days” – days marked by difficulty for the people of God.

The days in which we live are without a doubt the “last days”, not because there are only a few days left – though that might be the case – who knows? These are certainly the “last days” because Christ’s first coming marked the beginning of the final period of human history as we know it. How long will this period be? That has not been revealed to us. What we do know is that the next event on the timeline of redemptive history is the return of Christ and the consummation of all things.

The book of Revelation is mainly about these “last days”, that is, the whole time between Christ’s first and second coming, which are the days in which we live. The references to events that are yet future to us – events that will transpire on the “last day” – only appear occasionally in the book.

These two ways of seeing the book of Revelation are drastically different. And these two ways of seeing the book will lead readers of the book to vastly different conclusions concerning the end times. The futurist approach typically produces (or accompanies) the pre-tribulational, pre-millennial view (here is where it would have been helpful for you to listen to the audio from the eschatology class that I taught some time ago. I cannot take the time to explain these terms at this time.) The idealist position typically produces (or accompanies) the Amillennial (or sometimes, post-millennial) view.

Friends, I hope you can see why it is important for us to talk about these interpretive issues before jumping with both feet into the study of the book of Revelation itself. I always devote a sermon to introductory issues at the beginning of a book study. It’s always important to talk about authorship, date, setting, and genre. It’s important for us to know what kind of book or letter we are handling before we begin to handle it. To attempt to interpret a book of the Bible without first asking, “who wrote this thing, when did they write it, to whom did they write, in what literary style did they write it, and why?” is dangerous. This is especially true of the book of Revelation given it’s uniqueness.

Revelation is indeed a challenging book to interpret given it’s constant use of symbolism. But the thing that makes the proper interpretation of the book of Revelation exceedingly difficult today is the fact that it, more than any other book of the Bible, has been twisted and distorted, used and abused, in a very dramatic and public way.

Friends, you do know that it is the futurist interpretation of the book of Revelation that rules the day. And it rules day, not only in the church, but also in the American culture at large. I am not saying that people know they are futurists. I didn’t think of myself as a futurist when I was one. Looking back I probably just thought of myself as a “biblicist”. I assumed I was just reading the Bible and interpreting it “naturally”. But I was naive. The truth of the mater is that I was reading the book of Revelation with lenses on. I see now that they were lenses that I had obtained from my church experience and from my exposure to popular culture.

“The Left Behind” series was (and maybe is) immensely popular amongst Christians. Before that it was a book called the “Late Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsey. Movies have been made. Christians line up in droves to watch this stuff, and they bring non-Christians too. Sadly, this is the only exposure that many Americans have to the Bible – their understanding of the Bible comes from Christian novels and movies.

Friends, please understand that these books and movies are based upon a futuristic interpretation of the book of Revelation. They are based upon the pre-tribulational, pre-millennial scheme. And I would argue that it is the popularity of these works that have made the futuristic, pre-tribulational , pre-millennial interpretation so popular within the church today. Do you want to advance a theological agenda? Write a novel! Do you want to promote your view of things and make it stick? Make a movie! I guess the next best thing after this would be to write a song. But I’m sure you understand that you can’t believe everything that you read in novel, see on the big screen, or here on Air 1. These are often times very poor sources for biblical theology.

Many of you have read these books and watched these movies. Those who have not are probably aware of them. I would suggest to you that we’ve been greatly effected by these popular works. I would suggest that we’ve been so effected that it is difficult for us to see the book of Revelation in any other way. I think we read Revelation with “Left Behind” lenses on, that is what I’m saying. We read with the pre-trib, pre-mil system already in mind. Often times, we didn’t even know we are doing it.

Friends, the first step on the road to recovery is recognizing you have a problem. Biblicists are hopelessly naive. A biblicist imagines that he or she is able to simply pick up the Bible are read it with perfect clarity. I do believe that the scriptures are clear, friends. We are indeed able to come to a clear understanding of the meaning of scripture. God is a good communicator – he gets his message across. But it is naive to assume that the scriptures are crystal clear in an immediate and automatic way. No, we, because of our limitations, must work to interpret scripture. And the first step in interpretation is to own up to the fact that you bring presuppositions to the table. You and I bring theological presuppositions, we bring a worldview to the text, we bring “baggage” with us. Sound interpretation is still possible. But the first step is to own up to the fact that you bring “baggage” with you to the task of interpretation. The biblicist – the one who imagines that he or she reads the Bible with a heart and mind as pure as the wind driven snow – is dangerously naive. The first step is to admit that you have presuppositions – preconceived notions about what the text will say. After that you must be willing to examine those presuppositions in the light of scripture itself to see if they hold up under intense scrutiny. Finally, if they do not hold up you must have the integrity and courage to say, “I was wrong” and to change your views to bring them into conformity with the teaching of scripture.

Church, that’s what I’m asking you do before we even begin to chew on the substance of the book of Revelation. I’m asking you to own your presuppositions. And I’m asking that you be willing to put them to the test. And if your current views are weighed and found wanting, I’m asking that you abandon them in favor of a view that is more faithful and true to text of Holy Scripture. Your view must fit the book of Revelation itself, and it also must align with other pertinent portions of God’s inspired, inerrant, clear, and authoritative word. If you constantly feel as if you’re trying to pound a square peg into a round hole, you might have a problem.

The Presuppositions of the Futurist

So what are the presuppositions that the futurist brings to the table when studying the book of Revelation? What assumptions do they make about the book?

The most obvious is this, they read Revelation assuming that what they will find is primarily a description of events yet to happen in our future.

The futurists are correct to recognize that chapters one through three of Revelation directly address churches that existed long ago. It is my belief that the book of Revelation was written by John somewhere around 90 A.D. Some insist that it was written prior to 70 A.D. The date is really of little importance here. The point for now is that the book of Revelation was addressed to seven churches that existed in the late first century A.D. These were real local churches in Asia Minor with real Christians in them. The futurists are right to recognize this.

Their assumption, though, is that chapter four begins to describe specific events that were not only in the future of the those to whom the letter was originally written, but are also in our future. Most, if not all, of Revelation four through twenty-two, has not happened yet. There is, according to the futurist, a radicle break – a huge gap of time – between chapters three and four of the book of Revelation. It is a gap of at least 1,926 years, for that is how much time has transpired from the writing of Revelation to this present day.

Therefore, chapters four through twenty-two meant very little to the Christians living in 90 A.D. who originally read John’s letter. They must of have been even more confused about the content of those chapters than we are. After all, we are at least 1,926 years closer to the events described in those chapters, if the futurists are indeed correct in their interpretation.

But does the book of Revelation allow for such a view? That is the question.

The futurists see 4:1 as the key to their interpretation. There John says, “After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’” (Revelation 4:1, ESV) “After this” they say, refers to events yet in our future.

Friends, remember that these word were originally spoken to John in 90 A.D., not to us. And they were originally written to Christians living in 90 A.D., not to us. Indeed it is true, the book of Revelation describes things that would take place in the future, but from the perspective of John and the seven churches in Asia Minor, and not only ours. Notice that the text says, “after this”, not “a long, long time after this”.

In fact the evidence that Revelation itself produces points in the opposite direction. The majority of what is described in Revelation would happen soon from the perspective of the 90 A.D. audience. They would live it and experience it.

Look at 1:1. “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,” (Revelation 1:1, ESV) It is clear that the the things that John saw were to take place “soon”.

Look at 1:3. “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” (Revelation 1:3, ESV) Do you see that the futurist’s main presupposition is seriously challenged from the very beginning of the book?

Some of them will say, “well those remarks about the ‘nearness’ of things only applies to the letters written to the churches in the first three chapters of the book.” First of all, that is not the natural reading of the text. And secondly, the view runs into real difficulty when we consider the end of the book the same emphasis. In 22:6 we read, “And he said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.’” (Revelation 22:6, ESV) The emphasis upon the eminence or nearness of the events described is not confined to the first three chapters, but to the whole book.

Indeed, there are things communicated in the book that refer to events yet in our future – the second coming of Christ, the final judgment, and the new heavens and the new earth. But often when these events are described the narrative in some way communicates delay. Everything else, though, was to happen soon, according to John. And it was to happen soon from his vantage point, not ours.

Also consider the fact that blessings are pronounced upon those who read, hear, and keep the things contained within the book. Revelation is book to be obeyed. It’s not a “crystal ball” to help with our speculation. And those who obey it are blessed.

Hear again 1:3. “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” (Revelation 1:3, ESV) And listen to the words of Christ in 22:7. “And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” (Revelation 22:7, ESV)

Do these blessings only apply to the Christians who will happen to be alive in the future during the brief period of time immediately preceding the end? No, these blessing apply to all of the saints in 90 A.D., 1,000 A.D., and to this present day.

The futurist assumes that this is mainly a book about events yet in our future. But the book of Revelation will not allow itself to pressed into this mold.

The second presupposition is this: the futurist reads Revelation assuming that it is chronological from beginning to end.

They imagine that the order of the chapters correspond to the order of events in human history. The events described in chapter twenty, for example, will happen after the events described in chapter nineteen. And the events described in chapter twelve will happen after the events described in chapter eleven.

But this is impossible, friends. A clear feature of the book of Revelation is something called recapitulation. We will return to this idea next week so I won’t explain in detail here. For now, understand that the book of Revelation is not organized chronologically. Instead, it is organized thematically. The book tells the story of the “last days” from different perspectives over and over again. Each time different things are emphasized.

The best illustration that I’ve heard compares this to viewing a football game on the TV. There is one game, but that game is viewed on the television from different camera angles. One camera focuses on the broad perspective, another will zoom in upon the quarterback, and another will focus on the linemen. Add to this benefit of replay where the viewer is shown, sometimes in slow motion, things that have already happened.

Friends, there is repetition in Revelation. But it in not pure or flat repetition. The story of the “last days” is told again and again, but from a different vantage point, and with different “players” emphasized. Sometimes the camera angle is very broad. At other times the camera zooms in upon specific things.

The book is certainly not organized chronologically. For example chapter eleven describes the end, but in chapter twelve we are taken back to the birth of Christ. In a similar way chapter nineteen describes the end, but chapter twenty tales us back to the time of Christ.

These things we will consider in more detail next week and especially as we come to these passages in our study. For now see that the futurist’s assumption that the book is organized chronologically will not stand up under close scrutiny.

Thirdly, the futurists tend to assume that the book is to be interpreted “literally whenever possible”.

I will not say much here for the sake of time. We will return to this topic next week. For now I will simply say that it is strange to assume that apocalyptic, prophetic literature is to be interpreted literally. John saw visions. These visions were filled with symbolism. The symbolism certainly points to truths that are real and true. But we must first approach the symbols as symbols before moving to the task of interpreting what those symbols mean. The book is thoroughly symbolic. And the key to understanding the symbols contained within the book is clearly the Old Testament.

But the futurist assumes that the key to interpreting what John saw are future historical events. In their view John literally saw apache attack helicopters in his vision (or something like that). What he saw was like news footage of specific historical evens shown to him ahead of time. And John described what he saw in the best way he could. He obviously didn’t know what a helicopter was, and so he described them as having the “appearance [of] locusts… like horses prepared for battle: on their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle. They have tails and stings like scorpions, and their power to hurt people for five months is in their tails.” (Revelation 9:7–10, ESV)

According to the futurist John saw some literal, specific, historical and, of course, future event and then did his best to describe what he saw. Instead we should take the book of Revelation at its word. John was shown signs, not historical events ahead of time. And the key to understanding the significance of those signs is the Old Testament, not future historical events.

I had wanted to read Daniel chapter two to you at the beginning of this sermon, but I ran out of space. You will see that Daniel and Revelation are intimately connected. It’s in Daniel two that we read of the dream that king Nebuchadnezzar had that only Daniel was able to declare and interpret. And what was the dream? The king saw the figure of a man and,

“The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” (Daniel 2:32–35, ESV)

Tell me, did Nebuchadnezzar see some literal, specific, historical, and future event as if it were news footage shown to him ahead of time? Of course not! An actual figure like the one he saw in his dream has never existed and never will. It was a dream! It was a vision! And it was to be interpreted symbolically, not literally. To interpret it literally would be to miss the point altogether. So too with the book of Revelation.

To interpret Revelation “literally whenever possible” as many of the futurists do is to interpret the book wrongly. It’s to miss the point entirely!


You’ve noticed that my tone has been unusually combative today. It will not be this way throughout the study. The reason for it is that I view the futuristic interpretation of Revelation as harmful in two way. On the one hand it leads the church to wrong ideas concerning the times in which we live and what to expect in the future. But on the other hand it also manages rob the church of a message that she desperately needs to hear.

May I conclude by summarizing the message of Revelation for you?

The book of Revelation communicates this: Jesus has won the victory. He sits upon his throne now. God is sovereign over the events of human history. Satan has been bound. The church will experience difficulty in these last days, but she will prevail. Though the world looks a certain way to us when we view it with our natural eyes, we must remember that things are not alway as they appear. The visions of the book of Revelation reveal how things really are. The true identity of the harlot, the false prophet, and the beast are revealed – their end is destruction – their path leads only to death. We would be fools, therefore, to abandon Christ to chase after the seductiveness of this world, or to pursue the false religion of this world, or to escape persecution from worldly powers. It is that ancient serpent who empowers them all, and he has been defeated, bound, and will finally be destroyed. Believe upon Christ, and remain true to him, friends, even in the face of death. For to die is to live with Christ. “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” (Revelation 13:10, ESV) “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” (Revelation 14:12, ESV) Walk with Christ till the end, friends! Forsake the world, the flesh, and the devil, for things are not always as they appear. The lamb has won the victory. He was slain for you and me and for all who believe upon him. He is the lion of the tribe of Judah and he is “‘coming soon, bringing [his] recompense with [him], to repay each one for what he has done. [He is] the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’ Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.” (Revelation 22:12–14, ESV)

This is the message that the church in every age needs to hear. May the Lord bless our study of this book.

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