Sermon: A Strategy for Seeing (Part 1): Revelation 1:1-8

New Testament Reading: Revelation 1:1-8 

“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. John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’” (Revelation 1:1–8, ESV)


The sermon today is again devoted to introductory comments concerning the book of Revelation.

If I were to describe last weeks sermon with just one word I would use the word “deconstruction”. That really was my objective – to demonstrate that all of us come to the book of Revelation with presuppositions – assumptions – baggage. Most of us, I think, come with dispensational, pre-tribulational, pre-millennial baggage. We probably read Revelation with futuristic lenses on assuming that the book is mainly about things yet future to us. And so my objective last week was to begin to “deconstruct” all of that – to demonstrate, in a short time, that the futurist’s assumptions concerning the book of Revelation do not fit well with the evidence contained within the book itself.

Today I wish to build up. I hope to speak positively concerning how it is that we should approach the book of Revelation. I have seven principles for you. We will consider three today and four next Sunday. These are seven basic observations that will help us to consistently interpret Revelation correctly.

I should say from the outset that these seven principles are drawn straight from Dr. Dennis Johnson’s commentary on the book of Revelation called, “Triumph of the Lamb”. You will notice that the title of this sermon series is “Revelation – The Triumph of the Lamb”. I would typically go for a more original title, but I’m not ashamed to borrow this from Johnson’s commentary – the phrase is just so good! It’s a wonderful expression that manages to sum up the overall massage of the book of Revelation in just one line. Jesus has won the victory over all of his and all of our enemies through his humble, meek, and mild, life, death, burial, and resurrection. The lamb is triumphant indeed. The book of Revelation tells us all about that. Also, I thought it appropriate to give a nod to Dr. Johnson’s commentary in the subtitle of this series given the influence it’s had upon my interpretation of the book. It’s a good and very readable commentary on Revelation. There are other very important commentaries that are more technical and thorough (G.K. Beale’s, for example) but I would commend Johnson’s to you as good place to start if you want a good commentary on Revelation. I actually had the privilege of sitting in on Dr. Johnson’s class on the General Epistles and Revelation at Westminster So Cal a couple of years ago. Very good stuff indeed.

With that out of the way, here are seven basic principles that will help us immensely in our study of the book of Revelation. We should learn these principles and not forget them as we go on from here. They will be a great help to us as we deal with the details of the text in the months to come.

Revelation is Given to Reveal

The first principle is this: The book of Revelation is given to reveal.

The Greek title of the book of Revelation is ΑΠΟΚΑΛΥΨΙΣ ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ. In English – “The Apocalypse of John”. The first three words of the book are, “Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ”. In English – “The apocalypse of Jesus Christ”. When we hear the word “apocalypse” we tend to think of death and destruction – catastrophe! In fact, the word simply means disclosure, uncovering, or unveiling – revelation!

It is important to notice that the title of the book together with the first three words of the book lead the reader to believe that what they are about to read is going to, in fact, reveal something.

In our culture the most well known and frequent example of a revelation are the releases of the new iPhones. Every year or two a new version comes out. Some people obsess over it ahead of time wondering what the new features will be. Rumors abound. And then the day comes for the new device to be released. On that day everything that was mysterious before is made plain, clear, and obvious. What was hidden before is now clearly seen. The speculations cease when the thing has finally been revealed. This is what the book of Revelation does. It makes mysterious, hidden, and veiled things clear. It makes things hard to understand understandable.

But isn’t it ironic that the book of Revelation is often considered to be the most confusing, veiled, and mysterious book in the Bible?

May I suggest to you that the reason Revelation tends to confound instead of clarify is that we come to the book expecting it to reveal things that it does not promise to reveal. We want it tell us the specifics about our future. We come to it with questions like, “what role with the United States play in the end times? or, “who exactly the anti-Christ will be?”, or, “when exactly Christ will return?” – these are the kinds of questions we tend to ask. But Revelation does not claim to reveal these things. It is no wonder, then, that some walk away from the book frustrated, convinced that it is unclear. It’s not really unclear. It is, in fact, very clear to say what God wants it to say. It seems unclear, though, when we expect it to say something other than what it actually says. The problem is not with the book, but with us, and the presuppositions and exceptions that we bring to it.

The title and first three words of the book set us up to believe that what follows will in fact be clear, illuminating, insightful, revealing, and ultimately helpful to us. To put it another way, the title and intro suggest that we will say, “a ha!” after reading the book, and not “huh?

So, if it true that Revelation never claims to reveal the specific details of our future experience – if it is true that Revelation does not reveal like we would expect a crystal ball to reveal – then what does it reveal?

Quoting Dr. Johnson, it reveals, “in vivid, visual form the invisible realities and forces that drive and therefore explain the course of observable historical events.” That’s worth repeating. Revelation reveals “in vivid, visual form the invisible realities and forces that drive and therefore explain the course of observable historical events.” I find that explanation to be very helpful.

What do we observe as human history unfolds? Well, we often see the unrighteous prosper, and the righteous go without. We often see those with power oppress those who are weak. We see those who promote false religion “succeed”, while the faithful struggle. And these observations of the world around us can be very discouraging to the people of God. It looks as if human history is out of God’s control. It appears that the enemies of God are winning. It seems as if it might be better to switch teams – to run with the world and to enjoy the pleasures and privileges that go along with that. This is how it seems when we look at the world – when we observe historical events – from a worldly and naturalistic perspective.

But Revelation pulls back the curtain to reveal – or to show in “vivid, visual form [through the use of symbolism] the invisible realities and forces that drive and therefore explain the course of observable historical events”. In other words, Revelation reveals how things really are. Things are not as they might seem to us.

We see this principle in Christ’s words to the church at Smyrna. He said to them, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” (Revelation 2:9, ESV) This is the theme that runs throughout the whole book. Jesus said to them, “I am not unaware of the fact that you are poor as it pertains to the things of this world, and I am not blind to the fact that you are persecuted. But here is the reality of things – you are really rich. And those who persecute you who claim to be the people of God (based upon their ethnicity) are really not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Things may look one way on the surface, but things are not always as they appear. Revelation reveals how things really are.

The main message of the book is crystal clear, then. In verse one we are told that this revelation is from God and it was given to Christ to “to show to his servants [Christians] the things that must soon take place.” God’s objective is to show us something, and he is a good communicator, not a bad one. And “he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John” who wrote it down for our benefit. The word translated, “made it known” is σημαίνω which means “to cause something to be both specific and clear—‘to indicate clearly, to make clear.’” Add to this the repeated blessings that are pronounced upon those who “hear” the content of this book and “keep what is written in it”, clearly, the assumption is that the message of this book is going to be understandable and able to obeyed.

How different this is from how Christians today typically view the book. They see it as muddying the waters, not clarifying. But the book of Revelation is given to reveal. We should approach it, then, expecting a clear word, and one that can be obeyed.

Revelation is a Book to be Seen

Secondly, understand that Revelation is a book to be seen.

John “saw” the book of Revelation before he wrote it. Verse 2: John “bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.” The verb “to see” appears 52 times in Revelation with John as it’s subject. John is constantly saying, “I saw this, and I saw that”.

And what did John see? He saw visions filled with symbols. It is right, then, that we interpret these visions symbolically unless there is something in the text which demands that we take them literally.

To interpret something symbolically is to recognize that a word or image is not to be taken literally, but is to be understood as representing some other reality in an out of the ordinary and vivid way.

Consider this. When Jesus taught us about the kingdom of heaven in Mathew 13 he said it was “like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field.” It is not difficult to understand that Jesus was teaching using metaphor and symbolism. In reality, the kingdom of heaven has nothing to do with mustard seeds. You are not doing kingdom work when you sow mustard seeds. But Christ used the image of a mustard seed to communicate something true about the kingdom of heaven. Though it be small now it will grow big and fill the earth, for example. That is the real truth communicated through the symbolism of the mustard seed.

The visions shown to John and recorded for us in the book of Revelation function in a similar way. They are not to be taken literally. To interpret Revelation literally whenever possible is to interpret the book wrongly. We are on the right path when we, first of all, understand that it is a piece of literature jam packed with symbols, and symbols must be interpreted according to certain rules.

How can I be so sure that much of Revelation is to be interpreted symbolically?

Well, for one, the opening verse says so.

In verse one we read,  “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)

A strong case can be made for the idea that the Greek word translated “made it known” in the ESV near the end of verse one carries within it the idea of “made it known by way of sign or symbol”. Dr. Beale effectively demonstrates this in his commentary.

It’s interesting that the KJV and the NKJV both translate the Greek using the English word “signify”.  Instead of saying that Jesus “made it known”, they say that he, “sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John…” (Revelation 1:1, NKJV) I think this is a more helpful English translation, for the word “signify” means to express an idea by way of sign or symbol, and that is how truth is consistently communicated in this book.

It is interesting that the Greek word behind “made it known” in the ESV, or “signified” in the KJV and NKJV is often used in the New Testament and in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to  communicate this very idea – something being made known by way of sign or symbol. For example the word appears in John 12:33 where, after Jesus says, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself”, John remarks saying, “This He said, signifying by what death He would die.” (John 12:33, NKJV) Jesus’ talk of being “lifted up from the earth” was to be taken symbolically to represent Jesus’ crucifixion, John says.

More importantly the Greek word translated “made it known” in Revelation 1:1 appears in a concentrated way in Daniel chapter 2 if we read from the LXX, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old testament, and the Bible of the early church. It’s in Daniel 2 that Daniel interprets the strange dream that Nebuchadnezzar which we made reference to last week. Nebuchadnezzar saw a figure of a man in a dream – a large statue with a head of gold, a chest and arms of silver, thighs of bronze, and legs of iron mixed with clay. A stone was cut out, but not with human hands, and that stone was thrown against the image and it crumbled to pieces. The stone became a great and everlasting kingdom. Cleary this vision was to be interpreted symbolically. The image represented the succession of temporary earthly kingdoms, whereas the stone represented the Christ and the everlasting kingdom that he would establish. The Greek word translated “made it known” in Revelation 1:1 is all over that text suggesting that we ought interpret what John saw in a similar way to how Daniel interpreted what he saw, that is, symbolically, not literally. Both the visions of Daniel and the visions of Revelation signify the reality of things, but they are not to be taken literally

Two, the book of Revelation itself sometimes shows us how to interpret it’s visions.

Later in chapter one we encounter the first vision of the book where John sees “seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man…[holding] in his right hand … seven stars. (Revelation 1:112-13, 16, ESV) And by the end of the chapter we are told what to think of this vision. In verse 20 John is told, “As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” (Revelation 1:20, ESV)

So the first vision comes with and interpretive key. Isn’t that nice. It’s as if God wanted to help John and his readers out from the begging, saying,  “Here’s a vision. It’s to be interpreted symbolically. And it’s to be interpreted kind of like this…”

Why would we stray from this prescribed method of interoperation as we progress though the book. Why would we, like the futurists do, say, “well, let’s interpret it literally when ever possible”. Shouldn’t we say, “let’s follow the example embedded within the book of Revelation itself and interpret the book symbolically whenever possible”? That seems to me to be the better approach.

Three, to take the visions of the book of Revelation literally leads to absurdities and contradictions in the text.

Here is an example from Revelation 5 where we read of another vision. John says, “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” (Revelation 5:6, ESV) Clearly this vision is about Jesus. He is the lamb. But is this literally what Jesus looks like now? Does he now have the appearance of a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes? If he does, then we have a problem because in 1:13 John sees him as “one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.” (Revelation 1:13–16, ESV) Another time he is called the “lion of the tribe of Judah.”

So which is it? He is a lion? Is he a lamb? Or is he one like the son of man, radiant in glory? If we insist upon a literal interpretation we end up in trouble. But when we accept what the book says about itself – that it was seen by John and that it is to be interpreted symbolically – there is no problem at all. In reality Jesus does not look like a lamb nor a lion not does he have a sword for a tongue – he looks like Jesus.

But these images, understood symbolically, tell us something about the Jesus we love and adore. He, in his lamb like meekness, as one the victor. He, with his seven eyes, sees everything with perfect clarity. He, with his seven horns, has all power. He, though lamb like, is also the fierce and powerful lion of the tribe of Judah. When he comes again he will slay his enemies with the word of his mouth.

Do you see how symbols work? They communicate truth in a vivid and colorful way. They communicate truth by way of comparison and through the painting of mental images.

Some will say, “well, if it is symbolic then there is no control. We can make the symbols mean whatever we want them to mean.” And there is some truth to this. If the strength of symbolism is in the vivid and colorful way in which the communicate truth, the weakness is in their obscurity. But we are not without help.

I’ve already shown you how the book of Revelation contains, within it’s own pages, examples of how we are to interpret it’s visions. So we have boundaries.

The rest of the New Testament also provides boundaries. We are not free to make the symbols of Revelation into anything we want them to be. No, we must interpret them in light of what the rest of New Testament clearly says. The rest of New Testament provides boundaries.

And the Old Testament also provides boundaries. In fact, we will see that it is primarily the Old Testament that serves as the interpretive key to the images found in the Revelation. We will encounter all kinds of things in the book of Revelation. We will see a harlots, a beast, a false prophets and a dragon. We will see the twelve tribes of Israel, and twenty-four thrones. We will hear see seals opened and we will hear the blasts of trumpets. We will witness plagues and battles which bring great destruction. In the end we will see a new creation. This one will have one significant tree in it – the tree of life. And we are told that there will be no sea, nor will their be need for a sun and moon, for the glory of God will illumine that place. All of these images come from somewhere. We do not meet these themes for the first time in the book of Revelation, but the are first encountered where? In the Old Testament scriptures.

Friends, we are not free to make whatever we want of the symbols contained within Revelation. The rest of the scriptures provide the boundaries. Some interpretations are clearly “out of bounds”. Correct interpretations will agree with the rest of God’s revealed truth.

Revelation is book to be seen, friends.

Numbers Count in Revelation

Thirdly, we must remember that numbers count in Revelation. By this I mean that numbers also have symbolic force to them.

I have in mind primarily the numbers four, seven, ten, and twelve. These numbers all in some way signify completion or perfection.

The number four is often associated with completion in a geographical sense. In 7:1 we are shown “four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree.” (Revelation 7:1, ESV) Here the number four is associated with geographical completion – the whole earth is in view.

The number seven is associated with perfection in this book.

Notice the greeting in 1:4: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” (Revelation 1:4–5, ESV) Clearly this passage is Trinitarian .The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all mentioned. But the Spirit is described as the “the seven spirits who are before his throne”. Does God have seven Spirits? If so, then we are no longer Trinitarian. We would have to confess one God eternally existing in nine persons, Father, Son, and seven Spirits.  No, the number seven points to the idea of perfection.

Remember that the lamb had seven eyes and seven horns. Jesus sees all with perfect clarity and has perfect power. Seven seals will be opened in this book. Seven trumpets will be blown. Seven bowls will be poured out. Some try to argue for an overarching sevenfold structure to the book – I’m not sure. Seven signifies perfection.

The number ten is sometimes associated with a complete, but brief and limited, period of time. In Revelation 2 the church at Smyrna is warned that they will suffer persecution for “ten days”.

The number twelve is sometimes used to signify the totality of God’s people.

And then there are numbers that are in some way associated with these numbers.

The number six, for example, falls short of the number of perfection. It is the number, not of God, but of man. The number 666 is the number of man – the number of imperfection – displayed in a trinitarian form. The number of God would be 777. The mark of the beast is 666 – representing the false trinity.

The number twenty four is twelve times two. It is used to represent the totality of God’s people, Jew and Gentile.

The number 1,000 signifies a complete but long period of time. The church at Smyrna would suffer persecution for ten days – complete but brief – but Satan is bound from deceiving the nations for 1,000 years – 10x10x10 – a complete but very long period of time.

Let’s not forget the 144,000 of Revelation 14 who have been sealed by God. Who are they? Well, 144,000 is 12x12x1,000. The 144,000 represent all of God’s people who have lived and died in Christ throughout the church age who reign with him in heaven.

Many have stumbled over the numbers in the book of Revelation. The Jehovahs Witnesses insist that only 144,000 will reign with Christ in heaven in the end. Some pre-millenarians insist that Christ will reign on earth in the future for 1,000 years. Both make the same mistake – they insist upon a literal interpretation of the numbers in Revelation. But why would we do such a thing in book where numbers are consistently used symbolically.

Friends, numbers count in the book of Revelation.


Brothers and sisters, I’m hoping that these introductory sermons free you to see the book of Revelation for what it is. It’s a clear book. It’s message comes to us by way of symbol. The things that John saw reveal truth by signifying it.

My hope is that it grows clear and that it begins to accomplish what it is was given to accomplish – to encourage you in the faith. Things are shown to us as they really are. God and his Christ have won the victory. They reign supreme. The see all, and they have all power. The world looks enticing, powerful, and wise, but things are not as they seem. In true and everlasting pleasure is found in God and in his Christ. They are supreme and worthy of all praise. They are infinitely wise. We would do well to bow before them. Though you may be poor, you are rich. Though you may be persecuted, you will prevail over your persecutors in the end. Though you may die, you really live.

Friends, the book of Revelation is about God and his Christ who has won the victory for us. That is what I want you to see – the glory of God and the supremacy of Christ. I want you to begin to see the world differently. My hope is that you will see it, not with your natural eyes, but with spiritual eyes as informed by God’s most holy word.

My prayer is that the book of Revelation would transform us. May we be convicted of sin, may our minds be enlightened, and may our wills be renewed. May we be persuaded to cling to our savior more closely than ever before, all to his glory, honor and praise.

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