Have you ever been so beaten down by life that you felt like giving up? Have you ever been so outraged and overwhelmed by the bad things happening in the world that you found it hard to believe in anything good? Have your own hurts and disappointments ever made you think there is no use in trying any more to make something good out of life? If you have, the Bible has a message of hope for you that can enable you to keep on living. It may even save your life.
In a few words, the message is simply this: “Yes, bad things do happen in life. But in spite of them all, the present and the future are in the hands of God.” One of the most magnificent affirmations of that message is to be found — of all places — in that bewildering book at the end of the Bible, the book of Revelation.
Lots of people are fascinated with the book of Revelation for the wrong reasons. Some think it is an exotic fantasy about dungeons and dragons. Others think it is a book of predictions that describe the count-down to the end of the world. It is neither of these things.
I want to share with you an approach to the book of Revelation that is very different from some of the interpretations you have probably heard. Together, we are going to try to do something that we may as well admit at the outset is extremely difficult: we are going to try to embrace that whole complex and magnificent book in one sermon so that we can catch a vision of the reality it is trying to show us.
We start in the middle of the first chapter. After a preface and an address, we read: “I, John, your brother, who shares with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the Island of Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches’ …” (Revelation 1:9-10). It then names the seven representative (congregations of the church in the Roman province of Asia. Scholars still argue whether or not this John was the same person who wrote the Gospel and the Epistles of John.
Nevertheless, the setting of the book of Revelation gives us some important keys to its meaning. John, its author, was a leader of the churches in the province of Asia, most of which were located in what is now Turkey. A persecution arose in that province. Christians were required to renounce Christ and worship the emperor. Those who refused were either killed or exiled to a concentration camp. One of those camps was on the Island of Patmos. For witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ, John was one of those who had been arrested and exiled to Patmos. There, he felt called by God to write words of encouragement to his friends who were still suffering persecution. The setting helps us to understand the message of the book. It also helps us to understand what needs in our lives the message is intended to meet.
The early Christians had bet their lives on the belief that the Lord of all life is a loving God. Then suddenly all sorts of bad things were happening to them; their world seemed to be falling apart. They were sorely tempted to give up their belief in a loving God and to give up living the kind of life they thought God wanted them to live. It must have seemed to them that hate and corruption and violence were the dominant elements of life and that, if a person were to survive in such a world, he or she would have to learn to play by the world’s rules.
Have you ever felt like that? This is an important question. Your answer to it will tell you what the message of this book has to do with you. You fill in the blanks here: when has your experience of life pushed you to the brink of despair or of cynical accommodation — or maybe over the brink?
John chose to write his message of encouragement in a unique literary style that the Jewish Christians would understand. It was a style that had often been used during periods of oppression in the history of Israel. The style is called apocalypses, which means “revelation.”
Apocalyptic literature has several characteristics. If is written in the form of prophecies of things to come. It is often composed as if it had been written at some time in the distant past. The first “prophecies” were actually historical recollections of things that had happened in the past, things that would remind the reader that God has proven to be the lord of history. The writer then gives predictions that interpret the current-life situations of his readers and promises that the God who was lord of history in the past will ultimately be lord of history in the present and the future. John announced the style of his writing by beginning his book with the words, “The revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him to show to his servants what must soon take place …” (Revelation 1:1).
Another characteristic of apocalyptic literature is that it is written in highly symbolic language. This was done to get the message past the censorship of the oppressors. Do you remember how Arthur Miller wrote a play about the Salem witchcraft trials and how the trials symbolized the excesses of McCarthy-era anti-communism; and how symbolism was used so he would not get himself caught in the inquisition? The writers of apocalypse were doing a very similar thing.
This symbolic quality of apocalyptic literature is what makes it hard for us to understand, but easy for some people to misinterpret. In the long run, however, it may make it easier for us to hear its message.
There was a piece of contemporary literature that used symbolic images in a way that was remarkably similar to the book of Revelation. Soon after the accidental death of the father of rock-and-roll music, Buddy Holley, another popular musician, Don McLean, wrote a song in his memory. Do you remember the words, “Bye bye Miss American Pie/Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry/And good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye/Singing this will be the day that I die”? The verses of that song were filled with symbolic images that represented all sorts of discouraging realities from the rise of Marxism and the nuclear arms race to “death of God” theology. People who heard that song when it first came out would have recognized what the images represented. To young people who hear it today, the imagery are just somber abstractions.
In a similar way, the symbolic images in the book of Revelation represented things, people, nations, and recognizable happenings. Most of them would have been things in their present experiences or memories of their past. But if we, on the one hand, forgo trying to figure out which historic event each symbol represented; while on the other hand, we view the work as a whole and try to experience it as we would a work of meaningful art, an abstract painting, a great drama, or a majestic symphony; then we may catch a vision of a meaning that is applicable to life in every age. Let’s look at Revelation’s magnificent images in the latter way and see what they have to offer us.
John writes of being taken up into heaven and shown visions of things as they really are. Revelation 2 and Revelation 3 are composed of messages given to John for the seven churches in Asia. Apparently, God has something good and something critical to say about each of them. It is encouraging to learn that our churches are not the first to have human shortcomings; it is also good to know that God is able to use churches in spite of their faults.
Revelation 3 shifts onto another level. “I looked and, lo, in heaven was an open door! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up hither and I will show you what must take place after this.’ At once I was in the spirit and, lo, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne!” (Revelation 4:1-2). John then describes to the Christians in Asia, and to us, a vision of a reality which, though it is invisible, is more real than the oppressive realities that press around people who live in this world.
John describes a drama going on in heaven, in the presence of the majesty of God, that relates and gives meaning to the things that are going on in human life and history. It would probably not be useful for people, who live in this age of astronauts, to get involved in trying to map the geography of heaven, but the most sophisticated of us — and the least — can catch the vision of what John is trying to tell us about the spiritual reality that surrounds our existence.
In Revelation 6, John begins to describe the ways in which that heavenly reality — that is, the ever-present God — relates to things that are going on in our world and in our lives. “Now I saw when the lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!’ And I saw and beheld a white horse, and its rider had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer” (Revelation 6:1-2). The vision goes on to describe the coming of four riders representing conquest, war, famine, and pestilence. Following that, other visions describe scenes of great human suffering.
It is important to notice that the Bible is realistic about the reality of wrongness and suffering. It does not offer us cheap assurances by asking us to believe that “God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world.” The hope it finally gives us is a realistic hope, one which we can hold with eyes open to all that is going on around us.
What is John saying here? Does God intentionally send suffering to His people? Now we are dealing with one of the great questions that people in all ages have asked. John has an answer: God does not send suffering but God has entrusted the shaping of human life and human history to His human creatures. Because of our unfaithfulness to God’s purpose, things like wars and famines and pestilences happen; and God lets them happen because they must happen so that the drama of human life and history can be played out to its conclusion.
Still the story goes on and John makes it clear that God has not abandoned human life and history to watch it from the sidelines. No, God will not intercede in ways that snatch our responsibility out of our hands. But God is at work in more subtle, more difficult ways — ways that respect our freedom and assert our responsibility. In these ways, God works to move human life and human history toward the fulfillment of God’s good purpose.
Now we come to the heart of the matter. John’s message from God to us is that there is more going on in our lives and in our history than we can see; we are not alone in the world against the overwhelming powers that seem to oppose everything good. God is here; God is at work; and the future is in God’s hands. Can you see how holding on to that belief could help a person endure tough times and keep trying to make life good?
A number of years ago, when teaching a class on the book of Revelation, I contrasted the scriptural apocalypse with the apocalypse in the popular song “American Pie.”
I pointed out that the song, as an honest reflection of a widespread attitude among young people of that day, was an apocalypse of despair. The song starts out with images of adolescent unhappiness, the news of Buddy Holley’s death, the experience of seeing a sweetheart in love with another guy, and it goes down from there. It ends with images of a world in flames, devoid of sanity, and deserted by God.
By contrast, the book of Revelation is an apocalypse of hope. It starts with realistic recognition of oppression and suffering, then moves through images of struggle and conflict, and ends with images of an ultimate victory: a victory for God, for humanity, and for all that is really good.
In my comments, I said to the class that if a person allowed the imagery reflected in the song to shape his or her outlook on life, such a person might commit suicide. After the class, a visibly shaken young woman told me that her younger brother, whose favorite song had been “American Pie,” had indeed taken his own life. No, the song did not cause the boy’s death — his hopelessness did.
The book of Revelation offers us an alternative. How different might be the attitude toward life of one who insists upon holding on to the idea that no matter how bad things get in life, God is still working in life to move it toward some end that might be represented by the images with which John ends his book: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a great voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with me. He will dwell with them and they shall be his people and he himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who sat upon the throne said ‘Behold, I make all things new’.” (Revelation 21:1-4).
When things get really rough and stay that way for a long time, we sometimes feel pushed to believe that the world and everything in it are going to pieces. That kind of despair can tempt up to give up on life — or at least to give up on the goodness of life. The book of Revelation invites us to hold the belief that, by the grace of God, the world and at least part of what is in it, are going to heaven. That belief gives us the hope we need to enable us to keep on trying.
Once a pastor went to visit a woman who was in the hospital recovering from a nervous breakdown. She was a highly motivated person who worked in a very stressful profession. The stress had gotten the best of her. One day, as she began to recover, the pastor found her sitting up in bed, smiling broadly. She greeted him amiably and said “I have been reading the Bible.” To himself the pastor thought: “Good. Large doses of the Psalms 23 are probably just what you need.”
But the woman explained that she had been reading the book of Revelation. The pastor audibly gasped and began to anxiously stammer that she might need help in understanding the book because some people found it very upsetting.
“Oh, I haven’t found it upsetting at all,” the woman said, “I have found it a source of great peace.” The message God had sent through John had gotten through to her. It can get through to us, too — and it can give us hope.

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