REVELATION: THE BOOK OF SEVENS

Cross Tree

These 22 chapters help us keep believing in Jesus when the evidence makes it difficult. Even John the Baptist once wondered if he ought to look for another Messiah to follow. There are times, sometimes long seasons, when life simply doesn’t work very well, and no matter how hard we search, Jesus seems to have disappeared. Maybe he was never there.

“He is here,” John declares, “and He has not disappeared. God has let me see all that’s happening from heaven’s point of view. It’s breathtaking. The lamb is roaring His way through history to complete the Immanuel Agenda.”

–Larry Crabb.

 

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SERMON NOTES

Revelation 2: Introduction, Part 2.

Please bear with me as we spend another message almost entirely on introductory material. Revelation is unique in its complexity and obscurity, and if we truly want to hear what God is saying through this book, we need to put the time in to understand: how it was written, why it was written, and to whom it was written.

I want to make sure that everyone who reads this understands something: I approach this book with extreme humility. I am confident that God created me, at least in part, to bless others with a better understanding of the Bible, and I trust that He fulfills that purpose fairly often. I promise you that I am using my God-given gifts and resources to understand Revelation as best as I can, and to communicate what I am learning, as best as I can. However, I do not claim to be the final authority on Revelation; not even close. But, I know my Father in Heaven, and I know He is able to speak to us through this book, and for that reason alone, I think it is worth your time to follow along as we go through this series. I just don’t want you to get the impression that I think I have Revelation all figured out.

That brings me to another point: We must be prepared to not figure everything out. I guarantee that when we are done with this book, we will all still have quite a few questions, myself included. We are studying Revelation because it is part of God’s inerrant Word, and it is an oft-neglected part. Not only that, but time and time again I have experienced how God can make clear by His Holy Spirit scriptures which were previously puzzling to me. However, in the end, we need to live with some uncertainty in the details. We can do this because we are certain about the One who controls the details – our Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Some of what I say may be new to you, or different from what you had previously heard about particular passages. While I do not claim to have it all figured out (who could?) I trust that the Holy Spirit will be guiding my own study and teaching, as well as your studies and thinking.

My final encouragement is to throw away any “road map” you might want to make from this book, and instead concentrate on listening to what the Holy Spirit wants to say specifically to you through this wonderful book.

A Seven-Part Structure?

One of the fascinating things about this book is that it appears to be structured in sets of sevens. There are seven letters; seven seals; seven trumpets. Then it isn’t so clear for a while, until we get to a fourth set: seven bowls. Most commentators, myself included, think that John probably intended three more sets of sevens, in order to make the book into seven parts, each with seven subparts.

The seven part structure is important, because it represents a special way of writing used in ancient times. These days, Most writers try to organize their writing in certain accepted ways. Speakers do the same thing. Most writers and speakers basically use the following type of outline:

I. Introduction

II. Point A

III. Point B – builds on point A, and adds some new information.

IV. Point C – builds on point A & B, and adds some new information.

V. Summary & Conclusion

Sometimes there are more than three points in the center, but you get the general idea.

Back in ancient times, there was also a common way to write and speak, but it was different from what we do now. Scholars call it “chiastic structure” (pronounced “kai-ass-tik”). Sometimes it was used to write a whole book. Other times it was just used to tell stories or make individual points. Chiastic structure looks like this:

A. First point.

B. Second Point.

C. Third Point.

CENTRAL POINT

C1. Connects back to the third point (C) in some way,, or creates a contrasting parallel to it.

B1. Connects back to the second point (B) in some way,, or creates a contrasting parallel to it.

A1. Connects back to the first point (A) in some way,, or creates a contrasting parallel to it.

One of the things this does is to highlight the central point and make it stand out. It also helps readers to remember how we reached the central point, because of the parallelism or repetition leading back to the end point. Obviously, chiastic structure must be made up of an odd number of points, with a minimum number of five. Seven is a number well suited to these structures, which are also called “chiasms.” They were often used in ancient times to help people memorize oral history. There are many chiasms in Genesis, and also in Homer’s Odyssey, for example. It could be that John made use of chiasms to help him remember what he heard and saw in his vision.

So, all the sevens in Revelation appear to be chaisms. From literary structure point of view, it’s almost like one of those wooden Russian nesting dolls (sometimes called Matryoshka), with chiasms nested in other chiasms.

But the whole seven business in Revelation can be frustrating as well. The four sets of seven I mentioned are quite clear. Most commentators (though not all) agree that Chapters 12 through 14 appear to clearly be another set of “seven significant signs,” which now gives us five total sets of seven:

Part 1: 7 Seven Letters;

Part 2: Seven Seals;

Part 3: Seven Trumpets;

Part 4: Seven Signs; Part

5: Seven Bowls.

 

The remaining two sets – if, in fact, there are two more sets of seven – are rather more controversial. Out of six commentators – seven, if you include me – there is not one that agrees with another about how to organize the other two sets of seven. I think every way of doing it – including my own – seems a bit forced and artificial, compared to the five clear sets of seven.

In spite of the frustration identifying sections 6 and 7, however, almost all scholars are clear that chapters 12-14 make up the heart of this book (the fourth set of sevens), and that is very useful, as we shall see once we get into the text a bit more.

 The First Readers

As with all books of the Bible, the best approach is to try to understand what Revelation would have meant to those who first heard it.  Once we know what it meant to the first readers, and only then, we can begin to apply it to our own lives.

In order to do that, we need to know a bit about the Christians who would have been the first readers of John’s Revelation.

John wrote between 90-95 AD. Jesus had ascended into heaven some sixty years or so earlier, promising to return. And yet he had not returned. Some of the things that Jesus had predicted had apparently come true: the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. But even that event was now 25 years in the past, and still he had not returned. Christians were still a very small minority in the Roman Empire. Some cities had several house churches in them. Others had only one; and of course, there were some cities that had no Christians at  all. Even in the cities where the church was strong (like Ephesus) Christians held no power or influence, and were more or less helpless to defend themselves against discrimination or persecution.

And persecution was becoming more and more of a problem. Revelation was written during the reign of Emperor Domitian. Though several emperors before him claimed to be Divine, Domitian was the first Roman emperor to insist that his subjects worship him as a god. He required everyone in the Roman empire to offer a pinch of incense at shrines that were set up in his honor.

Jews, however, did not have to worship the Emperor. Fifty or sixty years before Jesus was born, A military leader from Palestine, near Israel, supported Julius Caesar in a war against his rival, Pompey. This was Antipater, father of King Herod the Great. Caesar rewarded Antipater by making him Governor of Judea. Caesar, believing (wrongly) that Antipater was a Jew, awarded special privileges to Jews in the Roman empire. One of the most important of those privileges is that they were left alone in the matter of religion and worship. So, when Emperor Domitian required his subjects to worship him, the Jews were exempt.

Christians were initially exempt as well, since the Romans believed that Christians were simply a special type of Jew. However, Jewish people all over the empire felt that Christians were polluting and destroying Judaism. Therefore, when emperor worship became required, many Jews took the opportunity to tell the Roman authorities that Christians were not part of their religion, and therefore were disobeying the law by not offering worship to the Emperor. They often “outed” specific Christians to the authorities, causing them to be whipped, thrown into prison, and sometimes even executed.

Meanwhile, the world continued on its wicked way. Evil people prospered. Idol worship, immorality, oppression, injustice and greed all continued, apparently unchecked by God’s power.

It would have been very easy for Christians at that time to start doubting Jesus. Would he really come back? Was the whole thing even real? Where is he now? Does he even care about us, about our struggles? Doesn’t he see the terrible things being done to his people? Doesn’t he know the monstrous evil in the Roman empire?

Bible commentator Leon Morris puts it like this:

We must not think of [Revelation] as a kind of intellectual puzzle (spot the meaning of this symbol!) sent to a relaxed church with time on its hands and an inclination for solving mysteries. It was sent to a little, persecuted, frustrated church, one which did not know what to make of the situation in which it found itself. (Leon Morris. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Revelation.)

Whenever we deal with a text in Revelation, we need to remind ourselves of these concerns that were very big for the Christians who first read it. We need to consider what the message of Revelation meant to them, in those circumstances, and only then can we begin to apply it to our own time and situation.

Author Larry Crabb gives us a helpful way to look at Revelation:

These 22 chapters help us keep believing in Jesus when the evidence makes it difficult. Even John the Baptist once wondered if he ought to look for another Messiah to follow. There are times, sometimes long seasons, when life simply doesn’t work very well, and no matter how hard we search, Jesus seems to have disappeared. Maybe he was never there.

“He is here,” John declares, “and He has not disappeared. God has let me see all that’s happening from heaven’s point of view. It’s breathtaking. The lamb is roaring His way through history to complete the Immanuel Agenda.”

Because of this, I think we should not get too distracted in the business of unraveling all of it. We should keep our eyes on the big picture. Certainly, at times, we may be able find the meaning of one thing or another. But remember, this isn’t some kind of 1st Century spiritual Sudoku puzzle. It isn’t about solving puzzles. The best way, then, is to focus on the big picture, and the meanings that would be obvious to Christians at the time when John wrote.

So let’s consider the first three verses once more:

1The revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave Him to show His slaves what must quickly take place. He sent it and signified it through His angel to His slave John, 2who testified to God’s word and to the testimony about Jesus Christ, in all he saw. 3The one who reads this is blessed, and those who hear the words of this prophecy and keep what is written in it are blessed, because the time is near! (Rev 1:1-3, HCSB)

Dear brother or sister in Christ, our Lord has not forgotten you. He has not abandoned you. He has a plan, and He is in control of history, empires, cultures and even your life. He is nearer to you than you realize. Do not lose heart!

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