Previously we discussed Jesus and the kingdom of heaven, and then the Epistles and the kingdom. In this article, we will begin to look at John’s account of “the revelation of Jesus Christ,” which rightfully brings to its conclusion the teaching of the Bible about “the things about the kingdom.”
John’s Apocalyptic Prophecy
Commonly spoken of as “apocalyptic” because of the Greek word translated “revelation,” it is often treated as a close kin to the Jewish apocalyptic (so-called) literature produced during the intertestamental period. However, for Christians, the Johannine material is the true apocalypse from which attempts have been made to make applications to the prior Jewish materials and to certain portions of the Old Testament material in the prophets.
John’s prophecy is the last in the line of biblical prophetic works. It is apocalyptic in the strict sense of the term, as it purports to unveil what is mysterious, and it defines the genre that speaks to the end of all things as we know them in the present age.
John’s clearest message is that heaven’s hero, the Lamb “bearing death marks” (Rev 5:6), is the only one “worthy” (Rev 5:2) to bring to a close with righteous judgments and rewards the age in which we live and to inaugurate the age to come. The Lamb’s worthiness is based on his self-sacrifice and the weight of his character implied by such love and obedience to the will of the Father. Only such a One as he can be trusted to receive and exercise the unlimited “power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev 5:12) that are required to right all wrongs and bring in a new age of true peace and blessing.
Only the slain Lamb, now risen and ruling, is worthy of such hegemony, no matter what Pharaoh or Goliath or Nebuchadnezzar or Caesar or any other would-be tyrant may think. Furthermore, not even a Noah or Moses or David or Josiah or Hezekiah or a prophet or an apostle or a pastor of one of the seven churches of Asia, though all may be justified by the blood of the slain Lamb, is worthy. No prior figure, no matter how heroic, is worthy as the Lamb. He is heaven’s and John’s centerpiece in the apocalypse. Without this One and this truth, there is no hope.
This figure first appears to John, the exile of Patmos, as “one like the Son of Man” (Rev 1:13) whose glory dwarfs the light of the seven golden lampstands symbolizing the churches of Asia. He walks among them as their Lord and in prophetic fashion exhorts, challenges, and warns them. Only Smyrna and Philadelphia receive no call to repentance. All are called to endure and “overcome.”
Their own internal flaws and their consequent failure to mirror Christ’s glory to the world, especially if they do not adequately repent, make the case that they can be only poor and hazy reflections of the glory that must come and that is to come. Meanwhile, “he that has ears to hear” must “keep the words of the prophecy of this book” (Rev 22:7, ESV), for the Lamb is Lord of the churches and will judge them as he does all the world.
The Scroll & the Little Book
John’s next vision of Christ is given for the purpose of revealing Christ’s lordship over the current age in the unrolling of the scroll. We believe this vision is symbolic of his rule in history, for the first four seals reveal the march of empires, war, famine, and death. The fifth seal reveals martyrs slain “for the word of God and the testimony which they held” (Rev 6:9). The sixth seals ushers in an eschatological moment signifying the end of what now is systemically and in all creation. John’s vision parallels the manner in which previous prophets saw the end of all things.
Here is the answer to the prayer of the martyrs and, by implication, that of all world-weary Christian pilgrims, for not all the heroes are dead.
After the interlude of chapter seven, the culminating events of the end of the age are announced by successive trumpets heralding massive natural and cosmic disasters, the release from restraint of demonic power, and the resulting torments of “those who dwell on the earth,” a reference to those whose mindset makes them at home and at rest in the present age and on the present terrestrial creation.
In contrast to the seven-sealed scroll, the “little book” (Rev 10:2) appears to symbolize a shorter period in which Christ will exercise his lordship. Its contents are both “bitter” and “sweet” to John. The sweet is undoubtedly the arrival at last of deliverance and justice for the faithful, but the bitterness is just as certainly the terrible vengeance that shall fall upon the earthbound.
These are portrayed as rejoicing and celebrating over the martyrdom of the two prophets who “tormented” them (Rev 11:10) and as giving their “worship” to “the beast” who wields full political, economic, and religious power (Rev 13:11-18).
We’ll address what John says about “the beast” in my next article in this series.
Editor’s Note: This series was adapted from the IFWE research paper, God and Government: A Biblical Perspective (The Bible and Limited Government) by Dr. Tom Pratt. Read the full paper here.