John and the book of Revelation

Have you ever tried to tell your friends about a wonderful experience you've had? It can be hard to explain it in a way that lets them feel just how wonderful it was. Sometimes words seem too weak or limited to do the job. Imagine the challenge for John who had the great, spiritual vision that good triumphs over evil and the responsibility of sharing this vision with the world!

The book of Revelation in the Bible was written by John, whom many believe to be the beloved apostle of Jesus. Revelation means "a revealing." It stands for the Greek word apokalypsis. An apocalypse, or revelation, is an uncovering of something that was covered or hidden. John and a few other Bible writers who wrote in this style usually described visions or dreams.

John was sent away by enemies in his later years to Patmos, a small, rocky island off the coast of Turkey. There, he was jailed for spreading the word of Christ Jesus. It was a time when even admitting to being a Christian was very dangerous. The Roman Empire was at the height of its glory, and people were supposed to worship the emperor, not God. On Patmos, John was not angry or bitter, though. Instead, he became more committed to telling people about the message of Christ Jesus.

In jail, John kept busy by writing to the loyal followers of Jesus, encouraging them and urging them forward. The Christians he wrote to probably felt that the demands of preaching and practicing Jesus' teachings were too much to bear, because they had seen friends and leaders killed for doing these very things. John's encouragement was always loving, yet insistent, begging them to trust in spiritual rewards. He was actually sort of a spiritual cheerleader—not a voice of doom about the future that some might think.

In Revelation, John recorded God's specific instructions to seven Christian churches in Asia Minor (now Turkey). Each letter was from the risen Christ and talked about a particular church's troubles. While all but one letter asked the people to change their ways and do better, John's letters gave the people hope, reminding them of God's promises. The encouragement John gives to the churches provides a valuable seven-point checklist for each one of us in thinking about how we can be more effective Christians.

1.Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7): To this church, John wrote: "I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience.... Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love." Here, the message points to the importance of renewing joy, enthusiasm, and commitment through doing Christian works. John demands this even in the face of extreme challenges for Christians.

2.Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11): "Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer:... be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life" is John's strong encouragement to the people of this town.

3.Pergamos (Rev. 2:12-17): "I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication." John was encouraging the people here to remain pure.

4.Thyatira (Rev. 2:18-29): He praised the Christians in this town, saying, "I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first." But he also warned them against evil influences—"Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols."

5.Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6): He warned this church not to fall asleep to the things of Spirit. "Be watchful," John said.

6.Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13): This group of Christians was small but faithful. John saw that they had great missionary work to do. He wrote as though Christ Jesus himself were speaking: "I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name."

7.Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22): This church received the severest rebuke. It had declined, largely because of its members' comfort in material wealth. Also, there were members who thought it might be possible to worship both God and the emperor. To them, John said: "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth." John tells them they are poor in spirituality and calls for them to change, promising that, if they obey, they will find honor that is much more valuable than their material riches.

John's vision also contains lots of symbols. A symbol is something that stands for something else. Most of what you read in Revelation is a description of a symbol, not what the symbol actually stands for. Evil, for instance, is described many ways—as a pale horse, a red dragon, scorching heat, plagues, a scorpion's sting, lions' teeth, and an animal-like creature with seven heads and ten horns, just to name a few. On the other hand, good and the kingdom of heaven are represented by angels, light, gems, golden crowns, amethyst, pure gold, a pure river of water, and many other word pictures. Take a look at Revelation chapters 4-20 and you'll find many more symbols and visions.

It is the vision of the holy city of Jerusalem, though, that overpowers the other visions and symbols (chaps. 21 and 22). The description begins: "I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people.... And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." 

John's purpose wasn't just to tell about future happenings on earth, but to show heavenly truths and a new kind of heaven and earth. He wanted people to know that God is in full control of the whole universe. And that peace and happiness are certain and available to each one right now.

The seven visions and blessings

The number seven is used many times in John's writing. In the book of Revelation seven is a symbol for completeness. So the letters to seven churches are more than correspondence to seven different church congregations in Asia Minor. These letters represent communication to the entire church on earth.

Much of Revelation is arranged in seven visions that encourage Christians to worship God and follow Christ Jesus, no matter what the circumstances. Some of the visions tell about the opening of seven seals that are used to close a book or scroll, the blowing of seven trumpets to announce events, seven angels of judgment, seven vials or bowls of wrath, and seven scenes, with the seventh telling about "a new heaven and a new earth." All of the visions point to the importance of keeping the First Commandment despite persecutions, wars, sickness, and any temptation that would try to make someone believe in other gods.

There are also seven blessings or beatitudes in the Apocalypse (1:3, 14:13, 16:15, 19:9, 20:6, 22:7, 22:14). The first one begins: "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy." The seventh beatitude in the last chapter of Revelation starts with "Blessed are they that do his commandments."

This verse written in Greek mentions the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and omega. In the King James Version of the Bible, look at Revelation 1:8 and write the English translation on the lines below.  

The seven visions and blessings
October 27, 1997

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