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Understanding Revelation

Reading: Revelation 5:1-7 & 6:1-2

Revelation is a book with a blessing for those who read it. This book is a revelation of Jesus Christ. We are told this in Rev. 1:1. Jesus gave these words to encourage Christians who are experiencing trials and troubles. Revelation is a book with a message for all ages telling us things that are taking place now and in future (Rev. 1: 19). It is a book with a great theme. It outlines the struggle that is taking place on earth between Satan and his helpers and God and his church. This book emphasises that even though Satan seems to be victorious he is not. Even though the church seems to be defeated she is not. We are more than conquerors though him who loved us.

In chapter 6 we read about the scroll with seven seals. In order to understand this and other passages we need to reach some conclusions about how to interpret the book of Revelation. We are going to ask three questions. The answers to these questions we will not only help us to rightly interpret the book of Revelation, but also will comfort, strengthen and challenge us.

1. Why seven?

We have already seen that Revelation is a book in which the number seven has special significance. Seven is the number of perfection and completeness. The book is addressed to seven churches representing the whole church. Each of those seven letters has the same sevenfold structure. Now we encounter seven seals and soon we will read about seven trumpets and seven bowls of judgement. The number seven occurs 54 times in all!

There is a very important reason for the number seven being so prevalent. Revelation is a book divided into seven sections. More than that we will also see that each of these seven sections cover the period of history from the first coming of the Lord Jesus Christ until his second coming.The main evidence for this is that the events connected to end of the world (such as the day of judgement) are mentioned at the end of each of the seven sections NOT just at the end of the book. Let us look at these seven sections briefly to prove this:

Section 1: Christ in the midst of his church - chapters 1-3

Christ is ruling over each church and brings a message for believers in every age. At any one time there will be believers who are like each of the seven churches – loveless, persecuted, lukewarm, compromising, corrupt, dead and faithful. This section begins with a reference to the resurrection of Jesus (1:5) and each letter ends with a reference to life in the new heaven and new earth. Look for instance at the end of the last letter (Rev. 3:21).

Section 2: The vision of heaven and the 7 seals - chapters 4-7

Chapters 4 and 5 describe the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb. We see God ruling and reigning. The Lamb of God is handed the scroll with seven seals. The scroll represents God’s plan for the Gospel age. In chapters 6 and 7 we see what happens as each of the seals are opened. The first reference to the Lord Jesus in chapter 4 is a picture of him as a Lamb slain. In chapter 6 judgement is introduced (6:16-17) and the section ends with a picture of believers in paradise (7:16-17).

Section 3: The seven trumpets - chapters 8-11

The seven trumpets picture God’s warning to a sleeping world about judgement to come. Chapters 10 and 11 describe what happens to the church. At the end of the section there is a clear reference to the end of the world, day of judgement and the eternal happiness of the saved (11:15-18).

Section 4: The persecuting dragon - chapters 12-14

This section begins with a clear reference to the birth of the Lord Jesus (12: 1-2). The section then outlines the persecution of the church by the dragon. It ends with a frightening description of the judgement God against the unsaved: (14:18-20).

Section 5: The seven bowls of wrath - chapters 15-16

The bowls represent God’s judgments mankind when mankind refuses to repent. Once again the section ends with a reference to the end of the world and the last judgement (16:20-21).

Section 6: The woman, beast and Babylon - chapters 17-19

Here is a description of the persecution of the church by the world and false religions. The section ends with the day of judgement; the beast and the false prophet are cast into the lake of fire (19:20-21).

Section 7: The Devil’s doom and the believers' joy - chapters 20-22

This section begins with Satan being cast down, an event that took place during the ministry of the Lord Jesus. These chapters then give us the most detailed description of the end of the world, the Day of Judgement, the lake of fire and the new heaven and new earth.

There are other evidences that each of the seven sections are all describing the same period of history, just from different angles:

The time covered by both the third and the fourth section is 42 months and both section 4 and section 7 describe the same event – the casting out of Satan.

The sections about trumpets and bowls are similar. The first trumpet and first bowl affect the earth. The second trumpet and the second bowl affect the sea. The third trumpet and the third bowl both refer to rivers. The fourth trumpet and fourth bowl both refer to the sun. The fifth trumpet and the fifth bowl both refer to a dark pit. The sixth trumpet and the sixth bowl both refer to River Euphrates and both the seventh trumpet and seventh bowl both refer to the Day of Judgment.

All of this means that all of Revelation is relevant to every believer in every age. In every age God is carrying out his plan (the scroll with seven seals). In every age God is sounding trumpets of warning. In every age the church is persecuted by the world and false religions. In every age God is pouring out bowls of wrath to warn the world of judgement to come. In every age the devil and his helper are persecuting the church. And in every age the Lord is protecting his people and will take them to be with him one day. In every age we can look forward to the new heaven and new earth.

This gives us great comfort. It means that every one of the seven sections is helpful to us. Why? Because every section helps us to understand what is happening in the world today. Revelation is a analysis of the times in which we live.

2. Why seals?

We might also ask, why trumpets? Why horses of different colours? The answer gives us another important principle to understanding Revelation: Revelation is a book full of symbolism. The key question is how are we to interpret these symbols? Many fall into a grave error here. They read through the book of Revelation and alight on some symbol and take it literally. The Jehovah's Witnesses do this with the number 144,000. They take that number and say it is the number of those who will be in heaven. Yet they do not take literally the rest of the passage, which says that the 144,000 will all be Jewish men, with 12,000 who have never married. Many believers take the reference to 1,000 years in Revelation chapter 20 literally. Yet do they take all other numbers literally in Revelation? No. Still others take the number 666 literally. They find it in bar codes or in Bill Gate’s name! But this is no way to interpret the book. We must see that this book is full of symbols. They are pictures of reality. We must not expect to literally see one third of the sea turn red. We must not expect to see real locusts coming out of a bottomless pit.

We know this is the right approach from the interpretation we have of similar prophetic language in the Old Testament in books like Ezekiel and Daniel. For instance in Daniel 8 we have the vision of a ram with two horns being attacked and killed by a flying goat. We are told that this signifies the kingdom of the Medes and Persians being suddenly defeated by Alexander the Great of Greece. There was no literal ram!

Now, in Revelation there are two kinds of symbols. First, there are symbols that describe the beginning and end of the Gospel age. So for instance the symbol of the man-child born to a woman in chapter 12 is a picture of Jesus Christ being born. The symbols of harvest, wine presses etc at the end of each of the seven sections symbolise the final judgement. Second, there are many other symbols that describe events between the first and second coming of the Lord Jesus. There are seals, trumpets, and bowls and so on. Do these refer to specific events in history? No.

Just after I started preaching on Revelation I received a letter from a Christian in Asia. It is titled “Revelations from Revelation.” The writer tells me that the red dragon in Revelation 12 is the Chinese Communist Party. He then goes on in great detail to link all the details of chapter 12 and 13 to Chinese party leaders and events over the past 60 years.If this is the right way to interpret the symbols and events in Revelation then I will have to admit that I cannot interpret Revelation. It is beyond me. It is a closed book. Why? Because thousands of dates and events and persons of history show certain traits of resemblance to each symbol. How can anyone know which is correct?

But this in itself should give us a clue as to the right way to interpret the symbols. The symbols that describe events between the first and second coming of Jesus do not refer to a specific event or one date in history. Instead they refer to principles that are operating throughout the Gospel age. In other words they apply not to one event but to many events that happen over many centuries.

It is interesting that the sphere in which the seals trumpets and bowls operate are very extensive. Sometimes a quarter of the earth is affected or a third of the sea. This could hardly be true if each represented one event. Also the number of people affected is very extensive. Again this show us that they do not refer to one event. The book of Revelation unveils the spiritual battles that are raging. They unveil the God’s hand in history shaping events to his will. We see God warning the unsaved about the wrath to come and God comforting his people with details of the joy to come.

So now we come to the scroll with seven seals. What does that symbolise? In chapter 5 we were introduced to the scroll. It was written on both sides and sealed with seven seals. It was in the right hand of him who sits on the throne. A cry goes up “Who is worthy to open the scroll and loose the seals?” The only person found worthy is the Lord Jesus, here described as one looking like a Lamb that was slain. In the book of Ezekiel we read about a similar scroll that was handed to Ezekiel. That scroll was also written on inside and out but that scroll was not sealed. Ezekiel was told to eat the scroll and having eaten it to speak the words of God to Israel. In particular he was told to speak God’s word whether the people would listen or not.

The scroll in Revelation also contains the words of God. What is the content? The book is written on both sides symbolising completeness. It is sealed symbolising that it is unrevealed. It is surely significant that only the Lord Jesus is allowed to open the scroll and break the seals. This scroll represents the plan of God for the Gospel age. Opening the scroll and breaking the seven seals in turn therefore represents an aspect of God’s plan. The Lord is going to tell us in general terms the principles that will characterise EVERY age of history.

As we look at what these seals represent they will sometimes make grim reading. But the whole purpose is not to make as depressed about the times we live in but to help us understand those times. Nothing happens by chance. Here is comfort for believers. God has a plan and is carrying out that plan. History is not a circle but a straight line, with all events planned by the Lord. Are you surprised when you read the headlines? God is not. Are you puzzled by events in the world? God is not. On a more personal level, are you taken back by sudden illness, a car accident, the loss of a job, persecution? God is not.

We need no more worry about the future than the birds that I was feeding with crumbs of bread on Friday down by the lake side. Does not God care for them? How much more does he care for us!

3. Why a white horse when the first seal is opened?

We come now to the first seal. If we read this with spiritual eyes it is easy understand. Let us look at them again and ask ourselves – who is the subject? Revelation 6: 1-2 “I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest”.

Who is the subject? Of course it is the Lord Jesus! It is so appropriate that at the start of the unveiling of God’s plan for the Gospel age that we see Jesus riding out to conquer. Jesus’ last command to his disciples was "Go into the world and make disciples". Now I must tell you that there are believers who take a different view. One well known evangelical commentator thinks that the rider on the horse is the anti-Christ! So I need to take a moment to prove that it is the Lord Jesus who is symbolised here.

First the book of Revelation confirms this. Look at chapter 19:11-12. Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. Here is one on a white horse with many crowns on his head who is going out to war. He is named as the Word of God and the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

The context confirms this. The rider goes out to conquer. In chapter 5:5 we read of the Lord Jesus being the one who prevails. Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals.” The word translated prevailed is the same word here translated conquered. The Old Testament confirms this. Psalm 45 is a Psalm about the glories of the Messiah. There he is pictured on a horse riding out in majesty with people falling down before him. Finally the symbolism confirms this. White is the colour of purity and holiness. The crown symbolises a ruler. The bow symbolises power. Who is the only holy, pure powerful ruler? Jesus Christ!

Why is the Lord Jesus pictured as going out to conquer? Because conquering is a fine description of what the Lord Jesus is now doing! Think for a moment what happens when an earthly kingdom conquers another. Those people have a new ruler, a new king. The rules change, their allegiance changes, their coinage changes. Even more so when a person is saved they are conquered. They become members of a new kingdom. They have a new king. They live by new rules and have new coinage – treasures in heaven.

What is Jesus now doing? What is his great mission? He is gathering a people to himself. The kingdom of the Lord Jesus is growing and expanding every day as sinners are saved. Every sinner who repents and believes on the Lord Jesus has been conquered by Jesus. The language of conquering illustrates another great truth about salvation. It is the Lord Jesus who is taking the initiative. He is going out into the world by the Spirit seeking, saving and conquering the lost.

Are you a Christian? It is because Jesus Christ sought out you. Naturally no-one will ever seek after God. We are born spiritually dead. We are deaf to the Gospel call until God wakes us up and gives us spiritual ears to hear. Maybe you refer to the day and hour when you were saved as the day that you made a decision for Christ. In one sense that is true. You chose to repent of your sins and place your trust in the Lord Jesus accepting him as your Lord and king. But actually the fact is the Christ decided for us. Christ conquered our stubborn hearts. Christ overcame our unwillingness to respond. God is sovereign in salvation. God chooses God elects God saves. To God be all the glory! To God be all the praise!

There is one more crucial lesson for us from this first seal. There is no more important work going on in the world today than Christ going out to conquer. This is the only work that lasts. This is the only work that has eternal consequences. Think of it! Here is an unsaved man or women. They may get married and have a wonderful happy marriage, but they are still heading for hell. They may have a whole bunch of fine children, but they are still heading for hell. They may become very rich, but they are still heading for hell. They may spend their days in charitable work and help thousands, they may be a great musician or a wonderful painter, they may run faster than any person has ever run, they may invent a cure for cancer, but they are still heading for hell.

Then along comes Christ and he conquers them. They repent and believe. They may not make another penny, paint another picture, run another race, but now they are heading for heaven. There is nothing more important happening in the world today that Christ going out to conquer.

Are you playing your part? Are you seeking to be a good witness, a light in a dark world? Are you using those God-given opportunities to share the good news? Are you inviting your non Christian friends to church? Are you praying for the unsaved members of your family? Are you praying for evangelists and missionary workers?

Maybe that there is someone reading this who has not been conquered by Christ. You may even call yourself a Christian but you know in your heart of hearts that you live for self. Christ is not your king. You do not live for him alone. You are unsettled though. You are uncomfortable. You know that you are a sinner. You know that Jesus came into the world to save sinners. You know all about him dying on the cross – in fact you have heard that message many times. But you are not saved. You are on the outside.

Come, my dear friend. Submit to the Lordship of Christ. He is the king of kings and Lord of Lords. Bow down before him. Confess your guilt. Ask to join his kingdom. Although he is King and Lord. Although he is full of glory majesty and power. His touch is tender, his voice is gentle, his heart is full of love. He says to you “Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Thank you for reading this message. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact us.

Quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible, copyright Thomas Nelson Inc.

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