Preachers are hesitant to preach from the Book of Revelation for a variety of reasons. Here are three of them.
First, the interpretation of the book is controversial and sometimes divisive. Why should we preach from a book that will upset some in our congregation?
Second, the meaning of the book is difficult to grasp in places. For instance, how should we interpret 666 and who are the mysterious two witnesses? We can add to that the difficulty of understanding how to interpret the millennial reign described in Revelation 20. Also, the meaning and timing of the judgments in the book are not easy to unravel.
Third, even if we think that we have a good grasp on what the book is about, we might think that it isn’t practical, that it doesn’t speak to our lives today. We don’t want to tire people with abstract teaching that is separated from their everyday lives.
I understand the hesitation to preach Revelation, but I would contend that our churches need to hear the message of the book, even if you aren’t sure about your view of the millennium or the meaning of all the visions. The Book of Revelation should be proclaimed because the book is rich theologically and practical pastorally.
Revelation Is Practical Pastorally
Revelation was written, as we see in Chapters 1–3, to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). The churches were facing opposition on the outside and threats of compromise within. In other words, the seven churches were out of step with the culture and society in which they lived, and they were tempted to compromise to alleviate their difficulties and make life easier.
Imperial Rome demanded their ultimate loyalty, but as Christians they were called upon to give their loyalty to Christ and to worship him alone. At the same time, believers were tempted to commit sexual immorality and partake in worship feasts where food was offered to idols. Participating in such temple worship was common in trade guilds (Rev. 2:14, 20), and if Christians didn’t participate, they could face significant economic consequences.
In the same way today, in many places in the world believers in Christ are out of step with what drives governing authorities, with the cultural and social expectations of their peers, and with the values and moral norms of the world in which they live.
John summons, exhorts, and encourages believers to maintain their loyalty to Christ instead of giving their allegiance to the Beast, which was probably imperial Rome. In each of the letters to the seven churches, believers are exhorted to endure to the end and to conquer in order to obtain the final reward—eternal life. This should not be confused with salvation based on works or with a call to merit salvation. Such endurance reveals whether one has truly trusted in Christ, whether one really belongs to God.
We should preach Revelation, then, because it has a bracing message for Christians today: Wake up! And don’t let the culture in which you live compromise and even stamp out your Christian witness.
John doesn’t only tell believers what they should do; he gives us reasons for enduring and conquering.
Revelation Is Rich Theologically
We can put it this way: The theology of the book undergirds and supports the call to endurance. Let’s think of three themes that permeate the book: 1) God as creator; 2) Christ as redeemer; 3) the Spirit as revealer. Notice here the Trinitarian shape of John’s theology in Revelation—the book isn’t so strange after all! The Book of Revelation isn’t an outlier in the New Testament; its main themes and teachings fit with what we read elsewhere in the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles.
God as Creator and Sovereign
John emphasizes that God is the creator and sovereign over all of history. We encounter the creator God in the stunning throne room scene in Chapter 4 where John is caught up to heaven in his vision. We discover that there are strange creatures in the throne room, including the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures. Still, the chapter isn’t fundamentally about them because they are clearly serving the one seated on the throne. Indeed, the word “throne” is one of John’s favorites, and it is used 37 times in the book with reference to God.
Believers are reminded that God reigns and rules over all. Does it look as if the world has spun out of his control, as if the Dragon (Satan) and the Beast have taken over the world forever and that evil will finally win? John’s answer is the Creator God rules on his throne, and as the Creator he sovereignly rules over all that happens.
The conflict between good and evil, between the Lord and Satan is real, but the outcome isn’t in doubt. The churches must not throw in their lot with the Dragon, the Beast, the False Prophet, and Babylon, for their power and glory are temporary. The God who has created this world is faithful to his promises and will see to it that his purposes and plans are accomplished.
The judgments that permeate the book remind the church that evil will not prevail, that the last word is goodness, truth, and beauty. A new creation is coming (Rev. 21:1–22:5), fulfilling all that God promised his people. Revelation teaches us that in the end all will be well for the righteous, that history makes sense, and that faithfulness to God isn’t futile.
Christ as Fully God and Redeemer
The Book of Revelation centers on Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God. We should preach Revelation because it is Christ centered, because it accords with the rest of the New Testament in shining the spotlight on the Redeemer and Savior.
Many don’t know that Revelation has one of the highest Christologies in the New Testament. What do I mean by that? John emphasizes in dramatic ways that Jesus as the Lamb of God is equal to God, that he is fully God.
For instance, Jesus identifies himself as “the First and Last” (Rev. 1:17; 2:8; 22:13), and the Lord declares in Isa. 44:6, “I am the first and I am the last. There is no God but me.” Clearly, Jesus shares the same stature and identity as God. The Lord God is “the Alpha and the Omega” (Rev. 1:8), but Jesus also affirms that he is “the Alpha and the Omega” (Rev. 22:13).
We see in Chapter 4 that God is worshiped as the holy one, as the Creator and sovereign of all. When the scene turns in Chapter 5, the Lamb is worshiped in the throne room just as the Creator God was worshiped in Chapter 4. That the Lamb is fully God and equal to God is indisputable, “Blessing and honor and glory and power be to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever!” Indeed, the Lamb and God are often presented together (6:16; 7:10, 17; 14:1, 4; 21:22, 23; 22:1, 3), showing that the one seated on the throne and the Lamb are both fully divine, fully deserving of all worship, honor, and glory. Jesus also has divine functions so that he is “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). We have the raw materials here from which the later church rightly formulated the doctrine of the Trinity.
Christ is not only fully God but also the redeemer. If someone were to ask me, “What is Revelation about?” We could rightly say: the Cross of Christ. It is mainstream Christian teaching garbed with apocalyptic imagery.
At key junctures in the book, we are taught that the death of Christ redeems, frees, and liberates sinners. In the prologue of the book, Christ is designated as he “who loves us and has set us free from our sins by his blood” (Rev. 1:5). The new exodus, the ultimate liberation, has been achieved through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Note that this isn’t an abstract transaction: Jesus gave his life because he loves us!
Chapter 5 is in some ways the high point of the entire book. The critical question in the chapter centers on who is worthy to open the scroll with the seven seals, and we discover that no one in all of creation is worthy. Such a state of affairs brings John to tears, for if the scroll isn’t opened God’s plan for history won’t be realized and human beings won’t be redeemed. John’s tears are abruptly stopped because he hears from an angel, one of the elders, that the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered (Rev. 5:5). Here is one who is mighty enough to open the scroll. And yet when John looks to see the Lion, he sees a slaughtered Lamb (Rev. 5:6)! The victory doesn’t come at Jesus’ first coming through judgment over his enemies. Instead, the Lamb conquers and opens the seals by virtue of his suffering love. He has purchased and ransomed by his blood some “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). The key to history is the death and resurrection of the Lamb of God.
The centrality of the Cross also surfaces in Chapter 7. The question posed here is: Who is able to escape the troubles and distresses of this world and to enter the new creation? We are informed that it is those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14).
The visions and imagery in Revelation can blind us to the message we are given; the colorful imagery points to a fundamental truth: We as human beings are stained by sin but the blood of Jesus cleanses, forgives, and gives us hope.
Another portrait of the same truth emerges in Chapter 12. In this remarkable chapter the dragon—who is identified as the devil, as Satan, as the serpent—is thrown out of heaven. The saints have conquered the dragon, the one who accuses them before God day and night.
How have they conquered? We are told in verse 11 that they overcome by persevering and by being willing to surrender their very lives. But there is something more fundamental that is the basis and foundation for their victory. They overcome “by the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 12:11). The dragon can’t accuse believers any longer and has been hurled out of heaven since the sins of believers have been washed away with the Lamb’s blood.
Yes, Revelation has some difficult things, but we should never forget that a central theme of the book is the same one we see elsewhere in the New Testament. Jesus conquers evil and atones for our sin as the Lamb of God, who sheds his blood for our sake and our salvation.
The Spirit as Revealer
We have seen God as creator and sovereign, and Christ as one who is fully God and redeemer, and the Trinitarian orbit of our faith is confirmed as Revelation presents the Spirit as the one who reveals God’s truth to us.
But before we see that truth, we should note that the Spirit is fully God. In Revelation 1:4–6 John prays for the seven churches that they will know God’ grace and peace. Such grace and peace come from God the Father who is, was, and is to come; from the seven spirits before God’s throne; and from Jesus Christ.
Who are the seven spirits? Some think they are angels, but the reference must be to the Holy Spirit since grace and peace only come from God—never from an angel and never from a human being. We never read “Grace and peace to you from the archangel Michael,” or “Grace and peace to you from the Apostle Paul.” We have a remarkable instance here where the Spirit is equally God along with the Father and the Son.
We clearly have a reference here to the Holy Spirit, but does that mean there are seven Holy Spirits? Certainly not. The number seven in Revelation symbolizes fullness, completeness, and perfection. John draws on Isaiah 11:2, and the seven-fold Spirit emphasizes the perfection and fullness of the Spirit. Elsewhere the seven spirits represent: The power of the Spirit that can refresh and revitalize the dead church at Sardis (Rev. 3:1); the Spirit of holiness (4:6); the Spirit that oversees creation and has been sent into the world now that Christ is crucified and risen (5:6).
Another striking characteristic of the book is the Spirit’s role as revealer. At key junctures in the book the prophetic Spirit seizes John, and he discloses God’s purposes and ways. Thus, in Revelation 1:10 John is in the Spirit before he sees the vision of the Son of Man in Chapter 1—a vision that sets the scene for the entire book. Similarly, in Chapter 4 John is in the Spirit as he is taken up to the heavenly throne room—another text that frames the narrative.
The end of the book contrasts two women: The whore, Babylon, and the bride, who is the wife of the Lamb. In both cases John is in the Spirit (17:3 and 21:9) as he sees the true character and destiny of the two women. He is saying to the readers: With which woman do you identify with? The whore, Babylon, that stands for imperial Rome or the bride—the wife of the Lamb.
The letters to the seven churches are the words that the exalted and risen Son of Man speaks to the churches, but they are also the words of the Holy Spirit. Every letter ends with a bracing call for the churches to hear the words inspired by the Holy Spirit (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).
The Spirit also assures the church that death is not the end but blessing and rest for those who belong to God (Rev. 14:13). Thus, the Spirit calls out, inviting all to come and to drink of the water of life (Rev. 22:17).
As we see in the rest of the scriptures, the Spirit is the Spirit of prophecy, the Spirit of revelation, the Spirit who shines his light on Jesus.
Why should we preach on Revelation? For many reasons. Let us never forget that the book celebrates our great salvation accomplished by the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. We are encouraged and challenged to endure with the promise that a new world is coming where the lion will lie down with the lamb.
Editor’s Note: Be sure to check out Tom Schreiner’s new book: The Joy of Hearing: A Theology of the Book of Revelation. In it you will find a thorough exploration of the theology found in this amazing book. It is a wonderful resource if you find yourself preaching through Revelation.
Tom Schreiner is a preaching pastor at Clifton Baptist and teaches New Testament and Biblical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.