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Preaching on The Revelation of Jesus Christ

An overview of the historical background and theology of Revelation to help you develop your sermon series and apply it to your hearers.
Preaching on The Revelation of Jesus Christ
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My Encounter with The Revelation of Jesus Christ

I can say without exaggeration that the most transformative preaching I have ever experienced is when, in 1999, I preached through the whole of the last book of the Bible, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ,” as it is entitled. People still look back to that series as one in which the Lord Jesus became so much bigger and irresistible!

To say that preaching Revelation is a huge challenge is an understatement. It takes a lot of mental challenge, prayerful study, and wrestling. But it is worth every ounce of the effort.

My recommendation to preachers is that we go at studying and preaching Revelation slowly. I attempted to preach the whole of the book only after about twenty-five years of study. I taught the book in seminar form over the years as I sought to understand what it is all about. And I did preach Chapters 1-3 in an eight-week series on discerning the voice of Jesus, and a two-week series on Chapters 4-5 on understanding authentic Christian worship, and a two-week series on Chapters 21-22 on the future Jesus has for us, and the universe. Once I began to have more confidence that I was, indeed, understanding what John, the human author, is doing, then I stepped out to preach through Revelation.

I first preached the whole book in 1999. I did so because I figured it would be the last time in my lifetime (I was born in 1947) I could do so without people asking, “Why?” “Why bother with The Revelation of Jesus Christ?” I could go ahead and freely preach the book because in 1999 we were living under the fearful cloud of Y2K, when people were anticipating all kinds of cataclysmic events to follow the expected computer crash! The series was later published as Discipleship on the Edge: An Expository Journey Through The Book of Revelation (2004, Regent College, Vancouver BC).

Two observations before proceeding further.

G.K. Chesterton, the witty, brilliant writer of the early 20th century, wrote: “And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators” (in his Orthodoxy). Oh, Lord, do not let me be wild in my preaching the book!

More seriously, New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham captures the transformative power of The Revelation of Jesus Christ: “The Apocalypse of John is a work of immense learning, astoundingly meticulous literary artistry, remarkable creative imagination, radical political critique, and profound theology” (in his The Climax of Prophecy). Indeed!

Historical Background

The year is either 67 AD or 96 AD. If the former, the Emperor at the time was Nero; if it is the later, Domitian. Nero was a massively brilliant, but mentally crazed leader; Domitian also brilliant, and ruthlessly oppressive of all opposition. The message of The Revelation of Jesus Christ “fits” either context, as it does just about any historical period since the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

The essential factor for deciding which dating is correct is the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 72 AD. That is, is John writing before or after that horrific event? You will have to decide for yourself. The message, however, holds in either context, as it does in our context.

Jesus, through John, is addressing the same discipleship issue, namely, the pressure to compromise. The pressure to compromise with the “spirit of Empire,” the pressure to compromise with the values, priorities, life-style of “Babylon,” as John calls the Rome of his day (see chapters 17-18; they read like any major news reporting). Especially, the pressure to embrace the “glue” that held the Empire together—the confession, “Caesar is Lord.” In Greek, Kaisar Kurios. Citizens of the Empire were allowed to believe pretty much whatever else they wanted to believe, as long as they affirmed the creed of the Empire. All people had to do was go to one of the temples designated for the worship of Caesar (who since Augustus called themselves, Son of God, Kurios, Soter/Savior), take a pinch of incense, cast it on the altar, and say, “Caesar is Lord.”

This the Apostle John, now in his senior years, could not do. Speak of Caesar as Emperor, or King, or Great Leader, okay. But speak of Caesar as Kurios, no way. In the Greek and Roman world the word meant something like “absolute sovereign,” “sovereign above all sovereigns.” In the Jewish world the word was the Greek rendering of the Hebrew Yahweh, the sacred name for the Living God.

Whenever the Caesar entered the Roman Senate, all would stand and say, “Worthy are you to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.” Wait a minute! Only one person was worthy of that degree of acclamation—Jesus Christ. John, and other faithful disciples of Jesus, would only confess, “Jesus is Kurios.”

John, along with the others, was, therefore, considered a threat to the Empire. He could not embrace the unifying “glue,” and, therefore, had to be “dealt with.” So John was hauled off to the prison island of Patmos, just off the coast of Asia Minor, the land-mass that is now modern day Turkey. He is left “to bleach and rot” on the rocks of the island, as Thomas Torrance once put it. He, the beloved disciple, who once lay against Jesus’ breast in the upper room, is alone, abandoned, an “enemy” of the system.

A deeply personal crisis for John, no doubt. But also a theological crisis, for John and for the churches back on the mainland, whom he served as a kind of “bishop.” Cannot Jesus, the Kurios, protect his followers when they refuse to compromise? Can he not prevent the Caesar’s of the world from persecuting his disciples?

The Revelation of Jesus Christ is addressed to that crisis.

The Structure of The Revelation of Jesus Christ

The key to discerning the structure is appreciating the genre, the literary type, of the document. John calls it “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Not “Revelation,” though we are given a massive revelation in the book. Not “Revelations,” though we are given a number of stirring revelations. But “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” The full mouth-full. Meaning the book is all about Jesus! Telling us that if after reading and preaching the book we are pre-occupied with something or someone other than Jesus himself, we are off the mark. The book is meant to lead us to the feet of Jesus, the true Kurios. The book is meant to lead us into radical commitment to him.

Literally, the title of the book is “The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ.” In our time “apocalypse” means, “Oh, no, something terrible is about to happen.” Thus the media speaks of hurricanes washing on shore, or earthquakes triggering tsunamis, or terrorists bombing public spaces as “apocalyptic.” Wrong word. “Awful,” or “catastrophic,” or “tragic,” okay. But not “apocalyptic.” In the first century the word simply meant “opening up,” as in the opening of a door, or the pulling back of a curtain, or the lifting of a cover off a box. An “opening” that reveals what is always “there,” but, ordinarily, “hidden.”

The book is, therefore, all about Jesus Christ, who is always “there,” but ordinarily “hidden,” breaking through from the “hiddenness,” so we can realize who he is and what he is up to in the world and in our lives.

Apocalyptic literature has two practical, pastoral purposes. The first is to set the present moment, in all its ambiguity (and sometimes, chaos), in light of the unseen realities of the future. Jesus is coming, and bringing with him a new heaven and a new earth. The second, and more primary, purpose is to set the present moment in all its ambiguity in light of the unseen realities of the present. Things are not as they seem; or better, things are not only as they seem. Jesus is Lord. He is “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). He holds “the keys of death and of Hades” (1:18). As the Lamb, he has overcome the powers of sin and evil and death (4:9-10). Now! Not just in the future. But now. Present.

So, the last book of the Bible is a grand “opening up” (by Jesus himself) of the unseen realities of the future and the present. Putting our whole lives into proper perspective. Restoring hope, and, therefore, courage to keep following Jesus when all around us “Babylon” pressures us to compromise, and “go with the flow” of Empires out of touch with the great reality or all realities, Jesus and the place he occupies in the universe.

And what does this have to do with the structure of the book?

The verb “open” is used four times in the unfolding drama. Given the meaning of “apocalypse,” is this surprising? After the opening section with the seven messages to the seven churches of Asia, 4:1—“And I saw a door open in heaven.” Then after the Lamb breaks the seven seals of the scroll, 11:19—“And the temple of God which is in heaven was opened.” Then after the central scene of the Lamb, the dragon, and the two beasts, 15:5—“I looked, the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony in heaven was opened.” And finally after the vision of Babylon” falling (it is, in whatever form, always falling), 19:11—“And I saw heaven opened.”

These four “openings” make for five major sections. With the Introduction (1:1-8) and Conclusion (22:8-21), the book is structured in seven parts. In a series of windows, if you will. I wished I could have titled my book on the Book of Revelation, “Windows 96.”

I propose, therefore, the following outline. It turns out that it is crafted as one beautiful chiasm, the beginning and ending with the same themes, pointing to the major message in the middle.

Isn’t that amazing? “Profound theology” presented in “astoundingly meticulous literary artistry” (Bauckham).

The structure, by the way, should alert us to the fact that when reading The Revelation of Jesus Christ we are not reading a newspaper. It is not meant to be read in a linear way. The question to keep asking as we read is not, “What happens next?” but “What did John see next?” (Michael Wilcock, I Saw Heaven Opened). This is because what John “sees next” might have happened long before what he just “saw.” The biggest example being Revelation 12, events that take place on Christmas Eve!

It is as it were that Jesus put on a “play” or “drama” before John. How he did it, I do not know. Given what video artists are able to do in our time, I have no trouble believing Jesus could do something very creative in John’s time. And John then describes what Jesus has placed before him. He tells us what he “saw.” He does not always tell us what it all “means.” He is describing the symbols Jesus uses not yet the reality conveyed by the symbols (Bruce Metzger, Breaking The Code).

Sermon Series


1:1-8 - Introduction

1:9-20 – First “opening”—Jesus among the seven candlesticks.

2:1-3:22 – Jesus’ seven messages to the seven churches.

4:1-5:14 – Heavenly worship, centered on the victorious Lamb.

6:1-8:5 – The Lamb opens the seven seals of the scroll of history.

7:1-17 – Jesus seals his disciples.

11:19-12:17 – The cosmic battle behind all battles: a woman, a dragon, a child.

13:1-18 – The two beasts, one from the sea, one from the earth.

14:1-15:4 – Jesus, his people, his gospel, his angels.

15:5-16:21 – Judgment finished.

17:1-19:10 – Babylon.

19:1-10 – The Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

19:11-21 – The victorious King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

20:1-10 – The Millennium.

20:11-15 – The Book of Life.

21:1-22:5 – The New Jerusalem, new heaven and new earth.

22:6-21 – Conclusion

Series Outlines

There are so many ways one can preach the whole of The Revelation of Jesus Christ! Here are three.

Option 1

The tack I took in 1999 was to simply make our way through the whole drama.

1:1-8 – Getting A Feel for the Last Book of the Bible: All About Jesus!

1:9-20 – The Cosmic Jesus, or, Look Who Is At The Center!

2:1-7 – First Love

2:8-11 – Keeping Faith Under Pressure

2:12-17 – The Battle For the Mind

2:18-29 – Jesus the Jealous Lover

3:1-6 – Always On the Brink of Unfaith

3:7-13 – An Open Door for Witness

3:14-22 – Let Me In!

4:1-11 – Look! A Throne! With Someone Sitting On It!

5:1-14 – Look! A Lamb! In the Middle of the Throne!

6:1-17; 8:1-5 – “Come!” The Cry That Moves History

7:1-17 – Sealed! Forever

8:1-11:18 – Reversed Thunder

11:1-13 – Witness That Wins the World

11:19-12:17 – The Cosmic Battle (Another Version of the Christmas Story)

13:1-10 – Phantom Beast One: Dragon-Manipulated Political Power

13:11-18 – Phantom Beast Two: Dragon-Manipulated Religious Power

14:6-20 – Jesus, His Gospel, His Angels

14:1-5; 15:1-4 – The Lamb’s People

15:1-16:21 – It is Finished!

17:1-19:10 – Waking Up in Babylon, or, Always Falling

19:1-10 – Engaged to the Lamb

19:11-21 – Here He Comes!

20:1-10 – Millennial Madness Made Manageable

20:11-15 – Final Accounting: Opening of the Books

21:1-22:5 – All Things Made New (Two or three sermons on this text!)

22:6-21 – The Time Is Near, or, The Bright Morning Star.

Option 2

Or, do an eleven week series, covering the major sections of the book in one or two sermons. One would read and focus on the central affirmation of each section, drawing everything else in relative to that focus.

1:1-20 – The Living Jesus – In The Middle

2:1-3:22 – Letters to the Seven Churches – Who Jesus Says He Is

2:1-3:22 – Letters to the Seven Churches – Who Jesus Wants Us To Be

2:1-3:22 – Letters to the Seven Churches – What Jesus Promises His Disciples

4:1-5:14 – Entering the On-Going Worship in Heaven – “Worthy!’

6:1-8:2 – Opening the Seven Seals of the Scroll: How Prayer Moves History

8:3-11:19 – Sounding the Seven Trumpets: The Triumph of Jesus’ Kingdom

12:1-14:20 – The Satanic Trinity: The Dragon and the Two Beasts

15:1-18:24 – The Seven Bowls of Judgment: It Is Finished!

19:1-20:15 – The Great Victor and Victory – King of Kings and Lord of Lords

21:1-22:21 – Our Future in Jesus: A New Heaven and a New Earth.

Option 3

Or follow something like the approach of John R.W. Stott in his, The Incomparable Christ. Since the book is about Jesus, organize the series around “pictures” of Jesus. Begin with the Prologue and end with the Epilogue, and focus the series on the ten great visions of Jesus, ending up with a twelve week series.

Prologue – 1:1-8

Christ Claiming to be the First and the Last, the Living One – 1:9-20

Christ Supervising His Churches – 2:1-3:20

Christ Sharing God’s Throne – 4:1-5:14

Christ Controlling the Course of History – 6:1-8:5

Christ Calling the World to Repentance – 8:6-11:17

Christ Overcoming the Devil and His Allies – 11:19-13:18

Christ Standing on Mt. Zion with His Redeemed People – 14:1-15:4

Christ Coming Like a Thief in the Night – 15:5-19:10

Christ Riding in Triumph on a White Horse – 19:11-20:15

Christ Coming as the Bridegroom to Claim His Bride – 21:12-22:5

Epilogue – 22:6-11


In one sense, the preacher does not have to worry about this, for once we “see” what John “saw,” once we “hear” what John “heard,” we will know what to do; application will be obvious, and radical!

Having said that, John does spell out for us at least three immediate applications of what he “sees” and “hears.”

The most frequent commands of the book (and, therefore, its major pastoral burden) is “look!” (“behold!” or “lo!” – idou in Greek; make sure you work with a translation that honors this language). The second most frequent command is “do not be afraid.” We obey the second when we obey the first; when we look, especially at the Jesus John “sees,” we will no longer be afraid. Look away from all that is happening in the world, and away from our woeful inadequacy to do anything about it all, and look to the Lamb, and fear will begin to dissipate, and we will be able to follow Jesus with renewed conviction and courage. The third most frequent command is “repent.” It simply means to come to one’s senses, change one’s mind, and turn around moving in a new direction. Once we “look” we automatically realize we need to “repent.”

The book is full of powerful scenes of worship. So on the heels of looking and repenting, we begin to worship as never before, and find ourselves caught up in heaven’s worship of the Almighty and the Lamb!

We choose to follow the way of the Lamb. In the worship scene in Revelation 5, John hears that the Lion has won the battle—“Look, the Lion has overcome!” (5:5). John then turns to see the Lion, and to his surprise, and to the universe’s surprise, he sees a Lamb—“standing as if slain” (5:6). It takes away my breath every time I see it. The Lion does not triumph as a lion; he triumphs as a Lamb, who sacrifices himself for the salvation of the world. The application very clear: only the “weakness” of the way of the Lamb wins over evil. And we are called to follow in this way (12:11 – “and they overcame by the blood of the Lamb”). Huge implications!

When all is said and done, the last book of the Bible is leading us to worship at the feet of the Lamb. A fruitful way to study and then preach the book is to work through the great worship scenes. Folks could get used to working with apocalyptic imagery, and have their hearts stirred!

Theological Themes

The Throne. Trace the word through the whole book. It is, next to the Lamb, the dominant image. There IS a throne! And someone is sitting on it! The Throne of the universe is not up for grabs; no coup will ever win.

The Lamb on the Throne. Sacrificial love is how Jesus, true Emperor and true God, reigns over the universe.

The Opposition: The Dragon and the Two Beasts. The first beast, from the sea, is dragon-manipulated political power; the second, from the earth, is dragon-manipulated religious power. The dragon brought them together in the persons of Herod and Pilate, and the scribes and Pharisees, to crucify Jesus. The church must always be careful when wanting to influence culture to not align itself to the powers-that-be.

Tribulation. Jesus warns the church of tribulation. The word is thilipsis—“pressure,” sometimes, “crushing pressure.” It is what happens when we rub our two hands together—the pressure causes the heat to rise. Whenever the kingdom of the Lamb comes up against any expression of the kingdom of the dragon, there will be thilipsis. Don’t panic. Nothing is wrong. It simply has to happen. So hang in there. It is happening because Jesus is working out the implications of his victory.

Babylon. It is a code word for the city that, in many different forms, at many different times, comes up against the City of God. At the time of the writing of The Revelation of Jesus Christ, “Babylon” expressed itself as Rome. There have been many more forms since. And the book reveals that in whatever form it comes, Babylon is always falling. Given its inherent resistance to Jesus, it can do nothing but always fall.

The Role of Prayer. Notice that in each of the seven seals the Lamb opens on the scroll of history, someone prays. It is a revelation of how history moves forward: yes, by the sovereignty of the Almighty and Lamb, but also by disciples participating in that movement by praying, especially praying, “Come!”

Christology. My goodness! So much about Jesus' identity is “opened up” to us in the book! Two things are of special import. One, he calls himself “the Alpha and the Omega, first and last, beginning and end” (22:13). “Beginning” is the word arche. Yes, it means “first in a sequence.” But it primarily means “source of the sequence.” “End” is the word telos. It means “inherent destiny.” Wow! Jesus is not only first in the sequence, the Alpha; he is the source of the sequence; it all has its roots in him. And Jesus is not only the last in the sequence, the Omega: he is the inherent destiny of the sequence; it all heads toward him. No need to be afraid of anything: it all comes from Jesus and is heading back to Jesus. He wins!

And two, he is “the bright morning star” (22:16). Jesus is working with an astrophysical reality. The morning star only appears in the sky when the night has reached its deepest degree of darkness. When you see the morning star, you know that even though it is still dark, the night is, in fact, ending. So, when we see Jesus in the picture, we know that even though we may have to walk through more hours of darkness, the darkness has been defeated. Jesus wins!


David Aune, Revelation: Word Bible Commentary (Dallas, Texas: Word Book, 1997).

G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999).

Gerhard A. Krodel, Revelation: Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg, 1989).

Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking The Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1993).

Michael Wilcock, I Saw Heaven Opened: The Message of Revelation (London, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973).

Darrell Johnson has been preaching Jesus Christ and his gospel for over 50 years. He has served a number of Presbyterian congregations in California, Union Church of Manila in the Philippines, and the historic First Baptist Church in the heart of Vancouver, Canada. He has taught preaching for Fuller Theological Seminary, Carey Theological College in Vancouver, and Regent College in Vancouver.

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