May 1 – Revelation 1:1-20

Ready? This Sunday we started our summer series in the Book of Revelation, and over the next fourteen weeks we’ll be diving into one of the most debated and mocked books of the Bible. But let’s all keep in mind that Revelation is no mere battleground, nor a laughingstock, and it certainly isn’t a decoder ring for predicting Armageddon. What it is is a book with one crucial thing at its center: Jesus on the throne. And just so you know, we’ll be doing our series a little bit differently than our norm, with three mini-series over the course of the summer that will look at the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 1-3 (May 1-29), the theme of worship (June 5-26), and the Kingdom (July 3-31).
Studying Revelation together will provide an excellent reminder to deploy all our best Bible reading strategies, things like understanding background, major themes, various ways the book has been interpreted over the years, etc. As always, a study Bible will be your friend here. If we’re honest, Christians have made a hot mess of reading Revelation through the centuries. Folks have used Revelation to label just about every world leader the antichrist (a term not actually used in Revelation), they’ve treated everything from barcodes in the 1970s to COVID-19 vaccines today as the “Mark of the Beast” (Rev. 13:18), and they’ve even tried to predict the day Jesus will come back (while perhaps forgetting when he said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows…but the Father only.” Matt. 24:36).

So, we should wonder, if so many people have bungled reading Revelation, how in the world can we get it right? Take heart, friends, because of what this week’s passage tells us: Jesus is with his church. John promises us in 1:3, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time in near.” This describes the early church, where one person would read a copy of the letter while everyone else listened. Blessed is the church who turns to God’s word, who humbly listens and submits to God’s word, and who looks to the counsel of the One who is among us even now, tending to his church. “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.”(1 Cor. 14:33)

Let’s take it slow as we read through this first chapter, because here John lets us in on key information about the revelation he was given. First, the word revelation in verse 1 is apokalypsis in the Greek, which tips us off; everything that follows is apocalyptic literature, something we aren’t terribly familiar with today (though John’s audience was). Apocalyptic literature occurs elsewhere in the Bible (ex. Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah), and is a sort of prophetic literature that deploys vivid imagery, emphasizes the heavenly source of the message, and is directed at the future. This means that the imagery is important, but like other apocalyptic literature, the symbols and numbers may or may not relate to something literal. In other words, Revelation isn’t always talking in some code that, if we crack it, will tell us the future. Instead, John’s Revelation communicates future, grand realities in a otherworldly, dreamlike ways so we can get a sense for how earth-shattering and category redefining the conclusion of human history will be.

We get a taste for this sort of prophetic imagery with John’s first vision in the book. John looks and behold, Jesus is standing among seven lampstands in all his heavenly glory, and later we are told that the lampstands represent the seven churches. You’ll see the number seven pop up in Revelation a lot, mostly because, for ancient readers, the number seven represented completeness. By addressing his letter to the seven churches, John is creatively addressing it to the universal Church.

And this is a message we should lodge in our brains while we read Revelation: Jesus is always, even now, in the midst of his Church. We don’t read the prophecies of the Bible alone—Jesus’ spirit is ever with us. But Jesus also never abandons his Church; he’s always tending to her needs, shepherding her through suffering, wooing her away from idolatry, and ever leading her on towards Revelation 21, the consummation of Redemption.

Questions for Discussion

• First off, this week we started our summer series in the Book of Revelation. When you think about the book of Revelation, what comes to mind? What do you think are some commonly held assumptions about the book?

• Could someone read all of Revelation 1 for us?

• What stood out to you from the passage?

• How does John introduce his book of Revelation?

• In verse 20, Jesus explains the symbolism of the lampstands. What do you think it means that Jesus is among, or with, his churches?

• In what ways are you prone to doubt or forget that Jesus is with his church?

• How can Jesus give you hope and encouragement in this passage?