‘Jesus is gonna win!’
Books | A helpful aid in understanding the book of Revelation and its message of impending persecution of the Christian church
by Richard D. Phillips
Posted 7/07/18, 02:26 pm
The hardest-to-understand book of the New Testament is superficially familiar not only to most Bible readers but to fans of the Left Behind series (more than 65 million copies sold) as well as The Book of Revelation for Dummies: four horsemen of the apocalypse, seven seals, plagues and disasters, Antichrist, Armageddon, Christ’s return, a new Jerusalem, wow! But Richard D. Phillips’ commentary—part of P&R Publishing’s Reformed Expository Commentary series—explains the drama well and sees the visions of Revelation as more important than fodder for cable television specials or puzzles for scholars.
Phillips stands with the redemptive-historical and amillennial interpretation of Revelation, yet he appreciates the work of premillennial and postmillennial scholars. His practical application is clear: With “spreading, virtually worldwide opposition to biblical Christianity,” Revelation is “the book especially designed by the Sovereign Christ to convey strength for perseverance unto spiritual victory.” Please read on. —Marvin Olasky
The Revelation of Jesus Christ
“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 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 is near” (Rev. 1:1–3).
On November 27, 1989, the day when Communism fell in Czechoslovakia, a Methodist church in the capital city of Prague erected a sign. For decades, the church had been forbidden any publicity, but with the winds of freedom blowing, the Christians posted three words, which summarized not only the New Testament in general but the book of Revelation in particular: “The Lamb Wins.” Their point was not that Christ had unexpectedly gained victory, but that he had been reigning in triumph all along. Richard Bewes explains: “Christ is always the winner. He was winning, even when the church seemed to lie crushed under the apparatus of totalitarian rule. Now at least it could be proclaimed!”1
Given its message, Revelation may best be understood by those who are lowly in the world. A group of seminary students were playing basketball when they noticed the janitor reading a book in the corner. Seeing that it was the Bible, they asked what part he was reading. “Revelation,” he answered. Hearing this, the young scholars thought they would try to help the poor soul make sense of so complicated a book. “Do you understand what you are reading?” they asked. “Yes!” he said. When they smugly inquired about his interpretation, the lesser-educated but better-informed man answered: “Jesus is gonna win!”2
Not everyone in church history has shared this positive view about Revelation. Martin Luther was so dismayed by the book that in the preface to his German translation, he argued for its removal from the Bible.3 Karl Barth, the famed twentieth-century theologian, exclaimed, “If I only knew what to do with Revelation!”4 Barth’s confusion over this book is shared by many Christians today, especially in light of the bewildering interpretations made popular in Christian literature. Ambrose Bierce spoke for many when he defined Revelation as a “famous book in which St. John the divine concealed all that he knew.”5
Yet the opening words of the book should lead us in the opposite direction. Revelation 1:1 begins: “The revelation of Jesus Christ.” This means that this book’s purpose is to reveal something. God gave it “to show to his servants the things that must soon take place,” and “made it known” to his servant John. It does not sound like Revelation is intended to conceal or confuse, since it reveals, shows, and makes things known.
We begin by finding that Revelation is a message from the triune God through John to seven churches in Asia. Before the salutation that begins in Revelation 1:4, John penned a prologue that provides four vital pieces of information to help us understand the book. According to the opening verses, Revelation is an apocalyptic prophecy, a historical letter, a gospel testimony, and a means of blessing for God’s needy people.
In light of this blessing, John Stott comments: “This last book of the Bible has been valued by the people of God in every generation and has brought its challenge and its comfort to thousands. We would therefore be foolish to neglect it.”6
An Apocalyptic Prophecy
The word translated as “revelation” is apocalypse (Greek, apokalupsis), which is why this book is sometimes known as the Apocalypse of John. The word means “the unveiling of something hidden.” It might be used of a sculpture that had been covered with a cloth, which is now pulled away. Or it might be used of a grand building whose facade had been covered by scaffolding, but now with the scaffolding removed the glory of the architecture is seen. The apostle Paul used this word to describe Jesus’ second coming (2 Thess. 1:7). The book of Revelation will also say much about Christ’s return, yet its panorama is broader than merely the final days of history. Revelation is, more accurately, an “unveiling of the plan of God for the history of the world, especially of the Church.”7
The word apocalyptic describes a kind of ancient literature, the name of which derives from this first verse of Revelation. Early forms of this genre began developing before Israel’s exile in Babylon, continuing through the intertestamental period and into the first century. The Bible books of Daniel and Ezekiel are examples, and Revelation draws heavily from both. Apocalyptic books usually feature an angel who presents dramatic visions to portray the clash between good and evil. These books employ vivid symbols, including symbolic numbers, to depict the spiritual reality unfolding behind the scenes of history. An apocalypse usually contains the message that “God is going to burst into history in a dramatic and unexpected way, despite all appearances that God’s people are facing oppression and defeat.”8 While there are differences between Revelation and other apocalyptic books, it fits the basic description of this literary genre.
Realizing the kind of book that Revelation is will greatly influence our approach to studying it. Some Christians seek to uphold a high view of Scripture by insisting that it always be interpreted literally. When applied to Revelation, this rule breeds only confusion. It is true that John literally received the visions recorded in Revelation, but the visions consisted of symbols that must be interpreted not literally but rather symbolically. This is true of the fantastic imagery in Revelation, such as the dragon and his beasts, and of symbolic numbers such as 7, 1,000, and 666. When we are reading the Bible’s historical books, such as Samuel and Acts, we will normally take the plain, literal meaning unless there is compelling reason to interpret a passage otherwise. In studying Revelation, we should reverse this approach and interpret visions symbolically unless there is a good reason to take a passage literally. This is not to say that the visions do not depict real events, whether in John’s time or in the future, but that the events are presented symbolically rather than literally in Revelation.
Not only is Revelation an apocalypse, but it should also be understood as a book of biblical prophecy. This is how John mainly describes his book: after using the term apocalypse in the first verse, five times he identifies the book as a prophecy, starting with 1:3: “the words of this prophecy.” We usually think of prophecy as foretelling distant events, but the main job of a prophet was to give a message from the Lord that demanded an obedient response. James Boice comments: “Prophets speak to the present, in light of what is soon to come, and they call for repentance, faith and changes in lifestyle.”9 It is in this respect that Revelation differs from most other apocalyptic writings, since it speaks not only of far-off events but also of those that were soon to break upon the readers. John wrote about “things that must soon take place,” urging that “the time is near” (Rev. 1:1, 3). This was not just a way of saying that things, though really distant, should seem near, but rather that God was revealing challenges that were immediately before his readers. For this reason, Revelation is considered an apocalyptic prophecy. While taking an apocalyptic form, it delivers a prophetic message that is directly relevant to its original readers, as well as to Christians of all times.
As a prophecy, Revelation is best understood in connection with the vision of Daniel 2, which foretold a series of four earthly kingdoms—Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome—that would rise up in succession, only to be destroyed in the days when “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed” (Dan. 2:44). Daniel points out that he is revealing “what will be in the latter days” (2:28). The Greek translation of that verse used apocalypse for the idea of God’s revealing. In using the same language, John mimics Daniel 2:28, except that he writes that the reign of Christ that Daniel foretold “in the latter days” now “must soon take place” (Rev. 1:1). This is all the more poignant when we realize that Daniel prophesied that Christ’s kingdom would arise during the fourth worldly kingdom, the very Roman Empire under which John lived (Dan. 2:44). The divine kingdom that Daniel prophesied from afar, John prophesied as now happening. This shows that the book of Revelation is focused not merely on the final years before Jesus returns but on the entire church age—the reign of Christ, which began during Daniel’s fourth kingdom with his resurrection and ascension into heaven—which continues until Christ’s return.
In developing and expanding Daniel’s vision of how the kingdom of Christ overcomes the kingdoms of this world, Revelation is organized into seven parallel sections, seven being the number of completion. Each section highlights a portion of the story as the drama advances to the final climax. This drama involves a sequence that was going to happen in John’s time, that recurs through the church age, and that will take concentrated form in the final days before Christ’s return.
Fairy tales begin their story of a fantasy world with the phrase “Once upon a time.” In this book, John gives a visionary prophecy of the true story of the world in which we live, beginning, “The revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:1). His visionary prophecy tells us the most important truths about our world. First, he tells us that Jesus Christ, who reigns above, has his church on earth. Did you know that Jesus is in the midst of his church, a Bridegroom seeking the love of his bride, as the vision shows him standing amid the seven lampstands (Rev. 1:12-13)? Second, did you also know the truth that the world is a dangerous place with enemies opposed to Christ and his beloved? Christ’s bride, the church, is beset by a dragon, which depicts Satan, who is served by horrible, ravenous beasts, a harlot Babylon, and followers who bear his mark (Rev. 12-13). Third, what will happen to Christ’s bride, the church, with such deadly foes intent on her harm? Revelation’s answer is that God will defend his people, judging his enemies and sending Jesus with a double-edged sword to slay those who persecute his bride. In succession, Christ defeats his enemies, starting with the two beasts and then the harlot Babylon, and finally casting Satan and his followers into the lake of fire (Rev. 18-20). Fourth, after Christ has come to rescue his bride, Revelation’s true story of our world ends with the church living happily ever after in the glory of the royal heavenly city, awakening to life forever in the embrace of her beautiful, loving, and conquering Prince (Rev. 21-22). (You see, by the way, why fairy tales are popular, since they often tell the story of salvation that our hearts long to be true!)
The prophetic unveiling of this history is the message of Revelation. Revelation does not primarily intend to present mysterious clues about the second coming. To be sure, as Revelation advances, it narrows its focus on the return of Christ, which brings final victory. But the message of Revelation is God’s government of history to redeem his purified and persecuted church through the victory of Christ his Son. For this reason, Revelation does not speak merely to the generation in which it was written or to a future generation when Christ returns. Rather, as William Hendriksen explains, “the book reveals the principles of divine moral government which are constantly operating, so that, whatever age we happen to live in, we can see God’s hand in history, and His mighty arm protecting us and giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, … [so that we are] edified and comforted.”10
A Means of Blessing
Finally, like the Bible in general, Revelation is a means of divine blessing for those who read, hear, and keep its message. John concludes his prologue with this invitation: “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 is near” (Rev. 1:3). Since the God who originated this book is still the God who reigns over all with wisdom and power, those who read and believe Revelation will be supernaturally blessed even today.
John specifies blessing, first, on “the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy” (Rev. 1:3). The order of the churches listed in Revelation 2–3 follows the path that a messenger would take from city to city. This suggests that John intended the letter to go from one to the next so that it could be read aloud in each congregation. In a time of persecution, this action required courage and a strong devotion to Jesus, for which the reader was sure to be blessed by God. Moreover, just as many of Revelation’s visions take place largely amid the worship of heaven, so was its reading an act of worship on earth. David Chilton writes: “By showing us how God’s will is done in heavenly worship, St. John reveals how the Church is to perform His will on earth.”11
God’s blessing was furthermore given to “those who hear,” and specifically to those “who keep what is written in it” (Rev. 1:3). To keep the book of Revelation is to treasure its message and obey the commands of Christ given in it. This connects with John’s description of his readers as God’s “servants” (1:1). Literally, the word doulos means “slave.” The point is that true believers are those who accept the obligation of obeying God’s commands, and who not only give outward agreement to the Bible but also confirm it in the faithfulness of their lives. These servants, and these alone, are blessed by God through the grace that comes through his Word.
The urgency of receiving Revelation is made clear by the final words of John’s prologue: “for the time is near” (Rev. 1:3). One of the lamentable tendencies in the study of Revelation is to believe that it focuses only on the return of Christ to end history. Under this reasoning, many if not most sermons on Revelation conclude with the question, “Are you ready for Jesus’ coming?” It is true that Revelation foretells a great event that Christians must face. But that great event is not the second coming, at least not first of all. Rather, the event that in Revelation’s view is soon to arrive is the persecution of the Christian church by the bloodthirsty world. To be sure, Christ’s coming is near—either through the help he gives us now or in his final coming to end all history—but John’s appeal to the urgency of his writing pertains to his church’s obedience to the commands and promises of Christ in the face of violent worldly persecution.
Every Christian can be blessed now, John promises, though facing persecution and beset with weakness and sin, by hearing and keeping the saving testimony of the Bible. We are blessed in our trials by God’s Word. I earlier compared Revelation to fairy tales, such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, which lift up the hearts of crying children. For this same reason, God gave the revelation of Jesus Christ to his servant John for the churches of Asia. In this respect, Revelation presents the same message as given by Paul at the end of Romans 8. It is true, Paul notes, that Christians in this life are “as sheep to be slaughtered.” Yet when through faith we enter the glorious kingdom of Christ’s resurrection power, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Receiving in Revelation the good news that “The Lamb Wins,” we are blessed above all other blessings to be persuaded that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:36–39).
Taken from Revelation: A Reformed Expository Commentary by Richard D. Phillips. ISBN 978-1-62995-239-0. Published by P&R Publishing Co., P.O. Box 817, Phillipsburg, N.J. 08865; www.prpbooks.com.
1. Richard Bewes, The Lamb Wins! A Guided Tour through the Book of Revelation (Tain, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2000), 9.
2. Vern S. Poythress, The Returning King: A Guide to the Book of Revelation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2000), 14.
3. Martin Luther, “Preface to the Revelation of St. John,” in Word and Sacrament, ed. E. Theodore Bachmann, vol. 35 of Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1960), 398–99.
4. Quoted in Bewes, The Lamb Wins, 9.
5. Quoted in J. Ramsey Michaels, Revelation, IVP New Testament Commentary 20 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 13.
6. John R. W. Stott, What Christ Thinks of the Church: An Exposition of Revelation 1–3 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 10.
7. William Hendriksen, More than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (1940; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967), 51.
8. Steve Wilmshurst, The Final Word: The Book of Revelation Simply Explained (Darlington, UK: Evangelical Press, 2008), 12.
9. James Montgomery Boice, Revelation, unpublished manuscript, n.d., chap. 1, p. 4.
10. Hendriksen, More than Conquerors, 42–43.
11. David Chilton, Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1987), 54.