Getting your head around revelation can feel as difficult as trying to understand the functions of your TV remote. The Reality is though that in spite of the confusion that surrounds this book it's message is simple. “God is on the throne”. Now if John had just sent a letter to the seven churches saying:
“Dear seven churches, your mate John here (yes the 'love' one), I can see your having a tough time but God is on the throne, get on with it, Love John.” We would probably be happy with that. Revelation though is more than just conveying simple information, at it's heart is a desire to help those who read it and hear it see there world differently. Like a good sermon it's not just about information, but transformation. He didn't just want to right another letter about how much God loves them, but to stir up their hearts so they could experience how much God loves them.
John is essentially speaking to the heart and not the head and in doing so transforming the way that the 7 churches sees the world, and through this transform also how they act towards that world.
So alongside the sermons you have heard I want to give you some pointers into helping you to appreciate this wonderful book.
First thing is to say that I believe it was written by John the disciple around 90AD on the Island of Patmos, during the reign of Caesar Domitian. The worship of the beast seems to parallel the worship that Domitian called everyone under his rule to give to him. The hymns of praise also echo the songs of Domitian personal choir that followed him all day long (this man had an ego problem). The use of them subverts the message just like Paul did with the Jewish prayer:
“Thank you God that I am not Gentile pig, a slave or a women.” which is Paul's letters becomes,
“There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. ” Gal 3:28
Now some scholars would argue that it's not the same John as John the gospel writer, due to the fact that the type of Greek used is very different. I think we all write differently in different contexts, if I am writing to my lawyer than you would expect a different use of language to what I would write to my wife. In spite of the difference in the language John seems to focus on many of the same themes, motifs and theology, in particular the theme of dealing with opposition. Like Revelation, John's Gospel is also written (I believe) to a church on the wrong side of the authorities. The stress of the Gospel is not only on the nature and ministry of Jesus but also on the need to stick together in the face of opposition. Revelation points towards the need to remain faithful in spite of opposition, but the situation faced by the Church is very similar, persecution.
The second element of understanding how to read revelation is knowing how to interpret it, clearly it's not a newspaper report, but nor is it a straight historical account of events either, from a casual read it seems to be more cryptic in nature than a Dan Brown puzzle book. Historically the Church has struggled with interpreting it also tending to interpret it in one of the four following ways:
Historicist, which sees in Revelation a broad view of history;
Preterist, in which Revelation mostly refers to the events of the first century
Futurist, which believes that Revelation describes future events;
Idealist, or Symbolic, which holds that Revelation is purely symbolic or an allegory of the struggle between good and evil.
Now I don't think that holding the wrong view will affect your salvation, but I tend towards holding these four views in tension. The view I take is that, in the face of persecution (Preterist and historicist) John is calling the Church to be faithful utilizing Symbolic images (the lamb, the dragon etc.) but also drawing the hearers to the hope that when Christ will return and God will establish his Kingdom. In order for this Kingdom to come Judgment must occur (futurist) as there is so much in our world that is our of line with God's standards. Since that first Easter weekend God's Judgment has become a reality, firstly at the Cross where sin is judged (Preterist) but also through out history with the pouring out of the bowls (Historicist). The final Judgment will come with the second coming, when not only will Christ return but heaven (God's reality) will break in to our reality. While this is Futurist it is also Historicist as God is establishing his kingdom in his people, the Church. Given the present nature of judgment and the Kingdom of God we shouldn't be surprised that persecution has (Preterist) and does (Historicist) and will increase (Futurist) as the return of Christ draws closer.
John also makes use of numbers, understanding the significance of them can and does help in interpreting the events of Revelation. John was not however an accountant and didn't use numbers in the same way we would to represent numerical value rather he uses them in a symbolic way.
2 – Witness, Two witnesses, disciples sent out in two's.
4 - The world, Four compass directions
6 - Human's number, Man created on the sixth day. Also represent' falling short of God's intention.
7 – God's number, divine, complete God finished his work and rested on the seventh day
10 – Complete, Complete from a human point of view
12 - God's work in the world, Twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve apostles
Alongside this John also uses 3 ½ years, 1260 days and 42 months. Again these are not literal times but symbolic language, code for an event. They all refer to a period of trial and tribulation, like the persecution John's 7 churches were facing, but how John refers to it reflects God's response to the troubles. In Chapter 11, 42 months represent God's Judgment and 1260 days God's protection over the tribulation (3 ½ years).
The final thing I want you to be aware of is that Revelation is a book you read with your emotions, like a walk on the beach that you can only really fully appreciate when you feel the sand through your toes, revelation is best felt with your heart and emotions. We are supposed to be scared when we hear about the dragon, to cry when we here about the voices under God's throne, to anguish at the delay's in judgment, but ultimately we should also join in the songs of praise when we realize that God has, and does and will overcome evil.
As you enjoy this book more I know that Jesus would be delighted for your voice to join in with the voice of the elders and the choirs of heaven, Hallelujah our God reigns. Now if I could only figure out how to use my TV remote all would be well.