An Open Book (Part One) – Revelation 1:1-4a

by Roger McCay
7 February 2021
Sermon Passage: Revelation 1:1-4a
Link to Audio Version

The difficulty of the book of Revelation is well and painfully known. Kevin DeYoung describes the problem:

Probably no book of the Bible has been harder for Christians to understand and, as a result, produced more bizarre theology than the book of Revelation. Although it is called “revelation,” it has been anything but a revelation for many Christians. It is a closed book for many of us, not correcting, not teaching, not rebuking, not training in righteousness like all Scripture should. [1]

So, should we give up? Should we say, “Well, it’ll all pan out in the end, so I don’t need to worry about it?” Should we say, “All the different interpretations out there prove Revelation is impossible to know?”

My friends, it is understandably easy to be intimidated into giving up on the Book of Revelation. But should we give up on it? Can we really not understand it? Can we really not know what it’s saying to us?

The book itself answers these questions in the first four verses. They lay a foundation for understanding that tells us that we can embrace Revelation with confidence and anticipation, with the hopeful promise that through it, through its Words, we will be blessed. In the first four verses of Revelation, we find solid ground upon which to build our understanding. We find an invitation to blessing, an open book, complete with the invitational Who, What, Where, When, and Why.

So, what is the book of Revelation? At ground level, it’s a communication. It’s information passed from one to another for a purpose that is meant to be understood. John insists that rather than obscure and hide information, this communication is meant to reveal, to show something to the reader and the hearer.

John provides keys to the language of the book in the opening verses. The basic genres and forms the book takes are presented, with John thus providing a “declared method”[2] on how the book is to be interpreted. And like any book of the Bible, we are to interpret it according to the sense in which it is written. So, we find that Revelation is an apocalypse (v. 1), a prophecy (v. 3), and an epistle (vv. 3-4).

Apokalypsis (Ἀποκάλυψις) the first word of the book, is translated in most English Bibles as “revelation,” hence the generally known title of the book. You’ll also hear the book referred to “The Apocalypse of John.” It’s not a word that should be intimidating. It merely describes the form of communication by which the author makes known what was unknown. We’re used to revelation. Time and again, in the scriptures, God reveal things to us—through poetry, teaching, prophecy, stories, parables, and so-forth. Through such various revelatory genres, we come to know God’s character, his will, his work, his Kingdom, ourselves, and the nature of God’s relationship with mankind. Apocalypse is simply a form of revelation, using dramatic, hyperbolic (i.e. extravagantly exaggerated) and symbolic language, which is used again and again in the book to uncover hidden truths. Thus, we are given a lens for viewing the visions in the book.

The term “show,” in v. 1, captures some of the nature of this apocalyptic language, as the visions are communicated in such a way to provide verbal pictures meant to be seen in the mind’s eye. As DeYoung comments, “Revelation is a book of showing….We are meant to “see” what we read on the pages.”[3] Indeed, a form of the word “to see,” occurs 63 times in Revelation.[4] Yet, the pictures are not photographic literal pictures, which we’ll find right off, starting here in chapter one with references to seven golden lampstands (v. 12), which is then interpreted for us as being the seven churches in Asia (v. 20). This pattern happens over and over, where a symbolic picture is given, with a following explanation.

Symbols represent, and something about the symbol says something about what it represents. God’s people are “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14); and, in Rev. 1, each church is a flame burning bright. Often the meaning is found from OT references, sometimes NT references, often it is found in the historic events and people in the times in which the letter is written. Not everything is explained, but there is enough explanation that we get the idea of the method John is using, building towards our understanding the gist of what is not explained.

Numbers are one element of the apocalypse that we come to over and over. They are symbolically used throughout the book. We’ll touch on these as we come to them, but symbolic numbers include, for example, 7, 4, 12 and its multiples, also “six hundred sixty six” and 1000.

There are also occurrences of what is called “recapitulation.” In other words, there will be a vision, and then another vision showing the same thing from a different point of view, then another vision showing the same thing again from another point of view. As DeYoung says, “We aren’t watching a movie unfold in real time; we are looking at different portraits of the same reality.”[5] These recapitulated symbolic visions more-and-more, with each recapitulation, fill in our understanding of the events in the real that they represent. This method logically harmonizes with how the book was originally communicated—read aloud to the church (v. 3).

In verbal communication, recapitulation is a method of ensuring your hearers get the gist of what was being read or taught. It’s a method we preachers regularly use in our sermons. Indeed, any teacher is intimately familiar with this principle: state it; state it again a bit differently (maybe with a little more info; maybe as an illustration); then state it another time, in order for it to get through.

Although, to be frank, there is quite a bit of symbolism in Revelation that can’t be nailed down to a “this equals this” and “that equals that.” But such is the nature of the Apocalypse. It is not a photograph, and it is not meant to be viewed as one. Thus the description of the locusts that John sees in a vision in ch. 9 are not a first century person’s attempt to describe attack helicopters.[6]

John calls the book a “prophecy” in v. 3. We’re familiar with prophecy, as a good portion of the OT is prophecy. The Olivet Discourse we studied over the last two Sundays was prophecy. Prophecy is all through the Bible. Indeed, the entire book of Revelation is rooted in OT prophecy (“with around 500 OT references”).[7] In character with the OT prophets there is symbolism and also the didactic—the teaching behind the symbol (plainly spoken), including its moral ramifications (like calls to repent and overcome; with ties to covenantal blessings and curses). Thus, principles of interpretation and understanding prophecy, in the OT, are aptly applied to much of Revelation. Like OT prophecy, there is a tension between historical (the immediate sense of the prophecy to its original audience, grounded in past events from our perspective) … a tension between historical and future fulfillment—the prophetic lens of the near and the far.

Revelation is a letter, an epistle, from a sender to a receiver (vv. 1 and 4). It is a letter that uses apocalyptic, prophetic language, and is written to a particular group of people. This is nothing new for us, as we encounter epistles all through the NT—Romans, Galatians, 1st and 2d Timothy, etc. It is a letter, and thus written in what is called the “occasional” form, which means it is “dealing with the historical occasion and circumstances of the original audience.”[8] In a similar way to studying the NT epistles, we study Revelation. There is a specific meaning directed towards the churches addressed in the letter. It was written for them to understand, about things that would occur soon, from their perspective. It was written to minister to them, in their historical situation, which is where the epistle is grounded. Yet, just like we find in other epistles, there are teachings and universal truths of application and hope for us today.

So, from whom is this Epistle? Well, it wasn’t given to us by a stranger. Rather, it is given to us by quite familiar people: God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Apostle John, who was in the Spirit (v. 10). Verse 1 says, “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him…. He [Jesus] made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.” This recalls Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel, “all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). And Jesus makes such statements several times (John 8:28; 12:49-50, and more). So, this is not a new concept for us. Jesus (the Word) is “the agent”[9] of the Father’s revelation.

As for John, he not only identifies himself by name, he also points to his calling and work, similar to how Paul does many times. Where Paul, in the first sentence of Romans, says, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,” John says, “John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.” His identification hearkens to the language of John 1:1 and 1 John 1:1-4. John was an apostle who bore witness, faithfully proclaiming what he heard, saw, and touched (Jesus Christ, the Word). Who faithfully proclaimed the testimony of Jesus Christ (who Jesus was, what he did, what he taught), the Word of God. Thus, Jesus sent the message by an angel (a messenger) to John, his beloved disciple, now apostle (John 21:7), in order for him to “show his [Christ’s] servants.”

Now, as this was the Apostle John, a few things should be mentioned that may help us, as we build a foundation for understanding this marvelous, enigmatic work. First off, John is a very symbolic writer to begin with, not just in Revelation. Consider John 1:1 again, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That’s talking about Jesus. John’s an “out of the box” thinker who creatively interprets his own observations in figurative and symbolic ways. He’s also comfortable with flexible thinking.[10]

A particular example of this flexible thinking is how John records the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. As you read it, it seems that John has specific events happening on different days than the other gospels say those events happened. You may have puzzled over this before, in your own studies of The Gospel of John. However, the seeming contradiction is not due to a bad memory or a mistake. John just wasn’t overly concerned with portraying an exact historical chronology of the events. He was particularly concerned with the theological point he was driving home. He was highlighting the point that Jesus is the Lamb of God, who was slain for the redemption of his people—the ultimate fulfillment of the Passover lamb. So, John worded his temporal markers in such a way to correlate the day of Jesus’ crucifixion with the day the lambs were slaughtered for the Passover (John 19:14, 31 and 33). Hence, flexible thinking. Such can really throw a loop into the thinking process of those looking for simple-speak exactness.

On top of that, throw into the mix that John, in writing Revelation, was in a type of “OT prophet” mode. His writing reflects a Hebraic thought pattern, as he was prophesying—like the OT prophets. As Kenneth Gentry puts it, “His native language is Hebrew (or Aramaic) and his thought patterns are Hebraic.”[11] And he’s writing in Greek.

So, my friends, John the Apostle (with his creative, flexible, Hebraic thinking) is the man who interpreted what he saw into the apocalyptic epistle we are beginning to study, today. If you keep this in mind, it will help you to be able to receive, to accept, the gist of his writing and more. It’s a pretty wild ride.

Now, why was John’s Prophetic, Apocalyptic, Epistle written? We come across the theme of the book in a later verse (v. 7), but for now we’ll just consider what we are told in our passage today. We’re given two reasons for the communication in vv. 1 and 3—to “show” and to “bless.”

We’ve already considered “show,” as it relates to the Apocalyptic revelation. But we didn’t cover what is shown. John tells us clearly, they are “the things that must soon take place.” We’ll go into more detail on what is meant by “soon” next week. But, essentially, John is revealing something of great importance concerning events that would impact the churches in their very near future.

As a result of this communication, the Lord’s “servants,” God’s people, would find great blessing. Verse 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 is near.” Who is blessed? Those who “read” and “hear,” and “keep.” The epistle is addressed to the seven churches in Asia located in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (v. 11). Interestingly, it seems the order in which these cities are given follows a known postal route.[12] So, the letter would arrive at a church, and it would be read out loud, publicly, to the church. Folks back then would not have each been able to have their own copy of Revelation to ponder over and study.

So, there was the reader and the hearers. These folks were blessed in the way the Lord’s Word blesses anyone who reads and hears it. The word for “hear” also has a deeper meaning. It means not only to hear, but to understand the message. There is an expectation that the receivers of the message will understand it and be able to apply it. Like Paul states in 2 Tim. 3:16-17: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Thus, interaction with the letter has its own power (Isa. 55:11). It informs and instructs, bolsters confidence, hope, and anticipation of the Lord’s work and blessings.

Hearing and understanding the message, God’s servants, the church, would then be able to keep the Words of the prophecy, in obedience. They would be blessed because, armed with understanding, they might then apply that understanding to their life and actions. This was particular to the first century recipients, yet there is application for us even today. This is nothing unusual for us. This is exactly how we handle the Epistles, such as in the epistles to the church in Corinth. Paul writes to them concerning very specific things going on in their church, but we preach and teach those verses today understanding the universal applications of their teaching. For the recipients of Revelation, they received a message (as enigmatic as it was) addressing their own real-world situations (struggles, temptations, sin, and persecution), with applications in the real. They were blessed, and we are blessed in a similar way.

Perhaps you recall the incident of Archimedes in his bath. It’s the one where he was trying to puzzle out how to determine if a crown was pure gold, or if it had silver mixed with it, implicating the goldsmith of keeping some of the gold to himself. Well, Archimedes, thinking on the problem, went to take a bath. As he got in the bath, he noticed the water rise up and begin to overflow from the tub. In that moment, the solution to the problem came to him like a flash. He was so excited he jumped up and went running naked through the streets crying “Eureka! Eureka!” meaning, “I found it.” He was enlightened with the answer and understanding.

Friends, if you stick with this study that we are embarking upon, you can be confident that you will have numerous Eureka moments. Let us put any apprehension we might be harboring towards this book aside, and have confidence: confidence that you and I will find understanding; confidence that we will be blessed.

The Lord communicated this message with the intent for it to be understood and kept. He’s called and equipped me, as the teaching elder of this church, to be the one who reads it and expounds upon it for you. Pray for me on this. I make no claims to have it all figured out. But I do think I’m leading you along a well-laid path, one that is harmonious with the Scriptures, exegetically sound, historically viable, logical, orthodox, and consistent.

And pray for us. Pray that we would stay on the path of the Lord’s leading, as we journey along. The Lord’s Word does not return to him void. The Spirit is at work in us. Since studying Revelation brings blessing, Christians should embrace it with confidence.

Next week, Lord willing, we’ll discuss the rest of the essentials of Revelation’s invitation. This week we looked at the “From Whom,” “What,” and “Why.” Next week we’ll consider the “To whom,” “When,” and “Where.”

Receiving this invitation to the Apocalypse of John, this open book, we are invited into an amazing experience. Let us have confidence as we come to the Lord’s Word. Let us have confidence in the hope of the blessing of Christ that comes from the reading, hearing, and keeping of his holy and inspired Word. Since studying Revelation brings blessing, Christians should embrace it with hope.


[1] Kevin DeYoung, “Revelation, Coronavirus, and the Mark of the Beast: How Should Christians Read the Bible’s Most Fascinating Book? (Part 1),” The Gospel Coalition, pub. 26 May 2020,

[2] Kenneth L. Gentry, The Book of Revelation Made Easy (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 2019), 15.

[3] Kevin DeYoung, “Revelation, Coronavirus, and the Mark of the Beast: How Should Christians Read the Bible’s Most Fascinating Book? (Part 2),” The Gospel Coalition, pub. 29 May 2020,

[4] Based on the lexeme of ὁράω: Rev. 1:2, 7, 12, 17, 19-20; 4:1; 5:1-2, 6, 11; 6:1-2, 5, 8-9, 12; 7:1-2, 9; 8:2, 13-9:1; 9:17; 10:1, 5; 11:19-12:1; 12:3, 13; 13:1-2, 11; 14:1, 6, 14; 15:1-2, 5; 16:13; 17:3, 6, 8, 12, 15-16, 18-18:1; 18:7; 19:10-11, 17, 19; 20:1, 4, 11-12; 21:1-2, 22; 22:4, 9.

[5] DeYoung, “Revelation … (Part 2).”

[6] Cf. Hal Lindsey, There’s a New World Coming (New York: Bantam Books, [1973] 1984), 124—a comparison with “Cobra Helicopters.” Also, Hal Lindsey, There’s A New World Coming, A Prophetic Odyssey (Santa Ana, California, Vision House, 1973), 8, who writes: “I personally tend to think that God might utilize in his judgments some modern devices of man which the Apostle John was at a loss for words to describe nineteen centuries ago! In the case just mentioned, the locusts might symbolize an advanced kind of helicopter.” Similarly, Jim Bakker thinks they are “Apache Helicopter[s]” (Will Maule, “Jim Bakker Just Said That Apache Helicopters Are Recorded In Revelation,” Hello Christian, pub. 15 Nov. 2017, No wonder people get so confused over this book, SMH.

[7] DeYoung, “Revelation … (Part 2).”

[8] Gentry, The Book of Revelation Made Easy, 16.

[9] David E. Aune, Revelation 1–5, vol. 52A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1997), 12.

[10] I’m convinced John was an INTP on the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

[11] Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., Navigating the Book of Revelation: Special Studies on Important Issues, Second edition. (Fountain Inn, SC: GoodBirth Ministries, 2010), 111.

[12] Gentry, The Book of Revelation Made Easy, 16.