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.