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

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

Is studying the book or Revelation worth our time? Leon Morris comments:

The Revelation … is by common consent one of the most difficult of all the books of the Bible. It is full of strange symbolism. There are curious beasts with unusual numbers of heads and horns. There are extraordinary phenomena, like the turning of one-third of the sea into blood (8:8), which are impossible to envisage. Modern readers find it strange. They are moreover not usually attracted by the fantastic schemes of prophecy which some exegetes find in it, and whose ingenuity is matched only by their improbability. The result is that for many Revelation remains a closed book.[1]

It’s easy and understandable to be intimidated into giving up on the Book of Revelation. There is a lot more of the Bible that is more easily comprehended, even enough to be worth a lifetime of study.

Yet, as we began studying John’s Apocalypse last week, we saw we can have confidence that we will understand and be blessed by Revelation. The Lord communicated the message of the book through the Apostle John with the intent for it to reveal something of great importance, to show, not obscure. The Lord promised blessing for those who read, hear with understanding, and keep the Words of the book. So, the book is from the Lord. The book is a revelation. And the book is meant to show and bless. Thus, the “From Whom,” “What,” and “Why.”

Today we’re going to look at the invitational statements in the first four verses, answering “To Whom,” “Where,” and “When.” In this portion of the letter (our passage today), John is speaking in what is called didactic—straightforward teaching, imparting needed information for proper comprehension of the whole (in other words, talking straight to help our understanding of the whole book) John lays out a framework for understanding Revelation, not only giving us anchors to latch on to, but also giving us a feel for the flavor of what is to come. With this intelligible framework, we are enabled to embrace Revelation with anticipation: anticipation of learning and discovery, anticipation of what is to come based on what has already come, anticipation of contemporary application, and anticipation of blessing.

So, let’s look at these invitational questions. To whom is Revelation addressed and where? John provides the answer to this in vv. 1, 3, and 4. Concerning his addressees, John moves from general to specific. He tells us this message was for Christ’s servants, then he mentions “those who” read, hear, and keep. To address Christ’s servants is to designate Christians in general (Col. 3:24), as we are all Christ’s servants, a term that means “bond-servant,” sometimes translated “slave,” purchased with his blood (Gal. 3:13). Those who read, hear, and keep are thus any Christian who presents or receives God’s Word with understanding and humble obedience.

Moving from the general recipients, John then hones in on specific congregations to whom he is sending the letter, in v. 4—“the seven churches in Asia.” As we move on into the book, John continues this narrowing and broadening of perspectives. Verse 11 names the specific seven churches in Asia. Then, in chapters 2-3, he gives messages to each named church, addressing specific situations to each church and even a specific individual, in the case of Antipas (a martyr in the church of Pergamum). Yet there are statements like in 2:7, which occur seven total times in chapters 2-3: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”[2] This is a general statement (as seen with the plural “churches”), indicating the message to an individual church was not meant for them alone. In the immediate vicinity of the initial recipients of the letter, this would have included other churches in the region of Asia, and to whom the letter reached as it expanded in circulation from there.

Thus, John is moving the lens of address from big picture to narrow focus back to big picture and so forth. He has opened the door to the near and far in both region and time, as the specific addressees are actual individual, first-century churches located in a specific region, and the general addressees would include Christians at all times and places. And this makes sense, otherwise what good would the book be to us if it was any other way? What John is doing is grounding his message in a historic real, a foundation for the truths of the book.

The location of the seven churches should be familiar to us, as we spent a bit of time there with the Apostle Paul in our studies of Acts. Asia, as referred to in your NT, is not Asia, as we would think of it today. Rather, it is a region to the north and west of Jerusalem, bordering the Aegean Sea to its West, what is today modern western Turkey [cf. map in bulletin]. Asia was a province of the Roman Empire, an existence that comprehensively impacted the lives of the Christians in these churches. Significant events in the Empire at large were of concern to them, and impacted them locally, similar to the relation of the United States to us in Alabama. Starting in chapter 4, John expands the view from local concerns to a view of empire-wide happenings that would impact them. Far to near; near to far. 

Why seven churches, and not four, six or nine? John could have included various other churches in Asia. And there is much speculation on why these seven were chosen. Among several good points raised, is that the number of churches (seven) was chosen to introduce a symbol to the hearer. As Dennis Johnson points out, “In oral delivery numbered sets of seven could help listeners keep their bearings.”[3] Along these lines, as we move forward in the text, we’ll see that “four sets of seven (letters, seals, trumpets, bowls) provide the structure for major sections.”[4]  Less obviously, however, there are various “subtle, unmarked sevenfold structures,”[5] such as the fact there are seven beatitudes[6] in the book, the first one being v. 3 in our passage today. And seven also has special significance through all of Scripture, starting in Gen. 2. None of that is happenstance.

The book of Revelation is addressed to seven specific churches in first century Asia, grounded in history, in the real. But it also has relevance to Christians across space and time, near and far, including you and me. [7] Thus the “to whom” and “where.”

With that in mind, when will the prophecy take place? John doesn’t keep us guessing on this matter. He uses words that have real meaning—“soon” and “near.” He writes from his temporal perspective about “the things that must soon take place,” in v. 1. And, just in case the reader or the hearer missed it, he reinforces the temporal notion in v. 3, by stating it in a little different way: “for the time is near.” He then immediately grounds his temporal perspective in the historical reality of the seven churches to whom he addresses the epistle, starting in v. 4. Again, John is speaking plainly here, in didactic speech. He wants these time references to be clear as day.

Not only that, but John repeats these temporal references at the end of the book. They are bookends, encompassing the whole of the book within them. Rev. 22:6 says, “And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.” That’s at the end of the book. And then, just like in the first three verses of the book, the “soon” is reinforced with a “near,” (22:10), “And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.” John’s address to the seven churches does not end with chapter three, but continues throughout the book. All of these revealed things were of great importance concerning events that would impact the churches in their very near future. As Kenneth Gentry points out, John “is ministering to them—and he expects them to understand and act upon his directives, for the time is near.”[8] John expects these prophesied events to happen soon.

But remember, the book of Revelation is a prophecy, speaking not only to the first-century seven churches, but with ramifications for the whole church, viewed with the prophetic lens of both near and far. But this is nothing new for us. We find it in the OT prophets.

I’ll give you a familiar example. Don’t we look to Isaiah’s prophecy of the virgin birth in Isa. 7 as being fulfilled when Christ was born? Isa. 7:14—“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” That prophecy was given to Ahaz, the King of Judah, over 700 years before Christ’s birth, concerning the attack from Syria and Israel upon Jerusalem. The sign was concerning a span of time in v. 16, “before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.” While the birth of that child is not recorded in Scripture, the outcome of the prophecy was soon fulfilled. As Geoffrey Grogan explains, “The Assyrians would lay waste the lands of Aram [Syria] and Israel … only a year or two after the prophecy was given.”[9] The near term was a sign for the deliverance of the Davidic King Ahaz, and the far term was the birth of Christ, the Son of David, the ultimate King and Deliverer. Such fulfillment is not typical of every prophecy, of course, but it is an element of some prophecy.

Thus, for Revelation, there is a definite contemporary fulfillment of John’s prophecy, which is confirmed with an examination of the near-term histories of the writing. Most of the historical fulfillments are done and over with, in the first century. Yet, in some cases there are “hints in the text”[10] that point to a view to the far: near-term, actual fulfillment that reverberates into the future (seen in glimpses, also foreshadows of things to come); perhaps with a sense of “greater and lesser fulfillments;”[11] and near-term, actual fulfillment that inaugurates realities that will be consummated at a time unknown. The near to far.  The already but not yet.

As Revelation is an epistle, there is a pastoral flavor for real churches with real people that John knew well, and who knew him.[12] Considering the situation of the seven churches, when John wrote the book, Jay Adams (in his book, The Time is at Hand) explains:

Revelation was written to a persecuted church about to face the most tremendous onslaught it had ever known. It would be absurd (not to say cruel) for John to write a letter to persons in such circumstances which not only ignores their difficulties but reveals numerous details about events supposed to transpire hundreds of years in the future … at the end of the church age. You may be sure he did no such thing. The book is contemporary, not future, in emphasis.[13]

Along those lines, one of the most important interpretive decisions one can make, concerning the book of Revelation, is the time of its dating. If we start with the wrong date, then the necessary grounding of historical referents becomes detached, losing its foundation in the real (so that it’s just kind of floating out there). If the “time is near,” we need to know what time it was when the statement was made.

Thankfully, Revelation has various indicators within the book that speak to when it was written. There is a self-witness of the text, which indicates that it was written towards the latter part of Emperor Nero’s reign, who died in A.D. 68. Kenneth L. Gentry (in his remarkable book on the dating of Revelation, Before Jerusalem Fell) suggests the date to be “after the outbreak of the Neronic persecution in late A.D. 64 and before the declaration of the Jewish War in early A.D. 67.”[14] So, mid-60s, circa. AD 64-67. There are, of course, other ideas as to when Revelation was written, like around AD 95 during Domitian’s reign. But the arguments for the earlier date are superior and convincing, considering both the self-witness of the inspired book and tradition.[15]

We won’t cover all the evidence supporting mid-60s today, but here are some things to chew on:

First off, when we come to Rev. 1:7, John mentions the coming judgment on “those who pierced,” the Lord Jesus, judgment which the book of Revelation details. You might remember the message a few weeks ago on a similar statement in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse prior to his crucifixion (Matt. 24:30), referring to his coming in judgment on Jerusalem before that generation had passed (24:34). Now, after the crucifixion, the exalted Christ (through John) specifically mentions that those who pierced him will see that coming judgment. That’s an important self-witness.

Second, in chapter 11, we see that the Temple in Jerusalem is still standing. Flip over to chapter 11 with me. Rev. 11:1-2:

Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, “Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months.

John is clearly speaking of the temple in Jerusalem (“the holy city,” Isa. 52:1, Matt. 27:53), which was, as v. 8 puts it, “the great city … where their Lord was crucified.” It was a city that would be trampled (in the future, from John’s standpoint) for “forty-two months.” Gentry notes:

The “forty-two months” (Rev 11:2) or “1260 days” (Rev 11:3) happens to parallel the period of the Jewish War with Rome from the time of its formal engagement by Nero until the temple is destroyed by Titus … From Spring A.D. 67 to August/September A.D. 70 is a period right around forty-two months.[16]

John’s statement also parallels the Olivet Discourse in Luke 21:24, where Jesus says (in the context of prophesying Jerusalem and the Temple’s destruction), “Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”

Thus, from John’s standpoint, the Temple was still standing; Jerusalem had not been destroyed; and Jesus’ prophecy was yet to be fulfilled. There are other considerations, but these facts alone point to a pre-AD 70 dating (AD 70 being the year of destruction).

Then, in chapter 17, Nero is shown to be the reigning emperor. There is much to consider, and much ink has been spilled (both literal and digital) concerning the identification of the seven kings in Rev. 17. We only have time, today, to hone in on what seems the most logical solution. Turn over to Rev. 17:9-10:

This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; 10 they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while.

Okay, the short and sweet. Rome is here symbolized by the seven mountains. And, as Gentry points out, “Rome is the one city in history universally recognized for its seven hills.”[17] Commingled with Rome there are seven kings—emperors. Of these kings, five “have fallen, one is.” So, logically, if the Roman Emperor, who “is,” can be identified, then it hones in on a general window of when the book was written. Gentry, once again, helps:

Nero is the sixth emperor of Rome. Flavius Josephus, the Jewish contemporary of John, points out that Julius Caesar was the first emperor of Rome and that he was followed in succession by Augustus, Tiberius, Caius (a.k.a. Caligula), Claudius, and Nero.”[18]

Nero reigned from AD 54-68. If John was banished to Patmos (Rev. 1:9) by Nero, as some think,[19] during the time he killed the Apostles Peter and Paul (around AD 64) that would place when he wrote the book as sometime in the mid 60’s.

There is more, of course. But considering what little I mentioned (the coming judgment which will be seen by those who pierced Jesus; the temple and Jerusalem were still standing; and the emperor was Nero), considering these things, I hope you’ve gotten the gist of when the book was written—in the ballpark of AD 64 to AD 67.

So, knowing to whom Revelation was written and where they were, and when it was written, we now have all the Who, What, Where, When, and Why’s of the invitation to the journey through the Apocalypse.

It was a book written to Christians, to encourage, to urge faithfulness, written that the Lord’s people might overcome (Rev. 21:7).[20] Though it was a contemporary work, its ripples reach through time and space to us today. Jay Adams explains:

Revelation abounds in principles, exhortations, and promises which have been applicable to every succeeding age. The contemporary view robs us of no future promises. Its teachings are of value today, just as those in Romans, Thessalonians, or 1 Corinthians. The contemporary view of the Apocalypse, therefore, does not take away from us the great things we cherish from its pages. As a matter of fact, only on such a view can one preach from Revelation in a concrete manner. Unrealized ideas offer no historical referents.[21]

Thus as we begin this marvelous book, we can do so with great anticipation: anticipation of learning; anticipation of discovery; anticipation of what is to come based on what has already come. The hope and encouragement Revelation stresses for Christians, is our hope, hope grounded in historical reality, the hope of Christ Jesus’ victory—our victory and eternal joy. Studying Revelation brings blessing, my friends (Rev. 1:3), let us, therefore, embrace it with anticipation.

Brethren, as a recap—the Who, What, Where, When, and Why: Revelation is from the Lord and his apostle John. It is an Epistle, a letter, consisting of prophecy and apocalyptic language. It is written to historical first-century churches in Asia, but speaks to all Christians in all places and times. It was written in the mid AD 60’s about events that would happen soon (from their perspective), for the time was near, yet with a view to the far. And it was written to bless those who read, hear, and keep the words of the book.

Let us have confidence, with anticipation as to what is to come as we study, trusting in the promised blessing of Christ as we engage his Word—The Book of Revelation. Since studying Revelation brings blessing, Christians should embrace it with hope.


[1] Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 17.

[2] Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22.

[3] Dennis E. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 41.

[4] Ibid., 35.

[5] Ibid., 41.

[6] Rev. 1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14.

[7] Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (London: SPCK, 2005), 32, comments: “The vision speaks to every age; but it was first set down for one generation.”

[8] Kenneth L. Gentry, The Book of Revelation Made Easy (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 2019), 20.

[9] Geoffrey W. Grogan, “Isaiah,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986), 64.

[10] Kim Riddlebarger, The Man of Sin: Uncovering the Truth about the Antichrist (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 74, uses this phrase concerning “double fulfillment” of prophecy.

[11] Duane A. Garrett, Hosea, Joel, vol. 19A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 389, uses this term arguing against the concept of “double fulfillments” in Joel, suggesting that rather than double fulfillments, what occurs is a “variety of manifestations of the one theological theme.”

[12] Identifying himself only by “John” (v.1) indicates a familiarity.

[13] Jay Adams, The Time is at Hand (Woodruff, SC: Timeless Texts, 2000), 48.

[14] Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation: An Exegetical and Historical Argument for a Pre-A.D. 70 Composition (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), 336.

[15] I.e. “internal witness” and “external witness.” Here, I’m using Ned B. Stonehouse’s suggested terminology as mentioned by Gentry in Before Jerusalem Fell, p. 113. Cf. Ned B. Stonehouse, Origins of the Synoptic Gospels (London: Tyndale, 1963), 1, 2.

[16] Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., Navigating the Book of Revelation: Special Studies on Important Issues, Second edition. (Fountain Inn, SC: GoodBirth Ministries, 2010), 18.

[17] Gentry, Navigating the Book of Revelation: Special Studies on Important Issues, 20.

[18] Ibid., 21, referencing Josephus, Antiquities 18; 19.

[19] Cf. Hillegonds, The Early Date of Revelation and the End Times (Fountain Inn, SC: Victorious Hope Publishing: 2016), 44-74. Also, Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell, 41ff., who goes into detail, demonstrating that “There is some noteworthy early evidence for a Neronic banishment of John and a pre-A.D. 70 writing of Revelation” (p.44).

[20] Cf. Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 12:11; 15:2; 21:7

[21] Jay Adams, 49.