The Revelation: Introduction and Overview
The intended audience of the book is the universal Church, the purpose of the book is to instruct, exhort, and encourage the universal Church, and the theme of the book is the privileges and prerogatives of the High King of Heaven who rules over the cosmos for the good of the universal Church. It should not surprise us then if Revelation 20 addresses the Church, prophesies to the Church, and speaks of the destiny of Church during the course of High King’s reign.
Here is a key to some of the acronyms you will find in my books and essays:
DNT = The Didactic New Testament (the teaching portions of the NT)
OTKP = OT prophecies of the Kingdom of God
NCH = New Covenant Hermeneutic (the NT method for interpreting the OT in general, and OTKPs in particular
HP = Historic Premillennialism
PP = Partial Preterism
FP = Full Preterism
Immanuel’s Loftiest Land
Truly, God has situated the Revelation of Jesus Christ in the high places of Immanuel’s Land, for which reason many a biblical traveler, growing suddenly dizzy, has found himself turning back, overwhelmed. And yet the holy terrain ever beckons, being richly favored with tall peaks and lush valleys that God’s pilgrim people long to see and enjoy. The need, then, is not to avoid the Revelation, but to be equipped and prepared so that we can boldly enter in. In the following essay I have done what I can to meet that pressing need.
The year is around 95 A.D. John, in all probability the last living apostle, is now in his 80’s (John 21:21-23). Because of his faithfulness in preaching the Gospel, the Roman authorities have exiled him to a penal settlement on the island of Patmos (Rev. 1:9; John 21:21-23). It has been over 60 years since Christ’s ascension. The Lord is tarrying, and among many believers the expectation of his Parousia is waning (2 Pet. 3:1f). The demonic emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68), a vicious persecutor of the Roman Christians, has come and gone. Titus has decimated Jerusalem (A.D. 70). Under emperor Domitian the persecution of Christians has spread throughout the Empire and reached Asia (A.D. 81-89). More is now looming (Rev. 2:3, 10, 13). And beyond this external threat there are internal threats as well. Heretical “Christian” sects have grown in size and number. Their members are seeking to penetrate the orthodox churches and draw away disciples (Acts 20:13ff; Rev. 2:2, 6, 14-15, 20-24). Some churches are even tolerating their presence (Rev. 2:14f, 20f). Meanwhile, other churches are in decline. The love of certain Christians is growing cold (Rev. 2:4, 3:1-2). Others, having thus far escaped the fires of persecution, are falling in love with the world and sinking into apathy and hedonism (Rev. 3:14-21). The situation is dire. The faltering Church needs a word from the Lord. The Revelation of Jesus Christ is that word.
The author is the apostle John (Rev. 1:1, 4, 9, 12; 22:8), an historical fact confirmed by several of the early church fathers. Significantly, he is now in exile (likely from his home church in Ephesus) and under persecution. In fulfillment of his Lord’s words, he has remained upon the earth for many years; and now, as promised, his Lord has come to him. It is not to take him home, but instead to give him a revelation and prophecy meant for the Bride, the entire Church (John 20:20-23). Like John himself, she will be in exile: not from the presence of her Lord, but from her heavenly home. Like John himself she will (often) be under persecution (Rev. 12:6ff). And so Christ comes to him . . . and through him to her. Through the Revelation he will prepare his Bride for her centuries-long pilgrimage through the howling spiritual wilderness of this present evil world (Rev. 12:6, 14).
It is almost certain that John recorded the Revelation around 95 AD. This is important to keep in mind, since preterist interpreters argue for a much earlier date: sometime between 54 and 68 AD, during the reign of Nero. Based on that assumption, they say that most (or all) of the “comings” and judgments described in the Revelation were actually fulfilled in and around the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. But as indicated above, the internal evidence weighs heavily against it. Accordingly, the vast majority of scholars agree that the Revelation was composed between 81-96 AD, during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian. Notably, at that time Pergamum was the official center of emperor worship in Asia, and the city in which Antipas became a “faithful martyr” for his Lord (Rev. 2:12f). External confirmation of a late date comes from the scholar and bishop, Irenaeus (ca.125-202), who, citing earlier sources, wrote, “John received the Revelation almost in our own time, toward the end of the reign of Domitian” (i.e., AD 81-96).
The Revelation is a prophecy given by God, through the glorified Christ, his angel, and his apostle, to the universal Church, for the crucially important reason that it is about the universal Church. It is not, as preterists hold, about the Church in and around 70 AD. Nor, as dispensationalists hold, is it (largely) about a band of 144,000 Jewish evangelists proclaiming a millennial Kingdom during a literal seven-year Tribulation. No, it is about all Christians of all times and all places. It is a prophecy meant to edify, exhort, and encourage the universal Church.
The evidence for this crucial thesis abounds.
Revelation 1:1 states that God gave Christ the Revelation in order to show it to his bond-servants. That would be the universal Church.
In Revelation 2-3 we have Christ’s messages to the seven churches of Asia. But the number 7, which symbolizes completeness and perfection, alerts us to the fact that here we have a complete and perfect message designed to perfect the complete Church: the Church of all times and places.
In Revelation 1:9 we hear Christ telling John: “Write down the things you have seen, and the things that are, and the things that will take place soon after them.”
This verse gives us one of the key structures of the book. The things John saw are described in chapter 1: the details of Christ’s self-disclosure to the apostle. “The things that are”—the present condition of the seven churches of Asia—are described in chapters 2-3. “The things that will take place soon after them” are described in chapters 4-22. These are the things that will happen from now on: all the way out to the Consummation and beyond. Why does Christ want all his bond-servants to know about these things? The answer is obvious: It is because he knows these things concern and affect all his bond-servants. The Revelation is for the universal Church because it concerns the universal Church and the things that will affect the universal Church.
In a moment we will discover a second way in which the Revelation is structured. It too will show that the book is for and about all Christians of all times and places.
Nature and Purpose
On six separate occasions John speaks of the Revelation as a prophecy (Rev. 1:3, 19:10, 22:7, 10, 18, 19). Now according to the apostle Paul, he who prophesies speaks to men for edification (i.e., instruction in the faith), exhortation (i.e., warning, admonition), and comfort (i.e., encouragement, the impartation of hope), (1 Cor. 14:3). This short definition wonderfully captures the deep purpose of the Revelation. Everywhere we turn we find the exalted Christ teaching, warning, and encouraging his Bride, so that she may overcome all adversaries, complete her pilgrimage, and safely enter the completed Kingdom of God.
A few examples will illuminate this rich three-fold purpose.
In the Revelation Christ teaches the Church Militant by helping her understand her true place in the world and in Salvation History. In other words, through the use of richly symbolic language he strengthens her grip on the biblical worldview. Here Revelation 12 is central. In a prophetic vision of stupendous theological reach and power, Christ teaches the Church Militant who she is, what she is about, what she can expect, and upon whom she can call and count as she makes her way out of eschatological Egypt, through the eschatological Wilderness of Sin, and into the eschatological Promised Land. Fittingly, this rich chapter stands in the middle of the book, since in many ways it gives us the keys to the whole book. Before wrestling with Revelation 20, it will repay you to study it well.
In the Revelation the Lord exhorts the Church by warning her about the four enemies she will encounter in her long pilgrimage through the wilderness of this world.
The first is the Dragon, that serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan (Rev. 12:9). While he is indeed capable of direct attack upon the saints, in the Revelation he is found using the three remaining enemies as his evil agents and instruments.
The second foe is the Beast (Rev. 13:1-4), the political or governmental face of the world-system, which, when seized and energized by the Dragon, will always persecute the true spiritual Church.
The third enemy is the False Prophet, also called the Beast from the Earth (Rev. 13:11-18, 16:12-16, 19:20, 20:10). This beast symbolizes not simply false religion, but false religion in the service of the self-deifying State, and therefore demanding that the Church worship the State on penalty of persecution or death.
The fourth and final enemy is the Harlot, also called Babylon the Great and the Great City (Rev. 17:1, 3, 5, 18; 18:2). This is the economic, commercial, and cultural face of the world-system. As a general rule the Harlot likes to collude with the Beast and the False Prophet, doing all she can to persecute the Church (Rev. 17:6), even as she entices saints and sinners alike with her allurements and sorceries (Rev. 18:23).
Out of deep love and concern for the Church’s purity, power, and eternal welfare, the High King of Heaven exhorts his Bride to be aware of all her enemies and to come out from among them (Rev. 18:4)
Finally, in the Revelation the heavenly Husband speaks comfort to his Bride, and this in several different ways.
At the very outset of the book he comforts her with a majestic vision of his own divine nature, covenant faithfulness, and Messianic glory (Rev. 1:9-20).
He comforts her with repeated assurances of his presence in, and faithful watch-care over, all his churches, even as he manifests the tough love that he feels for each one of them (Rev. 2:1-3:22).
He comforts her with rich, symbolic representations of his heavenly mediatorial reign, the share that the saints have in it, and his absolute sovereignty over all that remains of Salvation History (Rev. 4:1-5:14).
He comforts her with scenes of the spirits of departed believers safely arrived in heaven, praying for divine justice, and waiting eagerly for the resurrection of their bodies at his return to the earth (Rev. 6:9-11, 20:4-6).
He comforts her with serial portraits of his own Parousia in power and glory at the end of the age (Rev. 14:14-20, 19:11-21).
In conjunction with these portraits he also comforts her with visions of ultimate justice: of final rewards for the faithful saints, and of final retribution against the persecuting and God-hating “inhabitants of the earth” (Rev. 6:9-17, 11:11-19, 15:1-4, 16:17-21, 20:7-15).
He comforts them with several “sneak-previews” of the glorified Church surrounding the throne of the Triune God, exultantly lifting up the eternal worship that will fill the World to Come (Rev. 7:9-17, 14:1-5).
And finally, he comforts her with two luminous chapters supplying mysterious, thought-provoking glimpses of the (eternal) life of the saints in the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 21-22).
Do you consider the Revelation a frightening book? Well, for sinners it is, and is meant to be. But for saints who bravely venture into its depths, it is not only a prophecy that instructs and exhorts: It is also a river of comfort that never ends.
And this is true of Revelation 20 as well.
The underlying theme of the four Gospels is the humiliation of the Son of God: His incarnation as the Last Adam, his righteous life, atoning death, and public ministry on earth as Israel’s Messianic prophet, priest, and king.
The underlying theme of the Revelation is the exaltation of the Son of God: the various ways in which God the Father is pleased to honor his Son, so that in the end every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord: the High Prophet, Priest, and King of the universe (John 5:23; Phil. 2:5-11).
In a moment we will see how the structure and contents of the Revelation reinforce this majestic theme. Here, however, I want to highlight the many ways in which this book sets the worshiping Christian before every facet of the one diamond that is the exaltation of Christ.
The Revelation shines its light on Christ’s resurrection (Rev. 1:18), his ascension (Rev. 12:5), his session at the right hand of the Father (Rev. 5:1ff), his spiritual headship over his Body (Rev. 2-3), his authority and control over all the remaining events of universal history (Rev. 5:7, 6:1), his prophetic proclamation of the Gospel to the inhabitants of the earth through the Church Militant (Rev. 6:2, 11:4-13, 14:6), his faithfulness to his persecuted people (Rev. 12:6, 13ff), his ongoing (providential) judgments against their enemies (Rev. 11:5, 16:1f), his rich provision for the souls of his departed saints (Rev. 6:9-11, 20:4-6), his rush to the rescue of his little flock in the days of the Last Battle (Rev. 16:12f, 19:11ff), his glorious Parousia at the end of the age (Rev. 6:12ff, 11:11ff, 14:14ff, 19:11ff), and, at that time, the final judgment of his enemies, whether human or demonic (Rev. 6:12ff, 11:11ff, 14:14ff, 16:17ff, 19:11f, 20:11ff), the final redemption of his Bride (Rev. 7:1ff, 11:11f, 15:2-4, 14:14-16), and the creation of new heavens and a new earth, the eternal home where he and his beloved Bride will dwell with the Father, the Spirit, and all the holy angels as the eternal family of God (Rev. 21-22).
This manifold revelation of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ is integral to the prophetic character of the book. It is in beholding and contemplating the exalted Christ in all of his offices, prerogatives, judgments, and redemptive acts that the saints are instructed, admonished, and, above all, comforted for their arduous spiritual journey through the wilderness of this world.
Does all of this help us understand Revelation 20? Indeed it does. For if the theme of the book as a whole is the glory of the exalted Christ reflected in the course, character, and consummation of his heavenly reign, how likely is it that the theme of Revelation 20 is the glory, vicissitudes, and final failure of his future 1000 year earthly reign?
No, the Revelation is a predictive prophecy that sings the glory of the High King of Heaven and Earth through and through. To see this is to see the meaning of chapter 20 as well.
The Revelation is an outstanding example of what theologians refer to as biblical apocalyptic. We may define this as a special kind of prophecy in which the Holy Spirit uses symbols—both images and numbers—to communicate divine truth about the course, character, and consummation of Salvation History, and especially about final judgment and final redemption.