“Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book”
What does this mean? I believe it is a call to live out the message of Revelation in our lives. It was a call John gave to the original audience, and it is a call that applies to us as well. Basically, when it comes down to it, there are fundamentally two messages in Revelation. The first is addressed to Christians facing persecution: stand firm, keep the faith; your suffering is the means by which Christ redeems the world. Now, let’s be honest, this message is not directly applicable to Christians in America today—we’re not going through persecution. But, this message directly speaks to Christians who’ve suffered under Communist regimes, or to the current Christians in the Middle East who are being slaughtered by ISIS. When news came last year about how ISIS beheaded those 20-30 Christians—and we saw pictures of those Christians in orange jumpsuits, being walked to their deaths on the beach—I immediately thought, of Revelation 6:9-11:
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.”
Let’s be honest, those verses don’t apply to Christians in America today. But that doesn’t mean Revelation doesn’t speak to Christians in America—this brings us to the second message of Revelation, found in 18:2-5:
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit, a haunt of every foul bird, a haunt of every foul and hateful beast. For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.” Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.”
To be clear, I’m not saying that America is exactly like ancient Rome. We don’t have a megalomaniac emperor who demands we worship him as a god, or else we get killed. Despite what some may claim, modern America is not an empire that is continually trying to take over other nations and enslave them. But America is probably the most materialistic, rich, and powerful country in the history of the world. There is plenty that is wrong and shameful—just turn on your TV, get on the internet, listen to modern pop music…look at our presidential candidates.
It is very easy to get caught up in all that stuff; it is very easy to take part in the sins of America. Yet here John is, issuing a clear challenge: “Come out of her.” No, that doesn’t mean literally leave America. It means to live as citizens of the New Jerusalem, not the Whore of Babylon. Don’t get in bed with her; don’t compromise your morals, just so you can indulge in her adulteries. It’s up to each one of us to “hear what the Spirit is saying” in regards to how this specifically applies to our daily lives.
“Do not seal up the words of this prophecy, for the time is near”
The unique thing about Revelation is that it is an apocalypse that commands it not to be sealed up until the end of days. It should be obvious why—we are in the last days. From the Christian perspective, from the time of Christ’s ascension until he comes again are the last days. So, are we living in the “end times”? Yes…but not the way modern dispensationalism (or Hal Lindsey, or Tim LaHaye, or John Hagee) claims. From the New Testament perspective, the past 2,000 years have been the “end times.”
The Warning of Revelation 22:18-19
The warning is not to add or subtract anything from the book of Revelation—this is not about the entire Bible. Having said that, it doesn’t mean we have license to change things in the Bible! The canon of the Bible is set in order to preserve the teachings of Christ and the apostles. Anything that someone teaches must be viewed in light of the canon and the rule of faith. Yet, John’s specific command here is simple: “Don’t change what I wrote here in Revelation!”
So why did John add this warning to the end of Revelation? I think it should be obvious if we just look at how Revelation has been misinterpreted and distorted throughout Church history—it has caused a lot of paranoia and damage. In the Middle Ages, if you wanted to justify killing an enemy, or disgracing other Christians, you just call them the anti-Christ! Martin Luther and the Pope called each other the anti-Christ, and the result was one of the most tragic divisions in Church history. Today, people are so caught up in speculating about “end time events” that they miss the fact that Christ himself commands us NOT to do such things, and that the whole point of Revelation is to get Christians to focus on living their lives for Christ TODAY.
At the same time, so many Christians don’t read Revelation because it is so confusing—and the Left Behind Series certainly doesn’t help things or bring clarity to it. But once you understand Revelation, you realize that it brings the whole Christian life into focus. It forces us to look at our lives today, in the light of our ultimate hope—the consummation of the Kingdom of God.
There simply are things in Revelation that makes us uncomfortable—who wants to suffer and die? Who wants to be persecuted? And who is really comfortable with the idea that to imitate Christ means to accept and expect suffering and death? There is a strong temptation to look over that part of Revelation and take those parts out. There’s a temptation to actually make Revelation mean the very opposite of what it means, and look forward to when God will take us away from tribulation—no…Revelation is clear: if you are a Christian, expect tribulation.
John warns us not to take those difficult parts out, because that is how the script has been written. Those difficult parts are the means by which Christ saves the world. To change the script is to reject Christ’s plan of salvation.
At the same time, there are other parts in Revelation that we would really like to play up and expand, namely the destruction of the Babylon and the Beast. Great! Let’s fight against leaders we don’t like! Never mind the fact that Christ calls us to accept suffering at the hands of unjust leaders. Let’s call the Soviet Union “the evil empire,” and let’s call ISIS “a great evil,” and lets close our eyes to the clear evil and injustice that is present in America as well. To be clear, the Soviet Union was incredibly evil, as is ISIS—but we can’t pretend that America is all pure and good.
It should be obvious that Revelation is an explosive and dangerous book. Adding or subtracting from it easily perverts the Gospel that Christ preached, and that Christians are called to live out. That is why it is so important to read Revelation in its historical and literary context. That is why it is so important to understand what it originally meant. Only after we understand the original and inspired meaning of Revelation can we begin to relate its message to our lives today.
The pictures I have included are the visual aids that I developed to help understand the literary flow of the two parts of Revelation: Chapters 4-11 and Chapters 12-22. If you compare the two flow charts, you should be able to see that each part of Revelation follows the same pattern. The final picture is just a little drawing I did that helps us understand that the way salvation is pictured in Revelation, particularly at the end, is by means of Exodus and Exile imagery. If you have any questions about them, by all means leave a comment and question.