Written for those who want to understand the book of Revelation, this 12-week study helps Christians see that Jesus has already defeated his enemies and freed Christians from their bondage to Satan, sin, and death.
About the Author
Stephen Witmer (PhD, University of Cambridge) serves as the lead pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts, and teaches New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He helps lead Small Town Summits, which partners with the Gospel Coalition New England to serve small town churches and pastors. He is the author of Eternity Changes Everything and Revelation in Crossway's Knowing the Bible series. Stephen and his wife, Emma, have three young children.
J. I. Packer (DPhil, Oxford University) serves as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College. He is the author of numerous books, including the classic best seller Knowing God. Packer served as general editor for the English Standard Version Bible and as theological editor for the ESV Study Bible.
Dane C. Ortlund (PhD, Wheaton College) is chief publishing officer and Bible publisher at Crossway. He serves as an editor for the Knowing the Bible series and the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, and is the author of several books, including Gentle and Lowly and Edwards on the Christian Life. He is an elder at Naperville Presbyterian Church in Naperville, Illinois. Dane lives with his wife, Stacey, and their five children in Wheaton, Illinois.
Lane T. Dennis (PhD, Northwestern University) is CEO of Crossway, formerly called Good News Publishers. Before joining Good News Publishers in 1974, he served as a pastor in campus ministry at the University of Michigan (Sault Ste. Marie) and as the managing director of Verlag Grosse Freude in Switzerland. He is the author and/or editor of three books, including the Gold Medallion-award-winning book Letters of Francis A. Schaeffer, and he is the former chairman of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. Dennis has served as the chairman of the ESV (English Standard Version) Bible Translation Oversight Committee and as the executive editor of the ESV Study Bible. Lane and his wife, Ebeth, live in Wheaton, Illinois.
Read an Excerpt
The book of Revelation is extraordinary in every way — not least in its hard-to-classify genre. It is prophecy (1:3; 22:19) while also belonging to the genre of apocalyptic writing (1:1), and it begins and ends with features that characterize the epistles of the New Testament (1:4–5; 22:21). Like other Jewish apocalypses, Revelation is filled with symbolic images from beginning to end. This allows for numerous possible interpretations of the book, and much diversity of opinion on matters such as the tribulation, the rapture, and the millennium.
Revelation begins with a vision of the resurrected and ascended Christ and his words to seven first-century churches in Asia Minor that were facing a range of challenges: persecution from without, false teaching from within, temptation to compromise with the surrounding pagan culture, and spiritual lethargy. The book then covers a vast sweep of time, from the first century all the way to the return of Christ.
Central to Revelation is its assertion that Christ has already won the victory over Satan through his death, and has therefore freed Christians from their sins by his blood (1:5). Christ's past, inaugurated (i.e., already begun) victory guarantees his future, consummated (i.e., fully completed) victory (2:26–27). Because Christ has already conquered Satan through his uniquely redemptive suffering, Christians can also "conquer" in the present by holding fast their witness in the face of enticing temptation or violent persecution, even if their faithful witness results in death.
Placing It in the Larger Story
Through its pervasive allusions to the Old Testament, Revelation demonstrates that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment and climax of history. Believers live after Jesus' first coming, suffering as he suffered, but full of hope because of his atoning death and their assurance of his future, victorious return. The entire book strains forward to the new heaven and new earth described in chapters 21–22.
"To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen." (Rev. 1:5b–6)
Date and Historical Background
Revelation was written by a man named John (1:1), most likely John the son of Zebedee, as suggested by early church tradition and indicated by links between Revelation and the Gospel of John (e.g., Jesus is the "Lamb" of God and the "Word" in both books). This is the John who was one of Jesus' original 12 disciples, and probably the one identified in John's Gospel as the disciple "whom Jesus loved" (John 13:23; 21:20). John likely wrote Revelation in the mid-90s AD, near the end of the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian, while in exile on the island of Patmos.
I. Prologue (1:1–8)
II. Substance (1:9–22:5)
A. God's people imperfect in the world (1:9–3:22)
1. The son of man among the lampstands (1:9–20)
2. Seven letters to seven churches (2:1–3:22)
B. The Lamb and the seven seals (4:1–8:1)
1. The Lamb receives the scroll (4:1–5:14)
2. The Lamb opens the seven seals (6:1–8:1)
C. The seven angels and seven trumpets (8:2–11:19)
1. Prayers go up; fire comes down (8:2–5)
2. The seven trumpets are blown (8:6–11:19)
D. The cosmic conflict between Christ and Satan (12:1–14:20)
E. The seven angels and seven bowls (15:1–16:21)
1. Heaven's sanctuary is filled with glory (15:1–8)
2. The seven bowls are poured out (16:1–21)
F. The judgment of God's enemies (17:1–20:15)
1. Babylon, the beast, the false prophet (17:1–19:21)
2. Satan (20:1–10)
3. Unbelievers (20:11–15)
G. God's people perfect in glory (21:1–22:5)
III. Epilogue (22:6–21)
As You Get Started ...
When you think of the book of Revelation, what comes to mind? Do you think it refers mainly to events in the first century, events in our day, or events in the distant future?
Are you more intimidated or more intrigued by the colorful and often bizarre images throughout Revelation? Are there areas of confusion you hope will be cleared up through this study of Revelation?
Do you think of Revelation as a book mainly to be understood or to be obeyed, or both? Is it intended mainly to give us information, or to change our behavior, or both?
As You Finish This Unit ...
As we'll see, God gives a blessing to every person who reads, hears, and obeys the words of Revelation (1:3). Take a moment to ask God for this special blessing, and for help in understanding this dazzling and mysterious book.
1 Genre – A type of literary work, characterized by a particular style, form, and content.
2 Apocalyptic – The distinctive literary form of the book of Revelation and of chapters 7–12 of Daniel. These parts of Scripture include revelation about the future, highly symbolic imagery, and the underlying belief that God himself will one day end the world in its present form and establish his kingdom on a re-created earth.CHAPTER 2
The Place of the Passage
The prologue of Revelation (1:1–8) sets the stage for the rest of the book. John shows that Revelation is not ultimately of human origin but comes from God. He also introduces some key terms ("who is and who was and who is to come," "witness") and themes (the death, resurrection, and return of Jesus) to which he will return throughout the book.
The Big Picture
Revelation 1:1–8 shows that the book of Revelation is of divine origin and is therefore a source of divine blessing for those who hear and obey it.
Reflection and Discussion
Read through the complete passage for this study, Revelation 1:1–8. Then review the shorter passages below and write your own notes on the following questions — first with regard to the origin of Revelation (1:1–3) and then with regard to John's greeting to the seven churches (1:4–8). (For further background, see the ESV Study Bible], page 2463, or visit www.esvbible.org.)
1. The Origin of Revelation (1:1–3)
Verses 1–3 provide a six-part chain of revelation for the book of Revelation, beginning with God and ending with the one who hears and keeps what is written. Can you identify the four links of the chain in between? Why do you think John begins the book with this chain of revelation?
Notice in verse 1 that some things "must" soon take place. Why do you think John says they must take place? What does this suggest about his view of God? Recalling that Revelation is written to suffering Christians, how would the word "must" encourage them?
Jesus is the second link in the great chain of revelation. How does this uniquely honor him?
How does John describe his relationship to Jesus in verse 1? Recalling that this is most likely John, the son of Zebedee, Jesus' best friend, how is John's self-description surprising? How does it bring glory to Jesus? What does it show us about John?
Verse 1 says that Jesus "made it known" to John. The Greek word for "make it known" indicates figurative representation, something that is made known by a sign. Moreover, in verse 2, John is to bear witness to all that he "saw." How does this prepare us to read the rest of Revelation? What does it lead us to expect about this book?
2. John's Greeting to the Seven Churches (1:4–8)
Verses 4–5a are a typical ancient letter address, following the normal form: "A to B, grace and peace" (compare Paul's letters). What is striking about this particular letter opening, though, is whom the grace and peace are from. Note that the Holy Spirit is pictured in verse 4 as seven spirits, representing fullness and perfection, since the Holy Spirit is active throughout the entire earth (see Rev. 5:6). In addition to the Holy Spirit, from whom do the grace and peace come? Why is this important? Why is it encouraging to the recipients of Revelation?
The book of Revelation calls for believers to be faithful witnesses in the face of persecution that may lead even to death (see Rev. 2:13). In light of that, how would the threefold description of Jesus in the first part of verse 5 encourage these believers?
How many comings of Jesus are mentioned in verses 5b–8? Note the two references to the cross. What do these verses tell us about what Jesus accomplished and will accomplish in these comings?
Read through the following three sections on Gospel Glimpses, Whole-Bible Connections, and Theological Soundings. Then take time to consider the Personal Implications these sections may have for you.
GOD HAS A PLAN. For God's suffering people, the knowledge that God is in control and is unfolding his plan is unspeakably precious, hope-giving, and endurance-producing. So, the word "must" in verse 1 is important, because it demonstrates that God is sovereign over history. Events are happening purposefully, not randomly. Part of God's plan was the death of Jesus. The climax of the plan will be the glorious return of Jesus (1:7). God's sovereignty is a major theme of Revelation. His control over all things is praised in the song of the 24 elders in 4:11: "Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created." It is lauded too in the cry of 19:6: "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns."
DIVINE BLESSING. In 1:3, John pronounces a blessing on those who hear and keep the words of this book. The word "blessed" is the same word used by Jesus in the Beatitudes, and refers to receiving God's favor and provision. Verse 3 is the first of seven blessings throughout the book of Revelation. The penultimate of these seven blessings comes at the end of the book, in 22:7: "Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book." Thus, 1:3 and 22:7 form "blessing bookends" for those who "keep" the words of the book. If we approach Revelation (as many do) simply to satisfy intellectual curiosity about end-time events, we'll miss the blessing it has for us. That blessing comes to those who hear God speaking, trust his plan, and obey his commands.
THE CROSS. The cross of Jesus is alluded to twice in these opening verses. In 1:7, John says Jesus was "pierced." In verse 5, he describes Jesus as the one who "freed us from our sins by his blood," shorthand for Jesus' death on the cross. Our sin had created a legal bondage of debt, and we owed God the penalty for it. Jesus freed us by paying our penalty on the cross.
JESUS THE ULTIMATE REVEALER. God revealed himself to his people throughout the Old Testament. He spoke to Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 2); to Moses in a burning bush (Exodus 3); to Israel in a thick cloud on top of Mount Sinai (Exodus 20); and repeatedly to his people through the Old Testament prophets (e.g., Jer. 1:1–10). The Gospel of John uniquely presents Jesus as the ultimate revealer of God, surpassing even Moses (John 1:17–18). Similarly, here in Revelation John claims that Jesus is the ultimate revealer of God and his plan. The whole book is, after all, "the revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants ..." (Rev. 1:1). Jesus' role as the ultimate revealer is confirmed in Revelation 5, where only Jesus is worthy to open the scroll containing God's plan, and to break its seals. If Jesus is the ultimate revealer of God, one must know and accept Jesus in order to know God. This has major implications for how Christianity relates to the other world religions, which claim to know God but do not accept Jesus as being who he claimed to be.
A KINGDOM OF PRIESTS. Revelation 1:6 says Jesus makes believers "a kingdom, priests to his God and Father." John alludes here to the promise God gave through Moses in Exodus 19:6 that Israel would be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Here John applies that promise not merely to God's people Israel, but to all Christians. Every Christian is part of God's kingdom and is a priest. As such, we all now offer worship to God, and will do so forever (Rev. 7:15). We will see throughout Revelation that God's new covenant people in Christ (including Gentiles) inherit God's Old Testament promises to Israel.
REVELATION. According to 1:1, the book of Revelation is of divine rather than human origin (compare 22:16). Therefore, as God's word, it is not to be added to or altered in any way (22:18–19). This book embodies a very clear and high view of divine revelation.
THE TIME IS NEAR. The revelation of Jesus "must soon take place" (1:1) because "the time is near" (1:3). Interpreters differ on what exactly John is claiming here. Was he simply wrong (after all, it's been 2,000 years and counting)? Does he refer to the certainty of the events rather than to chronological imminence? Probably the best solution is to understand that the book of Revelation shares the viewpoint of the rest of the New Testament that the first coming of Jesus has already inaugurated (begun) the last days. Therefore, most of the eschatological events prophesied throughout Revelation receive at least a beginning fulfillment in the period in which John is writing (and in our own day as well).
THE COMINGS OF GOD, FATHER AND SON. There's something unusual about the description of God in verse 4 and God's self-description in verse 8. We would expect God to be described as "him who is and who was and who will be." But instead, both verses say, "him who is and who was and who is to come." Why? The point of this description is not just that God will exist forever, but that he will come to judge and to save. At the very end of the book, in Revelation 22:12–13, we read: "Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." Here in verses 4–8, the announcement that God the Father will come again to this world is at the beginning (v. 4) and at the end (v. 8) of the section, forming a bracket around the paragraph. And strikingly, in between the two references to the coming of God the Father is a reference to the coming of Jesus(v. 7). God the Father will come in and through the coming of Jesus. This overlap between the comings of God the Father and Jesus points already to the deity of Jesus.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Knowing the Bible"
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Table of Contents
Series Preface: J. I. Packer and Lane T. Dennis 6
Week 1 Overview 7
Week 2 Prologue (1:1-8) 11
Week 3 God's People Imperfect in the World (1:9-3:22) 19
Week 4 The Lamb and the Seven Seals (4:1-8:1) 27
Week 5 The Seven Angels and Seven Trumpets (8:2-11:19) 35
Week 6 The Cosmic Conflict between Christ and Satan (12:1-14:20) 43
Week 7 The Seven Angels and Seven Bowls (15:1-16:21) 51
Week 8 The Judgment of God's Enemies, Part 1 (17:1-19:21) 59
Week 9 The Judgment of God's Enemies, Part 2 (20:1-15) 67
Week 10 God's People Perfect in Glory (21:1-22:5) 75
Week 11 Epilogue (22:6-21) 83
Week 12 Summary and Conclusion 91
What People are Saying About This
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Philip Graham Ryken, President, Wheaton College
“These Knowing the Bible volumes introduce a significant and very welcome variation on the general run of inductive Bible studies. Such series often provide questions with little guidance, leaving students to their own devices. They thus tend to overlook the role of teaching in the church. By contrast, Knowing the Bible avoids the problem by providing substantial instruction with the questions. Knowing the Bible then goes even further by showing how any given passage connects with the gospel, the whole Bible, and Christian theology. I heartily endorse this orientation of individual books to the whole Bible and the gospel, and I applaud the demonstration that sound theology was not something invented later by Christians, but is right there in the pages of Scripture.”
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Bruce A. Ware, T. Rupert and Lucille Coleman Professor of Christian Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary