The Message of Revelation
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The Message of Revelation

I Saw Heaven Opened

Michael Wilcock

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The Message of Revelation

I Saw Heaven Opened

Michael Wilcock

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About This Book

What is the book of Revelation? Does it describe in veiled language events of its writer's own day, or is it largely a prophecy of events still to come? Is it a chart of the whole of history from Christ's first coming to his second? Or does it deal chiefly with principles which are always valid in Christian experience?And what is a twenty-first century reader to do with living creatures, locusts like horses, seven bowls of wrath, war in heaven, various beasts and a dragon?Michael Wilcock maintains that when God's words, declarations, arguments and reasonings had all been spoken, God gave the church 'a gorgeous picture book'. He lifts the curtain on Revelation's drama in eight scenes, helping our imaginations as well as our minds grasp the key concepts of this fascinating and enigmatic New Testament book.

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Revelation 1:1–8

The prologue

The relevance of the book of Revelation

‘Come up here,’ says the mysterious voice (Rev. 4:1); and John is transported into regions so strange and remote that many Christians hesitate to explore them with him. The Gospels and Letters are territory which is more familiar and more accessible; can this extraordinary book at the end of the Bible, belonging (in more senses than one) to a different world, have anything to do with the practicalities of life in the twenty-first century?
From the outset, however, the book of Revelation claims to have been written not for the benefit of a minority in the church, but for all; and not for its own age alone, but for the church in all ages. Like the rest of the Bible, it speaks today.

a. Relevance claimed in the title

Luke’s two-volume history (his Gospel, and the book of Acts) was compiled for a person whom he calls Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). Nevertheless we have no doubt that what he wrote for Theophilus is relevant for readers in any age. Paul’s letters were written to particular Christians living in the Roman Empire. Nevertheless we take it that what he wrote to them applies equally to us. These writings were meant specifically for first-century readers, but we do not hesitate to accept them as relevant to today’s Christians also. How much more ought we to accept the relevance of those parts of the New Testament which are actually addressed to Christian people in general?
And the title (1:1–3) tells us that this book is of such a kind. It is the revelation of Jesus Christ given by God to his servants. If I am one of those who serve him, then this book is for me, however irrelevant its contents may seem when I first glance through it. It behoves me therefore to persevere in reading it, so that I may receive the blessing its author promises me (1:3).

b. Relevance claimed in the greeting

Although in the title John tells us that his message is for Christ’s servants in general, in the greeting (1:4–8) he says he is writing in particular to the seven churches of Asia. What he sends them is more than the short letters contained in chapters 2 and 3. The entire book is his letter, and his final ‘yours sincerely’ comes in its very last verse (22:21). So the address in the title (‘to . . . his [Christ’s] servants’) and that in the greeting (‘to the seven churches that are in Asia’) are both headings to Revelation as a whole. What John is writing is in form a letter to a group of first-century Christians, but in fact a message to all Christians without distinction. Its beginning and ending place it in the same category as the letters of Peter and Paul, of James and Jude, written in the first instance to situations in the early church, yet containing apostolic truth intended by God for the church in all ages. Revelation is no mere appendix to the collection of letters which makes up the bulk of the New Testament. It is in fact the last and grandest of those letters. As comprehensive as Romans, as lofty as Ephesians, as practical as James or Philemon, this ‘Letter to the Asians’ is as relevant to the modern world as any of them.

c. Relevance claimed in the opening Scene

We leave the prologue (1:1–8), and steal a preview of Scene 1 of the great drama, where we see the risen Christ dictating to John his letters to the seven churches. To the church in Pergamum he says: ‘I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam’ (2:14). To the church in Thyatira he says: ‘I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel’ (2:20). What do we learn from these references?
It was in the time of Moses, probably in the thirteenth century bc, that Balaam misled God’s people by his false teaching. Thirteen hundred years later, however, that teaching is still very much alive, misleading God’s people at Pergamum. It was in the ninth century bc that Jezebel, Ahab’s queen, was causing similar trouble in Israel. But nine hundred years later, in Thyatira, we find not merely her teaching but the lady herself once more in evidence!
Christ is not of course speaking of the reincarnation of a person, but of the repetition of a pattern. Bible history is full of such repetitions. Thus the preaching of Jesus repeats the pattern of the preaching of Jonah (Matt. 12:39ff.), and the lifting up of Jesus on the cross is like the lifting up of the bronze snake by Moses (John 3:14). John the Baptist not only resembles, but in a sense actually is, the prophet Elijah, who lived centuries earlier (Matt. 11:14).
The letter to the Hebrews, rooted as it is in the Old Testament, provides many examples. God’s message coming with urgency through the mouth of David, ‘Today . . . hear his voice’, was an equally urgent message when the Hebrew Christians read it a thousand years after David, and when Moses’ contemporaries heard it three hundred years before him (Heb. 3:7 – 4:10). Going back further still, the oath God made to Abraham has undiminished force for us (Heb. 6:13–18). And it was in the remotest past of human history that Abel expressed his faith by the sacrifice he offered to God, but even now ‘he being dead yet speaketh’ (Heb. 11:4, av). Just as in every generation the evil influence of Balaam and Jezebel is likely to reappear, so God in his mercy is constantly repeating the great truths of salvation; they are ‘new every morning’ (Lam. 3:23).
So we must give the fullest meaning to the present tenses of these verbs. The immediacy of Hebrews 3:7, which may be translated ‘the Holy Spirit is saying, “Today . . . hear his voice”’, is matched by that of the seven-times-repeated command of Revelation 2 and 3, which we could similarly translate, ‘Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches’ (see nrsv). What we have here is a restatement of those truths of the spiritual world which were as real in the days of John as they had been in the days of Jezebel, and which are no less relevant today. The promise of blessing with which Revelation opens and closes (1:3; 22:7) is for all, even today, who will study and heed its teaching.

d. An important consequence

If this is so, there follows a conclusion of some importance.
Before we even reach the second verse, three major questions have been raised, which have long exercised the minds of critics and commentators. The name ‘Revelation’ (Greek apokalypsis) not only tells us that this is to be an ‘unveiling’ of great truths about Jesus Christ, but also links it with the particular type of Jewish religious literature called ‘apocalyptic’. The question then arises, how far did John mean his book to be read as an example of apocalyptic, and therefore how much does one need to know about apocalyptic before one can understand the book properly? John himself is the second question. Is he in fact John the apostle, the son of Zebedee, and the author also of a Gospel and three letters; or does that traditional view have fatal weaknesses, which mean that the author must have been someone quite different, but having the same name and similar authority? The third question concerns the ‘servants’ to whom the book is addressed. Would it not help us to understand the book if we could know exactly who they were, and what were the situations and the needs to which John was writing?
The fact that questions like these have been dealt with in very summary fashion in the Introduction does not mean that they are unimportant. But a warning is necessary. When the reader first encounters what seems to be the obscurity of Revelation, he or she may say, ‘If only I had more specialized knowledge of Jewish literature, or Roman history, or Greek philosophy, these mysteries would become clear to me.’ And this, I believe, is misleading. For the number of God’s servants who are equipped with that kind of learning will always be comparatively small – not many wise are called (1 Cor. 1:26) – whereas the message of Revelation is addressed, as we have seen, to all his servants without distinction. Its chief value must therefore be of such a kind that Christians with no special academic resources can nevertheless appreciate it.
This is not to belittle the value of biblical research, still less to exalt anti-intellectualism; the study of Scripture demands the fullest possible use of the Christian’s mind. But it is to assert that the prime requirement for the understanding of these great mysteries is a knowledge, such as John himself had, of the Word of God and the Witness of Jesus (Rev. 1:2, 9). For the majority of those who have set out to explore John’s book, that Word and that Witness have had to be the only illumination: the Bible in their hands, and the Spirit in their hearts. It is by the focusing of this beam down the centre of their path, rather than by the sidelights which critical study sheds on its rough edges and dark corners, that ‘the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein’ (Isa. 35:8, av).

1. The title (1:1–3)

It is not John’s revelation – he is merely the reporter of it – but Jesus Christ’s; and even Jesus is not its originator, for he receives it (as John’s Gospel also frequently tells us) from his Father. Through the five stages of its transmission, from Father to Son to angel to writer to readers, it comes with undiminished clarity as the Word of God and the Witness (or testimony) of Jesus. That phrase describes here what John was about to be shown on the island of Patmos. In verse 9, on the other hand, where it occurs again, it refers not to the object but to the cause of his coming there. Already God had spoken to him, already Christ had testified to the truth of that word, and it was because John would not and could not deny this Christian experience that he was sent into exile. And now he was again to receive the Word and the Witness, a genuine message from God, which in due course was to be read aloud in church meetings like other inspired Scripture (3). It would in a sense be nothing new; simply a recapitulation of the Christian faith he possessed already. But it was to be the last time that God would repeat the patterns of truth, and he was to do so with devastating power and in unforgettable splendour.
These verses discourage ‘futurist’ views of Revelation. Certainly the book deals with much that still lies in the future. But notice that John was shown what must soon take place. This is a phrase taken from pre-Christian apocalyptic and subtly changed. The revelation to Daniel concerned what was to happen ‘at the end of days’ (Dan. 2:28). But the early church believed that when the Christian era began, the last days had actually begun also (Acts 2:16ff.; 3:24). It is true that the word for soon could also be translated ‘suddenly’ (it is ambiguous, like the English ‘quickly’); and it could therefore be held to mean that when the prophesied events did happen, they would happen speedily, but that they might not begin to happen till long after John’s time. On this view the greater part of Revelation might still, even today, be unfulfilled. ‘Suddenly’, however, sounds most unnatural in the context of verse 1; and the verse as it stands is certainly not referring to the far future. When we find Daniel’s ‘what will happen at the end of days’ replaced by John’s ‘what must soon take place’, the object is rather the opposite – to bring events which were once distantly future into the immediate present; so that it is in this sense that the time is near.
‘Time for what?’ we may ask. Time for the end of time, and all its associated events? Time for the beginning of a long series of happenings which will eventually usher in the end? Time for some immediate crisis of trouble or persecution, which will be a kind of foreshadowing of the end? John is not told immediately.
But it is worth pointing out what Daniel had in mind when he spoke of the events of the latter days. It was the dream of Nebuchadnezzar in which that king had been shown, in the shape of a great statue, a succession of world empires beginning from his own. In the days of the last of those empires, explains Daniel, ‘the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed’ (Dan. 2:44).
And now John has seen the latter days arrive. The setting up of God’s kingdom has begun with the coming of Christ; and the promise that ‘it shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand for ever’ (Dan. 2:44) is already starting to be fulfilled. The fulfilment is a process, not a crisis; and a lengthy one, not a sudden one, we may observe – for though events at its climax will move swiftly enough, the process itself will occupy the w...

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Citation styles for The Message of Revelation
APA 6 Citation
Wilcock, M. (2021). The Message of Revelation ([edition unavailable]). IVP. Retrieved from (Original work published 2021)
Chicago Citation
Wilcock, Michael. (2021) 2021. The Message of Revelation. [Edition unavailable]. IVP.
Harvard Citation
Wilcock, M. (2021) The Message of Revelation. [edition unavailable]. IVP. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Wilcock, Michael. The Message of Revelation. [edition unavailable]. IVP, 2021. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.