Biblical Research & Education Resources
Blaine Robison, M.A., M.R.E.
The Message of Revelation
Published 13 November 2008; Revised 11 January 2012
Sources: Numbers in brackets link to notes at the end of the article.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic writings and message I use the terms Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah (Christ), Tanakh (Old Testament), and Besekh (New Testament).
As already noted in the section on Composition, many scholars, particularly those who believe Revelation was only written for John’s day, speculate on the contemporary situation that supposedly provided impetus for the writing of Revelation. The real issue, though, is not John’s purposes for writing, but God’s purposes. Conversely, some popular books and website discourses on the Second Coming written by futurists concentrate on predictions, mapping what is to come with charts, graphs and timelines. Yes, God set forth his intention in Revelation 1:1 to tell the saints what must soon take place, but He did so in the context of proclaiming a vital message to seven pastoral leaders and their congregations. Reading Revelation only to figure out when things are going to happen will result in missing an important message that resounds throughout the Tanakh – that God will do justice, both for Himself and for His people.
Justice for His Name
God is very concerned how His people represent Him in the world. The saints are to be “salt and light” and live their lives in such a way as to cause people to think well of God and desire to know Him (Matt 5:14-16; 2 Thess 1:11f). However, most of the overseers of the congregations described in Revelation had fallen into sin. While the minister at Ephesus excelled in orthodoxy, he lacked the sacrificial love for God and neighbor that had characterized the congregation’s beginning and is so necessary to seeking the lost. The overseer at Pergamum tolerated sin in the congregation and the overseer in Thyatira had corrupt leadership. Two overseers had become thoroughly backslidden. In Sardis the overseer had a reputation for being spiritually alive, but Yeshua published his obituary. The overseer in Laodicea so thoroughly disgusted Yeshua as to make Him nauseous.
The second commandment set forth God’s desire and intention to do justice for His name, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Ex 20:7; cf. Matt 6:9). Ancient Israel failed to take God seriously on this matter and was punished severely. The concept of a “sinning saint” is thoroughly repugnant to God and believers are warned to take heed of Israel’s experience (1 Cor 10:5-15). The writer to the Hebrews made the point abundantly clear:
“For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people’” (Heb 10:26-30).
While Yeshua addressed the overseers of the congregations, His warnings applied to all the members as well. The Lord insisted that He would not tolerate sin and in some cases if genuine repentance was not forthcoming He was going to come as a thief and impose severe judgment, including pestilence, tribulation, war, death and removing them from His presence (2:5, 16, 22f; 3:3, 16).
While it is normal to think of justice only in negative terms, Revelation portrays justice as including blessings to the faithful as well as punishment to the disobedient. In Revelation those who bear God’s name on their foreheads are protected from His wrath (7:3; 9:4). God’s justice is not only discriminating in judgment but promises an eternal reward for faithfulness to His name (11:18). The saints will receive a new name on a white stone (2:17) and bear the imprint of the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy City for eternity (3:12).
Justice for His Holiness
While God has a passionate, even driven, desire to seek and save the lost, He is also an awesome holy God who cannot tolerate sin. In Revelation the angels and saints repeatedly declare God’s holiness. When John arrives in heaven he is greeted with a similar sight as Isaiah experienced. “And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and day and night they do not cease to say, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come” (4:8). The saints in heaven also laud God’s holiness.
“Great and marvelous are Your works, O Lord God, the Almighty; Righteous and true are Your ways, King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy; for all the nations will come and worship before You, for Your righteous acts have been revealed.” (15:3f)
Maintaining the holiness of heaven is so important that “nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it [the New Jerusalem], but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (21:27). Indeed, the punishing judgments on the Antichrist and his followers spring from God’s holy character that cannot abide sin.
“Then the third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and springs of waters; and they became blood. And I heard the angel of the waters saying, ‘Righteous are You, who are and who were, O Holy One, because You judged these things’” (16:4f).
For humans, being holy is both a state and a goal. The Hebrew term means to be set apart, to belong totally to God, to be wholly His property (Lev 20:26). The Hebrew prophets were called holy (Luke 1:70). Yeshua was holy (Acts 4:27), His apostles were called holy (Eph 3:5), and faithful believers were dubbed “saints,” which literally means “holy ones.” God expects the saints to continually pursue the goal of holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14; cf. 1 Pet 1:16).
Holiness is not a matter of building a resume of good works, but of consecrating oneself or transferring the title to one’s life to God and allowing God through the Holy Spirit to claim His rightful ownership and possession (Lev 11:44; John 17:17ff; Acts 1:8; Rom 12:1; 15:16; Titus 3:5). For those who live opposite of His holiness, defiling both the temple of their bodies and their communities with unrighteousness and wickedness, God will pronounce the sentence of eternal separation from Him at the final judgment.
“Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away; and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Rev 20:11-15)
Justice for His Saints
The reality of persecution is everywhere in Revelation. The saints were experiencing tribulation at the time John was exiled to Patmos (1:9). Some of the seven congregations are commended for perseverance in the face of adversity (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira and Philadelphia) and Smyrna is warned about more tribulation to come. In the fifth seal martyrs are pictured in heaven crying out for justice, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (6:10). The Lord’s response is to predict that more suffering will occur before the end.
“And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also” (6:11).
The numberless multitude in Chapter Seven is said to come from the great tribulation. Chapter Twelve tells of the ferocity of the dragon’s war against the woman and her children and Chapter Thirteen introduces the beast’s war against the saints. The reality of persecution is driven home when those killed by the beast are the first ones resurrected at or after the Second Coming.
Revelation does not glorify martyrdom, but down through history God’s people have been able to find meaning in persecution because of John’s experience on Patmos. A hundred years after John left his testimony of Revelation, Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage and martyr, wrote,
“Nor let any one of you, beloved brethren, be so terrified by the fear of future persecution, or the coming of the threatening Antichrist, as not to be found armed for all things by the evangelical exhortations and precepts, and by the heavenly warnings. Antichrist is coming, but above him comes Christ also. The enemy goeth about and rageth, but immediately the Lord follows to avenge our sufferings and our wounds.”
Many American Christians, unaccustomed to State-sponsored hostility and opposition, are ignorant of the millions of believers who have suffered and died for their faith since the first century. Satan has exhausted every conceivable tactic and method for destroying the God’s people, and in some places and some times, the gates of hell did prevail. Beginning in the year 286 Emperor Diocletian (284-305) and his co-regents, who actually governed the empire, issued a series of five edicts, each more severe than the last. Christian meeting places were to be destroyed; all copies of the Bible were to be burned; all Christians were to be deprived of public office and civil rights; and all without exception, were required to sacrifice to the gods upon pain of death. It was during this period that all the members of the famous Theban legion consisting of Christian soldiers were executed because they refused to sacrifice to the Emperor and participate in the extermination of Christians.
In the autumn of 308 the fifth edict of persecution commanded that all males with their entire households should sacrifice and actually taste the idolatrous offerings, and that all food products in the markets should be sprinkled with wine that had been offered to the gods. The authorities knew that true disciples of Yeshua could not eat any food tainted by idolatry (1 Cor 10:21, 28). This monstrous law introduced a reign of terror for two years, and left Christians no alternative but apostasy or starvation. As Schaff says, “All the pains, which iron and steel, fire and sword, rack and cross, wild beasts and beastly men could inflict, were employed to gain the useless end.” All previous persecutions instigated by Roman Caesars paled in comparison with the Empire-wide horrors of the Diocletian persecution, a prototype for the final Antichrist.
Ironically, after government recognition in the fourth century those who had been the persecuted became the persecutors. The greatest death toll of Christians actually came at the hands of people wearing the mantle of Christ and bearing the imprimatur of the Pope (cf. John 16:2). Rev. John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs provides a sobering chronicle of the brutal persecution of Christians from the first century through the 16th century, including those who were executed for merely dissenting Catholic dogma.
Another summary of the history of martyrs at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church, based primarily on Catholic sources, may be found in David Hunt, A Woman Rides the Beast. Malachi Martin, a Jesuit scholar, also provides shocking details of papal murders and campaigns of terror in his book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church. The truth is that the number of victims from religious purges and inquisitions instigated by papal Rome or her emissaries down through history has run into the millions, far exceeding the martyrs of pagan Rome in the early church era or of Islam in later centuries. In the 18th century John Wesley summarized the death toll:
“The guilt of the blood shed under the heathen emperors has not been removed under the Popes, but hugely multiplied. Nor is Rome accountable only for that which hath been shed in the city, but for that shed in all the earth. For at Rome under the Pope, as well as under the heathen emperors, were the bloody orders and edicts given: and wherever the blood of holy men was shed, there were the grand rejoicings for it. And what immense quantities of blood have been shed by her agents! Charles IX of France, in his letter to Gregory XIII, boasts, that in and not long after the massacre of Paris, he had destroyed seventy thousand Huguenots. Some have computed that from the year 1518 to 1548 fifteen millions of Protestants have perished by the Inquisition. This may be overcharged; but certainly the number of them in those thirty years, as well as since, is almost incredible. To these we may add innumerable martyrs, in ancient, middle, and late ages, in Bohemia, Germany, Holland, France, England, Ireland, and many other parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia.”
Faithful disciples of Yeshua down through history have experienced “great” tribulation, and still continue to suffer in many parts of the earth, particularly in countries dominated by Islam. American Christians may live in denial by a theology of escapism, self-absorption, and sanctified materialism, but Yeshua told His disciples to prepare for persecution. Revelation is a warning shot across the bow of Christian complacency. Revelation does not glorify persecution or martyrdom or argue utilitarian benefits, such as purifying or strengthening believers (cf. Dan 11:35). Persecution is war and the inescapable fact about war is the death toll. Yeshua does not need persecution to purify His saints. As in the days of the apostles, the saints are still cleansed by the water of the Word (Eph 5:26), the blood of the Lamb (1 John 1:7) and the filling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:9).
Yeshua gave His disciples a simple procedure for confronting “sinning saints,” and He promised to remove any remaining “tares” at His coming. He also does not need persecution to strengthen His disciples. Indeed, persecution may severely interfere with fulfilling the Great Commission of making disciples by the loss of those either new or weak in the faith (cf. Mark 4:16f). Revelation does not depict early congregations more unified because of persecution or increasing in members because of the allure of identifying with martyrs. The only benefit that accrues to the saints is the crown of life awarded to those who willingly suffer for their Lord.
Perhaps the difficulty that so many Christians have of making sense of persecution is the unwillingness to face the fact that the sovereign loving God allows it, or worse yet, uses it. One might observe that many American Christians – so often exhorted to love themselves because of being objects of God’s love – are preoccupied with wanting to know why bad things happen to them, as if knowing will assuage the hurt. Interestingly, the martyrs in the fifth seal do not ask “why?” but “how long?” The martyrs know why they died; they want to know how long will God wait before exacting justice.
In its references to persecution Revelation is not pessimistic, but realistic with the certainty of final victory. The days are coming when a world ruler will arise and initiate a savage campaign with all the resources of Satan to destroy God’s people, and he may even find inspiration in what previous evil dictators have done. For those terrible days of persecution and tribulation the message of Revelation offers a comforting reminder of God’s intention to do justice. The saints may have to wait for justice, but it will come and the Lord will certainly and decisively avenge their suffering and crush His enemies (16:4-7; 18:24; 19:1f).
1. Epistle 55: To the People of Thibaris, Exhorting to Martyrdom, 7.
2. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 25. The Theban Legion consisted of 6,666 soldiers from Thebes, the Greek settlement in North Africa. The record of their sacrifice is still kept and honored by the Coptic Church. Saint Maurice and the Theban Legion, The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church Of Egypt: 1992-2001, 12 February 2001, http://www.coptic.net/synexarion/MauriceOfTheba.txt.
3. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), II, 2, §24.
4. Dave Hunt,A Woman Rides the Beast (Harvest House Publishers, 1994), 256, 262.
5. John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1981), Vol. 2, comment on Revelation 18:24.
Copyright © 2006, 2012 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.