Seeking Comfort for the End of the World
I tend to get apprehensive whenever a speaker stands and tells me they’re going to unravel the mystery of the Book of Revelation. I shift in my seat and start to feel uneasy as they delve into the signification and symbolism of all the illustrative passages of the Bible’s most perplexing book. Generally, I’ve found that speakers like that are merely there to impress the congregants with their incredible displays of prediction and deduction that allow them to decipher the prophetic words of John’s last letter. As they take the audience through the apocalyptic bowels of Scripture, they seemingly bear a “torch of illumination” that lights the way and manner in which otherwise troublesome verses can be read and interpreted. But most of the time, I think speakers who engage in this type of sermon are woefully off-base, not only in their conjecture as to what the Book of Revelation means, but also, more importantly, why we have the Book of Revelation in the first place.
The apostle John, the writer of, perhaps, the most renowned Gospel account of Christ’s life, along with three additional exemplary letters, now pens the most noteworthy book to close the canon of Scripture. This disciple whom Jesus loved (John 13:23) has been exiled to the island of Patmos. Resting in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Asia Minor, this small rocky island in which he is imprisoned soon becomes a sanctuary. His cell is quickly turned into a cathedral, his place of exile into an altar, as the beloved disciple is made privy to vision after vision from the Lord Jesus depicting the events of the End of Days.
And, to our own detriment, we pounce on this notion of eschatological explanation having ears that need to be itched (2 Tim. 4:4), and having consciences that are interminably curious. We mischievously delve into the mysteries of the apocalyptic portions of the Bible, all while not really having any inclination as to why they’re there, but only to find some nugget of prophecy with which we can impress and impose upon other people. Books like Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Revelation itself, among others, have seemingly given us glimpses behind the curtain of God’s sovereignty. The magnificent visions in each of these books reveal something to us regarding what is to come. And knowing the future is something from which we can never turn away.
This, to me, is what has lead to both the erroneous interpretation and entire disregard of the Book of Revelation. I must confess my own lack of attention to this great book. Consequently, Revelation is studied with no small amount of trepidation and confusion. I’ve found, at least with the church bodies I’ve been associated with in the past, that readers of Revelation are either incessantly dreadful or incredibly dogmatic about what they read. And yet for all their study (or lack thereof), I believe they’ve gravely missed the point of this book.
The Book of Revelation isn’t an instruction manual by which we can all become godly Nostradamuses. Nor is it a secret code that warrants a Sherlockian quest into the underbelly of Christian history in order to figure out its meaning and message. The purpose of the book isn’t discovered through copious Scriptural dot-connecting. Revelation is not primarily a book that predicts the future. The intent of the entire book is made plain for us in the first five words: “The revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Rev. 1:1) This is Jesus, the Son of God, unveiled in high contrast. This is a book that reveals to us Jesus Christ in all the fullness of his glory and might and power and majesty. And in that way, it is a book that should comfort us.
The calamitous conditions of the text.
John assures us of the comforts and benefits that follow a reading of this book when he writes, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear the words of this prophecy and keep what is written in it, because the time is near.” (Rev. 1:3) What’s more, the entire grid through which we interpret this book would be altered if we returned again to recognize that it is a letter. Yes, though it is made up of predominantly prophetic and apocalyptic language, Revelation is a letter that was written for the express purpose of encouraging the churches of Asia Minor, specifically those Jesus himself mentions in verse 11. (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. The precise words to each church are found in Revelation 2–3.)
But, you might be wondering, what’s so comforting about reading about the apocalypse and all the catastrophic events that go along with the end times? I’ve caught myself wondering the same thing. To find that answer, however, we must turn to history to give ourselves a bit of context. It is generally believed that during John’s pastorate at Ephesus, he was abruptly sent to the isle of Patmos some time in A.D. 95 (Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, and Victorinus all account for this), he being exiled there by Roman emperor Domitian for his belief in and “testimony of Jesus.” (Rev. 1:9) Domitian is widely known as a viciously authoritative monarch. He exercised a strong grip on the Roman government, ushering in a cruel despotic reign that essentially marginalized the senate and gave the imperial family absolute sway over the kingdom. He viewed the royal family as gods, and ensured the citizens of Rome followed suit — he, of course, being the primary deity. Some allege that he even gave himself the title Dominus et Deus, “Lord and God.” In this way, Domitian served as the heir apparent to Nero’s vindictive prejudice towards Christians, banishing any who testified the name of Jesus Christ. An entire generation of first century Christian believers, then, are born into a life of intense persecution because of their beliefs. And it is to these individuals that the apostle John now writes.
Though these words describe countless calamities that would shortly befall this world, the disciple whom Jesus loved longed for these troubled believers to know, despite all evidence to the contrary, that God is still enthroned in the heavens. Though the days might’ve grown dark and grim, God’s reign hadn’t ceased. His “glory and dominion” are “forever and ever.” (Rev. 1:6) It is, therefore, in this glorious unveiling of the complete view of Jesus Christ that we are made to find immense comfort.
The comfort of a Savior.
John opens his letter and wastes no time in reminding his readers who it is that’s behind these words. You can sense his urgency as he writes of the time that is “near” (Rev. 1:3), undoubtedly aware of the adverse tragedies befalling his fellow believers. And so it is that the apostle endeavors to fortify their faith by reminding them of the Author and Finisher of it. “To the seven churches in Asia. Grace and peace to you from the one who is, who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth . . . the Alpha and the Omega.” (Rev. 1:4–5, 8) As John aspires to present a transcendent view of Jesus Christ, he first presents him as the Alpha and Omega of our salvation.
Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new.” He also said, “Write, because these words are faithful and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will freely give to the thirsty from the spring of the water of life.” (Rev. 21:5–6)
The Author of our faith didn’t leave the end for us to determine. Jesus’s work of salvation isn’t partially done. As his bloodied and bruised form hung on the cross, he didn’t say, “There, now you do the rest.” He shouted, “It is finished!” Jesus didn’t go ninety-nine yards for your deliverance and leave the remaining one up to you — he went the whole way. Christ obeyed the full extent of the law on your behalf. (Phil. 2:5–8) He’s the beginning and ending of our salvation — he clears the way for it and takes it upon himself to finish its conditions. (Heb. 12:1–3) Therefore, if you think you’re a commensurate player in your salvation you’re categorically mistaken.
God’s recipe of salvation doesn’t require the least smidgen of your own ingredients. There’s no room in the salvation of your soul for your “righteous works.” Jesus pays our sin-debt with his own blood. “To him who loves us and has set us free from our sins by his blood.” (Rev. 1:5) For all the sins of your past, and all the sins you haven’t even committed yet, the Father’s wrath has already been satisfied, paid in full by the blood of his Son. No further payment is necessary for the securing of your salvation.
Therefore, we’re reminded of the scandalous comfort of God’s salvation: the sinner’s ransom was paid for by the King’s own blood! The very blood we drew from the Savior’s side covers our sin and washes us in righteousness, whiter than snow. (Rev. 7:14; Ps. 51:7; Isa. 1:18) “To him who loves us and has set us free 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. 1:5–6)
The comfort of a Sovereign.
Furthermore, the King Christ who saves us is also sovereign over all life. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “the one who is, who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev. 1:8) John’s use of the descriptor “Almighty” isn’t by accident or happenstance. It’s significant. It’s a Greek word that’s mostly unique to this letter. (Cf. Rev. 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7; 16:14; 19:6; 19:15; 21:22; it’s used two other times in Jer. 31:35 and 2 Cor. 6:18.) It’s the word pantokratōr, and identifies the one who is the ruler of all, the one who holds sway over all things. As such, Jesus the Savior is unveiled as the supreme Sovereign over all life. The risen Lord is the ruling Lord over all the events history, and time itself. King Christ is still on his throne. “I know,” John seems to say, “because I’ve seen him!”
As the apostle begins to introduce the visions he was made wise to, he recounts hearing voice “like a trumpet” instructing him to record what he saw (Rev. 1:10–11). And as he turns to see who it is that’s giving him this instruction, he’s given a brilliant vision of the person behind the voice.
Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me. When I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was one like the Son of Man, dressed in a robe and with a golden sash wrapped around his chest. The hair of his head was white as wool — white as snow — and his eyes like a fiery flame. His feet were like fine bronze as it is fired in a furnace, and his voice like the sound of cascading waters. He had seven stars in his right hand; a sharp double-edged sword came from his mouth, and his face was shining like the sun at full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet like a dead man. (Rev. 1:12–17)
This magnificent vision reveals Jesus Christ as our High Priestly Judge. (Rev. 1:13) And though we could spend countless hours rummaging around parallel passages to determine all the symbolism that’s in this vision and description of the risen Lord, that’s not where the comfort of this passage comes from. It comes from a touch. After John sees this vision, we’re told that he’s so overwhelmed with the awe-inducing reverie that he fell at Jesus’s feet “like a dead man.” Jesus, then, stoops to the prostrate apostle and lays “his right hand on” him, and says, “Don’t be afraid.” (Rev. 1:17) Interestingly enough, this isn’t the first time that John himself has been touched after catching a glimpse of the glorified Savior King.
The catastrophic consolation of a touch.
In Matthew 17, Jesus tells Peter, James, and John to follow him “up on a high mountain,” what we commonly call the Mount of Transfiguration. (Matt. 17:1–8) It’s here that Christ gives his inner-circle-disciples a magnificent look at his transcendent glory and might. A pre-revelation unveiling of his majesty. He wasn’t just a carpenter from Galilee come to upset the religious order. He was the eminent Son of God come in the form of a servant to redeem sinners and reclaim his kingdom. “Suddenly a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said: ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown and were terrified.” (Matt. 17:5–6) But John and companions aren’t without comfort. As they laid paralyzed by the awesome sight, “Jesus came up, touched them, and said, ‘Get up; don’t be afraid.’” (Matt. 17:7)
In both instances, Jesus touches John and invites him to be comforted and stilled by his sovereignty. Furthermore, it’s my estimation that all the pages of Revelation are knit together by this single touch. It’s a metaphor for the rest of the book. “Don’t be afraid,” Jesus says. “I am the First and the Last, and the Living One. I was dead, but look — I am alive forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (Rev. 1:18) “Fear not! I got this!” this comforting touch seems to say to us. “Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing is going to be alright.”
It is in that way that we’re made to experience the “grace and peace” of the End Times. Not by knowing what’s going to happen. Not by connecting all the dots and predicting the future. Not by understanding all the intricacies of all the apocalyptic events. But by knowing the One who’s ordained everything in its time and is sovereign over all the times, and by trusting that he’s determined everything before the foundation of the world. This prophetic book doesn’t exist to disclose a secret formula with which to decode the End of Days. Rather, it exists to give us brilliant images and vivid expressions by which we’re made to recognize Jesus’s comprehensive victory and ultimate control over all things. The same Jesus that was slain is the same Jesus that is sovereignly ruling and reigning over the universe. (Rev. 22:12–13) The future rests solely in his hands. Therefore, Revelation shouldn’t stoke our anxiety and cause us to be stressed. Conversely, it should fortify us in the encouragement to “be still and know” that God is God and we are not. (Ps. 46:10)
The comfort at world’s end comes from knowing King Christ, the Alpha and Omega of our times. It comes from being stilled by the mysterious, unveiled sovereignty of our Savior King. He forever holds sway and dominion over the cosmos. And he’ll never abdicate his throne.