This is the first in a series on the letters to the churches in the book of Revelation but I’m not going to even look at those letters.

What does the book of Revelation make you think of? A future full of barcodes and microchips implanted in our wrists, a one-world government, dragons and mutant animals, husbands who remember anniversaries and other fantastic things? The book is full of unreal and unusual images; but what does it all mean?

To properly interpret anything – a historical document, a letter, a speech – we need to know its context: where was the document written? who wrote it? why did they write it? who did they write it to? What kind of document is it? Without knowing this sort information, the conclusions we reach about what it means will most likely be wrong. Context is the key to understanding. Without the context of chapter one, trying to interpret the rest of the book is like trying to undo a lock without the key.

The first question to ask about the context is, What kind of document is the book of Revelation? Is it poetry, a narrative, a genealogy, what? The book is a combination of four types of literature. Look at the first five verses. It is a revelation, a testimony, a prophecy and a letter.

First, it is a revelation. Now this particular revelation, the one we call the book of Revelation, has been given by God the Father to Jesus, and by Jesus to John. The text says it is a revelation of Jesus Christ – this can also mean it is a revelation about Jesus Christ.

There are other instances of revelation in the Bible: such as in Daniel and Ezekiel. Revelation literature is written in a style called apocalyptic that we don’t produce now. Apocalyptic writing is a document for people who are being persecuted. The message is written in code – it is encrypted so their enemies won’t discover it. That’s why there are images and numbers and shapes: they are symbols to get across their message. In revelation literature, God opens the veil between our world and the heavenly one so we can see what is going on behind the scenes. It’s something like in 2 Kings chapter 6: Elisha the prophet was in a city surrounded by his enemies, and his servant was worried. Elisha prayed, “O Lord open his eyes so he may see.” God drew back the curtain between our dimensions and the servant saw that the enemy army was itself surrounded by horses and chariots of fire; the army of God. Revelation literature is intended to encourage people that God is still in control and their enemies will be defeated.

So one thing we can know about the context of the book of Revelation is that the seven churches who received the book were being persecuted, and it was written to encourage them. When we’re discouraged it’s easy to lose focus on anything but ourselves. We forget what we’re doing and what we’re doing it for. In those times, we need to go back to the beginning and see again what matters. We need to tell ourselves what we believe and why we believe it, so we know what to do next. At first John the Baptist was sure that Jesus was the one he was called to testify about. But then he was imprisoned by the puppet King Herod, and after John had been in prison for a long time and nothing seemed to change, he began to doubt. Jesus didn’t answer him directly, but pointed out the facts the John himself knew, that his disciples would have told him about. John needed to be reminded of the truth to encourage him to stay faithful to what he already knew. It is the same situation for all the Christians in Asia Minor. They were being persecuted and needed hope, to be reminded of what they believed. This is what the book of Revelation is about.

Second, the book is a testimony, or a witness, something like in a court of law. It is John’s testimony to the seven churches in the province called Asia Minor, which today is the western third of Turkey. But what is John being a witness to?

John’s witness is to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. There’s more to this phrase than meets the eye. But essentially John is testifying to Jesus’ testimony. This sounds a little complex but in fact it is very simple – and it is the heart of understanding the book of Revelation. But more of this in a while.

So a second thing we can know about the context of Revelation is that John was telling them some particular truth about Jesus.

The third thing that Revelation is, is a prophecy. Prophecy and revelation are something like sisters. Revelation uses imagery; it is symbolic; and it encourages its audience to persevere because God is still in control. But prophecy is heard; it is in plain words; it calls people back to faithfulness in God. It calls us to find all our comfort and hope in God.

So the third thing we can know about the context of Revelation is that some people in the seven churches were turning away from Jesus, and He wanted them to stay faithful to Him.

The fourth type of literature that the book of Revelation contains, is a letter. A letter connects people. It is a way of sharing your life with people you can’t be with in person. The first chapter of the book is John’s introduction to the revelation and the testimony and the prophecy. He is telling them who sent it to them and why. The letter gives them greetings from God, from seven spirits around His throne, and from Jesus. This means that Revelation is a good thing. Do you send a letter of encouragement and warning and information to an enemy? Of course not.

If we jump to the end of the chapter, we see to explain the mystery of the stars and lamp stands. This tells us a little about the relationship between Jesus and the churches. When John turns around, he sees that Jesus is surrounded by seven lamp stands, which represent the seven churches of Asia Minor, the churches that receive the revelation that Jesus gives to John. In the Old Testament, when God gave instructions as to how to build the tabernacle and the temple, a lamp stand was placed in the Most Holy Place, where only priests could go. The lamp stand was designed to shine light on what was in front of it. So if we have Jesus surrounded by these seven lamp stands, their light is directed onto him. In plain words, the churches were witnesses to Jesus.

The mystery of the stars in Jesus’ hand is a little more complex. Jesus says they are the angels (or messengers) of the churches, and each of the letters to the churches is addressed to them, for instance, “To the angel of the church in Smyrna”, to the angel of the church in Pergamum” and so on. Each angel seems to be symbolic of the church’s strengths and weaknesses. But each angel, or messenger, is represented by a star in Jesus’ right hand. This means they are under Jesus’ command and protection.

So the fourth thing we can know about the context of Revelation is that it is a letter, written by John and sent with greetings from God, from Jesus, and from the spirits around His throne. It could mean the sevenfold Spirit, which would be another way of saying the Holy Spirit. If so, Revelation is sent to the churches from God, to be an encouragement and a warning. God wants them to persevere, to stay faithful to Him, to continue to be His witnesses to the world, because Jesus holds them in the palm of His hand.

So that is what the book of Revelation is: a revelation, a witness, a prophecy, and a letter. Now let’s look a little more closely at some parts of the chapter.

In verse 2, John says he is testifying to the things he saw – the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. Does anything sound strange about that? How do you see a word or a testimony? Those things are spoken. Sure, today most of us can read and write – but in those days, it was only the highly educated who could read and write.

In this verse, John means that the word of God and the testimony of Jesus are those things written in the whole book of Revelation. But wait – it isn’t that simple. In verse 9, John says he is on Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. It isn’t likely he means in order to receive the revelation. John was in exile: he was on Patmos as a punishment. Why was he being punished? Anyone? He was being punished because he was telling people the Gospel.

So John was on Patmos as because of the Gospel, but he describes it as the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. Now, in verse 2, John says that what he saw in the rest of the book of Revelation is the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. In other words, what John saw, what he is testifying to, what he is writing to them about, is the Gospel.

That was a tortuous path, but in the end it is very simple. The book of Revelation is about the Gospel. And that’s how we are to understand and interpret everything we later read: in the light of the Gospel – that God became human, born of a woman, and died to save us from Hell, was raised from the dead, now rules in Heaven, and will one day destroy all evil and everything that opposes Him.

What a simple message is that? But do you think that the enemies of the churches would be pleased to read that? They’d take it to the proconsul – the Roman ruler – of Asia Minor, accuse the Christians of insurrection and treason, and have them killed. That’s why the message is in code, in the language of apocalyptic. The whole chapter is full of encouragement to Christians who are suffering, and it builds on what we’ve already seen.

Verses 5 and 6 call Jesus Christ

the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father–to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

Jesus is the faithful witness and that’s what the book is calling the churches to be. Jesus is the firstborn from the dead, so the Christians know that even if they die, Jesus has been there and overcome death. It’s just as Jesus himself says in verse 18: “I was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever. And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” And thirdly, Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth; although Christians are being persecuted for Jesus’ sake, He will not let them be tortured beyond what they could bear.

In verse 6, we are again given a hint of what Revelation is about: the Gospel! “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood …”

Verse 7 is something like a short creed and a promise. “He is coming with the clouds” points to the power and presence of God, like the cloud with the Israelites in the desert. When Jesus returns, all those who have remained faithful to Him will be vindicated. Everyone will see that Jesus is who the Bible claims He is. At that time, the door to heaven will be closed – it will be too late for people to change their minds.

Verse 8 is at the end of this whole introduction: The fact that God Himself speaks and declares Who is His indicates that He the power behind all of this. God is in control.

In verse 9 John he says he is their brother in the suffering, kingdom and patient endurance that are in Jesus. The book of Revelation is written to Christians who are suffering, by reminding them that Jesus is the king, in control of everything, and to encourage them to endure.

Then, in verse 12, having heard the command to write to the seven churches, John turns to see the voice speaking to him. Does the description of Jesus here ring any bells? One like a son of man; hair white as snow; blazing fire; and again, the clouds of heaven; … very similar to the description in Daniel chapter 7. Where Daniel sees the Ancient of Days sitting on His throne and books being opened, John sees a sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth. These are pictures of judgment. In Daniel, the son of man is given eternal authority, dominion and worship.

The people who received John’s letter would have had Jews among them, and those Jews would have instantly recognised the parallels. They could not have missed it. The Jesus they believed in, who was killed to save them, this Jesus is the conquering, ruling, worshipped son of man who wants them to stay faithful to him to death, who is in control of everything that happens to them. This Jesus will defeat all evil and reign forever. Isn’t that encouraging? This is what the rest of the book of Revelation is about: the truth about Jesus – the Gospel of God.