Over the past few decades, the end times have become a fixation of Christian teaching and literature. In this introduction to Revelation, Alistair Begg pushes back against readings of this important book that tie it too closely to contemporary issues. To understand the book correctly, we must instead take into consideration its literary forms, its original audience, and its purpose: to reassure believers that Jesus reigns, now and forever.
“After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’”
Father, as we think this morning in our overview of the Bible—as we begin to think, at least—how everything wraps up, we thank you for the triumphant note of the book of Revelation, in the midst of so much that is complicated and obscure. We thank you always that the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things. And we pray that as we seek to become a people of your Book, that you will help us to make sure that what is central is central and what is peripheral is peripheral, and for us not to get them mixed up. Help us as we study the Bible in these moments, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
When I came to America for the first time in 1972, I think that is my first introduction not only to many things but also to the cartoons of Charles Schultz. And I was intrigued by Snoopy, and I thought he was a kindly looking little character, and Linus and Lucy and so on. And I used to purchase cards and send them to my girlfriend and—sounds kind of soppy, doesn’t it? But it worked pretty well, I can tell you, and… so far, so good, at least. And as I was thinking of that this week—actually, not as I was thinking of that, but as I was thinking of our study—one of those cartoons came to mind: very simple and childlike, but it was a cartoon in which there was a picture of Linus at the end of the day. He had already put on his pajamas, and he was ready for his bed, and he is standing at a water fountain, pressing the water fountain to get a drink of water, and he misses his mouth but soaks his pajamas. And the caption reads—as he looks somewhat beleaguered and disappointed—the caption reads, “I don’t care how the day starts; it’s how it ends up that bothers me.”
And I thought of that because as we come in our overview of the Bible to how the story ends, rather than how it begins, we come actually to a matter of extreme significance. The question of how the universe began is addressed for us in Genesis. Many people suggest that this is a silly idea in contemporary Western culture and beyond. Nevertheless, the Bible is very clear; it gives a succinct statement as to the nature of our origins. And when we come to the end of the Bible, we discover that it also gives a clear statement concerning the end of things , and that of course is a matter of great import, because everybody wants to know how the story ends.
Some people read books from the back. They destroy the plot for themselves before they’ve even read the book because they’re so impatient to know, “How does this finish?” I’m too Scottish to have ever have done that. I can’t you waste, you know, $8.99, and then have to go through all the rest; I have to save the excitement all the way to the very end. But some are so preoccupied with how it ends that they may actually give up on big parts in the middle. That is not an unusual experience, the reason being that God has set eternity in the hearts of men and women.
Not everyone would accept that or understand it, but that’s what the Bible says: that God has created men and women in such a way as to know that there is something beyond death; that there is an appointment that still waits for them out there; that somehow or another, they’re not sure where it is or when it is, but they’ve got a sneaking suspicion that it is. And that idea is wrestled with not only in the philosophy and history departments of our universities, it’s tackled not only in the realm of anthropology, but it is actually addressed in poetic form and certainly it is addressed in songs.
And this displays my age, I suppose, but I must be missing an era or two to suggest that the sixties still probably have given to us the best work in terms of songwriters who were interacting with the thought forms and the cultures of their day. I’m well prepared to be corrected on that (especially if you want to send me CDs that I can listen to in my car), but the fact is I know only enough to make this assertion.
And that came across to me this week when again, as I was thinking by way of preparation, a song came to mind, then the phrase came to mind. And I wondered when it was from, and I went to look for it and I found it in 1965—1965. Some of you can remember that far back. It’s a long time ago now; it’s almost—what?—forty years ago. We’re on the threshold of it. I was thirteen; I’m not going to ask what age you were. It’s the same year that John Lennon wrote “Help,” and we sent it across the Atlantic Ocean to become a number-one hit in America. America reciprocated by writing “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and sent it across the Atlantic Ocean to become a number-one hit in Britain. And in the midst of all of that, a young man who was friends with The Byrds and friends with Bob Dylan and friends of a very well-known producer Lou Adler, showed up in April of 1965 in a studio in Los Angeles where all of these people had come together.
If you haven’t wondered what it was that these folks in the sixties, all these dreadful hippies, sat around doing, the fact is they sat around having some pretty heavy conversations. And this particular individual says of that time, “I was in a kind of personal, spiritual, philosophical search. We were going through this whole social question, turmoil of the day within ourselves, asking, ‘Why not do this?’ or ‘Why shouldn’t we do that?’ And then we started to get down to ‘Well, what is the basic ultimate truth? What is life? What is the universe? Where did it come from? Where is it going? What’s on the other side of death? And what was on the backside of birth?’”
It’s a fascinating thought, isn’t it? It’s got Dylan, you got The Byrds, you got this guy. You got them all sittin’ around—who knows what they were doing other than this, but they were at least doing this. And this individual then says that this particular song was simply a continuation down the end of that road. He began to ask these central questions, particularly about the end of it all, because it seemed to him that the end must presumably be close, given everything that we were going through. And so, Barry McGuire wrote “Eve of Destruction.” He wrote other songs subsequently, with better lyrics—arguably—better melodies, that never did a thing. And “Eve of Destruction,” that was written just essentially on the back of an envelope and recorded in half an hour at the end of the day in this recording studio—never redubbed, sent out as it was—became this huge hit. Why? Well, listen to the lyric as I sing it to you. No, no, no, no, there’s no fire in the building; that will not be necessary. (Any of the words that end in -ing did not end in -ing in the song. I’m not doing this to try and be hip—they all end n, apostrophe):
The eastern world, it is explodin’,
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’,
You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’,
You don’t believe in war … what’s that gun you’re totin’?
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’,
But you tell me over and over and over again, my friend,
You remember the “Ah”? People said that “Ah” is fabulous. “That,” they said, “That shows your passion.” Barry McGuire said afterwards, “You’re wrong. I lost my place when we were recording it. I missed a line, and so I went ‘Ah—’ ’til I found the line, and then I wrote…”:
You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.
Yeah, my blood’s so mad, feels like coagulatin’,
I’m sittin’ here, just contemplatin’,
I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulatin’,
Handful of Senators don’t pass legislation,
And marches alone can’t bring integration,
When human respect is in disintegration,
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’
And you tell me over and over and over again, my friend,
Ah—you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.
You may leave here, for four days in space,
But when you return it’s the same old place.
The poundin’ of drums, the pride, the disgrace,
You can bury your dead, but don’t leave a trace,
Hate your next-door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace.
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
You don’t believe in the eve of destruction.
Now, right around the same time, other people wrestling with the same kind of agendas, they say, “Well, you know, there are other ways to skin a cat; there are other ways to resolve this. We can take it in a far more gentle, far more speculative dimension. Let’s give people something nice to sing about instead of all of this dreadful ‘Eve of Destruction’ stuff and all this doom at the end of time.” And so, others retreated into songs like,
Like a circle in a spiral,
Like a wheel within a wheel,
Never ending or beginning
[In] an ever-spinning reel,
Like a snowball down a mountain,
Or a carnival balloon,
Like a carousel that’s turning,
Running rings around the moon,
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping
Past the minutes of its face,
And the world is like an apple
Whirling silently in space,
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind.
Keys that jingle in your pocket,
Words that jangle in your head;
Why did summer go so quickly?
Was it something that we said?
And lovers walk along the shore
And they leave their footprints in the sand.
Is the sound of distant drumming
Just the fingers of your hand?
And when you knew that it was over
You were suddenly aware
That the autumn leaves were turning
To the colors of her hair!
Like the circles that we find
In the windmills of our minds.
Now, that fits well with contemporary Hinduism, which underpins contemporary expressions of yoga—which is a new age philosophy dressed up in different clothes—which believes that the world in which we find ourselves this morning is not moving towards a destination but is actually whirling silently in space: that history is cyclical. Now, when you go to the Bible, the Bible says no, history is linear: that there was a point of beginning and there will be a point of ending. And this time-space capsule spins on its axis by the direct ordering of a Creator and will be turned into a new heaven and a new earth when the Creator determines that it’s time in the final, ultimate conclusion of God’s planned kingdom. And we live our lives parenthetically in between eternities.
Now, although people scoff at the idea—and they certainly do—what the Bible says is that the coming of Christ to live and to die and to be resurrected and to return is the goal of all of history—is the goal of all of history. And in the most simple terms, what that means is that any student of history who fails to take into account the life, the death, the rising, and the return of Jesus Christ fails as a student of history , despite the fact that contemporary students of history have so demythologized the process, have so reconstructed the idea, that they’re not even sure that there is a verifiable history to be known. But, when we look at the Bible, we discover that the rise of empires, the fall of empires—be it the Greek, the Roman, the British Empire; whether it be the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution; whether it be the rise of Stalinism and his demise; whether it be Hitler’s strut across the stage; whether it is totalitarian Communism, the coming down of the Berlin Wall; whether it is the American Revolution, goodbye to the king and all of his cronies—all of that must be viewed within the framework of the fact that the birth, death, rising, and return of Jesus of Nazareth is the goal of human history.
Now, my friends, is that a staggering idea? Doesn’t that just descend upon your ears in a dramatic way when you think of all of the influences upon our minds and upon our lives, all of the things that we’re told concerning where we fit within the big picture and the scheme of things? Paul writes to the Ephesians, and he tells them that God is working out the mystery of his will, which he purposed in Christ, and he’s going to bring all things in heaven and on earth under one head, even Jesus. In other words, the declaration of the Bible is this: Jesus Christ will return, and he will complete God’s eternal plan of salvation. He will, if you like—in the framework of what we’re discovering—he will usher in the perfected kingdom.
Those of you who are following our study know that we’ve been viewing the kingdom from a number of perspectives, and eventually it reaches the point where we anticipate the kingdom in all of its perfection. That, inevitably, takes us to the final book of the Bible, the book of Revelation. Now, some of you when I even mention the book of Revelation get tingles in your toes because you are just consumed with the book of Revelation. There’s nothing you like better than a good time in the book of Revelation, and indeed you’re saying to yourself, “He’s twenty-one years into this now and still no book of Revelation. When will the book of Revelation come?” Well, we may be getting close. But, there again, that may be getting close in the way we think of close to the return of Jesus, so I’m not making any promises at all. Hopefully, before I die, I get to do Revelation. I may die doing Revelation, but we’ll leave that aside for now.
For now, only a few observations are necessary. There is a debate among scholars as to when the book of Revelation was written. You say, “Well, I don’t really care; it’s 2004.” No, it actually matters. It doesn’t matter enough for me to spend the whole morning on it, but it matters enough for me to tell you that the majority view—and I think the majority view’s a safe view—is that it was written in the last quarter of the first century AD. It was written under the reign of Domitian. He was an evil man, and he was involved in the persecution of God’s people. Indeed, the people who had come to love and follow Jesus were living in a time of extreme persecution. And the book of Revelation was written during that time and for that time. I hope you’re paying attention: it was written during that time and for that time. Not exclusively for that time, but for that time. Now, that ought to immediately sound a warning note for many of us, for whom, if we have studied Revelation at all, our perspective has routinely been one that has engendered a state of extreme urgency, and the urgency has been tied directly to the fact that the person who has taught Revelation to us—either by lip or by pen—that that individual has suggested to us that the urgency of this book emerges from the ability of the teacher to tie the book to the contemporary experiences of the present readership.
But this speaks of the fascination again with the question, “How does it end up?” Some of you are old enough to have been students of The Late Great Planet Earth. You, perhaps, have traveled through an airport, and you found that as a number-one best seller on the New York Times list. And you picked up a copy, and God used it in your life, and for that each of us should be thankful. But one of the things that you’ve discovered is that all the things that you were told which were about to unfold in a dramatic way concerning China, concerning Russia from the north, concerning the development of the European economic community—it never happened!
And you should have said to yourself, “What’s this about?” in the same way that people in an earlier generation, when [John] Napier, the founder of Napier College in Edinburgh, took his mathematical skills, developed logarithms and used logarithms to compute the date of the return of Jesus Christ, which he set somewhere at the end of the nineteenth century. His book sold like crazy—until the date that he had set. And after that, the sales fell off. I mean, who in their right mind is going to buy a book now explaining that Jesus Christ will return in 1894? Talk about old news!
Now, the fact of the matter is that if you take, for example, the European community issue—I remember that very, very well. The people who were influential in my life were telling me, you know, when we get ten in the European community, “Woo! look out—it’s all over from that point. When we get to ten, it’s there.” I said, “Okay, what’s the ten business?” “Oh well,” they said, “Daniel chapter 2—there’s a huge statue in Daniel 2. It’s got iron and bronze and feet of clay with little bits in them and so on, and presently there are nine toes. When the tenth goes in—whoa-ho!” I said, “Fine.” The tenth went in—no “whoa-ho.” Completely missing the “whoa-ho.” No “whoa-ho” factor whatsoever. And when we got to eleven and twelve and fifteen and twenty members and now thirty members, instead of people coming out and saying, “You know what? That was a bad idea, that was bad interpretation of the Bible, that was flat-out wrong, that was worthy of the worst kind of Jehovah’s Witness you ever met at your doorstep”—instead of saying that, no, no, just whoop! Turn it over, try it again, there’ll be another thing that can explain this and create urgency. And everybody in every generation does the same thing with the book of Revelation.
Now, I grew up with this; this was my whole life. I used to go to talks called “Two Minutes to Midnight.” And I would go to these things—I’d take notes—and when I’m driving home from Bradford in my car, I’m thinking, “Man, I’ve got to step on it, because I want to at least see my mother once before this thing wraps up.” Because the guy had scared the b’jabbers out of me that it was all over, ’cause he had the clock, and he had the thing, and it was just—it was just here, you know. Now, I could see Big Ben in my mind’s eye—I’m just driving like crazy. I want one good supper, you know, before I die.
Then I wakened up. I don’t know what day it was I wakened up, but I wakened up one day, and I said, “Wait a minute, this doesn’t make sense to me.” John was writing to people in an historic context. Why does John write a book with all of these dimensions to it to people living at the end of the first century AD, under the boot of persecution? Why would he write a book that is all about 2004 or 1894 or 2084 or 1984 or whatever?
Mr. Levi comes home, and he says to his wife and family as they sit down to dinner, “You know the persecutors are getting closer to us. They’re now only two streets away. I believe they’ve been coming down the road, and they’re taking husbands into captivity, and they’re saying that if we continue to name the name of Jesus Christ, they are going to deal with us most severely.” “Oh well,” says Mrs. Levi, “why don’t we just read the book of Revelation and find out what’s going to happen in 2004.” Mr. Levi says, “2004? What’s 2004? What about tonight? What about me? Has this book been written to address our lives?” Now, that doesn’t exhaust its application, but until we understand that that is its primary application, we’ll be just like everybody else—jumping up onto the book and launching off into all kinds of explications.
And the particular problem is found in the fact that these launching pads into dramatic
flights of eschatological fancy have been baptized into orthodoxy in large, large sections of contemporary evangelicalism. And some of you know that, because for me to speak in the way I’m speaking is—woo, you’re wiggling in your seat. “Woo—what is that about? What is he suggesting?” Well, you should be smart enough—goodness, after all this time, have we not learned together that if we’re studying the book of Corinthians, we don’t just read a verse in Corinth, as written to the Corinthians, and then just make application of it to our lives, do we? We don’t just say, “Oh, well, this is what it means for me,” or “This is what I like to think about,” or “This is how it feels,” or “This is how it makes me feel”? No, we’re too well taught for that. We know that before we can make application of the first letter of Paul to Corinth to Cleveland, we must first go to Corinth. We must first understand why he wrote it in a historical context, who the people were to whom he wrote it, what it was they were dealing with, because he wrote to an express situation at that moment in time. That doesn’t exhaust its application, but that was its primary application.
So anybody who comes to you and says, “Hey, hey, Revelation—whee!” you say, “Oh, no hey, hey, no whee, no whoa-ho—not yet. Not until we have discovered why it is that John, at the end of the first century AD, takes time to write this book to these beleaguered Christians.” Have you figured that out? You see, part of the challenge—a large part of the challenge—is that the book of Revelation is not an easy book. And so what it does is it creates two polar responses. (I was just thinking whether you could have more than two polar responses: north, south, east—I don’t know—no, probably only two. So that would make “two polar” tautology; that would make you sound like an idiot.) Anyway, it creates polar responses: some people completely fascinated and intrigued by it, and other people say, “Don’t give me any of that Revelation stuff—I don’t want to deal with it at all.”
Now, how are we supposed to handle that? Well, we’re going to handle it. We’ll finally figure it out. We’ll realize that the book is written in a variety of literary forms. Part of it is just written like letters—letters to the seven churches, remember that? Some of you had some really scary series on the letters to the seven churches, haven’t you? Remember when they told you, “This means this era, and that means that era, and this means the next era”—you’re already seven eras on from it, and you can’t figure it out when you go back and read your notes. Anyway, it’s written in letter form, it’s written in the form of prophetic oracles, it’s written in the form of hymns of praise, and it’s written in the form of apocalyptic visions.
Apocalyptic visions. Not unique to the New Testament, in the Old Testament too, namely in Daniel 7–12, Zechariah 1–6. Those of you who are into apocalyptic visions will, of course, be well familiar with those chapters because you love to go there. You love annoying people in coffee shops with your view of Daniel 7–12 and explaining in an intriguing and elaborate fashion what Zechariah 1–6 means. You just sound like a bad Jehovah’s Witness: those people are constantly in Daniel 7–12, Zechariah 1–6, a reworking of John 1—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God”—and a whole jumpin’ and fiddlin’ around in the book of Revelation. (I saw somebody close the door on them yesterday. I must say I had two thoughts simultaneously: one was, I admire these people’s devotion to go up and ring that doorbell, and number two, I admire that person who shut the door in their face. I don’t know if that’s legitimate or not, but that’s what I felt.)
What is an apocalypse? It’s an unveiling; it’s a revelation—and what John gives us is a series of curtain pulls. He pulls back the curtain and gives us a glimpse behind the scenes of human history. And the immediate purpose of his writing is to assure these beleaguered believers that Jesus reigns and that in Jesus they are more than conquerors.
So, the perfected kingdom, to which it all moves, will comprise individuals who have bowed before Jesus as their King. I can’t evade the dramatic irony of being here on the Fourth of July and preaching about a King. It’s not an earthly king; it’s the King of Kings. And you know the problem—if I may finish in this way, ’cause I must—the problem in America today is the same problem elsewhere. In the story that Jesus told about the delay in his return, he, remember, told a parable about the master who went away—the noble went away—he gave money to his servants, he told them to do their business, and his subjects hated him, and they sent a delegation after him to say, “We don’t want this man to be our king—we don’t want this man to be our king.”
See, that’s actually the dilemma in contemporary America: we don’t do kings. We’re Americans; this is independence. It starts with me, myself, what I want, what I like. What do you mean, King?
And what kind of kingdom is he bringing in? Well, it’s a kingdom that we’ve seen centers on his cross. It’s a kingdom that changes hearts and lives, turns beggars into princes, turns little cheats like Zacchaeus into nice and honest gentlemen. It’s a kingdom that is growing throughout history. That’s why it’s being proclaimed today; throughout the whole world today, people are saying, “Jesus is King.” Fantastic thought, isn’t it? Throughout the whole world today, people are gathering all over the place and they’re saying, “The Lord Jesus is King.” And this kingdom is reaching out to the ends of the earth, and God is going to give to his Son the nations as his inheritance.
Now, we’ll come back to this, but let me finish with this thought: I don’t know why, but I’ve had teenage boys on my mind, in terms of today. I guess I feel for them. It’s very hot in here, and they’re probably wishing desperately they could leave. And the thought occurred to me in the first service, and I’ve just come back to it in each, of how teenage boys (and girls too) at a certain point in their lives love to get out before their father or their mother, get the car keys and turn the car on, at least—sit in the seat. Some of you, I know, take it beyond that. I have a vantage point from up here. If your parents could see what I can see as you spin around the parking lot—woo! That’s a “woo” right there. But there you sit in the car, engine on, quite happy, sitting out in the parking lot. And your father comes, you lower the window, and he says, “What do you think you’re doing in my seat? That’s my seat.” And so eventually you vacate the seat and you let the rightful owner take his place.
What does it mean to be a Christian? See, by nature, boys, no matter how good your mom and dad have been, no matter whether you’ve attended all the organizations in the church here, no matter whether you’ve had three Bibles signed by me as a result of your attendance, by your nature, you’re sitting in a seat, the driving seat of your life—if you like, the throne of your life—that is reserved for Jesus, because he’s the King. And you’ve no business being on that throne. And what Jesus does is he comes to you and he says, “Hey, hey! What’re you doing in my seat?” And until you vacate the seat and invite Jesus to take his rightful place, you’re not a Christian. Incidentally, fathers, you can listen to this as well: until you vacate the seat of your own proud rebellion and invite Jesus to take his place, you’re not a Christian. And so today, on Independence Day, I invite some teenage boys—maybe their dads too—to vacate the throne and to grant Christ the King his rightful place. And what an amazing irony that on July 4th you bowed before the King, and that’s what it’s going to take. And all the other stuff about how it finishes is largely extraneous until first we settle that issue.
Father, I thank you for the Bible, and I thank you that it is clear even when sometimes those who teach it are not. And I thank you that the principle is obviously clear: that the way to understand the obscure parts is to bring them into the light of the clear parts. And we recognize this morning that the main and plain thing in this discussion is the personal, visible return of Jesus Christ in power and in great glory. And the secondary questions have to do with the how and the when, but the primary issue has to do with the what. Forgive us for spending so much time in the peripheral things that we have lost the plot and missed the central emphasis. I pray that you will come and reign on the throne of our lives today, Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
 Revelation 7:9–10 (NIV 1984).
 Ecclesiastes 3:11 (paraphrased).
 Attributed to Barry McGuire, the official Barry McGuire website; the “Biography” page. Paraphrased.
 Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction” (1965).
 Ibid. Paraphrased.
 Alan and Merilyn Bergman, “The Windmills of Your Mind” (1969).
 Ibid. Paraphrased.
 Ephesians 1:9–10 (paraphrased).
 Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970).
 John Napier, A Plaine Discovery, of the Whole Revelation of Saint John (Edinburgh, 1593).
 John 1:1 (NIV 1984).