A Tale of Three Cities – Study 1

A Tale of Three Cities – practical lessons from the book of Revelation

At school we had to read Charles Dickens’ ‘Tale of Two Cities’ – the narrative occuring during historical events in Paris and London. But John on Patmos was shown a tale of the three cities: earthly Jerusalem, Rome and New Jerusalem. We will consider its contents in three series of studies: series 1 on New Jerusalem will have five lessons; and series 2 and 3 on earthly Jerusalem and Rome will have two lessons each.

Study 1: What’s the book of Revelation about?

[] Its subject matter

Far too many mystical meanings and fanciful forecasts have been published through the centuries about the contents of the Bible’s final book that simply cause the reader’s brain to reel from spiritual vertigo. So, let’s get one thing straight from the get-go of this series of studies, beginning where else but at its front door. The Greek text starts with one significant noun: apocalupsis. Sadly for today’s readership the word ‘apocalypse’ has for too long conveyed the sense of disaster. Actually it simply means ‘a disclosure‘ or ‘an unveiling’ – hence the title of the book in the English Bible: ‘Revelation‘.

Furthermore, the opening phrase is literally ‘A revelation of Jesus Christ’, not ‘a history in advance’. Admittedly, the opening sentence continues: ‘which God gave him to show his servants the events that must suddenly (quickly) take place (Revelation 1:1 [margin], New Living Translation – unless otherwise indicated in these studies).

Since the majestic theme of the book is Jesus Christ, let’s open our hearts to discover him afresh experientially in its pages.

[] Its lingo

Almost straightaway (1:3) John wishes God’s blessing on each public reader of his epistle and on those who listen to him in the churches of Western Turkey (‘the province of Asia’) and who ‘obey what it says’. Then, awkwardly, he tells them that this benediction comes to them ‘from He the Is, and from He the Was, and from the Coming One’ (1:4 when translated word for word).  This exact phraseology recurs in 1:8 and 4:8; and some of the words are repeated exactly in 11:17; 11:16 and 22:20. Elsewhere in the book John writes fluently in perfect Greek grammar, leaving us with the inference that he starts by doing what anyone teaching a young congregation today could copy by breaking into ‘youth-speak’ (or even ‘yoof-speak’!) – using the lingo of currently spoken and popularly texted English. The danger in doing so exposes him to being thought only semi-literate by the classically educated listeners. (When David Cameron was Britain’s Prime Minister and first read the letters ‘LOL’ in a text message sent to him on his mobile phone he assumed – very publicly – that it meant ‘Lots Of Love’ which of course made young Conservatives ‘Laugh Out Loud’ with guffaws of even greater volume!). John wanted to indicate from the off that his message will be ‘in-house’ to his readers and therefore counter cultural.

[] Its focal point

John instantly mentions ‘the throne’ (1:4) that he could see in heaven – a word he will use around thirty times. God’s rule is central in John’s vision. Other key words on related themes are: ‘kingdom’, ‘authority’ and ‘keys’. The empire of Rome had been founded by war; the kingdom of God, by contrast, was established by ‘the blood of the Lamb’ of God who had been ‘slain‘ and who had conquered death by rising again to reign (see 1:18; 2:8; 4:9-14).

[] The time of writing

Although some Christians had experienced local outbreaks of persecution, such as those in Smyrna (see 2:9-11), there was no world-wide pressure on Christians to engage in emperor worship. Worldliness was much more of a problem, such as the complacency of believers in Laodicea (see 3:14-22). Emperor worship was not imposed from above; however the desire to integrate could tempt Christians to boost their success in trade by dining in local idol temples and participating in religious festivals. Such socialising would be ‘good for business’. So they would do well to apply John’s recommended ‘eye salve’ in order to gain God’s perspective on history (see 3:18).

[] Its cyclical pattern

John did not write here in a linear style, starting from alpha and ending at omega. He wrote in a format of several cycles, coming back again and again to a fresh beginning. There are seven selected churches addressed individually, followed by seven seals on a scroll that when opened triggered grim events on earth, paralleled by seven trumpet blasts announcing these traumas, and seven bowls containing those various judgments. Surely the figure seven is symbolic rather than literal, giving us a clue to John’s adopted style.

Supplementary notes:

[] When Revelation was written

  1. A time of intense persecution and martyrdom of Christian in Asia Minor (see 1:9; 2:10, 13; and 6:10 – ‘all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony … shouted …, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you … avenge our blood for what they have done to us?”’
  2. The persecution came especially from imperial Rome (see 17:1,6,9 – the city on ‘the seven hills’).The Church Fathers suggested two obvious periods that fit these requirements, namely in the reign of Nero (65 AD) or in that of Domitian (95 AD).

The time of Nero is the more convincing for several reasons:

  1. The seven churches were still being subjected to the propaganda of Judaisers (2:9) – that must be prior to 70 AD when the temple was destroyed and the influence of Judaism collapsed.
  2. The temple had not yet been trodden down by Gentiles for 3!/2 years (11:2).
  3. The dynasty founded by Julius Caesar is accurately described in 17:10 ‘Five kings have already fallen, the sixth now reigns, and the seventh is yet to come, but his reign will be brief’, pin-pointing Nero as the current Caesar: Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius are the five who ‘are fallen’; the one who ‘now is’ (No. 6) being Nero, and the one about to follow briefly will be Galba who only lasted seven months.
  4. The code number in 13:16-18 for ‘the beast’ is ‘666. It is the number of a man.’ This is generally understood as the numerical value of the Hebrew letters of ‘Neron Caesar’.
  5. Other NT writers seem to quote John’s revelation of the New Jerusalem: 21:2 is found in Hebrews 12:22 (‘… you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’); 20:11 in 2 Peter 3:10; 21:1,14,27 in 2 Peter 3:13-14, (But we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth [that are] pure and blameless in his sight’) as though they had read John’s visions.
  6. The book opens and closes with the plain message that its major predictions will soon come to pass (1:3; 22:6-7, 10-20 – ‘Then he instructed me, “Do not seal up the prophetic words in this book, for the time is near”’). Compare this with Jesus’ promise in AD 30 that ‘this generation’ would see the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple (Matthew 24:34).
  7. Although the prophecy also refers to the ultimate coming of the Lord and the final judgment of all mankind, many other references promise a more immediate coming in judgment – the Day of the Lord yet once more invading time (e.g. 1:7 (?); 2:5, 16; 3:3,11). ‘The lordly day’ (1:7 literally translated) was most likely to be ‘the imperial day’, a holiday in honour of the emperor; yet even if 1:7 does refer to the ultimate coming of the Lord it is not said to be the theme of the book.
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