The Book of Revelation
Biblically, the end of all things speaks of the last things in terms of the goal that God has with creation, human history, and especially the history of the church. That goal is the very same as the last thing – the second bodily coming of Jesus Christ.
Our study in this class will consist of examining what the Bible teaches concerning the last things, in closest connection with what all of us are experiencing presently in creation and in history. We want to see this especially in light of the book of Revelation. Fittingly, Revelation is the last book of the Bible. Unfortunately, it is also the least well-understood book of the Bible. Our study will shed light on what we are experiencing in the present time. In addition, the events that are taking place today will not only bear out the prophecies of Revelation, but also serve to make more clear to us what the book of Revelation is prophesying about the last days in its vivid, figurative language.
The book of Revelation is in the main figurative. It consists not of plain, straightforward construction, but in pictures and figures. The book of Revelation itself tells us in 1:2. John saw, not heard the truth about the last things. The book teaches us by way of pictures and visions. To interpret those visions correctly is a challenge. Although the church has in general understood the basic teachings of Revelation, it is only when these visions are transpiring in history that the church will be able to clearly and fully grasp its teachings. As these prophecies are happening in their full, final reality will the church clearly grasp the teachings about the end times.
The book shows us “the things which must shortly come to pass”. That is the summary of the content of the entire book. The actual taking place of these things will help the church to grasp the prophecy of them. The description of the events in the book of Revelation will make plain to the church what she is going through, what she is experiencing with a clarity that she never had before. Although the book forewarns us of what is going to happen, we will only understand clearly what the book is teaching when these things take place.
The Letters to the Seven Churches (chapters 2-3)
The first important thing that one must realize, is that these letters are part of the teaching in the book of Revelation about the last things. They are not
just a short section on the doctrine of the church preceding the teaching about the last things that will follow in chapters 4 and following. That is often the idea that is left by the preaching on these letters to the seven churches by ministers. It happens sometimes that a minister decides to preach the doctrine of the church in the light of the letters to the seven churches. The minister himself supposes and gives the congregation to suppose that these letters are an independent section on ecclesiology.
The letters to the seven churches are an aspect of the book of Revelation, an aspect of the truth of the things that must shortly come to pass. We must expect them to take place shortly in connection with and preceding the second coming of Jesus Christ. Rev. 2-3 teaches that in the last days, churches that had been true churches of Jesus Christ will fall away, and will apostatise. We remember similar warnings in 2 Thess. 2:3. There, the apostle says that one of the signs of the very end will be a great falling away. The apostasy of churches that had been true churches of Jesus Christ – that truth is the subject of Rev. 2-3. Jesus taught the same in Matt. 24:11-12. The love of many shall wax cold. That is, love for God and love for His law and gospel. That is going to be cold in the last days. That is a description of apostasy in the churches.
Notice that this warning comes first in the book of Revelation. So crucially important is this matter of the falling away of churches that this comes first in Jesus’ instruction concerning the apostle John. Let us never forget that. This must take place and will take place. And then reflect on the fact that we are seeing this take place in our day as never before in the history of the NT church. The falling away of churches that once were true churches of Jesus Christ. What we have in the seven letters is not merely a sign that we observe in the Roman Catholic church, the liberal Protestant, Reformed and Presbyterian churches that are becoming cold in their love. It is a sign that calls the members in such churches to exert themselves to bring such churches to repentance and reformation. Then also, the warning about the falling of the churches in Rev. 2-3 calls true churches to remain faithful.
Apply this in a practical way. I suppose that the majority of you are members of the PRC. We must apply the warning of Rev. 2-3 to ourselves, to the PRC congregation that we are members of. These great evils that amount to a falling away can happen to us, can be found in us. Take note of the fact that these seven churches in Rev. 2-3 were once true churches of Jesus Christ. They were organized by apostles of Jesus Christ, by Paul himself. He laid the foundation. In the course of 30-40 years after the apostles formed one of these churches, there was a female preacher on the pulpit and catechism room, who was teaching the people to commit fornication, to live infamously and wickedly.
I do not believe that members of true churches should live suspiciously, that we should come to church looking for heresy, or living in the fellowship of the church with a critical eye. But there is another danger that is equally serious, and that is that we take for granted that everything is going on fine because we had been established on a strong foundation. This departure can happen to us. The minister and elders must especially be on their guard. But we Reformed believe in the office of all believers. Every member of a true congregation is called by Jesus Christ to observe flagrant departure in the preaching and conduct of the church. The churches are responsible before God to observe such departure.
Most of the churches in Rev. 2-3 had fallen away, or contained such errors that threatened apostasy. Rev. 2:4. That is a serious error, a fundamental error – losing her first love. They had a strong love in the beginning when they were first converted, when they knew the gospel of Jesus Christ that delivered her from the filth and corruption of the world. That is as serious as a man or wife losing their love for their spouse.
Look at Pergamos in Rev. 2:14-16. This church had once been a sound, true church of Jesus Christ. He commands them to repent, and threatens to fight them as an enemy with the sword of His mouth. That is what comes first in the book of Revelation with regard to eschatology – the falling away of churches. Look at Thyatira in Rev. 2:18-26. Look at Sardis in Rev. 3:1-4. The Lord threatens to come upon them as a thief, as an enemy. Always when a church falls away, sexual immorality abounds. The last example is Laodicea in Rev. 3:14-17. Of the seven, only two were faithful. Only two were approved by Jesus Christ in his examination of them – Symrna and Philadelphia. Calculate that percentage.
First, notice that the falling away of the churches resulted from a loss of love and zeal for God and His doctrine. That is made known in His word. Ephesus left its first love (2:4). Pergamos tolerated the false doctrine of Balaam (2:14). Thyatira tolerated a female preacher and false doctrine. Sardis was spiritually dead – no life of Christ in the congregation. Laodicea was lukewarm, disgusting to God. The falling away that characterises the churches in the last days is the loss of love and zeal.
Second, the nature of the falling away of the churches was the practice and tolerance of immorality – especially sexual immorality. The churches are always in bondage to that sin. That is the nature of the society in the West. It is not surprising that this is especially the nature of the immorality that infects the churches in the last days – sexual immorality. That is the nature of the television programmes, the movies, the featured magazines today. That is the practice increasingly of the people who call themselves Christians. Pornography, fornication, adultery, and homosexuality.
With regard to the nature of this apostasy, in some cases there was outright antinomism. Antinomism is the outstanding characteristic of the apostate churches in Rev. 2-3. Antinomism is not simply lawless behaviour, but it is the teaching that because we are saved and justified by faith alone, we may freely commit all kinds of wicked behaviour. We will be forgiven, we are saved by grace, therefore we may sin freely. Antinomism is a teaching that opposes the law. It denies that the law of God is still the guide for the saved child of God. It advocates immoral behaviour on the ground that we are not saved by our works anyway.
There are preachers that take that bold position openly today. Usually antinomism disguises itself somewhat. Our sinful nature is prone to antinomism. Rev. 2:14,15, 20, 24 teach that. It was not just practical immorality. It was a doctrine, a theology that was taught by the Nicolaitans. The doctrine of Balaam and the Nicolaitans is antinomism. Sin as you please because you are living by grace alone. The female preacher at Thyatira was teaching the people to plunge the depths of Satan so that they will know the grace of Christ to save them.
Is that in churches today, churches that used to be true, sound Reformed and Presbyterian churches? The doctrine of antinomism is as much a reality in 2015 as it was during the writing of Revelation. If there is no such extreme lawlessness of antinomism, then the apostasy of the churches consists of tolerance towards false worship and conduct. There is no discipline, a lack of discipline in the churches. There is no excommunication of members in the church who show themselves to be living impenitently in sin. Rev. 3:4. Most of the church had defiled their garments. It is well-known that they were living in immorality, and they were not disciplined. The bride and body of Jesus Christ could be such a filthy creature as the people in Sardis were.
The same thing holds for the worship of the churches. In their public worship they were advocating a doctrine of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. The sins of these five churches are evident in the churches today, even in churches that in certain respects are praiseworthy. The churches that are sharply rebuked in Rev. 2-3 were praised in other aspects of their church life. Ephesus, for example. There was discipline in that church, and opposition to false doctrine. There were commendable qualities in the church at Ephesus. Nevertheless, Christ had somewhat against her because she had lost her first love. There was tolerance of false doctrine, immoral behaviour, coolness with regard to God and His truth.
Content: Prof. David Engelsma | Issue 42
(Class Notes taken by: Aaron Lim)