David Williams summarises his talks from the VCF Southern Weekend 2024

Apocalypse! What does that word suggest to you? It is the Greek word we translate as Revelation.
When I asked the students in our chapel community at St John’s College in Cambridge to give me the first words that came into their mind when I said, “The Book of Revelation” the ones that came out were ‘mysterious’, ‘hidden’, ‘unknowable’. But to reveal is to make clear, to unpack you might say, to show what’s really happening.
So, why is there such a disconnect? Maybe it comes back to that first word. Apocalypse. It is the first word of the book. Right back at the beginning of the Bible, the books in the Hebrew scriptures were given as their title, the first word of the book. So, Genesis starts Bereshith, which means ‘in the beginning’. The Hebrew title for the book we have as Exodus is Wellech Shammoth (‘these are the names’) after which we get the names of the sons of Jacob who went to Egypt. Moving to the end of our scriptures, the Book of Revelation was originally called the Greek word Apocalypse (Revelation).
But what is revealed? It is the revelation of Jesus Christ. Whether that means it’s Jesus’ revelation, given to him for us, or the revealing of Jesus isn’t quite clear – maybe it’s both! But it is not what we understand now by the word ‘apocalypse’ – an end of the world crisis. Or perhaps it is! The word has given rise to the term apocalyptic as a genre title.  The genre of revelatory literature is one ’with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, in that it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.’ Is that helpful? As the joke goes: If you don’t know what eschatology is, don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world!
But that definition seems to work, to start with at least – ‘the revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him to show his servants what soon must take place, known by sending his angel to his servant John.’ But after those first few words John lapses into what we think of when it’s Paul writing as a standard first century letter. We are told that what we’re reading is from John and to the seven churches in Asia, just as any letter would start. John says a fair bit more than just grace and peace from God though. He says, ‘from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first born of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth’. Gosh, we are only five verses in and there’s a lot to unpack already.
We’ve had two sevens already, (seven spirits, seven churches) just as a spoiler alert that numbers are going to be important through the book.
Seven is really important. To start, John writes to seven assemblies represented by seven lampstands. But we know there were more than seven groups of Christians in the area. He doesn’t mention the Colossians for instance, or those in Miletus just to take two major Christian groups at the time. Perhaps what John has got to write is relevant to all Christian groups, he’s just used 7 as a number denoting perfection – seven days of the week, seven seas and seven planets known at the time. In fact, look at a map and you see that these seven churches are in a circle suggesting that they may be representative of all the Christian communities. There are seven seals to be opened on the scroll John is handed, seven trumpets sounded, seven bowls poured out. And this sevenfold structure is there, even where it’s not so obvious. There are seven characteristics of the 140000 and seven visions; seven times God is called Lord God Almighty; seven times Jesus says, ‘I am coming’. Now back to that 144,000 (12 times 12, times 1000). 12 is obviously key in going back to the 12 tribes of Israel. And a thousand is important too. Square numbers like 144 and cubes like a thousand are important to John – the holy of holies in the temple was a cube. Triangle numbers like 666 are important in suggesting forces opposed to God.
Another way of Revelation using numbers is what the Greeks called isosephism, the practice of adding up the number values of the letters in a word to form a single number. So, add up the letters in beast, ‘therion’ and they equal 666 as does Nero Caesar. You might by this time ask why I am concentrating on these. Not because you must have an A level in maths to read Revelation, but really because it shows what sort of a world John was writing into. A world on the one hand which based itself, at least for the Jewish believers, very much on links with the Old Testament and on the other for people in the Roman Empire on things apparently crazy to us like, the numerical value of your name.
Let us have a quick look at how Revelation uses the Old Testament. It is nothing as obvious as the gospel writers who often give direct quotes. But apparently there are hundreds of allusions to the Old Testament many of which link to Daniel. In the first chapter, John sees someone looking like the Son of Man in a white robe with a gold belt, just the same as Daniel saw in the 7th chapter of his prophecy. The four creatures around the throne in Revelation link to the four in Daniel seemingly representing four empires. In Daniel and Revelation horns represent power, of one human authority over another, eventually overthrown by another. There are images from further back though. Bowls poured out producing painful sores, rivers turning to blood, abundant thunder and hail in Revelation all mirroring the plagues afflicting the Egyptians in judgement from God in Exodus. John eating the scroll in Revelation 10 draws on images from Ezekiel 3.
And Revelation is full of metaphors which can be difficult to interpret. Is John talking about the world in which his immediate audience were living or one in the future, the sixteenth century Reformation, the rise of Hitler, Russia during the Cold War, or now? So, when John talks about the beast emerging from the sea the hidden subject is, in his time, the Roman Empire coming across the Aegean Sea. But maybe it is Satan more widely crossing the metaphorical sea which is always seen as representing chaos right from Genesis chapter 1. Perhaps it’s any human power standing up against God himself.
We said right at the beginning that John sees someone like a son of man, his face shining with brilliance. When John falls at his feet what does He say? ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last, the Living One. I was dead and behold now I am alive for ever and ever And I hold the keys of Death and of Hades.’ (Rev 1:17b-18) Mmm – first and last. A few verses earlier the Lord God has said I am the Alpha and the Omega, (Rev 1:8) the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet. And at the very end of the letter God is called Alpha and Omega the beginning and the end (Rev 22:12). Now for Jewish readers Isaiah calls God first again and again, while for the Romans Zeus was considered to hold the beginning and the end of all things. John is shown that it’s Jesus who is the first and last, the alpha and omega, the beginning and end of all things. And that equates Jesus with God himself. Not a problem for us for we know that placing Jesus as an equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit is key to our understanding of God. But for John’s first readers that was by no means a given. All the way through Revelation that’s a key revealing of Jesus. One to be praised and glorified above everything else.
The question is who was claiming ultimate authority in John’s time? Well, it was the Roman emperors, particularly Nero whose name equals 666 as we saw previously. After Nero’s death in 68AD we had four emperors in a year ending with Vespasian. His two sons were Titus who only lasted for a couple of years then Domitian, whose coin you can see here. Actually, it is the reverse of the coin in the picture, and it portrays Domitian’s son. Given that from Ceasar’s time the emperor was deified that makes his child the son of god. But who is John telling us is the true son of God, the controller of the universe? Jesus of course, the true alpha and omega. John is encouraging us to accept Jesus as our alpha and omega. Is he the first thing you think about as you wake up in the morning and the last thing you think about as you go to sleep? I hope so.
As a child I didn’t know my father until I was 11 as my mum and dad weren’t married which, although common these days, was quite unusual in the early 1960s. My mum thought that she couldn’t offer me any moral education given the situation she had got herself into, so she took me along to a local church, the Round Church in Cambridge where I became a Christian. But over the years sitting in the pews there I always questioned the stained-glass window in the front of the church. The cross surely was where Jesus died a horrendous death, yet in the window in the Round Church you see a glorious Jesus in a king’s robe holding his hands up in triumph not in agony. After the letters to the seven churches John is taken to the throne room in heaven. Around the throne were four creatures, a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle and what were they singing day and night? ‘You are worthy O Lord and God to receive honour and glory and power’ (Rev 4:11). And who was on the throne? ‘See’, says the angel, ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.’ (Rev 5:5) John looked at this Lion and saw a lamb!
A lamb looking as if it had been slaughtered standing in the middle of the throne. Now if there is anyone who knows what a lamb that’s been slaughtered looks like then it is a vet. Not a happy sight. John’s readers would have known what that looked like too as sheep were killed in the temple every day and the Passover celebrated the death of a lamb and its blood being smeared over the doors of the Israelites aiming to flee Egypt.
It’s just impossible to picture this slaughtered lamb standing with these seven horns, showing power and insight. That is the whole point of a metaphor, it cannot be illustrated easily. The elders around the throne and the angels cry in a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the lamb who was slain’ (Rev 5:12) because with your blood you purchased people from every tribe and language. And the lamb opens the first seal of the scroll and what does John see? A rider on a white horse! Now while some people want to see this as Jesus himself, the horse is only one of four as you probably know. He’s probably there to show conquering by rulers bent on dominance and victory. Roman emperors to a tee. But boy things don’t change do they, whether it’s Ukraine or Gaza. Trump or Netanyahu. The rider on the red horse is war more generally with people killing each other. The black horse seems to link poverty and justice or the lack of both. And the final pale horse brings the others together as death and Hades.
The fifth seal opens up, the martyrs crying out, ‘How long, oh Lord?’ (Rev 6:10) We might quite properly ask the same thing today. The sixth seal yields earthquake, the sun turned black, the moon blood red, and mountains moved from their place. The day of God’s wrath has come. But four angels are told not to harm the land or the sea until the servants of God are protected with a seal. Those are counted as 144,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel. But then an uncountable multitude from every nation stand before the throne and what are they crying out? ‘Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb’. (Rev 7:10) John is told that never again will any hunger or thirst for the Lamb will be their shepherd. Now that is just standard for us, isn’t it? We know Jesus as the lamb and Jesus as our Shepherd but think how crazy that must have been for the people who first heard that – and for people today who are new to Christianity.
Images swirl around again and again. John sees a great red dragon standing before a woman in childbirth. Giving birth to a male son who will rule the nations. What seems to happen is that these images swing like a pendulum from heaven to earth and back again and it is difficult to work out exactly where you are. Maybe that’s how it’s meant to be. If it were all understandable to start with it wouldn’t need revealing. Anyone who says, ‘Ah well the antichrist is clearly this person, or that person of the prostitute means this or the red dragon that’ maybe they haven’t quite understood who is being revealed in this Revelation, Jesus Christ. So, do we just dispense with the stuff that isn’t directly about Jesus here and now?
Perhaps it would be helpful to know more about the time John was writing for some of the allusions he is writing about. We have said that lots of the links are with the Old Testament. The red dragon might link with the serpent in Genesis 3 or the monster of the deep in Psalm 74 or the dragon in Daniel 7. The woman groaning in childbirth might link to the woman in Isaiah 66 who is probably the people of God coming out of exile.
The pregnant woman clothed with the sun in revelation and with a crown of 12 stars in chapter 12 must be the people of God and she produces a male child. The red dragon, illustrating evil, aims to devour her son but he is snatched up to the throne room of God ready to rule the nations with a rod of iron as Psalm 2 prophesies. Confused?! Perhaps John is telling his first readers that God is key in these apparently non-Christian myths and is in control. How does that fit in today I wonder? Maybe God is telling us that while there seem to be whole areas of the world where our faith has no part to play – Iran or China, maybe even north America – He is still in charge. There is evil around for sure, pure evil, just like the python monster dragon but on the cross that evil is conquered.
Towards the end of the revelation John sees the lamb upon the great white throne. Before that though we have the millennium during which Satan is bound and the martyrs reign. Now given what we have said about John’s use of numbers we really shouldn’t be looking for a literal thousand years. Indeed, those who spend inordinate amounts of time working out when this will be and what happens at its beginning and end are to my mind barking up the wrong tree. What Revelation does tell us is that those who have been publicly humiliated because of their commitment to Christ will be vindicated. Just as Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel, ‘Whoever publicly acknowledges me I will acknowledge before my father in heaven’ (Matt 10:32). Because of this, patient endurance is the name of the game before this overthrow of evil occurs.
Will my hamster be with me in heaven? Do you get asked that relatively frequently? What do you say? I will make all things new, says the Lord. Does that include hamsters?! Now, I remember as a child at the Round Church being told, that heaven was somewhere where people were with God after they died. Maybe not quite a cloud somewhere up in the sky with a whole load of saved souls sitting there but not much different. And all too often Christians think of heaven as a place where saved people go to be with God. And that means that our focus now should be on getting people saved so they can be in heaven at the end. I’m not going to say that leading people to a loving relationship with God is not important, but what it doesn’t mean, to my mind, is that nothing else is important. God says I will make all things new. Not just people who believe. What do you reckon is the best-known verse in the Bible? Yes, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so whoever believes in him should have eternal life’ (John 3:16). When I asked ChatGPT that question it pointed straight to John 3:16 – so it must be right! But note that it is God so loved the world (the Greek word kosmos) not people, or Christians! God so loves everything he made, not just us. Remember Colossians 1:15-16, Jesus is the image of the invisible God for in him all things on heaven and earth were created and through him God was pleased to reconcile all things through the blood of his cross.
Peter says in his second letter if things are going to end up this way when the Lord comes as a thief in the night, what sort of people should we be? Can we foreshadow heaven in our consulting rooms or our operating theatres? Well, I hope that we can. For that child with the hamster you may be about to euthanise, or the old lady whose dog is needing complex surgery, we can.
Look to Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun born in 1515 who said:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Ours are the hands with which he reduces animal pain, ours are the voices with which he calms the anxious owner, ours is the calming presence in the operating theatre when things seem to be going wrong and everyone is on edge.
‘God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’. Where have we heard that before? Isaiah 25:8. And it’s here too in Revelation 21:4. Let’s move back to the heavenly Jerusalem descending at the end of Revelation. A huge city 1500 miles across with high walls made of precious jewels, twelve gates – but gates that are always open. It’s shining with a heavenly radiance. But what is the only thing it’s lacking? A temple. Crazy, hey? I mean the temple was the key feature of the earthly Jerusalem. The most important part of the city. But what was the temple for? The meeting place between God and his people, though only for that one day of atonement each year on the Holy of Holies. But now God is everywhere in the new Jerusalem so there is no need for a temple. There isn’t a sun or a moon either – nor day, nor night. The city reminds us of Ezekiel with water flowing starting ankle deep but soon enough to swim in. And trees on either side, trees bearing fruit for food and with leaves for the healing of the nations. How we need them today. God now dwells with his people in the same way that he walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. If there doesn’t seem much of a link between the heavenly city and that paradisical garden, just remember that Mary mistook Jesus appearing to her after his resurrection, taking him to be the gardener. Jesus as the perfect second Adam was there as the new gardener creating a new heaven and a new earth. Not just a long way away in the future but right there and then, and right here and now.
The Spirit and the bride say ‘Come, anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift come and drink’ (Rev 22:17). Surely, I am coming soon, says Jesus. Amen. Come Lord Jesus. Come and be with us now in your resurrection glory not needing to wait for some end time. The whole point of the cross is that it brought forward that judgement day at the end of time to now on the cross where the price was paid for our sin. He is the alpha and omega, the first and last, the beginning and the end. And what does he say? ‘Blessed are those who have washed their robes so that they have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city (Rev 22:14). And the grace of the Lord Jesus be with all those set apart for him. Amen!


Back to News