The Book of Revelation (notice the singular) elicits strong reactions -- some people are absolutely fascinated by this book, its strangeness, the visions, and the violence. Maybe it's the fact that it seems like a code they have to crack is what hooks them; perhaps it's the idea that this books holds keys (sort of like Nostradamus) to the end of the world.
There are others that think that the last book of the Bible for a reason. It is the last book they are interested in reading. A couple of years ago when I offered a course in Revelation to our adult forum during the winter, a few extra people showed up -- but one of our Bible presenters, a retired pastor and great theologian, asked me, "Why are we studying THAT?"
Yet, here we are, and I hope that along the way we can clear up a few misconceptions about that book. There are things to be decoded in it, and there are things that (contrary to what you may have heard) cannot be decoded. They were written in the way they were to hide them from Roman persecutors; the book of Revelation was written to give hope to persecuted Christians, without giving away too much information to those who were persecuting them. It is a form of literature called "Apocalyptic", which is not so common in the Bible, but does exist, in a few places (Matthew, Mark and Luke all have short apocalyptic sections, and the Old Testament book of Daniel is known as apocalyptic literature.) The word "apocalypse" means "revelation", and it does have to do with visions of the end of the world. Usually this literature was written in a time of persecution, when the people also did not have much power. Prophets also interpreted the present and the future, and often called the people to repentance and hope. Apocalyptic prophets preached God's defeat of their enemies and ultimate victory.
That being said, the first three chapters of the Revelation are also a letter, aren't they? Like all of the other letters that precede this one, John (on Patmos) writes, not to individuals but to churches, seven churches in particular. He is writing both to encourage and to admonish them, and he has specific words for each church. Ephesus has lost their first love, Smyrna is going to suffer, but God will give the the crown of life. Pergamum is holding on, but some follow "Balaam's teaching" (whatever that is). Thyatira has done great works, but has also put up with Jezebel, Sardis thinks it is alive, but is dead. Philadelphia has been faithful and will be protected through a time of persecution. And then there's the church at Laodicea -- they think they're rich, but they are really miserable. They are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold.
A few little things to notice: each congregation has an angel. the message is to the angel of the church.
One of the most famous verse in the Bible, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock" is, in fact written to that seventh church, the one at Laodicea. It is a part of their call to repentance.
The figure that John sees at the beginning of the vision (with the hair white as well) is very similar to a figure in the book of Daniel, the "ancient of days."
Notice all the sevens. Seven stars, seven churches, seven lampstands. There are a lot of interesting things with numbers in this book. The number 7 recurs (this is the number of perfection or completeness in Hebrew numerology). So, are there really SEVEN churches, are is seven a number indicating John means ALL the churches?
Whatever the answer, this much is for all of us: "If you can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." And know that the strange words of Revelation has really, two purposes: to cause us to repent, and to give us courage.
What comes next will be easy to hear, but not always to easy to understand.....