Lesson 45: “He That Overcometh Shall Inherit All Things”
Revelation 1-3, 12, 21
Purpose: To help class members understand some of the blessings that will come to those who overcome the trials of mortality through their testimony of Jesus Christ.
Preparation: Before class, write this table on the board:
Introduction and Background
The book of the Revelation of John! This book is also called the Apocalypse, a word that is nearly as misunderstood in popular culture as the book itself is. When the word apocalypse is used in, say, a movie title, or in a thriller, what does the novelist or the director usually intend? And yet the word, as used in scripture, doesn’t mean that at all – our Bible dictionary, among other commentaries, explains that it means “revealed” or “uncovered” (just as a related word we’ve talked about, apocrypha, means “covered” or “hidden”). A revelation – the Revelation of John – might indeed reveal a picture of [chaos, destruction – use words suggested by class in giving popular definition of the word] – or it may reveal a picture of peace and reassurance and triumph, which is a theme we’ll discuss today.
But how to get to that theme by reading the book of Revelation might be a challenge! Here is how one commentator describes this book:
Revelation is a book to excite the senses. The Bible does not often tell us what color things are, but here everything is red, purple, yellow, blue, green, gold! It is also a noisy book, rumbling with the din of battle and the crash of thunder. Earth echoes with the wailing of the damned; heaven rings with songs and shouts of the saved. And those trumpets! There is hardly a moment’s peace. No, wait – there are a thousand years of peace, but that’s just three verses (20:4-6), and then all hell breaks loose (literally). The imagery is fantastic: buildings and furniture made of gems, and a menagerie of creatures like something Dr. Seuss might have thought up after a sleepless night reading Stephen King: the locusts wear armor like horses (9:7-9), and the horses have serpents for tails (9:19). And what’s this thing that’s part leopard, part bear, and part lion but lives in the sea (13:1-2)? [Mark Allen Powell, Introducing the New Testament, 519.]
John’s revelation is evidently so important that when the Lord showed Nephi a vision of what was to come after his day, John and his writing were among the limited scenes shown.
1 Nephi 14:18-23:
18 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me, saying: Look!
19 And I looked and beheld a man, and he was dressed in a white robe.
20 And the angel said unto me: Behold one of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
21 Behold, he shall see and write the remainder of these things; yea, and also many things which have been.
22 And he shall also write concerning the end of the world.
23 Wherefore, the things which he shall write are just and true; and behold they are written in the book which thou beheld proceeding out of the mouth of the Jew; and at the time they proceeded out of the mouth of the Jew, or, at the time the book proceeded out of the mouth of the Jew, the things which were written were plain and pure, and most precious and easy to the understanding of all men.
Is the book of Revelation “plain and … easy to the understanding” as far as you’re concerned? The popular Mormon understanding of this verse of Nephi – that Revelation was plain when it was written, but is difficult [or use some other word suggested by the class in answer to this question] for us – is that the text has become corrupted, perhaps deliberately, wicked men – and earlier in his vision Nephi does tell us (1 Nephi 13:26-29) that many “plain and most precious parts” of the scriptures would be removed, although he does not say that specifically about the Revelation of John. It may be true that parts of this Revelation have been removed – and indeed, Joseph Smith added quite a bit to this book in his revision of the Bible in order to make it more meaningful – but I tend to think that the main reason we have difficulty with Revelation is not because of corruption, but because it is written in a style that is so highly symbolic, so sensuous and impressionistic – rather than in the logical, journalistic way we are used to reading today. From my reading in preparation for this lesson, I learned that such colorful apocalypses were a common (relatively speaking) genre for the Jews of John’s day – through familiarity with the style, they would have found it much easier than we do to extract meaning from this book.
What has been your experience with trying to understand the book of Revelation?
Joseph Smith gave at least one sermon on the book of Revelation near the end of his life, where he said:
The subject I intend to speak upon this morning is one that I have seldom touched upon since I commenced my ministry in the Church. It is a subject of great speculation, as well amongst the elders of this Church, as among the divines of the day: it is in relation to the beasts spoken of by John the Revelator. I have seldom spoken from the revelations; but as my subject is a constant source of speculation amongst the elders, causing a division of sentiment and opinion in relation to it, I now do it in order that division and differences of opinion may be done away with, and not that correct knowledge on the subject is so much needed at the present time.
It is not essential for the elders to have knowledge in relation to the meaning of beasts, and heads and horns, and other figures made use of in the revelations; still, it may be necessary, to prevent contention and division and do away with suspense. If we get puffed up by thinking that we have much knowledge, we are apt to get a contentious spirit, and correct knowledge is necessary to cast out that spirit.
The evil of being puffed up with correct (though useless) knowledge is not so great as the evil of contention … [TPJS 287]
I make this broad declaration, that whenever God gives a vision of an image, or beast, or figure of any kind, He always holds Himself responsible to give a revelation or interpretation of the meaning thereof, otherwise we are not responsible or accountable for our belief in it. Don’t be afraid of being damned for not knowing the meaning of a vision or figure, if God has not given a revelation or interpretation of the subject. [TPJS 291]
If we take that as our guide, how should we approach a study of the book of Revelation?
[Remember that Sections 77 and 130 of the Doctrine and Covenants give interpretations of some of the symbols.]
Our Bible Dictionary gives some further ideas on understanding Revelation. Let’s read the first two paragraphs of the article (p. 762):
Revelation of John. Also known as the Apocalypse, a Greek word meaning revealed or uncovered. The message of Revelation is the same as that of all scripture: there will be an eventual triumph on this earth of God over the devil; a permanent victory of good over evil, of the saints over their persecutors, of the kingdom of God over the kingdoms of men and of Satan. This is the subject on which Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Paul, Peter, and all the prophets have written. They spoke of a day of victory that would come, and that the end would be better (i.e., more glorious) than the beginning. The victory would be achieved through Jesus Christ.
Such is the theme of the Revelation. The details about the beasts, the wars, the angels, the men, etc., contribute to the development of this theme. By a little study, the theme can be perceived even if the details are not completely identified. It may be in this sense that the Prophet Joseph Smith said that Revelation was “one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written” (HC 5:342). However, the more fully the details are understood, the greater will be the appreciation for the theme. If we fail to catch a glimpse of the theme, we fail in our comprehension, no matter how many details we are able to understand. [Bible Dictionary, “Revelation of John,” 762]
Scripture Discussion and Application
1. John sees several symbols representing parts of the Church of Christ.
2. The Lord tells the seven branches in Asia about the blessings promised to those who overcome.
3. John learns that the Saints overcome Satan through the Atonement of Jesus Christ and their testimonies.
Keeping in mind that theme – that God and the Saints will triumph over evil – let’s look at chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation. In these chapters, John is shown a vision of the church in his day (about 95 A.D.). He sees seven branches of the church that have been established in the land we know today as Turkey [indicate list of branches on the board], and he addresses a few words to each of them. In each case, he notes something the branch is doing right, and something that they need to correct, and he gives a promise about the blessings they will receive if they overcome their weaknesses.
[If time is short, concentrate on the sections address to Ephesus, Thytira, and Sardis.]
*** In the case of Ephesus, for example, we read in verse 2:2, that the Ephesians have been faced with the claims of apostates who presented themselves as church leaders, and the Ephesians have successful detected and refuted their claims.
2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil; and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:
Nevertheless, he calls them to repentance in verse 4, saying that the church there has “left thy first love,” suggesting, perhaps, that they have forgotten, or are not practicing, the first principles that brought them into the church of Christ. And then in verse 7, he gives them a promise of the blessing they will receive if they repent and overcome their weaknesses:
7 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.
Now, the “tree of life” is just as symbolic as the stars and the candlesticks and the white stones and the beasts that we read about in Revelation, but it has more meaning for us than many of the other symbols because it is a familiar one to us from many sources. What does the “tree of life” represent?
1 Nephi 11:21-22:
21 And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?
22 And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.
What do you think about the element of “eating” the fruit of the tree of life, rather than simply beholding it, or enjoying being in the shade and protection of the tree of life? Why is eating such a powerful image for us?
In the next few verses John addresses the church in Smyrna, acknowledging their tribulations; his sympathy may be praise for their hanging on to their testimony despite poverty and persecution. He warns them that they must prepare to endure even greater trials. But then, in verse 11, he gives the promise about overcoming:
11 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.
What is “the second death”?
16 And now behold, I say unto you then cometh a death, even a second death, which is a spiritual death; then is a time that whosoever dieth in his sins, as to a temporal death, shall also die a spiritual death; yea, he shall die as to things pertaining unto righteousness.
Does John promise the Saints that they won’t suffer the first, or temporal, death, or even the suffering that often occurs before that temporal death? We have all suffered, and seen loved ones suffer, the effects of sin – either our own, or as the victims of others. Does it ever really remove, or even lessen, the pain and grief of that suffering, to know that eventually we can overcome? How? What can you say to or do for someone who is suffering to help them keep their trials in perspective?
To the next church, Pergamos, John tells them he knows they are holding to the faith, but he cautions them about their love of “the doctrine of Balaam,” the Old Testament figure who prophesied not because he was a humble servant of God, but because he wanted the riches and honors of the world. The promise he gives them for overcoming that temptation is found in verse 17:
17 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; to him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.
We know what “manna” was to the Children of Israel in the wilderness: a literal foodstuff that supported their physical bodies. What could manna have been to the Saints in Pergamos, and to us?
35 And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.
Why is the symbolic manna, or the bread of life, hidden, as John describes it? Isn’t the love and salvation of God freely available to anybody who wants it?
And of course you probably couldn’t help having your mind drawn to the temple when we read verse 17. We don’t have time to develop that theme, but know that some LDS writers have detected many such temple-related details in the Book of Revelation, and that might be a fruitful way for you to consider this book as you study on your own.
*** Moving on, let’s read verse 19 to find out what John has to praise about the church in Thytira:
19 I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first.
He warns those saints, though, in a long symbolic description of a harlot, that they are in danger of being crushed by the powers and kingdoms of this world. He gives them a promise, though, in verses 26-27, which I am taking from the Joseph Smith Translation rather than the King James version:
26 And to him who overcometh, and keepeth my commandments unto the end, will I give power over many kingdoms;
27 And he shall rule them with the word of God; and they shall be in his hands as the vessels of clay in the hands of a potter; and he shall govern them by faith, with equity and justice, even as I received of my Father.
This is a day when everybody is talking about what kind of government they want and how the law should be applied. If we were to follow John’s advice to the church in Thytira, what would we need to do in order to get the kind of government we want? But of course, is it only earth governments that John is speaking of here?
One phrase I find interesting in these verses as modified by Joseph Smith is that God will govern “with equity and justice.” Do you understand the difference between “equity” and “justice”? [Explain that “justice” is the letter of the law, the strict rule, while “equity” means fairness, taking into consideration extenuating circumstances. Equity requires the application of mercy.]
*** John next addresses the saints in Sardis, telling them that he knows of their reputation of good works. He cautions them that their works are not perfect, however, and they must hold fast to the truth, and repent, lest they be unprepared for the Lord’s coming. His promises to them are found in verses 4-6:
4 Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy.
5 He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.
6 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
Turning again to the Bible Dictionary, the entry for “Book of Life” tells us:
In one sense the book of life is the sum total of one’s thoughts and actions – the record of his life. However, the scriptures indicate that a heavenly record is kept of the faith, whose names are recorded, as well as an account of their righteous deeds.
“He that hath an ear.” No doubt Mormon ears are more attuned to hearing things in those verses that the rest of the world might not hear. How does keeping our temple covenants relate to these verses – that is, how can our acting on those covenants, and not merely passively making them while we’re in the temple, affect our standing in the book of life?
The Lord, through John, makes an interesting promise to the Saints at Philadelphia, who have kept God’s word and not denied the name of Christ:
10 Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.
It might be that the promise is that those Saints will be spared the trials and temptations that are common to the world; if so, it was a peculiar promise and not one that can be extended to the whole church, because we’ve been told time and time again that we will not be spared. Or, more likely, the Lord will keep the Saints from falling into temptation because they kept, and keep, his word. How does righteous living make it easier to resist temptation?
Finally, John speaks to the Saints at Laodicea. He says they are neither righteous nor wicked, neither cold nor hot, and he has a special contempt for that carelessness:
15 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
What does it mean to be “lukewarm” as to things of the spirit?
Yet even in this the Lord makes a promise to the saints at Laodicea:
21 To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.
If the Revelation of John were given in our day, and our ward, or at least our city, were one of those addressed by John, what might he find in us to praise? What might he condemn? And what would be the promise to us for overcoming those faults?
[Summarize the lesson briefly: It may be difficult to understand the Book of Revelation because of its highly symbolic style, but its theme – that the Saints will triumph with God in the end, because of our testimony of Jesus Christ – is easily understood by the faithful.]