Lecture 56: Revelation - Chapters 1-12
Lecture: Revelation: Chapters 1-12
With regard to the outline of the Book of Revelation, if you look at vv. 1-8 you have the prologue, and then at 22:6-21, the epilogue (in other words, the introduction and the final concluding comments to the readers as such). Some interesting things happen as you read the prologue. For instance in v. 4,
“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come [in other words, to God the Father], and from the seven spirits who are before his throne [here we have the reference to the Holy Spirit described as the seven Spirits – probably borrowing that from Hosea, the Spirit of wisdom, the Spirit of power, etc.], and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead.”
It is interesting that these three, the Father, the Spirit, and the Son are often placed together in this Trinitarian-like combination. You have that in Matthew 28:19, “baptizing them in the name [singular, interestingly enough] of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”; and you have that in 2 Corinthians 13:14, this three-fold putting-together. And right away, you know there’s something about Jesus that in these formulas makes him different from normal human beings. We never see something like “in the name of the Father, [and then put any preacher’s name in there, like Billy Graham], and the Holy Spirit”, or the like. That would be blasphemous. And the New Testament does that – it does it coincidentally. It does that because it’s the natural thing to do, which indicates that there’s something about Jesus that is extremely unique once again.
In 1:9-3:33, we have references to these seven churches that are present. And we commented about the similarity in presentation, with kind of a set formula. We have a message from Jesus who is described in light of one of the attributes mentioned the earlier Chapter 1 description of Jesus. Then you have something like “I know …”, indicating that Jesus understands the struggles that are going on in each of the churches. Then there is a promise along the lines of “to him who overcomes there will be granted….” and you have something like eating from the tree of life or their name being written in the book of life – something of that nature.
In 3:5 there is this reference to the book of life, and there are many references to this in Scripture. Once again, I think you have to start asking yourself what this book of life is. Is there some huge Library of Congress in heaven where there’s a book of some sort, or is this all a metaphor? In other words, there isn’t any book. Don’t misunderstand me -- what the book signifies exists, but there’s not a literal book, as such. And, this is a fairly easy notion to accept, and we get this kind of thought time and time again in the Book of Revelation. The reality that is being described by the metaphor exists -- there is a record of those who are God’s people. It is in the mind of God; it’s not written in a book of any sort, but it’s described metaphorically as the book of life. And some may ask if your name is “written down”, but “written down” in this sense is really referring to whether your name is in God’s mind as one of his children. And that’s described metaphorically as being “written in the book”.
After that, the various churches are described (and my understanding of this is that these are real churches in real places, with real problems being discussed). Keep in mind that when this letter was written, it was brought to the church in Laodicea or Ephesus or Philadelphia – these are real live letters at that time. On the other hand, they’re a part of a larger letter: this whole book, which is being read to the church. But it had something specific for each of these various churches. These churches are not just “symbolic, made-up” ideas of churches. These churches are real, and these problems existed in that day.
In chapter 4, we have the vision of God, and please note that there is no description or likeness of God being described here, because we aren’t to make any graven image unto God. So we have him being described in light of a gem, a jasper stone in its purity and brilliance; you have him being described as having a throne which is overshadowed by a rainbow (a rainbow of grace is a sign of God’s kindness and care, etc.); but there is nothing that’s describing God himself, because that would be idolatrous and we can’t do that.
When we get down to v. 7, we have these living creatures described in various ways. If you try to visualize them, it just doesn’t work out. They have six wings, eyes all around, etc., and they’re essentially cheerleaders, leading the congregation in praise to God (or maybe you could say that they are music directors of some sort). Along with God in this vision, you then see a vision of Jesus. In 5:5, after weeping because no one is present who is qualified to open the scroll, an elder says, “Weep no more; behold. The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” So the Lion of Judah has conquered. And then when you expect this lion to be described, in the very next verse he’s described as a lamb, because the lion conquers not by his ability to slay others, but because of his sacrificial death. And the lamb is there, and again he’s described as having seven horns, great power, seven eyes that can see and understand, etc. And he’s given the scroll to open it.
Now in reading this, you realize that there are metaphors being used here. And we never ask the question as to how a lamb with hooves can open a scroll, because that would press the metaphor too far. We have to just press on and go with the flow of these things. If the lamb can do this, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, then you realize that the lamb itself is a sort of a metaphorical understanding, just as the Lion of Judah is. And the imagery is impressive, and it’s helpful, but if you try to press it too far, you simply get into a world of impossibilities of sorts. I’ve seen pictures of someone trying to describe literally the beloved in the Song of Solomon. Have any of you seen that? It’s just kind of a grotesque nonsense, because these are all metaphors. There is a huge neck, and things like that – it’s impossible, because metaphors aren’t meant to be taken literally in that way.
Beginning with chapter 6, we start with the first of the three-fold seven series. Here we have the seven seals, and if you look at the first, it involves conquering and to conquer; the second is that peace is removed from the earth, and there is the slaying of one another; in the third there is now famine in the land (the first two seem to deal with war, and famine is a natural consequence of war); and in v. 7 we have the fourth seal, and again we have war being described. So there are four seals here, and they seem to describe war and the various consequences of war that affect the earth. There are horrible times coming in this way. We have never gone through a war. But when people in biblical times would go through wars, and cities were destroyed, and plagues would come, all sorts of horrors would be associated with it. You have to understand it from that perspective – of the horrors that war, which are partly due to the sin of humanity and the experiences of this.
But now when we get to the fifth and sixth seal, there is a shift in scene. This scene is in heaven, and here in the fifth seal, there is a cry from God’s people for justice (6:10), “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” So you have here now a scene of the martyred in heaven, who cry out for justice that God will bring justice upon the earth. And then, in the sixth seal, we see that justice coming. Judgment is coming, and those who are responsible (v. 15-16), “… the great men and generals …calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.’” So, we have the first four seals showing war and its consequences on earth, and then a change in scene. We’re now transported to heaven, where the people of God who have suffered martyrdom cry out for justice, and in v.6 we see a justice that’s going to be forthcoming, and God brings that upon the rulers and kings of the world.
Now, you expect the seventh seal to start, but there’s an interlude here, which will heighten the anticipation to get to the seventh seal. But in the interlude here, we have in the midst of all of this a couple of scenes of comfort. The first is the sealing of the elect in vv. 1, ff. They are sealed so that no judgment will fall upon them, and they’re numbered 144,000 (12 times 12 – there are 12 tribes, 12 times, making 144,000). The symbolism has to be understood here. There was an offshoot denomination that was trying to reach the number of 144,000, but when they reached that number and began to exceed it, they weren’t sure what they would do. You have to understand this as symbolic – the complete number of God’s people.
In 7:9 you have a glimpse of the saved in heaven. I don’t think we’re talking about a different group, but the same group is described in a different manner here, and they’re enjoying the bliss of heaven. Verses 13-14, “’Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’” So with all the tragedy taking place on earth, we are transported to heaven in the interlude, to see the bliss of the elect of God. And they have “… washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Now if you press that, you’d say that white robes, when they get bloody, don’t get clean; they get dirty. But it’s a whole different metaphor. Here in this sense, they’ve been cleaned because they’ve been forgiven of their sins, etc. And they will no longer hunger; they will thirst no more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat; and the Lamb is sitting there; and God will wipe away their tears. So there is this interlude expressing the bliss of those who have suffered for God, and are now in heaven (or, who are about to suffer and will go to heaven). Don’t try to get a single timeline as to what’s going on; we’re flying back and forth here. And for the church that is reading this letter -- they are the ones that will soon experience some of this persecution, and now they know by this interlude and scene, that if they die for the Lord, this will be the bliss that they will have in heaven.
After that interlude, we finally get to the seventh seal, and there’s excitement about this. The trouble with this is that, when the seal opens, you don’t have something like what we had in the first six seals, but now you have seven trumpets being introduced. Does that mean that the seventh seal equals these seven trumpets? Probably. That’s the way I’m inclined – that the seventh seal is opened and these seven trumpets are part of the seventh seal. And once again, you have a grouping. The first four of these deal with natural kinds of disaster – nature gone wild, with hail, etc. In 8:8, “The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea.” This is probably a reference to the blowing up of Vesuvius in AD 79
(the volcano that blew apart and destroyed Pompeii and other cities around it). This looks very much like the kind of thing that you would write to people and describe to people living on this side (historically) of Mt. St. Helens or something like that. I had the privilege of visiting Pompeii and walking thru the city and still seeing that volcano up there, and remembering that it was not just a sleeping volcano, but is still quite active. I was thinking that the people living there presently must be crazy. Vesuvius destroyed a very immoral city. When you walk through that, it looked like a huge Hugh Hefner playroom – there was great immorality in Pompeii. There was a port city, etc., that was also that way. Then there are the other kinds of things being described here, but it looks like these are metaphorical descriptions of natural disasters of one sort or another.
After that, you have then again a difference in the fifth and sixth trumpets that take place. These don’t look so much like natural disasters, but demonic kinds of plagues that happen. They (9:2) come out of “the bottomless pit”; and in v. 4, they are not to harm the land, “only those of mankind who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads”. In other words, the unbelieving world is the recipient of this, and it’s to bring torment upon them. And then, there are these descriptions of horse-like locusts, monstrous in size with scorpion tails that do excessive pain for five months, etc. Then you have the sixth trumpet, and this is, believe it or not, even greater in that regard. You have (9:16) “The number of the cavalry was twice ten thousand times ten thousand.” And these also destroy and torment, and they too don’t torment the believing world. But in vv. 20-21,
“The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.”
So apparently this is portrayed as coming upon the wicked, and the writer of Revelation is pointing out that, even with this happening to them, they still do not repent. And there’s a sense in which this is permitted by God as a possibility for them to repent and turn, while there’s yet time; and even in the midst of all this tragedy they do not repent.
Then we have another interlude to build up the suspense for the seventh trumpet. And here you have the eating of the scroll which is given to John to eat, and this scroll is the knowledge of things that are about to take place. When he eats it, he finds in 10:9 that it is sweet in one sense, in the mouth, because he now knows what the future is, which he always wanted to; but it’s bitter because it talks about judgment that’s about to take place.
Then after that, in chapter 11, we have the measuring of the temple. This is all taking place after there is no more Jewish temple. We’re not talking about a real temple. We’re talking about a temple that is a metaphor for the people of God. And so you have the people of God being measured here, and you have, probably not so much two specific witnesses, but they represent the church as a whole, these two olive trees and lampstands, and they are witnessing to the truth, just as John’s churches (that he’s writing to) are witnessing to the truth. The measuring of this is a metaphorical way of saying that you measure this out, and this is protected territory. But, their deliverance is a deliverance not FROM tribulation and persecution, but THROUGH tribulation and persecution. For they are not spared; they are killed (the witnesses), but they rise from the dead. So there is this protection upon God’s people. They’re getting killed, but that’s not the issue, because that can only destroy the body. And if they do die, the fact is that they will rise from the dead anyhow. So the church is seen as protected in one sense, and yet they can still be killed in it. So the idea of God saving us – he saves us from wrath, but not necessarily from martyrdom.
We have in America especially this very strong emphasis in certain churches (in evangelicalism especially), of escape from tribulation – pre-tribulation rapture and all of this kind of thing. And if you think for a minute, when has the church ever thought that it would escape tribulation? The invitation is to take up a cross and follow Jesus, and the writer of the Book of Revelation is preparing martyrs. So what they escape is the wrath of God that could destroy them forever. They’ll never experience that, but they can experience the wrath of the enemy and death and persecution and martyrdom. But they rise from the dead, and that’s the hope of these churches as they read v. 11, and they can say, “What can people do to us? If they put us to death, we go to be with God.” Paul tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39), “… neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities …” nor persecution, nor troubles nor toils, etc. So, v. 11 is a word of comfort.
And then it comes finally to the seventh trumpet in 11:15-19, and this becomes the brief snapshot of the final consummation of all things,
“Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.’ And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying, ‘We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.”
So what we have here is a brief snapshot of the end of all things, but we’re going to go over things again. One very important aspect of Revelation is that if you try to read it on a linear dimension, one thing following another, it becomes all fouled up. You have to see this as cyclical, repeating time and time again, because this end will be described further on, several other times. It is a repetition. People need to hear it time and time again.
In 12:1-12, then we have the Christian story. We’ve had the end of all things just now, and now we’re going to go back to a story about the birth of Jesus. Now, please note that I list here the Christian message told in the form of a “myth”. I put it in quotation marks. I’m scared to use that word because it can be so badly misunderstood. When people talk about myths in the gospels I really get upset, because this is different. The gospels are historical narrative-type materials, things that all happened in normal life. But this kind of writing isn’t normal life; it’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe kinds of stories. And, I don’t know what other word to use. I was going to use the word “metaphor”, but it’s really an other-worldly story used to describe the reality of the birth of Jesus. And it’s described this way:
“A great portent appeared in heaven [a great vision]: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron [It’s Jesus; it’s the son of God. The woman is either Mary or the church (the people of God of whom Mary is the representative, who gives birth to the Son of God).], but her child was caught up to God and to his throne [he ascended into heaven], and the woman fled into the wilderness [here you have the allusion must be more than Mary -- the church] where she was in a place prepared by God, in which she was nourished for 1,260 days.”
So what we have here is the coming of the birth of the Son of God, the Ascension, and the attempt to destroy the child, which was unsuccessful.
Then we have a switch in scene, and we have Satan in heaven, fighting Michael and his angels. And they were defeated (Satan and the dragon), and (vv. 8-12)
“… there was no longer a place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
The way I look at this, is that this shows the defeat of Satan in his role as the accuser before God. He accuses God’s people, and his accusations about our sin and our deserving judgment are done away with because we have conquered through the blood of the Lamb. And that battle with Michael and his archangels is just a way of saying that here’s a new battle, where Satan comes to God and accuses the people of God, but his accusations are rejected, and he’s cast aside because all of those who’ve been accused have been saved by the blood of the Lamb. And so, his defeat up in heaven in his role of accusing us of things has come to an end, and now he comes to earth once again, and he seeks to persecute the church.
In v. 13, “He pursued the woman who bore the male child ….” The woman is preserved by going into the wilderness; the serpent tries to drown her with a flood of water, but the earth rescues the woman. The church will not be destroyed, but will be triumphant -- not in a sense that it will dominate the world population-wise, but that in all of Satan’s attempts to defeat it, the church will not be overcome. God will build his church; he will be victorious. And even in the midst of persecution by the enemy, the church grows. It’s remarkable that, as the early church fathers were being persecuted and even put to death, it was proven, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” (Tertullian). It grows, and Satan cannot overcome it. It will be victorious.
I remember that there were times that we did certain kinds of testing at Bethel Seminary, where seminary students were asked questions like, “Do you think that the church will survive in the future?”, or “What do you think of some aspect of the church in the future?” And every time I looked at that question, it was interesting to see how students would answer it, because that’s the one thing I’m sure of. Whatever may happen on earth, the church will remain until Jesus comes. He will see to it in the midst of all that.