Revelation (part 1)
Lecture: Revelation Part 1
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The final book of the Christian Canon is technically known as the Apocalypse but rendered in the English Bible as the Book of Revelation. It is an oddity of recent English popular Christian usage that the book is often called the Book of Revelations, as if the title was plural but no English addition of the Bible so labels this last and wonderful book. Thus, while it undoubtedly has nothing whatsoever to do with one’s sanctification, it certainly reflects a measure of education if one will discipline oneself to refer to the book by its Biblical name, ‘Revelation.’
What a mystery! John Calvin once commented that while he had written commentaries on virtually all of the New Testament, he deliberately did not set to write a volume on Revelation. Simple because he was convinced that he wasn’t sure what he would say. That approach would be a good model for many throughout the history of the church who have been too quickly convinced that they knew precisely the meaning of every last detail of this book. And also those who confidently use it to decipher current events of the times they live, predicting scenarios by which their generation would see the return of Christ. We have discussed some of this in the introduction of the letters to the Thessalonians. The only things that can be said without exception to this, is to date one hundred percent of them have been wrong. Someday, one may turn out to be correct but my guess is that the exact scenario that will usher in Christ’s return will not have been traced out in advance by anyone. That is part of why Christ will come as a thief in the night, even though, those who are prepared because they’re always watching for him, will not be surprised in the way others who are not looking for him. It is better therefore to approach the Book of Revelation with different objectives than correlate these with the headlines of recent and coming newspapers articles. It is better for us to encourage those among whom we have opportunities for ministry, for those who will believe and trust us to read and reflect on and ponder and not get caught up in whatever the day’s fashion is in terms of popular writing and preaching on how we know that we are living in the last days of the last days and can began to see all kinds of predictions being fulfilled around us.
Never forget that Christ in his discourse on the Mount of Olives as he outlined those kinds of signs of the times that in fact have recurred so regularly throughout human history. Signs such as earthquakes and famines and war and rumors of wars will happen, and he concluded that these things must happen but the end is not yet. And still so many Christians completely inverse that as if what he had written was, when you see such things, know that the end is now or very soon.
What then, should we do with the Book of Revelation? Well, as with our opening lecture on introduction to Paul, here, as we close this lecture series on the Epistles and Revelation, we can only begin to scratch the surface and therefore feel a need to comment some good literature to the theological students listening and studying this series along with the accompanying textbook.
But for a full detailed overview of a combination of approaches on the Book of Revelation, though undoubtedly bias by the fact that he was a former teacher and professor, Grant Osborne’s commentary on the Book of Revelation and the Baker’s Exegetical Commentary series on the New Testament published in the early 2000 is unsurpassed. At a midrange level, very readable by the serious lay-person, we continue to recommend Robert Mounties New International Commentary on the New Testament, especially as much as it was revised in the late 90s after already establishing itself as a standard twenty years earlier. For popular level challenge and insight, Eugene Peterson’s book, Reversed Thunder, has insights into contemporary trends while the somewhat more formal commentary in the NIV Application Commentary series by Crag Keener going well beyond what most of the volume’s in that series do with the original meanings and historical background, especially in footnotes. Nevertheless, it remains also wonderful introduction even if thorough one to all the issues surrounding this marvelous book, including those of contemporary significance. If one can find through an inter library loan or used books or photo copied form now that it is out of print, Robert Mounties’ barely one hundred page paperback of a study guide for introductory readers and readings of the Book of revelation, ‘What Are We Waiting For?’ This is complete with study guide questions and remains unsurpassed to this day. It is a tragedy that at least at the time of this lecture’s dictation that it has not again been brought back into print. Out supplementary textbook will refer to this in both the footnotes and bibliography and numerous other good sources, a few of which we will note as this final set of reflections as Revelation unfolds.
A key background for the book, picking up on just a few highlights in the hopes that the textbook is reasonably self-explanatory, despite the same kinds of doubts expressed surrounding the authorship of the Gospel and three Epistles that bear John’s name, a credible case can be made out again for Revelation as well; this is the Apostle, son of Zebedee, an elder man in the mid-90s, 1st century, on the island in the Greek Aegean Sea, Patmos that may have functioned as a penial colony though that is disputed; it was the place that Scriptures and traditions suggest John was exiled as one of the leaders, most likely under the persecution of the Roman Emperor Domitian during the years of 94-96 AD exercised a short lived but at times intense persecution selectively against Christians and particularly against the more out spoken Christian leaders. John receives visions from the Lord one Sunday while he was worshiping and writes those down as best as he could and then sends them off to churches in the Roman province of Asian Minor which today would be Western Tuckey. This was to encourage the churches as the persecution extended to them or at least looms increasingly on the horizon. It speaks of Christians at the end of each of those seven letters as those who overcome rather than succumbing to the temptation and renouncing their faith. The literary genre of this book partakes of apocalyptic first of all, the very first word in what today we call chapter 1 and verse 1, a well-known literary genre of which there are many Jewish and Greek, Roman and later Christian examples. You can see particularly the excerpts in Mitchell Roches’ volume on apocalyptic literature, a reader in which above all one comes to expect past, present and future events of human history, particularly impinging on the people addressed to be described in a highly symbolic fashion. The worst guidance that can be given, despite the popularity of such guidance is to take everything in a book like Revelation as literally as possible. The same mistake would apply equally to trying to understand an editorial cartoon in our newspapers today. One has to understand what the imagery denoted and connoted to a 1st century or turn of the century Christian author with either Jewish or Greco-Roman background in Asia Minor.
Nevertheless, by the time we get to Revelation 1:3, we see that the author views himself as a prophet and his writing as a prophecy as well, which means Revelation as prophetic and apocalyptic, distinguishing itself from certain other forms of apocalyptical literature that focuses only on the past and or present events is to be viewed certainly like so much of Old Testament prophecy as proclaiming God’s diagnosis of the present state and appropriate ways for God’s people to respond. But it goes beyond that, having a future oriented or predictive element as well. So that once the code or symbolism that the author is employing is understood, one will recognize that genuine future events from John’s perspective at the end of the first century are being revealed to him in his visions. He then attempts to communicate, with no doubt, frustrations of mortal language, in the written form of this book. And then finally, Revelation is epistolary in form, not merely because it was mailed to the seven churches, but also in chapters 2-3, it contains the seven letters, each written uniquely for a specific church but designed eventually to circulate among all of them and then, no doubt, more widely so that each can learn from the kinds of comments made to the other congregations as well.
Of all the approaches that have been suggested and we echo many commentators to say that there are elements of truth in all of them. It would seem that a combination of the present and future with an emphasis then on the future is the best approach to interpreting this book because of this combination of genres. It does refer to things that will happen in the future, particularly from chapter 6 onward, the futurist approach captures the fullest of the combination of what John originally intended. But because it had to be meaningful to readers at the end of the 1st century, one has to understand historical events and background of that time which is the view and approach that the preterits excel in, though often creating a dichotomy and not adopting futurist convictions that these events are yet to come but to see them as almost entirely fulfilled in the 1st century.
Even more debated is the approach to the millennium with the various views discussed in detail in our textbook, but it is the Lecturer’s conviction and for readers whose views who differ and also listeners to this lecture series who views also differs, we ask only that you give us the kind of hearing that the Bereans gave Paul in searching the Scriptures daily to see if these things might possibly be true and if you come to a different conviction, we extend the right hand of fellowship because as on other topics where we’ve made the point, no one’s salvation is at stake, no one’s sanctification is at stake on a peripheral theological debate such as this. We need to learn better how to learn to disagree together in love. At least the listeners will have heard one approach, arguably the dominant approach prior to Augustin in the first several centuries of the Christian era and in terms of pre-millennialism, certainly a widely held approach, particularly at the beginning level among evangelicals world-wide for the past century and a half. Although, as the textbook goes, the pre-millennialists have divided themselves into classical or historic pre-millennialist on the one hand and dispensational pre-millennialist on the other hand with the later in my opinion proving less probable and particularly with its advocacy of a pre-tribulation rather than a post-tribulation rapture. At this point however, we merely clarify our pre-understandings and leave our textbook to articulate them and the rational for them in greater detail.
The map on the next PowerPoint slide introduces us to that portion of Tuckey; we scrutinized somewhat when we discussed 1st Peter. But it zeros in more specifically on the seven churches of Revelation and one can see that although, it is by no means a circle as some people have imagined when they hear the term circular letter. One needs only to connect the symbols for churches from Ephesus to Smyrna to Pergamum to Thyatira to Sardis to Philadelphia to Laodicea and back again to see that the lines do not intersect in any point and in fact, well-travelled roads though the map doesn’t show this. One could see how it could have been possible for well-travelled roads to connect each of those communities in the order in which we find the letters listed in Revelation 2-3. This in fact was the case in the 1st century so that the theory of a given church making a copy of the document to keep for itself and then passing it on to the next church is quite plausible.
To tour the ruins and visit the modern cities that stand on the sites of the seven churches of Revelation, is a most rewarding experience. Among other things, it introduces you to a full range of Biblical Archaeology and the ability today with remains or what is covered over to excavate different sites. We have already looked at some of the extensive ruins of the church and community at Ephesus when we introduced the letter to the Ephesians. Here, indeed, is a portion of Saint John’s Basilica reflecting the traditions that this indeed is where John settled down to minister during the later stages of his life and to which he returned after the very brief exile on the Island of Patmos ended by Emperor Domitian’s death and the end of the persecution for the time being. The church dates from the 4th century and onward, but is a reminder of these traditions associating John with Ephesus.
The next slide turns to the spectacular theatre in Pergamum, one of the best preserved and/or re-enforced buildings of the ancient ruins, complete with the back walls with perfect acoustics. Now, moving to Laodicea we see in the next slide the ruins of the entrance to a later Christian church there; for the most part there isn’t that much left to see. This provides us with an object lesson of the threat from Revelation, the spewing out of the church from his mouth due to their lukewarm attitude. We see the Roman fortress or acropolis over-looking Pergamum reminding us of their imperial presence and the ever present temptation on the local level for imperial officials to give Christians a hard time, not least because of their unwillingness to treat Caesar as Lord and sacrifice to him, though they did agree to pray for him. In the letter to the seven churches and to the church at Pergamum where a reference to Satan’s throne appears, which could refer to the center of Roman Imperial allegiance and worship. It could refer as well to what once was a small temple or shrine erected to Zeus, the head of the Greek pantheon of gods, still marked by the tree and the scattering of stones, a few still in straight lines and steps form where that temple originally existed.
Not much remains in Philadelphia, though a small and picturesque modern village does occupy the site of the ancient city of ‘Brotherly Love’. But this large pillar of a very grand archway, once marking the entrance to another church from a few centuries after the time of John, called the Church of Saint John, the Theologian, is perhaps the most dramatic thing for tourists to see there. A spectacular reconstruction of the façade of the gymnasium at Sardis, complete with Latin letters and inscriptions on almost all of the wall here in this image, originally marked the place where one would go into a type of multi-recreational center, ruins of hot, medium and cold Roman baths can still be seen after one goes through the archway. The one difference of course, being that there was religious significance, in this case, one or more of all of the many Roman options which conflicted at one level or another with Christian convictions and thereby made Christian participation in the recreation activities and sporting events always a controversial matter with different opinions among different Christians being expressed.
And then, finally, we see again in Sardis, ruins of the shops that line much like our strip malls, the edges of the large open air market places, the agora (market place) in Greek or the form in Latin. If you ever get a chance to take a tour and see these and related sites; including others that follow in the steps of Saint Paul, don’t hesitate to take the opportunity for such. In many seminaries and studies it has always been encouraged to take such trips and invite others who would be especially interested in such travels. These trips are usually taken in May of any given year.
III. Revelation Time Line
The outline of the Book of Revelation is reasonably straight forward in broad strokes and very difficult to determine, especially for the large center piece of that structure in minute detail. Chapter 1 creates an introduction to all of the books and visions that John received. Chapters 2-3 clearly present in closely parallel form though not in content, the letters to the seven churches. Chapters 4-5 give us a window into the heavenly praise going on chronologically. The only thing that we can say is that it refers to praise at some time after that moment in which Christ returned to heaven, triumphant because he appears there by having made atonement for the sins of humanity. Chapters 6-19 return to earth and present a backbone to the outline to twenty one judgements of God on the wicked people and their wickedness, the unbelievers of this earth in three consecutive sets of sevens, depicted symbolically by seven seals that enable a scroll of God’s coming judgement to be unrolled and read, seven trumpets announcing further judgements and seven bowls or vials of God’s wrath and symbolically depicting horrible things overflowing from their container and poured out on the earth. Finally, chapter 20 introduces us to a thousand year period of a golden age of human history with Christ reigning on this earth, but still elements of imperfection and opportunity for evil to rear its ugly head and seduce people to rebel against God and everything good at the end of that period and then chapters 21-22 reflect the banishment to the lake of fire forever of all wickedness and all the wicked and the complete re-creation of heaven and earth as a place of perfect glory and enjoyment for the redeemed of God’s people.
IV. Revelation 1-6
Some exegetical notes for Revelation 1-6: I remind the readers that a much greater detail appears in our accompanying textbook, Acts through revelation, An Introduction and Survey by Craig Blomberg. But to continue, the theology of Revelation has often been viewed as limited, almost entirely to eschatology and then to minute debates over the specific end time’s scenario that had been revealed to John. A profitable exercise in reading through Revelation can help to bracket all references however straight forward or symbolic to eschatology or the study of the end times and look merely what Revelation teaches about the whole range of other theological topics and doctrine. And perhaps chapter 1 is as good a place to illustrate this as anywhere. For example, if one reads merely from the greetings and doxology, another pair of features that are often found in works that are exclusively in epistolary form as we have seen repeatedly. One reads Revelation 1:4-8 where we see John writing to the seven churches in Asia offering them grace and peace. Paul did the same thing in his letters combining key Christian and Jewish greetings. That grace and peace is said to be from God and if we are not sure that this is referring to God, we will see shortly as he is described as the One who is, who was and who is to come, that is the everlasting. The Omni temporal and yet one who is distinguished from Jesus Christ in verse 5. And from the seven spirits who with the footnotes throughout the NIV and TNIV are also rendered the seven-fold or the complete spirit from that common Jewish usage of the number seven; a number of perfection which goes all the way back to the days of creation. This is probably with Richard Balkan and others, though against David Onia and others, a reference to Holy Spirit and thus we have a key Trinitarian reference here already in the opening verses of John’s greetings.
The person and work of Jesus Christ is then unpacked further and the faithful witness, the one who preserved his testimony and did not abandon his faith, his mission, despite his agonizing crucifixion/martyrdom inflicted upon him, but leading him to become the first born from the dead. The first chronologically in rank, not merely to have been resuscitated however miraculously, but resurrected to new life, thus inaugurating the new age and Messianic Kingdom. And because he is preeminent and sovereign, only to God the Father in majesty and rank throughout the universe, he is Lord of the Kings on the earth. But balancing this sovereignty is his tenor love, to him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, atoning by substitutionary sacrifice and has made us to be a Kingdom and Priest to serve his God and Father, our derivative regal and intercessory roles that give us direct access to Christ, to God, who is also our heavenly Father, with not merely the authoritative connotations of the 1st century and behind that term, but also tones of intimacy that in the best cases attach to it.
Even as one gets into that which is more explicitly eschatological, never forget that 1:7 is the key piece, the key fundamental of the faith that historic orthodox Christianity has always agreed on, that Christ is coming back as a combination to world history and the ushering in of a very different kind of human existence though still in continuity with the heavens and earth that he originally created, redeeming his originally good creation and purposing for that creation. We can agree on that, we can agree to disagree on almost everything else.
Turning to chapters 2-3, we see from the kinds of descriptions of the seven churches with two receiving only commendations, two that receive condemnation, (one of which receives somewhat of a comment while the other, nothing) and the remaining three representing a spectrum of strengths and weaknesses and in between. This represents the whole spectrum of churches from the best to the worst in any given age with Philadelphia reflecting the best and Laodicea the worst in this particular era. Intriguingly also, because of the many things we could follow up in the letters, we will do so a bit more in the text. Please note that in discussing 1st Thessalonians 2 with the references to a synagogue of Satan in 2:9-3:9 aren’t anti-Semitic against all things Jewish but rather reflective of very local persecution from two specific synagogues, but also did occur in other places, particular after the so-called, ‘blessing of the heretics’ which was an actual curse on the heretics. Among them was the Nazarenes, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth and reflective of the addition of the Synagogue liturgy of praying down cruses on these apostates from Judaism. No wonder that tensions ran high when Jewish Christians in the churches which John writes have been ex-communicated, their names erased from the registers of the synagogues and one can understand why in those instances a Christian writer would see the hand of the devil behind the action that had been taken. It’s worth also commenting that it is not merely Philadelphia, though it received the lavish praise but Smyrna received no condemnation.
For those who like to consider Philadelphia as symbolic alone of the true church of Christ in any era, the example of Smyrna gives the lie to this approach, but the reason why Smyrna doesn’t commend itself to many people as Philadelphia does as a model because despite their faithfulness, despite no hint of any fault on their part, we read in Revelation 2 that they are going to have to suffer for a short period of time, including imprisonment, persecution and even death. Whereas Philadelphia in 3:7 and following are given an open door; in verse 8, a place before them that no one can shut. Seemingly an open door for ministry without the kind of opposition that Smyrna will experience, because in verse 9, those who claim to be Jews though they are not, spiritually speaking, they are not the true heirs of the faithful Israelites of old though they may be ethnically Jewish, will come and fall down at your feet and acknowledged that I have loved you. This is not the same type of local enduring persecution that Smyrna will receive.
The next point covered three somewhat abused texts in these letters to the seven churches. Interestingly all three come from the letters to the best and the worst churches, Philadelphia and Laodicea, perhaps because of there being the best and the worst has received the most scrutiny which has led to the wide spread use and or abuse of these texts. The first is Revelation 3:10 which follow verse 9, ‘since you have kept my command,’ John continues to the Philadelphian Christians, ‘to endure patiently, I will also keep you in the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth. Is that a way of promising a pre-tribulation rapture? If the trial or tribulation is going to come upon the whole world is indeed that severe tribulation that immediately precedes Christ’s return about which Revelation will speak more explicitly beginning in chapter 7. Interestingly the expression kept from or to keep from employs the Greek verb, tereo following by the preposition and the only other combination of this exact pair of words in the New Testament appears in John 17 where Christ prays that his followers would be kept from the evil attacks of their day even while he explicitly makes clear that remaining in the world. If the tribulation here is a reference to the great tribulation at the end of human history, then the parallels in language would more support post tribulation than pretribulation. But it’s interesting that nothing else in chapters 2 and 3, even remotely suggest the great tribulation elsewhere persecution and hard times the Christians are going through or that loom on the horizon are uniquely those things took place in the 1st and 2nd century and therefore back to which John is referring here with the world as more than once in the writings of the first century being synonymous to the known world of the Roman Empire. If that is the case, we may deduce nothing about the form tribulation that John would be endorsing.
In chapter 3:15 the letter to the church at Laodicea and reads, ‘I know your deeds, you are neither cold nor hot, I wish you were one or the other. Because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I’m about to spit you out of my mouth.’ If we have ever had any archeology or not, it ought to sound odd to one familiar to Biblical theology in general when one hears the claim perpetuated by popular preachers and occasionally even by scholarly commentators, that the point of John’s teaching here is that God would rather someone be totally opposed to him or enthusiastically following him than committed half way undecided. Surely that is a perverse thought; surely God and all God’s people would far rather have someone on the blink of finally making a full-fledged commitment to Jesus than one from all human perspective appears to be beyond committing to Jesus and indeed my fall into that category that we will discussed in earlier lectures of having committed the unforgiveable sin and therefore being beyond the ability to return to Christ. From the 1950’s onward, there is now no excuse at all for holding any question or doubt about the church at Laodicea as archaeologists have confirmed that Laodicea did not have its own fresh water supply and therefore received either what began as cold crystal clear mountain water running down the Roman aqueduct to the city or from the hot therapeutic springs near Hierapolis, very much used for soothing and healing purposes, hot springs continue to be used today. Thus both cold and hot therapeutic are positive metaphors and it is only lukewarm that is a negative metaphor in this text. God would much rather have the Laodicea’s be on fire for him and so the metaphor is for full-fledged commitment rather than what they now find themselves in.
Finally in 3:20, maybe the best known of all of these three texts; ‘here I am, Jesus says, ‘I stand at the door knocking, if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them and they will eat with me.’ This is a text widely used for evangelistic invitations to let Christ come into to the hearts of the unsaved. Nothing is theologically wrong in this case with that interpretation and perhaps it is even derivatively true application of John’s original meaning but it’s not likely to have been John’s original meaning since he is still writing to a church of professing Christians, at least some of whom are true believers, if not a large number, even though they may be in that carnal or worldly state which we discussed when we looked at 1st Corinthians in 3, not clearly showing their true colors and therefore needing to be encouraged further. Doubtless John fears that some are not true believers at all and hence the comments about the fact that an evangelistic interpretation could be a derivative application but first, it is concerned for those who have ‘back slid’, who are not advancing in their Christian life as far as they should have, who need to turn back to the Lord with full vigor and he is writing more collectively as in all of the seven letters the church as a whole than he is to individuals. His first focus is that the church as a whole, recover more of what it once had.
Turning to chapters 4 and 5 and the majestic hymns of heavenly praise; many of which inspired Handel and his Messiah, we see a strategic placement of these two chapters, immediately before the unleashing of the tribulation and tribulations to come; much like the transfiguration in Jesus’ ministry came near the start of his road to the Cross as a way of giving his followers and himself a glimpse of the future, of the future glory that hopes of which can sustain people during the hard times. But as so often is the case even for all people by means of death and others by means of suffering preceding death. The tribulation comes first and there is tribulation, whatever ones eschatology that all believers must endure before they can receive the full glory that is promised to them.
Another point that needs highlighting because it sets up our understanding of Chapter 7 and is a new perspective for many introductory theological students, is the vision in 5:5-6, we might say the vision, the hearing and the seeing of Jesus in symbolic grab as the lion who is also a lamp. As John is morning the apparent lack of anyone being able to break the seal on the scroll that will depict end time judgement. Christ appears who alone is worthy, who will be able to unfold and disclose what is about to come, but instead of him being described here as Jesus, or Christ or Son of God and any other unambiguous title; we read, ‘one of the elders said of John, do not weep, see the lion of the tribe of Juda, the root of David has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.’ The lion was already in the Greek world of John’s day, a metaphor for the king of the beast; this also is the tribe of Judah, clearly the messianic tribe of the Jews who had looked forward to; a Savior coming on the basis of Old Testament prophesies. The root of David narrowing down that this messianic king would be in the line and model of great King David. It’s no question that this is Jesus the Messiah in view but he is described with the powerful kingly regal metaphors and symbols in visionary form for John’s benefit as a lion.
But we are never told that John sees any lion. All the elder does is to say to him, ‘see, look, there’s a lion.’ But in verse 6, presumably describes what happens when he looks and when he sees, reads, ‘then I saw a lamp.’ And not a baby sheep but one looking as if it had been slain, a sheep led to slaughter. Also with Old Testament symbolism, the suffering servant passages of Isaiah 52 and 53, the Passover lamp that was slaughtered. Beginning with the time of the Exodus and on from there. But why choose this imagery here out of many options, not least; it is about the most diametric opposite metaphor of symbol to a lion out of the pool of options available to God that would make sense to God from his particular historical background. The lion who is also a lamb, the conqueror who conquers through martyrdom, the king who suffers and dies before he can triumph, that paradox or semi-oxymoron is at the very heart of the Christian Gospel. I recall 1 Corinthians 1 here and 2 and elsewhere. Keep that in mind as well when we come to chapter 7.
Meanwhile, thanks to the triumph, chapter 6 begins that large middle section of Revelation that unfolds the coming judgements. There are two reasons, though this is disputed for seeing the first set of judgements or at least the first five of the seven of the seals as not part of the great tribulation of the last days of the last days itself. But rather as pre-cursers to tribulation of those things that must happen and have happened throughout church history, throughout human history repeatedly and undoubtedly continue to happen and as we have already commented in Christ’s Olive Discourse in Mathew 24 and Mark 13, these things will happen but the end is not yet. The end is still to come but birth pains, there are labor pains like those of a woman giving birth, reminding her that there is a baby coming. But for any woman who has experienced false labor, very core predictors of when the actual birth will take place, except to remind her that the process is continuing and that thing are closer than they were. Thus when we read about the seals that is explained as imperialism, conquering, death, famine, warfare and all of its horrors, we realize that there is nothing unique the great tribulation immediately preceding Christ’s return about these judgements from God. Just as Christ in the Olivet Discourse said, ‘these things must happen but the end is not yet.’
With the 5th seal, we have a very different kind of explanation, namely the cries of the martyrs’ as to how it must be, before God’s full vengeance, i.e. final judgement will come and the answer again simply, a little longer. Yet another way to reinforce our understanding that these are not the last set of events that come toward the end, but earlier preliminary suffering, even though more delay is still to hand. With the sixth seal, we apparently have a very different kind of judgement of God. One that is with the first glance appears not only appears part of the great tribulation but to bring us to the very end of that period as if it belongs to the last of the seven bull judgements rather than here as nearly the six of twenty one judgements in totally. In chapter 6:12, we read that John watched as the angel opened the sixth seal and there was a great earthquake, the sun turned black like sackcloth made of great hair, the whole moon turned blood red and the stars fell to earth as figs dropped from the fig tree when shaken by a strong wind, the sky was like a scroll as every mountain and island was removed from its place and even if this is not literal language, it describes such cosmic upheaval that it’s hard to imagine how the universe could continue in any fashion, not to mention the more theological explanation in verse 17, the great day of wrath of God and the Lamb has come and who can withstand it?
V. Unsealing a Scroll
At this point, we need to be reminded of the fluidness of apocalyptic language, even if these are still the seals that enable the scrolls of God’s final judgement to be unrolled. If one thinks of seals as shown on the next PowerPoint slide, not as animals in a zoo, but as a wax insignia poured while still hot in a mold onto an open end of a scroll which is allowed to cool and dry in that mold before it is removed so that it hardens and affixes the seal shut. One can see how even with five seals unrolled, taken off rather, one can begin to appear into the scroll and see what comes ahead. Certainly by the time one takes the sixth seal off, depending on how close to the very edge of the scroll where the seventh seal is located. One could begin to unroll a fair amount of the scroll and see it. So it is not entirely mixing metaphors to imagine John being given a vision in the sixth seal of a flash ahead, just as we speak of flash backs in literature and film, to the threshold of the day the wrath of the lamb has come. But then without continuing in chronological fashion to the actual return of Christ himself at this point, steps back from the brink of the abyss, only to have more judgements in a more consecutive chronological order narrated later on.
VI. Approaching the Abyss
We will see the identical phenomenon occur when we come to the six trumpets judgement; trumpets being a middle set of seven judgements, when all the armies of the earth are amassed in that cryptic place called Armageddon, ready to do battle and yet John pauses and doesn’t go on to describe the events associated with that battle, but pulls back once again from the brink of the end. In order to change the diagram, perhaps another way of seeing what’s going on is as if the slide, labelled, ‘approaching the abyss,’ the shield judgements form a consecutive series of footprints, moving toward the end; just as the arrow on the line labeled, the shield shows when one gets to the sixth seal, one has arrived at the edge and can see in horror, and then without retreating, chronologically where one left off prior to the sixth seal, one moves into one of a number of interludes in the Book of John that doesn’t directly deal with the twenty one judgements, visually symbolized in the PowerPoint diagram by walking parallel along the edge of the preverbal clift, only then to turn again on a path moving toward the end, this time, symbolized by the trumpet judgments with the same phenomenon occurring, coming near the end with the sixth recoiling from it, walking along parallel by an interlude and then finally with the bowel judgements, no further interruptions and we move all the way to the end. This kind of diagram also helps us to make sense of the seventh of the judgements in each of these series.
When we come to the seventh seal, we see only silence in heaven for half an hour and when we come to the seventh trumpet, we see what Eugene Peterson has called Reversed Thunder, earthquakes, hailstorms etc. but they appear to be taking place from earth toward heaven rather than in the other direction and thus, no further suffering on earth. Also apparently being a little more than what we might call cosmic sound effects as we get ready for the third and final series of plagues. Thus it would appear that the seventh seal is nothing more than the introduction to the all-embracing category that encompasses the trumpet judgements just as the seventh trumpet functions as the introduction to the category that encompasses the seven bulls. Only with the seventh bull do we then move forward to one specific subsequent event, namely the end of human history in its current form.
VII. Revelation 7-11
We return to selective exegetical comments, book by book with chapter 7 and see the first of those before coming to the seventh seal in chapter 8. And intriguingly we have, in discussing the lion who was the lamp, a remarkably parallel phenomenon where God gives John the vision, by means of angels, by means of a voice which he hears and in that voice (7:4) he hears a number of those who were sealed, of those who are protected from the judgement, now understood as that great tribulation, note the language in chapter 7:14. Because God never inflicts his wrath on his people but only on unbelievers, the believers who will live through the tribulation are metaphorically sealed. The four heads of the servants of God to protect those from his coming wrath and they’re described in verses 5 and following as twelve thousand each from the twelve tribes of Israel. Thus, in about as Jewish language as is conceivable, using that Jewish number for the twelve tribes, multiplied repeatedly by a thousand and it’s understandable why some people would argue that these are Jews and represent some or all Jews alive at the time of the tribulation who unlike the rest of the church, about to be depicted in the vision of the multitude must live through the tribulation. But wait, just like the lion who is the lamb, John never sees 144,000, he never sees any Jews or Israelites, he never sees any collection of twelve thousand from each of the tribes and by the way, note the comments in our book about the unparalleled nature of this list of twelve tribes. It’s not what anyone would have expected. Rather, just as in chapter 5, as soon as the angel gives John the commands, as soon as the heavenly voice described the vision of which John would have immense curiosity in seeing. Verse 9, he looks to see the group just described but sees a diametrically opposite group of people, a much larger multitude and hence one too big to count. It wasn’t just Jews but people from every nation, tribes, peoples and languages standing before the throne and in front of the lamb. The church, the entire company of true Christians of God’s redeemed of Old and New Covenants alike, of every ethnic group; at least as these groups were understood in Biblical days. These are those who will live through the tribulation, at least those representative who are alive at that time and therefore can said later to have come out of the great tribulation (verse 14), not with the idea of being kept from this time but with the same kind of connotation, preserved during and then brought out of it and given their heavenly reward.
This brings us to chapter 8 & 9 and the second series of judgements. Now the tribulation and notice again, there is the emphasis that no one is to be harmed except those who do not have a seal of God on their forehead, suggesting the contrast between Christians and non-Christians who live through the tribulation. And this time the first four plagues are described similar to those in Egypt when God hadn’t yet removed his people from the land of Goshen, but did preserve them from his wrath and plagues that punished the Egyptians; post tribulation. Here, we are introduced to a recurring fraction that occurs so often that it must not only be delivered but emphatic that a third of the different portions of nature are affected. Why a third? Note a particular tradition of Biblical Symbolism for this, except perhaps it comes in the middle of a sequence where in the seal judgements, warfare and slaughter took place on a quarter of the earth, now a third of various aspects of the earth are affected whereas when we come to the bull judgements, not such limitation will be stated, suggesting that there is a progressive and climatic order to these plagues and that they are not entirely repetitive covering the same ground in different symbolic fashions at each time. But why pick a third, why not pick something else? Presumably because the point is, a third is still a minority, it’s still less than half, and it’s not two thirds. Two thirds of the world or the majority of the world continues on seemingly oblivious, untouched, even in non-Christian humanity by all of this. While we are not into a period of world history at the moment where Christians are demonstratively exempt from certain kinds of suffering that affect only believers. It is intriguing to notice how in the past half century, the expression has developed, first for under-developed and more impoverished and suffering nations as the third world and then in more recent times to reflect more accurately the percentages affecting the two thirds world.
We may not be living through the great tribulation exactly but if one wants to be literal for a moment, twice as much of the world is being affected with suffering, akin to those of the seal judgements and others and at least partial parallels at times to the suffering of the trumpet judgements. Twice the world is being afflicted, non-Christian and Christian alike than will be the case during the trumpet judgements. Little wonder that pre-tribulation rings quite hollow to almost all Christians in the two thirds world, but what’s the point of us being exempt and escaping from that which is well into its horrors, it is not as bad as what some Christians have lived through, except where western dispensationalist missionaries are largely responsible for the planting of the church and brought tribulation with them and people have felt that they have had to buy into it in order to be seen as orthodox.
Know as well in chapter 8 and 9 that the final three trumpet judgements are also describes as woes and the first three woes and here as things do appear to get worse than anything that human history has literally seen previously, including the warfare of the world, a third of its population (9:15). We now have imagery of locus or grasshoppers in a plague reminiscent of some of the countries in the Middle East periodically experience; reminiscent of the prophecies of Joel in which they morphed into human armies. But these are described so grotesquely with such obviously symbolic elements of warfare offensive and defensive and explicitly as coming from the abyss that it is hard to escape the interpretation of these plagues as demonic warfare, spiritual warfare. But believers are still protected (9:4). They were told not to harm the grass of the earth and any plant or tree but only people and only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads. But is this a battle that could be filmed as bibliographers were in the right place or is this spiritual warfare and demonic attack and confusion and torment and deceit on the a third of world’s people who are not believers? In which case, it’s not that difficult to argue that has taken place in the past as well and perhaps in the present. Theologically another crucial highlight of these chapters is the closing two verses in 9:20-21 that repeats the theme that despite these awful plagues on unbelievers that people still do not repent. A back handed way of reminding us that even these awful punishments were rehabilitated and remedial in design; designed to draw people to repentance, even in this case they chose otherwise. God never punishes short of judgement day and absolute final judgement, except in the hopes of bringing people back to himself.
And then comes the second interlude in which much like Ezekiel John is given, in vision form, a small scroll, bitter sweet and told to eat it, just like Ezekiel implying that there are promises of good, salvation for God’s people to come and judgement on his enemies and perhaps of the bitterness also of the fact that God’s people must suffer before they receive their glorious reward. The difference is, now in contrast to not only to Ezekiel but also the fifth seal, there is no more delay, no theological heart or big idea of chapter 10 is found at the end of verse 6.
Chapter 11 introduces us to the two witnesses who produces a powerful witness on earth, describes in way reminiscent of Moses and Elisha, some have taken them as literally Moses and Elisha having returned from heaven, some have them as just Jewish people who on their own, eschatologically alone, who lives through the tribulation. If the entire church is alive at that time, its presence is equally easy, perhaps even more natural to see this as the composite witness of the church worldwide. But on any interpretation, what is interesting is, even as wickedness and horror and judgement are increasing, so too is the fulfillment of the great commission; God’s Word is going forth with great power and with positive effect so that on our next slide we show that the true signs of the times, that we are in the last days of the last days is not some unrelentingly positive Christianization of the world and unprecedented suggested in evangelism nor equally unrelentingly or monolithically everything going from bad to worse as competing eschatological systems so often like to promote. Post millennialism on the one hand and dispensational pre-millennial on the other respectively, but rather both at the same time as has so often been true throughout church history. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, Tertullian said around AD 200. And we’ve seen that in China, today on a smaller scale but increasingly among Muslim nations in the Middle East and more particularly among Muslim communities in the western world where greater access to the Gospel is possible. Nothing qualitatively is new; during the tribulation perhaps quantitatively in this case, greater.
VIII. the Tribulation of Revelation
Revelation 11 is also that turning point for a number of different eschatological systems because of the death and resurrection of the two witnesses and then being caught up to heaven. It’s here where the mid-tribulation rapture approach if seen, seeing that one set of tribulation judgements, the trumpets have passed in one set, the bowls are left and views the ascension of the two witnesses, is a symbol for the rapture of the church. It is here also where those who on dispensational pre-millennial schemes see seven years for the tribulation and find a turning point half way into it, half of the judgement is done, enough as we are about to see in Revelation 11 & 12, numerous references to a three and a half year period of time, if exactly to and only two of these references are taken as consecutively. It’s possible to see a milder period of tribulation during the first three and a half years and more intense tribulation the second half. And because in Revelation 12 & 13, where the anti-Christ is part of what some have called the Satanic Trinity is more explicitly revealed. One can understand why the view has developed that anti-Christ will only show his true colors as a malignance rather than a benign being during the second half of the seven year tribulation.
But that is not the only possibility; the next PowerPoint slide shows the possibility that these three and a half year periods of time to be taken concurrently. In which case three and a half is the symbolic number for the great tribulation, obviously half of seven and deliberately so because seven would be the complete number, would be the perfect number, would be a number better suited for a good period of time instead of a horrible period of time. Three and a half is a vivid way of reminding people skilled in Jewish background that this is the imperfect, the incomplete period of time. At this juncture, recognizing that our comments on the Book of Revelation are progressing at delicately longer than we first anticipated for the sake of not creating an even a more cumbersome file than we already have. We will end this lecture; it is exegetically speaking, the turning point in the Book of Revelation as we have just noted. Even though combining our comments that we’ve made to the introduction to the book with our comments on the first eleven chapters, we are well beyond the half way point of our reflections on this book.