Revelation (part 2)

Course: Introduction to the New Testament: Romans to Revelation

Lecture: Revelation Part 2

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IX. The Tribulation - 2 possible scenarios

In the previous lecture, we got to chapter 11 of Revelation, having considered the two possible scenarios for the references to three and a half years during the great tribulation. Also sometimes phrased as forty two months or twelve hundred and sixty days where every month is equal to thirty days which would again round off to the period of three and a half years. We have looked at two PowerPoint slides that considered each of these options and now we will combine these two along with the more important theological information attached to the experience of the great tribulation. On the scenario that sees these as seven consecutive years, the trumpet judgement followed by the bowl judgements with Revelation 11 as something of a transition or dividing point. The key change is the testimony of the believers as represented by the two witnesses, though not confined through the execution of those witnesses as their opponents intended for their vindicated resurrection and then caught up into heaven, nevertheless does suggest that they are no longer proclaiming in the same way with the same results on earth. There is no doubt that there is an intensifying of the horrors of the bull judgements in chapters 12-16 and accompanying increase due to the work of the so-called Satanic Trinity which will be introduced in chapters 12 and 13 of persecution of believers.

But in putting all of these numerical and theological pieces together, we can see the references to three and a half years for the most part running concurrently and therefore that the reason for the Book of Revelation not speaking of a seven year period or an eighty four month period or a two thousand, five hundred and twenty day period, is because Revelation does envision adding together consecutively any two of these references of three and a half years or their equivalent, but seeing them as all denoting the same three and a half year period of great tribulation which again in the theologically math of the Revelation, may or may not be a literal period of time in length but the point is this is God’s penultimate, not yet complete, not perfect plan for humanity and hence not appropriately represented by the complete and perfect number seven. Thus theologically we would draw the chart as on the bottom half of the slide where God’s judgement on unbelievers, the various trumpet and bowl judgements is going on concurrently with powerful testimonies by believers and the third factor recurring throughout the tribulation in the Book of Revelation, the persecution of believers by Satan. But at the bottom of the slide, even into this awful period of the bull judgements, believers continue to be exempt from God’s wrath, but they are not exempt from Satan’s attacks. There may be martyrs, experiences of cruel suffering and it’s true that in the cosmology of Scripture, God certainly permits anything that Satan does, nevertheless the Bible and particularly the New Testament does distinguish between his permissive and his active will, he is not the author of evil (James 1:13) and he is not inflicting his wrath on believers or his judgement on believers through these plagues. They’re exempt from them; their suffering comes only from other human beings who wittingly or unwittingly are being used by the devil in their persecution and oppressing activity on Christians.

X. Christian History

But now, let’s take a closer look to see if we can adjudicate between these two chronological schemes after the various references to the period of time of the tribulation as presented in Revelation 11 and then in Revelation 12. Beginning in 11:2, we read that the holy city will be trampled on or as we read in 11:2 that the holy city, Jerusalem will be trampled on for forty two months. We don’t know the starting time of this period, if this is the destruction of the temple in AD 70; we could envision this as referring to what we typically call the church age, all but the very first years of it. If this is within the great tribulation, most commentators would take it, and then we have the first description of a portion or all of this period as lasting for three and a half years. The same number arrived at in verse 3, when the two witnesses and their prophesy are introduced for a period of twelve hundred and sixty days. As we continue, we see the three and a half years, undoubtedly consciously imitated in 11:11 with the three and a half days during which the two witnesses lay dead on the streets of this great city of the evil empire in the end times which can be likened to Jerusalem or to Rome or to Sodom or to Egypt, clearly all symbols rather than necessarily literal identification since the one city couldn’t be all of those locations at the same time. But confirming our idea that three and a half is penultimate; after three and a half days, the breath of life from God entered them and they stood on their feet and that is when they are taken up into heaven.

XI. Revelation 12-16

We move on to chapter 12 and we have what all commentators acknowledge to be the one very clear unambiguous flash back, even if all the rest of the book is interpreted as chronologically sequential. The vision here is of a woman crying out in birth who gives birth to a male son described in verse 5 as ruling all the nations with an iron scepter and a quotation from Psalm 2:9 and in the next sentence her child is snatched up to God and to his throne. This is a reference to the resurrection of the ascension, we have no mention of anything in between; Christ’s birth and death here, but that is the end result of Jesus’ life which matters for John in the apocalypse and then in 12:6, the woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God where she might be taken care of for twelve hundred and sixty days. Unless we have just suddenly jumped without any textual indication back to the time of the tribulation, these twelve hundred and sixty days, three and a half year reference must refer to the protection of church and her off spring during the period that we today refer to as the church age. In 12:14, we read very similarly that the woman was given two wings like an eagle so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the desert where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time; with the language here echoing Old Testament language where the Hebrew dual form was used neither singular nor generically plural but referring specifically to two times so that a time times and half a time means one time plus two times plus a half of time which again produces another three and a half unit period of time. Is this parallel to the previous reference, to three and a half years? If so we are again in the church age and if by this time we have come back to and therefore up to the time of the great tribulation, then we do have two three and a half year periods of time back to back, symbolically, but they are not both in the tribulation, only the second one is.

The final reference in these chapters to this period of time comes in 13:5, where now we have a description of the beast who is the anti-Christ who utters words of blasphemy to exercise his authority for forty two months. So we have come full circle and appear once again as we did in 11:2, most probably have a reference to great tribulation period and to a length of time of three and a half years. But notice what has never happened, we have never had two references that clearly refer two consecutive back to back halves of the tribulation itself. Indeed as the next slide indicates that a good case can be made for seeing at least one and perhaps two of these references to three and a half years to refer to the church age along with two, maybe three referring to the tribulation. The point again is not literal math but to point how theologically symbolically these two periods of time, though quite different in their literal length, are theologically similar. God’s people never experience his wrath directly as punishment in the form of plagues, though he does permit Satan and his group to persecute them and even when times are the toughest, his Word does go forth with great power because as his people are faithful in their deeds and in their words, a stark contrast between good and even is that much clearer, the power of God in fragile vessels as we learned in 2nd Corinthians 4:6 is that much clearer as well.

Returning to chapter 13, there is as well the very puzzling reference to the mark of the beast. There has been almost as much fascination surrounding the identification of this cryptogram in Revelation 13:18 as perhaps around Armageddon, the last battle in the timing of Christ’s return and that cluster of events mark the final judgement. We read in the verses leading up to the end of chapter 13, the false prophet and we will talk more of this trio of evil beings, Satan, the Anti-Christ and the False Prophet depicted as a dragon and a beast from the sea and a beast from the earth, overseeing the inhabitants of the earth to set up an image in honor of the beast who is wounded, the anti-Christ and forced all people (verse 16) to receive a mark on their right hands and their foreheads so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark which is the name of the beast or number of its name. Then verse 18 provides that number 666. What are we to make of this? Popular interpretation from early church times onward has been that was the Hebrew device known as gematria, the Hebrew system of counting using letters. If one takes the name of Nero and then uses the Latin term Emperor and puts in the Hebrew consonant, all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet were consonants, although a few could in certain settings function as partial vowels but small symbols underneath this letters known as vowel points were the primary way of indicating, what we would call, vowels in the Hebrew language. Thus if one takes the letters or consonants that would have been used, then Nero Caesar and include an extra ‘n’ on the end of Nero’s name which was done from time to time and then adds the numerical equivalent up, you can do the math for yourself, one comes out with 666.

Now that may seem like a circuitous route to come up with an interpretation of this passage as to make it almost nonsensical but we know that perhaps the most common interpretation among early Christian writers in the first several centuries of the church as to who the anti-Christ himself was, was that it would be one of the Roman emperors, especially during the years when Rome prosecuted the Christian movement and that he would use all of his imperial power to inflict that terror on Christians of least indeed we can understand why some would be drawn to this view. In some early manuscripts, the number 666 is in fact replaced with the number 616, this is 50 less which as shown on the chart when the ‘n’ is taken off Nero’s name and spelled in the Hebrew equivalent of its more common Latin form. There is no doubt that this could be a viable option for understanding the vision that John was given. But there is perhaps an easier solution and that is to observe as we already have that seven being the perfect number in Israelite and Jewish thought, tripled would give the perfect number of the Triune Godhead and again we know that this kind of thinking was done in ancient Christian circles, indeed Jesus as the definitive and climatic revelation of the perfect Triune Godhead in some Christian thoughts gave rise to his number being 888. The number 666 on the other hand is notable because it too has three identical digits. It too could very easily symbolize a kind of a trinity, a trio of beings but 6 is less than 7, it comes close to being the real full complete reality, at least in appearances, but it ultimately falls short. That fits extremely well, the parody that we see in Revelation 12-13 of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by the beast of the sea and the beast come the earth and it fits our understanding of the relationship of seven into a number smaller that we suggested in relation to the great tribulation as well.

Thus if we return to briefer exegetical notes as on the next slide, dealing with chapters 12-16 in broad strokes, we can see the likelihood in this speaker’s mind at least, that being introduced to this Satanic trinity, the dragon who parodies the role of the Father by trying to win people to worship himself, the first beast who has what looks like a fatal wound on its head but the language of appearance there as if, suggests an air of unreality about it. He’s trying to parody Christ’s crucifixion, but it’s not quite right, not quite the real thing and then the second beast also called the false prophet that enables people to worship the statue, to worship the first beast, just as the Holy Spirit empowered people to worship Christ. A parody indeed, but a parody that fails to match up with the mark of the beast on his followers, on believers may well fit that symbolism exactly. And because this works through an empire, even if we don’t have an explicit gematria for the Roman Empire here, we’ll see in chapter 17 that it is a location like Rome imitating Babylon of old with the greatest political, religious and economic power of its day, all intertwined which certainly would have described Roman 1st century. That is the picture the world empire will be like at the time of Christ’s return or more simply, a reminder if one embraces Revelation 13 and not just Romans 13, recall our earlier comments on submission to state authority, we are reminded that the state can turn demonic. It is not always divine intentions that are carried out through it and there will be times that it comes in direct conflict with the orders of God at which point it must be disobeyed.

Chapter 14 has pictures of both the great harvest of the earth and the winepress of God’s wrath. Many have seen these as parallel judgements that Richard Boccom, Grant Osborne and others make a very plausible case that we have, both the salvation and the judgement of the nations, the language of the harvest is closely reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed with the positive and surprising growth of the Kingdom and therefore the simultaneous growth of good and evil which we saw in Revelation with the progressive polarization appears to be depicted here as well.

Chapters 15 & 16 introduces by the 7th trumpet the seven bulls of God’s wrath, this time there are no limits as to which portions of the earth are affected but we are told that believers are still protected. Chapter 16:2 reads that the first bull is poured out on those people who had the mark of the beast and worshipped its image on them and by implication on them alone. All of this is building to the gathering of the nations of the earth in 16:16 & 17 at a place called Armageddon, a term in Greek transliterated from the Hebrew, harmegiddon or the Mount of Megiddo; it’s often pointed out that there is not a true mountain at Megiddo, although there is a rather dramatic hillside raising up about seventy feet above the Jezreel plain, rapidly given a very nice overview of that valley. And when we are reminded that even the tallest mountains in Israel are not more than what other parts of the world would call the hill country, is perhaps not as fancy, particularly in an apocalyptic visionary material to imagine Megiddo as a mount. More significantly is the location of the Jerzeel valley as that valley in which the mount gives way to and overlooks and introduces so to speak into the landscape as the site of many battles in the Old Testament between northern and southern kings, including invading kings and hence, a proverbial kind of battle place, much like the kind today we talk about someone in battle meeting their waterloo, just as Napoleon was defeated by the Russians at Waterloo after seeming so invincible for so long. It doesn’t literally have to be at the site of that battle to be called Waterloo and it is doubtful if Armageddon is a way of identifying a final battle site as having to be in the Jerzeel valley in Israel either.

But what is intriguing and similar to the fore shallowing in chapter 5 of the lion that was the lamb, is that as everyone is ready for battle and the seventh plague is poured out with the cry, ‘it is done’, there will be no more delay, John does not proceed to describe the battle that is about to happen. Indeed as John pauses before describing the nature of this battle, my daughter Rachel who you were introduced to in speaking on Titus had me to pause the tapping to point out that it was a substantial Russian defeat of Napoleon during the winter that weakened his army but it was the combined victories of allied English, Dutch, Belgium and German forces that actually defeated him in the town not far from Brussels in Belgium, known as Waterloo. Fortunately the interpretation of Revelation is unchanged with the addition of that historical fact but now we have our more recent European history corrected for posterity. (Interestingly Dr. Blomberg takes the time to thank his daughter Rachel, and then Rachel yells out, ‘you are welcome!’)

XII. Revelation 17-19

As we move to chapter 17 & 18 to see what John does include before returning to the battlefield and thus we have what might be called the final interlude as the bulletined point on the next slide demonstrates. We have; in essence, a flashback to what went so horribly wrong to create this great evil end time’s empire, demonically inspired by this satanic trinity. Chapter 17 introduces us to the religious and political dimensions of this empire and the two are intertwined and graphically depicted with the vision and metaphor of a prostitute who is fornicating with the kings of the earth. She is described in terms of Babylon, the great evil empire of Old Testament times in terms of the city on seven hills, a reference to Rome of New Testament times by the end of the 1st century, certainly the greatest persecuting entity that the young Christian religion had seen by that time and again a reminder since no geographical place could simultaneously be in both Babylon and Rome that we are talking here about the nature of this empire, rather than a location enabling us to identify it on a map. What went wrong was idolatry and worship of the most false religion possible, that which sets human and empires up in place of God, in place of the one true God of the universe, revealed in Jesus Christ and steal becomes drunk with the blood of the saints, to use the language of 17:6 through the martyring of large numbers of them. The kings of the earth with their short lived alliance, with this harlot introduce the political dimension as well which while not proving the superiority of a system like the American one with its separation of church and state which creates its own set of problems, does remind us why our founding fathers creating separation of powers, even with the three branches of the government; because while maybe a benign or kind or loving or even a Christian dictator who always made Godly decisions would be the greatest kind of governor or political ruler on earth, short of the day when Jesus Christ will indeed rule that way and rule perfectly and sinless. It will never happen because all leaders, however religious, are fallen. And without the checks and balances of various kinds of separation of powers, when autocratic power goes bad, it can form some of the worst and horrific forms of government known and that awful intermingling of religion and politics seems to be what Revelation 17 depicts.

This is reasonably well known by students of the Book of Revelation, even by those who read only popular paperbacks or films whose larger interpretation may have gone somewhat astray. What is less well known or less attended to is the economic dimension of this End Times Empire which chapter 18 proceeds to introduce and then lament its demise. This is also the wealthiest of empires and the list of goods which the traders on the open waters no longer ply read beginning in verse 12, the cargos that no one buys anymore, reads like a bill of sale at a dock in Rome, primarily of the luxuries taken from all of the subjugated nations of the Roman Empire, cargo of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls, fine linen, purple silk and scarlet cloth, every sort of wood and articles of every kind, made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cargos of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, wine and olive oil. But now we have come down to staples, products that are used every day, wine and olive oil, flour is as much staple as are cattle and sheep and horses and carriages and human beings sold as slaves; literally the bodies and soles of men, ending with the downward spiraling climatic reference to the slave trade.

Even though we do not want to undo everything in the outset of the previous lecture about not trying to closely identify any current events with the details of the Book of Revelation as one does a theological assessment on one’s own era in light of Revelation; it is certainly worth reflecting on the ability of wealth, the desire for trade, for all of the finery of life, but also even the excessive consumption of ordinary products without which humans think they cannot exist and that is how slaves were often viewed in cultures that had the institution of slavery. When things go this wrong economically, as well as religiously and politically, we have frightening parallels to the empire described here. But there is good news ahead; chapter 19 turns to hallelujahs of heavenly triumph as Jesus prepares to return with his heavenly armies and now we come back to chronologically to where we left things off in chapter 16 with the armies of the earth prepared to do battle as was disclosed to John of the battlefield at Armageddon and in 17:17 as Jesus comes from heaven with a sharp sword in which he will strike down the nations (verse 15) and in verse 17, we read, the angels cries come and gather together for the great supper of God. We will see the wedding feast of the lamp. We will also see a parody of that heavenly reality as the feasting birds of the air, vultures, eagles, kites, hawks, etc. will swoop down and eat of the flesh of the remains of the dead killed in battle from God’s enemies. And then verse 19, I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered; now we are exactly at the spot we left in chapter 16, gathered together to make war against the rider on the horse and his army. They thought they were coming together to do battle against each other but as Christ descends from heaven, they realize as unbelievers, he is their ultimately threat and now let’s get ready for that great film and with all of its blood and gore and prolonged battles, one scene after another, known as Armageddon. But where is it? It’s not verse 20; did I miss something in verse 19? Verse 20 simply says that the beast was captures and with it the false prophet that formed the miraculous signs on his behalf. This is no ordinary battle such as so many in the Middle East which leads to so many writers claiming that this is the brink of Armageddon. This is a battle between heavenly armies and unbelieving armies on earth and it is the worst mismatch in history. The only battle that takes place is instantaneous with the instantaneous capture and destruction of all those set to fight against the heavenly armies. Sorry about that! Throw out the movies, the paperbacks if you want the truth.

XIII. Three Views of the Millennium

So Christ returns and ushers in a thousand year period of peace and grandeur and glory on earth, better than anything humanity has previously seen. There seems to be a seemingly narrative moving from chapter 19 into verse 20. We read in verse 19 that the first beast was captured and then the second beast is captured and we wonder about the third member of the satanic trinity in chapter 20:1 and following yield the answer that figure who is symbolized by a dragon and was the power behind the serpent in the garden, namely the devil is bound for a thousand years. He is thrown into the abyss and then it is sealed over to keep him from deceiving the nations again. However generous we might want to be to the amillennial scheme that sees the millennium as symbolic of the current church age with believers reigning spiritually with Christ in heavenly places. However much is true that Satan was cast down like lightening from heaven decisively conquered by Christ on the Cross, it is difficult to see how the church age with all of the demonic activity and evil that has continued to reign on earth could be seen as a time in which Satan was locked and sealed in the abyss unable to deceive the nations of the world at all. This combined with the natural coherence between the end of 19 and the end of 20 which prevents us from seeing chapter 20 as a flash back to the first coming of Christ in a way that chapter 12 was, seems to require a pre-millennial interpretation.

The next three slides all depict in graphic form these various alternatives for those not familiar with them. Pre-millennialism, the view that Christ comes back is symbolized by the cloud prior to the millennial and there is a long period which is God’s Sabbath rest for human history after which the wicked dead, the only people not yet raised and or judged will experience judgement at the great white throne judgement and then the New Heavens and New Earth will give way after that. The second slide depicts the aw-millennial option noting a more recent and less held version of that which makes the millennium not concurrent with the church age but with New Heavens and New Earth at which point it seems very difficult to reconcile the re-emergence of evil if only for a tiny moment before it is being judged at the end of that period of time. Post millennialism, the least held throughout church history and largely limited to moments of great evangelistic success and missionary growth throughout the world, raising hopes that the conversion of people form every tribe, nation, tongue and language group on earth might indeed constitute a sizeable majority of the world and that Christian influence could truly, through the power of the spirit, even prior to Christ’s coming, create a kind of millennial age, such that Christ’s coming is then after or post millennium. This too is difficult to reconcile with the far more dominate experiences throughout church history, indeed throughout human history of evil reigning in various dark ways, even when large numbers of a people group are Christian witness as we mentioned in discussing Galatians, that in the early 1990’s it was Rwanda that claimed the highest percentage of professing evangelical Christians of any country on earth. And it was Rwanda in which the worst genocide that was inflicted by civil war has ever occurred in recorded human experience.

XIV. Revelation 20-22

But whichever system the student opts for, there are a few final exegetical details from chapters 20-22 that we must cover before finishing. There are two very important objections to the classic or historic pre-millennial scheme which we favor that must be addressed. And honestly one is sure to be anti-climactic for believers who in an intermediate state of conscientious perfect blissful existence with God and Christ in heaven would come back to earth even for a very wonderful golden age of human history; nevertheless, it is one which one and evil do still coexist under control until the end but then not for a short time. It is less than the perfection of heaven and surely would be a step backwards, unless one appreciates the significant role of the body of the material world of the resurrection of the body and re-creation of the heavens and earth in Biblical thought. We may not experience any form of sadness or imperfection in the intermediate state in heaven, but as long as we remain disembodied, we have the fullness of the glorified state and the glory that awaits us and thus to come back to earth, whatever slight imperfection remain, but to receive that resurrection body is indeed a step forward just as a new heaven and new earth in chapter 21 & 22 is a step forward still as perfect spirits and perfect bodies live eternally in perfect worlds.

But then a second objection, doesn’t a pre-millennial view require an understanding of Jesus and his followers living in already resurrected glorified transformed bodies, side by side with those who were alive and those they give birth to when Christ returns and who were not regenerate and therefore not resurrected and not living in resurrected bodies. Isn’t that rather an odd, even bazaar or unbelievable mixture of the new and the old? To which perhaps, the best response is simply to observe that that very mixture has already occurred if we believe the Biblical story of the first coming of Jesus and his resurrection, indeed that curious story in Mathew 27:51-53, the resurrection of a handful of other saints at the time of Christ’s resurrection. Even if was only Jesus resurrected in advance of the general resurrection. There is that mixture of resurrection and non-resurrection of humanity that make the numbers involved in the time of the millennium, but the nature of the oddity if that is what it is in no way any different. Nevertheless, we can see that there are countless questions about any millennial scheme that remains, mercifully what virtually every strand of Bible believing Christianity can agreed on, is that our ultimately destiny is depicted in chapters 21 – 22 after the destruction of the heavens and the earth as we now know them and their complete recreation. We now have a picture of perfect intimacy with God, no longer any need for a temple to mediate access to him. We have a perfect Christian community; the garden in which Adam and Eve began has been transformed into a city, the New Jerusalem. We were destined for community with one another in company with all the redeemed which can happen only when people are all brought together.

There are all kinds of conclusions in the way the Bible began, the visions given to John were clearly intended to help him to recall the stories of creation that he would have already learned what God created good that was marred by the fall; is about to be fully redeemed so that all of his original creative purposes are vindicated. There are rivers of life; there are trees of fruit for the healing of the nations, all kinds of echoes of that original paradise and better. It’s better because the imagery moves from one or two individuals in splendid isolation to the metaphor of the city, which is often not something depicted attractively in this world because if you put a lot of fallen people in close proximity you have a much greater density of problems than in isolated sparsely populated areas. But when the city is the New Jerusalem, the city of holiness, the city in which only God’s redeemed and now perfect and sinless people mingle in perfect intimacy, then we have something indeed to look forward to. History is going someplace according to Jewish and then Christian thought as opposed to eastern religions whose world views are so often cyclical rather than linear and ultimately, despite the great diversity of peoples in the world, there are ultimately only two kinds, those whose destiny is the New Heavens and the New Earth and a community in the New Jerusalem and those whose destiny is outside in the lake of fire, however metaphorical that may be, apart from God and all things good and anything that would temper their personal conscience sorry of having rejected what was a completely free offer, it could have been theirs had they sworn allegiance to Jesus as their King and Lord and Master instead of following whatever which ended up being their lord. It is the hope of this lecturer that all who listen to this lecture are assured in their minds that they will be a part of the New Jerusalem rather than the lake of fire. It all boils down to what you do with Jesus. The shortest summary of the Book of Revelation comes in two words ‘Jesus wins’, and we all want to be on the winning team. We trust that you are and if this has been a meaningful and helpful lecture series, then we wish you God’s speed in your future studies and your endeavors for him.