What I Believe: The Book of Revelation

The Book of Revelation began its existence being thought of as an apocalypse, a revelation from God, and turned out to be a mystery. It continues to cause problems for interpreters and commentators. I have two commentaries that have over 1,000 pages each. They are both written by respected academics yet both are entirely different in their approach to and understanding of Revelation. And this begins with the translation of the Greek text.

As for myself I have read the two commentaries, other books on Revelation, the book of Revelation with various study guides and still do not think I have it all figured out. There is one thing though that I have found in my efforts. It came to me when I asked myself “Why is the Second Coming described at the end of chapter 11?”

I think the answer to my question is that Revelation consists of two very different accounts of events. Chapters 1 through 11 begin with John on the island of Patmos and end, as I said, with the Second Coming. In this first section, events on earth are described in literal, figurative and symbolic ways. The second half of the book is a spiritual account of events that impact people all the way from the formation of the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai until the believers are united with God in the New Jerusalem, and evil spirits and unbelievers have ceased to exist.

The rest of what I think I have learned about the book of Revelation is on the Revelation page of my blog as “Revelation: A Short Version.”

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What I Believe: Eschatology

Eschatology is the study of the “end times.” There are many opinions about the end times. For myself, I think the world entered the end times with the Incarnation of Jesus. At that time a new reality of human history began and everything that has happened since and will happen until history is long past is founded on that event.

If my thinking about the end times is right, the whole Christian period on earth is part of the end times and all that is in Scripture concerning this period may apply to us or to Christians who have come before us, and after us. The four gospels and the Book of Acts tell us the history of the beginnings of Christianity. The book of Revelation tells us the rest of the story. It is a very complex book because that is the way history is. Another difficulty is that we cannot know where we are on the time-line if there is one. A third problem arises from the fact that John had to describe spiritual entities in terms of physical images.

All in all, I believe the end times we live in are complex mixture of physical and spiritual events of which most occur outside the realm of our human understanding unless their meaning is revealed to us by God.

Revelation: A Short Version

This post was first published September 9, 2013.

Revelation: A Short Version

Revelation is a difficult book to understand. It is an apocalypse which means it is, in contemporary terms, like a fantasy. Apocalyptic and fantasy writings feature unnatural characters in unreal settings. Fantasy books contain one or more story lines in a given setting. Revelation has its two story lines in different settings and separate sections of the book although the story lines overlap to a certain extent.

The first story line begins with the author of the book, John, on the island of Patmos in approximately AD 95 and ends with the second coming of Christ at, as you can be sure, an unspecified time. The second one begins with the formation of the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai sometime around 1450 BC. This is symbolized in chapter 13 by the descent of a beautiful woman. This second story line never ends.

The setting of the first part of the book (1:1 to 11:18) contains letters to seven churches, Christ as the Lamb worthy to open the seven seals, and the blowing of seven trumpets. These are all related to human history and happenings on earth. The second part of the book is set in heaven. John sees events featuring angels, beasts coming up out of the earth and the sea, and so forth; in other words, he is seeing spiritual events invisible to human eyes.

Revelation was written to encourage Christians to overcome the adversities of this world. These include dysfunctional churches, wars, famines, diseases, death, natural disasters, cosmic disasters, persecution, worldly ideologies, and oppressive governments. Christians have had to endure these things for almost 2,000 years. However, there are seven encouraging promises in chapters 2 and 3 for those who are victorious and continue to believe Christ’s promises.

As any attempt at researching Revelation will show you, there are many questions about every aspect of the book and many different understandings of what Revelation means. This post is not based on any one of the common interpretations of Revelation. It approaches the book as if it were any of the other books of the New Testament. This means it looks at what the book says, considers what it meant to the people who first read it, tries to understand what it says to us, and attempts to see how we can apply it to our lives to come closer to what we should be as Christians.

Story Line One: From About AD 95 to the Second Coming

We are told early in Revelation that the knowledge in the book was given to “his servant John” by sending spiritual messengers in visions to communicate “what soon must take place…for the time is near.” (1:1–3) “Soon” might present a problem to us if we think of Revelation as an end-times prophecy. However, if we think about “to show his servants” (1:1) we can see that the content of the book applies to the first readers of it, the last readers of it, and all of us who are somewhere in the middle. “Near” does not mean that John thought the second coming of Christ was about to arrive but that the history described in Revelation was about to begin.

            The first readers of Revelation were embedded in the first-century Roman Empire. About twenty-five years before Revelation was written the Romans had captured and destroyed the city of Jerusalem and scattered or enslaved the Jewish people living in Israel. The readers were subjects of a powerful, confident, and wealthy government that had a certain amount of hostility to their religion. It is hardly necessary to draw the parallel to our own time.

The first eleven chapters of Revelation provide us with an overview of what has happened, is happening, and is going to happen in the period of history from John’s life until Christ returns. As the threats to our peace and prosperity increase, we are as much in need of assurance that Christ is in charge of history as were the first readers of Revelation, and of reminders that we must remain faithful to him.

The first three chapters of Revelation might be thought the easy part of the book since the imagery is relatively clear (though not everyone agrees as to its meaning) and the basic structure revolves around the situations of seven, most likely existing, churches. The message of these three chapters is that we are to persevere in our faith in Jesus, regardless of difficulties or attractive distractions, so we will receive rewards in the life to come.

Chapters 4 through 6 begin with a throne room scene that is used to establish Christ’s worthiness to be in charge of history, and then they provide us a history lesson. Why would we need one? Because we would like to think we can make a heaven on earth out of a world in “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21).

The breaking of the first four seals reveals the most familiar images in the Bible—the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Most interpretations of Revelation have placed the horsemen somewhere other than in our time and place, generally at the end of the Roman Empire or in an end-times future. However, with our knowledge of history we can see that the horsemen have ridden from John’s time until the present time and most likely will continue to ride until history ends.

The opening of the fifth seal tells us of the martyrdom of Christians that continues even now. It might seem un-Christian for martyrs to complain about delayed justice and the lack of vengeance. Jesus asked God to forgive those who crucified him (Luke 23:34). However, they are not told to forgive their persecutors but are given white robes and harps as a reward for their righteousness.

John’s vision following the opening of the sixth seal apparently includes both geological and astronomical phenomena. Perhaps it foretells the near miss of an asteroid whose gravitational pull triggers a great earthquake. Its breakup produces a meteor shower. The stresses on the earth trigger volcanoes producing dust clouds. This may be what John was seeing.

Chapter 7 gives us images of two groups of people who are removed from the hazards of history. One group, the 144,000 Jews, is given a temporary respite from the troubles of the world in order to find salvation in Jesus Christ. The list of tribes (verses 5–8) does not correspond to any list of the twelve tribes in the Old Testament. This indicates that this passage does not tell us of a formal restoration of Judaism but possibly speaks of Jews as being individually sealed.

The other people are the great number of Christian casualties of history who “are coming out of the great tribulation” (7:14). These are rewarded by being given white robes and palm branches, and the privilege of participating in the heavenly worship of God and the Lamb. The Greek word for tribulation, thlipsis, appears only here in Revelation in the NIV translation.

The opening of the seventh seal at the beginning of chapter 8 produces a rather surprising half-hour of silence in heaven. This may tell us there will be times when heaven is closed and prayers will go unanswered, prophecy will be unavailable, and Christians then must continue to believe in Christ by faith, holding on to the Word and the sacraments. Following the silence, there is the sounding of seven trumpets that bring disasters upon people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.

Chapters 9, 10, and 11 contain many mysteries that, if nothing else, have tested the ingenuity of Bible commentators. We may not want to think about judgments from God because too many times we have been accused of worshipping a wrathful God. Yet, Paul in his letter to the Romans (Romans 1:18–32) appears to speak of God’s wrath as coming upon godless and wicked people and this not just at some final judgment.

At the end of chapter 11 the seventh trumpet sounds. This is the third and final woe to those who have refused to accept God’s righteousness, as it ushers in the time of judgment. It is the Second Coming for those who have remained faithful to Christ. It is also the end of John’s account of history from an earthly standpoint. As Revelation continues we are going to look at the happenings on earth and in heaven from the standpoint of spiritual beings. We are entering a section of Scripture that will need a different kind of thinking, one that may be entirely unfamiliar to us. We need to go to this new method of thinking so we can truly know more of the things of God.

Story Line Two: From the Formation of the Nation of Israel to the New Jerusalem

The second section of Revelation extends from time into eternity. It begins with the formation of the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai and extends beyond time to when and where believers live happily forever in the New Jerusalem. It seems odd that the two story lines of Revelation have different starting places, but that is because they each tell a different story. The first part is about Christians in the world. The second is about the spiritual lives of believers.

Chapter 12 begins with a glorious woman descending from heaven. This describes how God sees the nation of Israel and why the Old Testament is full of expressions of God’s love for her. Satan, pictured as a dragon, goes to war with the woman and eventually drives her into exile. The dispersion of the Jews is depicted by the woman flying like an eagle to live among other peoples. The chapter ends with the frustrated dragon turning his anger from the Jews to the Christians.

Chapter 13 shows us two beasts. The first comes out of the sea and may represent the values and power of the Roman Empire. John’s first readers struggled to maintain their Christian witness and values in a culture opposed to them. We need Revelation to remind us we are not the first, nor will we be the last, Christians to face antagonism, marginalization, and persecution.

It is the nature of the second beast to deceive humanity (13:14). His deceptions may encompass rationalism, materialism, scientism, socialism, communism, postmodernism—in short, all the isms that surround us. The second beast disguises his deceptions by giving them the appearance of good, but we should recognize that all the isms of the secular worldview are fundamentally hostile to Christianity.

The fourteenth chapter begins a series of episodes all of which show us the value of remaining faithful to Christ and the judgments that come to those who reject him. It starts with a group of 144,000 people (vs. 1–5) who have God’s name, then moves on to the second section (6–13) where the people on earth receive a last call for salvation, and next shows the beginning of the separation between those who hear the call of God and those who worship the beast or bear the mark of his name. The third part (vs. 14–20) shows the results of the separation between believers and unbelievers when the end-times arrive.

We are entering the part of Revelation where the accounts are definitely not chronological. For instance, in 14:8 an angel announces, “Fallen! Fallen! is Babylon the Great.” This same pronouncement is made in 18:2 and then elaborated upon. This repetition does not require any critical agonizing. Revelation is not a timeline. It is a vivid depiction of spiritual reality, and how could it be spiritual if it is just like what happens in the material world.

The wrath of God, symbolized by the contents of seven bowls, is poured out on non-Christians in chapters 15 and 16. These seven plagues are said to be the last ones. The results are various forms of spiritual suffering but the unbelievers still continue to reject the rule of God, while their attempt at self-rule is destroyed at Armageddon (16:16).

Chapters 17 and 18 are full of imagery and serve as another challenge to interpreters. The Great Prostitute, whatever she may represent, drinks the blood of the saints but is destroyed by the beast she rides. This is described in 18:4–8 as God giving back to the prostitute the evil she has put into the world and paying her back double for the spiritual blood she has caused to be shed.

Chapter 19 begins with a celebration of the destruction of the Great Prostitute/Babylon and ends with the death of the second beast and the prophet, and those who were deceived by them. In between these two events we get a foreshadowing of the marriage feast of the Lamb and a picture of Christ as a victorious warrior. We are comforted here by seeing the end of the times of evil and knowing we are closer to our final blessing.

In chapter 20, the earth comes to an end. The present earth is not a suitable habitat for those whose names are written in the book of life, and there is no remedy for its defects except destruction. We should note that there is no battle at the gathering of Gog and Magog. Fire simply comes down from heaven and devours the multitude (20:9). Satan is returned to the lake of burning sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were thrown (20:10).

In chapter 21 we come to Christ’s judgment of humanity. The result of his righteous judgment is either a second life or a second death (21:6–8). The second life is given to those who overcome; the second death is for those who are “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars (21:8). It is for all those who reject ultimately the righteousness of God. The second death can be people ceasing to exist. This would be eternal but it would also demonstrate God’s mercy in two ways. It would be short in duration and satisfy those who claim to welcome nonexistence after this life.

Conclusion

We might wonder why so many people risk the second death instead of choosing the eternal life available in Christ. However, we who have chosen life are told in Revelation how hard this choice may become. As for Revelation, we are told to keep its words in our lives so as to do the things it tells us to do. The two different story lines of Revelation, the historical and spiritual, supply the balance we need in our lives as we seek to mature in our Christianity.

Reading the Book of Revelation in Our Churches

I think the following paragraph from G. K. Beale’s commentary on the book of Revelation is relevant to all those whom he calls “genuine saints” and thus worthy of being posted on my blog.

In this respect [seeing the eternal perspective of their new home], the churches are to read and reread the book [Revelation] in their assembly so that they may continually be reminded of God’s real, new world, which stands in opposition to the old , fallen system in which they presently live. Such a continual reminder will cause them to realize that their home is not in this old world but in the new world portrayed parabolically [that is as parables] in the heavenly visions. Continued reading of the book will encourage genuine saints to realize that what they believe is not strange and odd, but truly normal from God’s perspective. They will not be discouraged by outside worldliness, including what has crept into the churches, which is always making godly standards appear odd and sinful values seem normal. John refers to true unbelievers in the book as “earth-dwellers” because their ultimate home is on this transient earth, They cannot trust in anything except what their eyes see and their physical senses perceive; they are permanently earthbound, trusting only in earthly security, and will perish with this old order at the end of time when the corrupted cosmos finally is judged and passes away. On the other hand, Christians are like pilgrims passing through this world. As such they are to commit themselves to the revelation of God in the new order so as progressively to reflect and imitate his image and increasingly live according to the values of the new world, not being conformed to the fallen system, its idolatrous images, and associated values (cf. Rom. 12:2).

From the Present World to the New Creation

The book of Revelation, beginning from two points in the present world (the history we live in), tells us what happens to some part of humanity on their way to the new and final creation we find at the end of the book. This segment of people is those whose names are written in the book of life (Revelation 20:12). The destiny of the rest is to be thrown into a lake of fire (Revelation 20:15).

There are many people who object for many different reasons to the idea of everyone having to face a pass/fail situation to remain in existence. Thus we should look at how Revelation gets us to this point. The books starts with a man named John, most likely the apostle, on the island of Patmos in the Mediterranean Sea around AD 95. It is a Sunday and he enters into a condition of spiritual perception described as being in the Spirit. This state allows him to see spiritual realities with the same clarity and intensity as he normally saw physical realities. Thus begins a series of visions that continue to the end of the book.

The first vision concerns the seven churches in Asia Minor to which the book is addressed. In it we find that even in Christian churches there are people who may pass and also who may fail. If this surprises us we should remember Jesus told his disciples in the parable of the weeds (Matthew 13) that there were going to be people in the Christian churches until he returned who were sons of the evil one and who would then be thrown into the fire.

The next series of visions, collectively described as the opening of seven seals, are an outline of human history. The test here is how people react to the events of history. Those who have faith in Christ are meant to persevere in their faith while others are seeing only disasters and the wrath of God or, in our time, both the absence of God and any meaning to what happens. The “seal” visions go counter to the optimism in Western culture that has been a staple of secular, and much nominally Christian, thinking since the Enlightenment.

The “trumpet” visions provide us pictures of psychological disasters. The events that occur create fear, anxiety and other types of psychological pain. The last three of the seven trumpets produce such pain they are called three woes. Surprisingly enough the third woe is the return of Christ which means it is time for everyone to find out who has passed and who will be destroyed. Certainly, the highest of possible anxieties will be in those who do not have a true assurance of their faith in Jesus Christ.

This second part of Revelation starts at Revelation 11:19 or Revelation 12:1 depending on how those verses are understood. In any case, it is here that the visions enter the realm of the spiritual. This means that what occurs affects the world in a different way than the events of the first half of the book.

The first vision in this section provides us a vision of a beautiful woman descending from heaven. The immediate symbolism is that of the creation of the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai. The larger meaning is that of God’s good purposes for humanity. We see this in the birth of a male child who is obviously Jesus Christ. The steps between his birth on earth and his enthronement in heaven are omitted. The good promised to those who are faithful to Christ is expanded on throughout the remainder of the book.

Next there comes the bad news for humanity. John sees a war in heaven in which the good angels defeat Satan and his minions and cast them down to earth. We are told in 2 Peter 5:8 that the devil seeks out individuals to destroy but he also has larger projects for human destruction as we are told in various symbols.

The initial symbol is described as a beast coming out of the sea. Again there appear to be two aspects to what is represented by the beast. The concrete aspect of it could be as a symbol of the Roman Empire. However, just as the woman has ramifications all through history so does this first beast. The larger symbolism is that of nations that wage war against the people of God. The impetus that Satan supplies to these nations we may call “nationalism.”

The second beast is pictured as coming out of the earth. It supports the power of the first beast and insures that the beast out of the sea is continued to be worshipped, even though at some point it had been severely injured. We might see this beast as “secularism” because in it we find a worship of the natural world and the promotion of technology as an ultimate good. This beast may also be symbolized by the false prophet who is introduced in chapter 16.

The role of the beasts and the false prophet is to deceive people about the reality of God’s good purpose for humanity. This is done by the creation of false ideologies that people can serve and in doing so be kept from serving God, which is where their true interest lies. They also allow Satan to achieve the destruction of human life that is his main goal. There are many “isms” that Satan has used and is using, far more than can be listed. A new one is pathological altruism which is defined as doing good to feel good regardless if anyone is helped by it. It seems also that almost anything that is joined to Christianity, such as social activism, church unity or older causes such as temperance are probably deceptions created by Satan.

The name Babylon is used four different times in Revelation as the description of a decadent entity. Far be it from me to be able to provide any certainties as to exactly what these entities are. One of the difficulties in interpreting Revelation is that we do not know where we are in all the things that are presented to us in a variety of ways.

There are far more things going on in Revelation than I have even mentioned. However, returning to my original purpose, it is time to take a look at how we get from our present world to the final creation and to do that we need first to see what this world is like.

Our present world is part of a universe that, as best we know, began with an immense amount of energy coming into existence. This energy was contained in a rapidly and constantly expanding four-dimensional entity called the space-time continuum. This energy is the source of all matter. We know, thanks to special relativity, how energy and matter are related. Matter and energy, and the forces that govern them, constitute the material universe.

Physics is always subject to revision but it seems now that gravity, which is produced by deformation of the space-time continuum, does not fit into the Standard Model of physical forces that includes the strong force, the weak force and electromagnetism. This appears to make it reasonable that gravity can be thought of as a part of the immaterial part of the universe constituted by space and time.

It was not too long ago that scientists did not know the universe was expanding, that time was variable and that gravity was a deformation of space. This did not prevent materialists from claiming that everything was matter and energy and nothing immaterial existed. They were obviously wrong about the universe but this did not prevent them from proclaiming the nonexistence of any spiritual realm. However, now it is reasonable to question any of their supposedly certain knowledge about the nonexistence of immaterial things.

Like the universe we humans have our material and immaterial components. Our immaterial part is often called our soul. Like space and time it is not governed by the laws of energy and matter. In its normal condition it, like the universe, is not eternal. However, unlike the universe, it has the possibility of becoming eternal through what is called a second birth. This new birth is a work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, here is a case of the spiritual realm entering the physical realm. And here we can see that immaterial things can influence our physical existence just as the space-time continuum shapes the material events of the universe.

The work of the Holy Spirit in those who will become eternal is the final creation coming into the present creation. It is what Jesus called the kingdom of God. However, this is only the beginning of the road to eternity. The next step which takes place in the present world is what could be called “solidification.” This is the process often called “sanctification” where people destined for eternity began to acquire the “being” required to live longer than nations, longer than the earth, longer than the universe. The step after this is physical death. There is no escaping it. Jesus had to go through it to lead others to everlasting life.

After physical death there is a state of spiritual existence. This seems to take several forms. It is sometimes thought of as a marginal existence in a place called “Hades” (the grave) or it can be, as in Revelation, participation in the eternal praise of God the Father and God the Son. The final stage of our existence is where people either receive a resurrection body in which they will live forever or they are sent to a second death where they cease to exist.

At this point we should ask ourselves why everybody does not urgently seek to become an inhabitant of the final creation. There are several reasons why this is so. Major causes are egotism, atheism, hedonism, intellectualism, and so forth, here are those isms again and they are all deceptions of Satan who seeks the destruction of individuals however he can.

There are reasons other than Satan’s deceits for people making the wrong choice. There are people who dislike the God of the Old Testament and/or the Jesus of the New Testament. We should pause here briefly and consider the mental state of people who think they are qualified to judge the being and purposes of God. Next, we can go on to those who love the things of the world too much. We are told in 1 John 2:16 that the cravings of sinful people, the ambitions for more, and the pride of accomplishments and possessions are not from God but from the world and as such cannot last. They and these things will have no place in the final creation.

Some traditional Christians think people make the wrong choice because of their rebellion against God. This may be flattery because what people seem to object to is the sacrifice of self that is required and the acknowledgment of fundamental defects in themselves. Some of those who go on to the second death are those who do not see any need to be any better than they are.

We do not know why Revelation shows so many people unable to acquire the eternal life that is to be found in Christ. Jesus, though, told his disciples in Matthew 7:13–14 that Christians needed to enter the final creation through a narrow gate and that there would be only a few who found the road to eternal life. He also said there was a wide gate that leads to annihilation. This is the road to the second death. The book of Revelation is a long and dramatic exposition of these words of Jesus. We may not comprehend many of the details but the message is clear. Our choice of the direction of our lives must be always, and in perseverance through all things, along the narrow road.

The final creation we should seek is a new heaven and a new earth. John saw a great and wondrous woman come down to the present world to symbolize God’s purposes for it. In a later vision, chapter 21, John sees a bride descending on the new earth. She is also spectacular. The woman symbolizes the permanent union of Christ with those who inhabit the holy city described as the New Jerusalem.

The symbolism surrounding the bride and the rest of the final creation is complex. It may be best understood as a negation of the present world. In it there will be no death, mourning, pain or any of all the other ailments of the present world. There will be no evil people. They are specifically excluded. The description of the new heaven and earth seems to preclude it being a remaking or repurposing of the present world. This is no return to Eden but an entirely new existence in a completely new reality. In it all is good and everything in it will last forever. It will allow the people there to be what God saw them to be when he envisioned their existence before the creation of the present world.