The Bible begins with the Creation of the world and with the transgression of the first man, whose sin God covered by sacrifice, clothing him with skin. As the population grew, few saw the need for atonement. Alienated from God and unwilling to listen to him, men went their own way, which was a way of sex and violence. Before long the earth was so corrupt that God destroyed it, both the kilometres-thick land above the abyssal deep and the people on it (Gen 1:10, 9:11). He wiped the planet clean. Terrestrial animals, including man, went through a bottleneck and began to colonise an earth that, as it formed volcanic plateaus above the waters of the Cataclysm, was now reconstituting itself naturally. The earth remained unstable for thousands, even tens of thousands, of years. Animals evolved new forms as they adapted to environments that were themselves continually evolving.
The period between the Cataclysm and the abortive rise of an empire centred at ancient Babylon (Babel) is covered in just one chapter, consisting of a genealogy (a very abbreviated one): sons were born to the sons of Noah, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth. To begin with, they would have stayed together. It would have made no sense to venture into lands that were barren of vegetation and incapable of sustaining animal life. When they did begin to spread abroad, they had to make tools from the stones on the ground, and learning how to do that took time.
Eventually, as the Earth became more stable, many gave up their hunter-gatherer way of life and returned to farming. As settlements grew, occupations became more specialised. Something we call ‘civilisation’ began to emerge, initially in the Fertile Crescent that stretched from the Nile valley round to south-east Iran. As before, men lost their fear of the true God and instead began to fear the demonic. They began to worship spiritual powers that required child sacrifice, cult prostitution and ideas that corrupted their understanding of the divine. Archaeology shows that by the third millennium BC the whole civilised world worshipped idols. The Old Testament tells the story of how God began to counteract the degeneration. He called Abraham out of Babylonia and created from his descendants a new nation, Israel. Initially they lived in Egypt, on the eastern side of the Delta, where they became slaves. Only the promises made by God to their forefathers kept hope alive. Then in a dramatic confrontation with the pharaoh he destroyed Egypt’s army and set them free. Summoning them to the foot of Mount Sinai, he gave them a land of their own and laws that set out acceptable sacrifice and behaviour.
But Israel did not live up to her high calling, despite prophets who reminded them again and again of their covenant with God. The pull of the flesh was too strong, and she ended up worshipping the same demons as the nations around her worshipped. External regulation proved not to be sufficient; individuals needed to be regenerated from within. God’s remedy was drastic. He took away the land that the Israelites thought was theirs forever and returned them to a state of slavery and exile, the northern tribes in 721 BC, under the king of Assyria, and the southern tribes in 586 BC, under the king of Babylon. Only then did they realise that the prophets’ many warnings over the years had come true and that God was not to be trifled with. After 49 years he gave the land back, but only to a minority of Israel’s twelve tribes, the Jews, and with limited autonomy. Kingless, they learned to obey the Law given at Mount Sinai and waited for the coming of a king who, the prophets promised, would make Israel great again. The last prophet to speak was Malachi, in the 5th century BC. In 167 BC the Jews gained a measure of independence from the Seleucid Empire. In 63 BC they became a client kingdom of Rome. It was not clear where the nation was heading.
The New Testament gospels tell how a prophet named John eventually broke the silence. He urged the people to repent and be baptised, for there was coming a man far greater than he, who would baptise with holy spirit and (eventually) fire. Soon afterwards the heralded Messiah appeared. Demonstrating his power over nature by performing many signs, he challenged society’s religious traditions and ideas about the kingdom of God. He even raised people from the dead. But in the end, most of his own people rejected him: he was not the Messiah they were waiting for. In their disenchantment they persuaded the Roman governor to crucify him as a rebel. In this way God brought about the consummate sacrifice that enabled all individuals, Jew or Gentile, to be renewed: inwardly in this life, outwardly in the next. As revealed in the Bible’s opening pages but thereafter barely reflected upon, mortality was the consequence of sin and transgression. Christ, the son of God, had died in the place of all who would look upon him and believe. But he had also risen, and was now seated with his father in heaven, in the place of authority over all kingdoms and authorities, until the time when he would return and establish his kingdom on earth. Meanwhile his disciples were to take the good news to the ends of the earth and make disciples from every nation.
The Bible divides into the 36 books of the Old Testament (three quarters of the total) and 27 books and letters of the New Testament (the remaining quarter). ‘Testament’ here means ‘covenant’, referring first to the covenant that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai, and second to the new covenant that Jesus concluded with his disciples in his last meal, sealing it with his blood. In 538 BC an angel spoke to Daniel about a time when vision and prophet would be sealed: there would be no more prophecies and no more fulfilment of the existing prophecies ‘until the time of the end’. The last book in the Bible is this one, A Revelation from John the Divine, a renewal of the prophecies already given, summing up all that remained to be fulfilled. John was told not to seal up its words, for the time was near. “See, I am coming soon.”
If we think of history as beginning from the rise of civilisation c. 3000 BC, a delay of two thousand years seems anything but ‘soon’. The word becomes apt only if the perspective is the span of all history, going back much further than 3000 BC. Elsewhere Jesus spoke about the ‘end of the age’ (Matt 13:39, 24:3, 28:20). He would come back in power, like a nobleman returning after a long journey to see what his servants had done in his absence. Paul explained that with Christ the mystery that had remained secret all through the ages was now revealed (Rom 16:26). It is in relation to those past ages that Jesus could be regarded as coming back soon.
Christ’s second coming is a major component of the gospel, and we are supposed to keep it always in view. In actuality, we expect to die of old age, like our forefathers, and hope to be spared the tribulation that must come before that happens. It would be a most unfortunate coincidence if ours happened to be the generation in which life as we knew it came to an end, especially when advances in medicine and technology have left many feeling that life is more comfortable than it has ever been.
Theology reflects this state of comfort. The modern Church sums up the gospel by declaring, “Jesus loves you.” By contrast, the Book of Revelation speaks of a day when many will cry, “Hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.” We have a different understanding of who Jesus is – different not only from John’s but from that of every contributor to the New Testament. One doesn’t have to go far before being confronted with unpleasantness. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire.” “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many works of power in your name? And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you.’ ” People don’t want to think or talk about the parts of the Bible that are unsettling. We would prefer that this world went on forever, and that the end was just the moment we individually died and ‘went to heaven’. In Great Britain, almost the only people who take an interest in such things are Jehovah’s Witnesses – a group who, in some ways, are more faithful than those who look down on them from the heights of perceived orthodoxy.
According to the earliest traditions John the apostle wrote the Book of Revelation, having received the vision in the fourteenth year of the reign of Domitian, Emperor of Rome (AD 81-96). By then he was in his eighties. The church at Ephesus, which Paul founded c. 52 and where John himself had long lived and worshipped, had lost its first love; believers no longer loved God with all their heart, their mind, their soul, their strength. Laodicea, almost totally flattened in 60 by an earthquake, was prosperous again. In that city, just 65 years after Pentecost, the church had completely lost sight of who Jesus was and were about to be disinherited. Whether by way of comfort or of admonition, all the churches needed to understand that Jesus was coming soon.
The books that make up the Bible were brought together into one book on the basis that they were inspired by God, both in the writing of them and as they were read. John claims inspired authorship explicitly, pronouncing a curse on anyone who adds to or takes away from its words and blessing on whoever hears and cherishes its words – in reality, he was not the author, only the scribe. The seven major churches in Asia (western Turkey) to whom it was addressed accepted the work (one supposes) because they knew John, even though much of it was incomprehensible. In the West it soon became widely known, and widely accepted (Kruger 2016). In the East it was not so readily accepted, apparently because it was a favourite book of the Montanists, a group that practised ecstatic prophecy and proclaimed that Jesus was indeed coming soon. One of Montanus’s associates even prophesied that a town in Asia, Pepuza, would be the site of the New Jerusalem. That did not happen, nor did the many others prophecies that from time to tie piggy-backed on John’s. In the light of history it is easy to mock the whole notion that Revelation is a book about the future.
Indeed there has hardly been a time when its divine origin has not been questioned. In his preface to his translation of it into German, Martin Luther wrote: ‘My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. … Christ is neither taught nor known in it’ – though this did not stop him identifying the prostitute in chapter 17 as the Church of Rome. Modern commentators also do not all think highly of it. Perhaps the most damning comment was Harold Bloom’s (1988): ‘Resentment and not love is the teaching of the Revelation. It is a book without wisdom, goodness, kindness, or affection of any kind. Perhaps it is appropriate that a celebration of the end of the world should be not only barbaric but scarcely literate.’ Reasons for liking it are not always the best. Part of its appeal is that much of the middle part is arcane and presents a puzzle which people want to solve. Scores of commentaries have been intrigued by it, ‘so diverse,’ wrote George Caird in 1966, ‘as to make the reader wonder whether they are discussing the same book.’ And scores have been written since (here is another), to say nothing of what may be found on the web. By the same token, others are put off by its opacity and harshness. You rarely hear a sermon preached on its middle chapters.
Confronted with this cacophony of voices, the reader somehow has to come to his own opinion. My advice would be to heed the promise that whoever reads and digests the book will be blessed (Rev 1:3). It is undoubtedly a difficult book: challenging sometimes to understand and challenging, because of what it communicates, to take in. Nonetheless, God gave it to us for a purpose: he lays on us an obligation to wrestle with it, and ‘hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches’.
The message “I am coming soon” is the call to keep awake. Jesus might have told his disciples, “I will not be back for two thousand years. But remain vigilant, for you yourselves will live at most only decades, not knowing the day or the hour when you will die.” But would such a message have been heard in the same way? Probably not, for we are inclined to take the long view. We live for our children and grandchildren as well as ourselves, and we get our sense of identity and meaning, partly, from being members of the human race. The species continues, even though individuals die. Hence, the message “I am coming soon” is one for all mankind as well as the individual. Some may scoff, having in mind a still longer timescale, and reply, “Where is the promise of his coming? Man has been on the earth for millions of years, and the earth will continue until the Sun becomes a red giant.” In which case the message is, he will come sooner than they think.
All time is present to the one who sees the end from the beginning (Isa 46:10). He could have described the future in exhaustive and unambiguous detail. But Revelation is purposely written in a way that makes it more difficult to understand. This is true of all prophecy. Even now, few can honestly say that they understand much of Isaiah, or Zechariah. Nor can it be said that the Church has been greatly disadvantaged by paying Revelation little heed. While we need to be aware that Jesus will come again, we get this awareness chiefly from reading the gospels, where Jesus speaks about this often, and often with greater clarity. Further material is found in the epistles, and in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah.
The book does not readily give up its meaning, even though John is told, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book.” That it has been as good as sealed is why the shelves in theological libraries bulge with such diverse and conflicting interpretations of it. Given that Jesus could have made it easier to understand, the implication is that he intended it primarily for believers at the end of the age. It was only they who would really need to understand its contents. Revelation as a whole is not unlike the scroll introduced to us in chapter 5. ‘No one was found worthy to open the scroll or look into it.’ It remains sealed until near the end. Most scholars hold a different opinion about its scope and perspicuity. Contrary to what the book itself says (1:1, 4:1, 22:6), they maintain that it is not primarily about the future, and that it has always been intelligible. The two beliefs go together: Revelation is ‘not a coded collection of secrets that will finally become intelligible at the end of time’ (Koester 2001).
- The Book of Daniel contributes extensively to the Book of Revelation. It specifically deals with the future history of the Jews, from the 6th century BC to ‘the time of the end’. Daniel was told to shut up the words of his book and seal it until the time of the end. As a result of archaeological discoveries and other scholarly study over the last hundred years, the book is now well understood (except for the meaning of the ‘seventy weeks’). It can no longer be regarded as sealed.
- Towards the end of the synoptic gospels, Jesus addresses the question, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” Some things, he says, must take place before the end, notably the appearance of false Christs and the outbreak of wars. Then comes ‘the beginning of the birth pangs’. These take the form of nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom, famines, earthquakes and disease. The First World War, the Second World War, the famines and pandemic outbreaks of cholera, Spanish flu and AIDS/HIV in the 20th century seem to fulfil this sign emphatically. (It is not possible to speak quantitatively about earthquakes.)
- Jesus also told his disciples to reflect on the parable of the fig tree, symbolic of the nation of Israel (e.g. Luke 13:6). Just a few days earlier he had cursed an actual fig tree because it bore no fruit. It had immediately withered (Matt 21:19). As with the parable of the vineyard, the meaning was that God was going to take the kingdom away from the Jews and give it to a people that would produce its fruits (Matt 21:41). Accordingly, in AD 70 Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews banished from their land. In 1948, when the Holy Land again became a Jewish state, this Diaspora partially came to an end. “As soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves,” Jesus indicated, “you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that the Son of Man is near, at the very gates. I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” In the last decades of the 20th century the prophecy generated considerable expectation. The fig tree, while not yet fruitful, was indeed coming back into leaf. Assuming a generation length of forty years, many expected that the Lord would be back by 1988. Some dealt with the disappointment by supposing that the parable was not about Israel at all. A few understood that the generation would not have died out until everyone alive in 1948 had died. Life expectancy in Israel is currently 82 years.
- As argued in the commentary, the Jewish Holocaust, the re-establishment of Judaea as a nation state, the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, and the growing persecution of Christians are all referred to in Revelation chapter 12. That being the case, the whole of that chapter has now been fulfilled.
The purpose is to prepare and equip us for his coming (Luke 1:17). In the West we are hardly in that position at the moment. Jesus says to the last church: “You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, and do not know that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” The modern gospel, boiled down to “Jesus loves you”, is a false gospel. The question is not whether he loves us but whether we love God (2:4, 2:19, 12:11), whether, when the Bridegroom comes, there will be oil in our lamps. Revelation says, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of water.” When we understand that God exists, has come to us in love, but will come again in wrath, the appropriate response is fear (11:11, 18, 14:7, 15:4, 19:5). Then fear may lead to repentance, repentance to forgiveness, and forgiveness to assurance. The word agape occurs two times in relation to the love of Jesus. It refers not so much to an emotion as to the practical love of having gone to the uttermost to save us from our sins (1:5), and of sustaining us when under severe trial (3:9). The words for God’s wrath, orge, and rage, thumos, occur ten times. Although neither uncontrolled nor unprovoked, these are emotions. The primary purpose of Scripture is to ‘reprove, rebuke, and exhort … for the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching’ (II Tim 3:16, 4:2f). We must be careful not to be taken in by interpretations whose principal merit is to make the book palatable to a stomach used to sugar.
‘Heresy’ is an emotive word. If it is to be applied, the doctrine disapproved of must be contrary to Scripture and vitally important. Do the following teachings and beliefs merit being so branded? At any rate, they are not countenanced by the Book of Revelation, and they are widely held.
“God did not create the heavens and the earth, the sea and everything in them; we should accept that the Earth, the Sun, the planets and the Moon, the plants and animals on the Earth all had a natural origin.” Revelation says that God created all things, affirming the first book of the Bible, which maintains that God created the heavens and the earth ‘in the beginning’. By contrast, the standard scientific account says that the solar system – the Earth some time after the Sun, the Moon later still – did not form until two thirds through the history of the universe. If ‘create’ means anything, it means to form or bring into existence that which Nature by itself cannot form or bring into existence. A process whereby everything evolves into being is the opposite of creation, as everyone except Christians recognises. God played no role, except perhaps 13.8 billion years ago by lighting the touchpaper. The ‘breath’ or ‘spirit’ of life is simply a quality of highly organised matter. Christians need to understand that the wisdom of the world is at enmity with God, and they have to make a choice. If they agree with what the world teaches and deny that the visible universe itself bears true testimony to its Creator, they are choosing the wrong side. Even Richard Dawkins admits that living things appear to have been designed.
If Christians no longer understand who God is, nor do they properly understand who Jesus is. On the one hand, they say that he is not, by human ancestry, ‘the son of Adam, son of God’ (since like every human being he had an evolutionary ancestry); on the other, nor is he the Son of God on the divine side, but coequal and coeternal with God. He is the Son of God in a ‘spiritual’ rather than any literal sense. As the BBC says on its website, ‘the Trinity is a controversial doctrine; many Christians admit they don’t understand it, while many more Christians don’t understand it but think they do. In fact, although they’d be horrified to hear it, many Christians sometimes behave as if they believe in three Gods and at other times as if they believe in one.’ The dogma that “Christ is coequal and coeternal with the Father”, the root of the confusion, comes from the Pseudo-Athanasian Creed, a declaration of unknown origin dating no earlier than the late 5th century. The conflict with Scripture, including Rev 2:18 and 3:14, is discussed further in the commentary.
“Satan is not a real spiritual being.” After Jesus was baptised, he immediately went into the wilderness and there was tempted by the Devil. Not long after that, he taught his disciples to pray, “Do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (tou ponerou)” Near the end, he urged the Father directly, ‘Keep them from the evil one’ (John 17:15). As his followers, we put on the full armour of God so as to stand against the Devil (Eph 6:11). Satan is mentioned in Revelation several times. An understanding of life that does not recognise the spiritual reality of evil will be inadequate for the days ahead.
“The God revealed in the Old Testament is different from the one revealed in the New: Yahweh is wrathful and vindictive, Jesus is loving and kind.” Perpetuated by neglect of the Old Testament in week-to-week teaching, this view misrepresents both the Old Testament and the New. At its most extreme, it suggests that many church leaders do not know God at all. While Revelation alludes many times to other parts of the New Testament, it consists preponderantly of references to the Old, over 500 of them, and contains very little new prophecy. It affirms that God is still holy, still concerned about justice, still intolerant towards sin, still faithful to the covenant he made with Israel.
“The Church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people.” God’s assurances under the old covenant that he would eventually bless Israel and restore the exiled nation to the land of their forefathers are to be understood now, according to this view, as promises of blessing to the Church, for all the promises of God find their Yes in Christ (II Cor 1:20) and whoever believes in him inherits the promises. The promises are ‘spiritualised’. ‘If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise’ (Gal 3:29). But this understanding is not as logical as it sounds, for Paul’s words would be true even if some promises awaited Christ’s return. The assumption that they have all already been fulfilled is only sustained by nullifying the concrete and specific detail of the promises, and that is a circular argument. The Old Testament repeatedly indicates that the physical descendants of Israel will return to the land: God’s promises to Israel will find their Yes in Christ when he physically reigns over them. In Revelation the woman who gives birth to the Messiah is the Jewish nation, who remains an object of Satan’s hatred and escapes into the wilderness. Jerusalem is occupied by the Gentiles for 42 months, having previously been occupied by Jews (it was occupied by the Gentiles up to 1967 for 1330 years). Yahweh “will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them”, Moses assured the nation (Deut 4:31). The ark of the covenant is still before him (Rev 11:19). “If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below be explored, then I will cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done, Yahweh avers” (Jer 31:37).
“Sexual intercourse is fundamental to a person’s identity, and therefore need not be restricted to marriage.” In marriage, the man and the woman become one flesh in their whole relationship, and the relationship is holy because in the beginning God blessed it; it was part of what was ‘very good’ (Gen 1:27-31). Any sexual relationship outside this union is unholy, and no one will inherit God’s kingdom unless he is holy (I Cor 6:9). In Revelation, sexual promiscuity is the principal charge laid against civilisation in its final form.
“Christian believers go straight to heaven when they die.” The idea is reinforced by Matthew’s substituting the word ‘heaven’, as in ‘kingdom of heaven’, for ‘Yahweh’ because Jews considered the name of God to be too holy to be read out. In truth, we lie in the earth, unconscious, like everyone else, until the day we rise. Of course, the body decays and therefore it does not matter whether we are buried or cremated. Nonetheless, the biblical picture is that of bodily resurrection, supremely exemplified by the Lord himself. We don’t go to heaven as a disembodied soul and then just before the resurrection slip back to the earth. On the appointed day (John 6:40) ‘we shall all be changed. … For this thing of corruption must put on the incorruptible. … Not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed.’ (I Cor 15:51, 53, II Cor 5:4). Revelation calls this the first resurrection, before the millennial reign of Christ (Rev 20:4, 6); the rest of humanity will rise at the end of the thousand years (Rev 20:5, 20:11-14). The idea of going to heaven when we die should be resisted for three reasons. First, in etherialising the life to come it reinforces a bias against the physical, historical and literal that is foreign to biblical thinking. In reality, heaven comes down to earth. Second, it reinforces Christian individualism, contrary to the truth that we are members of one body and spiritually brothers. We rise at all, only because we were in Christ when he rose. And third, it encourages spiritual sleepiness. Why should we look forward to the Lord’s return if at the end of our lives we go to heaven, and our own personal resurrection does not depend on his coming back? Whether he comes soon or in a million years becomes a matter of indifference.
“If you make a one-off commitment to Jesus, your eternal destiny is secure.” Revelation does not encourage this view either. At the end of each letter to the churches Jesus makes his promise of eternal life conditional on each individual’s remaining faithful. We are saved by faith, but anyone accustomed to think that continuance in the faith does not matter is urged to read David Pawson’s book Once saved, always saved? The Sower sows his seed: some falls on good soil, some gets choked by thorns, some falls on soil with no depth. Without a root, we wither away. Minimising the importance of working out our salvation goes with a general devaluation of discipleship (does a believer need to be a life-long follower, always listening for his voice?), of service (need a believer serve God and man in practice?) and of reward (will Jesus really differentiate?). Eternal life itself is the reward of those who follow the Master (Col 3:24). “See, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done” (Rev 22:12).
“God is Love; he is not to be feared.” In his first letter John says, ‘Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love’, and ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear’. Fear, he says, suggests punishment. However, that is precisely why we should begin by fearing him. ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ The love that drives out fear is our own perfect love. Love is perfected (I John 2:5, 4:12, 17f) by obeying God’s commandments and loving our brother. Only if this love abides in us may we have boldness in the day of judgement (4:17). Along with the rest of the New Testament, Revelation commends godly fear.
“Theological knowledge is not important.” This is not so much a belief as an affirmation of non-belief, of the acceptability of not thinking through what we say we believe. Jesus told the Pharisees, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you when he said, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.’ ” His main criticism of the Sadducees was, “You know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” He expected his followers to know both, and to love God with all their heart and with all their mind. Indifference is not the right response to his having overcome the world (Rev 3:15-21).
Many of these teachings go hand-in-hand with a hermeneutic that ‘spiritualises’ whatever seems untrue or unacceptable if taken ‘literally’ (as if there was commonly a choice). In this way the sacred text is saved. For example, we are taught that the first chapter of Genesis explains why rather than how God made the universe, with the former a theological question, the latter a scientific one beyond the competence of the text, however inspired: spiritual truth may yet be recoverable from statements that, taken literally, that is, scientifically and historically, would embarrassingly be false. I must hope that the reader can see for himself the Alice-in-Wonderland nature of this thinking, that it is anything but spiritual, and that it is particularly odd coming from theologians who believe that man is no more than a highly organised form of matter (cf. Job 27:3, 32:8, 34:14f, Ecc 12:7, Isa 42:5, Zech 12:1). The apology is not even correct on its own terms, for Genesis is chiefly about how God brought things into being (by divine fiat) and says almost nothing about the why (why he created what we think he did not create).
Such thinking certainly will not equip the reader to understand the Book of Revelation, for all its symbolism. The general rule is, ‘first the physical, then the spiritual’ (I Cor 15:46). Spiritual significance is not intended to nullify the physical, but to fulfil it. Mount Zion (Rev 14:1) functions as an image for God’s spiritual dwelling-place in heaven, because it was also once a literal hill where God dwelt on earth; it still is a literal hill, and he will dwell there again. Where Revelation appears to describe physical events, that is what they are, notwithstanding their immensity and horror. An ‘earthquake such as has not occurred since man was on the earth’ will shake the whole planet (Rev 16:18). As Isaiah says, ‘Every valley will be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low’ (another example of how there is little new in Revelation). The spiritual significance of such events is that they express God’s real anger. The bowls which the angels pour over the land, the sea, the fresh water and the Sun may be figurative, but the havoc wreaked is not. As already mentione, some of the horrors have already occurred (Rev 6:1-8).
Some commentators ask whether John even had a vision. ‘Ordinary readers of Revelation assume that John had some sort of vision, and that what we have is a more or less straightforward description of what he saw’ (Paul 2018). The implication is that ordinary ways of reading are not to be trusted. After all, a politician who says, “I had a dream,” does not mean that he really had a dream (though do ordinary people listening suppose that he did?). John’s description of a rainbow ‘in appearance like an emerald’ cannot represent what he actually saw, for rainbows are multicoloured; rather, it is evidence that he chose words for their symbolic significance (though we are not told what the symbolic significance is). The weaving in of more than 500 Old Testament references indicates that he played a major part in the book’s composition; he was more than just a reporter. Nor would an ordinary reader be aware of how John regulates the number of times a key word or phrase occurs in the text: ‘the Lord God the Almighty’, ‘Christ’, ‘testimony of Jesus’, ‘prophecy’, ‘altar’, ‘reign’, ‘kingdom’, ‘son’, ‘blessed’, ‘every people, tribe, language and nation’ all occur seven times; ‘Satan’ also occurs seven times. ‘Forever and forever’ occurs twelve times, ‘servant(s)’ and ‘Jesus’ each fourteen times, the ‘Lamb’ twenty-eight times.
Given the emphasis on true and faithful witness in Revelation, one should be slow to infer that John himself did not bear true witness. According to his own testimony, it was God who made the revelation known. Writing as he went along, John wrote down ‘everything he saw’. After the vision, he must have worked his notes up, and we can only surmise what that involved. My own surmise is that he continued to be ‘in the Spirit’. As he relived the experience, words that he sensed to be right just came to him. It was the Spirit that embroidered the account with repeated allusions to the Old and New Testaments, much as the angels did in the vision itself, and in this manner John ‘bore witness to the word of God’ (Rev 1:2). Is it not faintly ridiculous to imagine John counting how many times he used a key phrase and revising the text until he had the right number? The numerological patterns are evidence, rather, that the Holy Spirit was the ultimate author, just as – and here is the really difficult thought – numerological patterns in history (e.g. II Chron 36:21, Dan 9:24-27) show that God is ultimately the author of all history (‘the ages were fashioned by the word of God’, Heb 1:2, 11:2).
A literal approach to interpretation – and sound theology generally – requires a literal approach to translation. Each word is inspired, not simply the general sense. A translation should be as faithful as it can be, rendering where possible word for word. In this regard the best translations are those in the direct line of descent from the King James Version, most recently the ESV (English Standard Version). The New International Version is not as good overall, and often chooses a less obvious rendering just to be different from the KJV revisions. A literal translation cannot help following the ESV for much of the time. That said, the ESV could be better than it is.
Whatever is not a literal translation is a paraphrase, and paraphrases – dubious at the best of times – are useless when it comes to rendering the prophetic books. These are difficult to understand because the Holy Spirit Spirit scrambles his message. The reader is constantly having to pick up verbal allusions to other utterances and use these clues to piece things together. Paradoxically, that is one of the signs that the books are inspired, for the prophets often do not know what they are saying concerning future times and make no attempt to order their utterances into something clearer and more sequential. Yet when that is done, a coherent picture emerges.
Jesus said, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’ He is referring not only to his words about the end of the age but to all Scripture (Isa 40:8, Matt 5:18). He, the pre-incarnate Word, inspired the written word. His words will not pass away because they will be written down, and he will ensure that they are preserved. As soon as we paraphrase, we begin to interpret and move away from his words and to lose some of their inspiration. Revelation itself warns us not to add to or take away from them. Christian reason is exercised by wrestling with the Logos, not attempting to change it.
Questions of translation can be critical. The Lord’s Prayer has already mentioned. Another well known scripture is John 3:16, ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’. The English is misleading in two respects. First, the Greek word rendered ‘so’ is houtωs, meaning ‘thus’ rather than ‘so much’: God demonstrated his love in this way, by giving his own Son as the one to be lifted up and believed in for salvation. John is speaking not about the emotional nature of God’s love, but about how he showed his love in practice (as in I John 4:10). Second, the Greek says ‘his Son, the only-begotten’ (ton huion autou, ton monogene). While Jesus was not necessarily his only son, he was the only one to have been begotten in the flesh (Luke 1:35). The ESV footnotes the correct translation of houtωs, but says nothing about its omission of ‘begotten’. The NIV mistranslates and provides no footnotes; ‘one and only’ for monogene is crass.
Because writing materials had short lifetimes, manuscripts of the New Testament, as with all ancient texts, exist only as copies. Copying led to errors, and determining which variant reflects the original is not always easy; the oldest manuscript is not necessarily the truest. The Greek text used for this commentary is the Stephens Textus Receptus of 1550, as given in The Englishman’s Greek New Testament. I have adopted a variant reading only when supported by at least five of the seven other editions encompassed in that work. This rule of thumb usually results in the same reading as in the ESV and NIV, but not always. For example, John 1:18 is unlikely to have stated, ‘No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.’ The correct reading is ‘only-begotten Son’, not ‘only God’. The alternative, attested by only one of the other editions, is not a copying error but reflects the ‘anti-adoptionistic tendencies’ of a scribe in Alexandria (Ehrman 2007). The rule also proves a more reliable guide where some manuscripts omit one or more sentences. For example, most scholars reject John 7.53-8.11 concerning the woman caught in adultery; the rule rehabilitates the passage.
- porneia – this very common word in the New Testament means sexual intercourse outside marriage. Unmarried women were expected to be virgins and married women to be faithful to their husbands. Ancient Greek and Roman society did not hold husbands to the same standard; if they were unfaithful, it was generally with a prostitute (porne). Christian teaching revolutionised society by insisting that husbands should be equally faithful. Since Scripture considers all copulation outside marriage unclean, the word should be translated ‘fornication’, not ‘sexual immorality’ (which begs the question what sexual immorality is).
- kai (‘and’) – as the ESV notes, Greek uses connectives such as kai more often than English does. I have followed the ESV in occasionally translating ‘then’, though not as frequently. In one place (17:6) omission of the word alters the sense: ‘the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses of Jesus’. The two groups of people – Jews and believing Gentiles – are distinct. In putting them in apposition, the ESV, like the NIV, conflates them, apparently influenced by replacement theology.
- hagioi – that ‘saints’ in some contexts refers to the people of Israel is clear from the equivalent in Daniel 7 and numerous psalms. The NIV’s paraphrase ‘people of God’ or ‘God’s people’ is poor. It conveys the truth that ‘saints’ include all whom God adopts as his children (not only those who have been ‘canonised’) but neglects the truth that God sanctifies all whom he adopts. In 11:18 the NIV reduces the word to ‘your’!
- zωon – this is the normal word for ‘animal’ (Rev 4:6), equivalent to Hebrew chay. ‘Living creature’ is an unnecessary circumlocution. The word denotes both the ‘living souls’ (animals) created in the beginning and the four animal-like beings beneath the throne in Ezekiel’s vision. In both Greek and Hebrew the root idea is ‘life’. The root of the English word is anima, Latin ‘soul’, which every animal was perceived to have. The beings beneath the throne indicate that God is the source of all created life.
- Where possible, translations should use the same word each time the same Greek one occurs. ‘Purchase’, ‘ransom’ and ‘redeem’, for instance, are distinct ideas and should be restricted to the corresponding words in Greek. The word in Rev 5:9 is ‘purchase’ (NIV), not ‘ransom’ (ESV); in 14:3, it is ‘purchase’, not ‘redeem’ (ESV, NIV). The word translated ‘seduce’ in Rev 2:20 is planein, the normal word for ‘deceive’, as in 12:9 and elsewhere. The normal word for ‘voice’ or ‘sound’ (between which the translator must choose) is phonos, as in 1:10, 1:12 and so on, but in some places it is more particularly translated ‘rumblings’ (e.g. 8:5, ESV, NIV). Such inconsistencies are motivated by a desire to add colour, but in a minor way they too contravene the warning not to add to or take away from the words of the prophecy. Revelation compensates for complexity of structure and symbolism by keeping the language simple. It is vivid enough, and the sounds in question may not in fact be rumblings.
Revelation implies that followers of Christ prove themselves as such by their witness. On the basis of both Scripture and experience they bear testimony to what he did, who he is, and when he is coming back, i.e. soon. I give my own peculiar testimony after this introduction [in prep.].
Having compared the signs of the foretold ‘birth pains’ of the kingdom with the history of the last two centuries, I really do believe he is returning soon. That puts me at odds with the majority of published commentators. Moreover, in my view Revelation will not unlock its mysteries until Christ is imminent and unless we understand that he is imminent (if in fact he is). Modern theology is at variance with the testimony of Scripture, Revelation not least, but most commentaries are written by scholars who are comfortable with modern theology. It is not to be expected that they will shed much light on the book.
Another uncommon view is that the facts of geology and astronomy and the biblical understanding of the world are not at odds. Having inquired into its origin more deeply than most scientists, I can affirm that God did create the heavens and the earth and everything in them. This is necessary if one wishes to understand the book. God is declared worthy to receive kingship over the nations because he created all things (Rev 4:11). He is coming to judge the world because that part of the world that has received the most light, scientifically and theologically, denies that he is the Creator. And of course it also denies that he is its Judge. Much of the rest of the world believes in God but denies that Jesus is his Son.
So that is the final reason why I am adding one more commentary to the pile: scientific knowledge acquired over the past hundred years helps us understand the prophecies as never before. Other parts of the Bible say that God will burn the earth with fire, but Revelation describes this in some detail, enough for us to see that the fire is not to be ‘spiritualised’ into a metaphor detached from reality. It describes phenomena that the world is increasingly becoming worried about: asteroids tearing through the atmosphere, coronal mass ejections, loss of the Earth’s magnetic shield. Surely God expects us to understand his word in the light of contemporary knowledge. Perhaps this is what it means in our generation to ‘interpret the signs of the times’.
Apart from the challenge of taking in the sheer magnitude of the events depicted, the greatest difficulty is discerning their relative chronology. The general direction of travel is of course forwards. Events are described in the order in which they happen, but with pauses to describe certain aspects in more detail. This is true even of the letters to the seven churches. While they concern first and foremost the congregations addressed and living at the time, they can also be taken as referring, on a larger historical scale, to successive churches, from the immediately post-apostolic age to the present day. The scroll with the seven seals represents the title deed of the kingdom. It is opened one seal at a time in chapter 6. The first four encompass disasters that have now occurred. The fifth is in the process of fulfilment and the sixth represents the final wrath; they are elaborated upon in chapters 7 to 19. The kingdom comes once it is fully opened, as described in chapters 21. Chapter 20 summarises the millennial reign of Christ and his Bride, with some elaboration in chapter 22.
The blasts of the first four trumpets bring on natural disasters that are God’s final warnings before the full force of God’s wrath. The scorching of the earth brought on by the first will be so sudden, so destructive, as to leave no doubt that the trumpets have begun to sound. The warnings continue for a period of three and a half years. In Jerusalem, now under Gentile occupation, two prophets speak to the Jews about their coming Messiah. Other prophets receive divine protection in order to make one last appeal to the rest of the world. Many perish in the course of the disasters, and many believers are martyred. Israelis are killed, enslaved and sent into exile. With the fifth and sixth trumpets the world is given over to demons that torment and kill. The earth’s inhabitants still refuse to repent. They kill those who have declared the gospel to them. One more trumpet is blown. Surviving believers are taken off the earth and the dead in Christ rise from their graves. The earth is given over to God’s wrath.
God uses an intensification of the solar wind and a world-wide seismic convulsion to destroy western civilisation. Amidst the devastation the nations around Israel gather at Megiddo to fight each other, but the flesh falls from their bones. Christ returns with his Bride, and rules the nations of the earth for a thousand years. He establishes peace and justice. Eventually, those who did not die in Christ are raised and judged according to their deeds. Earth and heaven are dissolved, and those granted eternal life live on a new earth. Death will be no more.
|1|| Opening words
Revelation of Jesus Christ, the First and the Last
|2-3||Letters to the seven churches||c. 90 – now|
|4-5|| The throne in the temple in heaven
|6|| Opening of the seven seals:
Seal 6 – the wrath of God
Seal 7 – silence = finality
1875 – now
|7||Sealing of the 144,000 and their emergence from the great tribulation||During half-week|
|8-9||Trumpet blasts of six angels one after the other||During half-week|
|10|| Seven thunders
No more delay before 7th trumpet
Little scroll of prophecy which John has to eat
|11|| The two witnesses prophesy in Jerusalem
Angels blow the last trumpet
| During half-week
|12||The woman, the man and the dragon||167 BC – now…|
|13||The Beast and the False Prophet||During half-week|
|14|| 144,000 who died during half-week now in heaven
Harvest of those who have accepted gospel = 7th trumpet
Winepress of God’s wrath for those who have not
|15-16||Seven bowls of wrath = winepress||After half-week|
|17||Babylon the Great – who she is|
|18||Final destruction of Babylon the Great||After half-week|
|19|| Marriage supper of the Lamb
The enemies of God finally struck down at Armageddon
|20|| The reign of Christ and his people
Last judgement, resurrection of the dead
| The following
|21-22|| The new Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ, comes down from heaven
Because Daniel is such an important book for understanding Revelation, the commentary begins with an exposition of Daniel 2 and 9.