The Bible begins with the Creation of the world and with the transgression of the first man, whose sin God covered by instituting animal sacrifice. But few availed themselves of this provision. Alienated from God and unwilling to listen to him, men went their own way, and before long the earth was so corrupt that God destroyed it. With the Flood-Cataclysm he wiped the slate clean. But again men lost their fear of him. They began to worship spiritual powers that required child sacrifice, cult prostitution and other practices that corrupted and enslaved their souls. Archaeology shows that by the third millennium BC the whole world worshipped idols. The rest of the Old Testament tells the story of how God counteracted the degeneration. He called Abraham out of Babylonia and from his descendants created a new nation, Israel. Initially they lived in Egypt, where they became slaves, with only the promises that God had made to their forefathers to keep hope alive. Then in a dramatic confrontation with the pharaoh he set them free. 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, so that she ended up worshipping the same demons as the nations around her worshipped. External regulation was demonstrated not to be sufficient: individuals needed to be regenerated from within. God’s remedy was drastic. He took away the land that the Israelites had thought was inalienable and returned them to a state of slavery, this time under the king of Babylon. Only then did they realise that what the prophets had warned about had come true, and that God was not to be trifled with. After 49 years he gave the land back, but only to two of Israel’s twelve tribes, and with limited autonomy. Kingless, they learned to obey the Law and for several centuries waited for the coming of a Messiah king. According to the prophets, he would make Israel great again.
The New Testament gospels tell the story of how the Messiah did come, but not in the way expected. He changed the way men thought about God. Most of his own people rejected him. In persuading the Romans to crucify the Son of God, they unwittingly brought about the consummate sacrifice by virtue of which the individual, Jew or Gentile, could be renewed from within. As revealed in the opening pages of the Old Testament but thereafter barely reflected upon, death was the penalty of sin and transgression. Christ died in the place of all who would look upon him and believe. The message of salvation from the power of sin and death was to go to the ends of the earth.
The Book of Revelation is the last of the 66 books and letters of the Bible (some of them very short). According to the Book of Daniel, a time would come when vision and prophet would be sealed: there would be no more prophecies, and no more fulfilment of them, ‘until the time of the end’. The last prophecy was this book, A Revelation from John the Divine, in many ways a summation of all the prophecies that remained to be fulfilled. He was told not to seal up its words, for the time was near. “Take note, 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 far from ‘soon’. The word can be justified only if the perspective of this final book is the span of all history. According to the Bible, the time of the end begins with the coming of the Messiah (Dan 9:24, I Cor 10:11), but that is both his first coming, before which there had been no prophecy for over 400 years, and his second coming, at which point all prophecy will have been fulfilled. With Christ ‘the revelation of the mystery kept secret all through the ages has now been disclosed, through the writings of the prophets’ (Rom 16:26). According to the earliest traditions John received his revelation in the fourteenth year of the reign of Domitian (81-96 BC). His book tells how this present age, which has seen the gospel spread across the world, will come to an end.
Just as there is pressure from outside the Church not to take the Bible’s account of the beginning at its word, so there is pressure not to take the account of the end at its word. Although Christ’s second coming is a major component of the gospel, and in principle we look forward to his coming, we expect to die of old age, like our forefathers, and to be spared the tribulation that comes before that happens. Also, we have a different understanding of who Jesus is. The modern Church sums up the gospel by declaring, “Jesus loves you.” By contrast, the Book of Revelation speaks of a day when everyone will cry to the mountains and rocks, “Hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb.” People don’t want to think or talk about the parts of the Bible that are unsettling. In our heart of hearts we would prefer that this world went on for ever and ever, and that the end was just the moment when we individually died and ‘went to heaven’. In Great Britain, almost the only people who currently take an interest in such things are Jehovah’s Witnesses – a group who, in many ways, are more faithful than those who consider themselves orthodox.
In this same book Christ counsels the Church of the final period not to have illusions about her own spirituality: “You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realising that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.” Referring to the love of Jesus, the word agape occurs two times, exclusively in relation to his love for his Church. It is 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). Of equal importance is whether we love him (2:4, 2:19, 12:11). If his discipline does not have the effect of purifying us, he will spit us out of his mouth. The word for God’s wrath, orge, occurs ten times. When we understand that God exists, and has come to us in love, and will come again, the appropriate response is fear (11:11, 18, 14:7, 15:4, 19:5). Will there be oil in our lamps when the Bridegroom comes? We must be careful not to read the book as people who are deaf and blind, who ‘hear but never understand, see but never perceive’, devising theories of interpretation whose principal merit is to make Revelation, like Genesis, more palatable to a sweet tooth.
Evidently the book of Revelation is written in a very different way from Genesis 1-2. This is not merely because the one is about the future, the other about the past. All time is present to God, he sees the end from the beginning (Isa 46:10), and he could have described the future in exhaustive and unambiguous detail. But Revelation is deliberately written in a way that makes it more difficult to understand. This is true of prophecy in the Old Testament. Some things are hidden from the supposedly wise and understanding (Matt 11:25). Nonetheless the book was written so that we might understand it, and profit from it. So how are we to understand the book? Do we need a special code? Is it all so symbolic that we can read into it anything we want?
The book itself says that it is not sealed (the book is understandable now), and it pronounces a blessing on whoever hears its words and keeps them (defends and does not distort). On two occasions, John is puzzled by what he sees, but is then given explanations to help him understand (7:15, 17:7). Much of the rest of the book consists of explanations. Could it be that the book is simpler to understand than many people – confused rather than enlightened by a plethora of over-elaborate theories – have been led to believe? That often commentaries have made it more difficult to understand?
Perhaps the greatest difficulty is that of discerning the sequence of events. As one might expect, the general direction of travel is forwards. Overall, events are described in the order in which they happen, with pauses to describe some aspects in more detail. This is true even of the messages to the seven churches. While they would have made most sense to the contemporary congregations of the cities named, they also refer, on a pan-European scale, to seven successive churches, with the last, Laodicea, referring to the Church now. The scroll represents the title deed of the kingdom. By implication, the kingdom comes once it is fully opened, and therefore the seven seals represent the entire final period leading up to its inauguration in chapter 21. The first four seals encompass disasters that have now already occurred, the fifth and sixth the remaining period, encompassed by chapters 7 to 19.
The blasts of the six trumpets before the last trumpet are God’s final warnings before the full force of God’s wrath. The natural disasters associated with the first four are called down by two prophets, as they and others sealed for the purpose of testifying appeal to the world to repent. They are succeeded by the demonic torments and deaths of the fifth and sixth. At the last trumpet, surviving believers in Jesus, along with those who through the ages have died in him, are taken off the earth and the earth given over to God’s wrath. The civilisation represented by ‘Babylon the Great’ is destroyed. The surviving nations around the land of Israel gather for war at Megiddo and perish. Christ returns with his Bride, the Church, and rules the earth for a thousand years, establishing peace and justice. Eventually earth and heaven are dissolved, and the dead not in Christ are raised and judged according to their deeds. Those raised to life live on a new heaven and earth. Death is no more.
|1|| Opening words
Revelation of Jesus Christ, the First and the Last
|2-3||Messages 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
1853 – 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