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. However, 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 Noah a fresh start was made, but again men soon lost their fear of God. 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 began to counteract the degeneration. He called Abraham out of Babylonia and from his descendants brought into being a new nation, Israel. Initially they lived in Egypt, where they became slaves, with only the promises God 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 did. 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 regarded as inalienable and returned them to a state of slavery under the king of Babylon, until they realised that what the prophets had warned them about had come true; 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 Messiah king who, according to the prophets, would make Israel great again.
The New Testament is the story of how the Messiah came and 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 perfect sacrifice by virtue of which the individual, Jew or Gentile, could be renewed from within. As revealed in the opening pages of the Bible but thereafter barely reflected upon, death was the penalty of sin and transgression, and 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 fulfilment of them, ‘until the time of the end’. The last prophecy was this book by John, which in many ways is a summation of all prophecy yet to be fulfilled, Old Testament and New. He was told not to seal up its words, for the time was said to be near – which remains true, if our perspective is that of all history. The time of the end began with the coming of the Christ (Dan 9:24, I Cor 10:11), both his first coming, before which there had been no prophecy for over 400 years, and his second coming. With him ‘the revelation of the mystery kept secret all through the ages has now been disclosed and through prophetic writings made known to all nations’ (Rom 16:25). Written in the reign of Domitian (81-96 BC), it tells how this present age, in which the gospel goes out into all the world, will come to an end. Today, the end really is near.
The book is not well understood, largely because its message is hard to take, especially for the cosseted Church in the West, and theories of interpretation are devised specifically to make it palatable. We do not wish to hear that the cost of being faithful might be premature death, or that the world with which we have made our peace will come to a catastrophic end. Almost the only people who currently take an interest in such things are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yet in this same book Christ counsels the Church of the final period not to have illusions about herself: “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.” We do well to make sure that there is oil in our lamps before the Bridegroom comes.
Overall, events are described in the order in which they happen, with pauses to describe some situations in more detail. Thus, while the messages to the seven churches would have made most sense to the contemporary congregations of the cities named and they still have some application today, they also refer to seven successive churches on a pan-European scale, with the last, Laodicea, referring to the Church now. The first four seals encompass disasters that have already occurred, the fifth and sixth the period encompassed by the rest of the book up to chapter 19. The seven trumpet blasts are final warnings to repent before the wrath. The natural disasters associated with the first four trumpets are called down by two prophets in Jerusalem, 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 trumpets. At the last trumpet, those who believe in Jesus and have not been martyred, along with those who through the ages have died in him, are taken up to heaven and the earth is given over to God’s wrath. The civilisation represented by ‘Babylon the Great’ is destroyed. Those now in heaven rejoice in a great banquet, celebrating the marriage of Christ to his Bride, the Church. Then the surviving nations gather for war at Megiddo and perish. Christ returns to Jerusalem with his Bride, 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||A|| Opening words
Revelation of Jesus Christ, the First and the Last
|2-3||B||Messages to the seven churches||c. 90 – now|
|4-5||C|| The throne in the temple in heaven
|6||D|| Opening of the seven seals:
Seal 6 – the wrath of God
Seal 7 – silence = finality
| 1853 – now
|7||E||Sealing of the 144,000 and their emergence from the great tribulation||During half-week|
|8-9||F||Trumpet blasts of six angels one after the other||During half-week|
|10||G|| Seven thunders
No more delay before 7th trumpet
Little scroll of prophecy which John has to eat
|11||H|| The two witnesses prophesy in Jerusalem
Angels blow the last trumpet
| During half-week
|12||I||The woman, the man and the dragon||167 BC – now|
|13||H’||The Beast and the False Prophet|
|14||G’|| 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||F’||Seven bowls of wrath = winepress|
|17||E’||Babylon the Great – who she is|
|18||D’||Final destruction of Babylon the Great||After half-week|
|19||C’|| Marriage supper of the Lamb
The enemies of God finally struck down at Armageddon
|20||B’|| Thousand-year reign of Christ and his people
Last judgement, resurrection of the dead
| After Armageddon
|21-22||A’|| The new Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ, comes down from heaven
Revelation also has a literary ‘chiastic’ structure, rather like a many-branched menorah, where similar elements are symmetrically arranged around a central stem. Although the symmetry is not perfect, the book divides into sixteen such elements, here labelled with letters of the alphabet, eight on one side of chapter 12 and eight on the other. Chapter 12 is central inasmuch as it illuminates world history as the conflict between the seed (offspring) of Eve, ‘the mother of all living,’ and the seed of the Serpent. It embraces the whole of history, from the promise that Eve would bear a child who would crush the Serpent’s head to the birth of that child and his eventual return from heaven to rule the nations with a rod of iron. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.