The Bible begins with the Creation. The Lord God made man out of the dust of the earth, breathed into him the spirit of life, and planted a garden, in which he put the man in order to work it and keep it. He told the man he was free to eat from any of the trees in the garden except one; if he ate from that, he would die. Then he put him to sleep, and out of his side he made a female companion for him. Although both were naked, they felt no shame. God saw the world that he had made, and it was indeed very good. Satan also saw. Making himself visible in the form of a serpent, he spoke to the woman and persuaded her that there was good reason to disregard what her Maker had commanded. The man followed her. Immediately they knew that they were naked. In the act of being unfaithful in spirit, they had become guilty of sexual unfaithfulness. They tore off fig leaves to cover their loins and hid themselves. But God sought them out. He covered their sin by sacrificing animals in place of their own immediate deaths and clothing them with the skins, and sent them out of the garden back to the ground from which they had been taken. They had learned about evil; he taught them how to deal with it.
As humanity increased, the sense of shame that accompanied disobedience diminished, as we see in our own time. Few saw the need for atonement. Alienated from God, men gave themselves up to violence and sexual promiscuity, until only one righteous man remained. Resolving to destroy the earth that he had made, God told him to build an ark. No one took any notice. They mocked when they saw this sign of judgement and carried on as normal, eating and drinking, marrying, planning for the next generation. Then the day came when God shut Noah and his family in. All the springs of the great deep suddenly burst, the land above the deep foundered and asteroids rained down on the planet. All terrestrial life was blotted out, all life except that which was in the ark. As we began to understand only in the 1970s, the same asteroid storm as hit the Earth left impact craters on the Moon, some the size of France. After the Cataclysm, the land began to renew itself, but it remained unstable for tens of thousands of years. Animals went through a bottleneck, multiplied and diversified, evolving new forms as they adapted to environments that were themselves continually evolving. Fossils bear witness to the recolonisation.
A genealogy, much abbreviated and centred on the Near East, covers the prehistoric period following the Cataclysm. Sons were born to Noah, and from these the nations spread abroad. To begin with, they stayed together. It would have made no sense to venture into lands 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 that skill took time to master. Initially the tools were crude; eventually their craftsmanship was exquisite. Other aspects of their culture – wooden implements, clothing, rope, huts, boats – became lost to the archaeological record as the materials decayed. We also know next to nothing about their beliefs.
Many gave up their hunter-gatherer way of life to domesticate animals and cultivate land. As settlements grew, the occupations of their members became more specialised. Something we call ‘civilisation’ developed, initially in the Fertile Crescent, stretching from the Nile valley to south-east Iran. Genesis records the abortive rise of a kingdom centred at Babel (Babylon), in Mesopotamia. A more enduring kingdom arose in Egypt. Men lost their fear of God and instead feared the demonic, powers that they made visible through idols. Each city had its god, who was present in the form of a divine image and resided in a house or temple in the heart of the city. The god ruled through a king, and the king was supported by a ruling class of priests and administrators, beneath them a middle class of artisans and traders, and beneath them an underclass of slaves and food-producers. By the 3rd millennium BC the whole civilised world worshipped idols.
The rest of Genesis tells how God set in motion a plan to reverse the descent into futility. He called one man out of Babylonia, whom he named Abraham, and from the line which went through his son Isaac and Isaac’s son Jacob created a new nation, which he named Israel. Initially they lived in Egypt, on the eastern side of the Delta, where they settled as herders but ended up as slaves, at the bottom of the hierarchy. Only God’s promise that he would one day give them a land of their own kept hope alive. Eventually he intervened. He brought a series of plagues upon Egypt, forced the king to release his slaves, destroyed the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, and led the Israelites into the wilderness. Entering into a covenant with them at the foot of Mount Sinai, he granted them a land of their own and instructed them about what was acceptable sacrifice and behaviour. He would bless the fruit of their womb and the fruit of the ground and the fruit of their livestock; he would cause those who rose against them to be defeated; he would be their king and they a holy nation among the nations, his royal treasure. Like the first human couple, all they had to do was be faithful to his word.
But the Israelites did not live up to their high calling. They demanded a human king, such as other nations had. Acquiescing, God gave them Saul, then David, then Solomon, but warned them that future kings would exploit them and turn them into slaves. Despite prophets reminding them again and again of their covenant with God, the pull of the flesh was too strong. On every high hill they performed sacrifices and under every green tree they fornicated, worshipping the same demons that the other nations worshipped. External regulation proved insufficient; the individuals making up the community needed to be regenerated from within, in the heart.
God’s remedy was drastic. He took away the land that the Israelites thought was theirs forever and returned them to their original condition of slavery and landlessness: the northern tribes in 721 BC when they were deported to Assyria, the southern tribes in 586 BC when they were deported to Babylonia, Abraham’s birthplace. Only then did they realise that the prophets’ warnings had come true and that God was not to be trifled with. After 49 years he gave part of the land back to a remnant of the southern tribes known as Jews, with limited autonomy, first under the Persians and later the Greeks. They learned to obey the Law given at Mount Sinai and waited for God to restore the monarchy. In 167 BC they gained a measure of independence. In 63 BC they became a client kingdom of Rome. Where the nation was heading long-term was far from clear.
The last prophet to speak to Israel had been Malachi. It was not until more than four centuries later, in AD 26, that a prophet named John broke the silence. He urged the people to repent and be baptised, for there was coming a man far greater than he, someone who would baptise with holy spirit, and with fire. Soon afterwards the heralded Messiah appeared. Demonstrating his power over nature through many signs, he challenged society’s religious traditions and ideas about the kingdom of God. He even brought the dead back to life. But in the end, most of the Jews rejected him: he was not the Messiah they were waiting for. They persuaded the Roman governor to crucify him as a rebel.
In this way God brought about the consummate sacrifice that enabled any individual, whatever his birth, to be renewed: inwardly in this life, outwardly in the next. As set out in the Bible’s opening pages but thereafter little reflected on, mortality was the consequence of sin and transgression. Christ, the son of God, had made atonement with his own naked body; he had died in the place of all who would look upon him and believe in him. But he had also risen, and now was seated with his father in heaven, having authority over all kingdoms and authorities, until such time as he would return and establish his rule over all the earth.
The Bible divides into the 36 books of the Old Testament (the first three quarters) 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 Jerusalem. The last book in the Bible is A Revelation from John the Divine, a prophecy that renewed the prophecies given in the Old Testament and summed up all that remained to be fulfilled. John was told not to seal up its words, for the time was near. Christ was coming soon.
If we think of history as beginning from the oldest writing of history, by Israelite writers c. 1400 BC, or from the rise of civilisation, c. 3000 BC, a delay of two thousand years seems anything but ‘soon’. The word is apt only if we have in mind the whole of history. 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 absence to see what his servants had achieved. Paul referred several times to ‘ages’ now past. With Christ the mystery that had remained secret all through the ages had been revealed (Rom 16:26), so that now we were living at the end of the ages. It was from this perspective that Jesus might be regarded as coming back soon.
Christ’s second coming is a major component of the gospel, and we are supposed to keep it in view. He is not only our hope, but the unknown hope of all the world. In actuality, we expect to die of senility and hope to be spared the tribulation that is forecast to come before that happens. It would be most unfortunate if ours happened to be the generation in which the age inaugurated by Christ came to a sudden end, especially when advances in medicine, technology and opportunities to travel have left many of us feeling that life is more comfortable than ever.
Our theology reflects this state of comfort. The Church sums up the gospel by the slogan, “Jesus loves you,” and assures believers, “Jesus accepts you just as you are.” 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 all the New Testament. One doesn’t have to go far before being confronted with unpleasant- ness. “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.’ ” Christians don’t wish to think about the parts of the Bible that are unsettling. They would prefer 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 self-perceived orthodoxy.
The books that make up the Bible were brought together into one book on the basis that God inspired the writing of them and continues to inspire the reading of them. John, the writer of Revelation, claims inspiration explicitly, pronouncing a curse on anyone who adds to or takes away from its words and a blessing on anyone who hears and cherishes its words – he was merely the scribe, not the author.
Our earliest informants tell us that the scribe was John the apostle. He received his vision in the fourteenth year of the reign of Domitian, Emperor of Rome (AD 81-96), by which time he was in his eighties. Jesus told him to record the vision and send it to the seven churches of Asia, now western Turkey. At least some of them were experiencing persecution. The church at Ephesus, where for many years John himself had dwelt and worshipped, had lost its first love; believers no longer loved God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. Laodicea, almost totally flattened in 60 by an earthquake, had regained its prosperity; they more than any knew how disaster could come like a thief in the night; yet there, just two generations after Pentecost, the church had completely lost sight of who Jesus was. Whether by way of reassurance or of admonition, all the churches needed to understand that Jesus was coming soon.
In the western Empire the book quickly became widely known, and widely accepted. Probably it also did in the East, where it originated. Although much of the book must have been incomprehensible, and John had his detractors (III John 10), the churches there knew the writer. Later they had their doubts, apparently because it was a favourite book of the Montanists, a sect that practised ecstatic prophecy and added to the message that Jesus was coming soon by prophesying that New Jerusalem would descend on a mountain near Pepuza in Asia. That did not happen. Nor did the many later prophecies that piggy-backed on John’s. As time continues to lengthen, it is easy to dismiss the notion that Revelation is a book about the future.
Revelation has always been troublesome, controversial, and dogged by doubt. In the preface to his translation of it, 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. Not all modern commentators think highly of it. Among the most damning comments is 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. Much of the middle part is arcane and fascinates in the same way that undeciphered hieroglyphs fascinate. Scores of commentaries have been written on it, ‘so diverse,’ wrote George Caird in 1966, ‘as to make the reader wonder whether they are discussing the same book.’ Scores have been written since, to say nothing of what may be found on the web. Many are put off by its harshness and obscurity. You rarely hear a sermon preached on any of the middle chapters.
Confronted with a cacophony of competing interpretations, the reader somehow has to determine how best to read the work for himself. Jesus’ advice seems to be to avoid interpretations that do not keep to the words of the prophecy. The book is undoubtedly difficult: challenging sometimes to understand and challenging, because of what it communicates, to take in. Nonetheless, he gave it to us for a purpose, laying on us an obligation to wrestle with it and ‘hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches’. Those who do so will be blessed (1:3). Later in this introduction I will explain why I am adding to the cacophony.
The message “I am coming soon” is the call to keep awake. Jesus might have told his disciples, “I will not be back for thousands of years. But be vigilant, for you yourselves will live only decades, not knowing the day or the hour when you will die.” Would the 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 get our sense of identity and meaning, partly, from being members of the human race, which we hope will go on forever even though individuals die. So no timescale is given, and the message “I am coming soon” is one for all mankind as well as the individual. Some may scoff, 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.” The message in that case is, he will come sooner than you think.
All time is present to the one who sees the end from the beginning (Isa 46:10, 57:15). Since he could have described the future in unambiguous detail, Revelation’s obscurity would seem to be intentional. Nor can we say that the Church has been greatly disadvantaged by paying the prophecy little heed. While we need to keep in mind that Jesus will come again, we get this awareness chiefly from reading Matthew, Mark and Luke, where Jesus speaks about this often, and often with greater clarity. Further material is found in the epistles and in the Old Testament prophets.
Even though John is told, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book,” the book does not readily give up its meaning. That it has been as good as sealed is why interpretations of it abound. The implication is that Jesus intended it primarily for believers at the end of the age. Only they would need to understand its contents, and these would become clearer as the day approached. Revelation as a whole is not unlike the scroll in chapter 5: ‘no one was found worthy to open the scroll.’ It remained sealed until near the end. Understandably, most scholars who write about it are more positive. 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 tend to 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 deals with the future of the Jews, from the 6th century BC to ‘the time of the end’. The angel who imparted its final vision told Daniel to shut up the book and seal it until that time. As a result of archaeological discoveries and other scholarly study over the last hundred years, most of it is now well understood. It can no longer be regarded as sealed.
- Towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, his disciples asked him, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” Things that must take place first, he said, would include the appearance of false Messiahs and the outbreak of various wars. Then would come ‘the beginning of the birth pangs’: nation would rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom, and there would be famines, earthquakes, and disease. It is not difficult to see the First and Second World Wars, the famines and the pandemic outbreaks of cholera, Spanish flu and AIDS/HIV in the 20th century as fulfilling this prediction. (Records of earthquakes do not go back far enough to quantify.)
- 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 arguably referred to in Revelation chapter 12, in which case we stand at the juncture between chapter 12 and chapter 13.
- Jesus told his disciples to reflect also on the parable of the fig tree. A man planted a fig tree in his vineyard, but it bore no fruit, so he told the vinedresser to cut it down. The worker said, “Let me feed it one more year, and if it still does not bear fruit, then cut it down.” (Luke 13:6-9) A little earlier, Jesus had cursed an actual fig tree because it bore no fruit, and it had immediately withered (Matt 21:19). In this way he indicated that the nation that God had planted among the Gentiles was going to be uprooted and the kingdom given to a people who would repay his labour (Matt 21:41). Accordingly, in AD 70 Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews exiled. In 1948 the fig tree was replanted. The land again became a Jewish state and the Diaspora partially came to an end. “As soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves,” he warned, “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.” Life expectancy in Israel is currently 82 years.
The purpose is to prepare and equip the Bride of Christ for his coming (Luke 1:17). Here in the West we are hardly in that position at the moment. Jesus upbraids the last church: “You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, and do not know that you are pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” The modern gospel, boiled down to “Jesus loves you”, is a false gospel. In the gospel according to Matthew, Mark and Luke the word for ‘love’ (agapaω) is used of Jesus just once in total, when he advises the rich ruler to sell all that he has, give it to the poor and follow him (Mark 10:21). In loving him, he didn’t accept him just as he was. In John’s gospel the word refers to Jesus more frequently, but the point is that we should love others in the same way (John 15:12). So the question is not whether he loves us but whether we love God (Rev 2:4, 2:19, 12:11), and 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. 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 mercy and 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, and repentance to forgiveness and peace with God. Agapaω is used of Jesus two times in Revelation. 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 to the love that sustains us when under trial (3:9). The words for God’s wrath, orge, and rage, thumos, occur ten times. Although neither uncontrolled nor unprovoked, this anger is an emotion. 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 take care not to be seduced by interpretations whose chief merit is to appeal to palates brought up on sugar.
A ‘heresy’ is a doctrine damaging to the health of the Church and contrary to Scripture. Do the following teachings qualify? At any rate, they are not countenanced by the Book of Revelation, and they are widely held.
1. “Everything in the Universe – the Earth, the Sun, the planets and the Moon, the plants and animals on the Earth – had a natural origin.” Revelation re-affirms what the Book of Genesis says, that God created the heavens and the earth. By contrast, human reason says that the solar system – the Earth some time after the Sun, the Moon later still – did not form supernaturally in the beginning, but naturally two thirds through the history of the universe. If ‘create’ means anything, the word means to form or bring into existence that which Nature by itself bring into existence. As everyone outside the peculiar world of theology recognises, a process whereby everything evolves into being is the opposite of creation. God plays no role, although he may, 13.8 billion years ago, have lit the touchpaper. The ‘breath’ or ‘spirit’ of life is simply a quality of highly organised matter. Disciples of Jesus 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, they are choosing the wrong side. The universe is not false in bearing testimony to its Creator: David in his psalms simply states what is manifest. Even Richard Dawkins admits that living things appear to have been designed.
2. If Christians no longer understand who God is, they also do not understand who Jesus is. On the human side, they say that he is not ‘the son of Adam, son of God’ (Luke 3:38) and not the physical representation of God (II Cor 4:4, Col 1:15), since he had an evolutionary ancestry and derived his image from created beings; likewise, we are not made in his image, since we too have an evolutionary ancestry. On the divine side, he cannot be the Son of God because he is coeternal with him. He is the Son of God only in a ‘spiritual’ sense, distinct from the physical and literal. 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 conflict with Scripture, including Rev 2:18 and 3:14, is discussed in the commentary.
3. “Satan is not a real spiritual being.” After Jesus was baptised, he immediately went into the wilderness and 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). An understanding of life that does not recognise the spiritual reality of evil will be inadequate for the days ahead. ‘Whoever makes a practice of sin is of the Devil, because the Devil has been sinning from the beginning [of time]. The reason the Son of God appeared was to undo the works of the Devil.’ (I John 3:8)
4. “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.” At its most extreme, the antithesis suggests that many church leaders do not know God at all. The Old shows the justice of God. ‘According to their deeds, so I will repay.’ The New announces as good news the mercy of God, his willingness to grant forgiveness on the basis of the justice satisfied on the cross. The ‘contradiction’ is precisely what the gospel is about. Because we were once his enemy ourselves, we are to imitate him by loving our enemy and praying for those who persecute us. Or even the other way round: ‘Father, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ But when he comes back, he will enforce the justice of the law (Isa 2:3, Rev 2:27). Sin must still be covered by sacrifice.
5. “The Church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. 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 as promises of blessing to the Church.” The promises are to be ‘spiritualised’, on the grounds that all the promises of God find their Yes in Christ (II Cor 1:20) and whoever believes in him inherits the promises. ‘If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise’ (Gal 3:29). But the logic is specious, for Paul’s words would still be true if some promises awaited Christ’s return. The belief that all have already been fulfilled is only sustained by nullifying what is concrete and specific about the promises, in effect, by ignoring what they say. The ark of the covenant was never destroyed, and its heavenly counterpart still acts as a reminder of what God promised under the covenant (Rev 11:19). The sanctuary, the golden altar, the bowls of incense, the lamps and the ark are all seen in the vision. Israel will find his promises fulfilled in the Messiah when he leads them into the land and reigns over them. He could hardly be more emphatic: “My love will not depart from you and my covenant of peace will not be removed.” (Isa 54:10). “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, declares Yahweh” (Jer 31:37).
6. “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 such a union is unholy, and no one will inherit God’s kingdom unless he is holy (I Cor 6:9). Identity has to do with the spirit, not the flesh, and the fundamental question is whether, at the end of life, Christ will recognise us as one of his. ‘Those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.’ In Revelation, sexual promiscuity is the principal charge laid against the civilisation about to be destroyed.
7. “Christian believers go straight to heaven when they die.” In truth, we lie in the earth, unconscious, like everyone else, until the day we rise. The body decays and therefore whether we are buried in a grave or reduced to ash is of no significance. Nonetheless, the biblical picture is that of bodily resurrection, supremely exemplified by Christ himself. We don’t go to heaven as a disembodied soul and then just before the resurrection slip back to 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) This is the first resurrection, before the millennial reign of Christ (Rev 20:4, 6); the rest of humanity will rise at the end of this period (Rev 20:5, 11-14). The idea of going to heaven when we die etherialises the life to come and reinforces a bias against the physical, historical and literal that is foreign to biblical thinking. “Your kingdom come on earth” – this is the goal. The idea also reinforces Christian individualism. In truth, we are members of one body; we rise together, having been in Christ when he rose. Worst of all, it encourages spiritual sleepiness. Why should we look forward to the Lord’s return if 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.
8. “Make an initial commitment to Jesus and your eternal destiny is secure.” By contrast, at the end of each letter to the churches Jesus makes his promise of eternal life conditional on our remaining faithful (Rev 2:7). We are saved by faith, but that salvation is proved in the way we live. David Pawson spells this out in 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 daily working out our salvation goes with a general devaluation of intimacy with Christ (does a believer need to be a life-long follower, always listening for his voice?), a devaluation of service (need a believer serve God and man in practice?) and a devaluation of reward (will he really differentiate?). “See, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done” (Rev 22:12).
9. “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 the reason why we should fear him. Love is perfected by obeying God’s commandments and loving our brother (I John 2:5, 4:12, 17f). Only if this love abides in us can we have boldness in the day of judgement (2:28, 4:17). Along with the rest of the Bible, New Testament and Old, Revelation commends godly fear. It is for the Lord to say, “Do not fear” (Rev 1:17).
10. “Theological knowledge is not important.” This is not so much a belief as an affirmation of non-belief, of the acceptability of lukewarmness. 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 all their mind. Indifference is not the right response to his having overcome the world (Rev 3:15-21).
Lifelong learning is defined by the European Commission as ‘all learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competences within a personal, civic, social and/or employment-related perspective’. It is something the Commission commends. There is no equivalent culture in the churches; we do not understand the Way as one of lifelong discipleship. Anyone who ‘goes to church’ and does not grow in faith and knowledge deceives himself; a baby is expected to develop into manhood (Eph 4:11-14).
The teachings highlighted are expressions of spiritual laxity, and, ironically, of a hermeneutic that thinks the reader closer to God if he ‘spiritualises’ the seemingly untrue, or unacceptable, or inapplicable. How we read the first chapter of Genesis determines how we read the rest of the Bible. Some allege that it tells us why, rather than how, God made the universe, ‘how’ being a scientific question beyond the competence of the text. Spiritual truth is thereby recovered from statements that, taken literally (scientifically and historically), are embarrassing, for God as much as for us. I must hope that the reader sees for himself that this thinking is anything but spiritual, and that invoking the ‘spiritual’ is particularly odd coming from theologians who deny the existence of evil spirits and see man as 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). Advanced as a higher kind of reality, ‘spirit’ to them is no more than a figure of speech. The re-interpretation is not even correct on its own terms, for Genesis tells us how God brought things into being (by divine fiat) and says almost nothing about why (why he created what we believe he did not create).
Such thinking certainly will not equip the reader to understand the Book of Revelation. The 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 has a literal existence, and he will dwell there again. Where Revelation appears to describe physical events, that is what they are, notwithstanding their immensity and horror. ‘A third of the earth was burned up, and a third of its vegetation burned up’ (Rev 8:7). An ‘earthquake such as has never been since man was on the earth’ shakes the planet (Rev 16:18). The spiritual significance of such events is that they express God’s anger. The bowls that the angels pour over the Earth and the Sun may be figurative, but the havoc wreaked is not. As already mentioned, some of the horrors have already occurred (Rev 6:1-8).
Some commentators ask whether John even had a vision. ‘Ordinary readers … 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. John’s description of a rainbow ‘in appearance like an emerald’ cannot represent what he actually saw; rather, he chose words for their symbolic significance (though we are not told what the symbolic significance is). The weaving in of more than 500 references to the Old Testament, as well as many references to the New, is thought to show that he played a major part in the book’s composition; he was no mere reporter. And consider how carefully 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. ‘Servant(s)’ and ‘Jesus’ each occur fourteen times, ‘Lord’ twenty-four times.
Given the emphasis on true and faithful witness in Revelation, we should be slow to infer that John himself did not bear true witness. According to his own testimony, the revelation came from God, and John wrote down what he saw, writing as he went along. Afterwards he must have expanded what he jotted down, and what that involved we can only surmise. My own surmise is that he continued to be ‘in the Spirit’. As he relived the experience, words that he sensed to be right (including distinctively Johannine phrases) 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). It seems ridiculous to imagine John counting how many times he used a key phrase and revising the text until he had the right number. Rather, the numerological patterns are evidence that God 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 he is ultimately the author of all things, past and future (‘the ages were fashioned by the word of God’, Heb 1:2, 11:2).
Accurate theology requires a literal approach to interpretation and therefore a literal approach to translation. Each word is intentionally chosen, each word inspired, not simply the general sense. A translation should therefore be as faithful as possible to each word. With regard to the Book of Revelation the best translations into English are those in the direct line of descent from the King James Version, such as the ESV (English Standard Version). The New International Version is not quite as good overall, and sometimes 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 anyway if offered as translations – are useless when it comes to rendering the prophetic books. These are difficult to understand because the Holy Spirit scrambles his message, leaving the reader repeatedly having to pick up verbal allusions to other utterances and use these clues to piece things together. Paradoxically, this disjointedness is itself evidence that the books are inspired, for often the prophets did not understand what they were saying (II Pet 1:21) and made no attempt to order their utterances into something clearer and more sequential. Yet when that is done, the picture, drawn from different prophets writing at different times, forms a coherent whole.
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Jesus makes this declaration while speaking about the end of the age, but more broadly he is referring to all his words and to all Scripture (Isa 40:8, Matt 5:18, John 10:35). He, the pre-incarnate Word, inspires the written word, and he will ensure that it is preserved. As soon as we paraphrase, we begin to move away from the words and lose their inspiration. Revelation itself warns us not to add to or take away from them. Christian reason is exercised by meditating on and wrestling with the Logos, not attempting to change it.
Questions of translation can be critical. The Lord’s Prayer has already been mentioned. Another well known text 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 translation is misleading for two reasons. The first is that the Greek word rendered ‘so’ is houtωs, meaning ‘thus’, not ‘so much’: ‘God demonstrated his love in this manner, by giving his own Son, that …’ John is not speaking about the emotional nature of God’s love, but about how he showed his love in practice (also I John 4:10). The second is that the Greek words rendered ‘his only son’ are ton huion autou ton monogene, meaning ‘his son the only-begotten [one]’. That is, while Jesus was not necessarily his only son, he was the only one to have been begotten, or born, in the flesh (Luke 1:35). The ESV footnotes the correct translation of houtωs, but says nothing about ‘begotten’. The NIV mistranslates and provides no footnotes; ‘one and only’ as a translation 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, as given in The Englishman’s Greek New Testament. A variant reading is adopted only when supported by at least five of the seven other editions encompassed in that publication. Usually this rule of thumb results in the same reading as in the ESV and NIV, but not always. One example is John 1:18, ‘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 ‘the only-begotten Son’, not ‘the 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 words. For example, most scholars reject John 7.53-8.11 concerning the woman caught in adultery; the rule rehabilitates the passage. The Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11 is no longer stripped down.
- 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 is unlikely to challenge many readers since it 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 sometimes omitting the word or translating ‘then’ or ‘so’, though less 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 are distinct, namely Jews and believing Gentiles. Omission of the word is also culpable at 11:8, which speaks of the city ‘where also [kai] their Lord was crucified’, implying that, like the apostle Peter in the first century and some nearer our own time, his witnesses will be crucified.
- hagioi – that ‘saints’ (‘holy ones’) in some contexts refers to the people of Israel is clear from the equivalent in Daniel 7 and numerous psalms. ‘They shall be called the holy people’ (Isa 62:12). The NIV’s paraphrase ‘people of God’ or ‘God’s people’ is poor. While it conveys the truth that ‘saints’ include all whom God adopts as his children (not only those who have been canonised), it neglects the truth that God sanctifies those whom he adopts. In 11:18 the NIV reduces the word to ‘your’!
- zωon – this is the normal word for ‘animal’ (Rev 4:6). ‘Living creature’ is a mincing paraphrase. 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 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 therefore 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 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, and who he is, and they bear prophetic witness that he is coming back. For what it’s worth, I give my own peculiar testimony after this introduction [in prep.].
Comparing the signs of the foretold ‘birth pains’ of the kingdom with the history of the last two centuries, I infer that he must be returning soon. That puts the present work at odds with most, if not all, published commentaries. In my judgement Revelation will not unlock its mysteries until Christ is imminent and unless we understand that he is imminent (if in fact he is). In his book Among God’s Giants J.I. Packer comments, ‘Churches and Christians today are sadly Laodicean: complacent, somnolent, shallow, stuffy.’ Christ’s teaching is at variance with modern theology (as critiqued above), whereas most scholars are comfortable with modern theology. It is not to be expected that they will shed much light.
The elders in John’s vision of the throne proclaim that God is worthy to assume kingship over the nations because he created all things (Rev 4:11). With that I concur. Having inquired into the world’s origins more deeply than most, I can affirm with more conviction than most that God did create the heavens and the earth and everything in them. Belief in God the Creator is requisite if one wishes to understand Revelation. Christ is coming to judge the world because Western civilisation, the part that has received the most light scientifically and theologically, denies that he is the Creator. He is also worthy because he came first as a servant and gave up his life for it. Much of the rest of the world is dominated by Islam. It believes in ‘God’ (Allah) but denies that Jesus is his son and persecutes his followers. Another part worships images. There will come a time when God hides his face no longer.
A willingness to let modern knowledge of the natural world inform our understanding of the phenomena described in the book is crucial. That the earth will be burned with ‘fire’ is known from several parts of the Bible; Revelation describes the fire and its effects in some detail, enough for us to see that it is not to be spiritualised into a metaphor detached from physical reality. The visions describe global hazards that the world is increasingly 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. This is part of what it means in our generation to ‘interpret the signs of the times’ and apply his word relevantly to the world in which we live.
The final reason for offering yet another commentary is that Old Testament prophecy, even now, remains largely closed. One purpose of Revelation is to open it up. Concerning the future yet to take place, the Old Testament has only one major theme: the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham to give to him and his offspring the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession (Gen 17:8). The judgement of the nations, which takes place at the same time, is a minor theme. By contrast, in Revelation the judgement is the major theme and the fulfilment of the promise a minor one (having been treated at length in the Old Testament). Revelation brings Old Testament prophecy to life by helping us us see that it is not primarily about the first coming of Christ and spiritual truths accessible only to believers. The redemption of Israel, the wrath of God and the kingdom of God still lie ahead of us, and they will come to pass here on earth.
The major and minor themes are interlinked. The Gentiles are judged not only because of their lawlessness (their breaking of the commandments) but because of their anti-Semitism. The perception that God himself hates the Jews has fostered anti-Jewish feeling in the Christian world since at least the 4th century. Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not the aberration of one man’s peculiar psychology, alienated from God though he was; Jews were massacred across middle Europe, from the Netherlands as far as Russia, and to varying degrees the populations of those countries took an active part in the killing (Snyder 2015). Even today, most of the Church teaches a habit of non-contextual reading that writes Jews out of history. When we pick out a verse such as, “I know the plans I have in mind for you, plans for well-being [shalom] and not evil, to give you a future and a hope,” and read this as God speaking to us, that is the theology we are practising; we are interpreting history as if the Jews, to whom God was actually speaking, ceased to exist after they rejected Christ. But in this same passage God declares that he will not forsake his people. He will bring them back after their punishment to the land promised to them. Much later, he will gather all the Jews from every nation, not just Babylonia, and restore them permanently to their land (Jer 29:11-15). Those are his plans. Again there is a translation issue. ‘A future and a hope’ in the Hebrew is ‘hope at your latter end’, referring to the end of the age (as in Deut 4:30 and, most pertinently, Jer 30:1-24). He repeats a little later (31:17), “There is hope at your latter end that your children will come back to their own borders.” “I will consume all the nations among whom I have scattered you, but you I will not consume. … I will restore you to health, and your wounds I will heal, Yahweh declares, because they have called you an outcast: ‘It is Zion, for whom no one cares.’ ”
speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her
that her hard service is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
The glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Matthew and Mark tell us that John the Baptist was that voice, apparently fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy. John himself believed that he was fulfilling the prophecy (John 1:23), speaking in terms so apocalyptic that later he found it difficult to understand how Jesus matched up (Luke 7:19). Another prophet, Malachi, had spoken of an Elijah-like figure who would prepare the way ‘before the great and terrible day of the Lord’. The gospel writers also identified him with John. But John was killed. In the light of that setback, others too had their doubts: was Jesus really the Messiah, or was he another John? Jesus told the disciples that John was indeed the one prophesied in Malachi, but he, the Son of Man, would suffer the same fate as John. That left matters still unclear. Three of them had seen his glory on the mount of transfiguration, but when would ‘all flesh’ see it? When would the great Day of the Lord take place?
The problem of how to read the prophets continues to this day, and is resolved only when we recognise that there were to be two advents, and two periods of preparation. Isaiah was speaking primarily about the second. Judah and Jerusalem were soon to be destroyed by the Babylonians (Isa 6:11f, 39:6f), they would be destroyed again by the Romans (Isa 6:13, Zech 12:8), and they would be conquered yet again at the end of the age (Isa 52:5). On that last occasion they would find themselves back in the wilderness (Ezek 20:34f). By then they would have received double for their sins, once for their idolatry under their own kings, and again for their rejection of the Messiah under the Romans. Nonetheless, God would restore their fortunes (Deut 30:3, Jer 29:14). Literally, the words mean ‘reverse their captivity’. He would pour on them a spirit of grace and supplication and lead them out of the wilderness (Zech 12:10, Ezek 20:43f). An earthquake would shake the entire planet and bring even mountains crashing down. All flesh – all humanity – would see the glory of the Lord (Matt 24:27). The libretto goes on to quote the prophet Haggai (2:6): “I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations.” And Malachi: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire,” consuming evildoers like stubble. The fire is a simile referring to the real fire scorching the earth at this time.
go up to a high mountain;
you who bring good news to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with strength,
lift it up, do not fear.
Say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold your God!”
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms.
The promise is repeated in Isaiah 51 and 62.
So the oratorio begins with a message to the Jews that, when all seems lost, the Messiah – God himself – will come to them in glory. The middle part then reminds us that he has already come, in the person of one who was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. We who listen to the music await his coming in hope. Death has been swallowed up in victory, and will be swallowed up at the last trumpet, at the resurrection of the dead. Handel concludes with words from the Book of Revelation: “Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever” – the cry of every creature under heaven.
Apart from the challenge of taking in the sheer magnitude of the events, the greatest obstacle to understanding the book is discerning its 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 some aspects in more detail. Even the letters to the seven churches have a sequential aspect: while they concern first and foremost the congregations addressed and living at the time, on a larger historical scale they also seem to be referring 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. The first four encompass disasters that have now occurred. The fifth is in the course 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. 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 with which they start will be so sudden, so destructive, that there will be no doubt that the trumpets have begun to sound. The warnings continue for a period of three and a half years. In Jerusalem, back 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, and kill those who have made the purposes of God known 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 his 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. Then Christ returns with his Bride, and rules the nations of the earth for a thousand years. He establishes peace and justice and restores the creation. After his reign, 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