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. In the book of Revelation, likewise, Jesus says, “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 does not seem ‘soon’, but in relation to the span of all history – and that, surely, is the perspective of this last book – it is still soon. 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 been disclosed, now and through the writings of the prophets’ (Rom 16:25). John was given his revelation in the reign of Domitian (81-96 BC). The book tells how this present age, in which the gospel goes out into all the world, will come to an end.
Just as there is huge pressure from outside the Church not to take the Bible’s account of how the world began at its word, so there is huge pressure not to take the account of how it will 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,” whereas 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 those 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’. Almost the only people who currently take an interest in such things are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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.” The word agape, referring to the love of Jesus, occurs three times, exclusively in relation to his love for his Church. One of those occurrences is: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” Of equal importance is whether we love him (2:4, 2:19, 12:11), for 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). It is to understand his justice and his holiness. 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.
Clearly 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. Given that all time is present to God, and that he sees the end from the beginning (Isa 46:10), it would be as easy for him to describe the future as it would be to describe the past. Rather, Revelation is written in a way that deliberately makes it more difficult to understand. This is true not just of Revelation but also of prophecy in the Old Testament. Some things are hidden from the wise and understanding, as commonly recognised (Matt 11:25). Yet the book was written so that we might understand it, and profit from it. So the question is: 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 try to 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 of what is shown. It could be, then, that the book is simpler to understand than – because of the plethora of theories that have sown only confusion – many people have been led to believe.
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, but with pauses to describe some situations 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 the inauguration of the kingdom in chapter 21. The first four seals encompass disasters that have now already occurred, the fifth and sixth the remaining period, that encompassed by chapters 7 to 19. The seven trumpet blasts are God’s final warnings before the full force of God’s wrath. The natural disasters associated with the first four trumpets 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 trumpets. At the last trumpet, surviving believers in Jesus, 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, while those now in heaven prepare to enjoy a great banquet that celebrates the marriage of Christ to his Bride, the Church. The surviving nations around the land of Israel gather for war at Megiddo and perish. Christ returns 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||During half-week|
|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||After half-week|
|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’|| The reign of Christ and his people
Last judgement, resurrection of the dead
| The following
|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 the child and his eventual return from heaven to rule the nations with a rod of iron. Let him who has ears hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Today, the end really is near.