Revelation: a prophetic commentary

In the 21st century alone more than ten commentaries on the Book of Revelation have been published, and more interpreters crowd the internet. If interpreting this book of prophecy is itself an act of prophecy, false prophets abound, and more false ones than true. Amidst this bedlam, whoever seeks the truth must test everything against Scripture and listen to the voice: is it the voice of the good Shepherd, or some other voice? The book is important – Jesus himself pronounces a blessing on those who seek to understand it – now perhaps more than ever. Coming at the end of the New Testament’s revelation of Jesus, it summarises that revelation, and coming at the end of the Bible as a whole, it summarises the entire revelation of God, showing that it is a self-consistent unity. Although the book is difficult to understand and full of symbols, usually either the text itself explains the meaning of the symbols or the Old Testament does, and one must be careful not to over-interpret. In some cases, visions that might once have seemed figurative, not least because they were too frightening to be taken literally, can now be recognised as essentially factual. Thus, burning mountains falling into the sea are falling asteroids, fire from heaven is an ejection of mass from the Sun’s corona, interfering with Earth’s magnetosphere. More problematic is determining the order of events. But again, the most straightforward approach – taking the structure to be fundamentally linear, with pauses during which the author goes back to illuminate one theme or another in more detail – is also the easiest. The book explains what will happen at the end of the age, and we are certainly nearer that point than we were.

Christianity is based on the Bible, and the whole Bible is a book of revelation. Since God is hidden from our eyes and minds, everything we know about him has to be based on what he himself has revealed; we cannot reason our way to true knowledge. But after Adam transgressed, God excluded man from his presence. Man knew evil but had to learn what goodness was by faith. The Bible is the account of how God revealed himself to a particular nation and particular individuals by word and deed, and supremely in the life and character of his only-begotten Son, his firstborn. Towards the end of the 1st century, while exiled on Patmos, John, the last surviving apostle, received a new revelation of Jesus, the king who was coming to rule. His commission was to write it down and pass it on to the churches. They were suffering persecution at this time and needed to know that God was in control.

Chapters 2 and 3 are the one place in the Bible where Jesus speaks to his followers in the form of congregations or churches, evidently some time after Paul’s two letters to churches in the same area (Ephesians and Colossians, c. AD 60). They set out a kind of spiritual health check, important not only because Christians should honour the name they bear, but because tribulation tests faith, and those who serve him well will be rewarded. The seven churches addressed are representative of the whole Church at the end of the 1st century. They are also representative, sequentially, of her history through the millennia, culminating in the last church, Laodicea. It is not a history of ever greater faithfulness and maturity. The state of the western Church today is itself a sign that Jesus is coming soon.

Ezekiel saw a vision of the throne of the Almighty above a fiery vehicle of living beings, with wheels but no horses, moving across the earth wherever it willed. Although Jerusalem had been the place where he had set his throne, it was to be his residence no longer: in disgust at what his people were doing, God was withdrawing his presence. John receives a similar vision, but the throne is in heaven, not on earth (this itself dates the book to after AD 70), and he sees a new element: twenty-four elders round the throne. They worship the one seated on the throne, him who brought all things into existence. In his hand is a scroll, but no one has the authority to break its seals. Then John sees, in the centre of the throne, another new element: a Lamb, the ‘Lion of Judah’. The elders understand that he is well qualified to receive power, honour, glory. This is the bequest that the scroll legally conveys.

The seals are opened one by one. Each sets in train events that together comprise Jesus’ answer to the question, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” The first four set in motion the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, bringing wars, famine and disease that can be identified with the calamities of the last century. We now live around the time of the fifth seal, when increasing numbers of Christians will be martyred. The sixth seal marks the end of their witness and the beginning of God’s wrath. The opportunity to repent has gone.

In the last days 144,000 servants of God from among the 12 tribes of Israel will receive his seal so that they are protected from the forces that will cause great damage to earth, sea and vegetation. They are protected for a purpose: to proclaim the gospel and interpret the events associated with the first four trumpets as signs of God’s impending wrath. A multitude too numerous to be counted respond to their message. The identity of the 144,000 is problematic. How can it make sense today to speak of the 12 tribes of Israel when they are lost to history as distinct entities? Even Jews cannot identify which tribe they descend from.

‘We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet,’ Paul writes. Somehow he knew about a series of angelic trumpet blasts at the end of the age, decades before John was told about them. Whether they will be audible to the inhabitants of the earth we cannot say, but a trumpet was certainly audible through the smoke and thunder at Mount Sinai, as it was to the inhabitants of Jericho before their city fell. The period of the seven trumpets will be similarly terrifying. Who has the courage to face up to what John is prophesying? A third of the planet’s vegetation will be destroyed, along with a third of its marine life and a third of its freshwater life. Demons will be released from the abyss to torment those who go on refusing to repent. Finally, with the sixth trumpet, a third of mankind will be killed – all this before the wrath with which the Creator’s indignation is finally spent.

At the end of the age, Jerusalem will once again be occupied by Gentile powers. At that time two prophets similar to Moses and Elijah will appear and explain to the Jewish people how the Law and the Prophets bear witness to the Messiah who is about to come to them. The plagues that visit the earth when the angels blow their trumpets occur at their command, for as Moses and Aaron confronted Pharaoh, so now these two confront the modern world. The beast that rules the Holy Land must let God’s people go, and the world must repent of its idolatry, murders, thieving and sexual promiscuity. The witnesses prophesy for 42 months, the same length of time that John the Baptist and Jesus Christ prophesied. Then they are killed, as are many Christians in other parts of the world. The world rejoices, but after three and a half days they rise again.

From first to last, the book of Revelation refers back to the beginning of history, not least with this vision of the woman, her male child and the legged serpent. Unless we understand that God is the Creator of all things, the book will remain closed to us. The vision of this central chapter covers the last 2000 years of history. Some of it – notably the return of the Jews to the land of Israel (prophesied also in chapter 11) – has been fulfilled in the past 100 years.

Abu Bakr al BaghdadiThe imagery of beasts representing kings or empires goes back to the book of Daniel, and that book is needed to interpret the composite beast here. The last empire to conquer the land of Israel before the coming of Christ will be a Muslim confederation of ten kingdoms, encompassing territory similar to that ruled by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV. The beast is also the individual at the head of the confederation. He will be served by two spiritual leaders who control the economy and require everyone to bow down before an image made for the beast, just as in Nebuchadrezzar’s day.

The gospel in a nutshell is twofold: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth.” If God does not exist, then neither does his Son, and if the Church herself does not believe that God is manifest in creation, she has only half a gospel. She asks the world to believe in a man who manifests a God who is otherwise superfluous. If she does not perceive that judgement follows mercy, she has no gospel at all, for there is nothing from which man needs to be saved. Relentless efforts to discredit the idea of Creation and final judgement show that the world understands this.

There are two harvests: a wheat harvest, when those who have believed in Christ are raised to eternal life; and a subsequent grape harvest, when those who have rejected mercy are thrown into the ‘great winepress of the wrath of God’. The 144,000 are martyred for their witness and raised as first-fruits before the main wheat harvest.

The Earth is now empty of the people who shone the light of God’s salvation. Those who have rejected his salvation and approved the killing of his servants face his anger. Their skin breaks out in boils, the oceans and all sources of fresh water fill with corpses, and the sun scorches people with its intense heat. Demons speaking through the beast and the false prophet persuade world leaders to gather their armies at Megiddo, where they meet their end. An earthquake of unprecedented violence flattens the world’s cities. Meteoroids add to the destruction.

Although named after the world’s first capital city and the same power that brought Israel’s kingdom to an end, the added word ‘great’ suggests that this metropolis, like Rome, is more than just a single city. She is what we would now term western civilisation, whose science, technology, music and commerce dominate the world. In the last days she will associate herself with the beast and his short-lived confederation of ten kingdoms, and be implicated in their hatred of the Lamb and of those who hold to the faith of Jesus. She is characterised as a prostitute because she is physically and spiritually promiscuous.

The violent end of this final world-power is likened to the end of three ancient cities: Babylon, Tyre, and Jerusalem. Israel’s prophets had prophesied the end of each one long before it happened. God willed their downfall on account of their idolatry, pride and promiscuity. Western civilisation is similarly idolatrous, self-confident and promiscuous, and we must understand that it too will perish.

NabonidusNebuchadrezzar was the second king of the Chaldaean or Neo-Babylonian empire (612-539 BC), which succeeded the Assyrian empire. In chapter 2 of his prophetic book Daniel, a courtier at the time, relates how the king had a dream that he knew had special significance. In the dream he saw a colossus made of four different metals, with a head of gold and feet of iron and clay. In answer to his prayer, God told Daniel what the dream meant, and Daniel told Nebuchadrezzar. The king had seen a vision of four successive empires and a final weaker group of states, after which the whole colossus would be smashed by a stone not made by human hand. The stone, representing an eternal kingdom not from this world, would become a great mountain and fill the whole earth. Looking back, we can identify these four empires. We can identify these four empires and see that we are living near the end of the age of merely human government.

The idea that anyone can accurately outline the course of history hundreds, even thousands, of years in advance is a challenge to atheistic thinking, and the historicity of Daniel’s remarkable book has been questioned. The article goes on to summarise recent scholarly work that supports its credibility.

Jeremiah prophesised that Judah would be in servitude to the king of Babylon 70 years. If you quantify future time because you really do have that ability, you may as well do it precisely, but commentators still wonder whether 70 was an exact or an approximate figure. The trouble with an exact figure is that it suggests that God ultimately determines as well as foresees what has yet to happen. On the other hand, if 70 was only approximate, there is more reason to suppose that the prophecy was made up and the figure inserted into the book after the event – although it would have had to be inserted into II Chronicles and Daniel as well as Jeremiah. Moreover, while II Chronicles Bulla of Gedaliah son of Pashur, mentioned in Jeremiah 38:1 as one of his accusersindicates that the 70 years were fulfilled exactly, it does not provide the details which would verify the statement. For that we have to draw on various sources – evidence, surely, that the prophecy was not a fix.

Daniel lived through the entire 70 years, and as the last year approached, it was no academic matter whether the promise of liberty would be fulfilled. He prayed for assurance that it would be. What he got was another prophecy with exact figures. Sixty-nine times seven years were to be counted from the issuing of a word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of Messiah. Then there would be a final seven, in the middle of which the Messiah would be cut off. John the Baptist began preaching in AD 26, precisely 69 x 7 years after Artaxerxes decree in 458 BC. The Messiah’s life was cut off in AD 30, leaving the final three and a half years of the prophecy still to be completed.