The Apocalypse – an introduction

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 of trees in which he set the man and appointed him to look after it. God was a being who spoke and could be spoken to, just like the man himself. He told the man he was free to eat from any of the trees except one: if he ate from that, he would die. But the man felt alone, so three days later God put him to sleep, and out of his side made a female companion for him. Although both were naked, they felt no shame. God surveyed the world that he had made and saw no evil in it.

But an angel was also in the garden. Manifesting himself in the form of a serpent, he suggested to the woman that she might profitably disregard what God had commanded her husband. So she plucked some of the fruit on the forbidden tree and ate it, and the man did the same. At once they knew that they were naked. In the act of being spiritually unfaithful they became guilty of sexual unfaithfulness and instinctively feared their Maker. From a fig tree they tore off leaves to cover their loins and hid themselves. But God sought them out. He made clear to them the consequences of what they had done. He covered their sin by sacrificing animals in place of their own immediate deaths, clothed them with the skins, and since they were no longer innocent, expelled them from the garden to work the ground from which they had come. They had learned about evil; he taught them how to deal with it.

As humanity increased, the sense of shame that accompanied disobedience diminished. 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, God told him to build a huge ark. No one took any notice. People mocked when they saw this sign of judgement and carried on eating and drinking, marrying, and planning for the next generation. Then the day came when God shut Noah and his family in. All the springs of the great deep exploded, the land above the deep foundered and asteroids rained on the planet. All terrestrial life was blotted out, except the animals in the ark. As we began to understand in the 1970s, the Moon was hit by the same group of asteroids as hit the Earth. Some impact craters were the size of France. On Earth the molten material welling up through the craters became cratons, kernels of today’s continents. So the land began to renew itself, remaining unstable for tens of thousands of years. From the ancestral pairs preserved on the ark animals multiplied and diversified, as they were programmed to do, evolving new forms in adaptive response to environments that were themselves evolving. Fossils today bear witness to the recolonisation.

Three genealogies span the prehistoric period, highly abbreviated and centred on the Near East, where the author lived. Initially Noah’s descendants stayed together. It would have made no sense to venture into lands barren of vegetation and incapable of sustaining animal life. But eventually they spread abroad, making tools along the way by chipping at stones picked up from the ground. The skill took time to master, and at first the tools were crude. By the Neolithic their craftsmanship was exquisite. Other aspects of material 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 and society became more organised. Something recognisable as civilisation developed, initially in the Fertile Crescent that stretched from the Nile valley to south-east Iran. Genesis records the rise of a kingdom centred at Babel (Babylon), in Mesopotamia. Another kingdom arose in Egypt. Men lost their fear of the Creator and instead feared demons, powers rendered visible by means of idols. Each city had its god, who resided in a house or temple in the heart of the city and ruled through a king. The king in turn 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 food-producers and slaves. All of them saw themselves as slaves of the god. 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 this degradation. He called one man out of urban Babylonia, named him Abraham, and from his descendants created a new nation, Israel. Initially the family lived in Egypt, on the eastern side of the Delta, settling there as herders. However, they were not allowed to become fully Egyptian and ended up enslaved, at the bottom of the hierarchy. Eventually God intervened. Revealing himself by the name Yahweh, he brought upon Egypt a series of plagues, forced Pharaoh to release the Israelites and, when the king changed his mind, destroyed his army in the Red Sea. At the foot of Mount Sinai he entered into a solemn covenant with Israel. He gave them laws setting out what was acceptable sacrifice and godly behaviour. If they obeyed them, he would grant them a land of their own; he would bless the fruit of the ground, of their womb, and of their livestock, and he would cause those who rose against them to be defeated. Like the first human couple, all they had to do was be faithful to him.

Forty years later the Israelites took possession of the promised land. But they did not live up to their calling, and after centuries of conflict they demanded a human king such as other nations had, an intermediary between the divine and human. God acquiesced, but warned them that their kings would exploit and oppress them. He gave them Saul, then David, who Figurine idols representing the goddess Asherah, common in 9th- to early 6th-century Judahsubdued Israel’s remaining enemies, then Solomon. The first part of Solomon’s reign was glorious. Later he turned away from Yahweh to worship the gods of his many foreign wives. Unfaithfulness proved to be the nation’s besetting sin. Despite prophets repeatedly reminding Israel of their covenant, the pull of the flesh was almost always too strong. Under every green tree and on every high hill they performed rituals of fornication and sacrifice to the same demons that the nations around them worshipped, even sacrificing their children. External regulation proved insufficient; each individual needed to be internally regenerated.

So, as he had warned would happen, God took away the land that the Israelites thought was theirs forever and returned them to a condition of slavery and landlessness: the northern tribes in 721 BC when they were deported to Assyria, the southern tribes – the Jews – in 586 BC when they were deported to Babylonia, Abraham’s birthplace. Only then did they realise that the prophets’ warnings had come to pass and God was not to be trifled with. After 49 years he gave part of the land back to a remnant of the southern tribes, with limited autonomy, first under the Persians and then the Greeks. They learned to obey the law given at Mount Sinai and waited for God to restore the kingdom. In 142 BC they gained a measure of independence. In 63 BC they became a client kingdom of Rome. Where the nation was headed 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, in preparation for the coming of a man far greater than he, who would baptise with holy spirit and 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 revived the dead. But when he came to be arrested most of the Jews rejected him: he was not the Messiah they wanted. They persuaded the Roman governor to crucify him as a rebel.

In this way God brought about the perfect sacrifice that enabled anyone, whatever his status, sex or culture, to be renewed: inwardly in this life, outwardly in the next. As set out in the Bible’s opening pages but little reflected on thereafter, mortality was the consequence of human sin, of not accepting our Maker as our Master. Christ, the sinless 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. But he had also risen, and was now seated with his father in heaven. By reason of his self-giving God granted him authority over all kingdoms and authorities, until such time as he established his rule over them in person.

“I am coming soon”

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. A Revelation of John is the last book in the Bible, a prophecy that renewed the prophecies set forth 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.

Whether we think of history as beginning from the earliest writing of history, by the Israelites c. 1400 BC, or from the rise of civilisation, c. 3300 BC, a delay of two thousand years or more seems anything but ‘soon’. The word is apt only if we have in mind the whole of history. Elsewhere Jesus spoke about the ‘conclusion 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 accomplished. Paul referred several times to ‘ages’ now past. The mystery that had remained secret through the ages had, with Christ, been revealed (Rom 16:26), and 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 as the focus of hope and longing, the hope (would man but come to his senses) of all the world. In actuality, we expect to die of senility and only hope to be spared the tribulation that is forecast before he comes. It would be very 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. We eat well, we live in good houses, our wealth increases. Instead of seeming more imminent with each passing year, his coming recedes further and further into the future.

Our theology reflects this state of ease. The Church sums up the gospel by the slogan, “Jesus loves you,” and assures believers, “Jesus accepts you just as you are.” By contrast, 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 all the New Testament’s. We don’t have to go far before being confronted with unpleasantness. “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 perform many miracles in your name? And then will I answer them, ‘I never knew you.’ ” On the whole, Christians pass over the parts that are unsettling and do not see why the Lamb might be angry with the present world. They would prefer that this world went on forever, and that the end was just the moment we individually died and ‘went to heaven’.

Acceptance in the Canon

The penultimate book of the Bible stresses the need to defend the ‘faith once for all delivered to the saints’. ‘Delivered’ implies inerrantly delivered by God himself. Since he is invisible, and indeed hidden, a true knowledge of him can only be founded on what he has revealed, verbally and in his deeds. Christ himself stressed the importance of the written word. Mere tradition – beliefs and practices hallowed by age – had no divine authority and tended to work against the word.

After his departure, a true knowledge of Christ depended on the testimony of the apostles as they went about preaching, confirmed by the internal witness of the Holy Spirit and by ‘signs’ (Rom 15:19). Paul as apostle ‘delivered’ (paredωka) what he had directly received from Christ (Gal 1:16f, 2:1f), even with regard to such well known details as the words spoken at the Last Supper (I Cor 11:23). He dictated his letters rather than writing them himself, because he spoke as God directed, and what came out did not need correction; he understood himself to be composing Scripture on a par with the Tanakh (I Cor 7:10, 14:37, Phil 4:9, I Thes 2:13). Christ had appointed him “an assistant and witness, both of what you have seen and of the things about which I’ll appear to you” (Acts 26:16), including ‘visions and revelations’ so overwhelming that he needed a thorn to keep him from becoming conceited (II Cor 12:1-7). His policy was to adhere strictly to the terms of his commission. That is why we find so little overlap between his writings and the gospel accounts, which, apart from John’s, had probably already been written by the time of his first letter (Wenham 1991). The only ‘tradition’, paradosis (from paredωka), that he could vouch for was the teaching that orally and by letter (II Thes 2:15) he himself had delivered as having come from God. Anything else would not have been by way of witness. The leader of the apostles confirmed that his letters had the status of Scripture (II Pet 3:16).

As with the Old Testament, the books making up the New Testament were accepted as canonical on the basis that God inspired the reading as well as the writing of them, and that they represented the totality of the faith once delivered. Agreement as to which were authoritative came more quickly for some books than others, but once this was achieved, tradition had no further role. Christ’s witnesses having passed away, the written word took the place of what had been delivered by word of mouth.

Even more plainly than Paul, John indicated that his book came from God; he was the scribe, not the author. Our earliest informants tell us that he was the apostle John, son of Zebedee and author of the gospel and letters bearing his name, though none of these expressly identified him as the writer. 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 and the only apostle living. Jesus told him to send the revelation to the seven churches of Asia, western Turkey. Part of the book consisted of messages specific to each church. The believers at Ephesus, where for many years John himself had dwelt, had lost their first love; they 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; its citizens more than any knew how disaster could come like a thief in the night. Yet there, just two generations after Pentecost, the church had lost sight of who Jesus was. Other churches were experiencing persecution. Whether by way of reassurance or admonition, they all needed to understand that Jesus was coming soon.

In the western Empire the book quickly became widely known and accepted, despite its weirdness and unlikeness to any other New Testament work. In the East it must also have been widely accepted (concrete evidence is lacking), for although John had his detractors, the churches there knew the writer. He was so well known that the title did not have to state which John the name referred to. Later they began to have doubts, apparently because a sect known as the Montanists, in the second half of the 2nd century, was so consumed by the message of Christ’s imminent return that some prophesied that New Jerusalem was about to descend on a mountain not far from them. That did not happen. Nor did the many predictions that piggy-backed on John’s in succeeding centuries, not least those of Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses in the comparatively recent past. As the prophecy can only be fulfilled once, whereas false predictions of its fulfilment can be made any number of times, 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. Dionysius, leader of the Egyptian Church from 248 to 264, admitted that he did not understand much of the book but was certain that Christ would not reign on earth for a thousand years, as the book stated. In the preface to his translation, Martin Luther wrote: ‘My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. … There is no prophet in the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, who deals so exclusively with visions and images. … Christ is neither taught nor known in it’. Later his opinion softened, and he saw part of it as prophetic of the Church of Rome. Not all modern commentators think highly of it, for the book is about the destiny of nations as much as of individuals, and frequently conflicts with modern notions of what edifies. 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 way 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 sermons preached on 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’s advice is 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 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.

When will these things be?

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 individually you will live only decades, not knowing the day or the hour when you will die.” Would the warning have been heard in the same way? Probably not. We are inclined to take the long view. We live for our children and grandchildren as well as for 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 for all down the centuries. 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). Since he could have described the future in unambiguous detail, Revelation’s obscurity must be intentional. We cannot 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 the Old Testament prophets.

So there is this paradox. John is told, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book,” yet 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 easier to understand as the day approached and the events described began to occur. Revelation as a whole is not unlike the scroll in chapter 5, which remained sealed until near the end. Naturally, most scholars who write about it are more positive. Contrary to what the book itself says, they maintain that it is not primarily about the future, and 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).

Regardless of whether the present exegesis contributes anything, there is evidence that the end may not now be distant. In the USA this view is common enough, and the ideological and theological revolutions that have overcome both the western and non-western world over the past century seem not inconsistent. Paul warns that the final generation will be characterised by people who are lovers of self, lovers of money, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the form of piety but denying its power (II Tim 3). People will scoff at the idea that he is near (II Pet 3:3). They will accumulate teachers who affirm their sensual desires and will not listen to teachers who do not affirm them (II Tim 4). This is a description of non-Christian society, but the Church too embodies the decay, with consequent drifting away from the gospel all round. In England, a country not untypical of western Europe, the number of 20-44 year-olds regularly worshipping on a Sunday fell in the period 1980 to 2015 by half, from 2.2% of the population – already a tiny number – to just 1.1%. Judges and legislators are trampling on what remains of Christian freedoms while bishops hold their peace (Hill 2018).

In general terms, when would it make sense for him to come: when the world was still half empty or when it was filled (Gen 1:28)? When man was ‘subduing’ the earth cooperatively with nature or cutting down its forests, depleting its soils and driving its species to extinction? When the Church was fulfilling its role of making disciples or unwilling even to talk about sin, righteousness and judgement? When the world was receptive to the gospel or hostile to it?

Here are some other considerations:
  • 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 and seal the book 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.
  • In particular, the colossus that Nebuchadrezzar dreamt about (Dan 2) is widely acknowledged to represent the succession of empires or civilisations that would follow his own before a kingdom set up by God brought all of them to an end. These empires were: Persia, Hellenistic Greece, Rome and Europe, the latter divided and incohesive. The kingdom to come would rule the whole earth and last forever. We are more than a thousand years into the history of that last empire.
  • Towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, his disciples asked, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the conclusion of the age?” Things that had to take place first included 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 in various places there would be famines and earthquakes. It is not difficult to see the First and Second World Wars and famines of the 20th century as fulfilling this prediction, in which case the horses of the Apocalypse described in chapter 6 have come and gone. On the other hand, the incidence and magnitude of earthquakes to date do not seem exceptional.
  • 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 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 you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:6-9) A little earlier, Jesus had cursed an actual fig tree because it bore no fruit, and it immediately withered (Matt 21:19). He thereby indicated that the nation God had planted among the Gentiles would be uprooted and the kingdom given to a people who would repay his labour (Matt 21:41). In the Jewish-Roman wars of AD 66-73 and 132-135 the Jews were exiled from their land. In 1948 the fig tree was re-established. Britain’s mandate over Palestine came to an end and the Jews who had recently migrated there declared Israel a nation state. “As soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out leaves,” Jesus intimated, “you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the doors. 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.
Naturally, the reader must test everything and judge for himself. Some have understood ‘this generation’ to refer to Jesus’s contemporaries. However, he had already stated what would befall his own generation (Matt 23:34f). Thereafter there would come a succession of false Messiahs and a long period of ‘birth pangs’. Then the fig tree would come into leaf and signal that he was near, and once all the events of Matt 24:9-29 had come to pass, his followers would know that he was very near. The generation which began to see the fig tree rejuvenate would not die out before he came back.

In his best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth, Hal Lindsey supposed that a generation signified 40 years, and predicted that ‘all these things’ would take place by 1988. The interpretation proved false. Consequently we live on in a state of scepticism and confusion. People say, “No one knows the day or hour,” and ignore the trouble Jesus took to advise when he would be very near. To some (e.g. Ehrman 2007), Lindsey’s being wrong could only mean that the gospels themselves had got it wrong. As we approach the two thousandth anniversary of Christ’s death and resurrection, the key point, now more than ever, remains. “I am coming soon.”

Revelation’s purpose: to reveal the Word of God

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 one. 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 Saviour’s love for his disciples is mentioned several times, but the point is that we should love others likewise. In Acts the word does not appear at all. 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 (11:18, 14:7, 15:4). Then fear may lead to repentance, and repentance to forgiveness and peace with our Maker. 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 ‘convict, 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 only 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. Are the following teachings heresies? At any rate, they are not countenanced by Revelation, and they are widely held.

1. “Everything in the Universe – the Earth, the Sun, the planets, the plants and animals on the Earth – had a natural origin.” Revelation re-affirms what is declared throughout the Old Testament, 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. Only when God speaks does anything happen. 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, in this view, is simply a quality of highly organised matter. Followers 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; in Psalms 8 and 19 David simply states what is merely obvious. 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 image or representation of God (II Cor 4:4, Col 1:15), since he had an evolutionary ancestry and his bodily form derived from the apes all the way back to bacteria; we too have an evolutionary ancestry and are therefore not made in the image of God. On the divine side, Christ 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. Some even say that Mary was the ‘mother of God’ – in which case, one wonders, who was the father? God cannot be the father of himself. 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.’ As will be discussed, the doctrine comes from the Creeds rather than from Scripture.

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.” 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. The reason the Son of God appeared was to undo the works of the Devil.’ (I John 3:8) The Devil was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44) because man was in existence from the beginning, and death entered the world through sin (Rom 5:12).

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 (a revival of Marcionism) suggests that many church leaders do not know God at all. In truth, the Old shows the justice of God, his constant desire to bless, and his great forbearance; the New announces as good news his willingness to grant forgiveness – exemption from punishment, not merely an attitude – on the basis of the justice satisfied on the cross. God does not change; rather, by the gift of his holy spirit he changes us. Inasmuch as the ‘contradiction’ between the Old and the New is real, it 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.’ When Jesus returns, he will avenge himself on his enemies. Then the carnage – as Revelation confirms – will be greater than in any Old Testament battle, and he will enforce the justice of the law (Isa 2:3, Rev 2:27). Animal sacrifice will be brought back.

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, it is said, are to be ‘spiritualised’, on the grounds that all the promises of God find their Yes in Christ (II Cor 1:20); whoever believes in him inherits the promises. However, Paul’s words would still be true if some promises awaited Christ’s return. The belief that all promises have been fulfilled is only sustained by nullifying what is concrete and specific about them, 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 John’s 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” (Jer 31:37). The promises belong to them (Rom 9:4), and extend to us only inasmuch as we are grafted into Israel.

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 who we are and who we identify with, 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. 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 day of 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 20:6). The rest of humanity rises at the end of this period (Rev 20:5, 11-14). The idea that our final destination is heaven etherialises the life to come, reinforces a bias against the physical, historical and literal, and promotes individualism. “Your kingdom come on earth” is the goal and mission of the Church. We are members of one body, and having been in Christ when he rose, we shall rise as one. 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.” At the end of each letter to the churches Jesus makes his promise of eternal life conditional on our remaining faithful. We are saved through faith, but that faith, 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 working out our salvation goes with a general devaluation of intimacy with Christ (need a believer always be 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 between one follower and another?). “See, I am coming soon, and my wages are with me, to pay 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 just the reason why one should fear him. John 3:16 says, ‘In this manner God loved the world: by giving his only-begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ Modern translations are misleading, because ‘so’ in the Greek is houtωs, meaning ‘thus’, not ‘so much’: ‘God demonstrated his love, by giving his only Son …’ John is not speaking about the emotional nature of God’s love, but about how he showed his love in practice (I John 4:10). Love is perfected by obeying God’s commandments and loving one’s brother (Deut 7:9, I John 2:5, 4:12). Only if this love abides in us can we have boldness in the day of judgement (I John 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.”

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).

The Puritan divines who did much to revive Britain’s churches in the 17th century also had to contend with indifference. In his Treatise of Conversion (1657) Richard Baxter exhorted the people of Kidderminster:
1. Every man that hath a reasonable soul should know God that made him, and the end for which he should live, and know the way to his eternal happiness as well as the learned. Have not you souls to save or lose as well as the learned have? 2. God hath made plain his will to you in his word; he hath given you teachers and many other helps, so that you have no excuse if you are ignorant; you must know how to be Christians if you are no scholars. You may hit the way to heaven in English, though you have no skill in Hebrew or Greek, but in the darkness of ignorance you can never hit it. 3. Will not God judge you as well as the learned? And will not he require an account of the talents which you possess? He hath set you on his work as well as others, and therefore you must know how to do his work. If you think therefore that you may be excused from knowledge, you may as well think that you may be excused from love and from all obedience, for there can be none of this without knowledge. … Were you but as willing to get the knowledge of God and heavenly things as you are to know how to work in your trade, you would have set yourselves to it before this day, and you would have spared no cost or pains till you had got it. But you account seven years little enough to learn your trade, and will not bestow one day in seven in diligent learning the matters of your salvation.

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. Content to remain in infant school Sunday by Sunday, we do not understand the Way as one of lifelong discipleship. Going deeper into the Word is seen as an academic occupation.

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. Indeed, the theologians who invoke the ‘spiritual’ 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’ is for them 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 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.’ An earthquake shakes the planet ‘such as has never been since man was on the earth’. 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 mentioned, most of the preliminary 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 informed what the 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 many times a key word or phrase occurs in the text: ‘the Lord God the Almighty’, ‘our God’, ‘Christ’, ‘testimony of Jesus’, ‘endurance’, ‘prophecy’, ‘altar’, ‘reign’, ‘kingdom’, ‘son’, ‘blessed’, ‘every people, tribe, language and nation’, ‘cloud,’ ‘earthquake,’ ‘Amen’ all occur seven times. ‘For ever and ever’, ‘scroll’ or ‘book’, ‘servant’, ‘saint’, ‘Jesus’, ‘trumpet’, ‘star’ and ‘woe’ each occur fourteen times, ‘sun’, ‘elder,’ ‘temple,’ ‘bowl,’ ‘smoke’, ‘plague’ and ‘repent’, twelve times, ‘worship’ and ‘Lord’ twenty-four times, ‘Lamb’ (excluding 13:11) twenty-eight 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 and heard, 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, 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). The vision and the precise words used to communicate it were one. It seems ridiculous to imagine John counting key words and phrases 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 Chr 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).

Faithful translation of the word of God

Accurate theology requires a literal approach to interpretation and therefore a literal approach to translation. Each word is intentionally chosen and each word inspired (Matt 4:4), not simply the general sense. A translation should therefore be as faithful as possible to each word, and interpretation left to commentaries. With regard to Revelation the best translations are those in the direct line of descent from the King James Version, notably the ESV (English Standard Version) at the end of the line. 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 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 (the approach known as gezerah shawah). The specific words therefore matter.

Detecting the cross-references requires a depth of knowledge that cannot be expected of most readers – hence, obviously, the need for commentaries – and following them up requires diligence. But the effort will repay. Paradoxically, the disjointedness is itself evidence that the books are inspired, for typically 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. As sketched by different prophets at different times, the total picture remains coherent.

“Heaven and earth will pass away; my words will not pass away.” Jesus is referring to all his words and all Scripture (Isa 40:8, Matt 5:18, John 10:35). He, the incarnate and pre-incarnate Word, inspires the written word, and will ensure that it is preserved. As soon as we paraphrase, we move away from the words and begin to 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 in accordance with what we think the truth is.

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 simple; the oldest copy is not necessarily the truest. Further differences arose through copyists deliberately amending, adding or deleting words to accord with what they regarded as a better – and therefore probably the correct – reading, on the basis that they were correcting a previous copying error. Translations also exhibit this tendency, adding words on their own authority wherever the author, inspired or not, is considered to have been too laconic. The principle that the more unusual reading is likely to be the correct one is known as lectio difficilior and is particularly useful in relation to Revelation, which has a tendency anyway to break grammatical and stylistic norms.

The Greek text used for the commentary is the Textus Receptus, as set out in The Englishman’s Greek New Testament. A variant reading is adopted only when supported by at least five of the seven other editions included in that work, in which case it is usually the Griesbach edition that tips the balance. Indeed, where Griesbach adopts a variant, he is usually supported by at least four of the other editors. In most cases this rule results in the same reading as the ESV’s (2001), the ESV having stepped back from the textual revisionism that characterised the RSV (1952). One example to the contrary is Revelation 5:9, ‘You ransomed people for God,’ spoken by the elders. ‘People’ is not in any text, and the Textus Receptus has ‘You ransomed [purchased] us for God’. This is a lectio difficilior because, disconcertingly, later in the sentence the elders speak in the third person, but it gives us the essential clue as to who the elders are: they stand for ‘us’, those whom God has purchased. Again, in the following verse ‘kings’ is superior to ‘kingdom’ in making it clear that in the kingdom we are rulers (under Christ), not subjects. In Revelation 1:6 ‘kingdom’ is correct.

While not to be exaggerated, the textual affects all the New Testament. Another example is John 1:18, ‘No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son [ho monogenes huios], who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.’ The ESV, following a reading (monogenes theos) attested by only one of the other editions, translates ‘the only God’ and ends up with nonsense (‘the God who has no siblings … has made God known’). To get round this, the NIV translates both readings without realising that they are mutually exclusive: ‘the one and only Son, who is himself God.’ A manuscript known as P72 – preserving the oldest known copy of Peter’s two letters – has a similar alteration, substituting theos in I Peter 5:1 for Christos. Here the weight of manuscript evidence is sufficient to discredit the reading, so we know that corruption in this direction did occur (as also at Rom 14:10, I Tim 3:16) and that earlier copies are not necessarily more accurate than later ones. A third example is John 7:8, where the inferior reading has Jesus telling a lie, informing his brothers that he will not go up to the feast, when in fact he does. In my judgement, the rule hardly ever results in an intrinsically inferior reading, and certainly not as regards Revelation. But in the vast majority of cases variant readings are insignificant (e.g. spelling differences).

Translation issues are discussed, when necessary, in the relevant part of the commentary, but some may be worth elaborating on. They illustrate how choice of words affects theology, and how even the smallest words can have significance.
  • porneia – this 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) or a slave. Christian teaching insisted 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 readers since it begs the question what sexual immorality is). It occurs seven times in Revelation.
  • kai (‘and’) – New Testament Greek uses the connective kai slightly more often than English does, perhaps partly because the written language had no commas or full stops. But in Revelation John also uses the connective more often than other New Testament writers do, including himself. This way of linking clauses, known as parataxis, is characteristic of Hebrew writing and consistent with the many allusions to the content of the Old Testament. It is also part of John’s minimalist apocalyptic style – minimalist because he is concerned to write only what he has seen and heard, without interpretation. Modern translations tend to omit the connective where they can, or translate ‘then’, or ‘so’. Occasionally I have done the same, and even, with the others, substituted ‘but’, though the meaning is definitely ‘and’. In one place (17:6 ESV, NIV) omission of the word mistakes the meaning: ‘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 not a few since, some of 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, Daniel 12 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’ includes 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 (Deut 7:6). In 11:18 the NIV reduces the word to ‘your’!
  • zωon – this is the normal word for ‘animal’ (Rev 4:6; ‘ω’ in transliterated Greek words is the vowel omega, pronounced ‘awe’). ‘Living creature’ is an erroneous 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 for ‘soul’, which every animal was intuitively perceived to have. The beings beneath the throne indicate that God is the source of all life, and animals reflect something of his glory.
  • 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 should be restricted to the corresponding Greek words. 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 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.
  • Disregard for word order can also be a failing. One notable example, discussed in the commentary, is Rev 13:8. Another is Rev 5:9:
    and you purchased us for God by your blood
           from every tribe and language and people and nation,
           and you made them for our God kings and priests …

    In the Greek ‘for (our) God’ precedes ‘by your blood’ and ‘kings and priests’, and the semantic emphasis falls on these final phrases. In addition, the word order makes it clear that we shall be kings for God as well as priests. Reading is a skill!

Why another commentary?

Revelation implies that followers of Christ prove themselves as such by their witness. They bear testimony to what he did and who he is, and to the truth that he is coming back. This commentary is essentially my own testimony to that effect. I give a brief account of my life and of my formal qualifications after this introduction.

Comparing the signs of the foretold ‘birth pains’ of the kingdom with the history of the last two centuries, I infer that he is 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 then understand that he is imminent. Moreover, Christ’s teaching is at variance with modern theology (as critiqued above), whereas most scholars are comfortable with modern theology.

The elders in John’s vision declare that God is worthy to assume kingship over the nations because he created all things. Having inquired into the world’s origins more deeply than most, I believe that God did create the heavens and the earth and everything in them. Acceptance of what the elders say 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, together with the Father, created all things. He is worthy to rule the nations because he came first as a servant and atoned for sin with his life. Much of the rest of the world is dominated by Islam. It believes in ‘God’ (Allah) but denies that Jesus is his son, denies that he rose from the dead, and persecutes his followers. Another part worships images, another is in thrall to spirits. The time is approaching when God will hide his face no longer.

The atheistic bias of modern science notwithstanding, it is important that we let modern knowledge of the world inform our understanding of the phenomena described. That the earth will be burned with ‘fire’ is clear 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 reality. The visions describe global hazards that the world is increasingly worried about: wild fires, 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 to ‘interpret the signs of the times’ and apply his word relevantly to the world in which we live. If we insist on the man-made rule that Scripture alone may interpret Scripture, mistakenly supposing that we do not play a part in the process, we shut ourselves up in a theological bubble.

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 – to ‘bear witness to the word of God’. Concerning the future yet to take place, the Old Testament has only one major theme: the fulfilment of God’s promise to give to his offspring the land from the Euphrates to the Nile as an everlasting possession (Gen 15:18). The judgement of the nations, which will take place synchronously, 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 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, and they will come to pass on this 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 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 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 the same passage (Jer 29:11-15), God declares that he will not forsake his people. After their punishment he will bring them back to the land promised to them and, much later, gather all the Jews from every nation, not just Babylonia, and restore them permanently to the land. Those are his ‘plans’. Again there is a translation issue. ‘A future and a hope’ in the Hebrew is more literally ‘an eventual end and hope’, referring to the hope of a future at the end of the age (as in Deut 4:30, Prov 23:18 and, most pertinently, Jer 30:1-24). “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.’ ” A little later God repeats (31:17), “You have the eventual hope that your children will come back to their own borders.” Having hardened their hearts for our sakes, God will have mercy on them (Rom 11:32).

The libretto of Handel’s Messiah contains probably the sum total of the prophecies most Christians are familiar with. It starts with Isaiah 40:1-5:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God,
       speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
        that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
        double for all her sins.
A voice of one crying in the wilderness:
        “Prepare the way of Yahweh;
        make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley will be lifted up
        and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground will become level
        and the rough places a plain.
The glory of Yahweh will be revealed,
        and all flesh will see it together.

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’. But John was killed. In the light of that setback, others too began to have doubts: was Jesus really the Messiah? Jesus confirmed that John was the one prophesied and said that he would suffer the same fate. That still left matters 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 would be two advents, and two periods of preparation. Isaiah was speaking primarily about the second, in the wilderness of exile. Judah and Jerusalem were soon to be destroyed by the Babylonians (Isa 6:11f, 39:6f), would be destroyed again by the Romans (Isa 6:13, Zech 12:8), and would be conquered yet again at the end of the age (Isa 52:5). 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. The latter retribution was the wrath to come that John the Baptist warned about – he was not speaking hyperbolically. Nonetheless, God would restore their fortunes (Deut 30:3, Jer 29:14). Literally, the words mean ‘reverse their captivity’. He would lead them out of slavery and exile back to the land (Ezek 20:43). An earthquake would shake the 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 the nations.” Also 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.

After Isaiah’s prophecy that a maiden would conceive and bear a son named Immanuel, the oratorio reverts to the time when all flesh will see the glory of the Lord:
Go up onto a high mountain,
        you who bring good news to Zion;
lift up your voice with vigour,
        you who bring good news to Jerusalem.
Lift it up, do not fear;
        say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”
While ‘good news’ may have evoked the gospel in Handel’s mind, here it is the news that the Messiah, now glorified, will come in power to deliver and comfort Judah. Isaiah continues:
Behold, Yahweh, the Lord, comes with mighty hand,
        and his arm rules for him.
Behold, his wages are with him,
        and his reward is in front of him.
He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
        he will gather the lambs with his arm.

The promise is repeated in Isaiah 51 and 62. The mighty ‘arm’ of the Lord – first outstretched to deliver Israel in the time of Moses (Deut 4:34) – is his servant the Messiah (Isa 53:1).

So the oratorio begins with a message to the Jews that, when all seems lost, 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 final book: “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.

Revelation’s structure

Apart from the difficulty of taking in the sheer magnitude of the events, the greatest challenge is discerning the book’s chronology. The general direction of travel is of course forwards. Events are described in the order in which they happen, but with pauses for excursions which set forth certain aspects in more detail. Even the letters to the seven churches are sequential: while they concern first and foremost the congregations addressed and living at the time, on a larger scale they refer (arguably) 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 and is opened one seal at a time. The first four encompass a series of disasters that are now behind us; the fifth is being fulfilled; the sixth represents the final wrath. The fifth and sixth and the interval inbetween are elaborated upon in chapters 7 to 19. Chapter 12, at the centre of the book, summarises all history, from Creation to the return of Jews to Palestine in the modern era. The Lamb claims his inheritance once the scroll is fully opened. Chapter 20 summarises the millennial reign of Christ and his Bride, elaborated on in chapters 21 and 22.

The blasts of the trumpets are God’s final warnings before the full force of his wrath. The natural disasters bring civilisation to its knees, the first being so sudden, so destructive, that those versed in the book will know that the trumpets have begun. Some Christians receive divine protection in order to make one last appeal to the world to be reconciled to God. Then the sky dims and demons invade the earth, initially to torment, subsequently to kill. Meanwhile, Jerusalem is conquered by a coalition of Gentile powers and for three and a half years two prophets explain to Jew and Gentile alike the significance of what is coming on the world. At the end of their testimony they are murdered. Many Israelis are killed, enslaved and sent into exile. One more trumpet is blown. Believers who have survived are taken off the earth. The dead in Christ rise from their graves. The earth is plunged into darkness and given over to fire, the Sun’s fire.

God uses an intensification of the solar wind and a world-wide seismic convulsion to destroy civilisation. Amidst the devastation the nations around Israel gather at Megiddo to fight each other, but the flesh falls from their bones. Finally Christ returns with the saints, and rules the nations of the earth for a thousand years. He establishes peace, enforces righteousness and restores the physical 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 who are granted eternal life live on a new earth. Death will be no more.

Daniel was told that the end of the age for the Jews would consist of 7 years split into two three-and-a-half-year periods. The first of these were the years AD 26-30, when John the Baptist and Jesus Christ prophesied to the nation. Then came an interval elided in the prophecy when the Jewish people were mostly indifferent or hostile to what Christ offered and the gospel went out beyond Judaea, eventually to the ends of the earth. The second half of the 7 years, still to come, is the three-and-a-half-year period described in chapters 11 and 13 of Revelation. An interpretation of Daniel’s prophecy is given at the end of this book.

Daniel indicated that there would also be a 7-year period for the Gentiles, when civilisation would be chopped down like a tree and stripped bare, until men understood that the Most High was the supreme ruler. That period is interpreted to begin with the first trumpet and end with the final bowl of wrath. It ends shortly after, as the 42 months of chapters 11 and 13 end.

How to read this commentary

Revelation is designed to be read sequentially, the earlier chapters cumulatively informing the later ones, so the commentary is best read in the same way. The commentary is designed to be read in the same way. The first time through, ignore the numerous scriptural references in brackets, and if the first chapter seems tough, persevere; the rest is much easier. Then go back and read the commentary again, studiously look up the references, and use these as an aid to understanding the revelation of God in all Scripture. The third time, read the text without commentary (or even start with this if you have not read the book for a while). Hard times lie ahead, but the prophecy is intended to equip us for them. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them I will liken to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it was founded on the rock.”

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