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. The deity 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. 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 found no evil in it.
On the eighth day an angel entered 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. Innocent and unsuspecting, she plucked some of the fruit on the forbidden tree and ate it. The man did the same. At once they knew that they were naked. In their act of spiritual unfaithfulness they became guilty of sexual unfaithfulness and instinctively feared their Maker. Tearing off some leaves to cover their loins, they hid themselves. But God sought them out and explained the consequences of what they had done. He covered their sin by slaughtering animals in their place, clothed them with the skins, and since they were no longer innocent, expelled them from the garden. They had learned about evil; he taught them how to deal with it.
As humanity increased, the feeling of shame that came with disobedience diminished. Few saw the need for atonement. Alienated from God, people gave themselves up to violence and sexual promiscuity, until only one righteous man remained. God resolved to destroy the earth and told him to build a huge ark. No one took any notice. They mocked, and carried on eating, 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 animals except those saved in the ark were obliterated. As became apparent in the 1970s, the moon was hit by the same group of asteroids. Some impact craters, still visible with the naked eye, were the size of France. On earth the suddenly molten material beneath the impacts welled up to become cratons, kernels of today’s continents. As the water receded, the land began to renew itself, but it remained unstable for tens of thousands of years. From the ancestral pairs 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 earth’s recolonisation.
Three genealogies span the prehistoric period, highly abbreviated and centred on the Near East, where the biblical author himself 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 – wood and bone implements, clothing, rope, huts, boats – became lost to the archaeological record as the materials decayed. We also know next to nothing about their beliefs.
In the 5th millennium BC, in the Fertile Crescent that stretched from the Nile to south-east Iran, many gave up their hunter-gatherer way of life to domesticate animals and cultivate land. As settlements grew, work became more specialised and society more organised. Something recognisable as civilisation developed. Genesis associates this development with the rise of the world’s first kingdom, in Mesopotamia. Comprising many cities, it was subsequently disrupted, not to be reunited until Sargon of Akkad. A second kingdom arose in Egypt. Men lost their fear of the Creator and instead feared demons, objectified 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. By the 3rd millennium BC the whole civilised world worshipped idols. In North America, sub-Saharan Africa, Australasia and most of South America civilisation did not develop until the arrival of the Europeans.
The rest of Genesis tells how God set in motion a plan to reclaim the earth. He called one man out of urban Babylonia, named him Abraham, and created from his descendants a new nation, named Israel. Within a few generations the family had moved to the eastern side of the Nile Delta and settled there as herders. However, they were not allowed to become fully Egyptian, and as they multiplied they began to be perceived as a threat. They 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 to force Pharaoh to release the Israelites and, when the king pursued them, destroyed his army in the Red Sea. Seven weeks later he entered into a solemn covenant with Israel. He gave them laws setting out right behaviour. Provided they obeyed, 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.
Forty years later the Israelites began to take possession of the land. But they did not live up to their high vocation, and after centuries of conflict they demanded a human king just as the 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 between them subdued Israel’s remaining enemies. With the country now at peace, Solomon’s reign, following David’s, was a golden age. However, he turned 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 power of the flesh was almost always too strong. With their rituals of fornication and sacrifice, they worshipped the same demons that the nations around them worshipped, even sacrificing their children. Regulation proved insufficient; each individual needed to be 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 when they were deported to Babylonia, homeland of their progenitor. 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, then the Greeks. They learned to obey the law given at Mount Sinai and waited for God to restore the kingdom. In 142 they gained a measure of independence. In 63 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 far greater prophet who would baptise with holy spirit and fire. Soon afterwards the heralded Messiah appeared. Demonstrating his power through many signs, he challenged society’s religious traditions and ideas about the kingdom of God. He even revived the dead. But when he was arrested most of the Jews rejected him. They persuaded the Roman governor to crucify him as a rebel.
However, God meant it for good. Christ’s death brought about the perfect sacrifice that enabled anyone, whatever his status, sex or culture, to be regenerated: inwardly in this life, outwardly in the next. As set out in the Bible’s opening pages but thereafter little reflected on, mortality was the consequence of 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. By reason of that self-giving, God raised him to his right side in heaven and granted him authority over all kingdoms and authorities. One day he would exercise that authority in person.
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’, the old one referring to the covenant that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai, the new to the covenant that Jesus concluded with his disciples in Jerusalem. The last book in the Bible is John’s Revelation. It renews the prophecies set forth in the Old Testament and sums up all that remains to be fulfilled. John was told not to seal up its words, for Christ would soon be coming back.
Paul in his earlier letters expected his return within a generation or two. Peter affirmed, ‘The end of all things has drawn near. So did James. Today such words are problematic. Whether we think of history as beginning from the earliest writing of history, by Moses c. 1400 BC (the Greeks were much later), or from the rise of civilisation c. 3400 BC, a delay of two thousand years seems anything but ‘soon’. Perhaps, rather, we should be thinking in terms of the whole of history, consisting of many undefined ‘ages’. To his disciples Jesus spoke about the ‘conclusion [completion] of the age’ – the last age – as still in the future (Matt 13:39, 28:20). When he came back, it would be like a nobleman returning after a long absence to see what his servants had accomplished.
Christ’s second coming is a major component of the gospel, and we are meant to keep it in view as a 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 appears. It would be very unfortunate if ours happened to be the generation in which things came to an 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 tells the world, “Jesus loves you; he 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 Jesus – different not only from John’s but from all the New Testament’s. One doesn’t have to go far before being confronted with unpleasantness. “Anyone who is angry with his brother without cause will be liable to judgement.” “Wide is the gate and easy the way that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it.” “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and perform many miracles in your name?’ And then I will answer them, ‘I never knew you.’ ” On the whole, Christians pass over the parts that are unsettling and do not see why he might be angry with the present world. They would prefer that it went on forever, and that the end was just the moment we individually died and ‘went to heaven’.
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 hidden, knowledge of him can only be founded on what he has verbally revealed. Christ himself stressed the importance of written revelation. Mere tradition – beliefs and practices hallowed by age – had no divine authority and often worked 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 signs and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit (Rom 15:19). Paul as apostle ‘delivered’ (past tense of paradidωmi) 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. He dictated his letters, 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, I Thes 2:13). Christ had appointed him “an assistant and witness, both of what you have seen and of things I’ll appear to you about” (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, may already have been written by the time of his first letter (Wenham 1991). The only tradition, paradosis (the noun from paradidωmi), that he could vouch for was the teaching that orally and by letter he himself had delivered as having come from God (II Thes 2:15). 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 had inspired 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 for 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 transmitted orally.
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 he was the apostle John, son of Zebedee and author of the gospel and letters bearing his name, though none of these expressly identify him as writer. He received his vision in the 14th 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 seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. Part of the book consisted of messages specific to each. The believers at Laodicea, a town almost totally flattened in 60 by an earthquake, knew better than most how disaster could come like a thief in the night, yet there, just two generations after Pentecost, the church had lost sight of their Saviour. 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 too it must 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 need to state which John the name referred to. Later, in the second half of the 2nd century, they began to have doubts, apparently because of a sect known as the Montanists, some of whom were prophesying that New Jerusalem was about to descend on a mountain not far from themselves. That did not happen. Nor did the many predictions that piggy-backed on John’s in succeeding centuries, including 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 speaks about real events in the future.
Revelation has always been troublesome and controversial. Dionysius, leader of the Egyptian Church from 248 to 264, admitted that he did not understand much of it 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. It is arcane, and one can be consumed by its lurid mysteries. 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.
Revelation’s obscurity must be intentional, for all time is present to the one who sees the end from the beginning (Isa 46:10) and he could have described the future more plainly. Nor can we say that the Church has been greatly disadvantaged by paying the middle chapters 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.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways.” It is as well to remember that, as the veil lifts on a world of angels and demons. The book subverts at every level: word order, grammar, tense, genre, narrative structure, Christology, ideas about heaven, ideas about judgement. Metaphors are presented as if they were real. It is one thing for a prophet to point to ‘the Lamb of God’ when everyone can see that the lamb is a man; it is quite another to be taken to the centre of the universe and see such an animal sitting on the throne. The Bible concludes its revelation of God with a series of visions foreign to all normality. “I speak in parables … lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears.” Commentary, for those whose heart has not grown dull, is essentially an attempt to translate the visions into the cultural and geopolitical world where, sooner or later, we know they must be fulfilled.
Confronted with so many competing interpretations, the reader has to determine for himself how best to read the work. Jesus advises us to avoid interpretations that do not keep to the actual words. The words of the prophecy, he emphasises, are ‘trustworthy and true’, a statement that can only be true itself if the words communicate meaning that is capable of being false and not open to multiple interpretations, several or all of which might be true or ‘valid’. Parts of the book undoubtedly are difficult: challenging sometimes to understand and challenging, because of what they communicate, to take in. Nonetheless, he lays on us an obligation to wrestle with them and ‘hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches’. Those who do so will be blessed, he says.
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 as individuals you will live only decades, not knowing the day and the hour when you will die.” Would the warning have been heard in the same way? Probably not. 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.
There is this paradox. John is told, “Do not seal up the prophecy,” 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).
The case can be made that the end is not now 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. They will accumulate teachers who affirm their sensual desires and not listen to teachers who do not affirm them (II Tim 3-4). 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 the USA, adult church membership since 2000 has been in rapid decline, overall by 28%, and chiefly because fewer young people identify as Christians (Gallup polling). Over the last decade, the annual rate of decline was 4%. In England, a country not untypical of western Europe, the number of 20-44 year-olds who worshipped regularly fell in the period 1980 to 2015 by half, from 2.2% of the population – already a tiny number – to just 1.1% (Brierley 2015). Judges and legislators trample on what remains of Christianity 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? If the prophets still speak, it is to tell us that the axe falls when a civilisation that knew God forgets about him and turns to other gods (Jer 18:15f).
- 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 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 is widely acknowledged to represent the succession of empires or civilisations that would follow his own before a kingdom set up by God obliterated them all. 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 wars in Judaea. Then would come ‘the beginning of the birth pangs’: nation would rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom, and there would be famines, pestilences and great earthquakes. It is not difficult to see the world wars and famines of the 20th century and earthquakes of 2004-2014 as fulfilling this prediction, in which case the horses of the Apocalypse described in chapter 6 have come and gone. Scientifically defined, ‘great’ earthquakes are those of magnitude 8.0 or greater and since 1900 (when we have a good record) have been unusually frequent only in the decade 2004-2014.
- The return of Jews to the land of Israel, 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 bears no 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), indicating that the nation God had planted among the Gentiles would be uprooted and the kingdom given to a people who would repay his labour. 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 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. Amen, I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Life expectancy in Israel is currently 82 years.
The reader must test everything and judge for himself. Some understand ‘this generation’ to refer to Jesus’s contemporaries. However, he had already stated what would befall his own generation (Matt 23:34f). Thereafter would come a succession of false Messiahs and a period of birth pangs. Some time after the start of those pangs the fig tree would sprout again and signal that he was near, and once all the events of Matt 24:9-29 had come to pass, the world would know that he was very near.
In his best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth, Hal Lindsey supposed that a generation signified 40 years rather than an entire lifespan, and predicted that ‘all these things’ would take place by 1988. The interpretation proved false, resulting in confusion and no little scepticism. People say, “No one knows the day or the hour,” and ignore the trouble Jesus took to advise when he would be very near. The danger in his mind was not that people would be overly precise about the timing, but that they would be asleep – that delay would lead to complacency. To some, Lindsey’s being wrong could only mean that the gospels themselves had got it wrong.
In this context, let me also mention the 2020/21 coronavirus crisis, ably reviewed in Laura Dodsworth’s book A State of Fear and Alex Gutentag’s article ‘The war on reality’. Most people, including most churchgoers, favoured the lockdowns and the abrogation of freedoms that the United Nations had declared inalienable: freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and religion. Consequently, saying anything critical risks alienating readers from the start. Nonetheless, what is not controversial is that globally around one hundred million people were made ‘poor or extremely poor’, i.e. living on less than US$3.20 per day in purchasing power terms (Kühn et al. 2021); scientists concerned that a totalitarian response and the new vaccines would do more harm than good were mocked and commonly prevented from expressing their views; and Christians, Jews and Muslims were prevented from gathering to worship.
During the period 1880–2019, life expectancy in the USA doubled, from 39.4 years to 78.9 (UK: from 43.0 to 81.3). When adjusted for this aging trend, mortality was lower in 2020 than in every year up to 2004 (UK: up to 2009), and the median age of those who died from or with covid in 2020 was around 78 (UK: 81). People under 65 with no underlying health conditions, such as obesity, had a negligible risk of dying from the disease. Yet fear was played up rather than down. Those who bore the heaviest cost of governments wanting to be seen to do something were the young and the very poor.
The crisis is not mentioned in the Bible, and others will have other perceptions. Like the fall of the tower of Siloam, generally pandemics do not have theological significance. If this one does, it is, firstly, because man himself synthesised the virus, in the course of ‘gain-of-function’ research funded by western agencies and China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology. (The institute denied it was synthesised or escaped from a lab and destroyed the relevant records.) Secondly, in its determination to appease a fear that had no rational basis, western civilisation was in effect enacting its own extinction. Citizens were instructed to stay in their homes on pain of large fines and exhorted to perceive others as a potential threat; all but essential retail businesses were shut, some never to reopen; schools and universities were shut; dissent was suppressed, even outlawed; political accountability was suspended; medical care was withdrawn from those too old to look after themselves and minimised for everyone else that had a health condition other than covid itself; already declining birth rates dropped to a record low. And all for nothing, as was apparent from the much belittled experience of Sweden and states in the USA that refused to follow China’s totalitarian example. For the first time in history, churches shut down throughout the world, for the most part willingly. When the State granted them permission to re-gather, though not to sing, they came before God in masks (the secular equivalent of the niqab), uncritically accepting that masks would inhibit transmission. Their fear of death, and understanding of what was happening behind the scenes, was no different from the world’s. Fear of God had long since gone.
The disease was a respiratory disease, brought on by the air we breathed and shared, and spiritually we have long been breathing unwholesome air. The virus exposed the rottenness of our civilisation, in order that God might be justified and prove blameless when he brings it to an end. The name of the virus is also significant, but I leave that until commenting on the first trumpet (Rev 8:7). As we approach the two thousandth anniversary of Christ’s departure, the key point, now more than ever, remains. “I am coming soon.”
The purpose is to prepare and equip the Bride of Christ for his return. Here in the West we are hardly in that position at the moment. The modern gospel, boiled down to “Jesus loves you”, is a distortion. 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 he has, give it to the poor and follow him; 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.
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 cleanse us from sin (1:5) and to the love that sustains us when under trial (3:9). In his promises God expresses the substance of his love without using the word (e.g. at 21:7). The crucial question is not whether he loves us but whether we love him (Rev 2:4, 2:19, 12:11); whether, when the Bridegroom comes, there will be oil in our lamps. When we understand that God has come to us in mercy and will come again in judgement, 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. The words for God’s wrath, orge, and rage, thumos, occur thirteen times. Although neither uncontrolled nor unprovoked, this anger is an emotion. The main 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 satisfy 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 Bible, 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. 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 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 man (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. 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 – 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).
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 really promises of blessing to the Church.” The promises, it is maintained, are to be spiritualised, on the grounds that all the promises of God find their Yes in Christ (2 Cor 1:20); whoever believes in him inherits the promises. However, Paul’s words would still hold good if some of the promises awaited Christ’s return. The belief that they have all been fulfilled is only sustained by ignoring what they specifically 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 temple, and within it the golden altar, the bowls of incense, the lamps and the ark, are all seen in John’s vision. The promises to Israel come to pass when the Messiah leads them into the land and reigns over them. He could hardly be more emphatic: “If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below be explored, then will I cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done.” (Jer 31:37) The promises relate 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 humanity, and therefore need not be restricted to marriage.” In marriage, man and woman become one flesh, and the relationship is holy because in the beginning God blessed it as the means of carrying on his work of bringing life into the world. 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). ‘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 – if we believe in an appointed day at all (John 6:40) – slip back to earth just before the resurrection. 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. “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.
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 the reader sees that this thinking is anything but spiritual. Indeed, the theologians who invoke the ‘spiritual’ deny the existence of evil spirits and deny that man has a spirit (cf. Job 27:3, 32:8, 34:14f). Although 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 1 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 rage. The bowls that the angels pour over the Earth and the Sun may be figurative, but the havoc wreaked is not. As mentioned, the preliminary horrors have already occurred (Rev 6:1-8).
Literal and spiritual are not necessarily opposites. When John sees a throne in heaven, he sees an actual, visible throne. An astronaut looking for it will look in vain, but when Jesus returns, he will sit on that throne of glory in physical Jerusalem (Matt 25:31). True, the throne is a symbol, signifying kingly power, but it is in the nature of a throne to symbolise kingly power; it is not the less real for being a symbol. By contrast, when John sees seven lampstands, he has to be told that these symbolise churches, for of themselves lampstands do not symbolise churches. The same applies to the numbers: the actual number of the armies of demonic horsemen is 200,000,000 (John expressly confirms the number); we know that the 1260 days during which the two prophets prophesy is the actual duration because it coincides with Jerusalem’s occupation by Gentiles for 42 months; 666 is an actual number because it has to be computed.
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 emerald’ cannot represent what he actually saw; rather, he chose words for their symbolic significance (though we are not told 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 was no mere reporter but played a major part in the book’s composition. And consider how many times important words or phrases occur in the text: ‘the Lord God the Almighty’, ‘our God’, ‘coming quickly’, ‘the testimony of Jesus’, ‘endurance’, ‘prophecy’, ‘prepared’ or ‘made ready’ (same word), ‘time’ (kairos), ‘altar’, ‘bowl’, ‘reign’, ‘kingdom’, ‘son’, ‘blessed’, ‘every people, tribe, language and nation’, ‘cloud,’ ‘abyss’, ‘earthquake’ all occur seven times. ‘For ever and ever’, ‘scroll’ or ‘book’ (same word), ‘write’, ‘servant’, ‘saint’, ‘Jesus’, ‘trumpet’, ‘star’, and ‘woe’ each occur fourteen times; ‘sun’, ‘power’, ‘elder,’ ‘written’, ‘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 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 and other heavenly voices did their own speech. 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. Everything is timed to the ‘hour, the day, the month and the year’. ‘The ages were fashioned by the word of God’ (Heb 1:2, 11:2).
Writing materials such as papyrus and vellum were perishable, so manuscripts of the New Testament, as with all ancient texts, exist only as copies, even if some are still very old. Copying resulted in errors, and determining which variant reflects the original is not straightforward; 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 reading – and therefore probably the correct one – on the basis that they were undoing a previous copying error. Translations also exhibit this tendency of adding, amending and deleting.
The Greek text used for the commentary is the Textus Receptus, as set out with an interlinear translation in The Englishman’s Greek New Testament (now archived on the web). 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. The reading accepted by the ESV has no object for the verb and ‘people’ therefore has to be supplied, whereas the Textus Receptus has ‘You ransomed [i.e. purchased] us for God’. The principle that the less obvious 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. ‘You purchased us for God’ is the less obvious reading because, disconcertingly, the elders later in the sentence 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.
While not to be exaggerated, the textual issue 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 only God [Jesus] … has made God known’). 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 (also at I Tim 3:16) and that earlier copies are not necessarily more accurate than later ones. A third example is II Peter 3:10, which says that the earth and man’s works on the day of the Lord ‘will be burned up’; the alternative reading, ‘will be found’, is supported by only one editor and is close to meaningless. In my judgement, the rule never results in an intrinsically inferior reading, and no one should think that describing a voice as ‘what seemed/sounded like a voice’ is divinely inspired (Rev 6:6 ESV/NIV). That said, in the vast majority of cases variant readings are insignificant (e.g. spelling differences).
Accurate theology requires a literal approach to translation. “Heaven and earth will pass away; my words will not pass away.” Jesus was referring to all Scripture (Isa 40:8), including that which at the time had not been written. Every iota, he said, was inspired, not simply the general sense. 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. The truth is found by meditating on and wrestling with the Logos, not attempting to change it in accordance with what we think the truth is.
A translation should therefore be as faithful as possible, 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 faithful translation cannot help following the ESV much of the time. That said, the ESV could be better than it is. Even it adds words ‘for clarity’, changes tenses on the assumption that if John were writing in English he would write differently, and changes the meaning of a word where it is not understood (Rev 14:15, 18:2, 18:5).
Paraphrases are interpretations, somewhere between translation and commentary, and can be helpful so long as one is aware they are not translations. However, the prophetic books are another matter. These are difficult to understand chiefly 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 procedure known as gezerah shawah). The specific words must therefore be retained.
Detecting the cross-references in Revelation 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 were 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.
- 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’, occasionally ‘also’) – New Testament Greek uses the conjunction kai slightly more often than English does, perhaps partly because the written language had no commas or full stops the translator must decide how to punctuate). But in Revelation John also uses the connective more often than other New Testament writers do, or John himself in his gospel. Known as parataxis, this linking of clauses by addition is characteristic of Hebrew writing, and is consistent with Revelation’s many allusions to 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. While interpretation is not eschewed, it is either provided by his guide or he gives it as on a par with the things he has seen and heard. Modern translations tend to omit the connective, or translate it ‘so’, or ‘then’. (The Greek word for ‘then’, i.e. next in time, does not occur at all in Revelation, but occurs 54 times in the NIV.) Occasionally I have done the same. However, I have resisted the temptation to replace ‘and’ with ‘but’ where a reader would expect the adversative, on the grounds that an ancient reader would also have expected ‘but’, and ‘and’ must therefore be deliberate. Again, kai where one would expect alla (‘but’) is a Hebraism (Steiner 2000). In one place (Rev 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 ‘people of God’ or ‘God’s people’ is simply a mistranslation.
- zωon – this is the normal word for ‘animal’ (‘ω’ in transliterations is the vowel omega, pronounced ‘awe’). ‘Living creature’ is an erroneous paraphrase. The word denotes both the animals (‘living souls’) created in the beginning and the four animal-like beings beneath the throne of God, which are not creatures. 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.
- 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. Phωnos means “voice” or “sound” (between which the translator must choose) but in some places is translated ‘rumblings’ (e.g. 8:5, ESV, NIV). Such inconsistencies are motivated by a desire to add colour, but in a minor way they too contravene the warning not to add to or take away from the words of the prophecy. John compensates for complexity of structure and symbolism by keeping the language simple, and uses other ways to ring the changes. Revelation is vivid enough.
- Disregard for word order can also be a failing. One 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!
The inference that Christ is returning soon puts the present work at odds with most published commentaries. In my view Revelation will not unlock its mysteries until he is imminent, and unless we then understand that he is imminent. Moreover, its teaching is at variance with modern theology as critiqued above, whereas many scholars are comfortable with that theology. If the purpose of Revelation is to prepare and equip the Bride of Christ for his coming, this must also be the purpose of any exposition of it.
Followers of Christ are identifiable by their witness. They bear testimony to what he did and who he is, and to the truth that he is coming. I give a brief account of my life and formal qualifications after this introduction, and in particular describe how I reached the conclusion that what we know from geology, palaeontology and archaeology agrees with the Bible’s account of early history.
The elders in John’s vision declare that God is worthy to assume kingship over the nations because he created all things: heaven, earth and the life that they contain, visible and invisible. Acceptance of what the elders say is requisite if one wishes to understand the prophecy. 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. 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. They too will be judged.
The atheistic bias of historical science notwithstanding, the physical sciences must be allowed to inform our understanding of the phenomena described. That the earth will be burned with fire is clear from several parts of the Bible; Revelation elaborates on this in some detail, enough for us to see that the fire is not to be spiritualised into an innocuous metaphor. The visions describe global hazards that the world is increasingly worried about: fierce heat, wildfires, asteroids tearing through the atmosphere, coronal mass ejections. Understanding Scripture in the light of contemporary knowledge 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. We are not to shut ourselves up in a theological bubble.
The final reason for offering yet another commentary is that Old Testament prophecy remains largely closed, notwithstanding the prodigious output of divinity schools (Eccl 12:12). One purpose of Revelation is to open it up: to ‘bear witness to the word of God’ (Rev 1:2). 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. 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. The redemption of Israel, the wrath of God and the kingdom of God still lie ahead, and they will come to pass on this present earth.
Despite all scriptural testimony to the contrary, we have a habit of non-contextual reading that writes Jewry 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, 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 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 11:28-32 RSV).
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, speaking in terms so apocalyptic that he later found it difficult to understand how Jesus matched up. Another prophet, Malachi, had spoken of an Elijah-like figure who would reconcile younger and older generations ‘before the great and terrible day of the Lord’. But then 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 himself 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?
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 chiefly 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 11:1-3, 13:8), 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 preferring their own righteousness to the Messiah’s under the Romans. The latter retribution was the wrath 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 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 that will scorch the earth.
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!”
and his arm rules for him.
Behold, his wages are with him,
and his reward is before him.
He will tend his flock as 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). He will dash the nations in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
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.
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 some 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 reveals its contents as it 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 and seventh represent the final wrath. This last period is 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 after the scroll is fully opened. He is married to his bride. Chapter 20 summarises the millennial reign of Christ and his people, 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. 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 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 confront the Messiah they know is coming, but the flesh falls from their bones. Finally Christ returns with the saints, and rules 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 the Messiah prophesied to the nation. Then came an interval elided in the prophecy when the Jewish people were mostly indifferent or hostile to what was 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, shortly after the 42 months of chapters 11 and 13.
Revelation is designed to be read sequentially, the earlier chapters cumulatively informing the later ones. 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 difficult, persevere; the rest is 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 appendices can also be used for devotional study. Finally, just read the text (or even start with this if you have not read the book for a while). Spread the word. 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.”
‘LXX’: Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, produced in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. ‘Cf’: Latin confer, meaning compare.