Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near." (Revelation 1:3)
When I came into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ over four decades ago I rushed right home from my pastor's office and read the Book of the Revelation straight through. As one might expect, the Apocalypse made little sense to me at the time, though it certainly intrigued me.
The Bible is an integrated document--in order to understand the individual books of the Bible, one must understand the whole--and vice versa. One by one the great themes of Scripture emerge in Genesis and are woven together throughout the Old and New Testaments. In Revelation these themes are all brought back together in a grand consummation of earth history requiring just over 400 verses.
Almost weekly some Bible prophecy enthusiast emails me his new interpretation of the Revelation. Or events in the news may trigger someone else writing to insist that a marvelous prediction in the last book of the Bible is right now being fulfilled before our very eyes. I was once in this class of Bible enthusiasts--excited and eager to jump to conclusions--so I don't mind reading far out ideas in the field of prophecy.
But also, a good many sincere and dedicated Bible scholars differ in their presuppositions about how the Book of the Revelation is to be interpreted. I am comfortable with what is called the "futurist" interpretation. My brief notes below follow that position.
The Apostle John, while imprisoned on the island of Patmos late in the First Century received this book by divine revelation. The original author--God the Father--addressed this letter to Jesus Christ, His Son--asking that it be passed along to John and to us. The Apocalypse is a unique book of the Bible in many ways.
In Chapter One we are given a grand picture of Jesus Christ as He is now in eternity. Especially emphasized is His role as Great High priest and Lord over the church.
Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him. Even so, Amen. "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End," says the Lord, "who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty." I, John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ. I was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet, saying, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last," and, "What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea." Then I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength. And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. But He laid His right hand on me, saying to me, "Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. "I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death" (1:7-18)
Chapters 2 and 3 (widely neglected today) contain the direct words of Jesus to seven representative local churches. From these letters we see the commendations and corrective admonitions from Jesus Himself which are perfectly applicable to churches today. A progression of church life down through the past 2000 years is evident in these letters. We are very likely now near the end of the age--in the final stage of church before the Lord returns:
"I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. "So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. "Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'--and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked--I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne..." (3:15-21)
Chapter 4: An abrupt transition occurs at the end of these seven letters. John is caught up out of time and invited into the throne from of God. He sees events which for us are yet future and haven't happened yet. The principal activity of heaven is said to be worship and this is what one sees in Chapter 4. Innumerable angels are gathered in constant worship, singing and praying around the throne of God the Father. The Father is holding a mysterious seven-sealed scroll. A search is made of heaven and earth for a person who is qualified and worthy to receive this scroll and to execute its divine commands. Jesus--the slain Lamb--the Lion of the Tribe of Judah--is the only qualified recipient.
When Jesus takes the scroll from the hand of the Father the center of worship in heaven shifts to Jesus. The time has come for Jesus to invade earth's long dark history and to bring in God's kingdom on earth among men.
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel's strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
(Charles Wesley 1744)
Revelation, as it is written, describes events occurring in the heavenly realm and then jumps to consider events happening on earth. However, earth clocks and heavenly clocks are not usually in lock-step! There are many symbols in the book of the Revelation, but most of the book is quite literal and real at the same time. Revelation is easier to understand if one can keep these discontinuities in time in mind--and the transitions back and forth between events in heaven and events taking place on earth. One must stop frequently and ask if something is symbolic or literal--or both. Often "both" is the best answer.
Revelation lays before us three sets of seven great judgments of God which will come upon our earth at the close of the present age. In between each of these sets of judgments we are given several "interludes" in which other important end-time events take place in heaven or on earth. Again, these other events are not necessarily in time-sync with the material just presented. The first such interlude, for instance, is actually a flashback of the type commonly used by an author who stops his story and backtracks to fill us in with events that have already taken place.
We are seeing here, then, not chronology but degrees of intensity. It is as though God keeps probing deeper and deeper into the events of the last days. The judgments of the seven seals give us a quick trip through this seven-year period that Daniel identifies as the last days. The trumpets, however, return as it were to a section of the last week and give us a different facet of judgment. That is what we are looking at in Chapters 8 and 9. When we come to the bowls of the wrath of God we will see still greater depths of earth's agony, but just how to fit it all into a time sequence is difficult. This is made still more confusing by the fact that certain break-off periods -- intermissions I have called them -- which focus on events of special interest, are occurring during this time. (Ray Stedman, http://www.raystedman.org/revelation/4201.html)
The great judgments of the end-time: the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls of wrath all cascade together and each series brings us to the very verge of the Second Coming of Jesus to earth. The index marker that points to this climax of history is a great earthquake. (See http://ldolphin.org/shakedown.html, which includes a diagram).
The first set of judgments of God upon human evil is brought about largely by God's releasing the usual restraints of evil that are now in place in society. The subsequent sets of judgments invoke cosmic disturbances in sun, moon and stars, and quite possibly one or more collisions of asteroids or comets with the earth. Nature is disrupted catastrophically--ruining the environment. Increasing demonic deception and oppression are unloosed on an unrepentant mankind. Nuclear exchanges, near and far, and the release of biological and chemical weapons can easily be fitted into the imagery of the book.
...all through the Bible you see that God's love is manifest to men everywhere in urging them to escape this judgment. God in love pleads with people, "Do not go on to this end!" But ultimately he must judge those who refuse his offer of grace. He says, in effect, "I love you and I can provide all you need. Therefore, love me, and you will find the fulfillment your heart is looking for." But many men and women say, "No, I do not want that. I will take your gifts, I will take all the good things you provide, but I do not want you! Let me run my own life. Let me serve my own ends. Let me have my own kingdom." To such, God ultimately says, "All right, have it your way!" God has three choices: First, he can let rebellion go on forever and never judge it. In this case the terrible things that are happening on earth, all these distressing injustices, the cruelty, the anger, the hate, the malice, the sorrow, the hurt, the pain, the death that now prevails will go on forever. God does not want that, and neither does man. Second, God can force men to obey him and control them as robots. But he will never do that because that means they cannot love him. Love cannot be forced. Therefore, third, the only choice God really has is that he must withdraw ultimately from those who refuse his love. He must let them have their own way forever. That results in terrible torment of godlessness. If God is necessary to us, then to take him out of our lives is to plunge us into the most terrible sense of loneliness and abandonment that mankind can know. (Ray Stedman, http://www.raystedman.org/revelation/4206.html)
Early in Revelation (Chapter 7) we are made aware that millions of people will come to know the Lord Jesus Christ during the seven-year end-time tribulation period. 144,000 Jewish evangelists trained and led by Jesus Himself will undertake this bold, final campaign of world-wide evangelism. Most of the converts will be quickly hunted down and executed by the united world government of that day--a government fully controlled by Satan.
Two "great" end-time world leaders are presented to us in Chapter 13. These men may seem to earth-dwellers to be great and charismatic leaders ready to save the world, but God refers to them as wild beasts. (This imagery is drawn from the prophet Daniel). The secular, military and political seat of world-power of earth's final governmental system will arise out of the now-developing European Union of nations. Religious inspiration (ultimately, the worship of man), and a temporary Middle-East peace treaty, will be promoted by a false Messiah, (the second beast) who comes to power in Israel.
"...But you [Jews] do not have His word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe. You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life. I do not receive honor from men. But I know you, that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in My Father's name, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive. How can you believe, who receive honor from one another, and do not seek the honor that comes from the only God? Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; there is one who accuses you--Moses, in whom you trust. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?" (John 5:38-47)
In Revelation Chapter 12, the long history of believing, (true) Israel is portrayed as a woman wearing a crown of twelve stars, clothed with the sun and with the moon under her feet. We also see Satan exiled from heaven and cast down to earth by the archangel Michael. Satan is now furious, "knowing that his time is short." He wages war vigorously against the remnant of believing Jews who are exiled in Bozrah and Petra (Southern Jordan)--and he seeks out and kills anyone, anywhere, who would dare to name the name of Jesus.
Jesus Himself leads two great judgments described in Chapter 14. The long promised separation of the wheat and tares (announced by Jesus during his First Advent, Matthew 13) takes place.
Jesus also judges unbelieving Israel as one of their own kinsman who now has the role of the Avenger of Blood. Demonic forces unloosed by God have drawn together the armies of the world, numbering 200 million men--and the battleground of this terrible last war is within the tiny nation of Israel. Much of the blood shed will be Jewish blood. Jerusalem will be plundered and pillaged one more time by foreign armies (Zechariah 14).
"the angel thrust his sickle into the earth and gathered the vine of the earth, and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trampled outside the city [Jerusalem], and blood came out of the winepress, up to the horses' bridles, for one thousand six hundred furlongs [200 miles]." (14:19-20)
Revelation describes the final overthrow of what the Bible calls "the present world system." This occurs in two phases. The seven-year tribulation period begins soon after the removal of the true church at an event called the rapture. Left behind is a counterfeit ("harlot") church whose influence in world affairs grows very strong for the next several years. Then the world-ruler--beast number one--insists on being worshipped as God and stops tolerating even that false church which previously worked in his favor. The judgment of all false religion--the great harlot--is portrayed for us in Revelation 17.
"The waters which you saw, where the harlot sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues. And the ten horns which you saw on the beast, these will hate the harlot, make her desolate and naked, eat her flesh and burn her with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to fulfill His purpose, to be of one mind, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled. And the woman whom you saw is that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth." (17:15-18)
Revelation 18 describes the sudden and violent overthrow of the commercial, economic, political power structures of the world system, also part of Mystery Babylon. This seems to occur at the end in conjunction with the actual Second Advent of Christ:
"And there were noises and thunderings and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such a mighty and great earthquake as had not occurred since men were on the earth. Now the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. And great Babylon was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of His wrath. Then every island fled away, and the mountains were not found. And great hail from heaven fell upon men, each hailstone about the weight of a talent [75 lbs.]. Men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail, since that plague was exceedingly great." (16:18-21)
In Chapter 20, Jesus steps out from behind the scenes of the invisible heavenly places and boldly assumes rule over the world. His return to the Mount of Olive in power and splendor initiates the last great world-wide earthquake, the destruction of the major cities of the world, and drastic topographic and geological changes over the face of the whole planet. The assembled armies of the world now turn to fight against God, but Jesus Himself overthrows them. The beast and the false prophet meet their appointed end. Jesus begins his thousand year rebuilding program for a devastated earth, establishing new world wide governments based on truth and righteousness.
Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.
Then I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the birds that fly in the midst of heaven, "Come and gather together for the supper of the great God, "that you may eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, both small and great." And I saw the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army. Then the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who worked signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image. These two were cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone. And the rest were killed with the sword which proceeded from the mouth of Him who sat on the horse. And all the birds were filled with their flesh. Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished." (19:11-20:3)
Revelation 20 also describes for us the great final judgment of the unbelievers of earth down through all of history. Every individual will receive a fair trial according to what was written "in the books"--but only those whose names are in the "Lamb's Book of Life" can move on into the kingdom of God.
The Apocalypse closes with brief description of the great heavenly city of New Jerusalem--apparently a satellite city almost the size of the moon--which perhaps orbits the earth. The magnificent city has plenty of room for the saints of all ages--God's people--to dwell in comfort and with great joy.
The final and total end of all evil is promised in Revelation 21-22--a "new heavens and a new earth." God's people can look forward to adventures beyond his present life which will be grander than anything we can now imagine. The good news is that the invitation to join in and be part of all this is still open to all of us today.
"Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand. He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still; he who is righteous, let him be righteous still; he who is holy, let him be holy still. And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last. Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city. But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie. I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things in the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star." And the Spirit and the bride say, "Come!" And let him who hears say, "Come!" And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely." (22:10-17)
Should we read the Book of Revelation? Indeed, we should get to know it well. The age we live in is already an age of terrible deception and this will grow worse. Yet earth's long-awaited golden age may be a mere seven years away from us. Every day we live brings us one day close to the time on God's calendar when the great events of the last book of he Bible will unfold.
I am just now finishing teaching the Book of the Revelation. Though I have read and taught this book many times before, there were many things that became clearer this time through. I hope these short notes will provoke many of you to study this book for yourselves and receive the blessing it promises. If you should be interested, our class notes and audio files are on my web site, http://ldolphin.org/cleanpages/.
News: A friend of mine serving God in Korea recently called my attention to two great books which are must reading. The Heavenly Man is the biography of an amazing Christian leader in China, Brother Yun. Paul Hathaway has also put together a related book, Back to Jerusalem, which describes an amazing movement in China. Since the gospel reached China mainly from Europe via America--spreading East to West, it is logical that the church in China should assume the responsibility of closing the gap from China back to Jerusalem. The Chinese church is the ideal group to quietly evangelize the Muslim world and move through the 10-40 window of unreached nations. Both of these books make what we call the normal Christian life here in America seem third-rate in comparison with the daily experiences of many of our Christian brothers and sisters in China. The easy way to get copies of this book is to order them from Amazon.com.
My mentor, pastor and friend, Ray C. Stedman, pastor at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, went home to be with the Lord in 1992 but his sermons and books are more popular now than ever. A new independent web site with all of Ray's sermons in printed form or audio mp3 is now online at http://raystedman.org. The new server is very fast--and a large fraction of the traffic is for Ray's sermons in audio form. The audio files have all been restored and redigitized so that they sound like new. We are currently adding all of Ray's books (whether in print or out of print) to the web site, and we have plans to put the entire web site on a single DVD later this year in cooperation with Firefighters for Christ (See http://firefighters.org).
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May 20, 2005