Mud on the Wall: Brainstorming the Apocalypse (XCIII)

August 31, 2010

Although, at this point in a theological discussion that contains all the major doctrinal areas, this would be the point at which the teaching on the church (formally known as “ecclesiology”) would be treated, I am going to handle last things (a.k.a. “eschatology) now, saving ecclesiology for last.  The reason for this, as I said in an earlier post, is that, of all the things I have learned in my ongoing studies of Revelation, the most striking have to do with the people of God.

So, we will now plunge ahead in dealing with Revelation’s teaching on the future from a prophetic standpoint.  I will do so after making three fairly brief—but important—points in regard to the present.

First, in the Apocalypse, there is definitely a present-tense sense of the kingdom of God.  It is made up of believers (1:6; 5:10) and ruled over by the Lord, as the heavenly courtroom scene in chapters 4-5 strongly implies.  Now, this sense of “kingdom” does not necessarily extend much further than the idea that, when a person becomes a Christian, he or she is “transferred into the kingdom of the Son [God] loves” (Col. 1:13).  But, it is present from the very beginning and, in my developing understanding, it is one way of speaking of the spiritual oneness of “the heaven-dwellers,” a significant emphasis of the book (which will be discussed in a more focused way in my next post).

Second, I continue to come to a clearer understanding of the present-tense sense of “Babylon the Great.”  What initially almost seems like a “switcheroo” takes place in the latter chapters of Revelation, where Babylon the Great ends up being punished by the Lord for the sins of “the earth-dwellers” (see 3:10: 6:10; 8:13; 18:20, 24; 19:2), is completely logical when the very close relationship between the two is explained from 17:2 on.  Then, looking back at the earlier part of the book, the parallels between the false prophetess Jezebel and Babylon the Great are so compelling that is becomes very hard to get around the conclusion that she is a present-tense form of Babylon the Great, right smack in the middle of what is, in a number of ways, a faithful church.  Also, if Babylon is held responsible before God for the deaths of all believing martyrs (18:20, 24), then that includes Antipas in 2:13 and, since “apostles” and “all those slaughtered on the earth” are also included, that includes John’s brother, James, who was killed in Acts 12.  (I could continue extrapolating, but this is sufficient to make the point here.)

In my understanding, the unsealing of the scroll from Revelation 6:1-8:1 is also prior to “the Great Tribulation” (7:14).  I base that conclusion primarily on two easily-understood points: 1) in scrolls of the day—and Revelation 5 is referring to a scroll, not a codex (i.e., book)—seals were placed across the outer seam, thus requiring for all the seals to be removed for the contents of the scroll (which may well be the sealed-up scroll of Dan. 12:4, 9)—in this case, the end-times events—to be open for viewing, meaning here that the end-times events could not begin until all seven seals are removed (i.e., the beginning of the trumpet judgments; and 2) the strong parallelism between the seals in Revelation 6 and the section of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse that can be summarized with His wording “the beginning of birth pains” strongly infers that the unsealing sequence is being presented by Christ as, so to speak, “false labor” (technically, Braxton-Hicks early labor contractions) occurring well before the hard labor just before the actual birth of the baby, which, in this case, would the events hard up against the Second Coming of Christ (i.e, the Great Tribulation.

Next, I understand that what is usually referred to as the “rapture” (see 1 Thess. 4:13ff.) of the church—in Revelation, though, it is preferable to think of it as of the “heaven-dwellers, as I will explain momentarily—takes place in 7:9.  There are several reasons I came to that conclusion: 1) 7:9 is the only passage in the book that really has the appearance of what relevant passages of Scripture, notably the Great Commission, lead us to suspect it would look like: a huge throng from “all the nations” (see, e.g., Matt. 28:19; Lk. 24:47; Acts 1:8); 2) the “birth pains” of chapter 6 are now completed; 3) the calming of the winds on earth (Rev. 7:1-3) and the half-hour of silence in heaven (8:1) form a bookends effect that spotlights what is going on in the interlude in chapter 7: the sealing of some of God’s people on earth (7:3-8) and the taking of another group of God’s people to heaven (7:9ff.); and 4) that 7:9ff. is presented as the fulfillment of the Divine promise in 3:10 is seen in the parallel wording in the Greek in the two passages: kago se tereso ek tes horas tou peirasmou (“and I will keep you from/out of the hour of testing” [i.e., the Great Tribulation] vs.  houtoi eisin hoi erchomenoi ek tes thlipseos tes megales (“These are those who come from/out of the Great Tribulation.” The bottom line theologically is that, even though I place the rapture later in the book than traditional pretribulationists, my view is still pretribulational, since I make the case (see above) that the Great Tribulation cannot begin until the trumpet judgments in chapter 8.

Even though what is seen in Revelation is almost certainly the seventieth “week” of Daniel 9:24-27, in my view it is best not to simply drop that construct over the top of the content of the Apocalypse.  That is, at best, borderline eisegesis, even if it is frequently done by otherwise very capable thinkers.  No, it is far better to let the Book of Revelation speak for itself on this issue.  In that regard, five passages in the Apocalypse speak of periods of three and a half years (11:2, 3; 12:6, 14; 13:5) and make the case for a seven-year “Great Tribulation” period.  Of those five, the last three clearly speak of a latter three and a half years, in which the beast is ruling, while the second (11:3) refers to a three and a half year ministry of the two witnesses prior to their death at the hands of the beast (11:7).  These passages cannot be speaking of the same three and a half years because, according to chapter 13, the reign of the beast is unrivaled in public—and the ministry of the two witnesses in chapter 11 is very public! Relatedly, since what is about to begin (the aorist elthen has the same force as it does in the eschatological context in Jude 14) in Revelation 6:16-17 is called “the great day of Their [i.e., of God and the Lamb] wrath,” wording used in several of the Old Testament Prophets for the Day of the Lord, it appears that the Day of the Lord and the Great Tribulation are more closely equated than is often understood.

It is worth speaking here briefly not just to the duration of the Great Tribulation, but also to its purpose.  In Revelation 3:10, it is clearly stated that “the hour of testing that is about to come upon the whole world” (i.e., the Great Tribulation) is “to test those who dwell upon the earth” (i.e., the earth-dwellers” in their first unmistakable mention in the book).  Along with that statement, God’s related promise to the martyrs in 6:10 and the pronouncement of the “woes” in 8:13 makes it clear that the judgment of the “earth-dwellers,” who are seen to be inextricably linked to Babylon the Great in chapters 17 and 18, is the primary purpose of the Great Tribulation.  Other purposes are to fulfill remaining biblical prophecies, including the climatic preaching of the gospel at the end of the age (14:6-7; see Matt. 24:14; 28:19-20), the widespread conversion of the Jews (7:1-8; 11:13; see Ezek. 36-37; Zech. 12:10; Rom. 11:25-26) and the “coming” of the Son of Man (ch. 5; 14:14; see Dan. 7:13; Matt. 24:30), all of which, in one way or another, relate to the completion of the “heaven-dwellers”—the counterpart group to the “earth-dwellers.”

The Second Coming of Christ is literal (see 19:11ff.), as predicted in Acts 1:11, much to the chagrin of full preterists.  What was shaping up to be the Battle of Armageddon, as it is usually referred to (see Rev. 16:16) turns out to be no contest as, to use Luther’s great wording from “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” one little word will fell him” (i.e., the Devil, as well as the beast, the false prophet and the armies of this world—the “earth-dwellers”).

Following that, I do not see any compelling reason to take the wording “1,000 years” (20:2, 3,  4, 5, 6, 7) as other than a precise length of the earthly reign of Christ and His people—with the martyrs having a specially-honored place (20:4).  While the lack of detail for a period of 1,000 years versus the greatly-detailed description of the immediately-preceding Great Tribulation does seem odd, it occurs to me that there will be plenty of time for Christ, who will apparently be on the earth during that time, as He was when He taught extensively in the Gospels, to give any additional revelatory insight needed.  In my understanding, the major reasons 20:1-10 is set up the way it is are: 1) to show how susceptible as yet unglorified humankind is, and always will be, to the deception of the Devil (20:3, 7-10), with the natural explanation being that all unregenerate people are, ultimately, unwitting children of the Devil (Jn. 8:44); 2) to make it clear that God will keep His promise that believers will “\reign on the earth” (5:10, HCSB); and 3) to at least infer that the categories of “heaven-dwellers” and “earth-dwellers” will continue in reality, if not in terminology used, through the 1,000 years.

The eternal state in chapters 21-22 is, without question, portrayed, as “the return to a better Eden.”  For the first time since Genesis 3, there are no longer two peoples walking an earth that was as cursed as its occupants (see 3:16ff.).  The long narrative of Scripture has an incredibly “happy ending” as the “seed of the woman” (see Rom. 16:20)/”saints”/“believers”/ “overcomers”/“heaven-dwellers” will be with the Father God and the Lamb forever and ever, Amen.  There is much to ponder here, but to me the most significant insight is that, even in the midst of what clearly a very united sense of God’s people as the bride of the Lamb (21:2, 9), there are still distinct mentions of Israel and the church (see 21:12, 14).  If nothing else, this appears to infer that, for all eternity, though the people of God will be an overall unity, there will still be some way in which His Old and New Covenant peoples will be recognizably distinct within that overall unity.

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