Mud on the Wall: Brainstorming the Apocalypse (XCIV)

September 1, 2010

I’ve finally arrived at the one remaining major building block of the theology of the Book of Revelation I have not treated separately: what has historically been called “ecclesiology” (i.e., the doctrine of the church).  I must admit up-front that I am hesitant to use this terminology, though, because the uses of the word “church” (Gk. ekklesia) in Revelation are limited to chapters 1-3 and the conclusion of the book.

Now, within dispensational circles, this pattern of usage has been utilized as an (often central) argument that the rapture of the church must take place immediately after chapter 3, given the supposed “loud silence” regarding ekklesia in the rest of the body of the book.  However, that perspective is, at best, oversimplified.

Why do I say that?  Well, I learned from my research in the area of the Great Commission that, just because the key term “disciple” is not used anywhere after Acts 21 in the New Testament does not mean that the apostles and the church had forgotten or were disobeying Christ’s command to “make disciples of all the nations… even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19, 20).  No, it was simply that the terminology used in the latter part of the New Testament changed.  The ideas were still there, just in different wording.

I would suggest that something similar happens in Revelation.  Since nowhere is “the church” said to be taken up into heaven, as I argued in the last post on eschatology, the logical thing to do is to find the passage that looks most like what other key New Testament passages would lead a reader to expect things to look like when “the rapture” takes place.  And, the only passage in which a huge number of people (actually, “innumerable”) ascends to heaven, some of whom are apparently still alive, is in 7:9ff.  That group is said to come from “every nation, tribe, people and language” (HCSB), which immediately calls to mind key relevant passages like Daniel 7:14 and Matthew 28:19.

Should we be shocked if the familiar “church” terminology is not present in most of Revelation?  I don’t think we should be at all.

Here’s a couple of reasons why: 1) Though the book of Revelation is addressed to “the seven churches in Asia (Minor),” it actually is aimed at the response of individual “overcomers” in those congregations, not just broadly to each assembly.  That being the case, though the book would be read in each local church, it was up to each individual as to whether they would “hear and heed” its message (Rev. 1:3; 22:7); and 2) Since the Apocalypse has more of the feel of an Old Testament prophecy, like Daniel, and ekklesia, while not rare in the O.T.  (i.e., it’s found a little over 75 times), it does not have the same significance in a Book of Revelation as it would in, say, one of Paul’s letters to a predominantly Gentile church, reflecting only the issues of that group.

In answer to the fairly obvious question, “If the church is raptured in Revelation 7, wouldn’t that mean that there is no more “church” on the earth?”, you may be surprised to find out that I think the question must be answered Yes and No.

The answer would be Yes, if the church is narrowly defined as “the body of Christ,” which began on the Day of Pentecost and is characterized by the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-17).  However, if, as seen a number of places in Acts, “the church” is interchangeable with such terminology as “disciples,” “believers” and “saints,” then a case can definitely be made that something very much like the church is still around, given that, like disciples in the Gospels, the 144,000 are said to “follow” (Gk. akoloutheo) the Lamb wherever he goes and “saints”—one of Paul’s favorite words for members of the churches he wrote—is found a number of times throughout the book after the rapture (e.g., Rev. 13:7; 14:12; 15:6; 17:6, etc.).  In addition, besides the large number of Jews converted in 11:13, who are then pictured as the “woman” protected in the wilderness (12:6, 13-16), apparently there is a similar response from Gentiles (“the rest of her offspring” [12:17], wording similar to Jesus’ “other sheep who are not of this fold” [John 10:16]), not to mention the group of martyrs standing on the sea of glass in heaven in Revelation 15:1ff., who have clearly responded to “the eternal gospel” (15:2-4; see 14:6-7).

The other three aspects of what is more or less unique about Revelation in regard to what it teaches about God’s people are: 1) since the bride of the Lamb in 19:7-8 is apparently another image for the innumerable multitude just seen as a choir (19:1ff.), the same group that came to heaven in the rapture in 7:9ff., it is certainly possible that the bride there is “the body of Christ.”  However, when the same image is seen in 21:2, 9ff., as far as I can see, it is impossible that, in that context, the bride is less than the whole people of God: all “the heaven-dwellers” of all times.  With that in mind, given that believers of all previous ages (see Heb. 11) will be raptured along with “the body of Christ,” it also seems increasingly unlikely to me that they can be excluded from the bride in chapter 19, especially given that wife/bride is used for Israel, also; 2) when the dust settles, there are only two kind of people in Revelation: the “earth-dwellers,” who are the non-elect (see 13:8; 17:8)  and the “heaven-dwellers,” who are the elect (see 17:14). What is particularly interesting about that observation, though, is that, within the churches addressed in chapters 2-3 are groups (e.g., the Nicolaitans, those following the teaching of Balaam and those following “Jezebel,” the false prophetess) who appear to prefigure (or are a first-century A.D. form of) Babylon the Great.  If this understanding is correct, then the reader is being given the “insider information” necessary to be able to view those churches as bring made up of those who exemplify the teaching of the parables of the sower, seeds and soils and of the wheat and the tares (i.e., mixed multitudes [some saved, some not] spiritually); and 3) yet, as the reader moves through the book, there are numerous reminders encountered of the differences between Jews and Gentiles, all the way down to the gates and foundations of the eternal city (see 21:12, 14).  Apparent bottom line: while, overall, there is, and will be eternally, only one overall people of God, there is/will still be some secondary Jewish and Gentile distinctiveness forever and forever, Amen.

At the end of the day, the “ecclesiology” of the Book of Revelation is very different from that seen in most of the other books of the New Covenant.  Yet, the unique material we encounter in the Apocalypse is just exactly what is needed to wrap up what the biblical canon has to say about the people of God, and how we will get from the local churches we are part of today to being the eternal bride of the Lamb.

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