May 7, 2022 - Latter-day Prophecy in Revelation

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As we continue our series on Latter-day Prophecy, today we’re going to take a deeper look at future prophecy in the book of Revelation. Revelation had a lot to say to people back when it was written about current and recent events in the 1st century Roman Empire, and about how to resist the emperor’s demands for worship. But Revelation also had a lot to say about the distant future, including events that have not yet taken place, events that we are still waiting to see happen. Avoid any approach to Revelation that treats it like a time capsule that can only be understood by us, but has very little to say to the people to whom it was first written.

 

God has not given us a detailed road map of the future here; God has given us clues. How much can we learn from those clues? Let’s take a look at this revelation from God, and as we do so, let’s be careful about treating any tentative conclusions we might draw as doctrines we must believe.

 

Revelation was written by John the apostle in the late 90’s AD, after he was released from a prison camp on the Greek island of Patmos. Revelation begins with a picture of Jesus (the only picture of Jesus in the Bible), a picture that blows John away (no Roman emperor can do that). Next, John attaches 7 letters from Jesus to churches in the province of Asia (western Turkey). While some have taught that each of these letters represents an age of church history, a better approach is to treat these 7 churches as examples of different kinds of local congregations. How much are we like Thyatira? How much are we like Philadelphia? How much are we like Laodicea? We may decide our local church looks like several of them. If so, Jesus has a word for us in each case.

 

Revelation chapter 4 gives us a vision of the throne of God, a vision that shows us who’s really on the throne above the clouds, while a hostile Roman emperor seems to be in charge down on earth. Believers at this time need these visions to give them courage. (By the way, in this vision of God, we get none of the details we saw in our vision of Jesus: we see no head, arms, or legs. All John says is that the One on the throne looked like red, clear jasper stone.)

 

A large part of the book of Revelation is visions of plagues coming to us in series of 7: we have 7 sealed sections on a scroll, 7 trumpets, and 7 bowls of wrath. The seals, the trumpets, and the bowls of wrath all seem to overlap and repeat each other. The 6th and 7th items in each series are the same, and some of the other plagues get amplified from ¼ to 1/3 to all the earth in some cases. One important question is: Who are these plagues for? Were they threats against the ancient Roman Empire that were either withdrawn or reduced when Rome surrendered to Christ? Or are these plagues part of the suffering involved in the Great Tribulation?

 

Here is where we must try not to be dogmatic, but I would not be surprised if plagues like radical global warming, and nuclear war or collision with an asteroid, become some of the fulfillments of these plagues. In particular, the sky rolling up like a scroll and stars falling from the sky sound like one of these global scale disasters. Other Jewish apocalypses from the time of Revelation use similar language (blood, fire, darkened sky) to describe the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, which they see as God’s judgment on Rome for destroying Jerusalem.

 

The locusts we see in the 7 trumpets series appear to be demons, although Hal Lindsey has suggested they are attack helicopters, with wings whose noise is like many chariots, and with stingers in their tails. We also have the army of 200 million from the East (more than the entire population of the planet in John’s day), with horses the color of fire and sapphire and sulfur, with fire and smoke coming out of their mouths, and power in both their mouths and their tails. Are these modern tanks, or are they supernatural visions? God has not told us, so we have no grounds for doctrine here. But one surprise in chapter 7 is that during the Great Tribulation, more people come to Christ than anyone can count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, led to Christ by 144,000 Jewish followers of Jesus.

 

Chapter 11 appears to be a future event near the end of time, because nothing like this has happened up till now: 2 witnesses with supernatural power who preach in Jerusalem for 1260 days (3½ years) until the future Beast puts them to death, but then after 3½ days they rise from the dead and rise to heaven, the city is leveled by an earthquake, and survivors give glory to God. Who are these witnesses? By their miracles, they look like Moses and Elijah, but early Christians have said these are Enoch and Elijah. Nothing here rises to the level of doctrine, but this event appears to be future.

 

In chapter 12, we have a woman clothed with the sun, wearing a crown with 12 stars. She appears to be Israel (the part that believes), because her children are the Messiah and Gentile Christians. Here we appear to have a vision that has already been fulfilled: the dragon tries to devour her child, the woman escapes into the wilderness (which appears to be the Jewish church fleeing to Jordan before Jerusalem is destroyed), and the dragon then makes war on the rest of us by sending the Beast. It looks like the only part of this vision that may be also partly in the future is that we who are alive in the last days will also have to deal with a Beast.

 

The Beast in Revelation 13 looks a lot like the Roman emperor of John’s day. The emperors called themselves blasphemous names: Lord, God, and Savior. They ruled the whole civilized world (at least to the Parthian border), and people worshipped them and said, “Who is like the emperor, and who can make war on him?” Verse 8 says “all will worship him,” meaning that we’re not talking about the emperor in John’s day, but some future leader. The emperor in John’s day requires everyone to have proof that they have worshiped him in order to buy and sell. God’s message to us is that the Lawless One who will come someday will be like him.

 

But one curious detail here is that this beast has a mortal head wound that has healed, meaning that he has risen from the dead. Who can this be? There was a belief in John’s day that one Roman emperor would return from the dead. The early Christian martyr Victorinus says that Nero is the wounded head. After Nero died, there was a persistent rumor that Nero would rise from the dead and come back with an army of Parthians from Iran to destroy Rome.

 

The number of the Beast may be a clue for us. People in Roman times used a standard formula for converting names into numbers. As for the number and whose name it symbolizes, there’s a whole junkyard full of suggestions. It must be a name that John’s readers would have recognized. There is a name whose letters total up to 666 in Greek and 616 in Latin (as a few copies read). That name is Nero Caesar. If I am correct (and this is not doctrine), what we learn here is that the future world ruler predicted here will be a second Nero.

 

Revelation’s Beast rules for 42 months (3½ years). We keep hearing the figure 3½ years. Is this how long the Great Tribulation at the end of time will last? Many prophecy students (going all the way back to Irenaeus in the 2nd century AD) put 2 of these periods together to make a 7 year tribulation. But God has not given us that as doctrine. 3½ years is a period of intense terror. We find at least 4 such periods in Biblical history: the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes in the time of the Maccabees (when the Temple is defiled), the rule of Gaius Caligula (37-40 AD), the period where Nero persecutes Christians (64-68 AD), and the Jewish war of 66-70 AD. So we may be talking about either a 3½ year or 7 year tribulation at the end of time.

 

What about the great harlot in chapter 17 with the name on her headband Babylon the Great? The last line of that chapter reads, “And the woman that thou sawest is that great city which reigneth over the kings of the earth.” So Revelation clearly tells us that the harlot is Rome. What is not clear is whether this means the Rome of John’s day, or a future Rome, the capital of a future Roman Empire which could be headquartered in Rome, Brussels, or even New York. Either is possible; neither should be considered doctrine.

 

But we should be careful not to equate the 10 kings who reign with the Beast in this chapter with the European Union. If we do that, which 10 nations do we count? The number in the EU keeps changing. Plus, people in John’s day would have seen these 10 kings as kingdoms allied with Rome, such as Armenia and Nabatea. But notice that these kings have “received no kingdom as yet,” which could mean that the whole vision is for far beyond John’s day.

 

Now, John says the 7 heads of the Beast on which the woman sits are 7 hills (obviously Rome). But he says they are also 7 kings: “5 have fallen, one is, and the other is not yet come.” Who are these 7 kings? One option would be 7 kingdoms, which might be Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, and the future kingdom of the Beast. The problem with this option is that the beast itself is an 8th king. So are they all kingdoms, or all they all individual kings? Another approach would be that these are 7 Roman emperors. This fits with the idea that the Antichrist is a second or resurrected Nero: he’d be an eighth king, but he’d belong to the seven. The problem here is that we have no idea which 7 emperors John meant, or how they were being counted. Do we start with Augustus, or Julius? I like what Richard Bauckham says: it doesn’t matter who the first 5 are. He thinks 7 was a symbol for them all.

 

The harlot is called “Babylon” as a code name for Rome (both had destroyed the Temple and the Holy City). Chapter 18 describes how Rome was the rich consumer hog that devoured the resources of the entire world. But here the merchants who got rich off her mourn the fall of Rome. The question here, which also applies to the plagues, is: was the fall of Rome literally fulfilled? Was the conquest by Attila the Hun a mere sacking of the city, or was it a huge slaughter? Was the fall of Rome symbolically fulfilled? Will it be fulfilled in the future, maybe a second time? Or were these visions that God could soften or cancel (like the overthrow of Nineveh) if Rome surrenders to Christ, which to some extent it did? I am open to any approach that is consistent with the reliability of God’s word. God gives us clues here, not doctrine.

 

Revelation also speaks of a great final battle at a place called Har-Mageddon, which means “Mount of Megiddo,” which points us to the wide valley stretching from Haifa to the Jordan Valley. Revelation’s 6th trumpet and 6th bowl of wrath both speak of a huge slaughter, as much as 1/3 of humankind. They also predict an army of 200 million from east of the Euphrates. There were nowhere near 200 million people on earth in John’s day. John’s audience probably saw the kings of the East as the Parthians of ancient Iran (whom Rome could never conquer), but these kings look a lot like China to us. (We’re not talking doctrine here, just clues.)

 

Revelation clearly teaches the literal return of Christ. This is doctrine. The debatable question is whether his coming will be immediately followed by the final judgment, or by a 1000 year earthly rule of Christ before that final judgment. Here God has not spoken clearly enough to give us doctrine we can be absolutely sure of. The view that there will be a 1000 year reign of Christ before the judgment is called the Pre-millennial view. The view that the Millennium is a symbol for the fact that Christ is on the throne right now in heaven is called the a-millennial view (I prefer to call it the “symbolic millennium” view). In 150 AD, Justin Martyr tells us that he and a lot of his fellow believers believed in a 1000 year earthly reign of Christ before the final judgment, but he admits that not all of his fellow believers believed that way.

 

Which theory we lean towards will hinge partly on how we understand the binding of Satan at the start of this period. Does anyone feel like Satan has been bound? If so, he must be on a long chain. But one could respond, compared to what? If we think it’s bad now, are we sure it would not get far worse if God removes all restraints that keep the world from becoming as bad as it can be? It can be argued that Satan was bound by what Jesus did on the cross. Paul speaks of the restraint that keeps the Lawless One from being released, as if it was already in place. But is Satan restrained from “deceiving the nations”? 2 Thessalonians says yes, Satan is bound right now. (We’ll talk about that in our upcoming program on prophecy in Paul.)

 

The timing of Gog’s final attack is an important issue to consider. If the 1000 year earthly reign of Christ comes before the final judgment, we get 2 attacks of Gog, or 2 Armageddons, with the second one (at the end of the Millennium) being hard to explain. While I’ve always been biased in favor of the Pre-millennial view, I think it is easier to believe that there is only one final battle, followed by the resurrection and final judgment, and that the 1000 year reign of Christ is going on right now in heaven, and has been twice as long as a literal 1000 years.

 

Revelation 20:11 gives us one of the most powerful pictures of God anywhere in the Bible: “Then I saw a great white throne and the One who sat on it, from whose presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them [to flee to].” This does not sound like an exalted man on this throne. Both the living and the dead (who shall all be resurrected) shall appear before this throne to be judged.

 

We are told in Revelation 20 that there will be 2 sets of books. First, we will be judged by what is written in the first set of books, by what we have done. It will be the equivalent of 10 billion Ken Starr reports. All of us will flunk the test. But then a second book will be opened, the Lamb’s Book of Life. This book contains the names of those who have placed their faith in what Christ has done to take away our sins and put us right with God.

 

We are told that whoever’s name was not found in the Book of Life shall be thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, Revelation’s image of hell. Revelation never uses the word hell (Jesus is the One who speaks of hell, more than anyone else in the Bible), neither does Revelation take any space to describe hell in detail; it simply calls hell the second death, the place where the devil and his angels will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

 

But right after the lake of fire, Revelation has plenty to say about heaven! It uses both straightforward and symbolic language. First, Revelation 21 says that John saw a new heaven and a new earth, as predicted in Isaiah 65. It won’t be the same place; it will be new and improved. God will pitch his tent with us and be more present than God ever was before. We are also told clearly that God will wipe away all tears from our eyes, and “death shall be no more, neither shall there be sorrow nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away. And the One seated on the throne said, Behold, I make all things new!”

 

At the same time, John says he sees the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It is 144 miles cubed, bigger than any holy city in Ezekiel, the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the Talmud. And while other Jewish writings speak of gates of pearl and precious stones in the walls, only Revelation has a city made of solid gold, clear as glass, a substance beyond our experience that can only be described symbolically. There is no Temple there, because John says “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it.” And there shall be no night, and no need for sun or moon, because the glory of God and the Lamb are its light.

 

So what do we learn from the book of Revelation that we can count on as doctrine? We definitely find a great final period of suffering. We find a world ruler who demands worship, portrayed as a second Nero. We find a great final battle, the literal return of Christ, final judgment, eternal hell and eternal heaven. The rest of the details are not as clear, but are still God’s word to us to hear them as the Holy Ghost gives us ears to hear. But wherever God has not clearly spoken on what those details mean, we must not teach our beliefs as doctrine.

 

If Revelation sounds too bizarre or scary for you, don’t just take Revelation’s word for it about the end times. Next time, we’ll see how Jesus says much the same as Revelation does. If you reject the book of Revelation, like some of the early church did, you still have to reckon with the words of Jesus, plus Paul and the OT prophets. So join us as we take a closer look at what we learn about the future from Jesus next time on Biblical Words and World!

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