25 Jun 2024

Remember the rules for interpretation that we mentioned a few posts ago? One of the most important rules to apply is that Scripture should interpret Scripture. It is derived from our belief that the Bible is “God-breathed” and is therefore both inerrant and infallible. I like this definition of inerrant from Ligonier:

Inerrancy means that the Scriptures do not affirm any errors. The Bible does not endorse anything untrue. When it tells history, it tells us what actually happened. It may report on what a person said when he told a lie to someone else, but it does not endorse the lie. It is merely giving an accurate report of what the liar said. Where it speaks to science, it does not contradict God’s revelation in the natural world. In sum, the Bible is entirely truthful and has no errors at all in the original manuscripts that the prophets and Apostles actually wrote. We do not today possess these manuscripts, but through the process of textual criticism, we can recover the original wording of the manuscripts with a high degree of certainty.

It is important to note that inerrancy is not a property unique to Scripture. Human beings regularly make error-free statements. Students score 100 percent on exams; people accurately state their names to others; and so forth. What sets Scripture apart from all else is its infallibility. Infallibility has to do with possibilities, and it means that the Word of God is incapable of erring.1Ligonier (https://www.ligonier.org/) 2024

In a nutshell, inerrant means that something is factually correct, and infallibility means that something cannot contain anything factually incorrect.

When applied to scripture, this means that the original manuscripts do not and can not contain factual errors. Whatever scripture asserts as true and right and good is true and right and good. Whatever scripture asserts as false and wrong and bad is false and wrong and bad, regardless of what it is speaking to. This rule impacts many different aspects of our study of the Bible, but most importantly, it affirms that nothing recorded in the Bible can actually contradict any other thing recorded in the bible. If we come to one passage that seems to contradict another, either we are misreading that passage or we are misinterpreting that passage. When that happens, we need to use another aspect of this rule – using “easier” passages to interpret “harder” passages.

This is important in a study of highly symbolic passages that we are coming to now. We have just worked through a fairly straightforward passage in Scripture that deals with the end of the age – the Olivet Discourse. Since that sermon by Jesus addresses the end of the age and the second coming of Christ, we ought to use it as a filter as we study the other prophetic books that deal with the end. Because of this interpretive rule, if we come across any other passage that seems to teach something contrary to what we read in the Olivet Discourse, then we can do a few different things – we can either:

  • admit that we could be wrong in our understanding of one (or both) of the passages and pray and study (keeping the rule in mind) to correct our misunderstanding
  • gloss over the one that seems to disagree with our understanding and chalk our not wanting to study it to “mystery”
  • force our understanding onto the passage that we take issue with to make the two agree by whatever means necessary

There is, of course, only one correct answer to the problem – we must strive to correct our understanding because we know that Scripture will not contradict itself, ever. Because we are all seeking to understand what the Bible is saying, perhaps the hardest part of our job is trying to figure out which passages should be used to interpret other passages, especially since by its very nature, symbolic literature can be easily misinterpreted. A perfect example of this is from Revelation 12:

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. 5She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 6and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. (Revelation 12:1–6 ESV)

In this passage, many (but not all) Roman Catholics say that this passage is about Mary giving birth to Jesus and because of that, it also shows Mary ascending to the position of “queen of heaven.” At first glance, this passage describing Mary seems to fit. However, given their view of Mary as sinless and ever virgin, it cannot be her because though this passage contains many descriptions that may sound like references to Mary, it also mentions her being afflicted with birth pains (which is a curse of the fall, of which she should be immune if she were truly sinless as they must believe) and Revelation 12:17 says:

Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea. (Revelation 12:17 ESV)

The Roman Catholic church has no place for Mary having other children. There are some Roman Catholics though who see this passage as Protestants would – that the woman of Revelation 12 is the church, clothed with the gospel, with the 12 apostles as the original preachers. The “male child” she is birthing is a picture of all of the people who have been born again by the Holy Spirit through the gospel message, and these are persecuted by Satan and his demons.

Truth be told, it is easy to see Mary in this vision, but it is not the correct way to read this passage. We must be careful and consistent and apply the whole bible when we study any part of it. But even though a Protestant tradition helps us see past the erroneous symbol of Mary and more easily accept an interpretation that is closer to the truth, we need to make sure that that same tradition does not get in the way. Every religion has traditions which begs the question – sometimes our traditions lead us to truth, but how many times do our traditions lead us astray?

That reminder and warning should help us as we continue with this post!

It is impossible to discuss the book of Revelation in any depth in one blog post so consider this a brief crash course into some of the things about Revelation that impact how we view the end times. As we have seen before, many people equate “end times” with Revelation, even to the extent that a study of “the end times” is seen as a study of the book of Revelation. But this view of the book of Revelation is flawed – as we have already seen in this study, there are other passages in Scripture we can read to get a pretty clear understanding of the end times, and reading Revelation by itself will leave many questions unanswered. This is why it is vital to see Scripture as a whole book that tells one story, not 66 separate books put together, all telling different but similar stories.

The structure of Revelation

The book of Revelation starts with an introduction in chapter 1, followed by letters to the seven churches in Asia in chapters 2-3. Though those letters were not written directly to us, in a way, they kind of are. Just like we can read 1 Corinthians to gain guidance and truth for our belief and practice today, we ought to take the exhortations given in these letters to heart for our belief and practice today as well. In these letters, Jesus points out some strengths and weaknesses of these churches that sound eerily familiar to us. It would do us good to consider these warnings and exhortations as Jesus speaking to us right now.

After the addresses to the seven churches, there is a series of heavenly visions in chapters 4-22 which make up the main body of the book. “The main portion of the book consists of seven cycles, each leading to a description of the Second Coming.”2Characteristics and Themes, New Geneva Study Bible (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), page 2005 These cycles are as follows.3Outline of Revelation, New Geneva Study Bible (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), pages 2006-200

  • Cycle 1 – The Scroll and its Seven Seals (Rev 4:1-8:1)
  • Cycle 2 – Seven Angels and Seven Trumpets (Rev 8:2-11:19)
  • Cycle 3 – Seven Symbolic Histories (Rev 12-14)
  • Cycle 4 – Seven Bowls of God’s Wrath from the Temple (Rev 15-16)
  • Cycle 5 – Judgment on Babylon and Vindication of the Church (Rev 17:1-19:10)
  • Cycle 6 – The Final Battle (Rev 19:11-21)
  • Cycle 7 – The Reign of the Saints and the Last Judgment (Rev 20:1-21:8)

… all capped with a final vision – the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:1-22:5)!

Each of those seven cycles ends with a description of the second coming and a final judgment.

So how can there be that many second comings and ends of the world?

There can’t be.

This is why many people believe that these cycles are neither sequential nor describe different events. Some believe these cycles describe the same event, namely the final battle between God and Satan, but told over and over again from a different perspective each time. Some believe that these cycles describe different events but not necessarily in the order in which John writes about them, and the final judgments and second comings aren’t really final or second. No matter what you believe about these events, we clearly see that each cycle describes things with greater intensity. The later cycles begin to focus on the more intense phases of the final battle judgment and second coming. And this is still possible if they are describing the same event.

Imagine a car crash. Imagine you saw the whole thing in a kind of slow motion that is so common regarding things like this. Imagine you saw all the gory details of the family that was killed in the accident. Imagine who you are trying to describe it to. Would you describe it differently to your children than a close friend of yours to whom you are asking for prayer because it was so traumatic to watch? You are describing the same event each time, but you are describing it from different perspectives. Now put yourself in the place of the driver of each car. Of the police officers. The EMTs.

None of those would look the same, and yet they are all describing the same event.

Now, put them all together into one account of the accident and read it like a book. You might ask yourself, “wait, I thought there was only one crash, not 5” and you’d be right. But if you read it as a chronological account, you may well come away with the idea that there were five crashes because in the book you are reading, each perspective is written as a few chapters in the middle.

But regardless of what you believe about these cycles in Revelation (I personally believe that they describe the same event shown from different perspectives), they demonstrate that Revelation has an intentional structure to it. What a person believes about the book of Revelation and how it describes the end times is greatly affected by how we see the structure of the book and the cycles found in it, which is a result of the hermeneutic we use when we approach the text. Though it is all over Revelation, this pattern is very obvious in the first three cycles – the seals, trumpets, and bowls.

Seals

The first cycle we find in Revelation is the opening of the seven seals on a scroll which represents the secret works of God that will be revealed.

Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. 2And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, 4and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Revelation 5:1–5 ESV)

In summary, the seals are as follows:

  • Seal 1 – The White Horse (rider with a bow, conqueror)
  • Seal 2 – The Red Horse (rider with a sword, war)
  • Seal 3 – The Black Horse (rider with scales, balance, injustice)
  • Seal 4 – The Pale Horse (rider with no weapon, death)
  • Seal 5 – Martyrs under the altar asking God “How long?”
  • Seal 6 – Earthquake, sun turns black, moon turns red, stars fall, all fear
  • Seal 7 – silence in heaven, prayers of the saints answered

The removal of the seals from the scroll signifies Christ revealing the plans of God both throughout history and at the end. They also show how God uses evil agents (the horsemen) purposefully and intentionally to bring about His desired goal. We also see the beginning of a pattern that is repeated in the trumpets and bowls, that pattern being four catastrophes, some tribulation, a final event, and then the end.

Trumpets

The second cycle shows us the seven angels with the seven trumpets.

When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. 3And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, 4and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. 5Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. (Revelation 8:1–5 ESV)

A key to understanding the trumpets lies in verse 3 – an angel brings the prayers of the saints. What could they be praying for? Given that the trumpets show how God punishes the wicked who remain unrepentant, I can imagine that the prayers of the saints echo the voices of the martyrs under the altar – “How long? How long will you stay judgment?” I wonder if those prayers are those voices, and that altar is the altar under which the martyrs are? In summary, the trumpets are as follows:

  • Trumpet 1 – hail, fire, blood, ⅓ of earth burned up
  • Trumpet 2 – fiery mountain into the sea, ⅓ of sea to blood
  • Trumpet 3 – star Wormwood falls on ⅓ of rivers, poison water
  • Trumpet 4 – ⅓ of sun, moon, and stars struck
  • Trumpet 5 – star falls, key to the pit, demonic locusts from the pit
  • Trumpet 6 – four angels released, 200 million demon army from Euphrates
  • Trumpet 7 – the end is announced

These trumpets announce the judgments that come upon the kingdoms of the earth in response to the prayers of the saints. Also notice the pattern – four catastrophes, tribulation, a final event, and then the end.

Bowls

In the final pattern of tribulation, we find the bowl judgments.

Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished. (Revelation 15:1 ESV)

Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.” (Revelation 16:1 ESV)

In summary, the bowls are as follows:

  • Bowl 1 – harmful/painful sores
  • Bowl 2 – sea to blood, all living sea creatures die
  • Bowl 3 – rivers to blood
  • Bowl 4 – sun scorches people
  • Bowl 5 – kingdom of the beast plunged into darkness
  • Bowl 6 – Euphrates dries up to prepare the way for kings of the east to assemble at Armageddon
  • Bowl 7 – “It is done”, Babylon destroyed

I like how Greg Beale describes the bowls and their being “last” in the list of woes.

The bowls are ‘last’ in order of presentation of the visions ‘because in them has been completed the wrath of God.’ The bowls compliment and round out the portrayal of divine wrath in the seals and trumpets. It is this fuller presentation of punishment in the bowls that it can be said that God’s wrath has been ‘completely expressed.’4Greg Beale, The Book of Revelation (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), page 788

Notice again the pattern – four catastrophes, tribulation, a final event, and then the end.

Also notice that the trumpets and bowls present the plagues in the same order each with 7 angels executing the judgments – striking the earth, sea, rivers, sun, the wicked, the Euphrates, and the world with final judgment (even with the same imagery of lightning, thunder, earthquakes.) Remembering the plagues brought upon Egypt, the parallels here cannot be denied.

Parallelism

It is repeating patterns, similar verses, the repetition of the end, cycles that point to the Second Coming multiple times, multiple final judgments, and so forth, that lead me and others to believe that the book of Revelation is not so much a description of successive events that occur at the end, but rather, descriptions of events (from varying perspectives) that have been occurring throughout history leading up to the end.

One thing that must be considered is that we have seen descriptions of the final judgment/battle/destruction three times in the seals, trumpets, and bowls, and we still have 7 chapters of Revelation left! What does that tell you about how we should interpret the remainder of the book, a remainder which includes events such as Babylon’s judgment, the final battle, the reign of the saints, another last judgment, and the new Jerusalem?

Another thing that must be considered is the repetitive nature and parallelism that is found throughout the entire book. In this post, we have really seen only three, but there are more, as many as seven, that repeat similar patterns. Could it be that our traditions have blinded us to this structure? What if vast sections of Revelation are really the same thing told from various perspectives?

There are also many literary devices known as chiastic structures found in Revelation. One overarching one covers the entire book and looks like this outline:5Greg Beale, The Book of Revelation (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), page 131

 

Prologue (A) (Rev 1:1-8)

Vision (B) (Rev 1:9-3:21)

Seals (C) (Rev 4:1-8:1)

· Prelude (Rev 4:1-5:14)

· Vision (Rev 6:1-17; 8:1)

· Interlude (Rev 7)

Seven Trumpets (D) ( Rev 8:2-11:18)

· Prelude (Rev 8:2-6)

· Vision (Rev 8:7-9:21; 11:14-18)

· Interlude (Rev 10:1-11:13)

War of the Ages (E) (Rev 11:19-14:20)

· Prelude (Rev 11:19)

· Vision (Rev 12:1-13:18)

· Interlude (Rev 14)

Seven Bowls (D’) (Rev 15:1-19:10)

· Prelude (Rev 15)

· Vision (Rev 16)

· Interlude (Rev 17:1-19:10)

The world’s final judgment (C’) (Rev 19:11-21:8)

· Prelude (Rev 19:11-16)

· Vision (Rev 19:17-20:15)

· Interlude (Rev 21:1-8)

Vision (B’) (Rev 21:9-22:5)

Epilogue (A’) (Rev 22:6-21

 

In that outline, the capital letters (A, B, C, D) are associated with capital letters noted with an apostrophe (D’, C’, B’, A’) such that A and A’ “go together”, as do B and B’, C and C’, and D and D’. The section noted with an E is in the middle and has no complement. It’s neat to see this laid out on a wider page, where these descriptions can be read with the headings, but here are the descriptions that don’t fit neatly in that outline on a phone.

  • Prologue (A) describes the imminence of faithful witnesses coming with covenant sanctions.
  • Vision (B) describes the imperfect church in the world and the promised salvation for perseverance.
  • Seals (C) describe the already/not yet judgments of the world.
    • Prelude (conquering lamb/lion on heaven’s throne)
    • Vision (opening of the book, horsemen)
    • Interlude (saints protected, receiving final salvation)
  • Seven Trumpets (D) describe the judgments on the ungodly and great city
    • Prelude (heavenly commissioning of seven angels)
    • Vision (sounding of the trumpets of judgment)
    • Interlude (witnessing church vs. persecuting world)
  • War of the Ages (E)
    • Prelude (ark of the covenant in heaven)
    • Vision (dragon and beasts vs. heavenly woman, her child, and the saints)
    • Interlude (covenant sanctions involving judgment, though blessing is included)
  • Seven Bowls (D’) describe the judgments on the ungodly world and great city
    • Prelude (heavenly commissioning of seven angels)
    • Vision (bowls of judgment poured out)
    • Interlude (world as an ungodly prostitute vs. the church as a faithful bride)
  • The world’s final judgment (C’) describes the final judgment of the world
    • Prelude (conquering Messiah and His army)
    • Vision (messianic horseman judges ungodly horsemen, judgment of Satan, opening books for judgment)
    • Interlude (lamb’s bride adorned for her divine husband)
  • Vision (B’) describes the perfected church in glory having received the promised salvation
  • Epilogue (A’) describes the imminence of Christ’s coming attested to by the faithful witness

In that outline, look at the descriptions – B describes the imperfect church in the world and the promised salvation for perseverance and B’ describes the perfected church in glory having received the promised salvation. They compliment each other almost perfectly. If this structure is valid, we should expect to see it in action. Here is a small example with the B and B’ from the above that shows how the letters to the seven churches and the consummation are intimately related.6Greg Beale, The Book of Revelation (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), page 134

B B’
False prophets (Rev 2:2) True apostles (Rev 21:14)
False Jews (Rev 2:9; 3:9) Tribes of true Israel (Rev 21:12)
Christians dwell where Satan’s throne is (Rev 2:13) Christians dwell where God’s throne is (Rev 22:1)
Some in the church are dead (Rev 3:1) All in New Jerusalem are alive (Rev 21:27)
The church is a temporal lampstand (Rev 1:20; 2:5) God and Lamb are eternal lamps (Rev 21:23-24; 22:5)
Church filled with impurities (Rev 2:9, 14-15, 20; 3:9) New creation has no impurities (Rev 21:8, 27)
Christians face persecution, hoping in God’s promise to overcome (Rev 2:8-10, 13) Christians reign having inherited the promises (Rev 2:7, 22:2; 2:17, 22:4; 3:5,  21:27; 3:12; 21:10, 22:4; 3:21; 22:1, 22:5)

There is so much to consider when reading Revelation it’s almost overwhelming! Fortunately, Revelation is structured rather elegantly and when we look at it in an outline form, patterns and structures are revealed that we cannot see if we simply pick it up and start reading it. People spend their entire lives trying to unravel this book and find fulfillment of the prophecies it contains by reading the newspaper or watching TV, and miss its major message because of it!

Victory.

Revelation is about victory!

And preservation, and glory, and eternity, and inheritance, and the goodness of God, and His might and perfection, and worship, and marriage, and homecoming, and consummation.

The more I study this book, the more I am convinced that using it to unravel the future is a misapplication of the text. We are given so many visions from a heavenly perspective, and so many examples of God’s glory and dominion and power, that we ought to be awed by God’s majesty rather than be confused because we are looking for the antichrist in the EU or UN and can’t find him. We should be comforted that God has sealed us and our names are written in the Book of Life, but instead, we worry about whether or not we’ll be raptured away from tribulation even though the bible is pretty clear we’ll suffer through it. We get sidetracked by microchips and marks of the beast (I wrote this to address that), red heifers being born, and people trying to rebuild the temple, and we freak out because we are more concerned with figuring out something that only the Father knows and we get sidetracked and distracted from the mission God has put us on when He adopted us.

We read Revelation and become fearful and anxious.

Because we forget that Jesus is on His throne, that He has already won, that He upholds the universe by the word of His power, that there is no more sacrifice for sins, that it is finished!

That Jesus.Is.On.His.Throne.

That He.Has.Already.Won.

That It.Is.Finished.

We should be doing the works He created for us before the foundation of the world regardless if the end is in one hour or 1000 years from now. Honestly, it makes no difference in how we should live or how anxious we get about tomorrow. Unless of course, you would live somehow differently if you knew Jesus wasn’t coming back for 1000 years?

… but that sounds like an obedience problem to me.

Or maybe you’d live differently if you knew He was coming back in 5 hours?

… but that sounds like a worship problem to me.

Or you can’t stand not knowing and it drives you crazy when you see war in Gaza or some bar code or some red heifer?

… but that sounds like a pride problem to me.

All of which stem from varying degrees of a lack of faith.

I am convinced that the blessing we are promised by reading and understanding Revelation is not at all related to figuring out what the future holds so we can somehow be “more secure”, but rather, it is that by understanding this book we will begin to understand just how mighty our God is and how much He cares for and protects His own. So much so that He will destroy and recreate heaven and earth for our good and His glory.

Knowing all of that should put to death fear, anxiety, pride, and every other thing that prevents us from seeing what this book is truly about and help us to remember that He who holds the future holds us too!

And who could ask for a better blessing than that?

  • 1
    Ligonier (https://www.ligonier.org/) 2024
  • 2
    Characteristics and Themes, New Geneva Study Bible (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), page 2005
  • 3
    Outline of Revelation, New Geneva Study Bible (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), pages 2006-200
  • 4
    Greg Beale, The Book of Revelation (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), page 788
  • 5
    Greg Beale, The Book of Revelation (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), page 131
  • 6
    Greg Beale, The Book of Revelation (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), page 134

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