Let the Word Speak!

Preparation for the Visions

Thought questions

While the letters to the churches provide substantial, clear wisdom to apply to our lives and our churches, the rest of Revelation is more difficult to interpret. This difficulty is compounded by preconceptions of Revelation and the wide range of interpretations taught about revelation. To help focus us on our preconceptions, here are a list of thought questions:

  • What does God expect me to know about the end time?
  • What does God want me to do with these stories about the end time?
  • How much of Revelation do I believe must be fact instead of imagery? How much of it was written in code to fool the Roman censors?
  • What do I believe about how God’s promises to the nation of Israel apply today?
  • What do I believe about a literal Satan and a literal Hell?
  • What do I believe about God’s wrath towards unrepentant sinners?

Key Challenges

The importance of the “so what” test

My starting point for Bible study is that it must be relevant to changing our lives today. In other words, for every piece of information, you, the reader, should ask “so what?” If there isn’t a good answer to this harsh question, then the information has no worth. As an aside, I heard that Michael W. Smith, the contemporary Christian performer and composer, recently decided to apply a similar tough test to all music he records from now on – if it won’t change people’s lives, he won’t record it.

I will be presenting Revelation in the way I think is the most like how the book was written for its first Century audience. I believe the message sent to those early believers – that of human weakness and God’s all-powerful faithfulness – is powerful and intensely relevant for modern churches. That means I won’t spend much effort on other interpretations of Revelation, like those that seek to match today’s events to ancient passages.

However, my “so what” test for Bible Study encourages consideration of these other interpretations, if for no other reason than to ask “So what?” If God truly speaks to us through an interpretation of His Word, then that interpretation has some validity, even if it isn’t “historically correct.” The Bible is too profound for there to be “one” reading of the scripture, much more so for passages as complex as those in Revelation. God is too powerful and too loving to only work through “accurate” interpretations of His Word.

What we are expected to know

This is a tough question! Robert Van Kampen was motivated to write his book The Sign because he believes that all Christians must be familiar with the prophesies of the end times so they are prepared to serve Christ when the Tribulation starts. He has a burden for unknowledgeable Christians who he believes will have to suffer during the Tribulation because they do not know the prophesies and will be confused by Satan and his servant, the Antichrist.

I have a different opinion. Let’s compare Revelation to an earlier event foretold by prophets, the first coming of Christ. His birth, his life, his death, and his resurrection were foretold in books of the Old Testament in language that we today can see clearly applied to the life of Jesus. However, in all the Gospel accounts, almost no one properly interpreted these prophesies during Jesus’ time on earth. The religious scholars, those best equipped to know the prophecies, put Him to death. Those who recognized a part of who He was were the uneducated, the poor, the lowly, the meek, the repentant, those whom Jesus blessed in the Beatitudes. Even these people were very limited in their understanding, for none of His followers accepted what Jesus told them over and over, that He would be put to death and raised from the dead. Even in the last hours before Gethsemane, His twelve disciples asked if this were the time that Jesus would lead a military victory over the Romans. Obviously, if proper understanding of the prophetic writings had been mandatory to accepting the Christ, Jesus’ life would have been a total failure.

Luke records two saints, Simeon and Anna, who were led by the Holy Spirit to accept the prophesies about Jesus. Both were in the Temple to meet Jesus when, at eight days old, He was brought for dedication (see Luke 2:21-38). Simeon explains Jesus’ purpose to Mary and Joseph when he calls Jesus a “light for revelation to the Gentiles,” and cautions that Jesus would “be a sign that will be opposed.” This text tells us that Simeon’s and Anna’s belief in the Messiah was based on their humility and openness to the message God gave them, and their obedience in answering God’s call to be in the Temple on that one day to see that one baby. The scriptures do not show either Simeon or Anna as scholars, learned students of the prophets, because neither relied on human knowledge to comprehend what God had done! They walked so closely to God that they got their information on the birth of the Messiah straight from the source!

I believe their example is the key lesson for us in understanding any complicated scripture. We will never succeed relying on our knowledge, insight, or cleverness, but only with a constant attitude of humility and with our total, faithful obedience to our Lord. These two characteristics of Anna and Simeon are the only valid preparations we can make for Jesus’ second coming. It has never been God’s plan that “our” knowledge would save us, but that our trust in Him would save us. What we must gain first and foremost from the foretellings of the end time is an openness to follow Him more closely.

Future vs. history

To understand literature from an earlier time, we must apply philosophies of the time and identify where these philosophies vary from our own. One of the most massive differences between our age and the first century is in the perspective of history and the past. Our American culture views time as travelling in a line, with history as that part behind us, and our focus eagerly on what lies ahead. Many of those who have studied Revelation show this same eagerness to decipher from this book what lies ahead on the time line in our future.

For thousands of years prior to America, time was most often viewed as cyclical, and history was more important to providing identity to a people than was where they lived or what they did. We view socio-economic caste systems with horror, but the people at the times saw it as honoring their history and knowing their place in history by perpetuating castes. History was very relevant to how lives were lived, because history was cyclical and repetitive. Proverbs 3:19-23 encourages the young man to understand the wisdom of God that has been present from the beginning of time, and it will be “life for your soul.”

Therefore, the greatest part of the message of Revelation is not about the future, but about how the end time fits with the history of God’s dealings with His people, demonstrating that the God of the New Jerusalem is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

This cyclic interpretation of history matches with a cyclic arrangement for literature. This nature can be seen in the seven letters to the churches, with the harshest criticisms going to the 1st and 7th churches and the highest praise to the 2nd and 6th churches. It is seen in the progression of degrees as the tribulations are retold, with a fourth of the earth affected by the horseman at the fourth seal, a third of the sea affected by the mountain of fire at the sounding of the second trumpet, and all the sea affected by the plague coming from the second bowl. It is exactly in the cycles of the sin of humanity that the incredible goodness and patience of God is demonstrated throughout the Bible and here in Revelation.

Hearing with our hearts

Possibly the largest cultural difference between our generation and the first century world is the dominance in our culture of the scientific philosophy that views a thing as being the sum of its parts. This philosophy allow a mechanic to fix an automobile by changing from thinking of a “Honda” to thinking of a “fuel system” to thinking of a “carburetor” to find the part that isn’t working. When we think of ourselves in this way, we break “me” into a spiritual soul, an emotional heart, a logical mind, and a strong body. Our society is fascinated by “new age” thinking that the soul, heart, mind, and body are interrelated, but this isn’t new – what’s “new” is the obsession in the Industrial Age with thinking about people as sets of component parts.

To receive the book of Revelation the way the first century Christians did, we would have to defy our upbringing and let the text speak simultaneously to our emotions, our soul, and our mind. Instead, we spend most days pouring data into our mind with books, reports, newspapers, television, radio, computers, and even the Bible. We will occasionally toy with our emotions (when we’re not trying to suppress them) and if we’re “good,” throw a few bones to our soul. Our minds have become vicious tyrants, screening, categorizing, discarding, filtering, distorting and isolating the rest of the wholeness of us from the overwhelming outside world. Occasionally, poetry or music short-cuts past the mind and speaks to the emotions and soul before the mind can interpret, filter, then inform the rest of our being what the poem or song was “truly” about.

This concept brought me to tears as I was writing this lesson while listening to Chris Rice’s song “Deep Enough to Dream”. As I was mentally manipulating different components in the visions in Revelation, his lyrics of an afternoon dream dashed quickly into my soul…

’Cause peace is pouring over my soul, see the lambs and the lions playin’
I join in and drink the music, holiness is the air I’m breathin’
My faithful heroes break the bread and answer all of my questions
Not to mention what the streets are made of; my heart’s held hostage by this love

Deep enough to dream in brilliant colors I have never seen
Deep enough to join a billion people for a wedding feast
Deep enough to reach out and touch the face of the One who made me
And oh, the love I feel, and oh the peace
Do I ever have to wake up?

Words by Chris Rice, © 1997 Clumsy Fly Music

One of the most important reasons for the imagery and unimaginable glory expressed in the visions given to John is to give us this gift of dreaming of our eternal home.

Components of the foretelling

All throughout the Old and New Testaments are the images of the Great Tribulation to come before the Messiah appears at end of the age. In itself, this event teaches that following God can never be the same as “going along” with the majority opinion, and that God’s plan is not the Greek philosopher’s vision of a world that would gradually grow into perfection.

These stories involve earthly kingdoms that set themselves against God’s people. In Daniel, these kingdoms were represented by a giant statue made of several materials representing different earthly kingdoms that was broken to pieces by a rock. In Revelation, this is represented by the eight heads on the Beast.

In Revelation, the drama finally comes down to Satan, the Antichrist with a fatal wound and his false prophet, against the Trinity of the Father, the sacrificed Lamb, and the Holy Ghost. In this final battle, Satan is finally and permanently conquered, and God reigns over all.

Revelation and other writings speak of the Rapture, the time or times when King Jesus takes the followers of God from this earth to live in Heaven.

Within Revelation, there are a series of signs that accompany these activities. There are seven seals that are broken to open the scroll, seven trumpets sounded by the angels, and seven bowls poured upon the earth.

How these fit together…

… has been the source of many debates over the centuries. For one basic example, some commentators insist that Christians will experience the rapture before the Antichrist begins to rule, while others say that Christians are raptured when the Antichrist’s rule is ended. Some Christian denominations even deny the Rapture because they believe the only Heaven will be on earth when Christ is made King.

For another example, the plagues coming from the seven bowls are interpreted by Lindsey as being the result of the Antichrist’s attack on the people of God, specifically when he interprets the stinging locusts as attack helicopters from the Antichrist’s Air Force. Van Kampen understands these bowls as being God’s wrath on those who have and will always continue to reject God’s love and forgiveness.

There are many references in Revelation to the Jewish people, at one point numbering representatives from twelve named tribes of Israel. Some theologians consider New Testament texts that call Christians the new people of God and interpret references to Jews as really being to the Christians. Others insist that God’s promise to Abraham and his blood descendants is only completed at the end time by God’s special workings with the Jewish people.

When we read in Mark 13 of a number of events that Jesus foretold, we noted that some, like the destruction of the temple, had already taken place, and we wrestled with what foretellings had taken place and which were still to come. Some theologians believe that all of the events in Revelation took place as part of the fall of the Roman empire. Van Kampen writes that many of these foretellings are “near / far” prophesies, that both took place during the first century and will take place again at the end time.

The answer to many of these debates and disagreements is to step away from our society’s literalness and factual tyranny and see in the book of Revelation the truth that John intended for his audience. To quote Maya Angelou, “There is a difference between facts and the truth. You can have so many facts that you fill a stage but haven’t gotten one iota of the truth.” The “truth” is not in the placement of Jesus’ millennial reign on a time line – the truth is that Jesus is Lord of All!

Outline for the Visions section

The outline have used for the visions section, and used in the left-hand frame, is taken from Charles H. Talbert’s book The Apocalypse – a Reading of the Revelation of John. Talbert divides this part of Revelation into seven visions dealing with “the shift of the ages.” However, I am cautious in any choice of an outline for this section, because none of the books in my Bibliography uses the same outline for chapters 4 – 22 of Revelation!

Each vision starts with a scene in heaven that offers reassurance. The first two visions focus on how the Tribulation will affect Christians, and the third discusses the role of the Roman empire in the Tribulation. In parallel, the fourth and fifth visions focus on the judgement to be brought on Rome and its sympathizers, and the sixth vision decrees the result of the actions of Rome and those that opposed God. The final vision brings the ages to completion, with Jesus as ruler of all and his followers blessed with His eternal presence.

This interpretation brings out the typical repetition found in first Century spoken literature. For example, the parallels between the seven seals and the seven trumpets are brought out by this sectioning of the text. This style served the same purpose as today’s repetition in song lyrics.

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