Revelation: The First Four Seals

June 5, 2011

As we move from chapter 4 to chapter 5, the scene is still the throne room of God in heaven. In chapter 5 we learn of a scroll, sealed with seven seals. The seven seals suggest that the message of the scroll was of imminent importance, and that only the highest authority could open it to reveal the message.

At first, John was distressed that no one could be found who was worthy to open the scroll. Finally one came forward who was:

Rev 5:6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders…

Rev 5:9 And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.

No one could mistake the symbol of the Lamb. This was none other than the resurrected Christ, standing in the center of the throne room of God! The Jews and the Romans had utterly failed to put an end to the King of the Jews. The Christians in those seven churches must have been greatly reassured that they had chosen wisely when they named Jesus as Lord!

A magnificent scene of praise follows. The new song is sung. Listening to that song, the Christians in the seven churches would have been struck by the promise contained in this line:

Rev 5:10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

They were a kingdom — and that kingdom was not Rome, but the Kingdom of God! They were priests serving the Almighty God. And it was not Caesar, but the Christians themselves who will ultimately reign on the earth. Again, the saints would be encouraged through their trials.

In chapter 6, the Lamb began to open the seven seals, to reveal the message inside.

The first four seals corresponded to four horses. The first was a white horse, whose rider was a conqueror bent on conquest. The second was a red horse, who would make men slay each other with the sword. The third was a black horse, whose rider had scales like one would find at a market. The rider called out exorbitant prices, suggesting economic stress and shortages of food. Finally, the fourth was a pale horse, whose rider brought death through the sword, famine, plague, and wild animals.

Just as He had done to Pharaoh, God would use a series of hardships to turn the heart of the oppressor, if it were possible. As in that previous case, the oppressor would not listen, bringing on his own demise, as the remaining seals are opened.


Revelation: The Throne of God

June 5, 2011

Now it gets really interesting.

In chapter 1 of Revelation we saw a narrative of John’s encounter with Jesus while in exile on Patmos, circa AD 95. In chapters 2-3 we saw an assessment of the then-current condition of seven congregations. In those chapters, John simply relates what happened, when it happened, what he saw and what he heard. But in chapter 4 things change. Beginning in chapter 4, we are drawn into John’s vision of events that would transpire in the future — that is, after AD 95. And therefore beginning in chapter 4, we begin to see the story being related in vivid symbolic language. As illustrated in chapter 1, these symbols represent real things and were meant to be understood by those early Christians in those seven congregations.

Chapter 4 describes the scene in which the coming events would begin — a great throne room. Someone was sitting on the central throne — universally understood to be God Himself, as those seven churches surely would have understood. This throne is surrounded by twenty-four other thrones where twenty-four elders are seated, wearing gold crowns. Perhaps these represent the twelve patriarchs and the twelve apostles, though we cannot be sure. These elders worshipped the one sitting on the central throne.

The description of the throne room has many parallels to the Jewish temple, which should have been evident to the seven churches. Pulling in a few details from later in the book (Rev 6:9, 8:3, 11:19) we find a lampstand with seven lamps, an altar of incense, an altar for sacrifice, the ark of the covenant, and a stream — all linked to components of the tabernacle, and of the temple. As Hebrews says, when speaking of the Levitical priests,

Heb 8:5 They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.”

So this was clearly an image of the throne room in heaven.

A short while later we learn of a multitude of angels (thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand) around the throne. And,

Rev 5:13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”

The prophetic revelation gave the churches a glimpse of the power and majesty of their awesome God. As the Christians in those seven congregations heard these words, they must have felt reassured that God was still on his throne, exalted and in complete control, far above Caesar in power and majesty. Caesar was NOT Lord.


Revelation: Messages to the Seven Churches

May 29, 2011

Revelation is a message from the Most High God to seven specific churches at the close of the first century AD. God gave the message to Jesus, who sent it via an angel to the apostle John (Rev 1:1). John wrote it down addressed to those seven churches (Rev 1:4). The message was of highest importance, and would bring great blessings to those who received the message and took it to heart.

The Lord gave John a specific message for each church, followed by a general message for them all. The specific messages are found in chapters 2 and 3. Each specific message was directed to the angel of the corresponding church. Just who was this angel (gk angelos, a messenger)? Considering the chain of messengers through whom the message was delivered, it appears that the “angel of the church” was a human messenger, preacher or teacher at each church. It would not make much sense for God to pass a message through Jesus, then through an angel (in the eternal heavenly being sense), to the human apostle John, and then to another eternal heavenly angel for delivery to a church. Why involve a human between those two angels? So the “angels” to whom John wrote the seven messages were apparently the human preachers at each of the seven churches.

Many good lessons are available on various of these seven messages, so I won’t go into all those details here. Instead, let’s look at the common elements in all the messages. Remember that Jesus is preparing these churches for a dramatic increase in persecution. What were the things Jesus wanted to bring to their attention at this crucial time?

1) Jesus wanted them to remember who he is.

If the churches remembered who Jesus is, they would have the confidence to endure what was coming. Jesus told them that he was the one in the vision who held the seven stars (angels, or leaders of the churches) in his hand. Often it was the church leaders who faced martyrdom, and Jesus wanted them to know he would be there with them. He walked among the lampstands, or churches. So he would also be with the church through the persecution. And he wanted them to know he is well able to handle whatever trouble would come their way. He is the First and the Last. He died and came to life again. He had risen from the dead, and he would raise them also. He has the sharp, double-edged sword. He is holy and his words are true! He has eyes like blazing fire, and feet like burnished bronze. He holds the key of David. What he opens, no one can shut. And what he shuts, no one can open. He is the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. Whatever they were about to face, Jesus would be there with them, and he was fully capable to take care of them. He would enable them to endure.

2) He wanted them to know that he knew them.

Jesus knew their deeds, their failures, their struggles, and their victories. Nothing they had done escaped his notice, whether good or bad. And neither would anything escape his notice that would happen to them during the coming persecution. Jesus knew them by name, even calling some of their names in these messages. And he knew what they had to do in order to overcome the test that would soon face them.

3) He wanted them to hold on to the truth.

He commended those who had tested false apostles and found them false; those who hated the practices of others who perverted the Way; those who recognized and identified the false Jews. He challenged them to reject the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans, and of the false prophetess Jezebel. If they were going to survive the coming persecution, they had to be firmly grounded in the truth.

4) He wanted their wholehearted devotion

He wanted them to grow in their love for God, and to do more today than they did at first. He wanted them to have a real, vibrant devotion to God, and not just to have a reputation for that. He warned them against being lukewarm. He wanted them to be faithful even when it would cost them their lives. That day was coming, and the halfhearted and lukewarm would fall away.

5) He wanted them to be righteous

Jesus warned two of the churches about idolatry and sexual immorality. They had to keep pagan values and practices out of the church. If they let sin into the church it would destroy them.

6) He wanted them to be prepared for persecution.

Jesus warned the churches that they were about to suffer. Some had already endured hardship. Some in their midst had already been martyred. But it would grow worse. Some of them would face prison, and even death. He challenged them to persevere and to endure.

7) He wanted them to know the rewards that would be coming to those who overcome.

Great blessings were in store for those who would overcome. They would eat from the tree of life. They would receive the crown of life. They would receive the hidden manna, and a white stone with their name, known only to themselves. They would receive authority over the nations, and they would be given the morning star. Their names would be found in the book of life, and Jesus would acknowledge them before the Father and his angels. They would be made a pillar in the temple of God, never to leave it. Jesus would write on them the name of God, and the name of the city of God, and Jesus’ new name. They would receive the right to sit on the throne with Jesus.

All those blessings were promised to those who would overcome. And only to those who would overcome.

While most of us today are not facing imminent martyrdoms from our number, the basic message is still the same for us. We need to realize the exalted position and the power and the holiness and righteousness of Jesus. And we need to realize that he knows everything about us. We need to know the truth and to live by it with wholehearted devotion. And we need to overcome the tests of our faith that come, so that we can receive the phenomenal blessings that are promised.


Revelation: Progress Assessment

May 28, 2011

Let’s summarize the information we’ve gathered so far.  We found three keys to understanding the prophecy:

1) The book of Revelation contains exotic, symbolic descriptions intended to represent things that are real, which the original recipients of the prophecy should have been able to interpret correctly.

2) The events described would happen soon.  Not 2000 years later, and not even 400 years later, but much sooner.

3) The purpose of the prophecy was to encourage the church to persevere, to endure, and to overcome the intense persecution of the Roman Empire.

We also identified some of the key actors in the drama of Revelation:

1) The dragon is Satan.

2) The first beast is the Roman Empire.

3) The second beast is the cult of emperor worship.

4) The prostitute is the city of Rome.

Furthermore, we identified the meaning of the 1260 days:  namely, the period of time during which Satan used the Roman Empire in a failed attempt to destroy the church.

And we identified the thousand year reign as roughly the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the final judgment.

All of the above was revealed right in the text of Revelation.

That should suffice as a framework for understanding the rest of the prophecy.  Having covered the basics of chapter 1 in the introduction, we will proceed next into chapters 2 and 3.


Revelation: 1260 Days and 1000 years

May 22, 2011

Rev 11:1 I was given a reed like a measuring rod and was told, “Go and measure the temple of God and the altar, and count the worshipers there.
Rev 11:2 But exclude the outer court; do not measure it, because it has been given to the Gentiles. They will trample on the holy city for 42 months.
Rev 11:3 And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”

(Rev 12:5) She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.
(Rev 12:6) The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.

(Rev 12:14) The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the desert, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach.
(Rev 12:15) Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent.
(Rev 12:16) But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth.
(Rev 12:17) Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.

(Rev 13:5) The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise his authority for forty-two months.

Whether 1260 days, forty-two months, or “time, times, and half a time” (3 1/2 years), the same time period is described (based on a 30 day month, and a 12-month year). During this time, the Gentiles would trample the outer court (symbolic language) and the woman would be protected while the dragon made war on those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus. This period represents a time of persecution of the church. The attacker is the dragon, Satan (Rev 12:17), through the agency of the beast, the Roman Empire (Rev 13:5-18).

The 3 1/2 year period is not to be taken literally, any more than the ten days are to be taken literally in Rev 2:10.  It simply represents the time period in which the Roman Empire would persecute the church.   We can identify approximately when that time period starts and ends from the known time when the book was written (AD 95-96) and the time when the Roman persecution of Christians came to an end.

(Rev 20:1)  And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain.
(Rev 20:2)  He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.
(Rev 20:3)  He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time.
(Rev 20:4)  I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
(Rev 20:5)  (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection.
(Rev 20:6)  Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.

Revelation 20 tells us of a thousand year period immediately following the downfall of the Beast (aka Roman Empire) at the end of chapter 19. As with the 1260 days, we should not think of the thousand years as a literal time period. We do not know how long it is in our actual years, nor when it will end. But we do know a sequence of events associated with that period. First Satan would be bound, and the martyrs who had been previously killed under the persecution of the Roman Empire would be raised from the dead. The resurrected martyrs would reign with Jesus for a thousand years. Following the thousand years, Satan would be unbound for a short period, and then thrown into the lake of fire. And then would come the final judgment.

Since the Roman Empire fell long ago, and since Satan has not yet been thrown into the lake of fire, we are apparently in the midst of the 1000 year reign right now.


Revelation: The Second Beast and the Prostitute

May 22, 2011

As the first beast rose up out of the sea, a second beast rose up out of the earth:

(Rev 13:11) Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon.
(Rev 13:12) He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed.

This second beast seemed harmless enough (a lamb) but it spoke with the voice of the dragon (Satan). It caused people to worship the first beast, under penalty of death. It performed miraculous signs to deceive. All this was in alliance with the first beast. It seems evident that the second beast is the same being as the “false prophet” (Rev 16:13, Rev 19:20), both because of its deceptive, satanic speech, and because otherwise it is not mentioned in the remainder of the prophecy. So the second beast arose with the first in chapter 13, and went to its destruction with the first in chapter 19.

The second beast would have been easily identified by the first recipients of this prophecy. Under Domitian, emperor worship was instituted in the Roman Empire, complete with temples, incense, sacrifices… and the demand to profess “Caesar is Lord!”. This obviously brought trouble upon the faithful Christians who refused to make such a blasphemous statement. The second beast was the cult of emperor worship.

(Rev 17:3) Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a desert. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns.
(Rev 17:4) The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.
(Rev 17:6) I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly astonished.

The angel explains that the woman in the vision is the “great city” that rules over the kings of the earth (vs 18). She rides on the beast having seven heads and ten horns — which we have already identified as the Roman Empire. The seven heads are seven hills where the “great city” sits — a clear reference to Rome. Below is a picture of a Roman coin dating back to AD 71 during the reign of Vespasian (69-79 A.D.) depicting Rome as a woman sitting on seven hills — something the early Christians would have been very familiar with. Surely they would have recognized the prostitute seated on seven hills as representing Rome.


Revelation: The Dragon and the First Beast

May 22, 2011

Revelation is filled with vivid images that dazzle our imaginations. Among the more prominent of those images are the dragon and the two beasts. Fortunately, the text provides us strong evidence about the true identity of these symbolic creatures.

(Rev 12:3) Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads.
(Rev 12:4) His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born.

The prophecy leaves no doubt who this dragon represents:

(Rev 12:9) The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

So we have an important clue: The dragon is Satan. Whenever Revelation speaks of the dragon, we know it is talking about Satan.

But what did the dragon do?

(Rev 12:17) Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.
(Rev 13:1) And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name.
(Rev 13:2) The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority.
(Rev 13:3) One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was astonished and followed the beast.
(Rev 13:4) Men worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?”
(Rev 13:5) The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise his authority for forty-two months.
(Rev 13:6) He opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven.
(Rev 13:7) He was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them. And he was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation.
(Rev 13:8) All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.
(Rev 13:9) He who has an ear, let him hear.
(Rev 13:10) If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.

The dragon (Satan) went off to make war on the saints. So a beast rises up and is given power “to make war against the saints” (vs 7). Clearly this beast was Satan’s agent in making war on the saints. The beast was given authority over “every tribe, people, language and nation” — clearly the dominant ruler over the entire world in that day. And note that the beast was worshipped by all the people.

The beast was made up of parts of a lion, a bear, and a leopard. Now where have we seen those three animals in prophecy before? In Daniel 7, of course — where the lion represented Babylon, the bear represented the Medes and Persians, and the leopard was Greece under Alexander the Great. Each successive empire devoured the preceding one. But there was a fourth beast in that prophecy, one with ten horns:

(Dan 7:23) “He gave me this explanation: ‘The fourth beast is a fourth kingdom that will appear on earth. It will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it.
(Dan 7:24) The ten horns are ten kings who will come from this kingdom. After them another king will arise, different from the earlier ones; he will subdue three kings.
(Dan 7:25) He will speak against the Most High and oppress his saints and try to change the set times and the laws. The saints will be handed over to him for a time, times and half a time.

Revelation depicts this fourth empire as being made up of parts of the preceding three (lion, bear, leopard). So Revelation is making a direct connection with the prophecy of Daniel. And the kingdom represented by Revelation’s first beast is the same as the fourth kingdom in Daniel 7, the kingdom that succeeded Greece. That, of course, would be the Roman Empire.

In chapter 17 we get more information about this beast with seven heads and ten horns.

(Rev 17:9) “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits.
(Rev 17:10) They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while.

Five of the seven kings had already fallen at the time of the prophecy. (Remember, this was around AD 95-96). “One is.” That decisively determines that the kingdom under discussion is the Roman Empire.

If we need further evidence, note that the seven heads represent seven hills. At the end of the first century, any Christian in the Roman Empire would immediately have recognized that as a reference to Rome.

Thus we have another important clue: The first beast was the Roman Empire.