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.


Revelation: Introduction and Three Keys

May 15, 2011

Rev 1:9  I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
Rev 1:10  On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet,
Rev 1:11  which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”

The Revelation of Jesus Christ was given to the apostle John during his banishment on the isle of Patmos. Early church writers uniformly agree that this occurred during the reign of Domitian (AD 81-96). Here are a few sample pieces of evidence. Clement of Alexandria states that he returned from Patmos “after the death of the tyrant.”. Victorinus (third century AD) states that John was “condemned to the labor mines by Caesar Domitian.” Eusebius (AD 263–339) states that John was banished to Patmos in AD 95. On those and other similar pieces of evidence, we place the date of writing of Revelation around AD 95-96.

From the outset we see that Revelation will contain symbolic descriptions.

Rev 1:12 I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands,
Rev 1:13 and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.
Rev 1:14 His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.
Rev 1:15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.
Rev 1:16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

What a vivid picture! Who was this who spoke with a voice like rushing waters, with a double-edged sword in his mouth? He was “the first and the last.” He had been alive, and then died, and now is alive again. Hmmm… Obviously this was Jesus Christ. And obviously he expected John to conclude that from the clues he gave. And lest there be any doubt that the symbols represent something real, he explicitly told John that the stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the lampstands are the churches themselves. Thus Jesus illustrated for John how the message was to be understood.

We call this “apocalyptic” language, because it is the kind of language used in the Apocalypse (the Greek name for the book of Revelation). We see similar language in other books, especially the book of Daniel. While it may be difficult to define this language precisely, we know it when we see it. And Jesus explained by example how we are to view these vivid descriptions.

So here is the first key to understanding Revelation:

1. The exotic descriptions are symbols representing something real.

The second key addresses the timing of the events described:

(Rev 1:3) Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

(Rev 22:6) The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.

(Rev 22:10) Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near.

The events portrayed in Revelation were to happen soon. The time was near. The members of those seven churches would not have expected the events described to be two thousand years in the future.

Contrast the above passages with the prophecy of Daniel:

(Dan 8:26) “The vision of the evenings and mornings that has been given you is true, but seal up the vision, for it concerns the distant future.

Daniel prophesied at the end of the Babylonian captivity around 550 BC, about events that would be fulfilled in 164-165 BC, fewer than 400 years later. Yet that was the “distant future.” If 400 years is the distant future, how many years would be “soon”? How long would they have to wait for events that were “at hand”? Surely, those events would unfold much sooner than 400 years in the future.

So here is our second key to understanding Revelation:

2. The events described would happen soon.

For the third key to understanding Revelation, consider the following passages:

(Rev 1:9) I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

(Rev 2:10) Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.

(Rev 2:13) I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.

(Rev 6:9) When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.
(Rev 6:10) They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”
(Rev 6:11) Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.

(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 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.

Consider also the repeated references to persecution and the blood of the saints from chapters 13-18. Clearly, the focus of Revelation is on intense persecution of the church. That persecution had already begun but would intensify in coming years. In Revelation, Jesus delivered a message of warning and encouragement to the church. He urged each of the seven churches to persevere and to overcome. He encouraged them with promises of deliverance, and of resurrection and rewards.

So the third key to understanding Revelation is:

3. Revelation was written to encourage the saints to persevere, to endure and to overcome intense persecution that was about to fall on them.

We have identified three keys within the text itself helping us to understand Revelation. As we continue we will learn additional clues directly from the text. And then we will consider the narrative of Revelation in the framework of what we have found.


Revelation series

May 8, 2011

Starting next Sunday, our congregation is beginning a Bible class series on the book of Revelation. I will be co-teaching this series with another one of our elders. So it seems like a great opportunity to write another blog commentary like I have done for a number of other books.

I’m pretty excited about this opportunity. Over the years, in my experience, teachers and preachers in our churches have generally avoided the book as a whole. Yes there have been plenty of sermons about the seven letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3. And there has been no shortage of sermons about the great multitude praising the Lamb in chapter 7, and especially of the thrilling picture of the new heaven and the new earth in chapters 21-22. But what about the dragon? The two beasts? The harlot and Babylon? What about the 1260 days, and the 1000 years? And most importantly, what was the message of the book as a whole, and what did God intend to accomplish through that message?

I think the main reason the book is avoided is that the religious world is pretty confused about it. There are at least five very different views about what the book means. Each of the views has numerous variations. How can someone come to a clear understanding of such a book? And how can someone dare to teach such a book, given the stern warnings at the end?

Rev 22:18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book.
Rev 22:19 And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

But God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor 14:33.) God has a message to be delivered. God gave the message to Jesus, who gave it an angel, who delivered it to John. (Rev 1:1) John wrote it down for the seven churches in the province of Asia. (Rev 1:4) The message was delivered, and as always, God’s word accomplished the purpose for which it was sent. (Isa 55:11) Jesus promised blessings to those who read, hear, and keep the words of the message:

Rev 1:3 Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

Rev 22:7 “Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.”

So we need to read the book, and we need to understand it so that we can keep the words of the prophecy. It’s time to apply ourselves to understanding Revelation.

We will be teaching this from the perspective of the original audience of the message. What did it mean to the seven churches who first received the prophecy? How would they have understood the symbolic language of the book? What need was it addressing? And what message should we take from the book as we read it nearly 2000 years later?

The book of Revelation itself contains strong evidence about how to interpret its mysteries. We will begin by talking about the symbolic, apocalyptic style. We will show that Revelation identifies the dragon, the two beasts, and the harlot. And we will deduce from internal evidence what is meant by the 1260 days and the 1000 years.

Once we have established that evidence as a framework for the book, we will go through the book in sequence, understanding the scroll, the seals, and the trumpets within that framework.

We will be drawing heavily from the book “Unlocking Revelation: Seven Simple Keys” by Dr. Stafford North. After reviewing a variety of books and commentaries on the subject, we chose to follow the approach of this book in our class, as the clearest and most methodical approach we found to understanding Revelation.  We won’t be doing a detailed comparative analysis of all of the competing theories about Revelation in our class, and I’m not interested in extended debate on that subject in this blog series. Instead I will be presenting the book as I believe it would have been understood by its original audience.

May we all receive the blessings promised to those who read, hear, and keep the words of this Revelation!


What One Must Know to be Saved: Conclusions

May 7, 2011

In an effort to revive my blogging activities, I am going to re-post some “greatest hits” beginning with this series titled “What One Must Know to be Saved.”   This is the tenth article in that series, and was first published in August 2008.

From the preceding discussion, the things a person must know to be saved are obvious. In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit has recorded for us numerous examples of the gospel being preached to a variety of people. Some of these people were Jews and well versed in the Old Testament scriptures. Others were Gentiles with no understanding of God. The inspired preachers taught an appropriate message in each situation, always pointing toward the same thing.

To receive the promises of the gospel of Christ, a person had to know that God created the world and everything in it, including all mankind; that man had fallen into sin and rebellion against God; that God commanded them to repent; that He had sent his Son, Jesus, the Messiah, into the world to save us from our sin; that Jesus died for our sins; that Jesus was raised from the dead; and that God appointed Jesus to preside over a final judgment of every person.

The evangelists in the book of Acts started at the level of understanding of their audience, and taught what was missing in order to bring them to a basic understanding of those facts. For many, that happened in a single teaching session. For others, it took days of examining the scriptures. And for some, the message was presented repeatedly over a period of months or years. As Paul told Agrippa, conversion might take a short time or a long time.

Once a person had been taught enough to understand and believe those basic facts, they were baptized into Jesus for forgiveness of sins and were added to the church. Subsequently, the teaching continued as they learned more and more about their new lives in Christ.

It is interesting to note what is not recorded in any of the examples of conversion found in scripture.

First, there was no catechism class, and no comprehensive study of doctrine before conversion. Of course, during the timeframe of Acts there was no ambiguity about which Christian church one should join. But there were doctrinal controversies (see Acts 15). Those were important topics which certainly had to be taught to the church. But they were not part of what was taught during the conversion process. People were converted to Jesus, not to a certain form of worship, nor to a form of church government, nor to a particular hermeneutic, etc.

Second, there was no comprehensive study of all the sin in a person’s life before conversion. There always seems to have been some specific sin from which they were challenged to repent. But they were always called to make Jesus Lord of their lives. That covers all the other bases. As the new convert progressively learned about sin and righteousness, they continued to repent, because Jesus was their Lord.

Third, there was no trial period to prove repentance prior to conversion. Once a person came to faith in Jesus, and made Jesus Lord, they could be baptized. Of course, the example of John the Baptist (Luke 3:7-8) shows us that we should call for repentance and that we should not overlook clear evidence of a lack of repentance. But conversions in Acts typically occurred in a single encounter, and the convert’s commitment to make Jesus Lord was taken at face value.

There is much more that should be taught after conversion. As Thomas Campbell stated in his sixth proposition, there are many things that “belong to the after and progressive edification of the church” which are not meant to be part of the profession of faith given at conversion.

The basic facts taught to potential converts are sufficient to bring them into a saved relationship with God, and to place them in the church. Therefore, the only things required in order for a person to remain in that saved relationship with God, and in the fellowship of the church, is for them to continue in what they began: faith in Jesus, and submission to Jesus as Lord.