Then the woman fled into the wilderness,
where she has a place prepared by God,
so that there she may be nourished for 1,260 days.
(Revelation 12:6)

 

Every hiker, pilot, and ship’s captain needs his instruments. They are crucial equipment for knowing one’s location, getting one’s bearings, and reaching one’s destination. That’s why I love Revelation 12. It is crucial equipment for Christ’s Church. It gives her a precious paradigm for a pilgrim people.

A paradigm is like a pair of glasses. It’s a set of concepts through which we can view the world. Using images drawn from the Old Testament, Revelation 12 gives us a paradigm, a precious way of looking at the Christian life.

Consider the symbols involved. The Woman is the Church, the Mother and the Bride of Christ (12:1-2). Her Son (and her Husband) is the Lord Jesus Christ, now the High King of Heaven. The Dragon is the devil, a defeated enemy who chases and persecutes the woman (12:3-6). And the wilderness is the evil world-system, through which the Woman must pass as she journeys to the Promised Land: the new heavens and the new earth.

This paradigm opens up our text, which gives us a great promise. For just as God nourished Elijah in the wilderness for 1260 days (1 Kings 17), so too he promises to nourish his Church until her difficult pilgrimage is complete.

How does he do this? Above all, he does it in our quiet times, when he speaks to us through his Word, and moves us to pray in his Spirit. But he also does it in the assembly of the saints, the preaching of the Word, the sacraments of the Church, and the exercise of the ministries to which we are called.

Why does he do this? He does it so we can know who we are in Christ, thereby overcoming the accuser of the brethren (12:7-12); so that we will remain eager to share our faith, thereby giving birth to the rest of the Lord’s offspring (12:17); and so that our face will always be turned, thereby turning it towards Christ and the Promised Land (12:14).

Pilgrim, receive this his precious paradigm, stay strong, and rejoice! You’re almost home!

 

This is one of the most comforting eschatological texts in all sacred Scripture. It is also one of the most controversial, since our dispensational brethren claim that here the Lord is speaking of a secret rapture of the Church. Let us therefore look first at the text itself, and then at the dispensational arguments.

An Amillennial View

The disciples are troubled. Jesus has just said that one of them will betray him (John 13:21-30), and that another, their leader, is about to deny him three times (John 13:37-38). Worst of all, he has told them that soon he will go away to his Father, and that they themselves cannot join him (John 13:33, 36). Aware of their fears (and forgetful of his own), he therefore devotes the remainder of the Upper Room Discourse to preparing them for what lies ahead.

He opens with three commands: “Let not your hearts be troubled: Believe in God, believe also in me” (v. 1). The antidote to their fears—and ours—is implicit trust in the character, sovereignty, promises, and salvation of God; and not only of God, but also of his Christ, in whom all of these precious gifts and remedies are found (2 Cor. 1:20).

Next, he makes a very special promise, a promise designed to cheer their hearts and calm their fears:

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. – John 14:2-3

To benefit from these words we must understand Jewish marriage customs, which were very much in Jesus’ mind when he spoke them. Broadly, an ancient Jewish marriage had three components. First came the betrothal. Here the parents of a young man arranged a suitable marriage for their son. This involved the father paying a “bride-price” to her parents, after which the families usually exchanged gifts and drank a cup of wine to seal the marriage covenant. At this point the couple were legally married. Next there came the waiting period. During this time—which could be quite lengthy—the groom prepared a house (or rooms) for his bride, sometimes on his father’s estate. Meanwhile, the bride prepared herself to live and serve with her husband as a skillful keeper of his home. Finally, there came the wedding ceremony. On the night of the marriage the groom and his friends would make their way in a joyful procession to the bride’s house (Matt. 25:1f). When they arrived, she and her maids would join the groom, after which they would typically return to his father’s house for the marriage ceremony, the marriage feast, the consummation of the marriage, and more festivities when the couple emerged from the chuppa, or bridal chamber, to join the party. Henceforth they would live together as husband and wife.

Time would fail us to discuss all the ways in which the Holy Spirit drew upon these ancient customs in order to depict the romance of redemption in Scripture. For our present purposes, however, only one thing is needful: to see that here, in John 14:2-3, Jesus was doing that very thing. He knew that at Calvary the Father would pay the bride-price. He knew that immediately afterwards he himself would return to his Father’s heavenly house to prepare a dwelling-place for his Beloved. And he knew that at the appointed times he would return to receive her to himself, so that she might be with him where he is (Matt. 25:1-13).

Keeping the Didactic New Testament (DNT) in view, let us carefully probe Jesus’ exact words, for they are eschatologically richer than we may think.1

First he says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places” (v. 2). The reference here is two-fold: not only to heaven above, but also to heaven up ahead: the new heavens and the new earth that he will create at his return. In this two-fold house there are (and will be) many dwelling-places. In other words, in both of these realms God has carefully prepared, or will prepare, not physical shelters, but spiritual niches: spheres of life and service specifically designed for each of his dear children. And there are many such niches, for both the world up above and the world up ahead will be filled with a great multitude whom no man can number, drawn from every nation, people, tribe, and tongue (Rev. 7:9f).

Next, Jesus assures the disciples that “I go to prepare a place for you” (v. 2). Again we have a two-fold meaning. First he goes to prepare a place for the saints in heaven above. That is, he is soon to enter heaven as their High Priest and Sacrifice, there to make eternal intercession for them, with the result that the Father can welcome them into heaven as his beloved children (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 6:19-20, 7:25). But secondly, at his return he will create new heavens and a new earth, thus “preparing” an eternal chuppa (or dwelling-place) for himself and his beloved Bride (Phil. 3:20-21; Rev. 21:1-2).

Finally, Jesus promises his fearful disciples that “ . . . if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (v. 3). Once again we encounter layers of meaning, layers that the DNT equips us to discern and enjoy. There are three of them.

First, at the moment of their new birth, Christ will come to his disciples in the Spirit and receive them to himself (John 14:16-18). In the case of the eleven, this occurred on the Day of Pentecost. In the case of the rest of God’s children, it occurs in the centuries to follow. As a result of this initial coming, the saint’s bodies continue to dwell and serve the Lord upon the earth, but their spirits are raised to newness of life, so that henceforth they are also seated in the heavenly places in Christ (Rom. 6:4; Eph. 2:5-6; Phil. 3:20). Even now they are “with Christ where he is.” Even now—though only dimly, as if in a mirror—they behold his glory (John 17:24; 1 Cor. 13:12; Cor. 3:18).

Secondly, at the moment of their physical death Christ will again come to his disciples in the Spirit, this time to perfect their souls and take them to live with him in heaven above. In other words, Jesus’ words are also fulfilled when, at their death, the saints enter Intermediate State (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor. 5:8; Rev. 14:13). As we saw earlier, this is true burden of Revelation 20:4-6. In all such texts the Lord would have us know that throughout the Intermediate State the saints will be where he is: in heaven itself. But there, at long last, we will be like him, for there we will see him face to face, just as he is (1 Cor. 13:12; 1 John 3:2).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Christ will come to his disciples on the Day of his Parousia. Yes, when he descends from heaven he will be bringing their (perfected) spirits with him. But then, at the Resurrection, he will join those spirits to new glorified bodies, so that in their flesh they will see God (in Christ) with their own eyes (Job 19:26-28). In that Day he will yet again take his Bride to himself, but this time once and for all, so that henceforth they may dwell together forever in the glorious new Chuppa to Come (Rev. 14:1, 21:1-5).

Here, then, we have a powerful host of reasons why the Bride of Christ must not let her heart be troubled. When fear and sorrow threaten to overwhelm, she is to steady herself by listening afresh the voice of her heavenly Husband: “Beloved, always remember that through your new birth I have already come for you, and that even now you dwell with me where I am. But more than that, always remember that great things are waiting for you up ahead; that at the moment of your death—and also at the Resurrection of the Dead—I will again come to you and receive you to myself, so that where I am—and as I am—you may be also. Beloved Bride, be faithful until death: truly, it will be worth the wait!”

The Dispensational View

We have seen that John 14:1-3 harmonizes quite well with amillennial eschatology. How does the dispensational view fare? To find out, let’s listen to John MacArthur on our text:

“This is one of the passages that refer to the Rapture of the saints at the end of the age when Christ returns. The features in this description do not describe Christ coming to earth with His saints to establish His kingdom (Rev. 19:11-15), but taking believers from earth to live in heaven. Since no judgment on the unsaved is described here, this is not the event of His return in glory and power to destroy the wicked (Matt. 131:36-43). Rather this describes his coming to gather his own.”

In reply, I offer three observations.

First, if the rest of the DNT explicitly taught a pre-tribulation Rapture, then we would have to admit that this text could be referring to it. It is, as it were, a blank eschatological slate, amenable to different interpretations. We have seen, however, that the DNT always teaches a single Coming of Christ and a single Consummation. Accordingly, it is certain that this text does not refer to a pre-tribulation Rapture.

Secondly, MacArthur says, “The features in this description do not describe Christ coming to earth with His saints to establish His kingdom, but taking believers from earth to live in heaven.” We have seen, however, that the Lord’s actual words display a studied ambiguity. That is, they can indeed be interpreted to say that he will come to his disciples and take them to heaven, whether through the new birth, or through the first resurrection at the moment of their death (Rev. 20:4-6). However, they also can be interpreted to say that at his return he will take his disciples to be with him in the new heavens and the new earth. Since the DNT teaches this three-fold fulfillment, it is biblically justified to read it into our text. But since the DNT does not teach or support the dispensational interpretation, it is not biblically justified to read it into the text.

Finally, MacArthur says, “Since no judgment on the unsaved is described here, this is not the event of His return in glory and power to destroy the wicked.” Now this is perfectly true, if we are thinking of the first and second kinds of coming. But what of the third: the Lord’s bodily coming at the end of the age? Does Jesus’ silence about a general resurrection and judgment mean that he did not have them in mind? What if he elected not to mention them here, not only to leave room for the first two kinds of coming, but also, in regard to third, to focus the disciple’s attention on the supremely comforting prospect of being with him forever in the glorified World to Come? MacArthur’s argument from silence is not convincing. Moreover, there are many NT texts that refute his assertion by positively teaching that Christ will indeed judge the unrighteous at his bodily Coming (Matt. 13:37-43, 24-25; 1 Cor. 15:20-28, 50-58; 1 Thess. 4:13-5:11; 2 Thess. 1:3-12, 2:1-12).

We conclude, then, that the amillennial interpretation of this text supplies a truer, richer, and far more comforting meaning than that of our dispensational brothers. The Lord is not speaking here of a pre-tribulation rapture, but of a three-fold coming to his disciples: first at the moment of their new birth, second at the moment of their death, and finally at his Parousia at the end of the age. When the heart of the Bride is troubled, let her meditate on all three, but especially on the eternal union that will be hers at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7).2

Notes

1. I define the Didactic New Testament as the teaching portions of the NT: Select passages in the Gospels, the Epistles, and select passages in the book of Acts.

2. This essay is an excerpt from a book in progress, The Great End Time Debate: Issues, Options, and Amillennial Answers (Redemption Press). It should be released later this year or very early in 2022.

“But I have this against you: You have left your first love.
So then: Remember the place from which you have fallen,
and repent and do the first works.”
(Revelation 2:3-4)

This word arrived as a gut punch to the Ephesians. It can do the same when we read it today.

Before it hit, the Lord was all commendation, praising these busy Christians for their toil, endurance, and holy intolerance of evil. After it hit, he did the same, lauding them for their hatred of the lawless works of the Nicolaitans. But in between there came a stern and urgent reproof, flashing like dark lightning against a deep blue sky. What can account for it?

When I asked myself this question, a memorable poem by William Blake came to mind:

O Rose, thou are sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Hath found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Doth thy life destroy.

When people looked at the Ephesian rose, all seemed well. These believers were abounding in the work of the Lord. What’s more, to judge from the King’s commendations, they were doing their works in the Spirit and power of the Lord. This should give us pause: Though the Lord may be granting us fruitful labors, it also may be that a dark and dangerous love has begun to creep, worm-like, into our bed of crimson joy: into the life of love that was purchased for the Bride of Christ by his blood.

But what exactly was the nature of that invisible worm? And how was it enticing the Ephesians to leave their first love?

Perhaps we find our answers in a story about Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38ff). The Lord had come to town. Martha invited him into her home for dinner. Her sister Mary sat herself at the Lord’s feet, listening to his words. But Martha was distracted with her many preparations.

What’s more, she was angry. With an unholy boldness that shocks the reader, it is written that she came up to the Son of God himself and said, ““Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Tell her to help me!” But the Lord, wise and gentle, answered with firmness: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is truly necessary. I’m saying this because Mary has chosen the best part, and it will not be taken from her.” 

Is this how it was with the Ephesians? Yes, their service was partly in the Spirit; but was it also partly in the flesh? Was it partly motivated by a sincere love for the Lord, but also by some “dark, secret love” that was creeping into the sacred space? What might it have been? Pride, independence, selfish ambition, worldly pleasure?  Whatever it was, it was causing many to drift away from their first love. The story in Luke suggests that they had done so by departing from the feet and living word of their Master. Their work for the Lord had somehow become an excuse to abandon their time with the Lord, which alone can keep the saints in squarely in the crimson bed.

This brings me to the “first works” which the Lord urged upon the Ephesians. Obviously they are vital. What are they?

Speaking personally, whenever I read those words I am reminded of my daily quiet time. For years I have reckoned it to be the first of the first works.

When I come to the Lord, I try to come early: If he is first in my life, he needs to be first in my day, as much as possible. I come alone, Bible in hand. Mary-like, I seat myself at his feet. I try to go low: to empty myself of myself, and to place myself in a posture of hearing, seeing, receiving. I want to receive his living word.

I begin by remembering the love of God: The love of my Father in choosing me;  the love of my Savior in redeeming me; the love of the Spirit in calling, sanctifying, and preserving me. I speak of this love and thank them for it. In the miraculous chemistry of spiritual life, such heartfelt thanksgiving for the love of God somehow rekindles my love for him.

Next, I ask for a fresh infusion of the Lord’s light and life through the opening of his Word to my heart. Believing that it will come, I slowly read and mediate upon today’s text. When I am stricken by a word I love, I will sometimes share it in love (smart phones are a big help). Usually, I simply go into my day in the strength of any quickened words, sharing them and/or the life they have brought me with my neighbor, as opportunities arise.

Then I pray, asking above all to be led by the Holy Spirit in my prayers. I know he is leading when he brings specific needs to mind, and when I experience life, liberty, longing, love, and (on occasion) laughter, as I lay my requests before him.

Finally, I pray for guidance for my day, sometimes jotting down the errands of love that I believe the Lord has placed on my heart. When I execute those errands I again go low, waiting upon the wisdom, beauty, and power of a ministry done in the Lord’s love.

All of this is easily said; most assuredly, it is not easily done. How swiftly the alien worms of pride, selfish ambition, haste, distraction, and preoccupation encroach upon the holy rose!

But here is good news: The Lord is committed to guarding the rose. He has given us a new heart, a holy heart; and he has told us that he will watch over it with all of his heart. He has sealed it for himself. He has said, “I am a jealous God.” The triune God of the Bible has sworn: Though dark, secret loves beckon and entice my children and my Bride, they will not prevail.

In all of this there is his part, and there is our part.

On his part there are invitations to come and sit at his feet; there are promises of life-giving openings of his Word; there are seasons of refreshing and streams in the desert; there are fruitful goings out and comings in.

But all of this is contingent on us doing our part. And the first part of our part is to meet him daily in the crimson bed. As long as I am abiding there, I know that all will be well, and that the fragrance of Christ will be upon the flower of my life.

This is the first of the first works. Let us labor to do it with all our hearts.

 

 

My all time favorite Gospel tract. May it bring you a fresh sighting of the Pearl of Great Price. d

 

The Matchless Pearl

A HEAVY SPLASH was followed by many ripples, and then the water below the pier was still. An American crouched on the low Indian pier, his eyes riveted on the place where a stream of little bubbles rose to the surface from deep under the water. In a moment a black head appeared and a pair of bright eyes looked up. Then the old Indian pearl diver was clambering onto the dock, grinning and shaking the water from his shining, oily body.

“As nice a dive as I’ve ever seen, Rambhau!” cried David Morse, the American missionary.

“Look at this one, sahib,” said Rambhau, taking a big oyster from between his teeth. “I think it’ll be good.”

“Rambhau! Look!” exclaimed Morse, “Why it’s a treasure!”

“Oh, yes, but there are better pearls, much better. Why, I have one—” his voice trailed off. “See this one—the imperfections—the black speck here, this tiny dent, even in shape it is a bit oblong, but good enough as pearls go.”

“Your eye is too sharp for your own good, friend,” lamented Morse. “I would never ask for a more perfect pearl!”

“It is just as you say of your God. To themselves people look perfect, but God sees them as they actually are.” The two men started down the dusty road to the town.

“You’re right, Rambhau. And God offers perfect righteousness to all who will simply believe and accept His free offer of salvation. He says, ‘The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom 6:23). Can’t you see that, my friend?”

“No, sahib. As so many times before I have told you, it’s too easy. That is where your good religion breaks down. I cannot accept that. Perhaps I am too proud. I must work for my place in heaven, or I would always be uncomfortable.”

“Oh, Rambhau!” Behind the missionary’s words were years of prayer for this man. “You are getting older now. Perhaps this is your last season of diving for pearls. If you ever want to see heaven’s gates of pearl, you must accept the new life God offers you in His Son.”

“My last season! Yes, you are right. Today was my last day of diving. This is the last month of the year, and I have preparations to make.”

“You should be making preparations for the life to come.”

“That’s just what I’m going to do. The first day of the New Year I begin my pilgrimage. All my life I have planned it. I shall make sure of heaven this time. I am going to Delhi on my knees.”

“No! Never! It’s nine hundred miles to Delhi! The skin will break on your knees, and you’ll have blood poisoning or leprosy before you get to Bombay.”

“But, I must get to Delhi. And then the immortals will reward me. The suffering will be sweet, for it will purchase heaven for me.”

“Rambhau! My friend! You can’t! How can I let you do this when Jesus Christ has died to purchase heaven for you!”

But the old man could not be moved. On the afternoon of Christmas Day, Morse answered a knock at the door to find Rambhau there.

“My good friend!” cried Morse. “Come in, Rambhau.”

“No,” said the pearl diver, “I want you to come with me to my house, sahib, for a short time. I have something to show you. Please do not say no.”

The heart of the missionary leaped. Perhaps God was answering his prayer at last.

“Of course I’ll come,” he said.

“I leave for Delhi just one week from today, you know,” said Rambhau as they neared his house ten minutes later. The missionary’s heart sank.

Inside, Morse was ushered to a seat his friend had built especially for him. Rambhau left the room to return soon with a small but heavy English strongbox.

“I have had this box for years,” he said. “I keep only one thing in it. Now I will tell you about it. Sahib Morse, I once had a son.”

“A son! Why, Rambhau, you have never said a word about him!”

“No, sahib, I couldn’t.” Even as he spoke the diver’s eyes moistened. “Now I must tell you, for soon I will leave, and who knows whether I shall ever return? My son was a diver too. He was the best pearl diver on the coasts of India. He had the swiftest dive, the keenest eye, the strongest arm, the longest breath of any man who sought for pearls. What joy he brought to me! He always dreamed of finding a pearl beyond all that had ever been found. One day he found it. But when he saw it, he had already been underwater too long. He lost his life soon after.” The old pearl diver bowed his head for a moment.

“All these years I have kept the pearl,” he continued, “but now I am going, not to return. I know that this is a day among Christians for the giving of gifts, and to you, my best friend, I am giving my pearl.”

The old man worked the combination on the strongbox and drew from it a carefully wrapped package. Gently opening the cotton, he picked up a mammoth pearl and placed it in the hand of the missionary. It was one of the largest pearls ever found off the coast of India, and it glowed with a luster and brilliance never seen in cultured pearls. It would have brought a fabulous sum in any market.

For a moment the missionary was speechless and gazed with awe.

“Rambhau! What a pearl!”

“That pearl, sahib, is perfect,” replied the Indian quietly.

“Rambhau,” he said, “this is a wonderful pearl, an amazing pearl. Let me buy it. I would give you ten thousand dollars for it, or if it takes more I will work for it.”

“Sahib,” said Rambhau, stiffening his whole body, “this pearl is beyond all price. No man in all the world has money enough to say what this pearl is worth to me. I will not sell it to you. You may have it only as a gift.”

“No, Rambhau, I cannot accept that. As much as I want the pearl, I cannot accept it that way. Perhaps I am proud, but that is too easy. I must pay for it or work for it.”

The old pearl diver was stunned.

“You don’t understand, sahib. Don’t you see? My only son gave his life to get this pearl, and I wouldn’t sell it for any money. Its worth is in the lifeblood of my son. I cannot sell this, but I can give it to you. Just accept it in token of the love I bear you.”

The missionary was choked and for a moment could not speak. Then he gripped the hand of the old man.

“Rambhau,” he said in a low voice, “don’t you see? That is just what you have been saying to God.”

The diver looked long and searchingly at the missionary and slowly, slowly he began to understand.

“God is offering you everlasting life as a free gift. It is so great and priceless that no man on earth could buy it. No man on earth could earn it. His life would be millions of years too short. No man is good enough to deserve it. It cost God the lifeblood of His only Son to make the entrance for you into heaven. In a million years, in a hundred pilgrimages, you could not earn that entrance. All you can do is to accept it as a token of God’s love for you, a sinner. Rambhau, won’t you accept God’s great gift of eternal life, in deep humility, knowing it cost Him the death of His Son to offer it to you?”

“Sahib, I see it now. I have believed in the doctrine of Jesus for two years, but I could not believe that His salvation was free. Now I understand. Some things are too priceless to be bought or earned. Sahib, I will accept His salvation.”


Christian Light Publications, Harrisonburg, VA 22802

Only God knows how many of his dear children he has brought to faith in Christ by illuminating this most amazing of all Old Testament Messianic prophecies. May it bring a fresh blessing to your hearts and lives. d

_______

Who has believed our message?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

He grew up before Him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no stately form or majesty to attract us,
no beauty that we should desire Him.

He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.
Like one from whom men hide their faces,
He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.

Surely He bore our infirmities and carried our sorrows;
yet we considered Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was placed upon Him,
and by His stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray,
each one has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet He opened not His mouth.
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter;
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so He opened not His mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who among us considered
that he was cut off from the land of the living
for the transgression of my people,
the ones to whom the stroke was due?

He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and was with a rich man in His death,
though He had done no violence,
nor was any deceit found in His mouth.

Yet it pleased the LORD to crush Him, and to put Him to grief.
And when His soul has been made a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
and the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.
After the anguish of His soul,
He will see the light of life and be satisfied.

By His knowledge My righteous Servant will justify many,
and He will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot Him a portion with the great,
and He will divide the spoils with the strong,
because He poured out His life unto death,
and because He was numbered among the transgressors.
Yet He bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors.

– Isaiah 53 (ASV, NASB, BSB)