THE REVELATION: STRUCTURE, SURVEY, AND KEY SYMBOLS
Note: This essay is extracted from my book, The High King of Heaven: Discovering the Master Keys to the Great End Time Debate (Redemption Press, 2014).
THE REVELATION can be an intimidating book. It is long, filled with mysterious visions and symbols, and at times overwhelming with its serial depictions of spiritual warfare, divine judgment, and final, eschatological victory. And yet, when we push past our fears and enter more deeply, we begin to see things: recurring themes, patterns, and cycles. Suddenly, perhaps after several readings, we realize that this prophecy has a structure; a structure so nuanced, complex, beautiful, and ingenious, that the hand of God himself must be behind it. Moreover, when we fully see this structure, we also see how to interpret the book as a whole, and chapter 20 in particular. We must, then, devote some quality time to this crucial subject.
Having considered a number of different views on the structure of the Revelation, I find that I return over and again to the ideas embodied in the chart below. In a moment, we will let it guide us through a survey of the book itself. First, however, a few preliminary remarks are in order. (to view the chart, please click here).
As you can see, I have divided the book into five blocs. The titles beneath each one reflect my best effort to identify the main idea of the bloc, while at the same time keeping in view the central theme of the whole book: the Person and Work of Christ in his Exaltation. Or, to say it more concisely: the High King of Heaven.
I am very pleased with the fact that the third bloc, which gives us the Investiture of the High King of Heaven (4-5), stands mid-way between the other two. As we shall see in a moment, this is fitting, since this particular bloc is the theological high point and center of gravity of the whole prophecy. For consider: Because of his coronation as High King of Heaven, Christ can come to John in glory (1), and speak to the seven churches within supreme authority (2-3). Moreover, because of that same coronation, he can rule over the cosmos throughout the remaining years of Salvation History (6-20), and then, following his Parousia, bring his glorified Bride into the Kingdom of God in its full and final form (21-22). Thus, chapters 4-5 hold the whole book together as one: as a single celebration of the Person and Work of the High King!
For the purposes of our study, the most important—and the most controversial—portion of my chart is bloc four. As you can see, there I suggest that chapters 6-20 are best understood as six separate apocalyptic cycles, each of which describes—in its own unique way, and for its own unique purposes—the course, character, and consummation of the spiritual reign of the High King of Heaven.
Since that’s a mouthful, let me break it down a little. The idea here is really quite simple. This large bloc (6-20) is made up of six sub-blocs, or cycles (6-7, 8-11, 12-14, 15-16, 17-19, and 20). But in each of the cycles, the focus of the prophetic Spirit is always on the same time frame: the space of time between Christ’s first and second coming; the space of time during which the exalted Christ reigns as High King of heaven and earth. This means that the fourth bloc of the Revelation—and the great bulk of the book—is actually made up of six separate visionary cycles, each one of which uses different ideas and images to cover the same historical ground; to rehearse, or recapitulate, the earthly impact of the heavenly reign of Christ.
In the pages ahead, I will spotlight a number of lines of evidence favorable to this view. For the moment, however, let us assume that the Holy Spirit has indeed structured this bloc of the prophecy as I have suggested. If so, there are a number of important implications for the interpretation of the book as a whole, and for Revelation 20 in particular.
Implications of the Cyclial View
The first implication pertains to the way in which we must interpret the symbols that we meet in each of the six cycles. For example, if the cyclical view is correct, it means that we cannot interpret Revelation 6-20 as the preterists do. They say that the focus here is largely, if not entirely, on events that took place at the very beginning of the Church Era; events that, for us, are already past. These include the fall of Jerusalem, the tyrannical power of Rome, and the vicissitudes of the early Church at the hand of Jew and Roman. But if the true focus of 6-20 is the entire inter-adventual era, obviously the preterist interpretation cannot be correct.
Similarly, if the cyclical view is right, we cannot interpret Revelation 6-20 as the futurists do. They say that the focus here is largely, if not exclusively, on events that will occur at the very end of the age. Yes, there are some differences among them. Moderate futurists like George Ladd say that the events will befall the Church. Dispensational futurists, like John MacArthur, say they will befall latter day Jews during a seven year Tribulation, after Christ has secretly carried his Church away to heaven at the Rapture. But again, all futurists agree that chapters 6-20 are largely, if not entirely, fulfilled in the last of the last days. However, if the true sphere of fulfillment of chapters 6-20 is the entire Church Era, during which Christ reigns as High King over all, obviously the futurist view cannot be correct either.
This brings us to a second and closely related implication. If the cyclical view is correct, it means that when the Spirit uses a particular symbol to speak to God’s people, he is not, as a rule, referring to a concrete historical entity, whether a person, place, thing, or event. He cannot be. Rather, he must be referring to a kind of historical entity that all the saints will encounter again and again throughout the Church Era.
Let us consider an example. Some preterists say that when the Spirit speaks of the Beast (Rev. 13:1f), he is speaking of the arch-persecutor of the early Church, emperor Nero. Meanwhile, most futurists say that when the Spirit speaks of the Beast, he is speaking of the Antichrist who will arise just prior to Christ’s return, whether to persecute the Church or ethnic Israel. If, however, we embrace the cyclical view, we immediately realize that it offers us a much richer approach; an approach that engages all Christians of all times; an approach that is capable of affirming the elements of truth present in both the preterist and futurist views. For now we see that in speaking of the Beast, the Spirit is actually speaking of a particular kind of historical phenomenon—in this case, the political or governmental face of Satan’s fallen world system, whenever and wherever it pops up in the course of Salvation History. It is a face that could be embodied in Nero, Domitian, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Ceausescu, Pol Pot, this or that Ayatollah, the (last) Antichrist, or any of the persecuting institutions that these people represent.
We find, then, that the cyclical view of Revelation 6-20 generates a particular hermeneutic, a particular way of understanding and applying the symbols found in this book. Theologians refer to this as an “idealist” hermeneutic. Here, they say, the symbols do not stand for unique historical persons or events, but rather for general ideas or principles that will manifest themselves all throughout the Church Era, and therefore in any number of historical persons, places, things, or events. William Hendriksen, an enthusiastic advocate of this approach, invites us to embrace the idealist approach to Revelation 6-20 when he writes:
The seals, trumpets, bowls of wrath and similar symbols refer not to specific events, particular happenings, or details of history, but to principles—of human conduct and of divine moral government—that are operating throughout the history of the world, especially throughout the new (Christian) dispensation. (1)
Now, while these ideas, and this approach, are extremely helpful, I would nevertheless issue a caveat. The Revelation is concerned not only with the course of the High King’s heavenly reign, but also with the Consummation by which he will bring it to a close. But if this so, it follows that the book can and must use some of its symbols to refer to unique historical events. And for those upon whom the very end of the age has come, this is vital information indeed.
Let us consider an outstanding example. In Revelation 11:3-6 we learn of the spiritual career of the Two Witnesses. Described in language and imagery reminiscent of Moses and Elijah—and also of the disciples whom Jesus sent out two by two to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom to Israel—they represent the witnessing Church. God calls them to prophesy (i.e., to preach the Gospel) for 1260 days, a number symbolizing the entire Church Era as a season of exile and persecution during which God faithfully provides for His pilgrim people (see 1 Kings 17:1f). So then, all Christians of all times can see themselves in the Two Witnesses.
However, when we reach verses 7-13, the focus narrows. Now the Spirit is speaking concretely about the last generation of witnessing Christians; the generation that will see the completion of the Great Commission (11:7); the generation that will see the Beast (hitherto restrained from thwarting the Church’s mission, 20:1-3) rise up out the abyss (Satan’s dwelling), make war with them, overcome them, and “kill” (i.e., thoroughly suppress) them (11:7-10); and yet, this is also the generation that will see the return of Christ in glory, the resurrection of the dead, and the Last Judgment (11:11-19). Here, then, the symbols do indeed point to unique events in a unique portion of Salvation History. Here, the universal Church cannot see herself (much as she might like to), but only that portion of the Church that will serve Christ during the days of the Last Battle.
Speaking of caveats, it is also important to understand that while the six cycles of Revelation 6-20 do indeed traverse the same historical ground, there are notable differences between them. Of special importance is the fact that this large bloc of Scripture gives us a progressive revelation of divine truth about the Church Era. For example, the deeper we progress into the cycles, the more we learn of the supernatural powers operating behind the scenes of the great cosmic battle; the more intense becomes the Church’s suffering; the more severe the world’s judgments; and the more vivid the (brevity of the) Last Battle, the Parousia, and the Last Judgment. Referring to this tendency as progressive parallelism, Hendriksen writes:
Although all the sections of the Apocalypse run parallel and span the period between the first and second comings of Christ . . . yet there is also a degree of progress. The closer we approach the end of the book the more our attention is directed to the final judgment and that which lies beyond it. The (several) sections are arranged, as it were, in an ascending, climactic order . . . The final judgment is first announced, then introduced, then finally described. Similarly, the new heavens and earth are described more fully in the final section than in those which precede it . . . The book reveals a gradual progress in eschatological emphasis. (2)
The third and final implication of the cyclical view of Revelation 6-20 goes straight to the heart of the Great End Time Debate: If indeed chapter 20 properly falls into bloc four of the Revelation; if indeed, like the previous five cycles, it too describes the course of the reign of the High King of Heaven, then obviously it cannot be speaking of a future earthly kingdom set to appear after that reign. In short, if our chart really does give us the true structure of the Revelation, then the Revelation itself rules out premillennialism once and for all!
A Survey of the Revelation
In this section, I want briefly to survey the Revelation as a whole. What follows is not meant as a detailed exegetical commentary. It is, however, meant as a substantive overview for which I have two main goals.
First, I want to show that the structure of the book is indeed as I have represented it in the chart above. More particularly, here I aim to show that the unifying theme of the whole book is the course, character, and consummation of Christ’s heavenly reign; that the fourth bloc of the book (chapters 6-20) really is a unit; that this bloc is a collection of six separate visionary cycles, each one of which spans the entire Church Era; that ever-increasingly it speaks to us of events associated with the Consummation (i.e., the Last Battle, the Parousia, the Resurrection, the Last Judgment, and the World to Come); and that Revelation 20 really does belong in this bloc.
Secondly, I want to use the NCH to open up the meaning of the some of the key symbols of the book; to show that the Revelation—serving as the Grand Finale of all Scripture—repeatedly uses OT (and NT) symbols to communicate NT meanings, in order to edify and encourage Christ’s suffering pilgrim Church.
And now, with Bibles firmly in hand, let us begin!
A Vision of the High King (1:1-20)
Chapter 1 introduces the Revelation, and especially the One through whom God the Father was pleased to give it: the exalted Lord Jesus Christ. It is comprised of a short Prologue (1:1-3), a lengthy greeting (1:4-8), and a lengthier account of John’s vision of the glorified Son of Man (1:9-20).
Importantly, the greeting gives us the eschatological framework of the whole book. Even now, the divine Christ is the ruler of the kings of the earth (1:5). Even now the saints are a Kingdom of priests to his God and Father (1:6). No, the Kingdom is not yet consummated. For a season, believers must endure hardship. Like the Lord they serve, they must be faithful witnesses (1:5). Soon, however, there will be a Consummation (1:1, 3, 8). Christ will come again (1:8). When he does, every eye will see him, saint and sinner alike (1:7). When he does, all the tribes of the earth (i.e., the unbelieving persecutors of the Church) will wail, for he will come in final Judgment (8:13, 11:10, 12:12, 13:8, 17:2, 8). And when he does, he will bring in the fullness of the Kingdom, since he who comes is not only the divine Creator (the Alpha), but also the divine Consummator (the Omega) (1:8). So then, even here in his greeting (1:4-8) John affirms the simple, two-fold structure of the Kingdom taught in the didactic NT: The temporary Kingdom of the Son, followed by the eternal Kingdom of the Father (and the Son), separated by a single Consummation set to occur at the Parousia.
Next comes John’s account of his vision of the High King (1:9-20). It is readily divided into three parts. In the first, he tells us where he was and what he was doing when the vision came to him (1:9-11). In the second, he tells us what he saw: One like a Son of Man—radiant with divine glory, dressed in priestly attire—standing in the midst of seven golden lampstands, with seven stars in his right hand, and with a sharp, two-edged sword coming from his mouth (1:12-16). In the third, we read of John’s reaction (1:17), and of the meaning of the vision: The seven stars are the seven messengers of the seven churches in Asia (presumably sent to confer with the aged apostle); and the seven lampstands are the seven churches (1:18-20).
Very importantly, here we get our first glimpse of the High King—and the High Priest—of Heaven. As I argued earlier, the seven churches of Asia stand for the universal Church of all times and places. Therefore, the vision is telling us that even now Christ rules from heaven as High King over all his people, and in heaven as High Priest interceding for his people—this One who in the days of his flesh died in their behalf, but who now lives forevermore, holding in his hand the redemptive keys that have released them from Death and Hades (1:18, 20). So then, here we have our first encounter with the central character of the Revelation: High King and the High priest of Heaven, the One whom the Spirit will faithfully celebrate in all that is about to come. (3)
The High King’s Messages to the Seven Churches (2:1-3:22)
The second bloc of the Revelation consists of the High King’s seven messages to the seven churches in Asia. Here, with special force, we meet the High King as High Prophet; as the One who teaches, exhorts, and comforts not only these particular seven churches, but also the Universal Church that they represent. This point bears repetition and emphasis. Dispensational interpreters—who theorize that chapters 6-20 do not speak of the Church or the Church Era, but rather of Israel and the nations during a future seven-year period of Tribulation following the Rapture—effectively make the bulk of the book a mere curiosity to Christians of the Church Era. After all, since they will not be present on earth in those days, why worry too much about what these chapters say?
However, Revelation 2-3 is a rebuke to all such notions. As I argued earlier, here Christ says to the Church in “didactic” prophecy precisely what he will say to the Church in symbolic or apocalyptic prophecy in chapters 6-20. Here he speaks to the Church Universal; there he speaks to the Church Universal. The Revelation is one book for one people. For this reason, every member of Christ’s Church who reads, hears, and keeps every part of it will be blessed (1:3).
As a rule, each of the seven prophecies to the churches contains five elements. They include: 1) An opening self-description, highlighting one or another of Christ’s attributes or offices: his deity, sovereignty, eternal priesthood, or role as coming Judge; 2) whenever possible, words of commendation, whether for diligence, purity, or perseverance in the face of suffering, etc.; 3) if necessary, words of reproof, whether for growing lovelessness, compromise, or worldliness, etc.; 4) if necessary, calls to repentance, issued with dire warnings to anyone inclined to ignore them; and finally, 5) ultimate promises to faithful and persevering saints who overcome every opponent, and so enter the completed Kingdom at his return.
Since this last point is so important, let us take a moment to explore it more fully.
As in bloc 1, so here: There is a definite eschatological outlook. When Christ issues his glorious promises to the overcoming Christians, he does not encourage them to look forward to a secret Rapture, or to life in heaven as a disembodied spirit, or to a premillennial Parousia, or to (their privileged role in) a future millennial stage of the Kingdom. No, he consistently places before them the ultimate goal and destiny of Salvation History: eternal life with God and Christ in the new heavens and the new earth, a destiny that they will inherit at his Coming. Thus, in the High King’s messages to the Universal Church we encounter the same eschatological outlook that we found in bloc 1 of the Revelation and throughout the didactic NT: There is but one spiritual Kingdom, divided into two simple stages, separated by a single Parousia of Christ in glory, which is the Blessed Hope of the Church.
Let us confirm this point with a brief look at the relevant texts.
The Lord’s promise to the church in Ephesus is this: “To the one who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God” (2:7). Revelation 22:2 and 14 show that he does not have in mind heaven during the intermediate state, but the new heavens and the new earth.
To the church at Smyrna he declares: “The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” A look at Revelation 20:6, 14, and 21:18 shows that the second death is not temporary punishment in Hades, but eternal punishment in the Lake of Fire, administered after the general Resurrection and the Last Judgment. Positively, Christ is therefore promising the overcomers in Smyrna that they will inherit eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth.
To the believers in Pergamum the High King says: “To the one who overcomes I will give of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (2:17). Christ himself is the Manna. For the moment, he is hidden in heaven, but at the Parousia he will give himself fully to his people (John 6:58, Col. 3:1f). The exact meaning of the white stone is not clear: Some say it represents victory, others (final) acquittal.4 Certainly its color calls to mind the shining robes of the glorified saints who will appear with their King at his Parousia (19:14), and who will thereafter worship God forever upon Mt. Zion (i.e., in the new heavens and the new earth, 3:4, 7:9, 13, 14:1f). As for the gift of a new name, Revelation 3:12 closely associates it with the World to Come, wherein the New Jerusalem shall dwell (see also 21:2); meanwhile, Revelation 19:2 and 16 suggest that it will be bestowed at the Parousia by the One who also will have a new Name. So then, everything in this promise directs the hope of the Christian to the Parousia, and to the new and eternal world that the Parousia will bring.
To the believers in Thyatira, the Lord says: Only hold fast what you have until I come. The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. And I will give him the morning star (2:25-28).
Here again the Lord has in view the closing scenes of Salvation History, the end of all things (1 Peter 4:7). Observe from v. 25 that he closely associates the end with his Parousia. At that time, he will grant believers to have a share in administering the Last Judgment, even as the Father has granted Christ to execute it (John 5:27, Rom. 16:20, 1 Cor. 6:2). It is not, as premillennarians assert, that they will rule over the nations for a thousand years with Christ, of which the text says not a word. Rather, it is that at the Judgment, they too, under Christ, will act the part of a shepherd (Gk., poimaino); a shepherd who uses his wooden club to destroy the enemies of the flock, even as a potter uses his iron rod to destroy rejected vessels of clay (2:27, Psalm 2:9-12). Observe also from v. 28 that in addition to granting believers a share in the Last Judgment, the Lord also will grant them the Morning Star. The morning star is Christ (22:16), but especially Christ at his Coming, which will mark the dawn of the Age to Come (2 Peter 1:19). So then, this rich passage rivets the hope of the Thyatirans—and all Christians—on the end: the Last Judgment and the dawn of the new world that will come at the Parousia of the High King of Heaven.
To the overcomers at Sardis, Christ promises that they will walk with him in white, that he will never blot out their name from the Book of Life, and that he will confess their name before the Father and his holy angels (3:5). The last of these three blessings is a recurring theme in the NT: The saints are to maintain their good confession firm until the end, so that when Christ returns with all the holy angels for the Last Judgment he can confess them as true believers, and therefore grant them eternal life in the consummated Kingdom (Mt. 25:31, Mark 8:38, Luke 9:26, 12:8, 1 Tim. 6:12-13). For Christ to confess their name in that Day is for them to enter the eternal World to Come (Mt. 25:31-46).
To the overcomers at Philadelphia the High King promises that he will make them a pillar in the temple of his God; that they will never leave it; and that he will write on them his name, the name of his God, and the name of the City of his God, which is New Jerusalem (3:12). Here again the imagery anticipates John’s later depictions of the glorified Bride of Christ living with God—and as the Temple of God—in the new heavens and the new earth (21-22).
Finally, to the overcomers in Laodicea the King promises that he will grant them to sit with him on his throne, even as the Father granted that he should sit with him on his (3:21). Admittedly, this could be construed as a promise to the effect that the disembodied spirits of the saints will have a share in the heavenly mediatorial reign of Christ during the intermediate state (Rev. 20:4-6). However, all the preceding promises, which have had in view the final destiny of the saints, militate against this. It seems best, then, to view this as an echo of other NT texts that promise the victorious saints a measure of cosmic authority “in the regeneration,” in the Day when the kingdoms of this world will have become the Kingdom of our LORD and of his Christ (11:15; Daniel 7:18, 27, Mt. 28, Luke 19:17).
Summing up, we have seen that bloc 2 of the Revelation is indeed a Message of the High King (and Prophet) of Heaven to his Universal Church. Moreover, we have seen that this bloc reflects a definite eschatological outlook, an outlook no different from that of the first bloc, and no different from that of the rest of the NT. According to this outlook, there is but one spiritual Kingdom, divided into two simple stages, separated by a single Parousia of Christ at the end of the age, when he himself will consummate Salvation History in final judgment and redemption. This perspective is especially evident in the Lord’s promises to the seven churches, which say nothing at all of multiple comings, multiple resurrections, multiple judgments, or a future millennial reign upon the earth. No, for the High King of Heaven the Blessed Hope of his Church is simply “the end,” when he comes again in glory to judge the world in righteousness and bestow upon his beloved Bride eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth.
Does the rest of the Revelation confirm all of this? Does the High King of Heaven here say in “didactic prophecy” anything different from what he later says in “apocalyptic prophecy”? Is the eschatological outlook here any different from the eschatological outlook of the rest of the book? Let us continue our survey in order to find out!
The Investiture of the High King of Heaven (4-5)
Arguably, these two chapters constitute the Mt. Everest of all Holy Scripture. They take us to the highest place, to heaven itself. They plant us upon the supreme vantage, and give us the supreme vista—a sighting of all cosmic history, and of the sovereign God who ordained it. Like nowhere else in the Bible, we behold Him: the all-glorious, all-sovereign, triune Creator, Judge, and Redeemer of the universe. Small wonder, then, that at every turn we find both men and angels falling down before him, gratefully exalting the One who so graciously created them, and so mercifully redeemed them. When we see what they see, we are moved to do the same.
While much could be said about these rich chapters, our primary concern here is to inquire into the role they play in the overall “argument” of the book. What is their function in relation to the rest of the Revelation; and how, if at all, does this illuminate its structure?
My response to these questions involves three closely related theses.
First, these chapters are clearly transitional. They take us from the things that John has seen (chapter 1), and from the things that are (chapters 2-3); and they prepare us to behold the things that will be throughout the remainder of Church era and beyond (chapters 6-22; 1:19).
Secondly, they are central, in the sense that they give us the Master Theme that holds the rest of the book together. As we are about to see, that theme is the exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ. More particularly, it is the exaltation of Christ as the High King of heaven and earth, with God-given authority to oversee and superintend all that remains of Salvation History up to and including his Parousia, when he will consummate all things in final judgment and redemption.
And thirdly, these chapters are unifying. That is, they enable us to see how every bloc of the Revelation, each in its own way, is devoted to exploring the many-faceted glory of the High King.
And now—with all this to prepare us—let us take a few moments to see how chapters 4-5 communicate these glorious themes.
1. The Glory of God the Father (Rev. 4)
In essence, chapter 4 is a revelation, in vision and symbol, of the glory of God the Father, especially in his role as the sovereign Creator and Judge of the universe. Accordingly, John beholds him seated upon a throne, a symbol of his universal sovereignty (4:2). His appearance is as of jewels, representing the glory of his being and the riches of his character (4:3). Surrounding him are 24 elders dressed in white, wearing crowns, and seated upon thrones. These picture the Universal Church, which God has predestined to behold his glory and share in his eternal reign (4:4, 7:9-17). Very importantly, flashes of lightning and peals of thunder emanate from his throne, tokens of the dreadful wrath and terrifying judgments poised to go forth against all who rebel against Him (4:5-6, 5:6). The cherubim and seraphim who always surround his throne understand this quite well, having profound insight into God’s holiness, eternity, and sovereignty—and who therefore worship him accordingly (4:6-8). So too does the Church, here pictured in her eternal calling as a worshiper of the Fountainhead of all creation (4:9-11).
We see, then, that chapter 4 sets the stage. Yes, the holy Creator and Judge of the cosmos is radiant and majestic beyond description. However, for this very reason he is also a mortal threat to the company of guilty sinners on the earth below, a mathematical set that includes every human being born to woman, save One.
Happily, that One is about to take center stage.
2. The Triumph of the Lamb (Rev. 5)
Chapter 5 gives us the Triumph of the Lamb and his Investiture as the High King of Heaven. It too uses vision and symbol, this time to show us God fulfilling his part in the Covenant of Redemption; to show us what happened when the resurrected Christ ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Father so as to become the High Priest, High Prophet, and High of King of the cosmos. Let us briefly explore the vision itself in order to see how the Spirit signifies these great truths.
In verse 1 John notices a scroll in the right hand of God, written within and without, sealed with seven seals. According to many interpreters, it is a last will and testament, upon which is written, very fulsomely, the promise of the Eternal Covenant: Eternal life with the Triune God in the new heavens and the new earth. When at last we reach chapters 21-22, we will learn more about its exact contents. First, however, the seven seals must be opened; first the residue of Salvation History—the Era of Proclamation and Probation, the period of time between Christ’s Session and his Parousia—must run its course. (6)
In verses 2-4 the apostle receives a terrible shock: Precious as the gift is, it appears that the people of God are in no position to receive it! Certainly the loving Father desires to give it to them, seeing that he holds it in his hand. Yet just as certainly, this righteous Judge cannot give it to them, not unless he can find someone to mediate between them and him: someone to fulfill the righteous requirement of his law on their behalf, someone to pay the penalty for their having broken it, and someone who thereby both secures their righteousness and placates God’s wrath against them. But as the apostle scans the cosmos, he finds no creature of God—neither man nor angel—who is “worthy” (i.e., qualified) to become such a mediator. There is no one in heaven or upon the earth can who win the prize of Eternal Life for the people of God. Seeing the dreadful implications of this, the apostle sobs uncontrollably, despairing not only of the salvation of sinners, but also of the fulfillment of God’s original purpose for his creation.
However, at this point one of the 24 elders brings John great good news: Weep not! There is indeed such a Mediator! He is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (i.e., the triumphant Messiah himself) and the Root of David (i.e., the Divine Creator of the Messianic proto-type). This One—the Messianic God-Man—has indeed prevailed, so as to open the scroll and bestow its blessed contents upon the saints.
How exactly has he done this? Verse 6 supplies the answer. In the days of his flesh, the Divine-Human Messiah fulfilled all righteousness; then, at the close of those days, he freely became the Lamb of God, an atoning Sacrifice who took away the sins of his people. Thus did he prevail to redeem them: to rescue them from every spiritual and physical enemy introduced at the Fall, and to restore them to every spiritual and physical friend promised at the Tree of Life. In short, the Lord Jesus Christ prevailed by fulfilling his part in the eternal Covenant of Redemption.
For this reason, John now sees him standing, all-triumphant, between the throne and the 24 elders, effectively serving as the (priestly) Mediator between God and man, shielding his children from the wrath to come, and granting them eternal life in the presence of God. Importantly, he has seven horns, symbolizing his perfect power and authority. He also has seven eyes, symbolizing his perfect knowledge and his perfect spiritual union with the omnipresent, seven-fold Spirit of God. But what exactly will he do with such great powers and privileges?
In verse 7 we receive our answer. Having prevailed on earth for the redemption of his people, the Lamb now boldly approaches the Father to take the scroll from his right hand. The Father gladly yields it (5:7). Here, then, in vision and symbol, we behold yet again one of the great “hinges” of Salvation History; the brief, God-appointed season when Salvation History swings out of the Era of Promise and into the Era of Fulfillment; the holy moment when God the Father gives all authority in heaven and earth to his triumphant Messianic Son, so that he (Christ) might bring in the Kingdom of God (Mt. 28:18ff, Acts 2:33-35, Eph. 1:15-23, Phil. 2:1-11).
As the rest of the NT has taught us, much indeed will flow from this climactic event. Now the Lord Jesus Christ is High King of Heaven and Earth. Now he has a commission from the Father to apply the redemption that he purchased on earth. Now he must send forth the life-giving Spirit; and now, by that same Spirit, he must beget his Church, empower her preaching, gather in her penitent believing members, and nourish, cherish, guide, equip, and protect her as she makes her pilgrim way through the wilderness of the world below.
Moreover, according to that same commission, he must not only apply the redemption that he purchased in his humiliation, but also consummate it at the end of the age. This will occur at his Parousia, when he descends from heaven in power and great glory to destroy his enemies, glorify his Bride, recreate the cosmos, and welcome his Beloved Bride into her eternal home: the new heavens and new earth. All of this and more were hidden away in that holy “season” of Salvation History when the triumphant Messianic Son boldly strode forth to receive the scroll from his Father’s hand.
Small wonder, then, that at this juncture all heaven breaks loose in highest praise to the conquering Lamb (5:8-10). Observe how their song yet again discloses the outworking of the Covenant of Redemption: Because Christ has been faithful to complete his God-ordained work of humiliation, the Father—and all the Father’s sentient creatures—now reckon him worthy to be exalted as the High King of Heaven; worthy to be the One who applies the redemption that he purchased for them in the days of his flesh, and to create a Kingdom of Priests who will forever worship and reign upon the earth (Exodus 19:6, Rev. 5:10, 22:5).
The remainder of the chapter gives us a foretaste of that worship. First, John hears all the holy angels—gathered close around the throne—declaring the worthiness of the Lamb to be so highly exalted (5:11-12). And then, as if in ever-widening circles, he hears all the rest of creation, which, in one way or another, even now is fulfilling the supreme purpose for which they were made: that they should be to the praise of the glory of God and the Lamb (5:13-14).
Earlier, I suggested that these two chapters serve as the theological core—the conceptual center of gravity—of the entire Revelation. Now we can see the reasons why.
On the one hand, they give us the theme of the whole book. That is, by singing and celebrating Christ’s investiture, they introduce us to the High King of Heaven, the One who showed himself in supreme glory to John (chapter 1), spoke with supreme authority to the Universal Church (chapters 2-3), and will henceforth rule with supreme power as the sovereign Lord of all remaining Salvation History (chapters 6-22).
On the other hand, through the symbol of the sealed scroll these chapters give us valuable insight into the structure of the book (6-22). In particular, they teach us that the conquering Lamb is about to do two things: 1) remove the seals of the scroll, and 2) open it, with the result that all of God’s (redeemed) creatures can read, receive, and enjoy their contents. This in turn suggests that the material ahead will likely be divided into two basic parts: 1) that which pertains to events prior to the saints receiving their inheritance, and 2) that which pertains to events at the receiving of their inheritance.
And this is precisely the case. In chapters 6-20 we will indeed find Christ—on six separate occasions—disclosing what will take place prior to the advent of the new heavens and the new earth; giving us—on six separate occasions—the course, character, and consummation of the residue of Salvation History. Then, in chapters 21-22, we will find him disclosing the ultimate goal of Salvation History: Eternal Life in the new heavens and the new earth themselves. In other words, chapters 6-20 correspond to Christ’s breaking the seven seals of the scroll; chapters 21-22 correspond to his making manifest its contents. Observe carefully that the whole story is therefore his story—his to tell, and his to bring to pass. And with this the Father is exceedingly well pleased, since it accords with his eternal purpose and plan, which is to bestow the highest possible glory and honor upon his beloved Son, whom he (the Father) has now exalted as High King of Heaven and Earth.
The Course, Character, and Consummation of the High King’s Heavenly Reign (6-20)
We turn our attention now to the fourth bloc of the Revelation, chapters 6-20. For reasons mentioned above, I have entitled it The Course, Character, and Consummation of the High King’s Heavenly Reign. Is this title accurate? Is this portion of the book really comprised of six visionary cycles, each running parallel to the other; each traversing the era spanning from Christ’s Session to his Paruousia? Can we see the beginning of the Church Era in the beginning portions of these cycles? Can we see the end in the ends? Also, is it true that the cycles are “progressive”; that the deeper we go into them, the more we behold “the last of the last days”, the great eschatological events leading to and involving the Consummation?
But most important of all, is Revelation 20 really part of this bloc? Does it really describe the Church Era? Or is it the case, as premillennarians assert, that this is actually a fifth bloc in its own right; that it describes (and suddenly introduces into NT eschatology) a second, intermediate stage of the Kingdom (i.e., a future Millennium); that it therefore properly occupies a position mid-way between the earlier cycles about the Church Era (chapter 6-19) and later prophecy about the new heavens and the new earth (chapters 21-22)? With these crucial questions ever in mind, let us briefly survey the first five visionary cycles, looking for answers (7).
1. Six Seals (Rev. 6-7)
Chapter six gives us Christ breaking six of the seven seals. In a moment I will argue that chapter seven gives us a preview of the glorified Church in the World to Come. If so, it means that chapter six should take us from the beginning of the Era of Proclamation to its end. Let’s see if it does.
When Christ opens the first seal, John beholds a rider on a white horse. While some have argued that he represents false christs and false prophets (Matt. 24:24), or even the Antichrist, many lines of evidence direct us to Christ himself: neither at his first coming, nor at his second, but on the Day of Pentecost, when he entered the world spiritually—by the Holy Spirit and through the witnessing Church—in order to inaugurate the Era of Gospel Proclamation.
In support of this thesis, three points may be made.
First, observe that the imagery here is clearly rooted in Psalm 45:1-5. In that Messianic psalm the ready writer celebrates the outpouring of God’s grace upon Israel’s (coming) king, and then sends him out into the earth, where, armed with sword and bow, he will ride on victoriously in the cause of truth, meekness, and righteousness. Recall that in Revelation 5 we beheld the exalted Redeemer receiving all authority in heaven and earth. Here in chapter 6—with the help of Psalm 45—we see him riding out and applying the redemption that he accomplished on earth to all who believe; and chastening or judging those who will not.
Secondly, this text has much in common with Revelation 19:11-21. Both passages feature a rider on a white horse, and in both he is going forth to war. But there are important differences, as well. In the former, he is heading out, bent on conquest, while in the latter he is coming back, completing his conquest. Also, in the former he is followed by preliminary judgments designed to advance his redemptive purpose; in the latter he is followed by elect angels and redeemed saints who will assist him in administering the final judgment. The visions give us different phases of Christ’s heavenly reign. However, the Rider is the same same, and in Revelation 19:13 he is explicitly identified as the Word of God.
Finally, recall from our discussion of the structure of the Revelation that chapters 6-20 give us six separate recapitulations of the course and character of the High King’s heavenly reign. This phenomenon is especially evident in chapters 12-14 and 20, but also here in chapter 6, where we first have a vision of Christ inaugurating the era of Gospel Proclamation, then a vision of the various historical judgments that will follow, and finally a vision the Consummation that will usher in the World to Come (seen in chapter 7). The structure of the book—and of this particular chapter—strongly favor the view that the Rider is indeed the Christ of Pentecost.
The next four seals, following as they do after the first, are meant to represent the consequences of Christ’s going forth into the world with the Gospel. Notably, the judgments and events symbolized here run closely parallel to those predicted by Christ in the Olivet Discourse: wars, rumors of war, famines, earthquakes, pestilence, and persecution (Matt. 24:4-9). Once again, the Didactic New Testament supplies the key to the mysteries of the Revelation.
The second seal and the second horseman speak of war, a judgment of God that rightly falls upon men and nations that spurn the redemption offered by Prince of Peace, and who, at the cost of conflict and destruction, give themselves to the pursuit of power, vengeance, or wealth (James 4:1).
The third seal and third horseman speak of economic disruption, scarcity, and hunger, perhaps even to the extent of famine. These judgments may be the consequence of war, or of the foolish policies of evil rulers from whom God has withdrawn the ability to govern wisely (Rev. 13:10). Note, however, that we also hear a voice, declaring, “Do not harm the oil and the wine.” Possibly, this caveat implies that the focus in this seal is upon on believers who are driven to the margins of society, and who therefore suffer economic hardship, even as the rich continue to prosper. More likely, however, the words “mysteriously” hint at the spiritual comforts God will faithfully grant his children in times of economic distress (Matt. 9:17; 2 Cor. 1:3-7; Heb. 1:9; Rev. 12:14).
The fourth seal releases the horseman of Death, with Hades following close behind. By means of a variety of divine judgments seen often in the OT, these two will consume a fourth of the inhabitants of the earth. Here the message of the Spirit—and also of the Church—is that throughout the Era of Gospel Proclamation Death will circulate among us, judging the impenitent and consigning them to Hades. Therefore, let the living take a lesson from the dead and turn to Christ while time remains.
The fifth seal warns of the inevitability of Christian martyrdom throughout the Era of Proclamation, even as it comforts the whole Church with assurances of final justice and public vindication at Christ’s return (6:9-11; Luke 21:16-18, 2 Thess. 1:3-10). Importantly, its position near the end of chapter 6 hints at a solemn truth later to be made make explicit: persecution and martyrdom will greatly increase as the Church and the world near the end of the age (11:7-10, 16:12f, 20:7-10).
This brings us to the sixth seal, and to what is manifestly a description of the Consummation at the Parousia of Christ (6:12-17). The accent here falls on the judgment and misery of the wicked, while in chapter 7 it falls upon the reward and blessedness of the saints. Drawing upon a wide array of OT prophecies of the Day of the LORD—and also reminding us of Christ’s own climactic warning and promise in the Olivet Discourse—the Spirit here depicts the break-up of the physical cosmos (6:12-14), along with the terror that sinners will experience when they behold Christ appearing in the heavens in power, glory, and wrath to judge the world in righteousness (6:15-17; Matt. 24:29-31; 25:31-46). This is indeed the end of the present evil age, which means that Revelation 6 does indeed traverse the entire Era of Proclamation, from the Day of Pentecost to Christ’s Parousia and the Day of Judgment.
At first glance, Revelation 7 seems to do the same.
In verses 1-3, we learn of a divine decree: God will not release the four winds of final (universal) judgment until all his elect children are sealed; until, by the inward work of the Spirit, they are all marked for divine ownership and protection (Rev. 14:1; 2 Cor. 1:22, Eph. 1:13; John 17:6, 11, 2 Peter 3:9, 1 John 3:1).
Verses 4-8 then use OT imagery to depict this sealing, to signify the ingathering of the entire “Israel of God,” both OT saints and New (Gal. 6:16). This interpretation is indicated by the rich numeric symbolism involved: 12 (standing for the OT saints, who were represented by the patriarchs) x12 (standing for the NT saints, who were represented by the apostles) x1000 (standing for magnitude and divine completeness) = 144,000 (standing for the great, divinely completed multitude of Old and New Testament saints).
Verses 9-17 go on to confirm this interpretation, for again they speak of “the 144,000,” this time identifying them for what they really are: a numberless multitude (as many as the stars in the sky for abundance), divinely rescued from “the great tribulation” (i.e., from the trials and persecutions that have befallen the saints of God throughout all Salvation History, from the Fall to the Parousia), and now gladly worshiping God and Christ before the throne (7:9), upon Mt. Zion (14:1), and in the Temple (7:15). As other portions of the book make clear, all three are OT symbols of the joys of eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth (7:17, 21:3-4, 22, 22:3, 14). (8)
We find, then, that the true thrust of Revelation 7 is not to recapitulate the Era of Proclamation or the course of the King’s heavenly reign. Rather, it is to give us our first major glimpse of what awaits the saints on the other side that Era; on the other side of the Parousia by which Christ will bring his heavenly reign to and end: life with the Triune God in the World to Come. For this reason, Revelation 7 cannot be reckoned as a fresh visionary cycle, but is an especially happy ending to the one that immediately precedes it.
2. Seven Trumpets (8-11)
It is clear that chapters 8-11 constitute a single cycle of visions, seeing that the motif of the seven trumpets manifestly binds them together as one (8:7, 11:15). Moreover, it is equally clear that this cycle concludes with a symbolic depiction of the last Judgment at Christ’s return (11:15-19). What is not so clear is where, historically, the cycle begins. Ladd, for examples, argues that from this point on, the Revelation speaks primarily of events to occur at the very end of the age.
However, there are good reasons to question this. The first cycle (6-7) patently begins at the beginning of the Era of Proclamation (6:1-2); so too does the third (12:1-6) and (I will argue) the sixth (20:1-3). If so, how likely is it that the other cycles would begin elsewhere? Also, we have seen that in the Revelation, Christ means to address all Christians of all times. Why, then, would he speak here exclusively to believers living in the last of the last days? Most compelling of all, however, is the evidence found within the text itself, evidence indicating that this awesome vision speaks both to the Church Universal and—with special solicitude—to the portion of the Church that will go through the Last Battle. But rather than elaborate further here, let us briefly survey the cycle as a whole, lingering over the points of special relevance to our study.
As chapter 8 opens, John beholds Christ breaking the seventh seal. Since the breaking of the sixth seal manifested the Last Judgment, it is evident that the breaking of the seventh cannot manifest something to follow; that, in fact, it must be manifesting something similar in nature to what came previously. In other words, here we have our first hint that the forthcoming cycle will indeed traverse the same historical ground as the one preceding it.
When Christ breaks the seal, seven angels stand forth and receive trumpets. But, as verses 3-4 reveal, they will blow the trumpets only in response to the Spirit-filled prayers of the saints, saints who are crying out to God for protection and succor amidst their manifold persecutions (6:9-11, Luke 18:1-8). This too illumines the historical scope of the cycle: Whenever and wherever Christ’s persecuted Church calls out to God, he will respond with a blast of the trumpet; with partial judgments designed to warn of the Final Judgment to come. As we are about to see, it falls to the Church to interpret these judgments to the unbelieving world, even as she preaches the good news of the Gospel, in hopes that men might repent and find eternal safety in the arms of Christ (Mt. 3:7, 1 Thess. 1:10).
Verses 6-12, which describe the sounding of the first four trumpets, also constitute a unit. In symbolic language drawn largely from the Exodus event, the Spirit here reveals that throughout the Era of Proclamation God will respond to the pleas of his saints by sending down judgments upon “the heavens and the earth;” that is, the entire natural order, the physical support system of the inhabitants of the earth (8:13). The recurring numeric symbol, one third, signifies that these are only partial judgments, and therefore warnings of a future judgment that is more complete and far worse (Joshua 6:4, Isaiah 58:1, Joel 2:1f).
Revelation 8:13 is transitional. It announces that the remainder of the cycle will be devoted to examining three “woes,” woes that are identical with the last three trumpets. Here, we are put on notice: The final three trumpets will bring especially painful (woeful) afflictions upon the inhabitants of the earth; the first two will loudly trumpet the final judgment, the third will actually be the final Judgment (Mt. 11:12).
Chapter 9, which describes the fifth and sixth trumpet judgments, is yet another unit. Here, judgment is not upon nature by the hand of God, but upon man and society by the instrumentality of Satan. Verses 1-11, which give us the fifth trumpet judgment, draw upon the prophecies of Joel to picture God delivering Gospel-hardened sinners over to Satan, who in turn commissions his demonic hosts to darken and torment the minds of his willing human subjects.
Verses 12-21, which describe the sixth trumpet judgment, give us much the same, but with this difference: Now Satan is authorized, not only to torment, but also to kill (9:18). The martial imagery employed here strongly suggests that their deaths will occur as a result of demonically inspired war and/or social and cultural collapse (Dan. 11:36ff, Rev. 17:6). Observe from verse 18 that only one third of men are killed, a fraction that has already appeared in the first four trumpet judgments (8:6-12). This signals that here too we are dealing with judgments that will befall unbelieving and unrepentant (9:21) humanity throughout the entire Era of Proclamation, whether in ancient Rome, modern Iran, or any other nation that turns against Christ and his Church. Note, however, that in reading these verses, one cannot help but feel that they apply with special force to the generation of the end (see 11:14; Mt. 24:15-28, Luke 21:25-26).
The stage is now set: We are ready to hear the seventh trumpet and see the third woe. But strange to tell, there is an unexpected interlude; or rather, there is a prelude—and it is nearly two chapters long! Why so? It is because Christ has something of great importance to tell the Church about events immediately preceding the end.
This is evident from the contents of chapter 10. In verses 1-7, John sees a strong angel—very Christ-like—straddling, as it were, the whole world. Lifting his right hand, he swears by the (omnipotent) Maker of heaven and earth that when the first six trumpets have sounded “ . . . there shall be delay no longer, but in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he is about the sound, the mystery of God is finished, as he announced to his servants the prophets” (10:7). We dare not miss the significance of this. Here Christ is telling us that at the end of Era of Proclamation, after the six trumpet judgments have done their work, the Consummation will come. The “mystery of God”—his entire redemptive plan, announced in the Gospel—will be fully accomplished.9 However, as verses 9-11 reveal, before it is accomplished, something bittersweet must occur. It is written in the little book in the angel’s hand, which John now eats, and then, in chapter 11, speaks to us all. Since it is cosmic in its scope, affecting all men and nations, the saints do well to listen with care (10:11)!
There follows one of the most amazing and illuminating chapters in the Revelation. As we shall see, it spans the entire Era of Proclamation (11:1-6), but focuses largely upon the Last Battle (11:7-10) and the Consummation quickly to follow (11:11-19). Here is yet another line of evidence favorable to the view that chapters 8-11 must not be interpreted futuristically, but as spanning the whole reign of the High King of Heaven.
In symbolic language drawn from the book of Ezekiel and also from Israel’s history, verses 1-2 tell us that throughout the Era of Proclamation (symbolized by 42 months) God will measure his true spiritual Temple (the Church) for eternal protection from the wrath to come; nevertheless, as to her outward existence, she (and her public institutions) will suffer a more or less continual “trampling” (i.e., persecution) beneath the feet of unbelievers (Luke 21:16-19).
Verses 3-6 use Old and New Testament imagery to explain why the Church will receive such ill treatment: Just as Jesus authorized his disciples to go forth two by two as his witnesses to the cities of Israel, so now he authorizes his Church to go forth as Gospel prophets to the whole world (11:3; Luke 10:1, Mt. 28:18ff, Rev. 1:2, 5). Clothed in sackcloth, they will interpret to men the signs of the time—God’s trumpet judgments—, warn of the final Judgment, and so call the nations to repentance and faith throughout the entire Era of Proclamation, here symbolized as 1260 days (11:3, 12:5-6, 14). Ever standing before her Lord, she will be his proxy in the earth, the Spirit-filled light of the world (11:4, Zech. 4, Rev. 1:20). Like Jeremiah, Moses, and Elijah, she will have authority, not to destroy, but to pronounce destruction, over all the impenitent persecutors of God, Christ, and the NT Israel (11:5; Exodus 7:20, 1 Kings 17:1f, John 20:23, Acts 9:4. 13:46). This is the “sweet” part of the prophecy: The Church will complete her testimony, and she will gather in Christ’s flock.
Now, however, comes the bitter. In verses 7-10 we arrive at the end of the age, and at the season of the Church’s greatest tribulation. When she has completed the Great Commission, an increasingly lawless world-system will suddenly go over to Satan, who, through the Antichrist’s lawless regime (i.e., the final incarnation of the Beast), will destroy the visible, institutional church (11:7, 9:2, 17:8, 23, 20:3, 7-10). For a very brief season—“three and a half days”—the Great City of the present evil world, formerly embodied in Sodom, Egypt, and Jerusalem, will gloat over her demise, and rejoice that the convicting words of the Gospel will never again fall upon their ears so as to torment their conscience (11:8-10). Again, this is the Revelation’s first clear depiction of the Last Battle. With a view to her comfort, the Lord would have his Bride understand that he himself has ordained it, that it will be very brief, and that it will usher in her Blessed Hope, the Consummation of all things. Here is still more sweetness, with which the bitter is not worthy to be compared (Rom. 8:18).
We behold this good news in verses 11-19, where the prophecy of the Seven Trumpets is brought to a close. With the help of NT eschatology, we can readily decipher the true meaning. Verses 11-14 speak of the initial stages of the Consummation. When Christ appears in glory he will raise the dead saints, transform the living saints, and gather them all to his side in the skies above the earth (11:11-12; Mt. 24:31, 1 Cor. 15:51f, 1 Thess. 4:13f). Meanwhile, as his enemies watch in terror, the first waves of divine judgment will strike the earth below, shaking all things, killing many, and setting in motion the collapse of the City of Man (11:13: Rev. 6:12, Heb. 12:25-29). With this, the second woe (pictured in 9:13-21) is fully fulfilled, leaving the remnant of living humanity to glorify God. They will do so, however, not because they love him, but because Christ at his Parousia forces them to confess that he is indeed Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:9-11).
Verses 15-19 give us the third woe, the seventh trumpet, and (according to verse 18) the Last Judgment. It is celebrated by the angels (11:15) and the glorified Church (11:16-18). In both cases, the celebrants mark it as the commencement of the Kingdom in its full and final form. This is particularly evident from the words of the angels, who declare that once the Judgment is complete the kingdom of the world will become the Kingdom of God and of his Christ, at which time he will fully reign, forever and ever (Daniel 2:44, 7:7:14, 27). Observe from verse 16 that the 24 elders give thanks to Him who was and is, but not to Him who “is to come,” for now both He and His eternal Kingdom have come! Verse 18 is also very valuable for our study, agreeing as it does with the rest of the NT that immediately following the Last Battle there is but one (i.e., final) judgment, at which time the saints will receive their eternal reward, even as the wicked are destroyed forever.
Finally, under cover of rich OT imagery, verse 19 tells us that Christ himself will execute that judgment. At the Parousia, heaven—which has hitherto concealed the High King—will be opened at last, so that every eye will see him, this One who is the true Ark of the Covenant, the true meeting place of God and all his redeemed children (Ex. 25:22; Col. 3:1-3, 1 Tim. 2:5, Heb. 9:24, Rev. 1:7). However, when he appears, those who refused to enter that Covenant will meet only with God’s wrath and retribution, typified here by such OT manifestations as lightning, thunder, earthquake, and hail (Rev. 4:5). Thus does the cycle end, by giving us the end.
Summing up, we have found that Revelation 8-11, just like 6-7, does indeed depict the course, character, and consummation of the reign of the High King of Heaven. Moreover, as in 6-7, it teaches us that when the High King comes again, so too will the Kingdom in its full and final form. Here, however, there is something new, a measure of “progress.” For here the Spirit introduces the theme of the Last Battle, and also begins to lay a greater emphasis upon the last of the last days.
So far, then, it appears that our chart gives us a good description of the true structure of the Revelation.
3. The Woman and the Man-Child, Persecuted by the Dragon and His Helpers (12-14)
We come now to the third of the six cycles depicting the course, character, and consummation of the High King’s heavenly reign. This one is notable for giving us a unique glimpse of OT Salvation History, introducing the main antagonists in the Battle of the Ages, and supplying important keys to the proper interpretation of Revelation 20. Keeping these themes in mind, let us survey it briefly.
As we saw earlier, chapter 12 uses the Exodus motif to give us a compelling paradigm by which the Universal Church may think of Salvation History as a whole, and also of her day-to-day experience in the earth. It includes three elements: 1) rescue from spiritual Egypt (i.e., the Domain of Darkness), 2) a long and difficult pilgrimage—with the Lord at her side—through the wilderness of this world, and, 3) a joyous, triumphal entry into the Promised Land.
Verses 1-6, astonishing for the conciseness with which they manage to convey so much redemptive truth, give us the three chief actors in this great cosmic drama, even as they depict the course of Salvation History as a whole.
First, we meet the Woman. Adorned as a heavenly Bride for her Betrothed, she is the Woman prophesied in Genesis 3:15: the Church of all times and places, in both her Old and New Testament embodiments (12:1, Rom. 11:11-24, Rev. 7:1f, 21:10-14). Beautiful as she is, she is nevertheless crying out in pain, emblematic of the sufferings of the OT saints, whose costly faithfulness ensured the delivery of the Messiah into the world (12:2).
Next, we meet the Dragon and his host of fallen evil angels. This is Satan, but Satan with a full complement of heads, horns, and crowns: Satan as the invisible power and authority who seeks to destroy the Woman and her Child through his human helpers in the world (12:3-4).
Here, too, we meet the protagonist of the drama: the Man-Child, the Last Adam. Does Satan strike him on the heel? To be sure. Is he destroyed? Far from it, for following his resurrection, he ascends into heaven, where, for an appointed season, he will reign as High King of the cosmos, and then return to judge the nations with a rod of iron, at which time he will crush the serpent’s head once and for all (12:5, Gen. 3:15, Psalm 2:9, Rom. 16:20, Rev. 19:15).
But alas, the Woman, having work to accomplish on earth, cannot follow him—at least not yet (John 13:33, 14:1-3). Therefore, like Israel at the Exodus, or like Elijah in the days of Ahab, the evangelistic Church flees into the wilderness of the fallen world-system, where God and Christ faithfully nourish her by Word, Sacrament, and Spirit, until, at the end of “1260 days” (i.e., the appointed season of their pilgrimage), she enters the Promised Land.
We find, then, that this cycle clearly begins at the beginning of the Era of Proclamation, and that it symbolically designates that era as 1260 days.
As I argued earlier, verses 7-12 use apocalyptic symbolism to speak of the cosmic dethronement of Satan; of his being “cast out” of his lawful position as king over all the unbelieving nations (12:9, Mt. 12:22-29). In principle, this was accomplished when Christ, having secured both righteousness and pardon for his people by his earthy life and death, took his seat in the heavenlies as their High Priest and King. This we see in 12:5. However, in practice it is accomplished progressively, over the course of the whole Era of Proclamation, wherein the Church, amidst much persecution, effectively preaches the Gospel so that God’s elect are brought into his spiritual Kingdom. This we see in 12:7-12.
Here, then, we have an exact parallel to, and apocalyptic illustration of, the words of Jesus in John 12:31-32: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth (i.e., in death, exaltation, and preaching), will draw all (God’s elect) to myself.” In this text, Christ looks ahead to the Cross and describes its aftermath; in Revelation 12, the Spirit looks back at the Cross, and also describes its aftermath. In both cases, the premises are the same. Prior to Calvary, Satan had deceived the nations, holding them, unawares, in his grip and kingdom (12:9a; Luke 4:5-8, Rev. 20:3, 8). Now, however, by his life, death, and resurrection, the Redeemer has triumphed, so that Satan’s hold is broken and his kingdom is henceforth in slow-motion collapse. This happens through the preaching of the Church, by which the sovereign God transfers his (Satan’s) former subjects into the Kingdom (and new world) of his beloved Son (12:9b-10, Col. 1:13). Verses 11-12 assure us that the saints will indeed persevere under Christ’s benevolent reign, that heaven ever rejoices in this fact, and that throughout the Era of Proclamation the devil will sooner or later turn his frustration upon his own subjects, “the inhabitants of the earth” who have refused to enter Christ’s heavenly kingdom (Rev. 9:1ff).
Verses 13-17 elaborate upon verse 6. Throughout the Era of Proclamation, an infuriated Adversary will indeed persecute the Woman and her seed: the Church and her believing offspring, begotten down through the centuries by the preaching of the Gospel (12:13, 17; Gen. 3:15, 1 Peter 1:3). However, as in the case of Israel and Elijah, so here: Christ, by the Spirit, will always be with her, giving her flight, nourishment, and help amidst all her trials and temptations (12:14-16; Ex. 16:1ff, Deut. 32:11-12, Psalm 124, 1 Cor. 10:13). Note carefully from verses 12:6 and 12:14 that “1260 days” and “a time, times, and a half a time” are equivalent. Like 42 months, these figures symbolize the entire Era of Proclamation, during which the Church, like Israel and Elijah, remains in exile (from worldly acceptance) and under tribulation.
In chapter 13 we are introduced to the first two of the Dragon’s helpers, the worldly instruments by which he will persecute the Woman.
Verses 1-10 speak to us of the Beast. Having a full complement of horns and crowns, and summing up the four beasts of Daniel 7, this monster clearly represents the political or governmental face of the world-system as it appears in NT times, and especially when it goes over to Satan and persecutes the people of God (13:1-2).
Verses 3-5 tell us that throughout the Era of Proclamation (symbolized by 42 months) this proud, pretentious, and powerful usurper will pop up its ugly head over and again—reviving, as it were, from the dead—, with the result that the inhabitants of the earth (i.e., unbelievers) will over and again marvel, fear, follow, and thus (unconsciously) worship the Dragon.
While verses 6-9 can be read as describing the antagonism of the Beast towards the Church throughout the whole Era of Proclamation, here there is also a subtle change of emphasis. Allusions to Daniel 7 and 2 Thessalonians, a shift to the future tense in verse 8, and the global dimensions of the conflict here predicted, all signal that the accent now falls upon the final embodiment of the Beast under the Antichrist. In short, we have again arrived at the Last Battle (11:7, Dan. 7:8, 19-28, 2 Thess. 2:1-12).
Verse 10 steels the persecuted Church of all ages with a strong assurance of final justice upon her foes.
Verses 11-18 introduce us to the second of the Dragon’s helpers, the Beast from the Earth, or the False Prophet (Rev. 16:13, 19:20). This is the religious face of the world-system, especially insofar as it encourages the deification of the State and/or its rulers. Having already discussed this section at length, I will not repeat myself here, except to stress once again that we must not interpret this passage literally or futuristically. Rather, following the lead of closely related texts, we must see the Spirit here using apocalyptic symbolism to warn the Church of all generations (and the world as well) never to turn one’s back on Christ by giving ultimate personal allegiance to the State (Rev. 7:1ff, 14:1-5, 20:4-6). Yes, down through the centuries many have fallen, heeding the voice of the False Prophet, taking the mark of the Beast, and replacing the worship of God with the worship of man (Daniel 3:1f, John 19:15, Acts 12:22). And yes, in the days of the Last Battle, many—indeed, most—will do so again (13:8, Mt. 24:15-28, 2 Thess. 2:1-10). But the Christian must not. In the face of every false gospel, every fake miracle, powerful peer pressure, strong economic coercion, and ugly threats against himself and his loved ones, he has but one response: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 4:13-22, 5:25).
Having taught the Church what to expect in the Era of Proclamation, the Heavenly Prophet now brings this cycle to a close with a well-balanced blend of encouragement and exhortation (14:1ff). Four steps are involved.
First, he gives the Church Militant yet another soul-stirring glimpse of life on the eschatological Mt. Zion; of life in the new heavens and the new earth (14:1-6; Isaiah 11:9, 65:25, Rev. 21:10). The saints of all time are there: all “144,000” (14:1); all whom the Lamb has purchased from the earth (14:3-4); all who did not commit acts of immorality with the Harlot (14:4, 17:2); all who remained pure and faithful to their Betrothed, cherishing the Day of Bridegroom’s Coming and the celebration of the Marriage Feast (21:2); all in whose mouth there was found no lie—neither false gospel nor false profession (16:13); all who are blameless through the Blameless One, who is Christ (14:5, 1 John 2:1). These will forever belong to God and Christ (14:1), worship before his throne (14:3), and follow the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4). Let the suffering saints remember and take heart.
Having encouraged the saints, the Lord next exhorts and warns them (14:6-13). In so doing, he gives John a vision of three angels. The first has an everlasting gospel to preach to all nations, a gospel by which men may escape the almighty Creator’s judgment to come. In the fear of the Lord, the Church is to preach it (14:6-7). The second heralds the imminent destruction of the Harlot, or Babylon the Great, both of which symbols represent the world-system as temptress. In the fear of the Lord, the Church is to come out of her, and stay out of her (14:8, 18:4). The third—using some of the weightiest language in all Scripture—depicts the eternal punishment of those who worship the Beast (and the Dragon), thereby taking his mark of ownership upon them. In the fear of the Lord, the Church must stand strong against every temptation to do so; she must faithfully persevere with Christ to the end (14:9-12). Moreover, as she does, let her recall the blessedness of all who die in faith throughout the Era of Proclamation, for in heaven their spirits will find rest from their toil, even as they await the resurrection and eternal reward (14:13, 20:2-6).
In 14:14-16, the Lord yet again offers encouragement, this time bringing us to the Consummation itself, where we behold the ultimate ingathering of God’s elect. The motif employed here, first sounded in the Gospels, is that of the harvest (Mt. 3:12, 13:30). At his Parousia, the High King himself will appear in the skies above the earth to bring his wheat into his barn; to send forth his angels to gather his risen, transformed, and glorified saints to his side (14:14, 16; Dan. 7:13, Mt. 24:30, 26:64, 1 Thess. 4:17).
In 14:17-20 we arrive at the closing scenes of the cycle. Here, the Lord warns and encourages the saints with a prediction of the final judgment of the wicked. This time it is the angel with the power of fire who swings the sickle (14:18); nevertheless, the continuing use of the harvest motif assures us that this Judgment also occurs at the Parousia, and that Christ is the Agent behind it, just as the rest of the NT teaches (Mt. 13:36-43, 47-50, 24-25, 2 Thess. 1:1ff). Passing over the resurrection of the wicked and the universal assize before the Judgment Seat of Christ (20:11-15), the vision runs to the eternal punishment of the wicked in the great winepress of the wrath of God, which is the Lake of Fire (14:10, 20:14-15). The difficult final verse, with its mention of horses, alludes to certain OT texts depicting the world’s final assault against the Israel of God (14:20; Ezek. 38:4, 15, Zech. 14:5). The message is: As soon as Christ’s enemies launch their Last Battle against his Church, so soon will he return to engulf them—and all their (resurrected) predecessors—in utter destruction (16:12-16, 19:11-16). The finality of this judgment is seen in its universality: It extends in all four directions with “complete completeness” (4x4x10x10=1600), leaving all of the wicked of all the earth forever outside the City of God (Rev. 22:15).
Summing up, we have seen that this cycle does indeed traverse the entire Era of Proclamation. It clearly begins with the Session of Christ (12:1-5) and clearly ends with his Parousia (14:14-20). In subtle ways, it again warns of the Last Battle (13:6-10, 14:20), but also offers great comfort, whether of life with Christ in the Intermediate State (14:13) or, following his return, life with Christ in the World to Come (14:1-5). Nowhere is there the least hint of a future Millennium. Here, the theology of the (structure of the) Kingdom and the Consummation is identical with that of the rest of the NT.
However, we do observe something of great interest and importance: The cosmic dethronement of Satan in principle and practice, depicted in 12:1-12, bears a striking resemblance to the binding of Satan, depicted in 20:1-3 (see especially 12:9 and 20:3). Does this mean that the 1260 days of 12:6, the 42 months of 13:5, and the 1000 years of 20:2-3 all refer mystically to the Era of Proclamation? Does it mean that 20:4-6, like 14:13, refers to the Intermediate State? Does it mean that 20:7-10, like 13:6-10 and 14:20, refers to the Last Battle? And does it mean that 20:11-15, like 14:14-20, refers to the Last Judgment, with an emphasis upon the eternal punishment of the wicked?
Our journey so far would certainly suggest it. But let us continue that journey, in order to see if the pattern will hold.
4. Seven Bowls of God’s Final Wrath (15-16)
Chapters 15-16 give us the fourth cycle in which the Spirit depicts the course, character, and consummation of the High King’s reign. A brief look at 16:12-21 makes it clear that the cycle does indeed end with a picture of the Consummation. However, the opening verse tells us that the theme of the visions to follow is the seven last plagues in which the wrath of God is finished (15:1). Moreover, many of the judgments described certainly look both cosmic and cataclysmic. Accordingly, some interpreters, like George Ladd and Dennis Johnson, argue that here the Spirit speaks exclusively about the end, about the last of the last days. Others, however, such as William Hendriksen and Greg Beale, contend that this cycle, like all the rest, once again traverses the entire Era of Proclamation. (10)
For a number of reasons, I favor the latter view. First, there is a natural presumption that this cycle will again give us the whole course of the High King’s reign, seeing that the previous three (not to mention the next two) do this very thing. Secondly, the first four bowl judgments (16:2-11) closely parallel the first four trumpets judgments (8:7-12), suggesting that they both cover the same time frame. Thirdly, it is almost impossible to see how the world-system could mount the Last Battle (16:12-16) if the previous four bowl judgments, more or less literally interpreted, had already fallen upon the earth, or if they were falling upon it concurrently with a final assault against the Church. And finally, the text itself seems quite clearly to teach that these judgments are poured out upon all the impenitents who worship the Beast (16:2), persecute the Church (16:5-6), and blaspheme the God who is now sending them to their death (16:9, 11). It appears, then, that the focus here is indeed upon all of God’s final judgments as they are administered throughout the entire Era of Proclamation, not just at the end.
Keeping these preliminaries in mind, let us now briefly mine this cycle for further insights into the course of the High King’s heavenly reign.
As we just saw, 15:1 serves as a heading in which the theme of the coming cycle is stated: the final outpourings of God’s wrath, both during and at the end of the Era of Proclamation. Observe here that John once again beholds a great and marvelous sign (1:1, 12:1). As Dennis Johnson well remarks, this implies that his message comes to us in symbolic impressions, not photographic reproductions. (11)
Strikingly, 15:2-4 gives us yet another glimpse of the saints in glory, but this time at the very head of the cycle, rather than at its conclusion. The contents of the text itself help us to understand why. Here we have a latter day Song of Moses; the eschatological celebration of all that was typified by Israel’s miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea; the onset of the Church’s eternal glorying in the righteous acts of God and the Lamb, who, at the Parousia, brought them safely through the Red Sea of God’s Judgment, deposited them securely on the shores of the World to Come, and engulfed their enemies in a fiery sea of divine retribution (Exodus 15:1f). In the visions immediately ahead, we will read—with fear and trembling—of many such (final) judgments. Here the suffering Church is taught to expect them, understand them, and—so much as possible on this side of glory—to celebrate them (15:3,4).
In richly symbolic OT language, 15:5-8 shows us God preparing to administer his final judgments against impenitent humanity. Importantly, the angels who are about to pour them out look much like Christ (15:6, 1:13). This hints at what we saw earlier: All throughout the Era of Proclamation, the Father redeems and judges the world by the hand of the High King of Heaven (6:1ff). In the recurrent use of the number of completeness, we see that these are indeed final judgments: seven angels are about to pour out seven plagues from seven bowls. We observe the same finality in the fact that the bowls are full of the wrath of God, and that no one is able to enter his sanctuary (presumably to plead for mercy) until the seven plagues have run their course (17:7-8; Jer. 7:16, 11:14, 14:11, 1 John 5:16).
In 16:1, we hear a heavenly voice—likely that of Christ—sending the seven angels to their task. In verses 2-11 there follows a description of the outpouring of the first five bowls, along with their consequences. Here, the temporal sphere of fulfillment is the entire Era of Proclamation; later, in 16:12-21, it will be the last of the last days. As a rule, these judgments are framed in terms of the plagues wrought against ancient Egypt, though in NT times their actual fulfillment likely includes the spiritual as well as the physical (Exodus 7-11, 1 Cor. 15:46). Again, these judgments run roughly parallel to the trumpet judgments of Revelation 8-11, though their enlarged scope and increased severity signal final retribution (on individuals upon the earth) as opposed to preliminary warning. Interestingly, in no case do the five judgments actually result in physical death. Nevertheless, it is clear that the judgments are indeed unto death, not least of all because they do not lead sinners to repentance, but to a further hardening of their hearts against God, just as in the case of Pharaoh (16:9, 11, Rom. 9:14-18).
With a view to confirming that the time frame of 16:2-11 is indeed the entire Era of Proclamation, I would offer the following suggestions about the interpretation of these challenging verses.
The first speaks of all who have worshiped the Beast, and who therefore suffer and die from the malignancy of their own sin, whether spiritually or physically (16:2; Exodus 9:8-12, Rev. 13:15-17, 20:4).
The second may indeed speak of all who die at sea, or at the hands of the sea, as in the case of devastating hurricanes or tsunamis. Alternatively, it may speak of the death of the “sea” of sinful, impenitent humanity, from which the Dragon calls forth the Beast, and upon which the Harlot sits (16:3, 13:1, 17:1, 15). (11)
The third bowl may represent all who die by poisoned rivers and springs. However, the cry of the angel of the waters, in which he affirms the righteousness of this judgment, could well indicate that these waters symbolize the destruction, in kind, of those who “destroyed” the saints, and who must therefore drink down the wrath of God (16:4-7, Exodus 7:21, Rev. 11:18, 13:10, 17:6).
The fourth bowl does not speak of lethal global warming, which would consume saints and sinners alike, but rather of the withdrawal of God’s common grace from the impenitent; of a fatal intensification of the effects of the curse, such that these people now experience life as though the sun were fiercely beating down upon them (16:8-9, 7:16, 9:2; Psalm 38:1-8, Isaiah 4:6, 25:4). (13)
Finally, the fifth bowl appears to speak of the suffering and death unleashed upon society when God “darkens the throne of the Beast”; when he removes from wicked rulers the skill and favor necessary to govern effectively, so that henceforth war and anarchy reign (16:10-11; Exodus 10:21-23, Psalm 11:1-3, Rev. 17:16).
Interpretations like these, which acknowledge the structure and literary genre of the book, make it easy to see how the first five bowl judgments are fulfilled throughout the entire Era of Proclamation.
Coming as they do at the end of this cycle, it should not surprise us that verses 12-16, which portray the sixth bowl judgment, bring us to the end of the age and the Last Battle. Importantly, we see this pattern in four out of the six cycles, a line of evidence that strongly confirms our view of the structure of chapters 6-20 (11:7-10, 16:12-16, 19:11ff, 20:7-10).
Beneath the OT surface of our text we find a rich NT meaning. I would sum it up as follows: Near the end of the age, the sovereign God will remove from before his enemies every spiritual and circumstantial impediment to their dark ambitions, setting the stage for the Last Battle (16:12; Ezek. 38:1f, 2 Thess. 2:6-7). At that time, Satan will use the Antichrist, the State, the religious arm of the State, a compelling religious ideology, and false signs and wonders to win the allegiance of the entire world-system, thereafter moving it to war against the only dissenter, the true spiritual Church (16:13-14; 2 Thess. 2:1ff, Rev. 11:11-19, 17:14, 19:19). In this toxic environment, where lawlessness and deception super-abounds, Christians must remain doubly vigilant, remembering that it is precisely when things are at their worst that Christ will return, just as he promised (16:15; Mt. 24:23-37, 44, 1 Thess. 5:1-4). Therefore, let believers keep in mind that in that Day the scene of unprovoked attack will suddenly become a scene of unexpected deliverance, even as it was in the days of Deborah, when the people, watching from the heights of Mount Meggido, saw God mightily intervene in behalf of Israel’s armies fighting on the great plain below (Judges 4-5, 5:19; Rev. 20:7-10). (14)
Verses 17-21, as expected, once again give us the Consummation, though here the accent altogether falls upon the punishment of God’s enemies. We know this is the Last Judgment because in it the wrath of God is finished (15:1, 17:2). We also know that Christ, at his Parousia, is the Agent of this Judgment, for though he is not explicitly mentioned here, verse 20 alludes to 6:12-17, where he is indeed explicitly mentioned. The earthquake of verse 18 is the same as that of 6:12: It is the eschatological shaking of all created things, with the result that only holy and unshakable things remain (Psalm 125:1, Ezek. 38:19-23, Hag. 2:6, Heb. 12:27-28, 2 Peter 3:9-12). The Great City of verse 19 is none other than Babylon the Great, which is the City of Man, the tri-partite world-system comprised of the Beast, the False Prophet, and the Harlot. John will again describe its fall, at length, in chapter18. In verse 21, the Spirit once again draws upon Exodus imagery in order to depict the eternal punishment of the wicked, and also (the wretchedness of) their eternal enmity against God (Exodus 9:18-15, Ezek. 38:22).
Summing up, we have seen that this cycle, like the previous three, certainly appears to traverse the entire Era of Proclamation. It definitely ends at the end of the age, with the Last Battle and the Consummation. As for its beginning, one must admit that here, as opposed to chapters 6 and 12, the opening scenes of the Era or Proclamation are not easily discerned. However, this is not because the time frame has changed, but rather because the emphasis has changed. Here, there is progress—a greater emphasis upon final judgments, and upon the final Judgment at the end of the age. This, along with the cosmic imagery involved, accounts for the futuristic feel of these two chapters, though in fact the temporal sphere of fulfillment remains the same as all the rest. Importantly, we have also seen once again that when the Spirit desires to encourage the saints with a revelation of what lies beyond the Consummation, he makes no mention whatsoever of a future millennial reign of Christ on earth, but points instead to life in glory in the new heavens and the new earth (15:1-4; 7:9-15, 14:1-5).
It appears, then, that the pattern proposed in our chart still holds. But in order to make sure, let us take few moments to probe the fifth cycle. Only then will we be in a position to look the sixth and most controversial cycle squarely in the face!
5. The Fall of the Dragon’s Helpers (17-19)
The fifth and (I would argue) penultimate cycle of chapters 6-20 is devoted to the final destruction of all of the Dragon’s helpers, especially the Great Harlot, Babylon. It is marked by a high degree of progressivity: While there are certainly allusions to the large-scale course of Salvation History, here the emphasis is decidedly upon the Last Battle and the Last Judgment. The cycle falls into two parts: 17:1-19:10 focuses on the fall of the Great Harlot; 19:11-21 focuses on the destruction of the Beast and the False Prophet. Let us briefly survey the cycle in order to highlight its structure and primary symbols.
In 17:1-2, the Spirit announces the theme of the bulk of the cycle: the Judgment of the Great Harlot, previously mentioned in 14:8 and 16:19. As we saw earlier, she represents the world-system as seductress. Unlike the Woman of chapter 12, who seeks to draw men to their Creator and Redeemer (and so to their good), this wicked woman draws men away from God and Christ to herself (and so to their destruction). Therefore, she will be destroyed, along with all the (unrepentant) spiritual adulterers who have committed acts of immorality with her (James 4:4).
In verses 3-6, John describes his vision of the Great Harlot. She is seated upon the Beast of 13:1-10. Here is the world-system as temptress, working in concert with the world-system as persecuting political power (17:3). Gorgeously arrayed and holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations, she is like the Rome of John’s day, enticing men to lives of idolatry, materialism, drunkenness, and sensuality (17:6). But this is more than Rome. This is Babylon the Great, the Mother of all spiritual harlots and all the abominations of the earth; this is, as it were, the satanic proto-type, lodged in the mind of the Dragon, that begets every incarnation of the world-system as temptress (17:5, Luke 4:6). The saints of every generation have met and struggled with her corrupt children: Sodom, Egypt, Tyre, Sidon, Babylon, Rome, and the wealthy, sin-besotted cities of the modern world. Therefore, we see that she is drunk, not only with the wine of her own immorality, but also with the blood of the saints. She cannot abide the light that emanates from them, light that pierces the darkness of her own soul. Therefore, as for Christ, so for the saints: She seeks to extinguish their light by putting them to death (17:6; John 1:5, 3:16-21, Rev. 11:10).
In verses 7-13 the angel opens up the meaning of the vision to the wondering apostle. There is more here than the perennial collusion of the Beast and the Harlot. John is seeing a mystery, a previously hidden truth about the destiny of the Harlot, and the destiny of the saints as well. The details are notoriously difficult to interpret, and therefore disputed. My take is as follows:
The Beast that John sees has indeed been around for ages, but it is not the Rome of his day; it is a final political power yet to come, one that both leaders and laity the world over will admire and follow (17:8). Its seven heads are seven mountains, both of which symbolize the “high” power centers of the earth; in the last days, they will be united as one. For a season, the Harlot (i.e., the economic and cultural system) will be comfortably seated upon them, enjoying favor with the final embodiment of the Beast, who recognizes her usefulness in the pursuit of his evil goals (17:9). The seven heads also represent seven kings (i.e., kingdoms). Here we learn something about the history of the Beast: five (of his previous incarnations) have fallen, one is (i.e., Rome), and one (the final one) is yet to come. However, it will endure only briefly, for Christ himself will destroy it at his Parousia (17:10, 19:20). The final incarnation of the Beast will be an eighth king, yet one of the seven. In other words, the final kingdom will be the same as one of the others (i.e., a revival of a previous kingdom), yet also different from it, in that, for power and geographical extent, it will sum up and surpass all the rest (17:11). In those days, all the power-centers of the world-system (symbolized by the ten kings) will join with the Beast and embrace his great purpose, which is to crush the true spiritual Church and exalt itself as God over all (17:12-14, 2 Thess. 2:ff).
In verses 14-18 the angel continues his exposition of the eschatological mystery, but now turns to the theme that will dominate the rest of the cycle: the final destruction of the Harlot, the Beast, and the False Prophet. He begins by tersely announcing the Last Battle, and then, as usual, the triumph of the Lamb and his faithful followers that will immediately ensue (17:14). Notably, in those days the Harlot will finally sit as queen over all the nations, much as Rome (nearly) did in John’s time (17:15, 18:17). However, just prior to Christ’s return, God will put it into the heart of the Beast and his violent retinue of world leaders to devour her flesh. Presumably, this is the desolation of the global economy and culture as a result of the military and economic policies of the Antichrist’s one-world government (17:16-17). As a prelude to the divine destruction of sinners at Christ’s return, Providence will first display the self-destructive power of sin itself.
In chapter 18, we reach the threshold of the Judgment of the Great Harlot. It opens with an angel descending from heaven, heralding her imminent demise: She is about to become a dwelling-place of demons, a prison-house of every unclean spirit and hated bird. In short, she is about to be cast into hell (18:2; Isaiah 13:21f, 34:11, 13-15, Rev. 19:20). For this reason, a heavenly voice issues a final warning to God’s people: Like Lot of old, and like the Israelite remnant of Babylon, they must come out of her lest they share in her plagues. These are the final, eschatological plagues: God Almighty himself, with his arm fully bared, will requite her for her sins once and for all (18:4-8; Isaiah 48:20, Jer. 51:45).
Drawing heavily upon OT oracles of the doom of Tyre (Ezekiel 27) and Babylon (Jeremiah 50-51), verses 9-20 give us all the inhabitants of the earth, both princes and people, lamenting the sudden, fiery destruction of the Great City and its treasure-trove of merchandise, both material and human. It is a graphic picture of what the apostle Paul called “the sorrow of the world” (2 Cor. 7:10). Yes, these who weep and wail and throw dust on their heads are sad, but not over the manifold ways in which they have dishonored their Creator, or over their vicious treatment of his saints, or even over their failure to enter heaven. No, here in hell itself (which is the true locus of their cries of woe) they can think of nothing to lament besides the loss of their (former) goods. It has happened to them according Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus: In their brief lifetime on earth they received their good things, while the saints received their evil things. Now, however, the saints are forever comforted, while they themselves are tormented (Rev. 18:10, 15; Luke 16:25). This is an administration of perfect justice, in which God calls the suffering saints to rejoice (18:20).
Verses 21-24 bring the chapter to a close with yet another vision: A strong angel takes up a huge stone and casts it into the sea. Just so, great Babylon will be thrown down with violence, and will be seen no more. Moreover, in hell God will remove from her denuded precincts every one of his good gifts, gifts that ought to have led her to repentance, but that instead she made into idols: music, craft, the pleasures of married life, light itself. If only the Great City had listened to the message of the saints and prophets who pleaded with her to repent, instead of spilling their blood in her streets. For now, at Christ’s coming in judgment, her time for repentance is past.
19:1-10 brings John’s vision of the fall of the Harlot to a close. Christ has come again. The Judgment has just occurred. All the saints and angels are celebrating the Consummation (7:9ff, 15:1-3). In this celebration, we find the Spirit sharply contrasting the opposing destinies of the two Women of the Revelation, the Harlot (19:1-5) and the Bride (19:6-10).
Four exhortations to praise—four exultant “Hallelujah’s”—are involved. First, John hears the angelic hosts praising God for the Judgment by which he has brought the Harlot’s corrupting influence to an end, avenged the blood of his servants, and secured their eternal salvation (19:1-2). Once again he hears the angels, this time affirming the complete justice of the Harlot’s eternal punishment (19:3). Next, he sees the 24 elders (representing the Church as a whole) and the four living creatures (representing all the cherubim) worshiping before God’s throne, adding their “Amen” to what the angels have just declared (19:4). Finally, John hears a voice emanating from the throne—is it Christ’s?—exhorting all of God’s bondservants to praise him (19:5). Praise him they do, in a thunderous chorus that rocks the universe itself (19:6a)!
But what exactly is the source of their joy, the theme of their praise? Verses 6b-7 give us the all-important answer: The Lord God Almighty has begun to reign! His Kingdom—in its fullness—has come at last! In the ears of the Bride of Christ, no sweeter words were ever heard. They mean that her long season of waiting is at an end; that her Betrothed has finally come for her; that her Beloved is about to take her to his eternal home; that he will now consummate her redemption by way of resurrection, transformation, and glorification, so that in perfect spiritual union they will live together forever in the new heavens and the new earth. Soon, John will receive a vision of their conjugal bliss (Rev. 21-22). Here, however, he simply beholds the Bride receiving her wedding gown at the resurrection: the (perfect) righteousness of Christ, along with her rewards for all that Christ has wrought in and through her during her days upon the earth (19:8, 21:2). Solemnly, a holy angel reminds John of the blessedness of all whom the sovereign God invites to this Marriage Feast (19:9, Mt. 22:1f).
As the cycle draws to a close, the Spirit now takes a small step backwards in time, and slightly modifies his theme. As previously, he will again speak of the Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment of the world-system. Here, however, the spotlight is no longer upon the Harlot, but upon her companions in rebellion and persecution, the Beast and the False Prophet. In other words, with these closing verses, the Spirit brings the history of the Dragon’s three helpers to its appointed end.
Three closely related visions are involved. The first depicts the Parousia, the descent of the glorified Lord Jesus Christ from heaven (19:11-16). This is Mathew 24:29-31, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10, but in apocalyptic language. Again John sees the Rider on the white horse. This time, however, he is not coming by the Spirit and through the Church to conquer hearts for the Gospel. No, he is coming bodily, in power, glory, and faithfulness, to judge and wage war against his (and her) enemies (19:11-13, 6:2). With him are the armies of heaven: certainly the holy angels, and likely the glorified saints as well, many of whose spirits he has brought with him from heaven for the resurrection of the just (19:14; Mt. 25:31, Rom. 16:20, 1 Thess. 4:13-18). This is the Word of God—he who created the cosmos—now fulfilling Psalm 2 by speaking final destruction upon his foes, just as his Almighty Father has given to him (19:13, 15; Psalm 2, John 1:1, 5:22, Rev. 2:27, 12:5). This is also the King of kings and the Lord of lords; for now, at his Parousia, the High King puts every earthly enemy under foot, and so becomes absolute Head over all (19:16; 1 Cor. 15:25-27, Eph. 1:10, 22, Rev. 17:14, 19:12).
In the second vision, John beholds an angel summoning all the birds of mid-heaven to the great supper of God, that they may feast on the flesh of all Christ’s enemies, great and small (19:17-18, 21). Here again the Spirit uses OT apocalyptic language to speak of the torments of the wicked in hell (Ezek. 39:17-20, Rev. 18:2). The third and final vision confirms this interpretation (19:19-21). John sees the Beast and his armies arrayed against Christ and his army. This is yet another picture of the Last Battle, wherein the consolidated world-system pits itself one final time against the (NT) people of God (19:19; 17:17). But it is to no purpose, for no sooner have they gathered themselves for war, than Christ appears in glory, seizing the Beast, the False Prophet, and all their followers, and casting them into the Lake of Fire (19:20-21; 2 Thess. 2:1ff). Thus, at the Parousia, Christ completely sweeps away all three of the Dragon’s helpers from the earth. In the next cycle, we will see that he sweeps away the Dragon with them.
Summing up, we have found that the fifth cycle of Revelation 6-20 deals largely with the Consummation of the High King’s heavenly reign, emphasizing as it does of the final judgment of the Harlot, the Beast, and the False Prophet. Nevertheless, in doing so, it specifically speaks of the ancient Roman embodiment of these enemies, alongside which John and the early Christians lived and toiled (Rev. 17:10). Moreover, from its various exhortations to the people of God, it is clear that this cycle is meant to speak to Christians of all generations, since they too must stand firm against the manifestation of the Dragon’s helpers proper to their own time (Rev. 18:4-5, 20). Therefore, we may conclude that in a limited but very real sense this cycle does indeed span the entire Era of Proclamation.
Finally, let us note once again that when the Spirit reminds the saints of their Blessed Hope, he says not a word about ruling and reigning with Christ in a future millennial stage of the Kingdom. Rather, he speaks of the Parousia, at which time the Lord will rescue his people from the Last Battle (17:14, 19:19-21), decisively judge his (and their) enemies (18:1ff, 19:11-21), and welcome his glorified Bride to eternal life together with him in the World to Come (19:1-10). Therefore, as in the previous four cycles, so here: The classic NT eschatology is presupposed. The Kingdom is divided into two simple stages, separated by a single Parousia of Christ, who, at his appearing, will consummate all things. Is this not the true Blessed Hope of the saints?
Our examination of the structure of the Revelation is nearly complete. We have seen that the text itself conforms very well to the chart with which we began our journey. Chapter 1 does indeed give us a Vision of the High King. Chapters 2-3 give us his message to the Universal Church. Chapters 4-5, the center of gravity of the book, give us his coronation, his investiture as High King of Heaven and Earth. Very importantly, chapters 6-19 certainly seem to give us five visionary cycles, each of which recapitulates the course, character, and consummation of Christ’s heavenly reign, with increasing emphasis upon the Consummation. Also, in our journey thus far we have repeatedly seen that the Spirit presupposes the simple two-staged eschatology of the NT; that he never presents a future millennial reign with Christ as part of the Blessed Hope; but that he always exalts the Parousia of Christ—wherein he himself will effect the Consummation of all things—as the true Blessed Hope of the Church.
Therefore, we must ask once again: Is it likely that in the sixth and final cycle of Revelation 6-20 (i.e., chapter 20), the Spirit would do anything other than give us the course, character, and consummation of Christ’s heavenly reign one final time? And is it likely—or even possible—that in this, the second to the last chapter of the entire Bible, he would introduce, for the very first time in the NT canon, an idea that must completely revolutionize, if not overthrow, both the eschatology of the Revelation and the eschatology of the entire NT?
No, the great current of NT theology, and the current of the Revelation itself, sweep us along to the only possible conclusion: Revelation 20 must give us still another symbolic depiction of the heavenly reign of Christ.
But does the text itself actually support this most reasonable conclusion? Now, at long last, it is time to find out.
- More Than Conquerors, p. 43.
- Ibid., pp. 36-37.
- The exalted Christ tells John to write the things he has seen, the things that are, and the things that are to take place after this (1:19). Effectively, this divides the book into three parts. The things that John has seen (up to that point) are the contents of the vision of 1:9-20. The things that “are” are the things pertaining to the seven churches of Asia (2:1-3:22). The things yet to take place are all that lies in store for the Universal Church (4:1-22:21).
- “Historically, a white stone was given to victors at games (cf. the Messianic Banquet); such a stone was also used by jurors at trials to vote for acquittal.” The ESV Study Bible, (Crossway, 2008), p. 2466.
- In Revelation 3:10 Christ promises that he will keep the faithful Philadelphians from “the hour of testing that is about to come upon the whole earth.” For Dispensationalists, the hour of testing is the seven year Tribulation at the end of the Church age, from which Christ will keep his people by removing them from the earth at the Rapture (MSB, p. 2707). But for many reasons, this view is impossible. First, the NT does not teach a pre-tribulation Rapture (see chapter 23). Secondly, if it is taught in the Revelation, it is only taught here. Thirdly, it is not taught here, since there is no mention whatsoever of Christ removing his Church or the Philadelphians from the earth. Finally, the Dispensational view is not even compatible with this verse, since it can hardly be said that Christ will keep the Philadelphians from the Tribulation by means of a secret Rapture; on Dispensational premises, the only way he could keep them from it is by keeping them in the faith until they die, so that thereafter they will be with him in heaven and never have to face the Tribulation. What then is the true meaning of the promise found in 3:10? I see two possibilities. First, it may mean that Christ will safely preserve his faithful people whenever and wherever the Beast, the False Prophet, and the Harlot arise to test the spiritual loyalty and integrity of the “inhabitants of the earth,” a test that the latter group will fail (John 17:15, Rev. 13:8, 17:8). On this view, there is a brief but eternally decisive “hour of testing” for all men of all time; a test that Christ will enable his faithful people to pass (2 Cor. 6:2). But secondly, it may mean that Christ will safely preserve his faithful saints at the Last Judgment, when he himself tests the spiritual allegiance of “the inhabitants of the earth,” and sends all whose names are not found in the Lamb’s Book of Life to eternal punishment (Rev. 20:12-15). I lean towards this view since the time of testing mentioned here is brief (lasting only an hour) and quite universal (engulfing the whole world and all who dwell upon the earth). Such images seem aptly to describe the one Judgment of the Great Day (Jude 1:6).
- George Ladd writes: “The little book (or scroll) is in the form of an ancient will, which was usually sealed with the seals of seven witnesses. The book contains God’s inheritance for his people, which is founded upon the death of his Son. The saint’s inheritance is the Kingdom of God; but the blessings of God’s Kingdom cannot be bestowed apart from the destruction of evil. In fact, the very destruction of all evil powers is one of the blessings of God’s kingly rule. Here is the two-fold theme of the Revelation: the judgment of evil and the coming of the Kingdom.” A Theology of the New Testament, p. 674.
- My thinking about the structure of chapters 6-20—and about the structure of the book as a whole—is much indebted to William Hendriksen’s outstanding commentary, More Than Conquerors (Baker, 1995). Highly recommended.
- A close study of Revelation 7:4-8 reveals many hints by which the Spirit would direct us away from a literal interpretation of the 144,000, and towards a more figurative interpretation. They are as follows: 1) The text begins by mentioning Judah (the Messiah’s tribe), rather than Reuben, as was customary in the OT; 2) It omits Dan and Ephraim, replacing them with Joseph and Levi, giving us a list of the tribes of ethnic Israel that is unprecedented in the OT; 3) It is illumined by Rev. 14:1f, which identifies the 144,000 as those redeemed by the Lamb, as those who follow him wherever he goes; 4) It runs closely parallel to Rev. 21:9ff, which, under much the same symbolism, describes the Church in glory; and again, 5) it certainly seemly to receive a decisive interpretation in verse 9, which strongly implies that the “144,000” are, in fact, a great multitude.
- This means, of course, that there is no room for a future millennial stage of the Kingdom.
- For further study of the Revelation see: Greg Beale, The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans, 1998); Louis Brighton, Revelation (Concordia, 1999); Dennis Johnson, The Triumph of the Lamb (Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001); George Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Eerdmans, 1972).
- The Triumph of the Lamb, p. 223.
- Ibid., pp. 225-226.
- Ibid., pp. 228-229.
- Ibid., pp. 231-236.