Previously on Decoding the Apocalypse
We continue in this session with Vision Three (Rev. 17.1-21.8). Up to this point, we have looked at the following:
- In Vision One, we were presented with a vivid word picture of Jesus.
- Next, John followed in Vision Two with a picture of Jesus who was the one who could open the book, which revealed the story of the end.
- Then, we saw the breaking of the first six seals, which suggested what would be happening during the course of the age.
- Next, when we thought that the seventh seal would be opened and the end of the age would be revealed, John stood back for a moment and presented a picture-within-a-picture, an Interlude, in which he demonstrated in symbolic language, a before and after picture of the people of God, which suggested that none of the them would be lost in a time of great tribulation.
- Then, we talked about how the seven trumpets were the contents of the seventh seal: How they functioned as a more expanded look at the end.
- Next, we observed John’s renewed calling as told in the story the Angel and the Little Book.
- Then, we took a look at the concept of the Measuring of the Temple, looking at three suggested positions, i.e., a literal rebuilding, that this metaphor might be a Believing Jewish Remnant, or it may be a reference to the church, and that the latter was the most likely.
- Finally, we looked at the metaphor of the Two Witnesses and suggested that this was a reference to the church.
Following that, we looked at:
- The Dragon, the Woman, and Her Seed (Rev. 12.1-17), which is the beginning of Interlude 3 and describes in metaphorical terms the spiritual conflict behind the scenes where there is a heavenly warfare between God and Satan.
- Next, the Two Beasts (Rev. 13.1-18), which included the Beast From the Sea 13.1-10 and the Beast From the Earth (13.11-18), which is a description of the rise of antichrist as the deification of secular authority.
- Then, the Number 666 and indicated that the number likely means “less than perfect” and demonstrates that while God’s Messiah, Jesus is more than perfect, i.e., his number is 888, the Devil’s Messiah, antichrist is “less than perfect,” which was a genuine appeal for comfort for the seven churches.
- Next, we suggested the blowing of seven trumpets was yet again simply an expansion of the seventh seal.
Then, in the first part of the Vision Three, we saw:
- The Harlot and the Scarlet Beast (Rev. 17.1-6), which for John, the harlot is first century Rome. The portrait, of which John paints a word picture, most likely came from Valeria Messalina, the wife of Claudius, whom the Roman world recognized to be the epitome of all that was rotten and corrupt in the empire.
- The Harlot’s Destruction (Rev. 17.7-18), which we suggested that every great center of power, which has prostituted its wealth and influence, restores to life the spirit of ancient Babylon.
- Babylon Is Declared Desolate (Rev. 18.1-8), which is a picture of absolute desolation where the proud achievements of man become only the demonic haunts of unclean spirits. In this section kings, merchants, and seamen lament at the loss of their monetary accomplishments.
- Babylon Destroyed (Rev. 18.21-24), which demonstrates the collapse from the inside of first century Rome and the final harlot of Babylon.
We ended by suggesting that caution should be taken about dogmatic positions regarding this passage of Revelation. The session ended with the short section of thanksgiving for the fall of Babylon.
We continue now with the end of Vision Three.
The Final Triumph and Consummation 19.6-21.8
The Marriage of the Lamb 19.6-10
The establishment of the universal reign of Jesus had begun. The kingdom of God has become a visible reality. The heavenly multitude sing praises to God as they announce the event of the marriage. This is not the event itself, which is nowhere described in Revelation.
In the ancient world, an engagement was a legal bond between a man and a woman. This is the picture of the church on earth. She is engaged. She is the bride of Christ during this engagement period, just like Mary was the bride of Joseph during their engagement period. Ephesians 5 speaks about the bride of Christ being presented before him without stain or wrinkle (Eph. 5.27, remember, one of the seven churches was the church at Ephesus, so they would be well aware of this concept). This is the bride making herself ready for the bridegroom. Verse 8 says that she is dressed in fine linen, which stands for the righteous acts of the saints. The righteous acts of the saints in Revelation are her steadfastness to God and the holding of her faith in Jesus rather than turning in apostasy to worship antichrist. There is joy and gladness because the heavenly reward awaits those who were reviled and persecuted for the cause of Jesus. The reward is pictured as a great wedding feast where the bride and the Lamb celebrate their union. The union of Christ and his bride, the church, is pictured in the announcement of the wedding feast. Ever gone to a wedding with a suit of armor? Not a wise move. A Jesus follower needs to know what the appropriate attire to wear is!
The Coming of Christ 19.11-16
One of the great themes in the Revelation is the conflict between Christ and antichrist. A quick overview of the idea of the Second Coming of Jesus will be helpful in order to understand this present section. We will use Matthew 24 as an illustration. This passage gives us a clear view of the pattern of the end time.
- In Matthew 24.1-14 we are told the events of the course of this age: wars, famine, earthquakes, etc. The concluding verse in that section (v. 14) tells us that the word of the Gospel must be preached to all nations, then the end will come. This is the history and theology of the world from the ascension of Jesus to his second coming.
- In Matthew 24.15-28, we have the description of antichrist.
- Matthew 24.29 describes the signs which we see in the breaking of the sixth seal in Revelation.
- The appearance of the Son of man and the collection of his followers are given in Matthew 24.30-31.
Readers should note that there is no coming of Christ in Matthew’s account before the time of antichrist. Christ comes after any tribulation period to gather his own.
In 1 Thessalonians 4.13ff. we are told three things about the Second Coming. First, the return of the Lord will occur. Second, the dead in Christ will be resurrected. Third, the church will be called to meet Jesus at his appearing. The theology of the event is that the church, the living saints will enter into their resurrected bodies without passing through death, while the dead saints will rise from their graves in a resurrected body. The language of being caught up to be with the Lord in the air is the language of passing from mortality to immortality.
In 2 Thessalonians, Paul writes to correct some misunderstanding which arose from the writing of 1 Thessalonians. He told the church that a rebellion must first come, then the man of lawlessness (antichrist).
There is a perceivable pattern which arises. It is: rebellion, the coming of antichrist, the resurrection of the dead in Christ, the Second Coming of Christ.
One might well note that there is no rapture of the church mentioned anywhere in the book of Revelation. The point is that no one Scripture tells us everything we need to know about one biblical event. The main theme for John in his telling of the Second Coming in Revelation 19 is to emphasize the triumph of Christ over the forces of evil.
N. T. Wright, along with Marcus Borg, shares the following in their book The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions
The third signpost is the Jewish expectation of the return of YHWH to Zion, reapplied in some early Christian writings to Jesus himself. The Jews had longed for their God to return in judgment and mercy. The Christians believed he had already done so in Jesus, but as the first part of a two-stage process. They therefore reused the language and imagery of return to express their belief that Jesus himself would be personally present as the loving and redeeming center and agent of God’s new creation.
The New Testament often uses the Greek word parousia, frequently translated “coming,” to express this “presence” of Jesus within God’s future recreation of the cosmos. Of course, someone who is present after a time of absence must have “come,” “arrived,” or “appeared.” But the root meaning remains “presence;” the word was often used of the “royal presence” of kings and rulers. If we spoke of Jesus’ royal presence within God’s new creation, rather than thinking of his “coming” as an invasion from outside, our talk about the future might make more sense. It would also be a lot more biblical (201).
I think Tom Wright is right. It is the concept of “invasion from outside” that generates all the talk about a “coming” of Jesus for the saints and allows for the misconception of a rapture of the church out into the heavens where they escape from the apocalyptic end.
So Revelation 19.11 begins by telling the reader that without warning heaven opens. A white horse appears. Remember, white in Revelation has something to do with God. The rider of the horse, Christ, is pictured as a conqueror. He comes with a penetrating gaze and a robe dipped in blood. This may be symbolic of one who is engaged in battle. We might note that the army does not engage in battle, their robes are white and clean. Revelation 19.15 is a symbolic picture of the word of God. The only weapon that the conquering Jesus needs is his word. He will speak and it will be done.
Evil in the world does not have the last word. Wickedness is not going to prevail. Corruption will not have the final say. Christ will overcome evil with his word. There is a wealth of theological insight in this thought. One might ask: Why is there any need for Jesus to come and fight? Scripture wants us to know that evil is Satanic and that it is greater than humankind. Only the conquering Jesus can and will rid the world of evil once and for all. A holy war will bring to a close the present evil age and the rule of Satan. The judgment of the wicked and the vindication of the righteous will occur.
The Battle of Christ and Antichrist 19.17-21
The battle has arrived. This event will bring to an end the antichrist and its/his forces and usher in the long-awaited era of righteousness. The kingdom of God has come in finality. There is no description of the actual warfare. This again should remind us that Revelation is dominated by metaphors and symbols. While we must take the apocalyptic language seriously, we should not take it literally. This battle portrays the eschatological defeat of antichrist (an event, which takes place in time and brings to a close this present evil age). The beast (antichrist) and the false prophet are cast into the lake of fire (a place of final separation from God).
The Binding of Satan, Resurrection, and the Millennial Kingdom 20.1-6
The angel seizes the dragon, binds him, and casts him into the abyss for one thousand years. The language of bottomless pit (KJV), the abyss, and the Devil being chained again, gives us a clue that we are dealing with symbolic language.
It is difficult to take the thousand years with strict literalness in view of how numbers are used symbolically in Revelation. It most likely stands for an ideal period of time. There is nothing in Revelation 20.1 which places this chapter in a time sequence. The angel who has the key and throws the dragon into the abyss suggests that the angel had authority over the abyss and that he could restrain Satan. All four titles which designate the evil one in Revelation are used: the dragon, the old serpent, the Devil, and Satan. We must understand that the idea of the binding of Satan is a symbolic way of describing the curbing of his power. It does not necessarily mean his complete immobilization.
There are three ways in which this passage of Scripture has been traditionally understood.
Amillennialism can in no way be understood as liberalism. Some believe that any position which spiritualizes the words of Revelation is liberal. This position states that Scripture does not predict a period of the rule of Christ on earth before the final judgment. This view holds to a development of good and evil in the world until the Second Coming of Christ. Amillennialism believes that the kingdom of God is now present in the world as the victorious Christ rules his church through the word and the Spirit. It works within a theological premise of recapitulation, which means to go over the same ground again. We have seen this occur in the book of Revelation with the seals, trumpets, and bowls. The binding of Satan is like that of Matthew 12.24ff. The resurrection in chapter 20 is a spiritual resurrection (John 5.25). This system of belief began with St. Augustine in the fourth century AD.
This view emphasizes the present aspect of God’s kingdom which will reach fruition in the future. They believe that the millennium will come through Christian preaching and teaching. Such activity will result in a more godly, peaceful, and prosperous world. This period is not necessarily limited to a thousand years. During this age, the church will assume greater importance and many economic, social, and educational problems can be solved. The prevailing theology of 150 plus years ago is seen in the commentary of Matthew Henry.
This view was the prevailing eschatology during the first three centuries of the Christian Era. It is found in the works of Papias, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Hippolytus. Premillennialists believe that the kingdom of Christ will be inaugurated in a cataclysm. They believe that the return of Christ will be preceded by signs including wars, famines, earthquakes, the preaching of the gospel to all nations, a great apostasy, the appearance of antichrist, and a great tribulation. These events will culminate in the Second Coming, which will result in a period of peace and righteousness when Christ and his saints control the world.
There are two forms of Premillennialism: dispensational and historic.
► Historic Premillennialism
The natural interpretation of Revelation 20.1-6 is that the Devil is bound and cast into the abyss for a thousand years. The purpose of his binding is stated in verse 3: so he can no longer deceive the nations. At the beginning of the thousand years, there is a physical resurrection. Verse 5 says that the rest of the dead do not come to life again until after the thousand years. There are two resurrections at the beginning of the thousand years, the redeemed and the resurrection after the resurrection, the rest of the dead, i.e., those who are not redeemed.
► Dispensational Premillennialism
Dispensational theologians believe that the millennium is a Jewish one. The Jews will return to Israel and become a nation. They will rebuild their Temple and reinstitute the sacrificial system. They believe that the promises given in the Old Testament must be literally fulfilled in a nationalist Jewish people.
The Final Destruction of Satan & Death 20.7-15
In Revelation 20.7, John says that whenever the thousand years is concluded, Satan is released. The word when (NIV) should be translated whenever, which makes the close of the millennium uncertain and supports a symbolic understanding for the thousand years. Whenever this occurs, Satan will be released for a short period. He gathers those who have remained hardened toward the Rule of Christ. They are called Gog and Magog. Gog and Magog are symbolic of the nations of the world, which band together for a final assault on God and his people. There is no specific geographical designation which is intended. They are simply hostiles from across the face of the earth. Then a judgment will occur with the final outcome of death and the grave, being cast into the lake of fire (a place of final separation from God). Along with death and the grave, all those whose names are not written in the book of life will be cast into the lake of fire.
The New Creation 21.1-8
There is a lot of popular theology about heaven that is not very biblical. If you talk to believers about heaven, for the most part, they know that when they die their spirits go to heaven. Going to heaven when one dies is often seen as the goal of becoming a follower of Jesus. There is this insidious thought that we are redeemed, then siloed in church, then raptured, then resurrected, then we finally go to heaven. Of course, there is some who believe that when we die we go directly to heaven.
Regular devout language about leaving “earth” and going to “heaven” needs to be challenged by Revelation’s picture (chapter 21) of new heavens and new earth, and by Paul’s great image, in Romans 8, of the whole creation groaning in birth pangs, longing for liberation, sharing the freedom and glory of the children of God in the world that is yet to be (198).
We have been influenced by the Greek world which believes in two realms: the physical realm to which the human body belongs and the invisible realm to which the soul belongs. Greek philosophy held that the wise man was one who cultivated the soul and suppressed the bodily appetites, so that at death the soul would take its flight from the body to be with a god.
Preachers are good at telling us that just on the other side of the threshold of death, just a moment after we have breathed our last breath, that we will receive our heavenly reward. It is often the case that, for homiletical considerations, exegetical accuracy is suppressed. In other words, in order to get effect, preachers are not always accurate to what the Bible teaches.
The destination of believers is the new earth. This is seen all through the Bible. When God created the earth, he called it good. He has never changed his mind. It is still good. One of the tragedies of the Victorian ethic is that our bodies are evil. It is not true. God gave us our bodies to enjoy the world he created. This is why you will have a resurrected body. Sure, the body may be decaying under the pressure of sin, but it is still the creation of God.
Again from Wright:
Many assume that resurrection simply means “life after death.” Put this together with the prevailing dualism of much Western (and sometimes would-be Christian) culture, and “the resurrection of the body” comes to mean the opposite of what it says. One caller on an Easter phone-in program insisted that he would be going to heaven when he died and wouldn’t be taking his body with him, so he couldn’t see why Jesus hadn’t done the same. If the goodness of God’s present creation, though, is to be reaffirmed at the last, this applies to humans, too. Most Jews of Jesus’ day believed strongly in bodily resurrection…. This was thoroughly in line with their belief, shared by early Christianity, that the redeemer God was also the creator. (The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. 199)
It is not resuscitation that will occur but resurrection:
…Resurrection demands, and the New Testament envisages, a great act of new creation, not the reassembling of identical sets of atoms. As Paul insists in 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 5, the future embodiedness of God’s people will involve a new mode of physicality, over and above the present one (200).
Regular talk of “going to heaven” and the reference to “heaven and hell” as final destinies can therefore be misleading, encouraging visions of a disembodied future existence. Paradise (as in Jesus’ words to the dying brigand) was not, for the Jews, a final destiny but a temporary rest before the final glorious new world. When the Wisdom of Solomon says that “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,” it goes on quickly to speak of their future glorious embodied life. The classic Christian hope and prayer for the faithful departed is that they may rest in peace and rise with Christ in glory (198).
Resurrection life, then, is life, after life after death!
John saw the new Jerusalem coming down to humankind. This is the essence of Biblical theology. Salvation is not a soul taking flight to another world, but rather the other world in Jesus coming into this present evil age to bring an end to evil and to redeem humankind.
At the conclusion of this vision, John has a magnificent sight of the final state of things. The renovation of an old order with a new order is common stock of apocalyptic traditions.
John tells his readers that there will be no more sea (Rev. 21.1). The sea was not a friendly place to ancient humankind. It came to be understood as a symbol of evil, for all the hostile elements of the planet. At the close of the age, all evil will be brought under the control of God, crushed, and put away from his people forever.
In our next and final session, we turn to the new creation, which is expanded in Revelation 21.9-22.5.
Questions for Discussion
- How does the idea of “presence” as an understanding of “coming” cause you to rethink the idea of Jesus coming as an invasion from the outside?
- Scripture doesn’t know of life without a body. In the end, resurrection life is life, after life after death! How does that concept that you don’t go to heaven when you die in some disembodied spiritual life cause to you pause and think about the body you have as something important?