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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

Gleanings from a Season in Revelation

I love the book of Revelation. The thing about it that makes it so appealing to me is the grandeur and magnitude of the scenes. They testify to the greatness, and the power, and the glory of God, and I love those things about God. I don't want a God like me, I want a God who is in a whole different stratosphere to the air I breath. Revelation elevates the eyes of my heart. It helps me to see the sweep of time from God's point of view. It helps me to grasp a little better the awesome cosmic-ness of the power of the spiritual rulers and authorities (Ephesians 6:12). It helps me to grasp more of the unimaginable.

But, it is not only wonder that Revelation creates. Revelation creates in me sobriety. The cosmic scenes are punctuated with evil malefactors, as well as the majestic God of the universe. That means that Revelation carries some very eye-opening realisation about the spiritual forces arrayed against God's kingdom and arrayed against God's people. Images, which to be quite frank, are quite terrifying - and they're meant to be. For all its imagery, ironically, the book of Revelation has the power to make those cosmic realities - the Devil, the world's philosophies, the judgements of God, feel particularly real and particularly imminent (which is what they really are). The blessing (promised at the beginning of the book) of that reality, is that it serves to cut through the sugar-coated existential world we are used to in our every day walk of life, and it serves to draw back the curtain on what is truly happening. Something, I for one, need badly in order to stay alert in this Christian race.

In case you couldn't tell, I've been reading it again. So what did I glean this time? One of the hardest aspects of the book is its structure. It's a book that interlaces its tenses, mixes it's metaphors and draws heavily on Old Testament references. Which, is why there are so many alternative explanations for its structure, its placement in history and its implications for our lives. What I've got a better handle on now than I did before, I think, is what is successive and what is recapitulative in the book. Here's how I'm thinking about the structure of Revelation right now:

Chapters 1-3 seem to cement the book in the age of the church and make it immediately relevant to us as believers between the first and second advents of Jesus. Chapter 4 sets the scene from which the whole revelation flows - the throne of God. Chapter 5 shows us who the main protagonist is behind everything; and it's the Slain Lamb - Jesus. He's the one who has authority over all the unfolding events of the 'last days' and the end of the age. He's the one who is able to open the seals of the scroll in chapter 6.

The first 4 seals reveal the ongoing turmoil God brings on the world. Military conquest, discord, food shortages, famine, plague and slaughter. But there are those people who have departed to be with Christ, which is better by far, and they yearn for the day of consummation when they will receive their bodies and enjoy peace in the presence of God forever (seal no. 5). They're told to wait until all their brothers and sisters have joined them.

Seal 6 signifies the arrival of that very day, the last of the martyred saints enjoined to that great throng in heaven. The contents of this seal are re-told in greater detail in the 7th trumpet and in even greater detail in the series of bowls that come later in the Revelation - later in the Revelation, but not later in time. The 6th seal, 7th trumpet, and bowls of wrath, are all talking about the same point in time - the day when this age has come to an end and Jesus is ready to judge the earth.

Chapter 7 doesn't come after chapter 6 in time terms. Rather chapter 7 is a record of the electing love of God for his people. All his people will come through the day of judgement and not meet with God's wrath because they are his - it's as if God has marked them out for his own.

Chapter 8 and the 7th seal, brings the trumpets into play. The trumpets intensify the warning signs that God's judgement is imminent. Towards the end of the age, but before the end comes there will be intense, but limited in range (signified by 'thirds') judgments to encourage the earth to realise that God's final judgment is really coming and to repent whilst there is time.

Chapter 10 signifies the nature of the 7th trumpet and the bowls, they are simultaneously sweet and sour. They are the final judgements on the earth, when time has run out and they represent intense suffering, and the end of God's patience with mankind - in that sense they are sour. But they are so sweet too. This is the moment the souls under the alter have been waiting for. These final judgments mean that Jesus is about to appear on the scene and vanquish all his foes.

Chapter 11 is not subsequent to chapter 10, we can tell that because of the reference to the 42 month period. The point here is to show that from the sending out of the disciples by Jesus to the return of Jesus, God's faithful church will, like Moses and Elijah, endure persecution to hold forth a testimony for Jesus. And even though that will mean persecution to death, yet the victory will be hers. The bride of Christ will arise again and ascend into the clouds to meet their saviour in the air and then their blood will be avenged by their holy, just and true husband as he brings judgment on the earth (7th trumpet).

Chapter 12, again, is not subsequent to chapter 11, signified once again by the 42 month period. This time the scene is less earth bound and more focused on the cosmic battle that coincides with the birth of the Messiah and the subsequent blow dealt to Satan's plans in the death of Jesus. That ancient serpent, who knows his time is short, has made it his aim to wage war against the Church and to embark on a last gasp attempt to defeat the advancing kingdom of God.

Chapter 13 shows his strategy - namely two beasts and a harlot. One beast to persecute and one to deceive, and a harlot to tempt. These characters symbolise his strategies to get God's people to renounce their faith and to ensure that the rest of the world doesn't listen to the testimony of the witnesses (ch. 11) and thus wind up followers of Jesus. All those who follow the dragon are given a mark of belonging - a feeble attempt to copy the secure-seal (Holy Spirit) the Lamb places on his people in chapter 14.

Chapter 14 draws back the curtains of heaven revealing the lamb with his mighty throng of blood-bought people symbolised by 144,000. They are ready for the day of reckoning which the angels announce the arrival of. The winepress of the fury of God has been made ready and the harvesting is beginning. The great hour of God's judgment has arrived and God is avenging the blood of his martyrs on the inhabitants of the earth who received the mark of the beast. What had felt like a mark of belonging, turns out to be a mark of betrayal for them.

Chapters 15 and 16 detail the final, complete and just judgements of God on the world. The time for warning judgments is over. This moment coincides with one last-ditch attempt on the part of the Dragon to overcome. This time the plot is to gather an awesome army to wage war against the Lamb and his followers. But the earth is so blighted by judgment that there is nothing to sustain life, and the judgements pour down upon them with awesome and unassailable power.

Chapter 17-19:10 depicts the end of the great harlot which the people of the world had been intoxicated with. The world with it's great power of seduction is dealt the final death knell, and the people who had been drunk on her luxuries stand dumbfounded at the sight of her downfall. But the church in heaven rejoices to see the fruit of their resistance of Babylon's luxuries finally vindicated.

Chapter 19, verses 11-21 take us back to the scene of the troops that the Dragon has amassed for war (ch. 16). This time we see another white horse with a rider whose name is faithful and true - Jesus. He rides out with his vast army to conquer his enemies. An angel pre-empts the outcome and calls the birds of the air to gather for a great feast of the flesh of generals and kings and indeed of all people, great and small, slave and free. The two beasts encountered earlier are defeated and thrown into the lake of fire and the rest are killed with the sword coming out of the rider's mouth which is the word of God that convicts the whole world of their guilt.

Chapter 20, verses 1-15 are hard to place. The typical time frame of 42 months is absent, instead we find a different time period - 1,000 years. At the beginning of the period, Satan is incarcerated, bound with a chain, and prevented from deceiving the nations. One is forced to ask the question, if this comes after the great day of God's wrath which saw the annihilation of all God's enemies in the great battle of chapter 19, then where do these nations come from? However, if this is referring to the period between the two advents of Christ, then the question has to be asked, is Satan really prevented from deceiving the nations during the church age? Chapter 16 reveals a beast who works at the behest of the Dragon to do one specific thing - deceive the nations. So, it would seem he's not prevented from deceiving during the church age.

Also, at the beginning of the thousand years, there's a resurrection of those souls, previously seen under the altar in the 5th seal of chapter 6. They are those who had not worshipped the beast or received its mark. They come to life and reign with Christ for the full thousand years - presumably on earth, since they have bodies.

At the end of the thousand years, Satan is released to deceive the nations again. He gathers the nations for war against the camp of God, but fire comes down from heaven and consumes them. On balance it seems that Satan is deceiving the nations now and is not incarcerated, and the first resurrection hasn't taken place yet. And, note that Satan is thrown into the lake of fire where the false profit had already been cast (past tense, indicating this is a new event coming after the previous one). So, I think this is not recapitulation, but is successive, flowing out of chapter 19.

The end of chapter 20 records the second and final resurrection of the rest of the dead and the final judgment seat of God. It depicts the end of death and the committal of the resurrected, not found in the lambs book of life, into the lake of fire.

Chapters 21 and 22 show the creation of the new heavens and earth where the bride of Christ will dwell forever. Where there is no need of sun because the lamb will be the light and where there are no tears.

The closing verses remind the reader that God is still patient and there is still time. That great hour of judgment has not yet come. "Let the one who hears say 'Come!' Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes, take the free gift of the waters of life".


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