Revelation 7 and the 144,000

Revelation Chapter 7 (Interlude)

Introduction

I will borrow from several parts of Beale’s introduction because I have found it helpful for showing how chapter 6 and 7 tie together:

Revelation 7:1-8 explains how believers are sealed so that they can persevere through the first four tribulations (he is referring to the four horsemen) enumerated in chapter 6. The vision of 7:9-17 reveals the heavenly reward for those who do persevere. It amplifies the brief picture of the saints in 6:9-11, who have finally entered into God’s presence, after having successfully completed their course of suffering (see esp. 7:13-15). 7:9-17 also describes the kind of rest that the exalted saint were told to enjoy (6:11)…Saints who suffer in the tribulation are encouraged to persevere as they reflect on the divine protection they have through God’s sealing them and as they recall the promise of their future heavenly reward.

Therefore, the sealing of the saints explains further how Christ will “keep them from the hour of trial” which is “to test the earth-dwellers” who have persecuted them (cf. 6:10). All these connections concern matters that precede the final judgment and reward, so chapter 7 must function as an interlude or parenthesis in its placement after chapter 6. Yet the chapter also has a future aspect, especially toward the end (vv. 15-17). From this perspective the chapter is also an answer to the concluding question of 6:17, “who is able to stand”: before God and not suffer the wrath of the last judgment? This is the definite answer to 6:17 and the main point toward which the visionary narrative of 7:9ff drives.[i]

Hamilton rightly says that, “This chapter is important because we will see later in 9:4 that those who are sealed will not be harmed, and we see in 14:1-5 that this group stands with Jesus, redeemed, on Mount Zion. The fact that God seals his servants also informs the number of the beast in 13:16-18, which seems to be a satanic imitation of God’s sealing of his servants.”[ii]

7:1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree.

There are obviously no “corners” to the earth – Columbus helped us figure that one out some time ago – and just as obvious is the fact that God knew it all along! But the meaning here is a simple literary device to mean that the reach of the power of the angels was worldwide.

What are they holding back? The “four winds”, which I tend to believe equate with the four horsemen from chapter 6. For in Zechariah 6 they are equated as the same thing:

And the angel answered and said to me, “These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth.[iii] (Zechariah 6:5)

Beale explains:

This identification becomes clearer from understanding that the sealing of believers in vv 3-8 explains how they can be protected spiritually from the woes of the four horsemen, which they must endure. Therefore, the identification of the winds with the horsemen means that the sealing of believers in vv 2-8 takes us back even before the time when the four horsemen of 6:1-8 are unleashed.[iv]

7:2-3 Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, [3] saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”

The Seal and the Passover

The seal of God here is the mark of ownership and of protection that indicates that you are God’s own possession and that your salvation has been secured. A brilliant picture of this occurred prior to the Exodus when God instructed Moses to adorn the lentils of Jewish homes in Goshen with the blood of a lamb so that the Angel of Death would know to pass over those homes in the midst of a devastating night-time slaughter of the first born of all Egypt. That night, thousands of years prior to John’s vision, an entire generation was taken away by the Sovereign of all life.

And it is those plagues – the 10 plagues that wracked Egypt prior to the Exodus – that serve as one of the main OT backdrops of the first four seal judgments (the four horsemen), but especially come to mind in the Trumpet and Bowl judgments in the coming chapters. They are modeled after those plagues, and are meant to serve as a reminder of God’s power and sovereignty, as well as His plan for anti-typical fulfillment of a final exodus from sin, death, and a fallen world; He will lead His people to a new land.

Now, the seal is the opposite of the mark of the beast. The mark of the beast is just another way of saying you are a child of the enemy, as opposed to a child of God.

It is a harsh reality that we must come to grips with that all those who are not children of God are, in Biblical terms, categorized as children of Satan, because they are under His control. This reality goes back to Genesis 3:15 where the seed of the Woman was to battle it out with the seed of the Serpent. It didn’t take long before the first battle commenced – Able was the first physical casualty in a war that would stretch for thousands of years. Jesus taught this dichotomy clearly:

They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, [40] but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. [41] You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” [42] Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. [43] Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. [44] You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. [45] But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. [46] Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? [47] Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:39-47).

Paul emphasized this as well:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins [2] in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—[3] among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:1-3).

It is only through the grace of God that one is saved from the enemy camp. Indeed, Jesus came to make enemies His friends:

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. [10] For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life (Romans 5:9-10).

And this seal is that which indicates that we have been snatched from the enemy camp, and are in the army of God’s glorious elect. It is also an indication of protection from all the evil plagues I mentioned were about to befall mankind. Not protection from difficulty, or struggles in this life. The Israelites were spared death, but yet they endured many of the plagues the Egyptians endured, and then wandered in the wilderness and had a tough go of it for many years before being granted entrance into the Promised Land. So too are we protected ultimately.

Beale explains this well I think:

The nature of this protection is spiritual. This is apparent from the fact that believers and unbelievers suffer similar physical afflictions. But, whereas these trials purify God’s servants, they harden the ungodly in their response to God (so 9:19-21). The seal is closely related to the salvation of the people who bear it. This is evident from 14:1-4, where the group that has “written on their foreheads” the names of Christ and the Father (vs1) is also said to be redemptively “purchased.”[v]

Now, more poignantly, the seal is especially that which protects us from what Revelation refers to as “the second death.”

The sealing of the elect is the answer to the question posed in 6:17, “who is able to standin the great day of the Lord’s judgment. Well, the answer is that the elect are able to stand because God has sealed them. Tom Schreiner sums up nicely:

Those whose names are written in the book of life are enrolled because the Lamb has been slain on their behalf (Rev. 13:8; 21:27). The 144,000 are sealed (Rev. 7:1-8) only because they belong to the Lamb. His death is the source of their life. The sing a new song of salvation and have the name of the Father and the Lamb on their foreheads because they have been redeemed by the Lamb (Rev. 14:1-5).[vi]

A Reminder of the OT Imagery

In this way we can see the importance once again of knowing our Old Testament. I’ve said again and again in class how these OT images and stories would have been automatically conjured up in the minds of 1st century believers hearing John’s symbolic descriptions. Their minds would work with OT imagery the same way ours works when we hear the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Immediately we think: Star Wars! And all the stories and characters flood to mind in milliseconds. The same is true for the original readers of John’s letter. Therefore, we much be extra studious to understand their minds, and seek to know the OT backdrop which colors the words of this book.

7:4-8 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: [5] 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, [6] 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, [7] 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, [8] 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.

There are four general theories[vii] of who makes up this group of 144,000.

  1. The dispensational view, which takes it literally as 144,000 exact people, they see it as Jewish Christians coming out of the great tribulation. “This is based on the presupposition that John’s language is to be understood literally except where he states explicitly otherwise.”[viii] The issue is that hermeneutically their literalization of the number is incorrect – every number in Revelation is figurative, why would this be different? Also, their view that a rapture of Christians will take place prior to a period of tribulation is further error that compounds the mistake.
  2. Some classic pre-mills view this group as figurative, standing for the Jews who are partially hardened but will be come to faith en masse when Christ comes back (Romans 11:24-26). The issue with this is that the Romans 11 passage talks about salvation en masse, whereas this pass in Rev. 7 has in view a remnant of people. They seem to be conveying two different ideas.
  3. Some see the 144,000 as Jewish and Gentile Christians in the first century who will emerge from the horrors of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. My issue with this is that it doesn’t seem to accord with the context. If chapter 7 is an explanation of chapter 6:1-8, which I believe is evident, then one would have to say that the four horsemen were only corresponding to that destruction which took place in 70 A.D., with the following 5th seal emphasis on Christian martyrdom. However, I’m not sure that historically this has been the emphasis coming out of 70 AD (not that its not possible I suppose). It would either damage the recapitulation hermeneutic more generally, which we have seen manifold evidence for thus far, else it might suppose that all of the trumpets and bowls are referring to that time in 70AD, something that the global nature of their descriptions seem at odds with.  
  4. Lastly, there is the view that the number is figurative and that the group here is “the complete number of God’s people” (so Beale). I believe this is correct because every other number in Revelation is figurative, and because the context of the passage demands this conclusion.[ix]

I believe there is ample evidence to point to the fact that what is being represented here is not simply a special carve out of ethnic Jews, but a figurative description of the church across all time. While futurists believe that this group of people are Jewish believers coming out of a literal 7-year tribulation period after the rapture, not all premillennial futurists agree. Both Mounce and Ladd disagree, saying that the 144,000 is symbolic for the church in the tribulation.[x] That being said, I just don’t see these ideas as working very well, and believe Schreiner, Beale, and Hendriksen to be on the right track here. This is evidenced by the figurative nature of 144,000.

Beale explains the 144,000 number, and generally Hendriksen and others say the same thing:

144,000 is the result of the square of twelve multiplied by one thousand or the multiple of the squares of ten and twelve multiplied by ten. The use of twelve (and perhaps ten) heightens the figurative idea of completeness. The square of twelve may be merely the number of the tribes of Israel multiplied by itself or, more likely, the twelve tribes multiplied by the twelve apostles. Chapter 21 confirms this suggestion, where the names of the twelve tribes and of the twelve apostles form part of the figurative structure of the heavenly city of God, “the new Jerusalem.”[xi]

Hendriksen picks up on this citation of chapter 21 and says, “Entirely in harmony with this representation we read in Revelation 21 that the holy city Jerusalem has twelve gates and twelve foundations. On these twelve gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. On the twelve foundations were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (21:9-14). We also ready that the wall is 144 cubits in height (21:17).”[xii]

In other words, the number 144,000 is a number meant to represent something, not specifically count individuals. And that something it represents is “the sealed multitude of…the entire Church militant of the old and new dispensations.”[xiii]

Schreiner helpfully discusses the idea and provides a useful summary snapshot:

Some interpreters, of course, understand the 144,000 as literally referring to Israel. The arguments presented previously (cf. his NT theology chapter 17) suggest that John uses “Israel” symbolically to refer to the new people of God. The twelve tribes of Israel point now to a greater fulfillment: the church of Jesus Christ. The 144,000 is symbolic in that it is twelve squared and multiplied by one thousand. It represents, then, the totality of God’s people and the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. It also represents God’s army in that it is comparable to the census of Israel s God’s army in the OT. God’s warriors are those who suffer for other sake of the Lamb. The church of Jesus Christ is, then, the true synagogue of God, the place where his people father together. The church does not cancel out ethnic Israel, for the names of the twelve tribes are on the gates of the heavenly city (Rev. 21:12). But the true Israel, composed of both Jews and Gentiles, finds its fulfillment in the church of Jesus Christ.[xiv]

Lost Identity

I sometimes feel obliged to spend more time refuting the dispensational viewpoint because of its odd predominance in our culture at this time in history. So I want to give one more angle on this group of 144,000 as food for thought.

One of the main difficulties with the dispensational viewpoint on this number representing Jewish Christians from literal tribes is that those tribes were completely obliterated during the Assyrian exile. Beale notes that there was still a possibility that some tribal identity existed in the first century A.D. (e.g. Acts 26:7), it seems that many Jews even at this time didn’t have a specific tribal identity. And while dispensationalists like Walvoord argue that God still knows who is from what tribe,[xv] even that argument has two issues

  1. Intermarriage: Of course God knows everything, but what is it that object of His knowledge? Are there some people who have somehow accidentally remained of purely Reuben, or Judah, or Benjamin blood? Assuming God knows the blood lineage of all mankind, it is still highly doubtful that given all the intermarriage in the last 2000+ years that there remain on earth now (or in the future) those who are purely of the blood of one or another of these tribes.
  2. Context: Beale says, “Even if it were viable (and my first point were null), it would have to remain speculation until more evidence from Revelation 7 or elsewhere in the book could be adduced to support it. Instead, the immediate and broad contexts point to a transferal of the tribal names to the church.”[xvi] That broader context could include the noted parallel of chapter 7 with 14:1-4. In those verses the 144,000 are said to be those who are “redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God” (14:4) – in my mind this draws from NT literature in which we are told the church (James 1:18 perhaps picking up on Jeremiah 2:2-3?) and Christ (1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18) are the firstfruits of God (The church due to the nature of its unity with Christ – see Romans 6-8). That they are redeemed from mankind emphasizes again that they are a remnant, and that they are not simply from Israel, but more globally from “mankind.” We will discuss this more when we come to chapter 14.

An Odd List

Now there are some oddities with the tribal list. First, it is missing the tribe of Dan and also missing Ephraim. Futurists like Walvoord say that this is either because the antichrist will come from Dan, or because these tribes were guilty of idolatry.[xvii] But there is no such biblical evidence to support the former, and the latter could be said of all of the tribes!

Hendriksen says, “To say that the symbol ultimately indicates Israel according to the flesh is wrong. The apostle certainly knew that ten of the twelve tribes had disappeared in Assyria, at least to a great extent; while Judah and Benjamin had lost their national existence when Jerusalem fell, in AD 70. Besides, if Israel according to the flesh were meant, why should Ephraim and Dan be omitted? Surely not all the people in the tribe of Dan were lost.”[xviii]

Of course some of this doubles down on what I already mentioned before, but I believe it’s sometimes helpful to hear it from other sources and perspectives.

Another oddity is that Judah is listed first in the list. In my mind there could be some influence here from Genesis 49 where Jacob blessed his sons and predicted that from the tribe of Judah would come a king – that king, as we now know, was Jesus.[xix]

Hamilton sums up some of these oddities, “…in this list that John gives in Revelation 7:5-8, he leaves out Dan, lists Manasseh but not Ephraim, and lists both Joseph and Levi. So john has twelve tribes listed, but this list doesn’t match the way that the Old Testament generally listed the twelve tribes.”[xx]

Hamilton thinks that perhaps Walvoord is right in saying that the omission of Dan and Ephraim (which was the name also equated with the northern kingdom of Israel) might be due to idolatry. But it is hard to say for sure.

7:9-10 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, [10] and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Some objections are given by the dispensastionalists that these two groups can’t possibly be the same people. One group is described as coming from every tribe and nation and the other is described with a number and as Israelites. But the similarities outweigh the differences. The second group seems to have emerged from the tribulation because they were sealed (which was something mentioned of the first group). It also seems likely that, “on this understanding, just as John heard that Jesus was a Lion in 5:5 and then “saw” Jesus as a Lamb in 5:6, so also John “heard” the number 144,000 in 7:4 and then saw an innumerable multitude in 7:9.”[xxi]

Therefore, John looks and sees something that previously he only heard. If verses 4-8 are representative of the church from across all time, which I believe these are, then verse 9 is the visible representation of what John heard in verses 4-8. And what an amazing thing he saw!

John sees a vast multitude, a very diverse group of people. They seem to be people represented from all the nations of the earth. Their diversity transcends tongue and ethnicity, and their unity is found in that they all have white robes and palm branches in their hands, and they all cry out with a very loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

7:11-12 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, [12] saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

The angels, and elders and specifically the four living creatures all agree with the words of the church and say “Amen!”

One of the things that came to mind here was how in Isaiah 6 we are told that “one angel called to another”, that is to say that one of the Seraphim cried out in praise to God to another angel, and as if in agreement they all join together crying “holy, holy, holy” – the trisagion, He is three-times holy. And we see something similar here as well where all of God’s creation is joined together in one mind in praise to God. One group praises God, and the other seeks to echo their praise with praises of their own.

If worship is two parts: one presenting one’s body before the Lord (i.e. Romans 12:1-2), and the second presenting one’s praise before the Lord, then this group has both covered. They “fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God” – but it is not an empty worship of body alone. The body is only part of the worship…

Note now the content of what they are saying about God. They acknowledge these things about and to God:

Blessing – He is the origin of all blessing, for “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). Therefore it is right to bless God with our tongues for all He has given to us, and for who He is intrinsically, and that is just what they do here.

Glory – Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory we are told (Hebrews 1:1-3), but what is this glory? The glory of God is defined by John Piper as the visible and outward manifestation of His holiness – it is his holiness “gone public.” But what is being said here is that all glory, that is, all praise for goodness, is due to God. He is the only person who deserves “glory” or to be “glorified” in the truest sense of the word.

Wisdom – This is a more complex praise than it might seem at first. Wisdom is by definition a “right use of knowledge”, and we know that Christ was the very embodiment of wisdom, and that God is the keeper of all wisdom. If God was not wise, then all of His knowledge could be used to terribly ineffective or dangerous ends. But He is wise – Paul calls God the “only wise God” (Rom. 16:27) in a similar doxological moment. The idea is that the angels and elders acknowledge that to Him alone belongs wisdom. It is like saying, “God only you know all the ends from the beginning, and only you are the right governor of all history and creation, and we would never want it any other way.”

Thanksgiving – Because of these truths we are to be grateful to God for all He has seen fit to do for us. Psalm 118:1 says, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”

Honor – Honor is specifically a word that I think fits rightly with kingship. Honor is not simply thanksgiving, or gratitude, it is rather paying respect to one who is due respect. That respect is not due only for what that person does or did, but for who they are. On earth we have a tendency to somewhat begrudgingly honor our authorities because they are in a place above us; God has put them there, thus we honor them. But in heaven honor is due to God because of His own intrinsic person and His authority over all things.

Power/Might – I will treat these two together. Though Power might be thought of as an intrinsic quality, whereas “might” in the Bible (at least in my studies) brings to mind God’s power in action. It is by His “might” that the Israelites were led out of Egypt, and so forth. Often the two ideas are held together – as in Ephesians 6:10, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength (power) of his might” (insertion mine). I love this because the idea is that God’s power is always used toward the right ends. It is not man’s power, which is used often toward wrong ends. This power of God is ultimate, and it is used in righteousness.

These are the character qualities, the attributes, if you will, that are on the minds and lips of the angels and servants of God. They end the praise by acknowledging the everlasting nature of the kingdom of God and of His person: “be to our God forever and ever!”

7:13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” [14] I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

The Explanation of the 144,000

And as if you haven’t figured it out already, the question is asked in verse 13 in a manner that reminds me of a teacher looking to his pupil to make sure they are paying attention. “Who are these people, John? Have you figured it out yet?” John punts, and the explanation is forthcoming, they are the ones who have come out of the “great tribulation.” Furthermore, they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Note that they are coming out of the “great tribulation”, which is to say that they will persevere through all the plagues of the four horsemen who will tear the earth apart until the final judgment of God comes at the return of His Son.

This phrase “great tribulation” is one which the dispensationalists have taken to mean a literal 7 year period of tremendous strife and horror on the earth.

Jim Hamilton, has several pages of solid points refuting this incorrect idea. Let me now read you some of his best excerpts:

Dispensationalist interpreters understand “the great tribulation” to refer to Daniel’s seventieth week (cf. Daniel 9:24-27), the final sever years of human history. I have indicated (in the chapter on Revelation 6-16) that I think Daniel’s seventieth week is the whole period of time between the two comings of Christ. I think this because the New Testament indicates that with the resurrection of Jesus, the last days began.

So the age to come has been inaugurated. The final period of human history, Daniel’s seventieth week, is the whole period between the ascension and the return of Jesus.

This also means that the whole period of time between the ascension and return of Jesus is a period of “tribulation.” Jesus told his disciples in John 16:33, “In the world you will have “tribulation.” Paul told the churches in Acts 14:22, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” In Revelation 1:9 John told the churches that he was their “brother and partner in the tribulation.” Jesus said to the church in Smyrna in 2:9, “I know your tribulation,” then told them in 2:10 that they would have tribulation for ten days.

So it seems that the whole period of church history, the time between Jesus’ ascension and return, is a period of tribulation…Right before the end, it does seem that there will be an intense period of persecution at the very end of history. But I think it is a mistake to expect a literal final seven years.

…I think it more likely that John means this as a description of all believers in Jesus. Thus, what John sees and recounts in Revelation is meant to encourage the churches to whom he writes. They are facing tribulation, and John tells them that God seals his servants to preserve them through the tribulation. God makes it so that though they are killed, they will overcome because they will not stop trusting Jesus.[xxii]

Now, the idea of something becoming white by spilling blood on it is nonsensical to the one who interprets these things literalistically. If we were literalists, we would have to say that this is a great mystery and there must be some kind of magic they are using to make their garments white – what are they using? What kind of blood is this anyway that the Lamb has? You may snicker, but you see the point of my hyperbole, do you not? We must interpret that which is metaphor in such a way as we are informed by the context. In the NT the blood of the lamb is said to cleanse us from our sins.

Elsewhere John writes:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:7)

The author of Hebrews alludes to this same truth as well:

…how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:14)

Therefore we must trust that the blood of Christ is that which will cleanse us and shield us from all harm on this earth – it is the blood of His sacrifice which protects our salvation. There seems to be a strong parallel here with 6:9-11. The saints there not only are under the alter (perhaps a symbol of protection from the four horsemen), but they are given white robes (vs. 11) and told to rest a little while longer. So too those here in chapter seven who emerge from the tribulation are given white robes – their garb is the same because they are of the same group, the elect of God.

7:15-17 “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. [16] They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. [17] For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

This promises mirrors that which we find in the end of the book as well. It is a wonderful promise that for those who are God’s elect, He will shelter them and bring them to their final resting place, which will be in a land flows with “springs of living water.” Therefore for those who are parched, God will give ultimate satisfaction. What Jesus gives spiritually now in “living water” we will receive physically later.

Lastly, we are told that God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This perhaps is the most wonderful verse in the entire chapter, because it 1. Acknowledges the tear-inducing struggle we face while we walk upon this earth, and 2. It showcases the tender mercy and love of God for His children.

The all-powerful God of heaven and earth understands your pain and struggle. In fact, He ordained these events in order that as you live through the plagues of the horsemen, you might be refined as gold, a choice stone in the city of God, the New Jerusalem. On that day He will heal your hurt and your scars, and mend all the pain that has caused tears to flow.

The Psalmist knew the truth that for those whose God is the Lord, they are ultimately protected from all the evil on this earth:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. [2] I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” [3] For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. [4] He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. [5] You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, [6] nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. [7] A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. [8] You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked. [9] Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place— the Most High, who is my refuge— [10] no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. [11] For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. [12] On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. [13] You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot. [14] “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. [15] When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. [16] With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” (Psalm 91)

Footnotes

[i] Beale’s longer commentary, Pg.’s 404-405.

[ii] Hamilton, Pg. 188. He’s really spot on here. And gives a great introduction, part of which includes a wonderful analysis of the main point of the chapter, which is that, “God is able to seal his servants and protect them from all danger, winning praise from them” (pg. 188).

[iii] There is also a background from Jeremiah 49:36 here. That verse says, “And I will bring upon Elam the four winds from the four quarters of heaven. And I will scatter them to all those winds, and there shall be no nation to which those driven out of Elam shall not come.” Beale comments in his footnotes on pg. 407 of his longer commentary, “Standing in the same tradition as Zechariah, and therefore possibly also behind Rev. 7:2-3, is Jer. 49:36, where ‘the four winds’ are divine agents of judgment against a nation.”

[iv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 406.

[v] Ibid. Pg. 409-410.

[vi] Tom Schreiner, NT Theology, Pg. 429.

[vii] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 416.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] It might be noted that Beale offer’s Bauckham’s view as a 5th alternative, but I don’t see it generally as fitting that way, but rather as an enhanced understanding of point 4. Namely, Bauckham says that the 144,000 represent an army of God’s people. The tribal lists, and the census terminology seems to be taken from the OT, and the parallel with 14:1-4 where the 144,000 is spoken of in militaristic terms, seems to only solidify this impression. Far from a separate view, it is a view that supports the figurative number of 144,000 (something Beale himself sees), but adds a dimension of conquering in the same way that the Lamb conquered (cf . Beale pg. 423) by enduring the suffering of the four horsemen.

[x] Steve Gregg, Pg. 133.

[xi] Ibid. Pg.’s 416-417.

[xii] Hendriksen, Pg. 110-111.

[xiii] Ibid. Pg. 111.

[xiv] Tom Schreiner, NT Theology, Pg. 751.

[xv] See Beale Pg. 415 and Greg Pg. 133.

[xvi] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 419.

[xvii] Steve Gregg’s Commentary, Pg. 133.

[xviii] Hendriksen, Pg. 111.

[xix] Beale rightly remarks, “The priority of Judah here emphasizes the precedence of the messianic king from the tribe of Judah and thus refers to a fulfillment of the prophecy in Gen. 49:8 that the eleven other tribes ‘will bow down to’ Judah.” Beale also says that Ezekiel 34:23-25 further develops this motif of Judah being the head of the tribes (pg. 417). Hendriksen also talks about the priority of Judah in his commentary (Pg. 111).

[xx] Hamilton, Pg. 190.

[xxi] Ibid., Pg. 192.

[xxii] Hamilton, Pg.’s 194-195. I still omitted many good things he had to say. He also talks about how the phrase “great tribulation” does not exclusively refer to a final period of difficulty and then quote Rev. 2:22 and discusses that a bit more.

Introduction to Revelation: Part 5

Today we looked at the classic premil and dispensational premil views of the millennium period spoken of in Revelation 20. I also spoke briefly about the nature of dispensationalism, and its hermeneutic. In my notes (below) I have given a slightly expanded voice to my concerns and why it matters to us today. I just can’t stress enough how important it is that we get our hermeneutics right, and I believe that when we do, our Bibles will lead us away from dispensational views of Revelation, and, well, anything…

Enjoy!

PreMillenialism – Historic

There are two kinds of Premils, the first is historic or “classical” and has been around since the early church fathers (ancients referred to this as chiliasm). The second is dispensational which came into being in the last 200 years. I’ll start with historic premillennialism.

Grudem says:

According to this viewpoint, the present church age will continue until, as it nears the end, a time of great tribulation and suffering comes on the earth. After that time of tribulation at the end of the church age, Christ will return to earth to establish a millennial kingdom….some premillennialists take this to be a literal one thousand years, and others understand it to be a symbolic expression for a long period of time. During this time, Christ will be physically present on earth in his resurrected body, and will reign as King over the entire earth.

John Frame sums up what happens next:

They (the early church fathers who were premil) taught that at the end of the present age, Jesus will come and raise believers to be with him. Then he will reign upon the earth for a thousand years, or some other long period of time. During this time (and not until then), Satan is bound in the bottomless pit. At the end of this time, God will release Satan, and at his instigation some on earth will rebel against Jesus (Revelation 20:3, 7-8). But the Lord will put down the revolt and raise all the dead for final judgment. Then comes the new heavens and new earth.

Therefore, according to this viewpoint, Christians will indeed endure a great time of persecution – they will not be raptured away from this tribulation prior to the Lord’s second coming.

Premillenialsim – Dispensational

The dispensational version of premil belief is “more recent (nineteenth century) and more complicated.”[i]

John Frame sets up the view for us:

The key to understanding the dispensational view is the idea that Jesus actually returns twice, making three times altogether that Jesus comes to earth. His first coming was, of course, his conception in the womb of Mary 2000 years ago. At his second coming, at the end of this age, he comes secretly and raptures believers to be with him. The rapture is described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, where Paul says:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.

This is what you read about or have seen in those Left Behind movies with Kirk Cameron (and now Nicholas Cage). As Wayne Grudem notes, “This return is thought to be a secret return of Christ to take believers out of the world.”[ii]

Then there will be a period of intense tribulation – dispensationalists call this the “Great Tribulation” – which will last 7 literal years. Some hold that the rapture of the church will occur mid-way through the tribulation and that the last 3.5 years of the tribulation (seen to be the worst years) will be avoided by the church.

After the literal 7-year tribulation period Christ will come again (for a third time), this time to usher in His kingdom here on earth.

Grudem says:

During this seven-year period of tribulation, many of the signs that were predicted to precede Christ’s return will be fulfilled. The great ingathering of the fullness of the Jewish people will occur, as they trust Christ as their messiah. In the midst of great suffering there will also be much effective evangelism, especially carried out by the new Jewish Christians. At the end of the tribulation, Christ will then come back with his saints to reign on the earth for 1,000 years. After this millennial period there will be a rebellion, resulting in the final defeat of Satan and his forces, and then will come the resurrection of unbelievers, the last judgment, and the beginning of the eternal state.[iii]

That is their system in a nutshell. But both Frame (leans postmil) and Grudem (a classic premil guy) wisely note that one of the things that makes this form of premil unique is the way they separate the Jews from the church, basically saying that these are two separate and distinct peoples with two separate and distinct futures. To me this is one of the most unbiblical features of the dispensational system.

Grudem additionally notes that, “Another characteristic of pretribulational premillenialism is its insistence on interpreting biblical prophecies ‘literally where possible.’ This especially applies to prophecies in the Old Testament concerning Israel. Those who hold this view argue that those prophecies of God’s future blessing to Israel will yet be fulfilled among the Jewish people themselves; they are not to be ‘spiritualized by finding their fulfillment in the church.’”[iv]

Issues with the Dispensational View

I believe each view has strengths and weaknesses. However, I admit openly that I loathe the dispensational view (not those who believe it, but the view itself) for its absolutely wacky and misleading hermeneutic. I single it out because it’s the most popularized view of the church today, and many in the church don’t know of the alternatives.

The two main distinctives of this view are its futurist bent (i.e. with regard to the millennium and the tribulation period), and its separation between the future destinies of Jews and the Church respectively.

Much of these issues stem from their “literal” hermeneutic. To ignore context, symbolism, figures of speech, allegory, and word pictures is to throw out common sense and discard sensus literalis to the dustbin.

As it concerns the “spiritualizing” of the promises to Israel and those promises being fulfilled (at least partially) in the church. It’s important to realize that our framework for understanding the role of the church with regard to its fulfillment of OT promises is given to us by the Apostle Paul who not only called Christ “Israel” but also called the church the “true Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16) and said that the church – the elect – were Abraham’s offspring In Romans 4 and Romans 9 Paul says that it’s the elect by the promise of God who are Abraham’s offspring). This same apostle also maintained that the Jews would eventually be grafted back in to the church (Romans 11). He used the comparison to a wild olive tree. He never spoke of two trees, only one with the two different branches. Additionally, the Bible doesn’t speak of two brides of Christ, only one – the church. Are we to think that the church is Christ’s bride and that the Jews are, well, just another group hanging around on the outside of the eternal marriage?

There are further consequences – major consequences – not the least of which is a complete misunderstanding of Jeremiah 31:31 and subsequent (and necessary) disregard for Hebrews 8. If this passage only applies to Israel in the future, then the new covenant hasn’t been ushered in, and we aren’t a part of it. You can see how important it is to get the hermeneutic right when we read our Bibles. I will address this momentarily.

Under the dispensational hermeneutic the future will also look, well, very odd. There will be rebellion after Christ has physically reigned on earth for 1,000 years – which means there will still be sin even though Christ will be here on earth – so apparently we’ll have to wait awhile for that problem to be solved. Also, if there’s sin in the millennium, why not death? Sin leads to physical decay and death, so how is this to be dealt with?

Needless to say there are issues with every viewpoint – because we can’t perfectly understand the future and what God has for His people. That’s why He’s God and we’re not! I don’t believe we’re meant to know every detail of the future and how things will exactly play out.

Why this Matters to Us Today 

I mentioned Jeremiah 31:31 above because I believe that dispensationalists inadvertently undervalue the new covenant and the victory Christ achieved on the cross. Again, I don’t think this is their aim, but it’s the consequence of their hermeneutic. This actually really matters to us today because this view of the Bible has consequences for how we view our own salvation, and previous promises that we claim to be ours right now.

In recent years some within their camp have realized there are issues with creating such a dichotomy between the church and Israel. This is why some now call themselves ‘Progressive Dispensationalists’ because they are starting to see that many of these promises made with the “House of Israel” in the OT are actually being fulfilled in the church – chief among them is the promise of a New Covenant. In Jeremiah 31:31-34 we read of a prophecy concerning the new covenant[v] that I’m sure many of you have read or heard before. Listen to the words of Jeremiah, made with the “House of Israel” but now being fulfilled in His church:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, [32] not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. [33] For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. [34] And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

Why am I bringing this up now in the context of our study on Revelation? Because how we view the Bible in Jeremiah (and other books) has an affect on how we view and read Revelation. Having a literalistic hermeneutic not only ruins Revelation, it stultifies and obscures other vital prophetic passages, and the Jeremiah passage is just a great example of this. I said earlier that “hermeneutics matter”, this is just one example of why that is so, and why I want to caution anyone who holds to a dispensational view of this book.

 

Footnotes 

[i] Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1089

[ii] Grudem, Systematic Theology, Pg.’s 1112-1113

[iii] Grudem, Pg. 1115

[iv] Grudem, Pg. 1116

[v] Bruce Ware is in this camp and in his Systematic Theology I lectures at SBTS he gives the Jeremiah 31:31-34 passage as one of the glaring passages which simply can’t be gotten around.

Introduction to Revelation: Part 3

Welcome to part three of my introduction to Revelation.  On Sunday morning we covered the nature of symbolism in Revelation as well as the four main overarching viewpoints of the book. I hope you enjoy this post!

PJW

Symbolism in Revelation

It has occurred to me after studying many of the viewpoints of the pre-trib rapture folks that understanding proper hermeneutics is really fundamental to understanding Revelation. Of course, I’ve mention his before in this study and also in other books I’ve taught through. But I think that when it comes to Revelation, getting the symbols right is important – in fact, just understanding that symbols are, well, symbolic is important!

I bring up the pre-trip rapture folks because as I read through the work of one such seminary professor’s work this evening, I began to really be impressed with his knowledge of Scripture, and his desire to bring Scripture to bear in the forming of his opinions. As I read through his Scripture references, I began to see where he was coming from, but it didn’t make complete sense until I read that, in his view, Revelation 4-18 contained no mention of the church. Of course this is a major point in the pre-trib rapture argument. These folks believe that the church must have been raptured prior to chapter 4. Furthermore, they assume the book works chronologically, and not simply a series of visions describing the inter-advental period.

Now, I disagree with their chronological assumption, and I will address that later. But let me just hone in on this major issue of not seeing the church mentioned anywhere between chapters 4 and 19. This particular professor held a similar belief of many pre-trib folks who say that the “elect” and “Israel” are mentioned, but not the church. Of course, just a simple understanding of the meaning of “the elect” tells us that he doesn’t understand that the elect ARE the church. But again, we will set aside this equally stupefying misunderstanding and just realize that these people come to the conclusion that “the church” is not mentioned in these chapters because they are not reading the book symbolically.

I spent all that time laying that example out so you can see that hermeneutics have consequences. If we ignore the obvious symbolic nature of Revelation and instead choose to take every image we possibly can as literal, then we will never understand this great book.

The question is really not whether we should interpret the book symbolically, but rather how do we go about understanding the symbols? I have given Johnson’s 7 ways to “see” Revelation above, and now I want to just overlay that with some thoughts from Hendriksen who has just 3 different things for us to consider:[i]

1. There is a need to concentrate on the central theme

 

Just like in Jesus’ parables, each symbol usually has just one main theme or message its trying to convey. You might find other truths associated with the symbols, but that doesn’t take away from the one or two driving principle thoughts/themes.

2. There is a need to distinguish between the principle and the detail

 

Hendriksen puts it this way:

 

One must not begin to press the details. One must not ask, in the symbol of the locusts that came out of the abyss (9:1-11), what is the separate meaning of their hair, teeth, breast-plates, etc.” We must not pluck the symbol apart and lose the unity. These details belong to the picture, just as the mule, wine, oil, etc. belong to the parable of the Good Samaritan. One should ask, first, what is the picture taken as a whole? Second, what is the one central meaning of this picture?

 

As a rule the details belong to the picture, to the symbol. We must not try to give a ‘deeper’ interpretation to the details, unless the interpretation of these details is necessary in order to bring out the full meaning of the central idea of the symbol. Thus, in the symbol of the new Jerusalem (chapters 21, 22), the central idea is perfect fellowship with God. The details – wall, foundations, gates, river etc. – describe the glorious character of this fellowship. What we are after is the total impression, the central idea, of each complete symbol. As in the parables, so here, the context helps to explain the meaning of the picture, and a thorough study of all the details is also necessary in order to determine what is the central thought.

 

  1. Learning what the symbols mean

 

Hendriksen says that there are really two kinds of symbols. The first are those “symbols which describe the beginning or the end of the course of the new dispensation…for example, the radiant woman who is delivered of a Son, a Man-child, refers to the Church bringing forth the Christ, His human nature (12:1-5)” or “…the twofold harvest (14:15) refers to the final judgment, to that one great event.” These are big events at the beginning of the first advent or the end of the age etc.

 

The second type of symbol is that which fills the majority of the book and could be people, tribulations, place etc. happening in time between the first and second advent of Christ. These symbols are such as the lamp stands, the bowls, the trumpets, seals etc. The question is, do these symbols represent particular people or specific events – single happenings – in history or in the future? Hendriksen, Baucham and many others say “no”, and I agree with them. This probably puts them (and me) in some sort of fashion under the “idealist” view of the book – which we will discuss momentarily!

 

The reason for these symbols not representing specific one-time events or people in most cases is evident for numerous reasons. First if they did, how would we ever know which events or people in history? Everyone would have their own “interpretation”! Who would be the final judge? We’d have to give up and say that this book isn’t able to be interpreted. But we don’t do that because we believe that this book was indeed given to “reveal” to us God’s purpose, and to edify the church.

 

Furthermore, these symbols operate in a sphere (to paraphrase Hendriksen) that is very extensive. Large swaths of the earth are involved in the descriptions of the effects of these seals, bowls, trumpets and so forth. “This could hardly be true if each seal, trumpet or bowl had reference to just one single event in history, an event that takes place at a certain specific date in a definite locality…again, these symbols affect not just one very limited group of people, but a multitude that cannot be counted.”

 

Hendriksen also points out that most of the symbols operate in groups of seven – not a coincidence I think. “This number seven indicates completeness. It harmonizes very well with the idea that the symbols refer to principles in human conduct and of divine government that are always operative, especially throughout this entire dispensation.”

 

Hendriksen sums up the viewpoint I take on most of these symbols:

 

Yet we do not believe that this is a closed book. We fully believe that it is a revelation, an unveiling. So we must look for some other rule of interpretation (other than that of specific symbols representing specific one-time events or people).

…It is on the basis of the symbols themselves, as described in the Apocalypse, that we arrive at this very significant conclusion, namely, that the seals, trumpets, bowls, and similar pictures, refer not to specific events or details of history, but to principles that are operating throughout the history of the world, especially throughout the new dispensation.

 

And…

 

We should constantly bear in mind that the purpose of God and of the seer is to make men wise unto salvation. The book has an ethical and spiritual purpose. For if these symbols merely indicate and predict isolated, future events, it may satisfy some people’s curiosity, but it can hardly be said that people, in general, are edified. On the other hand, if we believe that the book reveals the principles of divine moral government which are constantly operating, so that, whatever age we happen to live in, we can see God’s hand in history, and His mighty arm protecting us and giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, then, and only then, are we edified and comforted.

 

 

Which leads us to our next topic…

 

But first… a NOTE: As I personally work through the book of Revelation, I will be leaning heavily on those who have closely examined the symbolic nature of the book. While Hendriksen provides a wonderful layman’s outline of how to think of these symbols in broad terms of interpretation, Beale agrees with these and adds another level of study. Beale’s work is very thorough and while he agrees with Hendriksen on OT background, and immediate context, he also explains in-depth the way to both discover when one is seeing a symbolic reference, as well as how and when to approach each symbol to a degree of study that others simply haven’t touched. Beale relies on Sweet, Caird and others as well as his own language and grammar expertise. Much of this is found throughout the commentary, but on pages 50-69 he spends time diving into the grammar and contextual matters involved in this book, and what grammatical/literary and logical rules we must apply when thinking through this book. I just mention this as an aside because for me to go through each of his points in my own notes and teaching would fall beyond the scope and patience level of most people, yet I want those who I’m teaching to understand where I’m deriving my frame of reference for these grammar and literary rules. Indeed I want to assure those in my care that such careful consideration has been taken in these points so that my teaching might be clear, yet without subjecting those reading and listening the tediousness of combing through grammar and literary matters on a Sunday morning.

The Overarching Viewpoints

In the approach to this book there have been several perspectives. There are mainly four overarching perspectives with several modified versions of each. The main four are: Historist, Idealist, Futurist, and Preterist. Let me give a brief overview of each one.

 

Historist

 

The Historist view is very interesting. They see Revelation as dealing with the big events in Christian history from Christ’s ministry until this day. Beale describes this view:

 

The majority of these (Historist) commentators have understood the seals, trumpets, and bowls as unfolding successive events in history in general chronological order. Christ’s final coming is usually seen as very imminent. Typically this view identifies parts of the Apocalypse as prophecies of the invasions of the Christianized Roman Empire by the Goths and the Muslims. Further, the corruption of the medieval papacy, the reign of Charlemagne, the Protestant Reformation, and the destruction wrought by Napoleon and Hitler have been seen as predicted by John.[ii]

 

Issues with this view include its exclusion of non-western church events as important to world history, and also there’s the problem that different people who’ve held this view at different points in history have not agreed with each other on the particulars of each major historical movement. Beale also points out that, “such a projection of future history would have had little relevance to the first-century readers of Revelation.”

 

Preterist

 

The Preterist view has two main iterations. The destruction of Jerusalem by Titus’ armies in 70 A.D. figure prominently in both views. The first believes that the entire book of Revelation is really a prediction about the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (of course this necessitates an early dating to the book). These folks believe that “Babylon” represents Israel “who aids Rome in oppressing Christians.”[iii] Israel is therefore being judged, and their temple’s destruction is the climax of all the judgment prophecy in Revelation (not to mention Daniel 2 and 7). There are several problems with this, not the least of which is that Daniel 2 and 7 – which are integral to Revelation’s judgments – indicate a worldwide/universal judgment of nations, whereas Preterists see these judgments as exclusive to Israel.

 

The second main form of Preterism indicates that what Revelation talks about was fulfilled in the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. but that “Babylon the Great” refers to Rome, and not to Israel. This makes a little more sense, but still encounters the difficulties mentioned above.

 

Now there is a view called “Partial Preterism”, which R.C. Sproul describes as follows:

 

Partial Preterism holds that many of the prophecies of the future were fulfilled in the first century – chiefly in the events surrounding the destructions of Jerusalem in AD 70. Most Partial Preterists say that the first twenty chapters of Revelation have taken place while the last two chapters have yet to be fulfilled. Partial Preterists tend to be postmillennial in their thinking, holding that the millennium (not a literal one thousand years) began with the first advent of Christ.[iv]

 

There are other forms of preterism which are really nothing more than heresy. One says that John prophesied worldwide destruction, but was mistaken. Another is similar to the first form I mentioned only goes so far as to say that Jesus came back in 70 A.D., judged Israel, and went back to heaven. In this view there will be no second coming of Christ, for He has already come.

 

John Frame wisely remarks, “It is also significant that the early church fathers of the generation following the apostles never speak of a return of Christ that occurred in A.D. 70. If this were the momentous event that preterists make it out to be, one would think that the fathers would have made that one of the main themes of their writings. But in fact, they never even mention it.”

 

Futurist

 

There are two forms of the Futurist viewpoint and (as Beale notes) both see John’s vision from Chapter 4 – 22:5 as referring to the future time that will come immediately prior to the end of history.

 

The dispensational version of Futurism is complicated, so I will quote Beale’s summary here as it is helpful:

 

…Dispensational Futurism , which interprets very literally and generally sees the order of the visions as representing the historical order of future events: (1) the restoration of ethnic Israel to its land (apparently beginning directly prior to the events depicted in 4:1-22:5), (2) the church’s rapture into heaven, (3) a seven-year tribulation, (4) the antichrist’s reign, (5) the assembly of evil nations to fight over Jerusalem, (6) Christ’s second coming, when he defeats the evil nations, (7) his millennial reign, (8) Satan’s final rebellion at the end of the millennium, which he gathers together unbelievers from throughout the world to fight against Christ and the saints, and (9) Christ’s eternal reign together with the saints in a new heaven and new earth. 1:19 is often seen as the outline of the book: “Therefore, write what you have seen” represents the past, which is described in ch. 1; “and what is” represents the present, which is described in chs. 2-3; “and what things are about to come to pass after these things” represents the future, which is described in 4:1-22:5.[v]

 

The second form of futurism doesn’t interpret events in the book as literally as the dispensationalists do, and it doesn’t “hold as strictly that the visions represent the chronological sequence of future history.” Beale says that, “In particular, this version can affirm that the church is true Israel and that there will be no ‘pretribulational rapture.’”[vi]

 

There are several issues with these views, we will deal with them as we get into the book, but Beale is right to state that, “The futurist position especially encounters the difficulty that the book would have had no significant relevance for a first-century readership.”

 

Idealist

 

The Idealist perspective sees Revelation as symbolic and portrays the general conflict between good and evil. There are some versions of this viewpoint which doesn’t see any real historical fulfillment in what John predicted, but rather see it as just lessons to be learned and a depiction of the overall battle between God and Satan.

 

Beale says, “The problem with this alternative is that it holds that Revelation does not depict any final consummation to history, whether in God’s final victory or in a last judgment of the realm of evil.”

 

That being said, Beale, Hendriksen, Johnson, and Baucham and others hold to a modified version of idealism. Beale calls his view “Eclecticism” and I really appreciate his viewpoint. He takes the best of idealism and the other views and tosses out those views which have obvious difficulties.

 

One of the things that we ought to benefit from as Christians living in the 21st century is that men and women have been thinking about these issues for thousands of years. When one view becomes popular, but has holes/issues, then we ought to give it serious consideration and ask ourselves whether our assumptions are wrong. This is why I like Beale’s approach.

 

Because Beale is one of the most respected scholars on this book, we will be referring to his work a great deal, therefore it may be helpful to give you his own summary of the approach he advocates taking:

 

A more viable, modified version of the idealist perspective would acknowledge a final consummation in salvation and judgment. Perhaps it would be best to call this fifth view “eclecticism.” Accordingly, no specific prophesied historical events are discerned in the book, except for the final coming of Christ to deliver and judge and to establish he final form of the kingdom in a consummated new creation – though there are a few exceptions to this rule. The Apocalypse symbolically portrays events throughout history, which is understood to be under the sovereignty of the Lamb as a result of his death and resurrection. He will guide the events depicted until they finally issue in the last judgment and the definitive establishment of his kingdom. This means that specific events throughout the age extending from Christ’s first coming to his second may be identified with one narrative or symbol. We may call this age inaugurated by Christ’s first coming and concluded by his final appearance “the church age,” “the interadventual age.” Or “the latter days.” The majority of the symbols in the book are transtemporal in the sense that they are applicable to events throughout the “church age.”

Therefore, the Historicists may sometimes be right in their precise historical identifications, but wrong in limiting the identification only to one historical reality. The same verdict may be passed on the Preterist school of thought, especially the Roman version. And certainly there are prophecies of the future in Revelation. The crucial yet problematic task of the interpreter is to identify through careful exegesis and against the original historical background those texts which pertain respectively to past, present, and future.

 

FOOTNOTES… 

[i] Hendriksen, Pg.’s 37-43

[ii] Beale, Pg. 46.

[iii] Beale, Pg. 44

[iv] R.C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 314.

[v] Beale, Pg. 47.

[vi] Beale, Pg. 47