POST OVERVIEW. One of a series of posts giving principles for reading and interpreting Revelation chapters 4-20, which is the most difficult section of the book. This first post of the series will address the crucial question of when events in Revelation occur.
[NOTE: This post was edited on November 27.]
SERIES DESCRIPTION. The book of Revelation is probably the most difficult book of the Bible to interpret correctly, and the main difficulties of the book are in chapters 4-20. Because of these interpretive difficulties of the book and because many Bible teachers have offered conflicting and bewildering ideas about what the various passages of Revelation mean, many earnest believers know just enough about the book of Revelation to be confused and intimidated by it. To clear up some of this confusion, in October 2021 I published my book, The Last Act of the Drama: a guide to the end times.
Now, a year later and before the 2nd edition of that book, I want to offer to readers of this beautiful prophecy a series of posts giving principles and guidelines for how to understand and interpret Revelation so that the book becomes a delight instead of a burden.
IS REVELATION WRITTEN IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER?
We begin with a fundamental question: “Is Revelation 4-20 to be understood as written in chronological order?” To state this question another way, “Is Revelation 4-20 one continuous series of events with chapter 4 beginning the events and chapter 20 ending the events, and all the events in between occurring one after the other in sequence?” Many readers of Revelation claim that chapters 4-20 should be read chronologically, assuming that John is writing of these events in the order in which they occur. This would mean that chapter 4 occurs before chapter 5 and chapter 7 occurs before chapter 8, chapter 11 occurs before chapter 12 and chapter 20 occurs after chapter 19. But while it is true that the events of historical narrative like 1 Kings or the gospel of Matthew or the book of Acts or Exodus are presented in chronological order, the ordering of the events of biblical prophecy is not necessarily presented this way. Rather, the timing of the events of prophecy like Revelation must be determined by carefully evaluating the details of the prophecy itself and then connecting those details with the timing of known events. (See examples of this in Revelation 6 below.)
This means that, while John’s visions in Revelation are assumed to be recorded in the order the visions were received, they are not necessarily written in the order they will occur. In fact, it is this requirement to accurately determine the timing of these future events that makes reading and interpreting Revelation so difficult. It means that each scene in chapters 4-20 must be examined for details and then those details must be compared to known scenes so that a time of occurrence can thus be determined. All of this necessitates patience, persistence, and skill on the part of the reader or interpreter, but the net result of this effort will be a coherent picture of the events of the end of the age.
AN EXERCISE USING REVELATION 6
So, as an illustration, let’s try to identify when the events of Revelation 6 occur.
Before we begin with this exercise, we need to acknowledge that the last days, which is the time between Christ’s ascension (Acts 1:9) and His return at the end of the age, contain three categories when events occur: “the thousand years,” the 42 months, and the last day. In my view, “the thousand years” represents a very long period of time that begins at Christ’s ascension and that ends when Satan is released from the abyss (Rev. 20:3, 7). The “42 months” begins when Satan (or the dragon) is released from the abyss and extends until the last day (the day of the LORD, that day, the end of the age, etc.). Finally, “the last day” is exactly what its name implies, the last day of the age. The last day is followed immediately by the inauguration of the new heaven and the new earth.
As one last comment, you will observe that it is not always possible to be certain about the precise occurrence of an event, either because there is not enough evidence to give certainty or because the precise order or timing is not crucial. We will see, for example, that the precise placement of the second, third, and fourth seals (Rev. 6:3-8) has some ambiguity, but the ambiguity does not affect the interpretation of the passage.
So, let’s begin.
The timing of the breaking of the first seal (Rev. 6:1-2) is significant and this significance makes the timing certain. (For a more detailed treatment of this first seal, see my book Last Act of the Drama.) The rider with a crown seated on the white horse (6:2) represents the church, which is riding out with the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8) and with the charge of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), conquering and to conquer with the bow of the gospel. Thus, the first seal is broken immediately after Christ’s ascension (or perhaps symbolically on the day of Pentecost) so that the church can begin her work of gathering the elect into the church. This occurs at the very start of “the thousand years.”
My understanding of the second, third, and fourth seals (Rev. 6:3-8) is that these seals are also broken during “the thousand years” and represent what life will be like during that period. Although not as tumultuous as the 42 months, “the thousand years” will definitely reflect a fallen world filled with wars and famines and the ever-presence of death. These miseries will be part of the routine during “the thousand years.” [NOTE: I do not consider these seals to be part of the 42 months because there does not appear to be anything out of the ordinary about these seals and their results.]
The fifth seal (Rev. 6:9-11) reveals the souls of those slain because of the word of God and because of their testimony. As we compare these martyrs with those who are slain in Rev. 20:4-6, we see that there are many similarities. Notice that the scene of those who had been beheaded in Rev. 20 explicitly occurs during “the thousand years” (20:4, 5, 6), but when does this event with the souls under the altar take place? I believe that, as there are martyrs throughout “the thousand years” (20:4-6), so there will be martyrs who will be able “to rest for a little while” (Rev. 6:11) during the 42 months. In other words, as Rev. 20:4-6 pictures for us the martyrs that are killed during “the thousand years” (explicitly stated), so Rev. 6:9-11 pictures for us the martyrs who are killed during the great tribulation of the church during the 42 months. Thus, the fifth seal is broken during the 42 months.
The sixth seal (Rev. 6:12-17) is broken during the last day and shows us the catastrophic events that will terrorize the unsaved on the last day. It is obvious that Rev. 6:12-17 occurs on the last day, for all these events that take place are last-day events. The last verse, Rev. 6:17 is conclusive: “The great day of their wrath (the wrath of Him who sits on the throne and the wrath of the Lamb) has come, and who is able to stand?” We know that the Lord’s full wrath will be poured out on the earth on the last day, so we know that these events take place on the last day. [NOTE: Since we now know that these events take place on the last day, when we see these same events and catastrophes mentioned somewhere else in Revelation, we know that we are probably looking at a last-day event. For example, an earthquake, the kings of the earth are terrified, the sky rolled up like a scroll, and every mountain and island removed from its place. These can be helpful clues when trying to determine the timing of other passages.]
In summary, then, we can see that, just in the seventeen verses of Revelation 6, we journey from the time just after Christ’s ascension at the very beginning of “the thousand years” to the events of the last day as Christ is coming to judge the earth (Psalm 96:13).
The purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate how knowledge of the basic structure of Revelation and some logical deductions can be used to establish the sequence of events in Revelation.
SDG rmb 11/21/2022 #590