INTRODUCTION. This post considers the difficulties of interpreting the book of Revelation and offers some guidance for how to place Revelation’s events in the proper order.
One of the prominent features of biblical prophecy is the ambiguity of the timing of events. For example, it is not uncommon for the Old Testament prophets to mix prophecies of the day of the LORD (or “that day”) with visions of Jesus’ first advent or with warnings of the LORD’s coming judgment on the nation of Israel for their disobedience. For this reason, it can be confusing to know how to interpret specific prophecies from the major and minor prophets in the Old Testament.
In the New Testament, the primary example of biblical prophecy is the book of Revelation, and here in Revelation the question of the timing of events is perhaps the greatest difficulty in this very difficult book. In this post, I will offer some thoughts about how to approach Revelation that will hopefully make the interpretation a little easier.
Most of the difficulties of interpretation in Revelation occur in the section from chapter 4 through chapter 20, so I will focus on this section. John received the visions of Revelation while he was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” on the island of Patmos. It is safe to assume that John recorded the visions in the order in which he received them, but, as in virtually all biblical prophecy, the order of the receiving of these visions does not necessarily correspond to the order of occurrence. Rather, it is the responsibility of the reader to discover the order of occurrence through careful study.
THE PAST AND THE FUTURE
To say this another way, in narrative literature and in biblical history, the writing is necessarily in order of occurrence. This is because narratives are describing events that have already occurred and, thus, we expect these events to be written in the order in which they happened. So, John the Baptist appears before Jesus, the crucifixion precedes the resurrection, and the exodus from Egypt occurs before the giving of the Law at Sinai.
By contrast, biblical prophecy is describing events that have not yet occurred. These events will certainly occur at some point in that mysterious place called the future, but when they will occur and in what order they will occur must be discerned from the information we have in Scripture and from logical and reasonable deduction. Revelation, then, is biblical prophecy that demands the application of both interpretive skill and (deep) knowledge of previous biblical revelation to construct the order of events that will take us from Christ’s ascension into the new heavens and the new earth.
KEY POINT. Revelation chapters 4-20 gives the order in which John received these visions, but this is not necessarily the order of occurrence of these events.
AN EXAMPLE FROM REVELATION
In Revelation 6:12-17, we encounter the following dramatic events:
12 I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood; 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. 14 The sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. 15 Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; 16 and they *said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
In Revelation 5, we saw the victorious Lamb (Jesus) ascending back to His throne after accomplishing the work of redemption that the Father had given Him to do (John 17:4; 19:30; Mark 10:45). Then, the ascended Lamb began opening the scroll with the seven seals. At the end of chapter 5, then, we are very early in redemptive history, probably around AD 32. But then suddenly, only a few verses later, with the opening of the sixth seal in Rev. 6:12ff, we read of the cataclysmic events which will occur on the last day.
The following details indicate that these events of 6:12-17 occur on the last day.
- Earthquake – In Revelation, earthquakes always occur on the last day (e.g., 16:18).
- The events in the heavens and on the earth – sun becomes black, and moon becomes blood (Is. 13:10; Joel 2:10, 31), stars fall to the earth (Matt. 24:29), sky split like a scroll (Is. 34:4), mountains and islands moved out of their places (Ezek. 38:20; Rev. 16:20).
- Terror among all the unrighteous, hiding themselves in caves and under rocks (Hosea 10:8; Isa. 2:10, 19, 21)
- The wrath of the Lamb and the great day of wrath refer to the last day when the Lord Jesus returns to judge the earth (Rev. 14:19; 19:15; Isa. 63:3-6).
NOTE: All of these cross-references appear in “last day” passages.
This demonstrates another KEY POINT: When interpreting Revelation, it is the content of the text that establishes its significance and its order of occurrence, not its location in the text of Revelation. Thus, it is the content of Rev. 6:12-17 that makes it certain that the events of this passage occur on the last day.
WHAT THE PASSAGE SAYS, NOT WHERE IT IS LOCATED
What we have learned is that, when studying Revelation, we do not rely on where a given passage is located to determine its occurrence, but rather we must carefully examine what the passage says. It is the content of the passage that is king. We carefully examine the content of the passage and compare it with related Scripture in the previous sixty-five books and with other biblical “clues” in the immediate context to discern when these events occur and thus determine where they fit in the timeline of the end times.
SDG rmb 9/5/2022 #565