Reading Revelation (Part 3): Nothing significant and new

POST OVERVIEW. The third in a series of posts about ways to read the book of Revelation that make it less confusing and intimidating. This third post discusses the fact that Revelation introduces no significant new characters or events into end times prophecy. Everything significant has already been mentioned in the previous text of Scripture.  (Also, see previous posts: #568 on the purposes of Revelation and #569 about the constraints that are on the book of Revelation.)

INTRODUCTION. Reading the book of Revelation is a challenging task for any disciple of Jesus. The visions the apostle John relates to us in Revelation are strange and spectacular, and trying to make sense of the visions and then put them into some coherent picture is difficult work. But, while acknowledging the difficulties involved, I believe the challenge of understanding the book of Revelation is eased considerably when we understand how to read the book. In these posts I hope to offer some principles for approaching Revelation that will make the book much less intimidating.

CONSIDER THE FICTION NOVEL

Imagine for a moment that you are reading a classic novel by a skilled author, perhaps Dostoyevsky or Victor Hugo. You have been fascinated as you have seen the author create the main characters in the book, the protagonist and the antagonist and their supporting casts. What initially appeared to be unrelated stories about random people and events were gradually woven into the plot as the movement of the novel steadily picked up steam. Then, at precisely the right moment, the drama reached its climax and the complexities and perplexities of the story were resolved as the hero emerged victorious and the villain was trounced into disgrace. The entire reading has been a satisfying journey into realistic adventure, and now you are turning the final pages to see how the tensions are resolved and the loose ends are tied up.

Then unexpectedly, out of nowhere, a mere fifteen pages from THE END, three new characters appear and a brand new context is introduced which seems disconnected with anything in the previous 500 pages. You were, figuratively speaking, expecting the wheels of the plane to settle softly onto the tarmac and suddenly the nose of the jet was wrenched upward. “Will this flight never end?” Where did this come from? Why are these characters being introduced now at the end of the book? The fact is that a well-written, classic novel does not introduce new characters or plot twists in the last chapter of the novel. The last chapter is where the action is concluded and the plot of the novel is summarized. The last chapter is for landing softly on the tarmac, pulling into the arrival gate, and maybe even picking up your luggage at Baggage Claim. It is not for introducing new characters and plot twists.

CONSIDER THE PURPOSE OF REVELATION

In the same way as the novel, the word of God, the Bible, has as its final book, its final “chapter,” the book of Revelation. As we have already said in the previous post (#568) on the purposes of Revelation, this final book serves as the instrument of conclusion and summary, as the book of the Bible that ties together the loose ends and reveals how our Hero, the Lord Jesus, ultimately triumphs over His adversary, the devil, as He simultaneously gathers all His glorified saints around the throne to worship Him forever. Revelation is written to resolve the mysteries which have been created in the previous sixty-five books, not introduce new characters and events never before encountered.

SIGNIFICANT BUT NOT NEW, OR NEW BUT NOT SIGNIFICANT

Since that is the case, it follows that the book of Revelation introduces no significant new characters or events into the biblical story. Both adjectives are important. Revelation may introduce new characters who play minor roles, but who do not influence the plot. These would be new characters but not significant characters. An example would be “another beast” of chapter 13:11ff (who is also the “false prophet” of 16:13, etc.). This other beast has not appeared before in other biblical prophecy, but he is not significant in the events of the end times. Another example would be “the beast,” who appears in 11:7 and then again in 13:1-10, etc. This is a significant character whom we have seen before in Scripture with different names. This is the little horn (Dan. 7:11, 25), the small horn (Dan. 8:9, 23-25), the prince who is to come (Dan. 9:26), the despicable person (Dan. 11:21-45), and the man of lawlessness (2 Thess. 2:3ff). He is the human embodiment of evil, often referred to as the antichrist. So, “the beast” is significant but not new.

Thus, Revelation may give new labels to old major characters, but it does not introduce major new characters. So, “the thousand years” is a new label, but not a new concept, “the beast” is not a new character, and Babylon” is not a new city. These are examples of things that have appeared before in the Scriptures but now are being brought to a conclusion in Revelation.

AN EXCEPTION – THE 42 MONTHS

One concept that could be an exception to the rule is the time period of the 42 months. Mentioned five times in Rev. 11-13 (11:2, 3; 12:6, 14; 13:5), this is a time of upheaval and dramatic activity that occurs immediately before the return of Jesus on the last day. The period of the 42 months has not been mentioned before in Scripture, so it is definitely new. The question is, “Is it ‘significant’?” I think the answer has to be ‘yes,’ for it is during this time that the fifth seal is opened (6:9-11), the trumpet warnings are sounded (8-9), the two witnesses appear (11:3-10), Satan is thrown to the earth (12:7-17), and the beast and the false prophet rise up to persecute the church (11:7; 13; 16:13f; 19:17f).

SUMMARY

What I am saying in this post is that understanding most of Revelation does not depend on a vivid imagination but depends, instead, on a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, and particularly of the Old Testament prophets. There is very little new in the text of Revelation. A careful reading will reveal that the book concludes God’s inspired Word by pulling from much of the Old Testament to draw the story of Scripture to a close. The better that the disciple of Jesus knows the whole word of God, the better they will understand the difficult passages in Revelation.

A second attribute is also required to grapple with the book of Revelation. Scriptural knowledge must be accompanied by an ability to see patterns and to recognize allusions to previous scriptural books.

So, approach Revelation as a review of the entire Bible and a book that draws things to a close, and you will enjoy the book much more.

SDG                 rmb                 9/13/2022                   #571

The two witnesses in Revelation 11:3-12 – an interpretation

This post offers a possible interpretation of Revelation 11:3-12 and a way of seeing the significance of this passage in discussions about the events of the end of the age.

The first time you read through the eleventh chapter of Revelation and read the account of the two witnesses (11:3-12), there will be confusion and mystery. Pretty much guaranteed. What do these two witnesses symbolize and what is the significance of the events that occur in this passage? Where does this take place? When does this take place? How are we to interpret this section of Scripture? I have explored these questions over the course of the last year as I have carefully studied the end-times passages in the Bible, and an understanding of this passage has slowly emerged.

The exegesis that follows will show the meaning of the events at the end of the age. In another post, I will also demonstrate that the persecution of the two witnesses at the end of the age closely parallels the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus in His earthly ministry.

EXEGESIS SHOWING THE MEANING OF PASSAGE

Revelation 11:3-6 – The two witnesses represent the faithful church proclaiming the gospel at the end of the age[i] in the face of persecution and opposition. Note that the two witnesses prophesy (proclaim the gospel) for 1,260 days.[ii] The faithful church is the rightful place where the gospel is proclaimed. The church is the outpost of gospel witness in every location where it exists, giving testimony to Jesus in that place. The two witnesses are called the “two olive trees” (11:4), which are the trees of Jew and Gentile together in the church, according to Romans 11:17-24. The church is the true olive tree. During the days of their prophesying (11:6), they “shut up the sky so that rain will not fall” and they “strike the earth with every plague.” This is a reference to the church’s authority with the word of God, that the church has all the authority of Moses and Elijah, the Law and the prophets. So, again, the two witnesses are the faithful church during the tribulation.

Revelation 11:7

When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up out of the abyss will make war with them and overcome them and kill them. – Rev. 11:7

First, notice that the two witnesses (the faithful church) “finish their testimony.” There will come a time when the faithful church has accomplished the mission given to her by her King, a time when all the elect have been gathered in, when “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). The church has fulfilled its purpose and has finished its testimony. Only then will the beast be allowed to overcome and kill the church.

“The beast” here is the same beast mentioned in other parts of Revelation. This is THE beast, the man of lawlessness, the son of destruction, the second person of the evil trinity. He is allowed to make war on the faithful church and to overcome them and kill them. This event occurs at the very end of the 42 months*. The beast has overcome and killed a significant portion of the visible church, such that the church appears utterly defeated.

Revelation 11:8-10 – There is much imagery in these three verses. The faithful church (“the two prophets” in 11:10) is visibly seen as dead (“their dead bodies will lie in the street;” “dead bodies” is mentioned three times in these verses for emphasis). Peoples and tribes and tongues and nations (the world of the unrighteous) will rejoice and celebrate (11:10) as they “look at their dead bodies for three and a half days” (11:9). The beast appears to have destroyed the church, and the world rejoices and celebrates for three and a half days. Is all lost? Has the church been annihilated? Has evil triumphed?

Revelation 11:11 – This verse is carefully worded to ensure that it alludes to Ezekiel 37:10. After the dead bodies of the two witnesses lie in the street of the great city for three and a half days (Rev. 11:11), “the breath of life from God came into them.” This is certainly pointing to the Resurrection that is described in Ezekiel 37:10: “So I prophesied, and the breath of life came into them.” After this, “they stood on their feet” (Rev. 11:11), which again refers back to Ezekiel 37:10, for there we read, “they came to life and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.” What is occurring in Revelation 11:11 is the Resurrection of the dead in Christ that was foreshadowed in Ezekiel 37. Then “great fear fell upon all those who were watching them.” Well, I guess so! The reason great fear fell upon them is that they realize this sudden turn of events spells their doom. The church appeared to be safely annihilated and the beast had won the battle. Then suddenly the world’s victims rise from the dead. The people of the world realize their doom is sealed.

Revelation 11:12 – After the Resurrection, “they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, ‘Come up here!’” The loud voice calls to mind 1 Thessalonians 4:16, when there will be “a shout with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God.” These two verses are certainly describing the same event. “Then they went up into heaven in the cloud, and their enemies watched them” (Rev. 11:12). Again, John writes the verse to remind the reader of other New Testament passages. We can see clear parallels to Jesus’ ascension in Acts 1:9, where “He (Jesus) was lifted up while they (the disciples) were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.” Also, in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, we read that “we will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” What we see, then, in this verse is the ascension of the glorified saints after their Resurrection.

SUMMARY

The faithful church will prophesy for (relatively literal) 1,260 days in the face of fierce opposition during the tribulation at the very end of the age. When they have accomplished their mission and the preaching of the gospel has gathered in all the elect, the beast will be allowed to kill a large portion of the visible faithful church. The world will rejoice and celebrate since it seems that evil and the beast have had the final victory. The church appears dead and Christ has been defeated. But then, when all appears lost, Christ’s church is resurrected with glorified bodies and stands on its feet as a great army. These ascend to meet Christ in the air in preparation for the final battle and the slaughter of all the unrighteous.

Next time, we will look at how this parallels Christ’s earthly ministry.

SDG                 rmb                 11/01/2021                 #449


[i] This proclamation occurs during the 42 months*, the relatively literal period of time between the “thousand years” and the Last Day. Refer to my book, The Last Act of the Drama, for these definitions.

[ii] Note that 1,260 days is the equivalent of forty-two months, and is equivalent to “time, times, and half a time.” A combination of these three expressions appear five times in Revelation 11-13. Elsewhere I refer to this time period as the 42 months*.