3. Order and Scope of the Book of Revelation
Introduction · Does This Book Apply to Us? · Various Opinions on the Order · A Biblical Approach · Literary Flow vs. Chronological Order · Not Appointed to Wrath?
Attempt to understand the book of Revelation has given rise to a great deal of controversy. I think it is because of this controversy and the variety of opinions surrounding this book that so many ministers avoid it altogether. This is very sad because it is the only book in the Bible which gives a specific blessing to him “who reads and those who hear” its words (1:3), and it is an epistle written to the church (v. 4). The questions I want to address in this chapter are as follows: Does this book apply to us? What is its order? When does God’s wrath take place?
Does This Book Apply to Us?
First, I would simply like to point out that the book of Revelation is an epistle, written to churches. It begins with the same customary greeting usually found in the other epistles (1:4) and ends with an exhortation as usual (22:10-21). The first verse states that the purpose of this book is to show God’s servants the “things which must shortly take place” (1:1). Then three verses later we read, “John to the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4). It seems that, in context, the servants he is referring to are those in the churches. Seven times Jesus exhorts us to “hear what the spirit says to the churches” and then follows by “to him who overcomes . . .” It seems to me that in the remaining chapters he goes on to describe what it is we are to overcome (the Great Tribulation). Even in the final chapter of the book Jesus again states its purpose, “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches” (22:16). It just seems logical to conclude that the events written in this book are for the church.
Various Opinions on the Order
The opinions range from a strict chronology to the idea that there is no sequence of events whatsoever. The first view is easily dismissed. For instance, Revelation 14:1 has Jesus standing on Mount Zion with the 144,000 Jews when the bowls are still yet to come in chapter 16 and his return in chapter 19. Revelation 11:15-19 states that Jesus has now received the kingdom and begun to reign, that the time for the dead to be judged has come, and that it is time to destroy those who destroy the earth. All of these are events which take place after the Tribulation. Revelation 7:15-17 seems to depict eternity (compare to 21:3-7). Revelation 10:7 states that with the seventh trumpet “the mystery of God is finished.” In 13:1 John first sees the Beast coming out of the sea which would be very difficult to reconcile with what has been going on if this is when he first appears (especially chapter 12). Revelation 12:4 is best understood as taking place in eternity past with verse 5 as a reference to the birth and ascension of Christ (although some would understand it differently). Revelation 14:17-20 describes the harvest by the angels which Jesus said would take place at the “end of the age” (Matt. 13:39). Both 14:8 and 18:2 describe the fall of Babylon as if it has just taken place. Revelation 6:12-14 describes the great cosmic signs which Jesus said would take place “after the tribulation” (Matt. 24:29). And both 6:14 and 16:20 describe the disappearance of all mountains and islands.
Among those who fall between a strict chronology and the idea of no sequence whatsoever, there are two major schools of thought concerning how to understand the order of the book of Revelation. The first is the view which sees the seals, trumpets, and bowls as sequential with some of the events in between as being interruptions of this order. The second view sees the seals, trumpets, and vials as all leading up to the end. It sees this as the same story told from different points of view, similar to the different accounts in the gospels. Each time John describes events that lead up to the return of the Lord and the end of the age from a different perspective.
A Biblical Approach
Now the difference between these two views is very important to the discussion. I will attempt to show that the second is to be preferred. This is based primarily on the similarity of events described towards the end of the seals, trumpets, and bowls as demonstrated in the following chart:
Sixth and Seventh Seal
Sixth and Seventh Trumpet
1. A great earthquake
2. Voices, thunderings, lightnings, and an earthquake
3. Angel cried with a loud voice
4. Every mountain and island taken out of their way
7. Day of his wrath is come
8. Silence in heaven
9. Great multitude in heaven
1. A great earthquake
2. Lightnings, voices, thunderings and an earthquake
3. Great voices in heaven
5. Great hail
6. Temple opened; voices heard
7. Thy wrath is come
8. Mystery of God is finished
9. Time of the dead
10. Kingdom given to Christ
1. A great earthquake
2. Voices, thunders, lightnings and a great earthquake
3. Great voice from heaven
4. Every island fled away and the mountains were not found
5. Great hail
6. Great voice out of the temple
7. Fierceness of his wrath
8. “It is done”
9. First resurrection (ch. 20)
10. Christ reigns 1,000 yrs (ch. 20)
Although some of these are debatable there seems to me to be overwhelming evidence here linking these events. The most logical understanding is that these are describing the same events with some giving more details and some leaving out details. This is more plausible than the idea that all these things take place multiple times. We could look at several of these events, but I want to focus on one in particular: I grew up on an island. Imagine that every island on the planet disappears. Now imagine that every mountain is leveled. Think about it: THIS CANNOT HAPPEN TWICE! Mountains and islands do not “grow back” after five or six years. If nothing else, at least these must both describe the same event.
Not only do these events parallel each other, but they parallel other passages. For instance, the sixth seal parallels the description of the end by both Jesus and Joel:
Joel (Joel 2)
Jesus (Matt. 24)
John (Rev. 6)
1. In the last days (Acts 2:17)
2. Sun into darkness, moon into blood
3, 4. Wonders in heaven . . .
5. . . . and in the earth
6. Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD
1. After the tribulation
2. Sun darkened, moon does not give its light
3. Stars fall from heaven
4. Powers of the heavens shaken
6. Then the Son of Man appears in the sky
1. At the sixth seal
2. Sun became black, moon like blood
3. Stars of heaven fell to earth
4. Sky receded as a scroll
5. Mountains, islands disappear
6. Jesus is seen / day of his wrath has come
Jesus plainly states that the great cosmic signs would take place “after the tribulation.” John has them occurring at the sixth seal. We must therefore conclude that at least the sixth seal is after the Tribulation. Furthermore, the seventh trumpet (Revelation 11:15-19) clearly describes the end and is said to finish the mystery of God (10:7) as was already stated.1 Also, as John is approaching the seventh trumpet he is told that he “must prophesy again concerning many peoples and nations and tongues and kings” (10:11). This leads me to believe that the sixth and seventh trumpets bring us to the end, and then John starts back over from a different perspective listing different events with the bowls.2 Finally, it seems likely that this seventh trumpet parallels Paul’s last trumpet in 1 Corinthians 15:52 and Jesus’ trumpet in Matthew 24:31.
Literary Flow vs. Chronological Order
Although I do not see a strict chronology, I do see a literary flow of the book of Revelation (characters are usually introduced into the story before they are discussed, such as the 144,000 in chapter 7 and the great harlot in chapter 17). This order may seem strange to us, but it is not foreign to other passages in the Bible and fits very well with the Semitic style of the book. In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus describes the first 3 ½ years (beginning of sorrows) followed by the second 3 ½ years (Tribulation) and finishes with the coming of the end (Matt. 24:4-14). Then he returns to discuss the midpoint in verse 15 and the second 3 ½ year period again in verse 21. This is similar to the story of creation in Genesis 1 and 2. Moses tells the whole story and then returns to expound on the creation of man in more detail. This is how I understand the seals, trumpets, and vials. They are increasingly more telescopic of events leading up to the end.
Not Appointed to Wrath?
A major tenet of pre-tribulationism is based on exemption from divine wrath. Passages such as Romans 5:9 and 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 5:9 teach that God has spared believers from his orge (wrath) which he will pour out on unbelievers. The question then becomes, “When does the orge of God take place?” If we accept the order of Revelation laid out in the preceding section, then it only takes place after the Tribulation. This word is found only six times in the book, and it is always used in a post-tribulational setting.3 It accompanies the cosmic signs and revealing of the Lord at the sixth seal (6:16, 17); it is found after the seventh trumpet (11:18); it is used to describe the final torment of unbelievers in hell (14:10); it is found after the seventh bowl (16:19); and it is used in connection with Christ’s second coming (19:15). Therefore, there is no problem reconciling the promise of deliverance from God’s orge with a post-tribulational rapture. Every time this promise is made, this word orge is used. If the orge does not take place until after the tribulation is over and the church is raptured, then God’s promise is kept.
Also, as Romans 5:9 points out, exemption from God’s wrath is not some unique, special promise to the church but is connected with salvation and justification. The reason we are spared from God’s wrath is because Jesus paid the penalty for us. If there will be Christians on the earth during this time period then they, too, would be exempt from God’s wrath. These so-called “tribulational saints” are said to: “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14); overcome by “the blood of the Lamb” (12:11); “hold the testimony of Jesus” (12:17); “keep their faith in Jesus” (14:12); “die in the Lord” (14:13);4 be “witnesses of Jesus” (17:6); be “beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus” (20:4); and possibly be our “fellow servants and brethren” (6:11) if you include the church with “those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained” (6:9). These people are Christians in every sense of the word. Concerning the body of Christ, Paul says “that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:26-27 ). One of the most troubling teachings of pre-tribulationism to me is a divided body of Christians with some on earth suffering while the rest of us just watch from a safe distance.5
Some would still object because they see God doing things throughout the Tribulation. My response to this is twofold. First, I do admit that some of these “plagues”6 seem too universal for believers not to be affected. Israel felt the effects of the first three plagues while they were in Egypt, but God was pouring out his wrath on the Egyptians, not them. Noah was at least inconvenienced by the effects of the flood. Did God pour out his wrath on Noah? Or did God spare Noah? (2 Peter 2:5) Lot was affected by God’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, but he, too, was the object of salvation, not wrath (2 Peter 2:7).
Second, as was the case with Israel in Egypt, we do see God being selective at times. One place this is seen is when the bowls are poured out. The first is said specifically to affect those who had received the mark of the beast and worshipped his image (16:2), the third bowl is said to be for those who killed the saints and the prophets (vs. 5-7), the fourth results in men blaspheming God and not repenting of their deeds (v. 9) and the fifth is poured out on the throne of the beast (v. 10). These things are shown to be aimed at sinners, not believers.7
1. Compare to Daniel 9:24, where the completion of the seventieth week is said to “seal up vision and prophecy.” <back>
2. Even pre-tribulationist J. Dwight Pentecost recognizes this point, cf. J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), 187-188. <back>
3. The word thumos is also translated “wrath” and is found in places such as chapter 16. This will be discussed in chapter 5. <back>
4. Compare to the rapture passage where Paul says that the “dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:16). <back>
5. Pentecost appeals to this same passage to refute the partial-rapture theory which he says “dismembers the body” and “is impossible” but then has no problem with the church in heaven while “tribulational saints” are on the earth suffering, cf. Things to Come, p. 160, 212. <back>
6. This is what the book of Revelation calls them (9:18, 20; 11:6; 15:1, 6, 8; 16:9, 21; 18:4, 8; 21:9; 22:18). <back>
7. For a further discussion of wrath, see chapter 5, Wrath. <back>
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