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Sunday School Notes: Revelation 12:7-12

7 And there was a war in heaven, Michael and his angels had to make war with the dragon. And the dragon made war, also his angels, 8 but he did not defeat [Michael], nor was a place found for them still in heaven. 9 And the great dragon, the serpent, the Ancient One, the one called Diabolos and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world, was thrown to the earth, and his angels were thrown with him. 10 And I heard a great voice in heaven saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God has come, and the authority of His Christ, for the Accuser of our brethren, the one who accuses them before our God day and night, has been cast down. 11 And they defeated him on account of the blood of the Lamb and on account of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life as far as death. 12 On account of this, rejoice, heavens, and those who dwell in them! Woe to the earth and the sea, for Diabolos has gone down to you having great anger, knowing that he has a short time.”

Last time, we read about a woman giving birth to a son, and a dragon who wanted to destroy the child, but the child was taken to God. The dragon then turned his attention to the woman, but she fled to the wilderness where she was given a place of nourishment for three and a half years. Referencing back into the Old Testament, and even into the Gospels, we understand the woman to represent God’s people (Israel, fulfilled in the church), and the son is Jesus, the Messiah, born out of Israel after centuries of struggle. The dragon is Satan (as we’re told explicitly in this week’s passage). Jesus’s escape from the dragon came at his resurrection, and the pursuit of the woman by the dragon is what has been happening to God’s people ever since. Spiritually, God’s people are secure in him, spiritually nourished with eternal promises, even if physically the church is beaten and oppressed.

John is now shown a war in heaven between Michael and his angels and the dragon. It’s important to remember this is a vision. We mustn’t get distracted with questions over how literally to take Michael and an actual conflict. That’s not to say there isn’t a heavenly being named Michael, and that there wasn’t an actual conflict, but we need to remember John is here presented with a picture of spiritual realities behind physical events. Our primary concern is to understand what the Lord is telling John through this vision.

Daniel chapters 10 and 12 speak of a Michael, and given that Daniel forms the background to a lot of the visions in Revelation, this is where we ought to turn for our understanding of who he is. In 10:6, Daniel sees a vision that compares in many ways to the vision John has of Jesus in Revelation 1:13-16. This man is said to be the “son of man”–a title applied to Jesus in the New Testament. In verse 13, the man tells Daniel of Michael, a prince who fights with him. He reiterates this point in verse 21, saying that no-one contends against Persia and Greece by his side except “Michael, your prince.” Daniel 12:1 describes Michael as the “great prince” who has charge of Daniel’s people, that is, it is his duty to protect Daniel’s people. So, this “son of man” and Daniel fight together for Israel, God’s people, against the wicked hosts of Persia and Greece (or perhaps the spiritual forces at work behind them–see Daniel 8).

So Michael is a co-fighter with the Son of Man, looking out for God’s people. Can’t Jesus fight his own battles? Why include Michael? Perhaps because Jesus, the Son of Man, was fighting a different battle, an earthly one for which Michael’s battle is the spiritual counterpart? In Revelation 12:7-8, Michael and his hosts fight against the dragon, and the dragon and his hosts fight back but do not prevail. Notice, the text does not say that Michael won, but that the dragon wasn’t able to defeat Michael. Could this be because Jesus won the victory over Satan on the cross? The dragon was not able to get the better of Michael in heaven, because Jesus defeated him on earth.

Verse 8 says that there was “no place found still in heaven” for the dragon and his angels, meaning they no longer had a place in heaven. The idea of Satan having a place in heaven may strike us as a little strange. But this isn’t saying Satan has a mansion in glory; rather, from the context this seems to be referring to Satan’s place as the accuser of the saints before God. Since Jesus defeated Satan at the cross, there is no longer anyone accusing God’s people before God’s throne. Satan has been cast down; there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). The message for John’s readers (and to us) is that the Satanic force behind their oppressors and all those that work against God and His people has been defeated. Whatever might be going on physically, the real battle in the heavenlies has been won. Their Accuser has been cast down, and no longer has a place before God bringing charges against His people. All this happened at the cross, so there is some overlap between these verses and verses 1-6. When the woman’s child was taken up to God, and the dragon pursues the woman, behind that scene was this battle scene, where the dragon and his host was defeated and cast down.

There’s a voice from heaven (literally, a “sound”–the Greek phonē is a generic word for noise or sound that takes its precise meaning from the context in which it is used; here, where words are being produced, the sound is clearly a voice), declaring that the salvation, power, kingdom of God, and the authority of His Christ has come. Not that these things weren’t a reality prior to this moment, but now they are coming to bear. This power and authority has been demonstrated in the fall of the Accuser. An interesting cross-reference at this point is John 12:31-33, where Jesus tells his disciples that the judgment of this world has come, and the ruler of this world has been cast out.

The conquest of God’s people over the dragon has been won by the blood of the Lamb, and the word of their testimony. We understand that the latter is dependent upon the former; without the blood of the Lamb, there is no testimony. And it is that testimony, that confession of faith from God’s people that demonstrates they belong to the Lord, and are covered by the redeeming blood of the Lamb who was slain on their behalf. This testimony is not simply words, however. These people were prepared to be martyred for the Gospel because they “did not love their lives as far as death”–which is to say that they didn’t cling to life, but were willing to give up their lives for the Gospel’s sake. Christians are not required to become martyrs, but we are to love the Lord more than life itself such that, should we have to, we would be willing to be with the Lord rather than deny him.

Verse 12 is an exhortation to the heavens to celebrate the casting down of the dragon, but a woe to the earth because that’s where he has gone, and the dragon knows his time is short. Verse 13 will pick up on this: knowing his time is short, having been unable to defeat the mother’s child, the dragon will go after the mother–i.e., the church. God’s people are now under attack from Satan, and that attack will be vicious because he knows his days are numbered. This is a picture of church history from the Resurrection until now, and who knows how much longer. Not that Satan hasn’t been behind the persecution of God’s people prior to the coming of Christ, but that persecution has an added urgency and intensity now that he has been defeated. Satan has lost, and he is going to go out inflicting as much damage as possible. But God’s people need to remember: the battle is won, they are secure in the heavenlies, and there is no longer anyone to accuse them before God.

Next time: Revelation 12:13-17… or 18…?

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 12:1-6

1 And a great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 And she was pregnant, and she cried out, suffering greatly and in agony to give birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven, and behold a great fiery dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and upon its heads seven diadems, 4 and its tail drags [down] a third of the stars of heaven and casts them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, so that when she gives birth, it might devour her child. 5 And she gave birth to a child, a male, who is about to shepherd all the nations with an iron rod. And her child was caught up to God and to His throne. 6 And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has there a place prepared by God, in order that there they might feed her [or “she might be fed”] for 1,260 days.

In chapter 12, John sees a vision of a battle between a woman and her offspring, and a fiery, or red, dragon. In order to unpack this vision, we need to start with some fundamental questions:

  • Who is the woman? Is her offspring who is seems to be (i.e., Jesus)? Is she Mary? If so, what’s the significance of the sun, moon, and stars, and the birth pangs? If not, then who else could it be?
  • What does the dragon represent?
  • What does all this mean in relation to the rest of Revelation?

We began, however, with a reminder about the chronology of Revelation, i.e., there really isn’t one. Sure, we get the idea that the ends of chapter 6 and chapter 11 are at the very end of time, but beyond that, we can’t be certain when anything happens. Nor can we assume that because one vision follows another sequentially, that they also follow each other chronologically. Such is evident by the fact that chapter 11, depicting the Christ’s final return, is followed by chapter 12, where Christ clearly has not yet returned (as we will see).

John describes the woman as being clothed with the sun, and having the moon under her feet, and she has a crown of twelve stars on her head. She is also pregnant, about to give birth. This child is male, and will shepherd, or rule, the nations with a rod of iron. Clearly this child is someone the nations ought to fear, and the dragon definitely fears–enough to want the child dead. This “great dragon” is fiery (or “red”), with seven heads and 10 horns. I interpret the seven diadems on the seven heads to mean a diadem on each head, not seven diadems on each head. This dragon swipes down one third of the stars with his tail.

It seems quite obvious by the description of the child that this male offspring is supposed to Jesus. Indeed, the ruling with “a rod of iron” is a direct reference to Psalm 2:7-9, a Messianic psalm. Given who the dragon is (see verse 9, and below), it’s not surprising that he would want to destroy this child as soon as he is born. However, he is snatched up to God and His throne. This is a reference to Christ’s ascension and exaltation (as in Philippians 2:9). Verse 5, therefore, gives us the ministry of Jesus in a single verse, starting with his birth, and ending with his being raised to the Father.

If the child is Jesus, doesn’t that make a strong case for the woman being Mary, his mother? This view is held by the Roman Catholic Church, and while it has the appeal of fitting the physical reality of Jesus’s birth, it doesn’t fit the symbolism. First, she is clothed with the sun, has the moon at her feet, and is crowned with twelve stars. One place in the Old Testament where these symbols all come together is in Genesis 37:9-10, where Joseph dreams that the sun, moon, and eleven stars all bow down to him (presumably the twelfth star). In Joseph’s dream, the sun and moon are his mother and father, and the twelve stars are the twelve sons, who went on to become the twelve tribes of Israel. If we look back also at Revelation 1:16, Jesus has seven stars in his right hand. Verse 20 explains that these stars are the angels of the seven churches to whom John will write. Those angels represent the churches. If we take these symbols together, they seem to point more to the woman being God’s people, Israel in the Old Testament, and the church (i.e., Old and New Covenant believers) in the New Testament and beyond.

If the woman is the church, or God’s people, in what sense does she “give birth” to Jesus? In the sense that the Messiah was born out of Israel, of David’s line. And the woman’s suffering in childbirth speaks to the suffering of God’s people in the years leading up to the Messiah’s birth, under oppression from Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and then Rome (see Micah 5:2-4 for an interesting parallel to what John describes here). The woman’s flight into the wilderness mirrors Israel’s escape into the wilderness in the Exodus, after crossing the Red Sea. In Scripture, the wilderness is a place both of temptation, or testing, and of deliverance. Israel encountered many trials in their wilderness wanderings, but during that time they were fed and protected by God. Jesus spent forty days and nights in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, and he was sustained by his Father (Matthew 4:1-11). David escaped to the wilderness when pursued by Saul (1 Samuel 23:15 ff.). Elijah also fled from Jezebel in the wilderness, and the Lord was with him (1 Kings 19:1-8).

What of the “place” prepared by God? The big giveaway here is the number of days the woman is nourished in this place: 1,260. This is the same number of days the witnesses prophesied in chapter 11. We determined from the symbolism surrounding them that the witnesses represented the church, which we had just seen as the temple. The inner court of the temple was “measured” (i.e., protected by God), meaning that the church spiritually is secure, though physically (the unmeasured outer court) the church will suffer–just as the witnesses did. Jesus told his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them (John 14:2-3). This “place” is, therefore, representative of God’s spiritual protection. The dragon wanted to destroy the church spiritually, but God preserves His people, and will continue to preserve them until Christ returns for his bride.

We already noted that the dragon is Satan, Diabolos–or the devil–the “ancient serpent.” We will see the serpent referred to later in the chapter, so it is well to note here that the dragon and the serpent are the same thing: Satan. The dragon has seven heads and wears seven crowns. Seven is the number of completeness, and the diadem is a crown indicating rule and authority. (The head can indicate something similar, which is why I think the heads and the crowns share the same symbolism and should be considered together.) This dragon has complete rule on earth, perhaps mediated through earthly kings or rulers. His red, or fiery coloring puts us in mind of the red horse in 6:4, whose rider takes peace from the earth, setting men against one another. Red is also the color of blood, and symbolic of oppression and violence. There are ten horns on the dragon, which represent power. In his vision of Jesus as the Lamb of God in chapter 5, the Lamb had seven horns (5:6). We also see similar imagery in Daniel 7:7 and 20. This passage in Daniel is important for Revelation 12, and we’ll be coming back to it later.

The dragon’s tail drags down, or sweeps away, one third of the stars. If the stars represent the church, then does this mean one third of the church will become apostate? Is this saying there will be a large number of believers who fall away because of Satan’s influence and power? This seems a very plausible interpretation, however it flies in the face of everything we’ve said about the church in the preceding verses. These “stars” are God’s people, the true church, those who are saved and spiritually protected by Him. If we’re now saying God will fail to protect one third of them, then either our interpretation of verses 1-3, and 5-6 is incorrect, or that’s not what John is saying about that one third of the church. Naturally, I’m inclined to think the interpretation of John’s vision thus far holds together, so there must be another way to see this “swiping down” of one third of the stars.

I think that way is to remember God never promised the church physical protection. While He will preserve His people from ever falling away, there will be many in the church who will suffer physical persecution, even unto death, at the hand of Satan and his proxies on earth. It’s possible the reference here is to the suffering of Israel prior to the coming of the Messiah, since Jesus’s birth comes after the swiping of the stars. Daniel 8:10 speaks of a horn that grew to great power such that it threw down some of the stars and trampled on them. That could be seen as a reference to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, whose persecution of the Jews led to the Maccabean revolt in 166 BC. However, we need not be limited to a specific time frame since this is a vision. Whether speaking of Old Testament or New Testament believers (or both), this is a reference to the suffering of God’s elect, His church, due to persecution and Satanic oppression. We’ve seen “one third” used a couple of times already. One third of the earth and the trees were burned up in the first trumpet (8:7), and a third of mankind was killed by the four angels in 8:15. The point is that the disaster doesn’t fall upon the whole, but upon a large portion of the whole. Likewise, Satan will cause physical harm to a large number of God’s people, but not all.

Yes, there will be those within the church (and even entire churches) that will show themselves to be not truly of the Lord by falling away (1 John 2:19). Some of the churches addressed in the seven letters of chapters 2 and 3 seem to have such people in their midst. And, indeed, we’ve all known people that used to sit beside us in church who are no longer following the Lord. They went out from us because they were not really part of us. But the people John is talking about here in Revelation are those who are truly the Lord’s, and yet suffer for His name’s sake. To those, as to all Christians, are the promises of eternal life, security in Christ, and the glory that is to come.

Lord willing, we’ll continue next time with 12:7-12.

 

Sunday School Notes: Revelation Recap (Chapters 1-11)

We’re getting ready to start a new semester of Sunday School at church, and this semester, we’ll be getting back to our study of Revelation. I’ve posted the notes for chapters 1-11, but for the sake of those who haven’t had the opportunity to read them, and need a quick summary, this past Sunday I reviewed where we’ve been and what we’ve seen.

I have observed two common approaches to the Book of Revelation:

  1. Fear. It’s full of scary stuff about the end of the world, death and destruction. It presents a doomsday scenario people don’t want to think about.
  2. Confusion. It’s full of beasts and giant locusts, numbers and symbols, and there are so many conflicting views on what it all means. Maybe we should just pick out the nice verses (e.g., Revelation 3:20), and leave the rest.

As Christians who believe that all 66 books of the Bible are the inspired Word of God, however, we have no choice but to recognize Revelation as part of that canon, and, therefore, as much God’s Word as Matthew, Romans, Genesis, or the Psalms. As such, we ought to study it as much as we would the rest of Scripture. And I’m convinced, the more we study it correctly, reading it as it was meant to be read, the more we will come to appreciate it for the divinely inspired work it is.

The key to studying Revelation correctly is found, I think, by asking the text two questions:

  1. What did this mean to John and his audience? The Lord did not reveal these things to John, tell him to write them down, and then say, “Sorry, but no-one in the church will understand these things for another 2,000 years, so you may as well ignore them.” Revelation was intended to be meaningful to its first audience.
  2. What does it mean to us? Because Revelation is God’s Word, it not only has meaning for John and his readers, but for the church throughout history. By using signs and symbols, the Lord has ensured these things will communicate to His people in every age. For example, John refers often to “Babylon.” The church in his day, knowing their Old Testament, understood this to refer to the evil, oppressive governing authorities, since Babylon was the empire that destroyed the First Temple and led the Jews into captivity. For the church in John’s day, Babylon would be code for Rome. But other churches in later times would see their own oppressive government as “Babylon.”

These questions form the basis for our approach to Revelation.

Revelation opens with John in exile on the island of Patmos. He’s there because of his faithful witness to the gospel. While “in the spirit” on the Lord’s Day, he sees a vision of Jesus. He’s “in the spirit” meaning that this was a spiritual, not physical, experience. That doesn’t make it any less real, but it helps us understand the strange nature of the vision. The description of Jesus is a mix of imagery from Daniel 7, which describes the “Ancient of Days” and the “Son of Man.” In Daniel’s vision, these two appear separately, with the Ancient of Days seated on a throne. He is clearly meant to represent God. In Revelation, these two characters merge in Jesus. He is both the Son of Man, and God. There is no ambiguity in Revelation about Jesus’ divine status. He is the conquering Lamb who holds the keys to Hades, and unleashes judgment upon the Earth. The meaning of “Hades” in the New Testament is often as a world for “Hell,” but sometimes it refers simply as the abode of the dead, as it did for the Greeks. Jesus holding the keys to Hades indicates that he controls entry into Hades. That’s not a role for a mere prophet.

Jesus then dictates letters to seven churches, all of them in the region known then as Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey. The letters give us insight into the state of the church at that time (which, by the way, is either the mid-sixties, during the time of the Emperor Nero, or the mid-to-late 90s, during the reign of Domitian; which view is correct is up for debate–see the full study notes for details). These churches are suffering persecution from without as they face pressure to conform to the surrounding pagan culture, and participate in cultic worship of various deities. They also face financial pressure as economic benefits are only for those who conform to the world. There are various places in the world today where Christians face a similar kind of oppression. And we shouldn’t be so comfortable and arrogant to think such oppression would not spread, even to the US.

The churches also face trouble from within. In some churches, there’s a faction of people who want to join in with the world to avoid suffering, and cause trouble among the faithful. With some churches, the entire congregation has caved in to the social and economic pressure, and are going along with the pagan practices to avoid the penalties. Again, there are places in the world–even in the US and Europe–where churches have done this exact same thing in order to be considered socially acceptable, respectable, and “enlightened.”

For the church, both then and today, Revelation offers hope. Indeed, hope is the main theme of the book. The events John sees and describes paint a pretty bleak picture for Christians, and one that will only worsen and intensify over time until Jesus returns. The visions of seals and trumpets present to us persecution, devastation, and destruction leading up to the End Times. In the midst of this, at a poignant moment, when people are crying out, “Who can save us from the wrath of God and the Lamb?” John is permitted a peek behind the heavenly curtain. In chapter seven, he sees how people will be saved as he gazes upon multitude upon multitude of believers, sealed by the blood of Jesus, praising God. This is the future hope of the church. Whatever happens on earth, they have been sealed, and they will enjoy the Lord’s presence. Indeed, each of the seven letters closes with a promise to “those who overcome”–i.e., those who don’t cave in, and stay true to Christ, even unto death.

Through Revelation, Jesus is telling his church that, despite all the terrible things going on, and that will go on, the church will prevail because Christ is Lord of all. Christians may lose their lives, but their home is not here. We are not building a kingdom on Earth, but our inheritance is with the Lord in his Father’s house, where rooms have been prepared for us all.

Numbers play an important part in Revelation. When we see the same number crop up time and again, we know it has symbolic significance. So far we’ve encountered the following numbers:

  • Four. This represents the whole of creation. The designation probably stems from the idea of the four points of the compass, the four “corners” of the Earth, etc. So the four creatures John sees are representative of all created life.
  • Seven. The number of completeness or wholeness. It is often used for spiritual completeness, though it can simply represent fullness or totality in general.
  • A Thousand. Simply, 1,000 is used to represent a large quantity. The Psalms tell us that God owns the cattle on 1,000 hills. That doesn’t mean He doesn’t own the cattle on the 1,001st hill. It means he owns the cattle on all the many hills there are.
  • Twelve. There were twelve tribes of Israel, and twelve disciples. So the number twelve represents God’s people. We see this number doubled (24) and also multiplied by itself (144) to represent all of God’s people, both Old and New Covenant together.

In the visions the Lord shows John, there are many points of similarity with visions and prophecies in the Old Testament, particularly in Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and the Psalms. We can look at these allusions and references as fulfillments of things that the former prophets saw dimly. God revealed these things to them, and they had relevance in their day, but their future meaning was veiled because Christ had not yet come. In Christ, the Old Testament is fulfilled, and all these visions and prophecies find their ultimate meaning.

In chapter eleven, John sees a vision of the Temple being measured. “Measuring” is symbolic of God’s protection, so the picture is one of God guarding His people, while those outside the Temple suffer judgment. There are two “witnesses,” which represent the faithful church, who are dressed in sackcloth and minister for 1,260 days. That number crops up a few times in various forms (3.5 years, 42 months). This same quantity appears in Daniel 7:25 and 12:7, and also seems to correspond to times of persecution in Israel’s history. The number also crops up in chapter 12, so we’ll look at it again there.

These witnesses are then beaten to the point of death, but then, to the dismay of their persecutors, are raised back to life by the Lord, and ascend to be with Him. John is being shown here the vindication of the church, that though she may suffer greatly to the point of extinction, the Lord will raise up His people and they will be vindicated. At the end of chapter eleven, the Lord returns, which is a bit strange since we are only half-way through the book. But there’s more to understand, as we will see when we dive into chapter 12…

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 11:18-19

18 “…And the nations were angry, but Your anger came and the time for the dead to be judged, and to give the reward to Your servants, the prophets, and to the saints, and to those who fear Your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth.” 19 And the temple of God which is in heaven was opened and the Ark of His covenant was seen in His temple, and there were lightnings and noises and thunders and an earthquake and a great hail.

We started verse 18 last time, noting the echoes of Psalm 2:5, the connections with Revelation 6:16-17, and the mentions of the judgment of the dead in Daniel 12:1-2 and coming up in Revelation 20:12. For more about this, see the discussion in last week’s notes.

This week, we picked up on the latter half of verse 18, talking about the reward given to “Your servants, the prophets, and to the saints, and to those who fear your name.” Are these separate groups within the church: prophets, saints, servants, and so on–or maybe offices, or references to specific giftings? Some might see this verse as referring to specially designated people within the body of Christ, but I’m not convinced. Aren’t all Christians servants, saints, and those who fear the name of the Lord? Even “prophet” could refer to all Christians. Consider the Two Witnesses. John referred to them as having a prophetic ministry, and yet they were representative of the entire church (they were “two lamp stands”). Insofar as Christian proclaim the truth of God from Scripture, they are, in a sense, exercising a prophetic ministry. After all, that’s essentially what the Old Testament prophets did: speak the word of God. And that word might be encouragement, or even rebuke or judgment. As 2 Timothy 3:16 reminds us, God’s word is profitable for teaching, reproving, correcting, and training in righteousness.

Another way to look at these roles is to see “Your servants, the prophets” as a reference to the Old Testament saints (the same phrase was used back in 10:7 talking about the fulfillment of what God had told “His servants, the prophets” in times past). “The saints” would then, perhaps, be a reference to the New Testament church, of which the Old Testament saints are a part, and hence the concluding phrase: “to those who fear your name.” In other words, the reward is for Old Testament believers, New Testament believers, indeed, for all who fear the name of the Lord, from the least to the greatest.

That reward is, of course, salvation in its fullest. The seven letters in chapters 2 and 3 laid out a number of promises for those who overcome, that is, the Christians who don’t lose faith but endure to the end. They will:

  • Eat of the tree of life
  • Be given the crown of life
  • Receive “hidden manna” and a new stone with a new name on it
  • Have authority over the nations and be given the morning star
  • Be clothed in white
  • Have their names in the Book of Life
  • Be confessed before the Father
  • Be made a pillar in the temple of God
  • Have the name of God, the city of God, and the new name of Jesus written on them
  • Share a throne with Jesus

This is quite an impressive list. One that should encourage and embolden the heart of every believer.

Verse 18 concludes by saying that the Lord will destroy the destroyers of the earth. Just as His wrath was poured out on the angry, so His destroying hand will be against the destroyers. This sounds like a reference to Jeremiah 51:25, where the prophet announces the judgment of Babylon (“the great city” in Revelation). “The earth” here is not a reference to the “earth dwellers,” which are unbelievers, but is, perhaps, intended to mean all that God has made, including His people. Some want to take “earth” here (gês in the Greek) to mean “land” (a legitimate translation), and say it’s talking about Israel. The language is poetic, so we can’t take the words too literally, though if we understand “Israel” in the New Testament sense, i.e., the church, then that might have merit. It would be out of place, I think, for God to suddenly be saying His wrath is only against those who destroy ethnic Jews. It’s quite plain that God’s judgment will fall upon those who destroy His people, Jew or Gentile.

The heavenly song finishes, but then there’s a new vision. John sees God’s temple opening to reveal the Ark of the Covenant. This is followed by lightening, rumbles, thunder, an earthquake and hail. Why does John suddenly see the Ark of the Covenant here? What’s the significance?

To answer that, we need to understand the role of the Ark of the Covenant to Israel. It signified the presence of the Lord in the midst of His people. That’s why it resided in the Holy of Holies, the innermost place of the Tabernacle, and then Solomon’s Temple. In the days of the Tabernacle, the Levites would carry it from place to place as Israel crossed the wilderness to Canaan.

We’ve already made reference to Joshua 6, and the story of the fall of Jericho. That story is particularly poignant here, with its seven trumpets sounding out judgment against the godless people of the city. If we consider the part played by the Ark in verses 8-16, I think we get a sense of why John might see the Ark at this point in Revelation. Israel marches around the city carrying the Ark. God is with them as they sound the trumpet, proclaiming God’s imminent judgment. And when judgment comes, God is with His people, symbolized by the Ark carried as the wall crumbles and Israel marches on the city. Remember, the Ark contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the Law, further emphasizing God’s righteous judgment.

During the Babylonian captivity, starting around 586 BC, the Ark of the Covenant was lost. There is no record of what happened to it. In 2 Maccabees, a book not considered Scripture, but often appealed to for historical information, the author says that Jeremiah hid the Ark in a cave. The problem with this is that there is no mention of it ever being recovered. There was no Ark in Herod’s Temple, the Second Temple, which was the one destroyed in 70 AD. Also, Jeremiah 3:18 indicates that the Ark will one day no longer be relevant to God’s people. They won’t look for it, rather they will seek the presence of God in Jerusalem, among His people.

So what we have in Revelation 11:19 is God in the midst of His people at a time when judgment is about to fall. Note that in 11:1, John was told to measure the temple of God. We understood the temple there to be a reference to God’s people, speaking of their protection. Here, at the end of chapter 11, we have the temple again representing God’s people, with the Ark inside: God in the midst of the church. We should also take note of the fact that when the temple is open, John can see the Ark of the Covenant. In the physical temple, there was a veil covering the Holy of Holies. In John’s vision, there is no veil. We have direct access to the Ark.

There were no chapter and verse divisions when John originally wrote Revelation, but there seems to be a natural “bookending” of 11:1 and 11:19, starting and ending with a vision of the temple. This section starts by affirming God’s spiritual protection of His people, and it ends by reminding them that whatever else is happening in terms of judgment and cosmic turmoil, He is with them, in their midst.

We should be familiar with the lightnings, thunders, and earthquakes that form the language of judgment in Revelation (see also 4:5, and 8:5). This is The End. And yet there are another eleven chapters! Clearly, the Lord has not finished showing John, or us, all we need to see…

Our Sunday School class is taking a break for the Summer, so there won’t be any notes until the beginning of September. But Lord willing, we’ll pick up with Revelation 12 at that time.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 11:15-18

15 And the seventh angel trumpeted, and there were loud voices in heaven saying, “The kingdom of the world has become [that] of our Lord and His Christ, and he shall reign forever.” 16 And the twenty-four elders who are sitting before God on their thrones fell upon their faces and they worshiped God, 17 saying, “We give thanks to you, O Lord God Almighty, the One who is and was, for you have taken your great power and you reigned. 18 And the nations were angry, but Your anger came and the time for the dead to be judged, and to give the reward to Your servants, the prophets, and to the saints, and to those who fear Your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth.”

This week we picked up on our discussion from last time of the use of the past tense in verse 15, and the fact that from God’s perspective, His rule is a done deal. Indeed, Jesus’ words in John 12:31 indicate that from the cross, the “ruler of this world” has been “cast out.” Satan’s dominion has been broken. What we see, therefore, from the time of Christ’s death and resurrection to the time of the seventh trumpet is the outworking of God reclaiming His rule in Christ. There’s sin and rebellion as the world kicks back, and even a seemingly overwhelming flood of lawlessness and hatred against God and His people. But this merely shows how much God’s judgment and condemnation of the world is justified. Men are not good at heart; they are corrupt, and only good by God’s common grace. All it takes is for God to assert His rightful reign over the earth for man’s sin to be made evident. The statement in 11:15 is something that has been true for a long time–the kingdom of this world has become that of the Lord’s–but with the sounding of the seventh trumpet, that fact is about to be made plain to all creation.

It’s important to remember that there is no cosmic struggle for power between God and Satan. From Job 1:6-12, Luke 22:31-32, and the things we have already read in Revelation, it’s clear that God is in sovereign control even over the forces of evil. He may permit Satan to have his way with people, but never outside of His decree. And a time is coming when the Lord will call an end to Satan’s activity, and bring judgment upon all those who followed in Satan’s rebellion. That’s essentially what we have here in 11:15, a declaration that sin and Satan’s reign is at an end. Satan may not go down without a fight, but his struggle is ultimately in vain. Unlike Satan’s temporary rule, Christ’s reign is eternal. There are echoes here of Daniel 7:23, a passage we will be coming back to as we proceed.

John then sees the 24 elders on their thrones. These are the elders he saw back in chapter 4, sitting on their thrones, ruling with Christ. We recalled the significance of the number 24: 12 tribes of Israel plus 12 Apostles, representing the Old Covenant and New Covenant believers–the entire church. This drawing together of Jew and Gentile was particularly significant in John’s day, since this was one of the biggest points of dissension in the church at that time. Jewish Christians had a tendency to consider Gentile believers as second-class, since they didn’t keep the Law and were not part of God’s original covenant people. Gentile believers tended to see their Jewish brethren as part of that which has passed away, no longer relevant. Paul hashes out these issues in Romans, but suffice to say, by showing the church in terms of the 12 tribes and the 12 Apostles, the Lord is declaring that God’s people are not nation-specific. They are, indeed, made up of people from every tongue, tribe, nation, and people, not just the Jews and not just the Gentiles.

The significance of them being seated on thrones before God (remember, the Two Witnesses were described as as the two olive trees and the two lamp stands “before God,” indicating divine acceptance and approval) is the fact that they are rulers with Christ, just as he promised. Back in Revelation 3:21-22, Christ promised the church at Laodicea that those who overcome will sit with him on his throne. This is a significant promise since the Laodiceans were one of the most harshly criticized churches. The Lord said he would “vomit” them out because of their lukewarm attitude. But such is God’s grace that those who are in Christ, and repentant of their sin, will have a place of high honor before Him.

While the elders are seated before God, nevertheless they know their place. They fall on their faces and worship Him. We are reminded here that this is a vision, and however we might imagine the elders sitting and falling on their faces, the logistics of the action are irrelevant; it’s the meaning of the words. They are seated in a position of great honor, and yet they humble themselves before the Lord and worship Him. A similar thing happened in chapter 4, where the elders fell down before the One seated upon the throne and worshiped Him when the four living creatures gave Him glory, honor, and thanks.

Verses 17 and 18 present the elders’ song of thanks and praise. Why are they thankful? I think this has something to do with Revelation 6:9-11, and the prayer of the saints under the altar: “How long?” These believers were patiently waiting for the Lord to vindicate His Name and His people. At that time, the Lord gave them a white robe and told them to wait. At last, the waiting is over. The Lord comes, and the church rejoices and gives thanks to God for His faithfulness.

The elders refer to the Lord as “the Almighty, the one who is and who was.” In 1:4 and 1:8, we saw the formula, “the one who is, and who was, and who is coming.” Some later manuscripts add “and who is coming” to 11:17, but this is clearly an addition, where a scribe thought he knew how this passage was supposed to read based on 1:4 and 1:8. Not only is the textual evidence in favor of leaving off “and who is coming,” but it makes better sense in the context to leave it at, “who is, and who was.” After all, this is the seventh trumpet and the Lord has come. Revelation 1:4 and 1:8 are looking forward to the Lord’s return. This passage is speaking of that very return. Omitting the final part of the phrase underscores the fact that He has come.

The song of the elders goes on to say that the Lord has taken His great power and has ruled. Again, God has not taken something that wasn’t His to begin with. Rather, God has allowed wickedness to rule, and rebellion to have its way for a season. But now, with the seventh trumpet, God is taking back the reins and asserting His rightful rule and divine authority over all creation. “You reigned” is past tense, and might be better translated as “you have begun to reign.” This rendering is one way the verb tense can be translated, and it makes better sense with “you have taken.”

We need to remember that John is here describing a vision of something that has not yet happened. I’ve been very reluctant to assign any kind of chronology to these visions, other than to say that the Lord presents these visions to John in this sequence. But the sequence shouldn’t be interpreted as a reflection of the order these things will happen in time. With the seventh trumpet, however, we are definitely talking about an event that has not yet happened: the Lord’s return. Indeed, it seems that the seventh seal and the seventh trumpet mirror each other. The seventh seal speaks of a silence in heaven, which we understood to be like that hush in the courtroom prior to judgment. In the seventh trumpet, we have a similar thing, only this time there’s more than just a hushed silence: the Lord has returned, and final judgment has come. So everything in the six previous seals and trumpets lead up to the Lord’s return.

In verse 18 we have another allusion to Psalm 2, this time Psalm 2:5, where the nations rage, but the Lord will speak to them in His wrath. Some want to see a chronological sequence in this: the Lord takes power and begins to rule, but then a rebellion breaks out which God quashes by exerting His wrath on the rebels. This goes against what was said in verse 15, that His reign will be eternal. Rather, this whole hymn of praise and thanksgiving reads to me like the song of Moses after Israel crossed the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1-18). It is recounting the way in which God has brought glory to Himself and redemption to His people. The nations were angry, but the Lord visited their anger with His own wrath. Haven’t we seen the anger of the nations in the seals and the trumpets? In Revelation 6:16-17, the sixth seal is opened, and the wicked cry out for the mountains to fall and hide them from face of the One sitting on the throne, and the wrath of the Lamb. This is noted as the coming of the day of “their wrath.” It is describing events leading up to the opening of the seventh seal, which parallels the blowing of the seventh trumpet. In other words, the sixth seal proclaimed that the day of the Lord’s wrath was imminent; in the seventh seal/trumpet, that day has come.

The elders say this is “the time of the dead to be judged”–i.e., the time for the judgment of the dead. This echoes Daniel 12:1-2, and looks forward to Revelation 12:20, where the dead, both great and small, will stand before the throne, and the books will be opened. We need to remember that this is both a vision, and it’s poetry, so we shouldn’t base our theology of what happens when we die on this verse alone. Indeed, the New Testament is quite clear that upon death, the soul goes to its rightful place (believers to be with the Lord, unbelievers to eternal punishment), and the body awaits that final day when it will be raised (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 15:35-58; Philippians 1:21-24; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), so judgment happens at the point of death. In fact, strictly speaking, judgment has already happened by virtue of sin and the unregenerate heart (see John 3:18). I believe the point the elders are making here is that God’s judgment is not just upon those who are alive at the time of His coming. All will face the wrath of the Lamb and divine judgment, even those who have died. They don’t intend this statement to be a reference to when that judgment actually occurs. Indeed, at the End, the judgment we’ll see is the physical outworking of the judgment that God declared upon the world from the time sin entered. And only those in Christ, by his grace, are saved from it.

We will continue, and, Lord willing, conclude chapter 11 next time.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 11:13-15

13 And in that hour there was a great earthquake and a tenth of the city fell and seven thousand names of men were killed in the earthquake, and the rest became full of fear and gave glory to the God of heaven. 14 The second woe has departed; behold the third woe comes quickly. 15 And the seventh angel trumpeted, and there were loud voices in heaven saying, “The kingdom of the world has become [that] of our Lord and His Christ, and he shall reign forever.”

Picking up where we left off last time, John sees in his vision a great earthquake, the destruction of one tenth of the city, and seven thousand people dying as a result of the earthquake. We’ve already discussed the fact that earthquakes often accompany judgment, especially in prophetic and visionary passages. This earthquake is part of the beginning of The End, a judgment against the unregenerate, hard-hearted people who mocked and persecuted the Two Witnesses (i.e., the church). We talked about arguments for and against “the city” being Jerusalem, and though I don’t think it is supposed to be Jerusalem specifically, whatever the city is supposed to represent, it’s not a good place. The people of that city rejected God’s people. And while the seven thousand who perished could be a tenth of the population of Jerusalem, I think it more likely this number is a throwback to 1 Kings 19:18, and the seven thousand in Israel who would not bow the knee to Baal. Since we can’t know for certain there were exactly 70,000 people in Jerusalem, it seems to me we are being told that the city was so wicked, there weren’t even seven thousand men who wouldn’t bow the knee to Baal. In other words, while there was a faithful remnant in Elijah’s day, there’s no longer such a remnant. Another possibility is that the number simply refers to a very large quantity (7, the number of fullness, times by 1,000, the number of magnitude). However, I find the the fact that it’s the exact same number as in 1 Kings 19:18 most compelling.

What of the “tenth”? This could simply be saying that this is just the beginning (like the “thirds” in previous visions), and there’s more to come. But this is an unusual fraction in Revelation. When we think about a “tenth” in biblical terms, we usually think of the tithe–that portion of our “first fruits” (crops, produce, income, etc.) that we give back to the Lord as an act of worship. Could this tenth of the city be a kind of “tithe”–but in terms of judgment, not worship? There is precedent for this idea in the Old Testament hêrem (verb form hâram), a thing given over to the Lord in destruction. Particularly during the conquest of Canaan, God commanded Israel to totally destroy the spoils of battle as an act of dedication to the Lord. Whatever could not be destroyed was to go be put in the sanctuary. It was a kind of involuntary offering exacted from Israel’s enemies. These items were not purified or sanctified by this act. The vanquishing of the enemy was God’s hand of judgment against these people, and the destruction of their things was a kind of offering to the Lord. Could the destruction of one-tenth of the city be a kind of judicial tithe, dedicating the city to destruction as hâram offering to the Lord? It’s a thought, at least.

The end of verse 13 says that the survivors were full of fear and glorified God. Does this mean they became believers? Some may take this passage to refer to a group of people who become Christians after the church is “raptured.” I’ve already said I don’t think this verse is talking about a rapture of the church, so it makes sense I don’t accept that interpretation. In any case, the survivors would be everyone who wasn’t killed in the earthquake. That could be the rest of the city, country, or planet–we’re given no indication of the scale of the earthquake. But more than that, I’m not convinced the survivor’s fear and glorification of the Lord is anything more than “fox-hole faith”–i.e., the kind of thing people will say when all seems lost. “Get me out of this, God, and I’ll give my life to you!” More often than not, it’s insincere.

A good example of this kind of faith born of fear, not true conversion, can be seen in the life of Nebuchadnezzar. In Daniel 2:47, Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, and the king extols Daniel’s God, calling Him “God of gods and Lord of kings.” In chapter 3, that same Nebuchadnezzar sets up an idol and commands everyone to bow down to it. Daniel 4:1-3 has Nebuchadnezzar making a decree favoring the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego after their miraculous rescue from the furnace. His letter is full of God’s praises. But in Daniel 4:29-30, Nebuchadnezzar goes up on his roof and sings his own praises. God humbles Nebuchadnezzar, after which the king praises and blesses the Lord (4:34-37). Perhaps now he is converted? The text nowhere says he became one of God’s covenant people, or tore down idols. In fact, Daniel 5:2 makes reference to the Temple vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had taken and were being used by his successor, Belshazzar. If Nebuchadnezzar had become a worshiper of Yahweh, why didn’t he return the Temple vessels? Rather, I think Nebuchadnezzar is simply acknowledging the truth of God’s glory and lordship, but it’s not personal. Like “every tongue” in Philippians 2:10-11 that will confess “Jesus is Lord”–this includes every reprobate tongue. All people will, in the end, recognize the lordship of Christ, even those who are about to perish for eternity. Even the Philistines acknowledged God’s glory when they returned the Ark of the Lord to Israel (1 Samuel 6:1-5).

This demonstrates from Scripture that you don’t have to be a believer to give lip service to the glory of God. And I think that’s what’s happening with these survivors. They’re afraid. They’ve seen some pretty frightening things, from the raising of the Two Witnesses, to a supernatural earthquake destroying part of the city and killing seven thousand people. By means of this vision, John is being shown that the vindication of the church will cause even those who are “vessels prepared for destruction” (Romans 9:22) to recognize the glory of God. It’s just another way of confirming that the church was right all along.

Verse 14 is a transition verse between the vision of 10:1-11:13 and the seventh trumpet. We are told that the second woe has gone away, or has passed. The first woe was 9:1-11, and I believe the second woe was in 9:13-21. The vision John just witnessed in 10:1-11:13 wasn’t part of that woe, but to prepare him for what he’s about to see. In these verses, John has been given a divine commission to prophesy, to proclaim judgment–and that’s what he’s about to do. John sees the church as the Lord’s faithful witness, warning the world of impending judgment, suffering persecution while “tormenting” the world with the gospel. The church will be temporarily vanquished, but she will rise victorious, and the Lord will deal with her persecutors with the promised judgment.

Since we had time, we started discussion of the seventh trumpet, beginning in verse 15. The seventh angel trumpets and there follows the sound of many voices in heaven. We’re used to heavenly praise choruses by now. In 4:8 we had the four living creatures sing; in 4:10, the twenty-four elders proclaim “worthy are you, our Lord and God…” The four creatures and twenty-four elders together to say “worthy are you” to the Lamb when he takes the scroll in 5:9-10. In 7:10, the great multitude from every tribe, nation, tongue, and people cry out “salvation belongs to our God, and then in 7:12 we have angels and the elders joining them saying, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and praise and might be to our God forever!”

This time, the proclamation begins: “The kingdom of the world has become [that] of our Lord and His Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” This is an interesting declaration, since it is given in the past tense, as if it’s a done deal: “The kingdom of the world has become…” not “is” or “will be.” As far as the heavenly chorus is concerned, it is a done deal. Although John doesn’t see this taking place (yet), because the final trumpet has blasted, that means it’s a fait accompli. Now is the time for what God planned to actually come about. The kingdom of the world is now His. He is claiming it.

The reference to “our Lord and His Christ” is the first allusion in this passage to Psalm 2–here echoing Psalm 2:2: “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against His anointed.” (“Anointed” in the Greek Old Testament is christos). In the context of Psalm 2:2, “the Lord and His anointed” referred to God and King David. However, the Psalm clearly has a prophetic layer, as is brought out by Revelation 11:15, where the Lord and His Anointed is a reference to the Father and the Son. Although, our Lord could also refer to Jesus, such that we have here a reference to the same Person of the Godhead: our Lord (Jesus), and God’s Messiah (also Jesus). Either interpretation fits with what’s being said here: Jesus is Lord, the King of kings, and he will reign forever over his kingdom, which has now come. Don’t forget, Jesus promised the church in Laodicea that the one who overcomes will sit with him on his throne (3:21). This verse (11:15) could also be referencing Psalm 110:1, “The Lord says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.'”

We’ll continue our examination of the seventh trumpet next time, Lord willing!

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 11:12-13

12 And they [the Two Witnesses] heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up into heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them. 13 And in that hour there was a great earthquake and a tenth of the city fell and seven thousand names of men were killed in the earthquake, and the rest became full of fear and gave glory to the God of heaven.

The world rejoiced when the Two Witnesses (symbolizing the church) were killed, throwing a party and exchanging gifts. But then, the breath of life from the Spirit of God entered into them, and they stood, causing those watching to become fearful. As we discussed last time, this scene symbolizes the ultimate victory of the church, even when all seemed lost and hopeless. We compared this to how Israel during their Egyptian bondage must have felt, prior to the Exodus, or the disciples looking on their crucified Messiah, prior to the Resurrection. God is faithful to His people, even when it seems things couldn’t get any worse.

The onlookers are already startled at the sudden revivification of the Two Witnesses. Now, while they are watching, the Witnesses are summoned to heaven by a divine voice, and transported in a cloud. If the Two Witnesses represent the church, is this some kind of “rapture” event, where the church is taken up to heaven prior to a great tribulation, and the rest of the world is left behind to suffer? This passage could certainly be used to argue for such an event. One of the main reasons I can’t accept such an interpretation is because of the need to be consistent. If we are taking the elements of the vision to be symbolic, it would be out of place to suddenly have a literal rapture. In other words, if the summoning of the Witnesses is a reference to an actual rapture that will happen at some point, then why aren’t the Two Witnesses actual people, and the temple in 11:1-2 an actual temple, and the giant locusts actual locusts, etc.?

In Revelation 4:1, prior to the opening of the seven seals, John had a vision of a door in heaven, and a voice summoned him with the same phrase: “Come up here!” The voice tells John the purpose of this summoning: “to show what will happen.” He is given a vision of the heavenly throne room, the Lamb that was slain, and the creatures and elders praising God. What did this mean for John? It set the stage for the opening of the seals, and it showed the exalted status of the Lamb, the only one worthy of opening the seals. Through this vision, the Lord made known to John that calamity and judgment was coming from His hand, but the saints in heaven are eternally secure. It gave hope and reassurance in light of the terrible things John was about to witness.

This vision compares also to Isaiah 6:1-8, where the prophet sees the Lord on His throne, the heavenly throng sing “Holy, holy, holy,” and Isaiah receives his prophetic commission. Likewise, Ezekiel is transported by the Spirit in Ezekiel 11:1 and 43:5, and on various other occasions (2:2; 3:12, 14, 24) he has supernatural experiences, including the Spirit entering him and setting him on his feet. Each of these times, Ezekiel also receives a prophetic commission.

It’s clear this kind of “meeting with the Lord” is common in the Old Testament. It serves to vindicate their ministry and their message, assuring them that God is with them, and they are truly speaking for the Lord, especially when the Lord knows their message will not be well received. Perhaps this is what the Lord is communicating to the church through this vision. By raising the Two Witnesses and calling them into His presence, the Lord is giving assurance to His people that insofar as they are faithful in their proclamation of the gospel, He will be with them and vindicate them. He will not disown them, but, indeed, Christ will acknowledge them before the Father, just as He promised (Matthew 10:32)

Underscoring this is the fact that the Witnesses are carried up in a cloud. As with the cloud and the Mighty Angel in chapter 10, this signifies the presence of the Lord (notice also the cloud that overshadowed Jesus, Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration in Matthew 17:5, as well as Jesus’s promise that he will return in a cloud of glory in Luke 21:27, and the fact Jesus was taken up in a cloud in Acts 1:9). Once again, this demonstrates quite clearly that the Witnesses (i.e., the faithful church) is speaking from God, and He is with His people.

After the enemies of the Witnesses watch their ascent, there is an earthquake, followed by death and destruction. In other words, judgment begins, just as the witnesses said it would. John says it happened “in that hour” (Greek: en ekeinê tê hôra). I don’t think this is meant to be a chronological reference. As I’ve said before, I’m very wary of trying to put these visions into any form of chronological sequence, though clearly some things are meant to follow sequentially. I think this phrase is giving us a sense of the rapidity with which events unfold once the church has been shown to be speaking for the Lord.

Earthquakes are a prominent feature of apocalyptic, End Times passages in Scripture. Back in 6:12, when the sixth seal was opened, there was a great earthquake. As we discussed back then, this signified the beginning of the end. The End would come with the seventh seal, and this is a pattern we will see repeated here. The sixth trumpet heralds the End, and then with the seventh trumpet, the End comes in all its fullness.

Ezekiel 38:19 is probably behind what John sees here. In that passage, God brings judgment against Gog, using similar apocalyptic language to what we see here, and have seen elsewhere. Indeed, verses 19-23 have a very apocalyptic feel to it such that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Lord is using the destruction of Gog as a picture of how He will bring judgment to bear when the Last Days come.

The result of the earthquake is that a tenth of the city falls. We’ve seen “one third” used a few times in Revelation, but not “one tenth.” Usually when we think of a tenth, we think of a tithe, a tenth portion given to the Lord from our labors. Could this be a “tithe” of the city, a portion given over to the Lord in its destruction, indicating that judgment has begun from the Lord’s hand? We’ll hold that thought for the moment. John also gives us a number that goes along with the tenth of the city: 7,000 “names of men” (i.e., people). The number 7,000 reminds us of the 7,000 faithful in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal. It’s possible John is saying that there wasn’t even a faithful remnant in the city. Those that identify the city as Jerusalem could point to the fact that the population of Jerusalem at that time was about 55,000-95,000, so 70,000 would be in that range. This would make 7,000 a tenth of the population of Israel. That’s a bit too vague and leaves too much wiggle room for my liking. I would prefer to see this as 7, the number of completeness, multiplied by 1,000, signifying a very large quantity. Hence, a very large number of people died when the city fell. I also like the link with 1 Kings 19:18, and the fact that in the “great city,” not even 7,000 faithful could be found.

We ran out of time, but, Lord willing, we’ll pick up here next time, and consider further what that “tenth” might mean…

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 11:11

11 And after the three-and-a-half days, the Spirit of Life from God came into them [the Two Witnesses], and they stood on their feet, and a great fear fell upon those watching them.

We began with a brief recap of chapter 11 so far for the benefit of a couple of newcomers to the class, and some who had missed some… and, let’s face it, people who had forgotten what we’ve talked about so far, which probably counts for more people than would be willing to admit. 🙂

John’s vision now takes a dramatic turn. The Two Witnesses, who have been lying dead on the street of the great city for three-and-a-half days, are suddenly filled with “the Spirit of Life from God.” They get up on their feet, striking fear into the hearts of those watching–and rightfully so! The rest of this section (11-14) talks about a heavenly voice summoning the Two Witnesses, and then an earthquake, death, and destruction, all of which cause the survivors to be afraid and glorify God.

If, as we have argued so far, the Two Witnesses represent the church, is this picturing the “rapture” of the church (i.e., the church being taken up into heaven), prior to some cataclysmic event befalling those who are not saved, causing them to repent and believe before Christ returns? I can’t say I subscribe to this view, as I hope will become apparent, but it’s not hard to see how one might come to that conclusion based on this passage alone. However, this passage shouldn’t be taken on its own. We need to consider it in light of the context, and everything we’ve discussed to this point.

The first point I reiterated was that this is a vision, and everything we’ve seen so far, from the temple to the Witnesses and their fiery breath, are all symbolic. It’s the meaning of these symbols that are of significance to us. The Two Witnesses have been dead on the street for three-and-a-half days. If we consider that Lazarus was in his tomb for four days, and Jesus was cautioned that he would smell as a result (John 11:39), then I think it’s fair to say these men are truly dead, and there is no hope for them. The message here is that, at this point, the church is, effectively, dead. Not that there is no church, or there are no Christians, but that the church no longer has any influence in the world. Indeed, the earth-dwellers, those celebrating the demise of the Witnesses, are glad not to have their consciences pricked any more by the church reminding them of God’s law and the gospel. They can do what they want without anyone telling them it’s wrong.

But this isn’t the end. After three-and-a-half days, the Witnesses are brought back to life by “the Spirit of Life from God.” I think there are a couple of things going on with that 3.5 days. The first is to emphasize how short the time of the church’s demise is compared to the length of the church’s ministry (3.5 years). The other is the fact that “3.5 days” connects this passage with the “times, time, and half a time” in Daniel 7:25 and 12:7. This is a fulfillment of prophecy. I would also note that the significance of 3.5 lies, I think, in the fact that it is half of 7, the number of completion, or perfection. We will consider this further when we get into chapter 12, but for now, I think we’re looking at two epochs of history (church history, perhaps?). Again, more of that to come.

The phrase “Spirit of Life from God” seems very specific–why not just “Spirit of Life” or “Spirit of God”? At the back of this passage lies Ezekiel 37:1-14, the famous “Valley of the Dry Bones” story. In this story, Ezekiel is taken “in the Spirit” (sound familiar?) to a valley of dry bones. The question is put to him: “Can they live?” Clearly not. But the Lord has Ezekiel prophesy over the bones, and suddenly they are connected with sinews and flesh. God then has Ezekiel prophesy life into them, and the breath came into them and they lived (the LXX, the Greek Old Testament, refers to this as the pneuma zoês, the “breath [or Spirit] of life”). The Lord then explains this vision to Ezekiel: the bones are the house of Israel, thinking it is dead and without hope. But God will give them life and bring them into their land. Remember, at this time, God’s people were in captivity to Babylon.

The application here is, I think, clear. The church is dead and without hope, but the Lord will breathe life into her, and she will rise again. Someone in the group wondered if this is related to the “second death” mentioned in Revelation 2:11 (“the one who overcomes will not be harmed by the second death”). If the “Second Death” is judgment (as we said back when we studied chapter 2), then certainly, this could be a picture of the church being saved from the judgment that will come upon the world. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the real message here, and that is of the vindication of God’s people. They will rise again, and not necessarily in the physical sense (remember, this is a vision), but with regard to their testimony. When judgment comes, only God’s people will survive. We’ll talk more about this when we discuss the next verse.

Is the “great fear” that falls on those watching awe-fear, terror-fear, or believing-fear? In other words, are they frightened into repentance, or are they just scared by what they see? Moses sang of the terror and dread that fell on the Egyptians as a result of the plagues (Exodus 15:16). Did they all repent and follow Israel out of Egypt? This is something we’ll address again in verse 13.

Lord willing, we’ll pick up at verse 12 next time.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 11:9-10

9 And from the people, and tribes, and tongues, and nations, they see their corpse for three and a half days, and they do not allow their corpses to be placed into a tomb. 10 And those dwelling on the earth rejoice over them and celebrate, and they will send gifts to one another, because these two prophets tormented those who dwell upon the earth.

We started this week with a review of verse 8, since some in the group were not clear on the symbolism of the Two Witnesses. As I stated before, it is my conviction that the Two Witnesses represent the faithful, gospel-preaching church. I get this from what we’ve discussed so far, particularly the description in 11:4, which calls them “the two olive trees” and “the two golden lamp stands.” Olive oil is a symbol of anointing, and also of the Holy Spirit. In 1:20, the seven lamp stands represented the seven churches. I think this fits with the situation described, where the church has been proclaiming the gospel, and within that gospel presentation there is not only life offered for those who trust in Christ, but also eternal death and punishment for sin promised for those who reject him. Even in our own day, we can see the “torment” inflicted upon the world by the church. For militant atheists, the mere presence of the church is a severe irritation. When the church takes a stand on issues of morality, the world derides the church as having “antiquated” ideas, and being out of step with culture. There is nothing more that the world would love than to see the church reduced to irrelevance. Better yet, mocked and disdained into silence.

And that’s what I see happening in verse 8: the world turns upon the church to the point where the church lies “dead in the street.” What is that picture trying to convey? It’s true that Jesus promised the gates of Hades would not prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18), but the church of Revelation 11:8-10 doesn’t stay “dead in the street,” so, in fact, the world doesn’t overcome the church in any permanent sense. However, does “dead” in the vision mean “dead” in reality? Will there come a time when the church will be “dead”? I’m not sure we can answer that, because we don’t know what that would mean. Would dead be the same as non-existent, or simply marginalized into irrelevance? We haven’t experienced such a thing in the U.S., so it’s hard for us to imagine a society without a church. There are many places in Europe where this is, sadly, becoming a reality. And in the Middle East, for obvious reasons, there are places where the church struggles to survive against very real threats. However it comes about, I think this is picturing a time when the church is scorned into virtual silence, stripped of respect, and discredited in the eyes of the world. If we recall the letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3, we can see how this would be a very real danger to the church in John’s day. It’s certainly becoming a danger for the church in our day, too.

Someone in the group made the observation that Sodom, Egypt, and the cross all share in common a situation where victory was won out of a seemingly hopeless situation. Lot’s visitors were about to be abused, Israel was suffering increasingly worse oppression, and Jesus hung dying on a cross. And yet Sodom was reduced to a pile of smoking ashes by the Lord, God inflicted plagues upon Egypt and brought His people out, and Jesus rose from the grave, vindicating his words, both in promising life, and judgment (John 3:16-18, for example).

Back to verse 9, and the world looks at the witnesses lying in the street. I note in passing that if we take the Two Witnesses to be two literal people, then we ought to take those from “people, tribes, tongues, and nations” as literal, too. That would mean, in the space of 3.5 days, representatives of all people, tribes, tongues, and nations came to look at the dead witnesses. Alternatively, we could simply see this as a picture of the world’s scorn for the church. It’s also interesting to note that the word “corpse” here is singular in the Greek (ptôma). John is referring to the Two Witnesses as a corporate unity, which to me further supports the idea that they represent the church. John was perfectly aware of what the plural form of the word is, since he uses it a little later in the same sentence, so I think this is deliberate. For another example of this kind of “corporate” language, see Acts 18:6, where Paul shakes his garments at the Jews in Corinth saying “Your blood upon your head!” The “you”s there are plural, but the noun “head” is singular. He is telling the Jews that their blood is on their own corporate head. It’s possible John reverts back to using the plural when talking about their burial (or lack of), as a reminder that this corporate body is made up of individual witnesses. Christ sees his bride as a corporate entity, but also as a multitude from all parts of the world.

Why do the bodies (or “body”) lie in the street for 3.5 days? What’s the significance of that? Some suggest a connection between the 3.5 days, and the length of time Jesus spent in the tomb. However, the Gospels seem pretty clear that Jesus was in the tomb for 3 days, so I think that’s a bit of a stretch. I much prefer the suggestion that since bodies were supposed to be buried after three days, the fact the witnesses were left in the street beyond that time frame is a further sign of disrespect. It wasn’t enough that no-one was allowed to bury them; they were left in the street beyond the time deemed respectable. There could also be something to the fact that while the witnesses were prophesying for 3.5 years, their time of defeat was only 3.5 days–a fraction of the time. In other words, though the church may get to a point where it looks like she’s defeated, it won’t last long. Indeed, the time of the church’s “defeat” will be significantly shorter than the time of the church’s ministry.

In verse 10, we see those that dwell on the earth throw a party over the slain witnesses. That term, “earth-dwellers” (Greek: hoi katoikountes epi tês gês) was used in 8:13 by the eagle pronouncing woe upon them, and we’ll see it used again of unbelievers (primarily of idolaters) in chapters 13-17.

I thought it particularly intriguing that it says they “send gifts to one another.” This doesn’t happen a lot in Scripture–perhaps the only other time we see this is with the institution of Purim toward the end of Esther (9:20-22). The practice of giving gifts goes back into prehistory. Every culture seems to include it as a way of expressing gratitude or love, or as a means of rewarding someone, or as part of a ceremonial ritual. The fact that the earth-dwellers send gifts as part of their 3.5-day celebration indicates that they were serious about this. These people are uniting in their relief and happiness that a common foe had been defeated. In their eyes, the witnesses had “tormented” them, and we saw a picture of this in the witness’ fiery breath of judgment that consumed those who opposed them. Again, this is a picture, part of a vision, and it communicates to us the nature of the witness’ prophesying: it was gospel proclamation, and warning of sure judgment on those who will not repent and turn to Christ. Clearly, this didn’t sit well with the earth-dwellers, and it caused them a lot of anguish to hear the Good News of Jesus, because the gospel reveals their guilt before a holy God, and exposes their need for a savior. This is something we see today in our own culture. And how they rejoice when that gospel voice is silenced! But not for long…

We’ll pick up with verse 11 next time, Lord willing.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 11:7-8

7 And when they finished their testimony, the beast rising up from the abyss will make war with them and he will conquer them and he will kill them. 8 And their corpse [will be] upon the street of the great city, which is called spiritually “Sodom” and “Egypt”, where also their Lord was crucified.

Continuing the vision of the two witnesses, here we see an attack launched against them, and their defeat at the hands of “the beast.” We’ve said that these witnesses represent the faithful church, and if this is correct, then that time when the church has finished her testimony can only be the End Times. Christ’s intention in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19) was for the church to be making disciples and baptizing until “the end of the age.” I’ve been cagey when it comes to time-lines in Revelation, but there does seem to be a sequence of events in this vision. If the end of the witness’ testimony is the end of the “church age,” then their testimony must refer to the continuous faithful testimony of the church–even if it’s just a remnant of the church–since Acts 2.

Notice that the beast is referred to with the definite article, and with the qualifier, “the one rising from the abyss.” Where have we seen such a beast before? So far, we haven’t encountered anything called “the beast,” but we have seen an abyss, and a fallen angel who has the keys to that abyss (9:1-3, 11). It is, perhaps, either this angel, or a creature from this same abyss, that John is referring to here. This beast will strike out against the church, making war on the witnesses, conquering and killing them. The language here is very similar to what we find in Daniel 7 and Daniel’s description of the four beast who come up from the sea. Daniel 7:19-22 is of particular interest, since it talks about one beast in particular that makes war with the saints and prevails over them until the Ancient of Days comes. Verses 23-27 go into more detail about the beast and his activities. We can debate about the horns and the ten kingdoms in Daniel, but the outcome is the same: A beast will arise and do much damage to the Earth. It’s king will speak against the Lord, and the saints will be given over to that king for three and a half “times.” However, the saints will be victorious and the beast will be destroyed. If Daniel 7 and Revelation 11 are speaking of the same thing, then this is further support for the idea that the two witnesses represent the church. Keep a mental finger in Daniel 7–this isn’t the last time we’ll be looking here. We’ll certainly meet this beast again in Revelation.

John says the corpse of two witnesses will lie in the street of the great city. Note the singular “corpse,” the two witnesses spoken of as one dead body. Perhaps this is another hint that they are both representative of a single entity? And this corpse is seen by people from all the tribes, tongues, people, and nations of the world for three and a half days. No-one wants to bury them. Why are they left out in the streets?

There may be nothing more to this than an indication of the world’s disdain for the witnesses, and hence for the church. In ancient times, and even today, it is a sign of great disrespect to leave a dead body in the street. In the ancient world, leaving your slain enemy as food for vultures and bacteria was the ultimate degradation. In 1 Samuel 17:44-46, David and Goliath taunt each other with threats of leaving each other’s bodies for the birds and beasts. In fact, it seems most, if not all, civilizations have burial rites for their dead, whether tombs, graves, or funeral pyres. Our desire to give fellow humans–especially loved ones–a “decent burial” is almost instinctive, beyond sanitary concerns. Cats and dogs don’t treat their dead with the same dignity. Indeed, the concept of dignity for the dead is distinctly human. From an atheistic, materialistic worldview, “dignity” has no meaning. If we are merely the chance product of random molecules, why bother with funerals? Of course, the Christian worldview recognizes that we are made in the image of God, and as such, every human being deserves to be treated with dignity.

Why three and a half days? Some suggest this is a parallel to Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection. However, in every other place the indication is that Jesus rose on the third day, so I think this is a bit of a stretch. Does it fit somehow with the three and a half years of the witness’ testimony? Possibly. This could be “payback” for the “three and a half years” of the witness’ proclamation of judgment against these people. However, the time scale is in days, not years, indicating the relative brevity of the church’s demise, compared to her long life. The church may be defeated for a season, but it will be a very brief season. It’s also possible that leaving the bodies exposed exposed to the elements for and a half days is simply another way of showing disrespect. By Jewish law, the bodies of the dead were supposed to be buried within three days. That extra half day shows that the world didn’t care about honoring these witnesses even in death.

Lastly, we discussed the meaning of “the great city.” John identifies this place as “spiritually” (i.e., metaphorically) Sodom and Egypt. Some want to point back to 11:2 and connect the “great city” with the “holy city” and say it’s Jerusalem. However, we have said that the holy city in 11:2 refers to the church. Elsewhere in Revelation, when “the great city” is mentioned, it is in reference to Babylon (see 16:19, 17:18, and in chapter 18).

Further, we need to consider the three other names given to this “great city.” Sodom was a city rife with wickedness, whose people shunned God and gave no regard for Him or His people. The people of Sodom desired to practice their wickedness on God’s messengers, and as a result, they were struck blind, and God destroyed the city with fire and sulfur from heaven, leaving only a smoking pile (Genesis 18-19).

As for Egypt, up through the time of Joseph, it had a very positive connotation. It was where Joseph served as second-in-command to the Pharaoh. Israel prospered greatly there. But the Egypt of Genesis is not the Egypt of Exodus. Indeed, to John’s audience, the name Egypt would be associated with slavery, oppression, and persecution. Pharaoh denied the Israelites their God-ordained ability to leave and worship in the place God prescribed for them. Contrary to God’s commands, Pharaoh wanted to control the conditions under which Israel worshiped their God (see Genesis 7:16; 8:1; 8:20; 8:25-37; 9:1; 9:13; 10:3; 10:7-11; 10:24-26).

Finally, it is the place “where also their Lord was crucified.” Some see this as proof that John is talking about Jerusalem. However, Golgotha, the hill upon which Jesus died, is not actually within the city walls of Jerusalem. Crucifixion was supposed to be a public spectacle. The sight of traitors and criminals hanging on crosses was supposed to be a brutal deterrent to anyone plotting against the ruling authorities. By crucifying Jesus on a hill outside the city walls, he would have been visible from within the city, and by people passing by on their way into Jerusalem. It is possible John intended this to be a broad reference to Jerusalem, but even so, it wouldn’t be a positive reference. It certainly isn’t an indictment solely of the Jews, since, according to the Gospels and Acts, the Jewish authorities handed Jesus over to the Romans that they might execute him. Both are complicit in Jesus’ crucifixion.

I think what we have here is a reference to an unnamed city that, in accordance with all the other “code-named” people and places in Revelation, could be any godless city. I don’t think John is giving us geographical or historical references here, rather he is giving us a picture of the depravity of this city. It’s the kind of city that would practice wickedness on God’s people. It’s the kind of city that would enslave, oppress, and persecute God’s people. It’s even the kind of city that would crucify the Lord of glory himself.

We’ll continue with verse 10 next time, Lord willing.