Tag Archives: theology

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 13:6

6 And his [the beast’s] mouth opened unto blasphemies toward God to blaspheme His name and his tabernacle, those dwelling in heaven.

We got a late start this time which is partly why we only managed to cover a single verse. The main reason we didn’t get far is because I started with an examination of “blasphemy.” John has told us that this beast has blasphemous names on his heads, and that he has been given a mouth to speak great, or haughty, and blasphemous things. Now in verse 6, the beast opens that mouth and out come blasphemies against God, His name, and His tabernacle. Most Christians have an idea of what blasphemy is, but I want to be sure we’re on the same page with what we mean.

The Greek word blasphēmia, where we get our English word, was originally a compound of the terms blax and phēmē, so the initial idea was that of lazy or careless (blax) speech (phēmē). Of course, words change their meaning over time, especially compound words which often take on a life of their own, such that the one word means something that only vaguely relates to its parts. A good Greek example is the word ekklēsia, which we commonly translate “church” or “assembly.” The word is made up of the words ek and kaleō, giving it a meaning along the lines of “called out.” While “the called out ones” is a nice Reformed way of referring to the church, the fact is the word ekklēsia quickly came to refer simply to an assembly, and then, by New Testament times, to the gathering of God’s people, the church. When the New Testament writers use the word ekklēsia, they are simply using the word for church, and are not making a theological statement regarding election. Perhaps we can use “pancake” as an English example. These were originally “cakes” made in a “pan.” By our time, however, the word “pancake” conjures up thoughts of IHOP, and warm flat cakes with butter or maple syrup drizzled over the top. They might be cooked in a pan, or on a griddle, or heated up in a microwave. We don’t give a second thought to whether or not they are strictly “cakes” as we understand that word, or how they were cooked.

The primary idea behind the Greek word blasphēmia is that of disrespect. It refers to speaking in a way that demeans or denigrates someone, especially in a religious sense, when God is the one being slandered, reviled, or put down. Here are some biblical examples of the use of the word blasphēmia, and the verb blasphēmeō:

  • 2 Kings 19:4 (in the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament): Here the Lord will “revile” or “rebuke” the words of Rabshakeh, who was sent by the king of Assyria to mock the living God. The word “revile” translates blasphēmein in the Greek–“to blaspheme.”
  • 1 Maccabees 2:6: Not Scripture, but useful history. In this section, Mattathias sees “the blasphemies” being committed in Jerusalem. These blasphemies are the atrocities that came upon Jerusalem and the Jewish people as a result of the rise of Anitochus Epiphanes, just before the Jewish Revolt led by Judas Maccabeus. The atrocities included the defiling of the Temple, and leading the Jewish people to sacrifice to pagan gods, and adopt the king’s religion. Antiochus Epiphanes even used divine names of himself (Theos Epiphanēs–God Epiphanes–for example).
  • Daniel 3:29: Nebuchadnezzar decrees that anyone who speaks against (“blasphemes”) the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, will be torn limb from limb.
  • John 10:33: The Jews accuse Jesus of blasphemy because, at least from their perspective, being a man he made himself God.

So “blasphemy” covers slandering, reviling, demeaning, and showing no respect. In John’s context, it also includes elevating oneself to the status of God, or putting God down and elevating oneself above Him, becoming God’s judge.

Someone asked whether “blasphemy” had a secular use, or if it was always used in a religious context. In class I wasn’t 100% certain, but I thought it might have had some secular use in terms of reviling or slandering other people. I’ve double-checked, and indeed there are instances of that use of the word in classical Greek literature. In fact, there are some New Testament examples. In Titus 3:2 Paul admonishes his reader to “speak evil of no-one,” or blaspheme no-one. Paul uses the verb again in Romans 3:8, referring to the “slanderous” accusation that he teaches that Christians should do evil so that good might come. Acts 13:45 speaks of the Jews “reviling” Paul out of jealousy.  So there is precedent for use of the term with regard to people. However, it does seem most of the time, the accusation of “blasphemy” is leveled against someone who reviles, slanders, or disrespects deity, or someone who assumes equality with, or elevates themselves above, the deity in question. Certainly, as the term has passed into English usage, it would be strange to talk about “blaspheming” another person. I think this is reflected in the English translations of those New Testament passages mentioned, where words like “revile” or “slander” are preferred over the literal “blaspheme.”

So, in Revelation 13:1, where John says the beast has seven heads, and upon those heads “blasphemous names,” we can assume these are names that either mock or slander God, or names that ascribe to the beast titles that rightly belong to God. The fact these names are on the beast’s head perhaps reflects the brazenness of his blasphemy. He wants the whole world to see his disrespect for God, and he doesn’t care about the consequences.

Continuing with 13:5, the passage not only says that the beast was given a mouth to speak blasphemies, but he was given authority “to act.” Some manuscripts say, “to make war,” which, given the context and what happens over the next few chapters, is not an unreasonable interpretation of “to act.” This authority to act, however, is not indefinite. The beast has 42 months, which is the same as the time, times, and half-a-time of Daniel 7:25. Given what we’ve said elsewhere about this time period, we understand the beast’s actions to last for the duration of the church age.

When the beast opens his mouth to speak these blasphemies in 13:6, John tells us his words have two principle targets: God–His name, that is, His very person and all He is, and God’s tabernacle, which John further defines as those who dwell in heaven. Is this a reference to martyred Christians? Some commentators think so, but I’m inclined to believe this refers to all believers. We’ve already seen an association between the Tabernacle/Temple and God’s people at the beginning of chapter 11 (see the notes). Also, since “those who dwell in heaven,” is a further elaboration on “tabernacle,” this gives the impression that it’s not just God’s tabernacle on earth that’s the target, but all those who tabernacle with God. However, I think the strongest argument in favor of “those who dwell in heaven” being a reference to all believers is the fact that it contrasts “those who dwell on the earth”–a phrase we’ve encountered more than once already (3:10, 6:10, 8:13, 11:10) in reference to unbelievers. These “earth-dwellers” are the objects of God’s judgment. So the “heaven-dwellers” are God’s people, whereas the “earth-dwellers” are not.

So the beast speaks blasphemies against God and against His people, the church. And it’s not that the church is divine such that to speak against the church is itself blasphemy, but the church is God’s people, God’s earthly representation. The church is made up of God’s adopted children. To revile God’s chosen people is to revile God Himself. This is how much God identifies with His people. And inasmuch as all that the beast does is only because God enables him, we can take comfort that the God who loves us, and who so closely aligns with us, has our best interest at heart, even in the midst of trial and persecution.

Lord willing, we’ll continue from 13:7 next time.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 13:3-5

3 And one of his heads was like [it was] wounded unto death, but the mortal wound was healed. And the whole land marveled before the beast. 4 And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given the authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast saying, “Who is like the beast? And who is able to wage war against him?” 5 And a mouth was given to him speaking great and blasphemous things, and authority was given to him to act for forty-two months.

Last time, we read John’s account of the beast he saw rising up from the sea, and his description of this beast. He said the beast had ten horns and seven heads–we presume the ten horns were on the seven heads in some configuration. Exactly what that configuration might be is not at all relevant since this is a vision, so what the horns and heads symbolize is more important.

John goes on to tell us that one of the beast’s heads had a wound “unto death,” or a mortal wound. Some translations say the beast had “what seemed to be” a mortal wound. The Greek is a little awkward to render literally into English: “And one of his heads was like it was wounded unto death.” He uses the same particle for “like” that he uses when he says the beast had feet “like” a bear, and a mouth “like” a lion. I think the reason why that “like” is there is because the wound was healed, so while it looked to all intents and purposes as if the wound was fatal, it turned out not to be. I think we have to appreciate that John was not mistaking a mere flesh wound for something more serious. To John’s eyes, this wound ought to have killed the beast, but it didn’t–the wound healed. And the reason for this lies in the purpose of even mentioning this wound, which I think is twofold. First, it calls to mind Genesis 3:15, after the Fall, when God curses the serpent. He tells Satan’s representative that He will put enmity between the serpent and the woman, and their offspring too. The Lord tells the serpent that the woman’s offspring shall bruise his head, and the serpent will bruise his heel. Satan received a mortal blow on the cross, when Jesus defeated him through his death and resurrection. But, as we’ve already seen in the imagery between the woman and the dragon, while Satan is defeated, he is not done for yet. He will continue to be active, attempting to undermine the work of God and rob God of the worship and glory He is due, until the Lord returns. Second, the beast’s head receiving a fatal wound that is then healed parallels Christ’s death and resurrection. As we will see, this beast wants to be seen as a replacement for Christ, and so we will see him attempt to mirror the Lord in a number of ways, this being one of them.

All the earth marvels and wonders at this beast, and there is a sense of worship here that is made explicit in verse 4. They worship the dragon, because he’s the one who gives the beast his authority and power. But they also worship the beast himself, proclaiming, “Who is like the beast?” We recalled that the name Michael, the name of the heavenly being who fought the dragon in chapter 12, means “Who is like God?” This sounds like an attempt to draw attention away from God, and give His glory to the beast. The exclamation continues: “Who will wage war against him?” Michael waged war against the dragon, and the dragon was unable to defeat Michael. Again, the beast is stealing glory from the Lord.

It’s worth noting that while John says “the whole land” engages in this adoration of the beast, the coming verses indicate that not everyone was party to this. By “the whole land,” John means all those on earth who are not believers; those who are truly of the world, and not of the Lord. This distinction will be more explicit as we read on.

The beast is given a mouth to speak “great and blasphemous” things. Also authority is given to the beast to “act.” Some translations render the Greek here “haughty” or “boastful and blasphemous,” which, in context, is an appropriate translation of the rather broad word megas. The interesting point here is the use of the passive voice: a mouth was given, and authority was given. By whom? There are two possibilities:

  1. By the dragon/Satan. The dragon gave the beast its power, throne, and great authority, so it’s possible the dragon is now giving the beast the ability to speak boastful and blasphemous things, as well as the authority to act in some way (possibly to make war) for forty-two months. One has to wonder, however, why the dragon would limit the time frame of the beast’s power. Indeed, considering the time frame stated (forty-two months = 1,260 days = time, times, and half a time), it seems the beast’s activity is to last only until the Lord’s return. Which leads to the second possibility…
  2. The Lord. Since the dragon is not mentioned here as the one giving (as he was in 13:2), it’s likely this is a “divine passive.” This kind of passive is common throughout Scripture, where God’s activity is spoken in the passive voice (e.g., “And this was done…” “This was given to him…”). If God is the one giving voice and power to the beast, then this verse emphasizes God’s sovereign control over all things, including the persecution of His people. But it also reminds us that the beast’s time is limited, a fact the dragon knows all too well (12:12). Who is it that sets the times, and is the only one who knows when the end will come? Surely the precise duration of the “forty-two months” is God’s and God’s alone to determine.

The “great and blasphemous things” puts us in mind of Daniel 7, verses 8 and 25, where one of the fourth beast’s horns had a mouth that spoke “great things,” and that same beast “will speak words against the Most High… for a time, times, and half a time.” Again, there a strong fulfillment connection between John’s beast and the four beasts of Daniel.

Verse 5 raises the subject of blasphemy, which we’ve encountered before already in 13:1, speaking of the “blasphemous names” on the heads of the beast. I wanted to spend a little time exploring what the Bible says about blasphemy: what is it, and what does it mean in the context of the beast and Revelation? However, we ran out of time, so that discussion will have to wait until next time.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 13:1-2

12:17b/12:18 And he [the dragon] stood on the sand of the sea. 13:1 And I saw a beast rising up from the sea, having ten horns and seven heads, and upon his horns ten diadems and upon his heads blasphemous names. 2 And the beast that I saw was similar to a leopard, and his feet like [those of] a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion. And the dragon gave to him his power and his throne and great authority.

We started our discussion picking up where we left off last time on the subject of the latter part of 12:17, which in the NA28 Greek New Testament is 12:18. There are two versions of this verse in the Greek manuscript evidence:

1: kai estathē epi tēn ammon tēs thalassēs

2: kai estathēn epi tēn ammon tēs thalassēs

The first line translates to: “And he stood upon the sand of the sea” (referring to the dragon from chapter 12). The second line translates to: “And I stood upon the sand of the sea” (referring to John). If you look closely at the two lines, you’ll see the only difference between them is the “n” (Greek letter nu) at the end of the second word. The manuscript evidence is split between the two verses, and both make sense. The first version follows from the description of the dragon chasing the woman, becoming enraged because the woman escaped, and now turning his attention to the woman’s seed. We’re about to see a beast rising up from the sea who is operating under the dragon’s authority, so it seems natural that the dragon would stand on the shore watching his minion rise. The second version goes with the start of chapter 13, where John says “I saw a beast rising up…” Since we see the beast from John’s first person perspective, it makes sense that the narrative would start with John standing on the beach.

In situations like this, it seems likely that someone copying the manuscript came across one reading and decided it was in error, so he corrected it to the other. But which is most likely? To read “he stood” and correct it to “I stood,” or vice versa? The majority of scholars and translators seem to think that “he stood” is a little more awkward, and given how 13:1 starts, a scribe would be more likely to correct “he” to “I” than the other way around. Following the text-critical principle of “the harder (i.e., most difficult or awkward, either linguistically or theologically) reading is often (though not always) original,” this speaks for “he” rather than “I.” And while the manuscript support is split, some of the manuscripts supporting “he” are quite important (e.g., p47, a third century papyrus document containing Revelation 9:10-17:2, and Codex Sinaiticus, a very important fourth century codex), which further tilts the balance in favor of “he”–at least for most scholars. Since this isn’t a theologically significant verse, I’m willing to accept the view of most translators. Also, the vision of the dragon standing on the shore, anticipating the coming of the beast, having just declared his intention to pursue the church, makes sense to me. Especially when we understand who this beast is, and what it will do.

John sees a beast rising up out of the sea. This is the first of two beasts we will meet in chapter 13. The second beast comes in verse 11, except that one rises up from the earth. There’s something significant about this, and we had a couple of suggestions as to why one comes from the sea and the other the earth. Perhaps the first is to do with some kind of political influence, while the second is more religious? Given what we’re told about these beasts, I think the answer is broader. The sea refers to foreign influence, especially since most foreign travel in John’s day would have been conducted by ship. Remember, Ephesus was a major sea port in Asia Minor, the region to which Revelation was originally written. Ephesus was probably John’s home base, too. In the first century, this region was under foreign rule, i.e., the Roman Empire. And this was an oppressive rule, especially for Christians. The second beast coming up from the earth, therefore, represents the local outworking of the first beast’s power. By local, I don’t mean just in terms of a town or city, but regional–provincial, even. As we know from the New Testament, the Romans set up ruling authorities in the regions they dominated to administer those areas on their behalf. These authorities, like King Herod in Judea, for example, had the appearance of power, but were really only puppets of their Roman overlords, which is why they were generally hated by the people they governed. We’ll consider this further when we get to verse 11. For now our attention is with the first beast.

He describes this beast as having ten horns, seven heads, and with ten diadems on the horns and “blasphemous names” on the heads. As we’ve already observed, the horn is a symbol of power, so a horn with a diadem, or crown, on it is symbolic of ruling power, some kind of powerful government. We’ll consider why there are ten horns in just a moment. The seven heads represent a fullness of authority (remember, seven is the number of completion or fullness), and on those heads are “blasphemous names.” (Don’t get hung up on how seven horns are divided among ten heads–this is a vision, so it matters more what these things represent, not how it all practically works.) The last time we saw the term “blasphemous” in Revelation was when the Lord wrote (via John) to the church in Smyrna about the insults thrown at them by people claiming to be Jews but are, in Christ’s words, a “synagogue of Satan.” We know that Satan is the accuser, and a slanderer. He is also a usurper of power, and one who operates by means of lies and deception. Notice that the blasphemous names are on the beasts heads. In 14:1, we will see the 144,000–those sealed by God in chapter 7 (i.e., the church)–with the name of the Lamb and his Father’s name on their foreheads. In 13:16, the mark, or name, of the beast is on the foreheads of his followers. Just as the Lord has His people, so Satan has his, marked in the same way. But the beast isn’t marked by who “owns” him, but by his character. He is a blasphemer, one who presents himself as the savior, a substitute Messiah, a false Christ. And I think what we see of him in chapter 13 bears this out. We’ll look more at the meaning and usage of “blasphemy” later in our study of this chapter.

Why are there ten horns on the beast? To answer this, we need to look at Daniel 7. Indeed, Daniel 7 is very much in the background of Revelation 13. Daniel has a vision of four beasts, and he describes each of the beasts. The fourth is very different to the others. This beast has ten horns, which 7:24 interprets as ten kingdoms. He goes on to say that this beast will rule for a time, times, and half a time (7:25), after which time judgment comes (7:26-27). This fits what we’ve seen in Revelation regarding the use of “time, times, and half a time.” Daniel’s ten kingdoms had meaning to Daniel in his day, though I’m not sure they mean the same thing to John, or to us. But that’s the beauty of symbols: the beast has ten heads recalling to us Daniel’s fourth beast, not necessarily to Daniel’s ten kingdoms. The specific meaning for Daniel in his day doesn’t have to be the same for John, or for us. John’s point is not that the ten kingdoms relate to us, but that this is a fulfillment of Daniel’s beast vision. But Daniel saw four beasts–what about the other three?

In Revelation 13:2, John continues his description of the beast. It is similar to, or bears resemblance to a leopard. If we flip back to Daniel 7:6, we see that this is how he describes the third beast he saw. John goes on to say that his beast has feet like a bear. Daniel’s second beast is like a bear. John says his beast has a mouth like a lion. Daniel says his first beast is like a lion. It seems fairly obvious that the beast John sees is an amalgamation of all four of Daniel’s beasts. To what end? To make the point that John’s beast is the fulfillment of Daniel’s vision, a vision that would have meant something to Daniel in his day about Babylon and the situation of the Jews in his time, but also pointed forward to something that was hazy to Daniel (Daniel 7:22; 26-27), but clear to John and to us in light of the gospel, and the revelation of Christ.

The beast is given his power, his throne, and great authority by the dragon. There is no doubt who is in control of this beast, and on behalf of whom the beast operates. Satan grants the beast all this power, rule, and authority, but only insofar as Satan can grant such things. God is still in control, and any power Satan has is only because it is given to him by God. And here is the message of hope: first, God is ultimately in control. But second, the beast–i.e., the ruling power on the earth–has a power derived from the dragon, Satan. And what happened to the dragon in chapter 12? He was cast down from the heavenlies, having been defeated by Christ on the cross, and unable to overcome Michael. In other words, the earthly authorities that oppress the church and persecute God’s people are in the control of one who has been defeated, and whose days are short. God’s people, on the other hand, while beaten and crushed by earthly authorities, are in the hands of the One who defeated the dragon. We have nothing to fear, for our Lord is victorious.

We finished up our time beginning a discussion on the nature of Satan. What kind of creature would keep going after having been defeated? Why wouldn’t he just give up, knowing he’s not going to win? Then there’s the broader question of how a being such as Satan could be created by a holy God. As Christians, we can’t understand Satan, and what makes him tick, because there is no love of God in him. Nor is there any sense of justice, mercy, or right. He is the poster boy of the rebellion against God. He is the very embodiment of hatred to God and all that is of God. It seems to me that he wouldn’t care that he had been defeated. He has no desire to be in the presence of the Lord, no desire for things of God, and no desire to turn to Jesus and be saved. Despite being conquered, it bring him joy and satisfaction to inflict whatever damage he can to God’s people. We know that’s futile because this world is not our ultimate home, and we are not so concerned with our lives that we would not be prepared to give them up for the sake of Christ. Satan doesn’t get that, just as we don’t get Satan.

As for how Satan can even exist as a creation of a good and holy God, I think there is an element of mystery there, along the lines of how the Trinity “works.” Yes, we can understand in principle the idea of one being consisting of three co-equal, co-eternal persons. But how that actually operates logistically is not something we can comprehend, because we are not trinitarian, and there is nothing trinitarian in the whole of creation. The fact is, Almighty God can indeed make a creature who hates Him and rebels against Him, just as He made us, knowing–indeed ordaining–that we would fall into sin and need a savior. How God is able to do this is not really the important question. The important question is why? And the reason given in Scripture is for His glory, to demonstrate the heights of His justice, and the depths of His grace and mercy. Satan is a foe we cannot overcome on our own. Indeed, without Christ, we are at Satan’s mercy, as we see every day in the news and in our interaction with the world. Without sin, we wouldn’t know God’s holiness and justice the way we do. And without sin, we wouldn’t know the grace and mercy of God the way we do.

We might pick up this discussion again next time. At the very least, we hope to continue in Revelation 13!

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 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…

Christmas Devotional: John 1:14a (Continued)

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us

We spent some time on this verse last Christmas, and I would like to return to it again this year, because I think it is one of the most important Christmas passages in the entire New Testament. You see, the whole point of Christmas and what we are celebrating is Incarnation. God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, took on human flesh and made his dwelling with us. God entered into His creation in order to redeem it. But why?

Everyone has a theory about what’s wrong with the world. Just ask! You’ll hear everything from global terrorism to politicians to Hollywood to video games–even religion! But the answer to that question is really very simple: sin. We are all at heart sinful, fallen creatures, at enmity with our Creator. We think ourselves worthy of the best, and deserving of good, but in fact we are, as Scripture puts it, children of wrath, deserving nothing more than eternal punishment. We have rebelled against God, and the penalty for our rebellion is death, both physical and eternal. This is the just judgment of a holy God.

But God is also merciful. Yet how can a just and holy God show mercy to wretched people who have earned nothing but the very pits of Hell, and still be just? Sure, God can withhold His wrath, but on what basis? If sin’s debt is not paid, then where is God’s justice? If there is no accounting for sin, then God winks at evil, and the moral foundation upon which our understanding of right and wrong rests disappears. If God can let sin go unpunished, then He is, in essence, endorsing moral anarchy.

The answer is in the Incarnation. God the Father sent God the Son into the world, born a baby in Bethlehem’s manger, raised in an earthly family, knowing the trials and turmoils of mortal life, and yet keeping God’s law perfectly. He walked in our shoes, but in the way we should walk. Where we failed to obey God, Jesus was obedient. Where we missed the mark, Jesus nailed it. And on Calvary’s cross, Jesus became the spotless, blameless, unblemished sacrifice on our behalf. He gave up his life, so his pure life could be ours. As the apostle Paul puts it, he who knew no sin became sin, so we might have his righteousness. When we come to Jesus, confessing our sins, and trusting in him alone for our salvation, we are laying the filthy rags of our lives at the foot of the cross, and taking upon ourselves his pure robes of righteousness, purchased for us by his blood. This is what it means when Christians talk about Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice. He lived a perfect life, in complete obedience to God, and died a guiltless death, so that we can be reconciled to God. By dying on our behalf, Jesus pays the penalty of our sin, and satisfies God’s wrath, and His justice.

Without Christmas, we would all perish in our sin. But because of Christmas, we have hope. In Jesus, God and sinners are reconciled. May we never lose sight of this glorious truth. And may it be true of you this Christmas.

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 11:12-13

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.