Curiously enough, interpreting the Book of Revelation rather resembles a science project. An interpreter starts with a hunch, a hunch that he (he, because by he in this scenario I mean me) needs to first articulate and craft into a clearly-stated hypothesis. Once the interpreter has put his hunch into words, he needs to devise an accurate means to test it. Devising such a test is rarely, if ever, easy. But a well-designed, accurate test cannot be bypassed. For reliable, replicable results, it is altogether necessary. Then, after his hypothesis has been tested and determined to be correct or incorrect, the scientist — er, interpreter — must do one of three things: 1) admit failure and scrap the hypothesis; 2) recognize that the hypothesis has some problems and thus needs to be reconsidered and revised; or 3) share his results and findings with his peers and colleagues, lest no one else benefit from what he has found. The whole point of the scientific endeavor, after all, is to benefit others with attained knowledge.
Enter the “Mad” Scientist. Sometimes a scientist will have a hypothesis that is met with wide skepticism, and even outright scorn from others in a field of specialization. However, the Mad Scientist is thoroughly convinced that she (she, because I recently read how this very scenario played out with a female scientist who developed mRNA vaccines) convinced she is correct and on the right track. With that firm conviction, what options does the marginalized Mad Scientist pursue? She endures the scorn and finds a way to soldier on, lest no one else benefit from what she has found and might develop.
Enter the “Loony” Interpreter. Sometimes an interpreter will have an interpretation that is met with wide skepticism, and even outright scorn from others ~somewhat~ familiar with the topic. However, the Loony Interpreter is thoroughly convinced that he is (probably) correct and on the right track. What options does the Loony Interpreter have? He endures the scorn and keeps going, lest no one else benefit from what he has discovered and learned. The whole point of the theological endeavor, after all, is to benefit others with attained knowledge.
At some point, though, the scientist-interpreter analogy begins to break down. After all, hard science is a more objective discipline than Biblical interpretation. In science, the lines between correct and incorrect are usually much starker. Compared to theology, it is easier and usually faster to determine which hypotheses have failed and which have succeeded. Nonetheless, in either discipline, peer-review unavoidably happens and must happen. The whole peer-review aspect of science and academia serves as a sorter, an arbiter of what is enduring and worthwhile, in distinction to what is fallacious junk.
And so it must be with any would-be interpreter. Findings must be submitted for peer review. Ergo, this blog. And although a blog may not be the ideal forum for peer review, it potentially allows someone on the “professional” fringe a voice. Because otherwise, no one else will benefit from what he, the interpreter, has found and learned.
Waiting is the hardest part. It is akin to fishing. When a blogger puts his thoughts out into cyberspace, he effectively casts them into a murky pool. He never knows ahead of time what may or may not come. He just casts, hopes, prays, and waits.
And yes, I have just metaphorically compared myself to a scientist and a fisherman. If you have read thus far, thank you for the peer review.
Someday soon, I intend to blog about the Seventh Apocalyptic Seal, which I will call the Fire Flung from Heaven. My interpretive hypothesis is that historically, the Fire Flung from Heaven is one and the same Pentecost event recorded in the Book of Acts, Chapter 2. If that hypothesis is correct, then the Seventh Apocalyptic Seal (of Revelation 8:1-5) and the First Apocalyptic Trumpet (of Revelation 8:7) would be the very same historical event, an event which I believe occurred in Jerusalem on a Sunday morning in May, 33AD/CE. Stay tuned for my interpretation of the passage and an explanation of why I interpret the symbolism the way I do.
Opus Alienum Dei translates from Latin as the “alien works of God” or the “strange works of God.” Here I use the phrase in an interpretive sense, where and when it is applied to five pivotal historcial events which, at first glance, hardly seem like God’s own doing, but mysteriously are claimed by God. Since these events were altogether horrifying, they qualify precisely as Opus Alienum Dei. If the Bible were to be set aside or left out of consideration, these five horrifying historical events might not be obviously attributable to God. However, the Bible says otherwise. In the Bible, God unexpectedly assumes at least some degree of responsibility for these terrible events Himself. And that comes as something of a surprise.
The five events to which I refer include 1) the recurring conflict between two neighboring nations that descended from twin brothers named Jacob and Esau, 2) the Assyrian invasion and dismemberment of the Kingdom of Israel, 3) the Babylonian invasion and decimation of Kingdom of Judah, 4) the perpetually unheeded pleas and warnings of genuine prophets, and 5) the brutal and total destruction of the temple complex in Jerusalem by the Romans. Although this is a blog post and not an academic paper, I have a thesis regarding these five historical events: These five events constitute five of the Seven Seals described in the Book of Revelation.
Two of the Seven Seals are non-horrifying exceptions, maybe, probably. The two Seals that might not qualify as Opus Alienum Dei, as strange works of God, are the First Seal and the last, the Seventh Seal, because they are not altogether horrifying in character. They are awe-inspiring, certainly, but not horrifying. So let’s consider all of the Seven Seals in order, except for the last one, which deserves its own (future) post.
With the opening of the First Seal in Revelation 6:2 comes a Conquering Archer on a White Stallion, otherwise and more simply known as the Rider on the White Horse. Whereas once I thought that the Rider on the White Horse might be any of the many false messiahs — yet another political pretender — now I think that the Rider on the White Horse must be the pre-incarnate, occasionally-appearing, Old Testament Divine Warrior. However, I only came to that conclusion in retrospect, by considering the Seven Seals in a mostly-reversed order, from the penultimate Sixth Seal backwards to the first.
On what exact basis did I come to flip my previously held conclusion? On basis of subtle scriptural allusions, and short, yet specifically-worded biblical references, that’s how. In nearly every single one of its verses, the Book of Revelation drops interpretive hints in the form of scriptural allusions, and/or brief inter-textual references, and/or partial quotes. The Book of Revelation itself provides hints as how to interpret it.
As for the relevant allusions and references to the Rider on the White Horse, I counterintuitively start towards the end of the Old Testament, in the short, obscure Prophecy of Habakkuk. There you will find a retrospective historical poem or sonnet in the third chapter, in Habakkuk 3:3-15. Verses 8, 9, and 11 are especially telling and relevant. This passage recalls God as an equestrian, a horse rider — an archer armed with a bow and with arrows of light — who battles the wicked on behalf of God’s people. In verse 3, Habakkuk’s Sonnet specifically recalls the time of Israel’s Exodus sojourn. That matters because if, as I claim, the Seven Seals do indeed recount the entire biblical history of the ancient Nation of Israel, then the First Seal would necessarily occur about the time when Israel was first constituted as One Nation Under Yahweh. This inaugural constitutional event is otherwise sometimes known as the Theophany at Mount Sinai, which coincided with the Revelation of the Law/Torah. Habakkuk’s Divine Archer-Rider is thus situated on the biblical timeline exactly where my interpretation would anticipate — near the begining, at the founding of the ancient Nation of Israel.
With its archer imagery, this passage in Habakkuk also points directly back to the Book of Deuteronomy Chapter 32, which is a Second Song of Moses (or, perhaps, the Swan Song of Moses, since it occurs immediately before his death). In this final Song of Moses, God is portrayed as an invincible, avenging warrior with a flashing, devouring sword, and, notably, with arrows. Where we see arrows, we might think archer. For those inclined to double-check my reading here, the citation is the entirety of Deuteronomy Chapter 32, but especially verse 23, and verses 39-43.
As far as my suggested interpretation of the Seven Seals is concerned, this close connection to the closing chapters of Deuteronomy carries an immense amount of weight and importance, since Deuteronomy speaks of all the curses that will come upon the fledgling Nation of Israel if it fails to keep the Covenant made at Mount Sinai. I am arguing that the ensuing five Seals are a symbolic portrayal of the historical outworking of Deuteronomy’s Threatened Curses. That is worth rephrasing and repeating: Five of the Seven Seals of Revelation are a symbolic portrayal of the historical fulfillment and outworking of Deuteronomy’s horrifying, contingent curses.
The two Old Testament passages cited above are enough to establish that God was depicted as an archer at the time of Deuteronomy. In addition, and for what it is worth, God is also depicted as shooting arrows of lightning in a Psalm of David recorded in both 2 Samuel 22:15 and Psalm 18:14 (incidentally, another Swan Song, as it occurs immediately before King David’s death). Thus the Divine Archer motif is known and established within the historical, Holy Writ of Israel.
As for Revelation 6:3-4 and the Second Seal, the Swordsman on a Red Horse, I am proposing that the Crimson Swordsman represents the neighboring nation of Edom. As the story of Esau and the red stew in Genesis 25:30 establishes, the name Edom means red; and Edom was a name thereafter applied to both Esau and his descendants, the nation of Edom. The fact that Esau’s descendants became the nation of Edom is repeatedly and emphatically stated in Genesis Chapter 36.
More pertinently, though, the nation of Edom stood against the nation of Israel on multiple occasions, with the first and defining time in Numbers Chapter 20. Notice that in Numbers 20:18 the Edomites specifically threaten to come against the People of Israel with… what? With, and I quote the hostile people of Edom themselves here: with “the sword.” Therefore, the words the sword have an explicit textual connection in Edom’s first and defining confrontation with Israel. I believe that the Book of Revelation deliberately references and uses this initial, defining neighboring-nation confrontation.
Edom is mentioned another very significant time in 1 Kings 11:14, when God is affirmed to have raised up Hadad the Edomite against wayward, apostate King Solomon. Solomon had failed to keep the monotheistic covenant and had drifted into idolatry. Thus the curses of Deuteronomy began to befall the Kingdom of Israel, which would soon split in two. Do not miss that God Himself is said to have raised up Hadad the Edomite as an adversary to Solomon. God used the nation of Edom as an instrument to judge Solomon and Israel. This Second Seal, then, is a first obvious instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. Here God uses Israel’s historical adversaries as His means of judgment. The curses of Deuteronomy are beginning to occur through hard historical events.
If we were to super fast-forward through time, we would find that the nation of Edom eventually reappears as adversary to the beleaguered Jewish people much later in their history, in the Babylonian conquest and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC/BCE. In Psalm 137:7 the Edomites are said to have enthusiastically encouraged (and perhaps, even assisted) the invading Babylonians in their demolition of the City of Jerusalem. However, this fratricide met with God’s definite disapproval. In response to their role in the destruction of Jerusalem, the Prophecy of Obadiah foretold certain doom upon the Edomites for their unneighborly, unbrotherly treatment of their cousins, the descendants of Jacob.
As for Revelation 6:5-6 and the Third Seal, the Scale-Holding Rider on the Black Horse, I suggest that Sir Skewed Scales represents the imbalanced, oppressive economic situation immediately before the Assyrian invasion of Israel. I make that inference and connection through study of the scriptural occurrences of the word scales, a word which “happens” to often appear alongside the altogether-tellingadjectives deceptive and wicked, as in deceptive and wicked scales. Some key occurrences of the word scales appear in three of the minor prophets: Amos, Micah, and Hosea. In particular, see Amos 8:5, Micah 6:11, and Hosea 12:7. These three “minor” prophets were active in denouncing the economic imbalances and oppression present in both Israel and Judah, while they were still allied neighboring nations, and before the Northern Kingdom of Israel was completely destroyed by the fearsome Assyrians.
The most important and pertinent passage, in my judgment, is Micah Chapter Six, where God foretells of the impending devastation and desolation of Israel. And that is indeed what happened historically. It happened when Assyria invaded, besieged, looted, tortured, and systematically depopulated most of the immediate geographic region. According to the Prophets Micah, Amos, and Hosea this invasion was God’s doing, a judgment against the increase of idolatry and the rampant economic pilfering practiced throughout Israel and Judah. This Third Seal, Sir Skewed Scales, is thus a second instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used the merciless, brutal Assyrians to judge both lapsed covenant kingdoms — both Judah and Israel, but especially Israel, which met its end.
As for Revelation 6:7-8 and the Fourth Seal, the Ghastly, Ghostly Tandem Riders on the Pale Horse, I believe that Grim Duo of Death and Hades symbolize catastrophic judgment in the form of the impending invasion of the Babylonians, who did in fact bring death, mass deportation, and nearly total destruction upon the remaining “Covenant Kingdom” of Judah, and its capital city, Jerusalem. I see a clear scriptural connection here to Isaiah Chapter 28, where God says that he will cancel Jerusalem’s corrupt covenant with… death, and overturn their perverse pact with… Sheol. Sheol is otherwise known in Greek as Hades, and in English as Hell. In other words, God asserts that He alone controls the arrival of death and the entrance to hell, regardless of Judah’s attempted confederations, preparations, and arrangements. God insisted that, try though they may, the idolatrous people of Jerusalem cannot “make a deal with the devil” that will protect them and prolong their lives. This Fourth Seal, the Ghostly, Ghastly Duo, is a third instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used Babylonia to judge unfaithful Judah.
As for Revelation 6:9-11 and the Fifth Seal, the Sacrificed Souls Under the Altar, I would say that they represent all the true prophets throughout the entire Old Testament. I get this notion from the account of the stoning death of Zechariah, the priestly prophet, in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, in combination with Jesus’ denunciation of the Jewish religious leaders in Luke 11:49-51. The Old Testament prophets were always rejected and were sometimes killed for telling the people the truth. The Death of Zechariah the Priest stands as a particularly graphic instance of the kind of violent rejection that met the prophets. Another Zechariah, Zechariah the Prophet, was also one of the last, if not the last of Old Testament prophets. He also may have died as a martyr. Thus, given what Luke 11:49-51 says, and on the assumption that the same passage is alluded to in Revelation 6:9-11, the Fifth Seal encompasses all the (rejected) prophets and their writings throughout the Old Testament. This Fifth Seal is thus a fourth instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used the Prophets to bring judgment upon the People of the Promised Land.
Finally, as for Revelation 6:12-17 and the Sixth Seal, it speaks both literally and metaphorically of the Roman siege of Jerusalem and its utter destruction. The passage that makes this very clear is Luke 23:26-31, which is when a soon-to-be-crucified Jesus tells the people of Jerusalem to mourn not for him but instead for themselves and their own children. He foretells them that they will call on the mountains to fall on them and plea for the hills to cover (or hide) them. Jesus is foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem within a generation of his death by crucifixion. And so it happened. Revelation 6:16 very clearly echoes Jesus’ Via Dolorosa Prophecy. This Sixth Seal is thus a fifth instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used the Roman Legions to climatically judge the unresponsive, unbelieving People of Judæa.
So there you have it, then: a list of (almost) all the supporting, Revelation-referenced scriptural passages I have found (thus far) to establish my interpretation of the Seven Seals of the Apocalypse. I hope you find it altogether convincing and entirely worthwhile. Look for a future post on how I understand the Seventh Seal.
About 95AD/CE on the small Aegean Island of Patmos, Jesus Christ appeared in a vision to a man named Johan, an exiled political prisoner. Not long before, the Roman Emperor Domitian had ordered that Johan be exiled from the City of Ephesus to the Island of Patmos. Johan had been deemed a public menace. Johan was suspected of sedition, or at least insubordination. He had instructed his growing Christian community to engage in civil disobedience. They refused to show the expected, requisite reverence to Domitian and to his divine, deceased predecessors, as well as his divine, deceased infant son. Naturally, Emperor Domitian was hardly pleased with such brazen disloyalty and impiety. As far as Domitian was concerned, the stubborn, foolish Johan could erode the allegiance of the Ephesian populace with his defiance. The imperial authorities ought be considered very lenient then, as they spared this rebellious Johan his life and merely sent him into exile on nearby Patmos.
Notably, as a much younger man, Johan had been closely associated with a fellow Jew who had also been deemed a threat to the stability of the Roman Empire. Johan was an early disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, who had been tried and crucified 62 years earlier under the charge of sedition. In his trial before the Roman Procurator, Jesus had testified that he was a long-expected king, the Jewish Messiah. Yet in spite of his brutal crucifixion, true believers like Johan continued to spread the rumor that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the long-expected Messiah of Israel. They claimed that he had been resurrected to life from the realm of the dead.
While exiled Johan was unquestionably a historical person, there is some debate about which one of the biblical Johans this Johan was, as his was a very common Jewish name back in the first century AD/CE. Reputable New Testament scholars bat around the question of whether exiled Johan was Johan, son of Zebedee, a Galilean Fisherman (that is, one of Jesus’ original Twelve Disciples), or Johan the Beloved (who was also a close confidant of Jesus, but not one of the original Twelve). Based on some recent scholarship, I personally think it fishy to identify him as Johan bar Zebedee (bad pun intended). Instead, I think it more likely that he was Johan the Beloved, an inconspicuous, unassuming character occasionally glimpsed in the Gospel of John. However, whichever and whomever: I am not heavily invested in the Which Johan? identity debate. It just seems to me that Johan the Elder would have been readily identified and widely celebrated within the Christian community in Ephesus as one of the original Twelve Apostles. But that was never so.
But why do I keep calling him Johan?
In English-speaking lands, Johan is almost always translated as John. For some reason unbeknownst to me, in English we pronounce the first letter of his name as a j and drop the second vowel, the letter a; and thus Johan morphs into John. Consequently, in almost all of the relevant literature, Jewish Johan sounds like a Puritan from early Colonial America. He now has the dignified epithet, John the Elder, or John the Presbyter, which is a difference without any real distinction, since elder and presbyter mean the same thing. All of which is to say, if you encounter the name John the Elder, or John the Presbyter, the reference is probably to the Johan, the early Jewish-Christian leader, who received a vision of Jesus Christ on the Island of Patmos, and subsequently (or simultaneously) wrote the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation.
In an effort to be both literal and accurate, I usually call Johan the Elder John the Narrator, because of his first-person reports in the Book of Revelation. Johan/John serves as the inconspicuous, unassuming Narrator. Throughout the Book of Revelation John diligently testifies regarding whatever he has seen and heard in his vision from Jesus Christ.
A pertinent point: John was also a highly organized word smith. Either that, or the vision itself was presented in a highly organized manner. In any event, John was not a sloppy writer. His material is organized very carefully. It is organized into four easily-identifiable heptads, four series of seven sets. In interpreting the Book of Revelation, my own operating assumption is that the second, third, and fourth heptads represent chronologically sequential periods of time. I contend that the second heptad focuses upon a millennium-long period in the distant past, the third heptad upon the “nearer” past continuing into the present day, and the fourth heptad upon a brief future time period. Do recognize that my operating assumption, while nicely clean, logical, and coherent, nonetheless invites considerable skepticism from some scholars. Not everyone agrees with me. And that would be an understatement.
Therefore, I ought to address the scholars’ skepticism with a careful response. It is incumbent upon me to explain why I believe a chronologically sequential interpretation of the second, third, and fourth Apocalyptic heptads works best and is most faithful to the text.
Incidentally, if heptad is a meaningless word to you, and if my references to sequential heptads sounds like bizarre, pseudo-academic gibberish, please go read or listen to my previous post, entitled Heptads of History. That post should clear up any confusion, hopefully.
And if anyone wonders why I do not give explanatory time to the first heptad, the Messages to the Seven Churches, please stop wondering. I simply don’t see the need. I do not bother with the first heptad because interpreters find little of substance to quibble about. For the most part, others expositors have done a comprehensive and exemplary job of interpreting the first heptad of the Book of Revelation (that is, the first three chapters), so I do not feel the need to revisit it in this post. All you need to know is that (almost) everyone agrees to its original intended time-frame. It was written to seven specific churches just before the turn of the second century AD/CE. If, from henceforth, you recall 95AD/CE as the approximate date for the first heptad, that’s good enough for this present discussion.
Now, as for the time-frame of the second heptad of the Book of Revelation, I hereby assert and argue that it begins at the Theophany to Moses on Mount Sinai — yes, when he famously received the Ten Commandments — and extends slightly past the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE. An even easier way to characterize that period might be as The Old Testament Age. To claim that the first heptad covers the Old Testament Age might initially seem immensely reasonable proposal, if you operate in a vacuum of Apocalyptic unfamiliarity, and provided you do not open a Bible and go read the relevant passage, Revelation 6:1-17. But if you do actually do read the chapter, you might quickly side with the skeptics. You might even begin to think that I have taken a headlong fall. “How on earth does that overly-confident blogger claim and conjure the majority of the Old Testament into these seventeen violent and bizarre verses?” That is the question I expect to get from those who are familiar with the Book of Revelation.
Okay, a fair question it is. And I am glad you asked, my inquiring friends. Please allow me to explain. Do you mind if I walk backwards while I do?
Yes, I want to walk backwards while I attempt to explain how the second heptad and the Old Testament Age merge into one picture. I want to figuratively walk you through the passage backwards, because that is the way it all first began to make sense to me.
Let me start with the Sixth Seal (see Revelation 6:12-17), and not the seventh (see Revelation 8:1-5). If you read through Revelation, you will find a considerable gap between the Sixth Seal and the Seventh Seal, indeed an entire chapter — Chapter Seven. The textual gap between these two seals is so wide that readers often forget that the Sixth Seal is not the final seal. In terms of its content, it sure does seem like the final seal. With all the cosmic unraveling and terrestrial displacement depicted, it certainly reads like the very End of the World. But no, it is not the final seal, nor is it actually the End of the World. The event depicted is merely a foreshadowing of the end, the Eschaton. The event depicted is instead the End of an Age, the Old Testament Age. And the event so frighteningly depicted is actually the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70AD/CE.
How do I know that? How can I be so sure?
I know that because Jesus of Nazareth is ever-so-briefly quoted in verse 16. And the original quote tells us everything we need to know. The original quote comes from the Gospel of Luke 23:30, spoken as an exhausted Jesus staggers en route to be crucified on Golgotha hill. He is a dead man walking, walking to his death along the Via Doloroso. And he says:
“Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘cover us.’”
In context, Jesus is telling his pre-mortem mourners to instead mourn for themselves and their own children. He is clearly prophesying the coming destruction of Jerusalem. And Revelation 6:16 references a few key words from that very prophecy — mountains, fall, hide/cover. That is our big, tell-tale hint. That is how we can discern that the Sixth Seal of Revelation represents the destruction of Jerusalem.
If anyone thinks that I am grasping for a connection or stretching things based on a few words, I would counter that you just don’t adequately understand how Revelation gives away its hints. It constantly uses scriptural allusions and references, usually with just a few key words in combination or short phrases. Revelation counts on an interpreter’s biblical literacy. Only the biblically literate will catch the subtle references. Once someone discovers those few key words and phrases, though, they invariably point the interpretive direction needed. If you doubt this, you just need to see more examples.
Incidentally, having computer technology to do key word searches makes this immensely faster and easier. The precision surprises this scriptural sleuth. Textual triangulation with only a few key words yields helpful and telling results. Try it on your smart phone or computer.
But what about all the cosmic unraveling in verses 12-17, though? That did not happen during the destruction of Jerusalem; did it? Umm, actually, yes it did, to some extent. Go read Josephus’ first hand account, entitled The Jewish War. He reports baffling occurrences, cosmic curiosities, and supernatural wonders in the days and months preceding the siege on Jerusalem. And Josephus was there personally to witness and record it all for posterity.
One last important point, here: Some of what we see depicted in Revelation 6:12-17 can be characterized as bifocal insight. We have a prophetic view of a literal, historical event; and we have elaboration upon its figurative, spiritual significance. This is simultaneously a freeze frame of the event and its importance. For about a million Jewish inhabitants, doomsday had come, their dread Day of the Lord. It was the end of their world, the end of an entire era.
Now let’s take another step backwards to the Fifth Seal (see Revelation 6:9-11). As with the Sixth Seal, a few key words provide the necessary referential clues. Altar, in particular, stands out to me. As depicted, we behold a macabre scene of deceased martyrs somehow beneath an altar, crying out to God for vindication. So here we have slain holy people (as opposed to sacrificial animals) within close proximity of an altar. Which altar, though? It is probably the huge altar of animal sacrifice in the Temple courtyard, but maybe the much smaller altar of incense within the Temple proper. Okay, that may be something a start. Do we know of any accounts of holy people being slain near one of those two altars? We sure do. At least, the biblically literate do. According to 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, Zechariah the priest was stoned to death at King Joash’s command within the temple courtyard (hence near the altar of sacrifice). The last line of the passage is chilling:
And when he [Zechariah the priest] was dying, he said, “May the LORD see, and avenge!”
Okay, I think we may be on to something now. Here we have someone slain within proximity to a temple altar and a cry for vengeance. But it would be helpful if we had some additional evidence. Ah, we do. We have Jesus’ harsh denunciation of the Jewish religious leaders in Luke 11:49-51. Jesus informed the religious leaders of his day that they and their generation would be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets, from first to last, A to Z, from Abel to Zechariah. Incidentally, here Jesus is probably referring to another, later Zechariah, who was considered one of the last Old Testament prophets. Very significantly, in verse 51, Jesus mentions both the sanctuary (that is, the Temple proper) and the altar. So here we see the convergence of innocent spilled blood, the altar, the sanctuary, and the threat of divine judgment/vengeance portrayed in this one predictive passage. Yes, now I definitely think we are on to something.
So then, as far as the Fifth Seal is concerned, I am going to conclude that it is referring to the ministry of the Old Testament prophets, which concluded with the close of the Old Testament. Thus far, walking backwards has worked. We are going backwards in time.
How about the Fourth Seal? Will we take another step backward in time? Let’s see.
With the Fourth Seal we encounter the fourth of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, two riders on a pale horse. In Revelation 6:7-8, we learn that Death and Hades ride on the pale horse, and that they kill with sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts. What are a few possible key referential words here? How about death and hades? Oh, but we ought to remember that hades may need to be translated to the English word hell or the Hebrew word Sheol. So let’s just try death and Sheol. When I do a computer word search with those two words in combination, seven biblical passages result. Two of those passages look particularly promising; and both of those passages are in Isaiah Chapter 28, specifically verses 15 and 18, which speak of a covenant with Death and an agreement with Sheol.
Realize that I selected two out of seven possible passages, not seventy, nor seven hundred — only seven. And based on the judgment-of-Israel theme that we have encountered thus far, I selected Isaiah, because I know from prior reading that Isaiah often prophesies judgment. And guess what? It works again. Isaiah 28 is a prophecy of judgment against the rulers of Jerusalem. And that prophecy was fulfilled when Babylon invaded the Nation of Judah and attacked its capital city, Jerusalem.
Are we still walking backwards in time? Yes, we are. We went backwards from the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, to the prophetic close of the Old Testament, to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. I suspect that our next Seal will take another step back in time. Let’s look at the Third Seal and find out.
In Revelation 6:5-6 we hear a voice announce the approach of a third horse, a black horse. The rider of the black horse carries scales. There is talk about the disproportional cost of wheat, barley, oil, and wine. What are our key referential words this time? I tried scales, oil, and wine; but then I tried just scales. Again, I focused my search on the judgment-on-Israel theme. And again, I found what I was looking for: indictment passages from the Prophets Amos, Micah, and Hosea. Micah 6:9-16, in particular, fits extremely well. God rebukes Israel’s wealthy, and informs them that they will face depravation and desolation. And it happened. Assyrian troops came through and desolated the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
Yes, we have another step back in time. Our backward progression has gone from a Roman invasion, to the End of the Prophets, to the Babylonian invasion, and now to the Assyrian invasion.
In Revelation 6:3-4 we are presented with a red horse. Its rider carries a great sword. He is permitted to take peace from the earth/land (probably the land of Israel). Our suggested key referential words this time will be red, sword, and fire. In Hebrew, the word for red is edom. Edom was also an ancient nation, a nation that was an early and recurring adversary of Israel (see Numbers 20:14-21; Isaiah 34:5; Ezekiel 25:12-14; Obadiah). God used Edom to judge the wandering tribes of Israel immediately following a major moral failure at the Waters of Meribah (see Numbers 20:2-13). God also appointed Hadad of Edom to punish wayward King Solomon (see 1 Kings 11:14).
Of all the seven seals, this one stands as most difficult to establish, according to my own criteria. All the same, Edom does mean red; and there are numerous biblical passages referencing both Edom and the sword. And it certainly works chronologically.
And finally, in Revelation 6:1-2 we are presented with the first horseman, the rider on a white horse. He carries a bow, is given a crown, and comes out conquering, and to conquer. The suggested key word is bow, to which arrow seemed a logical addition. Habakkuk 3:1-16 was what I found to be the best fit. This is the Holy One Himself, the ultimate Judge. See also Deuteronomy 32:39-43.
Although I could say a lot more about the Seven Seals, this post does a thorough job of presenting my rationale for interpreting them as some of the most significant, sequential historical judgments of God against unfaithful Israel.
To make sense of the Book of Revelation, a careful reader must necessarily grapple with four consecutive, structural sets of seven: four literary heptads in succession. The word heptad is specialized shorthand for structural sets of seven; it derives from the Greek word ἑπτά, which just means seven.
The first literary set of seven — the first heptad — a reader will encounter in the Book of Revelation is a collection of short diagnostic messages from Christ in Heaven Above addressed to seven turn-of-the-second-century municipal churches on Earth Below, and more precisely, seven pastors and churches within the Roman province of Asia. These diagnostic messages were meant for them, way back when, and yet can and do selectively apply to us, now.
The second literary heptad is a binding legal document — a scroll secured with seven seals — seals that are ceremoniously and sequentially broken open. The seals are broken open by a uniquely-worthy, universally-worshiped sacrificial Lamb. As the Lamb breaks open each of the seven seals, the narrator of Revelation reports scenes of colored horses, beheaded supplicants, and a terrified and imminently doomed populace. These seven seals symbolically review the sad and sordid Old Testament history of the people of Israel up to (and just beyond) the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE.
The third literary heptad is a drawn-out fanfare of sequential shofar-trumpet blasts, with lots of surreal thirds of plague and destruction along the way — twelve-thirds of surreal destruction, in fact. These seven shofar-trumpet blasts symbolically review, view, and preview the New Testament history of the peacefully-militant people of God: the conquering, persecuted, triumphant Church.
The fourth and final literary heptad is an utterly horrifying “week” of cosmic anti-creative devastation during which the just and judicial wrath of God is dispensed in measure — bowl by bowl by bowl — upon a variety of terrestrial environs and locales. These seven bowls symbolically preview and foretell a dystopian future time period on Planet Earth.
Yes, all quite weird. But that is precisely what a patient, thorough reader will encounter.
Should you attempt to survey the academic scholarship devoted to these four Apocalyptic heptads, you may be surprised at the amount of progress and scholarly consensus that has slowly emerged over the last 50 years, as it pertains to some (but definitely not all) of the symbolism and sections in the Book of Revelation. However, there is still a lot of collegial debate and disagreement about how to pull it all together into a single, coherent message.
So… is there a single, coherent message? And if so, what is it?
To answer that, perhaps we need to consider its purpose. A very basic question to ask about the Book of Revelation pertains to its original, intended purpose: Why is it even there? What does it contribute to the Church? Does it have a unique role in the Bible? And if it does, what is that role?
My Edu-ma-cated Assertion: The purpose of the Book of Revelation is to give the Church a selective, interpretive overview of its history and its future — the sweep of Church History: past, present, and future. Revelation reveals Church History from the vantage point of Heaven. Readers of Revelation are given cryptic, symbolic access to God’s own perspective on Church History.
An immediate corollary: Yes, the Book of Revelation definitely does have a single, coherent message. And the message is that the Triune Sovereign God retains complete control over the course and eventualities of Church History, even when it all seems uncertain, unlikely, and untrue… because at times God’s control and sovereignty over history will seem uncertain, unlikely, and untrue, especially in the tumultous time period immediately before Christ returns.
Note that I worded the last paragraph very carefully, with particular emphasis upon the period immediately before the Second Coming (or Advent) of Christ, because the Book of Revelation itself focuses a great deal upon that singular period of time. It is a critical period of time in Church History. And the Book of Revelation is intended to prepare the Church for that particular, forthcoming period of time.
Personally, I wonder if and suspect that we may have already entered that tumultuous time period. But I say that with considerable trepidation and great caution, knowing that others have errantly made the same claim in the past.
Within the last few days, I came across an online article about a poem that serves as a treasure-hunters’ guide. The poem contains a variety of clues about where a buried treasure can be found. Doubtless, a number of people will be motivated to decipher the poem and go diligently hunt for the treasure chest. That will be the reaction of some.
And just how did I react? I read it, and immediately dismissed it. I never even seriously considered it. I deemed the undertaking to be curious, kind of fun, and somewhat interesting… but definitely not for me. No, I am not going to join this particular prospective treasure hunt.
Now, for a moment, imagine a scenario. Imagine that whoever buried the treasure actually wants me to be the one who finds it. For the purposes of our hypothetic scenario, let’s call the one who hid the treasure The Poet. Again, imagine that the Poet wants me to be the one to find the buried treasure. How would the Poet react upon learning of my dismissive attitude? How would the Poet feel about my indifference?
To start and obviously, the Poet would not be pleased. The Poet would be disappointed. The Poet would probably try to contact me and persuade me to reconsider. The Poet would suggest I at least read the Poem. The Poet would attempt to encourage me. The Poet would urge me to go search for the treasure. That is exactly what the Poet would do.
But as it is, hypothetical scenario aside, I will not go looking for treasure. And why not? Here are some reasons why I will not go search for the treasure:
First of all, I have other, more pressing things going on in my life. I have responsibilities that I consider more urgent and important than this prospective treasure hunt, this wild goose chase.
Secondly, I rather doubt myself. I believe it is highly likely that someone else will win. I think someone else is likely to find it before me. So why would I bother with the effort?
Thirdly, I know neither the Poet nor the Poem. And because I do not know the Poet, I am a bit suspicious about the whole proposition. The Poet might not be reliable.
Fourthly and finally, it sounds like it might require a lot of work. If my chances of finding the treasure are as low as I suspect, I am not sure it is worth my time.
As you may have realized by now, I am using this treasure hunt as an analogy. No, I am not making this all up. I really did recently read about a poem and a prospective treasure hunt. And I really did immediately dismiss the possibility. But eventually I realized I could use it here as an analogy, an instructive similarity.
In the Gospel of Matthew (13:44), Jesus referenced the discovery of a buried treasure in a very brief parable. Jesus said,
The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy, he goes and sells all that he has and buys the field.
Jesus, comparing eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven to hidden treasure
In just two sentences, Jesus is saying a lot. By comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to hidden treasure, Jesus wants us to understand that a lot of people — most people — will never even notice it. And by drawing our attention to the man’s thrilled reaction, Jesus wants us to understand just how invaluable the Kingdom of Heaven actually is. The man who found the treasure rightly recognized that it was worth selling everything he owned to obtain.
This parable is something I grew up hearing and reading. As a result, when now I hear about buried treasures, I do not just think about pirates and hand-drawn maps and wooden treasure chests; I also recall this parable.
Moreover, I will take a bit of creative liberty here. I will suggest that we can use the same buried treasure motif to talk instructively about Scripture itself. Scripture can be compared to buried treasure — not just treasure, but treasures, plural. God is the Poet, and Scripture is the Poem. God wants you to find the treasures that are there, just waiting to be found. God wants you to put forth diligent effort. Yet most people will not bother. They will not put forth the effort. They will not do so because of the reasons I have listed above. But as a consequence of their dismissiveness, they will miss out on what might otherwise have been theirs.
And in particular, this can be used as an analogy for Scriptural analogies, such as Jesus’ parables and the Book of Revelation. Scriptural analogies require even more diligent effort than the rest of the Bible. Therefore, perhaps they are like treasure boxes contained within a treasure chest.
If the comparison is apt, I think it is safe to assume that the treasure boxes must contain true treasures, even if they are especially hard to open. The reason I write this blog is to present what I consider to be rare and valuable treasures. I do hope some of you will concur with me, or at least be motivated to go treasure-hunting for yourselves.
After a worship service a few weeks ago, I deliberately lingered in the pews to socialize for a while. An attorney friend approached me, as he occasionally does. He always makes for an interesting conversation partner. Sometimes, though, we disagree about this or that.
A few weeks ago, we found ourselves discussing a brief passage in a very old and often forgotten text. Almost immediately, we disagreed about its relevance. I said (and still say) that, yes, the passage matters and carries significant authority. He said (and still says) that, no, it does not matter much and carries no particular authority.
You might wonder if by “old and obscure text” I actually mean the Bible. That sneaky approach could have served as a means of surprising you, my listeners. However, I am not attempting to be sneaky here. By “old and obscure text,” the Bible is not what I mean. Instead, my attorney friend and I were discussing a passage from a nearly nineteen hundred year-old doctrinal treatise entitled Against Heresies (aka Adversus Hæreses).
Against Heresies was written by a Græco-Franco guy named Irenæus. Græco-Franco should give you an easy (if somewhat inaccurate) handle on how to categorize Irenæus. He was kind of Greek and kind of French — Greek, because an older variant of Greek was his native tongue; and French, because Lyons, France is where Irenæus eventually settled and served. Except, the coordinates were in Roman Gaul back then, as France was yet to be.
Anyway, why would anyone get into an argument after church about something Old Irenæus wrote nearly nineteen hundred years ago? Well, because Old Irenæus was just one generation — a single lifetime — removed from John the Narrator of the Book of Revelation.
Okay. So what? Why is that important?
Well, because by virtue of his proximity, Irenæus probably would have known how John the Narrator of the Book of Revelation understood the Book of Revelation. Right?
I think so. And I said so. I told my attorney friend that. He said, “Sorry, but I don’t think it matters that much. As a trained attorney, I can tell you that your argument would not hold up in court. Irenæus himself was not a direct witness of John. Irenæus’ second-hand account of what John said is merely hearsay. In court, an opposing lawyer would respond to your line of reasoning and shout, ‘Objection! Hearsay!’ And the judge would lower the gavel and say, ‘Sustained.’”
Okay, ouch. So I guess I would lose if I were a lawyer in a court case dedicated to this question. But does Irenæus’ secondhand testimony actually carry no weight? I mean, if someone were to use the same exacting standard of personal proximity and apply it to the Bible, entire books of the New Testament would completely lose their historical value. The Gospel of Luke was not written by an eyewitness to Jesus, but by a careful writer who had access to eyewitnesses of Jesus. The same thing is true of the Gospel of Mark. Do we reject the reliability of the Gospels of Luke and Mark because they were not written by direct eyewitnesses?
In fact and to the contrary, by virtue of their immediate proximity to eyewitnesses and by virtue of their careful re-telling, Mark and Luke are considered highly reliable historical accounts. That is because they were motivated to re-tell the accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds accurately. They strove to be accurate in their hearsay historical accounts. And like Mark and Luke, maybe Old Irenæus was also very careful to be accurate in his hearsay historical account.
Basically, I am arguing that the hearsay of some is far more reliable than the hearsay of others. At some point, hearsay becomes an expert historical account. Such is the case when adequate diligence is applied in researching the relevant material.
And I will make a further, even more important point: Secondhand hearsay does indeed have value when it can be cross-referenced with other corroborating evidence. The secondhand accounts of Mark and Luke can be cross-referenced with the firsthand accounts Matthew and John, as well as with other historical witnesses and evidence. The same can also be said of Old Irenæus. What Irenæus says about John the Narrator can be cross-referenced with other corroborating witnesses from the same era, such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and the Didaché.
And guess what? All four more or less line up, in terms of chronological events. Their respective accounts regarding John the Narrator and of the chronology of the Book of Revelation can be aligned. Irenæus and his near contemporaries broadly agree.
But later Christian writers did not agree with Irenænus and his contemporaries regarding the chronology of Revelation. Irenæus had taught with the Second Advent of Christ there would be a Rapture of the Church (that is, a resurrection and immediate ascension) and thereafter a Millennial Reign of Christ. However, later Christian writers like Eusebius and Augustine regarded Irenæus and his contemporaries as theological simpletons who were not sophisticated enough to interpret the Book of Revelation correctly. They rejected the Rapture and significantly adjusted the chronology and substance of the Millennial Reign of Christ.
Therefore, with regard to the Rapture of the Church and the Millennial Reign of Christ, every knowledgable interpreter of Revelation has had to decide whether to align with the chronology that Irenæus and his theological contemporaries assumed, or align with the revised chronology that Eusebius and Augustine taught later. In general, the early Christian Church believed it to be one way (that is, took a pre-millennial position), whereas the latter Christian Church believed it to be something other. This is a well documented and easily demonstrable matter of fact.
In my estimation, generational proximity matters immensely here. Irenæus was only a lifetime removed from John the Narrator. I think Irenæus was far more likely to have heard how John the Narrator himself interpreted the Book of Revelation, and how he understood its chronology of events.
Although He strongly desires to do so, sometimes God will not intervene in a situation unless a mediator — an intercessor —approaches the Throne to request His intervention. And although it may sound unorthodox (and perhaps even heretical), it may even be accurate to say that in some situations God Almighty cannot intervene unless a mediator requests intervention from Him.
Yeah, I know: The word cannot sounds wrong. It sounds unorthodox and seems suspect because it implies that Almighty God is somehow deficient and incapable of acting. Nevertheless, Scripture does indeed speak of constraints upon God. For example, in Titus 1:2 we are told that God does not lie. In some English translations, it reads “cannot lie.” Scripture does not merely say that God chooses not to lie. Scripture teaches that God never lies. Does this mean God is wholly incapable of lying? Yes, I would argue it means just that, because God’s holiness precludes it. By virtue of His holiness, the God of Truth never, ever lies. Therefore, it is both scriptural and accurate to say that there is something that Almighty God cannot do. God Almighty cannot lie. Much of great consequence can be extrapolated from this divine incapability. The holy integrity of the Almighty God means He is self-constrained, constrained by His own character.
“… in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago…”
The Apostle Paul, mid sentence in The Epistle to Titus 1:2, as translated in the NASB 2020 Edition
Moreover, because of His holiness, His integrity, God will never break His promises. This is a particularly pertinent point, when we consider approaching God with our requests in prayer. If God has said He will do something, He will do it. If God has said He will not do something, He will not do it. God will perform His Word, as promised, guaranteed.
Just as it scriptural to say that God cannot lie, I want to suggest that it is also scripturally and theologically sound to say that God cannot break His promises. That is because here we have two effectively equivalent statements. To say that God cannot break a promise is no different than to say that God cannot lie. In practice, it is effectively the same thing, said twice, only slightly differently each time. God cannot lie; and God cannot break His promises: functionally equivalent statements. Numbers 23:19 lends scriptural support for this.
God is not a man, that He would lie, Nor a son of man, that He would change His mind; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?
Balaam in The Book of Numbers 23:19
We can flip this notion over and speak positively where we were just speaking negatively. If we were to flip that-which-God-cannot-do over, positively it becomes that-which-God-always-and-invariably-does. God’s incapability for lying can be flipped into an affirmation that God always and forever speaks the truth, and that God always and invariably keeps His Word. Much of great consequence can be extrapolated from this characteristic, from the fact of divine consistency.
For example, here we have a rock-solid, absolutely steady premise for our prayers. God is a God who keeps His promises. So if you hear of a promise in Scripture, you ought to pause and give it some careful consideration. If it indeed applies to you, it might be useful to you — maybe even very useful. Seriously. You might be able to bring that promise back to God in prayer and lay hold of it with confidence. Furthermore, if the God of Scripture is indeed the God of Truth, this is a tremendously big deal.
Now at this point, someone might wonder, “But if God has promised to do something, why do we even need to bother approaching Him with prayer?” A skeptic might even slide into ridicule here, and taunt, “What, is God forgetful? Does God need us to remind Him of His promises?”
The answer to those objections and to that mockery is simply, “No, God is not forgetful at all. You have it wrong. He is instead relational. God’s promises are made to those with whom He has an ongoing, mutually cultivated, covenantal relationship. And God makes good on His promises when He is approached appropriately, on the terms He has set. However, God is not otherwise obliged. He may or may not answer the prayers of other supplicants.”
This all makes perfect sense when marriage is used as an analogy. Spouses are bound and obliged to each other by their covenantal commitment. And spouses are most likely to make good on their promises when they remain on good terms. Alternatively, spouses are most definitely not obliged to anyone else. Speaking personally, if I make a promise to my wife, I am obligated, like it or not, to eventually keep that promise; and I am most inclined to keep that promise quickly when we are happy with each other. Of course, this applies only to our marriage and is only true of my wife. I am by no means obligated to fulfill that particular promise to anyone else, no matter how trivial it is. Only the designated recipient of a given promise can rightfully claim it. Again, and for emphasis: Only the designated recipient of a given promise can rightfully claim it.
It works exactly the same way with God and obtaining His promises in prayer. The God of the Bible is nothing if not intensely relational. Like a jealous spouse, God fully expects and requires relationship and loyal commitment. Furthermore, it is only within the bounds of relationship and loyal covenantal commitment that God makes and faithfully keeps his promises. God is only bound to keep His promises to those who are ready and willing make a resolute commitment to Him.
Okay then, if that is so, how does someone make such a commitment to God, and thereby become a recipient of all the personally relevant scriptural promises?
Well, strange as it may sound, this is exactly the reason why Jesus Christ went to the cross. He endured an agonizing, horrible death on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins; and in so doing he established a new covenant (or testament), a covenant in which God has made enduring, eternal, and incomparable promises, such as eternal life.
Consequently, you do wisely and well to make a binding, covenantal commitment to the God of Truth. You do so by confessing your sinfulness, by acknowledging the significance of the price that Jesus Christ paid for you (you personally) on the cross, and by pledging yourself to resolutely follow Christ from henceforth, so help you God.
As controversial as the claim may be in certain circles, the cross of Christ is the prescribed way to be reconciled with God. Indeed, the New Testament teaches that the cross of Christ is the one and only way to be completely and eternally reconciled to God Almighty. Perhaps then we have here another example of God cannot, another divine incapability. Apart from the covenant which Christ established in his blood at the cross, God cannot be reconciled to us, since our sinfulness otherwise renders us too offensive to God. And, try as we may, we cannot set ourselves right by determined good behavior, either. We need (and have) a mediator provided and accepted by God. We have a court-appointed advocate, an intercessor: Jesus Christ.
For if a law had been given that was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has confined everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
The Apostle Paul, in The Epistle to the Galatians 3:21b-22
This final God cannot claim is an altogether imperative claim to prayerfully consider, to be sure. Rest assured, though, that God promises to receive sincere prayers of commitment and contrition.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, God, You will not despise.
King David of Ancient Israel, as recorded in Psalm 51:17
If you happened to read or listen to my last post, you may remember that I promised to write a post about “the duration of internalization.” In case you do not recall what I meant by that very catchy, rhyming phrase — “the duration of internalization” — please let me recap and explain. Jesus once said that he would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights, just as Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of a humongous fish (think whale). By the way, the passage I am referencing here is Matthew 12:38-42. Go check it out, if you’re so inclined. In saying what he said about the three days and three nights, Jesus was prophesying that though he would indeed die, he would not be dead and buried for long — not long at all. Jesus referred to this “duration of internalization” as the Sign of the Prophet Jonah. And Jesus made a big deal about this promised sign. It was to be the one and only validating sign for that “evil and adulterous generation.” His foretold death, his brief burial, and his resurrection would be the sign or validation that Jesus was whom he claimed to be.
Alright, and if you’re familiar with the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, you know that after Jesus was crucified, his corpse was interred in a donated grave for about two days. But on the morning of the third day, Jesus rose again bodily from the dead. Therefore, the promised Sign of the Prophet Jonah came to pass, just as Jesus foretold.
But hang on. More detail-oriented people might notice a discrepancy. They might notice that Jesus was technically not in the grave for a total of three days and three nights. He was only in the grave for two nights (which we would refer to as Friday night and Saturday night) and just one complete day (Saturday), plus the latter portion of Friday and a few early hours on Sunday. So, what are we to make of the discrepancy? A stickler might insist that for the prophecy and the sign to be true, Jesus must have been interred for around 72 hours, not roughly 36 hours.
A lot of people will just shrug and say, “Whatever, close enough.” But Jesus did say three days and three nights. Mathematically, that is 24+24+24 hours, which equals 72 hours. And 72 is definitely not equal to 36. So, again, what are we to make of the glaring discrepancy?
What does it matter? Well, it does not matter to a lot of people. The non-sticklers don’t really worry about it, since they can easily point to a Friday, a Saturday, and a Sunday, so close enough. But the sticklers and literalists do worry about it. They want accuracy, especially since Jesus seemed to be so exact and specific.
It is on basis of this 72 hour Sign of Jonah in Matthew 12:40 that some Bible scholars have suggested that maybe, just maybe Jesus was not crucified on a Friday after all, but on a Wednesday or a Thursday. However, they are demonstrably wrong about that. Still, you can understand why they suggest what they suggest. They want the 72 hours to be accurate. Understandably, they want Jesus’ duration-of-internalization prophecy to be precise. And it bothers them that the traditional timeline just does not fit.
Why, then, do I insist that the traditional timeline is correct? Well, because 1) Friday is Friday (the day of preparation before the Sabbath) and Sunday is Sunday (the first day of the week) — and in saying that I am quite serious and not sarcastic; and because 2) biblical and extra-biblical historical details about the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate help nail down a narrow time frame and only a handful of possible dates for the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ; and 3) astronomy in rewind shows that there was a lunar eclipse (that is, a blood moon) over the City of Jerusalem on the evening of Friday, April 3rd 33AD/CE.
In elaboration on my first point, that Friday is Friday and Sunday is Sunday, the real issue is whether a close study of the four Gospel accounts yields a coherent and convincing timeline of Jesus’ final week, and especially of the pivotal events of the Passover celebrated that Thursday and Friday. The short answer is, upon close examination, yes. Here are two excellent and exhaustive studies: Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ by Harold W. Hoehner (first published in 1973), and Jesus and the Last Supper by Brant Pitre (published in 2015).
Harold W. Hoehner’s book also explains my second point about Pontius Pilate. Said succinctly, due a massive shift in the Roman political scene, in 33 AD/CE Pontius Pilate was much, much more inclined to appease the insistent, bellicose Jewish religious leaders than he had been previously. A friend of his named Sejanus had fallen out of favor with Caesar and had been executed, so Pilate was very afraid of being deemed disloyal to Caesar. Therefore, when the Jewish religious leaders insinuated that Pilate would not be Caesar’s friend if he acquitted Jesus (see John 18:12), he gave into their demands and had Jesus crucified. It was politically expedient to sacrifice Jesus, and thus avoid any accusations of disloyalty to Tiberius Caesar.
As for the final point about the lunar eclipse, Colin J. Humphreys and W.G. Waddington argue in an article from 1992 entitled The Jewish Calendar, A Lunar Eclipse, and the Date of Christ’s Crucifixion that a lunar eclipse over Jerusalem on the evening of Friday, April 3rd 33AD/CE, was seen and thereafter interpreted as a fulfillment of a prophecy in Joel 2:31.
So if Jesus was indeed crucified on Friday, April 3rd 33AD/CE and resurrected on Sunday, April 5th, what about the duration-of-internalization, the Sign of Jonah, the 72 hours?
Some scholars have suggested that the phrase “three days and three nights” was a merely an idiomatic expression. As an idiom, it was not meant to be understood precisely and literally. That may be so. But Jesus could have just said “three days” if he wanted to be a bit vague.
An explanation I personally find more convincing is that the 72 hours may be precise, but the location of Christ’s confinement be spiritual. The designated location for the duration-of-internalization is the “heart of the earth.” Most interpreters presume that “the heart of the earth” must mean the burial of his crucified corpse in the grave. But what if Jesus’ spiritual experience of hell is actually what is meant instead? What if “the heart of the earth” is a spiritual location instead of a spatial location? Could it be that Jesus meant that he would descend to hell spiritually while he was yet alive on earth physically? After all, Jesus did endure the agonies of hell while on the cross. He may have even begun to experience the agonies of hell while he prayed for a way to escape the cross in the Garden of Gethsemane. Significantly, that would put his experience of the netherworld much, much closer to three days and three nights: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in hell, 72 hours total.
Interestingly, the New Testament, the early Church Fathers, and the Apostles’ Creed all give a measure of assent to this particular interpretation. Jesus Christ was not just buried in a tomb. “He descended into hell.”
But what does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower parts of the earth?
If this is correct, it is interesting that Jesus’ time in hell was not completely a time of anguished suffering. Upon his physical death, Jesus had triumphed over the powers of darkness. When he declared from the cross, “It is finished,” Christ Jesus had completed his mission. He had triumphed. Thereafter, his time in hell was not a time of more agony and suffering, but a time of conquest. It was his triumphal procession, his occasion to proclaim hell’s defeat and his victory.
Last night while browsing the BBC news, I came across an article about a scuba diver who was momentarily “swallowed” by a Humpback whale off the coast of Massachusetts. This morning, after handing her a cup of coffee, I told my wife about the article. How did she react? She gasped in delight and said…
Which is exactly how I reacted when I noticed the article. And, my goodness, who wouldn’t? Who would not immediately think of Jonah in the belly of the whale?
Curiously, the author of the BBC article nowhere mentions the name of Jonah, although the clear connection was made immediately by me and my wife. For the sake of fairness and accuracy, I should say that the BBC writer does refer to Michael Packard’s brief Humpback enveloping as a “Biblical ordeal,” and does refer to the whale as “the leviathan,” and thus demonstrates some level of familiarity with the Bible. However, no mention is made in the article of the name of Jonah. Again, I find that curious. Why not make a clear and obvious point of connection explicit?
One is left to speculate on why the author or the editor of the article declined to make the connection. Whatever the reason, I will say that the account of Jonah (and his 72-hour ordeal inside the “great fish”) has been received with a lot of skepticism, at least by a lot of adults. Moreover, Michael Packard’s brief scare does not exactly compare, in terms of duration, since, by his own estimation, it lasted less than a minute, whereas Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights. Significantly, Jesus once made a prophetic point of that 72 hour period.
For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.
Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, 12:40
Three days and three nights inside of a marine creature is a very long time. It is a wonder that Jonah was not digested. It is a wonder that Jonah had enough oxygen to breathe. It is a wonder that Jonah could somehow survive that. More than a wonder, it would have been a miracle. As for Jesus’ comment, a resurrection from the dead is also a miracle, indeed even more of a miracle. But Jesus’ point had to do with the duration of internalization, those 72 hours. I will speak to that duration in my next blog post.
For now, though, I will affirm that Christians do believe that the God of the Bible is sovereign over the course of history, even over curious events off the coast of Massachusetts. When a scuba diver is momentarily swallowed by and then spat up by a Humpback whale, I would suggest that the obvious biblical connection is supposed to be made. Upon hearing about it, people are supposed to react with a gasp of delight and exclaim “Jonah!”