A few days ago a friend of mine emailed to ask me what exactly the Kingdom of God is. My friend’s question shows his familiarity with the first three books of the New Testament (also known as the Synoptic Gospels), because Jesus constantly talks about the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven) in those three Gospels, especially in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. Statistically speaking, the Kingdom of God was Jesus’ very favorite topic.
For the sake of brevity, in my response I tried to distill a lot of material into the most succinct and simple answer I possibly could. This then is my answer to my friend’s request to define the Kingdom of God:
Friend, I think it is easiest to think of the Kingdom of God in terms of what it is now and what it will be someday.
Until Jesus returns the Kingdom of God is essentially the Church, that is, the devoted people of God. The Kingdom exists anywhere and wherever the faithful people of God are located and intentionally gather. In Luke 17:21, Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you. Actually, Jesus said something more like “y’all,” and less like “you.” Jesus meant a group of people, not an individual. Thus, the Kingdom of God is not just an individual experience; instead, it is even more profoundly experienced when God’s people intentionally gather in worship and service.
But the Kingdom of God also has a future aspect. After Jesus returns and after the resurrection of the saints, the Kingdom of God will expand to include all of redeemed creation.
Admittedly, I could have said quite a bit more about the Kingdom of God. But again, brevity and simplicity were my aim. If someone equates the faithful and sincere Church of Christ to the Kingdom of God, that equation will usually and very often fit quite nicely.
Shall we just skip Chapter Seven entirely and ignore it away? Maybe it does not matter too much. Just one of Revelation’s twenty two chapters can be overlooked; right? Perhaps it does not contribute much content to the book.
Well, I mean, after all, Chapter Seven does abruptly interrupt the flow of the narrative. If and when you read through Revelation Chapter Six, you will find the first six of the Seven Seals broken open and presented in quick, orderly sequence. But then Chapter Seven completely stalls the tempo. It disrupts the rhythm of Revelation entirely. You would have every reason to expect the Seventh Seal to come right at the beginning of the Seventh Chapter. But sorry, no, not so. The Seventh Seal is entirely absent and not to be found in Chapter Seven. The grand opening of the final Seventh Seal is delayed for an entire chapter. It makes a seemingly overdue appearance in Chapter Eight.
Why is that?
Good question. I will attempt to answer that soon and very soon. But first, allow me to make an observation about a narrative pattern within the Book of Revelation. As I have mentioned in a previous blog post, the Book of Revelation is organized around four major heptads — four sets of seven scenes. In the first heptad Jesus Christ gives seven diagnostic messages to seven churches. In the second heptad, Christ, the Lion-Lamb, breaks open seven seals, each of which results in yet another strange scene. In the third heptad, seven angels sound seven trumpets, each of which results in something surreal and catastrophic. In the fourth and final heptad, seven angels pour seven bowls of cataclysmic wrath upon the world. In super-succinct summary, the Book of Revelation presents four core heptads: 1) the seven messages, 2) the seven seals, 3) the seven trumpets, and 4) the seven bowls.
Notably and significantly, three of the four Apocalyptic heptads are interrupted between scene six and scene seven. The Seven Seals are interrupted between the Sixth Seal and the Seventh (interrupted by Chapter Seven). The Seven Trumpets are interrupted between the Sixth Trumpet and the Seventh (interrupted by most of Chapter Eleven). And the Seven Bowls are interrupted between the Sixth Bowl and the Seventh (interrupted parenthetically by just one very curious verse of warning: 16:15, that is).
But back to the question of why Chapter Seven interrupts the tempo of the opening of the Seven Seals. Why is that? Why the chapter-long interruption? Here’s the reason: It is because no one ever expected the Surprise revealed in the Seventh Seal. The Seventh Seal comes along as a huge historical shock. The Seventh Seal reveals a profound mystery that had been (mostly) undisclosed for centuries.
That mystery is the Church.
Chapter Seven presents the reader with 144,000 sealed Servants of God. The number 144,000 derives from an equation of 12,000 multiplied by 12 — 12,000 sealed servants from each of the twelve tribes of the Children of Israel. But… gasp! The twelve names listed in Revelation Chapter Seven are historically wrong, since the Tribes of Dan and Ephraim are omitted entirely. These two omissions are not a mistake, though, but instead a clue to the close reader. While the Servants of God do include the Children of Israel, not all of the Children of Israel are Servants of God.
And then Chapter Seven depicts a vast uncountable throng, from every nation, and from all the tribes, peoples, and languages. They, too, count as Servants of God. Since they are where they are — up there in Heaven, dressed in white and worshipping God — they, too, are to be included among the 144,000 elect Servants of God. Gasp, again! This is a surprise, a massive surprise. This is an utter mystery, as it was entirely unexpected. How did all these unexpected foreign people end up there in Heaven?
These unexpected foreign people — all these Gentiles — were/are redeemed from the nations by Christ. They, along with the redeemed Children of Israel, make up the Church of Christ. The mystery is that the Church is comprised of both the redeemed Children of Israel and the redeemed Gentiles.
If this is so, where does the multi-national Church of Christ come from? And when does the Church begin? When is the Church’s birthday?
The Church was born on Pentecost Sunday, on a Sunday morning in May, 33AD/CE, when fire was flung to Earth from Heaven. The fire that was flung from Heaven is the Holy Spirit. In the Book of Revelation the Flung Fire is both the Seventh (and final) Seal (see Revelation 8:5) and the First Trumpet (see 8:7).
But if this Flung Fire is really the impartation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, why does Revelation present the event and its aftermath in terms of blood, death, and destruction? Very good question. My answer is that this should be understood as figurative speech, as non-literal speech. After the Resurrection and before Christ returns, God wages war against His enemies, as He always has. But more often than not, God now battles his human adversaries spiritually, rather than physically. He prefers to overpower them spiritually, not physically. He subdues them using spiritual weapons, not physical weapons. He desires to “slay” them and yet leave them alive physically. God brings the ego to its end and then gives new life by the Spirit. He “kills” us by converting us. We die to ourselves in the water of baptism and are raised to new life as members of the Church.
If this figurative interpretation of Revelation seems like a stretch, I strongly suggest you give it further consideration and not reject it outright. There is quite a bit more to be said in substantiation of it. And it helps make sense of much of what Revelation presents. In fact, it turns whole sections of Revelation upside down, and transforms what at first seems impossibly horrifying into something hopeful and happy.
But I realize I have more work to do to convince you of all that. For now, you might start by reading Hosea 6:5, where God claims to have slain his stubborn, rebellious Chosen People by the words of His mouth. How is it that God slays rebellious people by the Words of His Mouth? Is God’s verbal violence to be understood physically or spiritually?
Yesterday I went to a nearby church to hear a twenty-something-year-old pastor preach. His message ranks as one of the best I have heard in a long time. He preached about the urgent necessity of self-disciplined discernment — discernment pertaining to various news sources, including both broadcast news companies and social media. Although I think he may have avoided the actual word gullible, in effect he urged his congregants not to be gullible news recipients. He encouraged them to seek out the most-factual, least-biased news reporting possible, while insisting that there is no such thing as a completely objective source. He also suggested they choose to listen to diverse and contrarian voices, lest they only hear one bias on a given narrative. It was all very timely and wise advice, especially coming from such a young pastor. I thought he was quite courageous to wade into such a potentially volatile topic from the pulpit. My chief regret about his message had nothing to do with him. I mostly regret that more people were not present to hear his message. He spoke to a very small crowd.
If I had been tasked with giving the same message, I would have toyed with whether to talk about how we are to discern the times in which we live. His concern and mine do overlap somewhat, but are not one and the same. In his message, my young pastor friend was concerned about how we hear the news, that is, about what we perceive to be true and accurate news. I am concerned about that, as well. Doubtless, getting our facts straight is crucially important. Yet I am even more concerned about the grander, broader narrative in which we insert the various factoids which we glean from the daily or weekly news.
To make my point here, I will use a river analogy. Imagine you are kayaking or canoeing on an unfamiliar river. Various people along the way shout bits of information to you about your immediate situation or your immediately-impending situation. One somewhat-suspicious character yells out, “Beware! There are lots of hungry alligators just ahead!” Another equally-suspicious person counters with, “The fishing hole just around the bend is absolutely fantastic! You should stop a while and fish there.” Whom do you believe? Should you pause to do some fishing or hurry along to avoid voracious alligators? Obviously, it matters greatly whom you choose to believe. But another, even more important consideration would be the anticipated end of the river itself. What if there are treacherous rapids and a dangerous waterfall ahead? Or what if the river empties soon into a placid lake or a beautiful ocean? Knowing that either scenario is true (or at least likely) will change your kayaking calculus quite a bit.
If the first scenario were believed to be true — if you suspected that treacherous rapids and a dangerous waterfall were soon ahead of you — it might be high time to get to the next dock, regardless of the voracious alligators or the prospect of fine fishing. Neither reputed fact would be as important as getting to the next dock.
Alternatively, if the second scenario were believed to be true — if you suspected that the river soon ends in a placid lake or a beautiful ocean — your one aim might be to push ahead and push through, regardless of the alligators or the prospect of a fine fishing hole.
In either case, your anticipated end can significantly change how you perceive your immediate situation or your immediately-impending situation.
Does the Book of Revelation tell us anything about the end of the river? Does the Book of Revelation help us discern when the end of the river is near? Consider that question carefully. How you answer it might determine how you respond to the news reports you hear.
I argue that the Book of Revelation does help us discern when the end of the river is near. Indeed, I would assert that the Book of Revelation was given to the Church for that very reason. God wants us to be able to discern the End of the Age as it draws near. If that claim comes across as wacky or weird to you, my counter-question would simply be, “Then among the other books of the New Testament, do you believe the Book of Revelation has a unique and distinct purpose? If so, what do you believe that purpose to be?” Again, I believe that the Book of Revelation is in the Bible to help the Church discern the times, and especially to help us recognize when the End is near. To say so is by no means a claim to establish an exact date, but is instead to claim that God has done us the favor of giving the watchful a descriptive and specific heads-up. Otherwise, the Book of Revelation seems to serve little-to-no discernibly distinctive purpose in comparison to the rest of the Bible, other than to perhaps confound and perplex interpreters. If that last sentence is an overstatement, I hope it still carries my point.
Now, to be very specific about the time in which we find ourselves, I wonder if (and even strongly suspect that) we are living in a prophesied period in which the Church appears to be defeated and done. Does Revelation actually teach that the Church will appear to be defeated? That is exactly how I read Revelation 11:1-10. And if it matters to my readers or listeners, a lot of other well-respected interpreters read this passage precisely the same way, which is to say that my interpretation here is not obscure, nor lightly dismissed. Major interpreters understand the Two Witnesses figuratively, just like me. They say the Two Witnesses must be the Church. Immediately before the Two Witnesses are resurrected and taken to heaven, the Witnesses are somehow conquered and killed by the Beast from the Abyss. Do not misunderstand me here. I am not saying that we should all expect to be killed. This is a figurative interpretation, and not a literal interpretation. Not every Christian dies; we know that from other passages in the New Testament, such as 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-53. But the Church of Christ will appear so defeated to its enemies that they will exult in celebration over their triumph, and even exchange gifts with one another. The more I see the Church persecuted around the world — persecuted both politically and culturally — the more I wonder if this is all happening right before our eyes. But to come to such a conclusion does require a figurative reading of Revelation 11:1-10, not a literal reading.
If my readers and listeners are willing to entertain the possibility that my suggested reading of Revelation 11 might be correct and may fit our current time, then I would suggest that the practical implications are straightforward. We need to be calling people to repentance, while there is still time for them to repent. Granted, if anyone does run with this interpretation, she or he might come across as “a bit much” to those around them. Therefore, one has to decide how to approach others. I choose to blog about it.
Here in the United States, the two words “Chapter Eleven” are usually associated with debt, insolvency, and bankruptcy. The eleventh chapter of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code provides a means of debt reorganization under court supervision. A Chapter Eleven Bankruptcy becomes an unhappy legal necessity when a corporation or an individual has debt that cannot be met. No one wants to go through the considerable trouble of a Chapter Eleven Bankruptcy. It is always best avoided. But sometimes it has to happen. Sometimes it becomes inevitable. When creditors come knocking and the bills go unpaid, a Chapter Eleven Bankruptcy sometimes becomes unavoidable and necessary. A Chapter Eleven Bankruptcy is unwelcome, unpleasant, and undesirable — except if it ends well. And every once in a while, it does end well.
Now let’s turn from Chapter Eleven of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code to Chapter Eleven of the Book of Revelation. It ought to be said up front that one major similarity exists between the two Chapter Elevens: yuckiness. They’re both rather unpleasant eventualities. Both Chapters Eleven are very, very undesirable. Like Chapter Eleven of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, Chapter Eleven of Revelation involves a lot of hardship, humiliation, and hostility. For faithful Christians, Chapter Eleven of Revelation is no fun. But it ends quite well.
Welcome to Chapter Eleven of the Book of Revelation. Welcome to an uncertain future. Expect a bumpy ride. Our immediate future will likely be a dystopian nightmare. Chapter Eleven brings us past the present day and into a dismal future.
In Chapter Eleven you will read about Two Martyrs. The English translation you read will almost certainly say “two witnesses.” Your translation is not wrong; it just fails to catch the nuance of martyrdom that is there. The original Greek word is actually martyr. And in Chapter Eleven, the two witnesses are more than just witnesses. They physically die. They are killed. They are killed for their testimony. They are martyrs.
Some interpreters will say that the Two Martyrs will be Moses and Elijah. Those interpreters are slightly right and mostly wrong. The Two Martyrs will be prophets like Moses and Elijah. But Moses and Elijah will not be the Two Martyrs. The text never says they will be. Instead, the two martyrs are much more immediate. You and I will potentially be the Two Martyrs. Yes, you may be a martyr. And I may be a martyr. Reconcile yourself to that possibility right now. We are supposed to count the cost. It could well cost you your life. Jesus made that very clear when he called his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. He was serious.
I forewarned you. This is not a pleasant chapter, at least not up front.
Someone somewhere is asking how I see all this in Chapter Eleven. How do I come to these conclusions? Why do I settle upon this interpretation?
As I mentioned in my last blog-cast, Chapter Eleven presents a number of symbols from the very first verse. It mixes a lot of seemingly strange metaphors. And yet for someone familiar with the Bible, these are easily recognizable metaphors. Most of the metaphors presented in Chapter Eleven are used elsewhere in the Bible as metaphors for just one thing: the Church Universal. We are being presented with a symbolic, metaphorical collage of the Church.
In the end, when the Two Witnesses are finished with their testimony, the ascendant Beast from the Abyss will make war on them, conquer them, and kill them (see Revelation 11:7). The Beast from the Abyss will bring about their elimination. The Two Witnesses will be slain in the Public Square. Their corpse (singular) will be under close watch. Their corpses (plural) will be left unburied. Their opponents will celebrate their demise, albeit only briefly.
On one hand, this can be understood to mean that the Two Witnesses will be physically killed. On the other hand, it can be understood to mean that the Two Witnesses will be politically or economically eliminated. I mean that the Two Witnesses will be forcibly silenced or otherwise rendered incapacitated. Based on what has happened historically, I think that both types of killing will occur. Not every Christian will be physically killed, but some will. And those who are not physically killed will be incapacitated through social or economic means. The Church will be silenced, sidelined, and persecuted immediately before Christ returns. Yes, I do know in some places this is happening right now. I just think that the scale and the intensity will increase immediately before the Church is resurrected and rescued. When he taught about the events at the end of the age, Jesus instructed his disciples to pray that they have the strength to escape all these things (see Luke 21:36). It is no mistake that his words were recorded in scripture for later generations. We likewise are supposed to pray that we have the strength to escape or endure all these things.
This is the gist of the first ten verses of Chapter Eleven. This is the ugly part of the chapter. Much happier events are soon to occur. But for now, those happier events must wait.
Many interpretive questions linger. I did not cover everything in the first ten verses. I know that. I am leaving a lot of questions unanswered. I mean to answer more questions sometime soon. But I wanted to cover the essential message of the first half of Chapter Eleven first. I intend to work through more of the details in upcoming blog-casts.
The Mystery of God could be called the Corpus Christi Coupled Mystery. No, I do not mean a mysterious married couple from a city in Texas.
The Mystery of God goes without elaboration or explanation when first mentioned in Revelation 10:7. It is just suddenly dropped into the Apocalypse’s eccentric mix. Because that is so — because it is not elaborated upon or explained, the Mystery of God can be missed by readers. Joe Reader might not consider what the Mystery is. Joanna Reader might not even notice it there. Nevertheless, the Mystery of God carries a lot more narrative importance than Joe or Joanna Reader may recognize. Since the Mystery of God immediately follows an awe inspiring celestial appearance and a solemn vow made by the Mighty Angel (who is actually Christ Jesus incognito), it must matter. Indeed, the Mystery matters a great deal. The mentioning of the Mystery even serves as a rudder for the ensuing narrative. It steers the remaining course of the Book of Revelation. Everything to follow 10:7 concerns the Corpus Christi Coupled Mystery. That is not an overstatement.
Although I discussed the Mystery of God in my last blog-cast, a refresher may be necessary and helpful here. Just what is the Mystery of God? For the sake of simplicity, readers can equate the Mystery of God with the Church of Christ, which is sometimes metaphorically called the Body of Christ. The Mystery of God could be called the Corpus Christi, since Corpus Christi is the Latin translation of the Body of Christ. Since the Latin phrase helpfully rhymes, I suggest readers remember it as the Corpus Christi Mystery. But one more elaborative word should be inserted into that that title. The word to add is coupled, resulting in the Corpus Christi Coupled Mystery.
The Mystery of God, the Church, can thus be likened to a body. This is an anatomical analogy. Like a body, the Church is an extension of and living instrument of its Head, who is Christ. Corporately, believers form a living entity that cooperatively accomplishes Christ’s purposes. Believers do so by daily drawing upon the power of the Holy Spirit. Cooperative Christians function on Earth as the Corpus Christi, the instrumental anatomy of Christ.
In my last blog-cast I used another analogy. I equated the Mystery of God with adoption. That analogy has not been abandoned. It still holds true. Adoption is a great way to think about the Mystery of God, about the Church, the Christian community. Adoption brings a blended family immediately to mind. A blended family could also be called a coupled family. And that is how the Church is supposed to behave — like a caring, nurturing blended (or coupled) family.
The adoptive coupling is the big surprise. It is a marvel and a mystery that God invited Gentiles into the household. Even Gentiles are invited. Gentiles! This was shocking and scandalous to Jesus’ first followers. Gentiles were hitherto anathema. Gentiles were polluted. Gentiles were infectious. Was it possible that God would open the family of faith to Gentiles?
It was possible. And today God continues to invite distant strangers and even once hostile enemies to come join the household of God. That even includes foolish, stubborn sinners like you and me. God has invited us turn away from our sin and from ourselves. God has invited us to take a new path and follow Christ. And God has invited us to become part of a larger, longstanding family of faith. Surprisingly, complete strangers and awkward aliens like us are included in the invitation. We too are welcome to join the family, if we will only accept the invitation to submit to the leadership of Christ.
Once we are adopted into the family, we are incorporated into the anatomy. Notice the metaphorical mix and the symbolic switch, then. Anatomy and adoption are my two operative metaphors. To talk about the Church, we may and sometimes should switch up the descriptive symbolism. We do this since various metaphors are variously apt. Also notice that both the adoption metaphor and the anatomy metaphor are taken straight from scripture (see Ephesians 1:5; 1 Corinthians 12:27).
In subsequent episodes, beginning in Chapter Eleven, Revelation is going to switch the symbolism some more. Revelation will use several additional metaphors or symbols for the Church, for the Corpus Christi Coupled Mystery. Borrowing from the end of the Prophecy of Ezekiel, the Church will be depicted as a temple. Borrowing from the middle of the Prophecy of Zechariah, the Church will be depicted as two olive trees and two lamp-stands. But the primary, overarching symbolic image for the Church will be that of two fire-breathing martyrs — two testifying, miracle-working, persecuted, slain, but eventually resurrected and raptured martyrs. Be ready. We will see a mash-up of metaphors for the Church.
In summary, as we follow the narrative of Revelation our focus now and from hence is the Church of Christ, which is a blended family of native Jewish believers and adoptive Gentile believers, believers who have been coupled together by one Spirit to form a body — the Corpus Christi Coupling, the Mystery of God.