Jesus once cursed a fig tree with the words, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” The next morning, the tree was withered away to its roots, which shocked his disciples. Yes, this is a weird and disturbing portrayal of Jesus. And it is weird and disturbing in more than one way. But it occurred. Jesus cursed a fig tree for real. It actually, literally occurred within Jesus’ final week of ministry before the cross.
Let me explain why I say it actually, literally occurred. The primary reason to say it must have happened is precisely because of its weirdness. His cursing of the fig tree makes Jesus look a bit mad, a bit off. Who in their right mind gets frustrated with a fruit tree and curses it? Perhaps some of us might be impetuous enough to vent our hungry frustration at an unfruitful fig tree; but if we did, we would probably do so under our breath, lest bystanders hear us and think us potentially unstable. Jesus, however, cursed the fig tree loud enough for his disciples to hear; and they in turn decided that the event (and its dramatic, withering aftermath) needed to be recorded for the benefit of all posterity.
Yet this is undeniably weird behavior from Jesus; is it not? So why would his followers record it? They would not have invented this. Why would they? The whole point of the four gospels is to glorify Jesus and present him as the Savior of the world, as someone who is worthy of complete allegiance. The point is certainly not to make Jesus look impetuous, irrational, and zany. Therefore, his followers would only have recorded and relayed this rather strange and somewhat embarrassing episode if it actually happened. Moreover, it was recorded not just once, but twice, in both Matthew and Mark (see Matthew 21:18-19 = Mark 11:12-14). In addition, it is possibly alluded to in a parable in Luke (see Luke 13:6-9).
Hereafter, I argue that the parable in Luke serves to interpret the meaning of the indubitably historical event which Matthew and Mark both record. Indeed, the parable in Luke Chapter 13 explains the whole event, even if Luke was not intentionally alluding to it. It does not matter whether Luke the Gospel writer was aware of the connection between the fig tree parable and the fig tree historical event. What matters is that the Holy Spirit orchestrated the scriptural inclusion of the parable in Luke and the two recordings of the historical event in Matthew and Mark. Jesus spoke the parable of the fig tree; and he cursed the actual fig tree on separate occasions. The Holy Spirit made sure that everything related to the fig tree was recorded in the Gospels — including the parable and the two historical accounts of the event. The Holy Spirit did so because the parable explains the event. If you read and understand the parable, it becomes clear that Jesus was not acting in an impetuous, irrational, or zany manner. Instead, the entire event was a veiled prophetic pronouncement. The event was an enacted parable.
The literal fig tree that Jesus literally cursed represented something else. Get that. The fig tree was a representation or a figure of something else. The fig tree was an effigy. The literal fig tree was a figurative representation. The fig tree represented something else. But what might that something else be? What might Jesus have been so frustrated with? Maybe Luke 13:6-9 will begin to help us figure that out.
Luke 13:6-9 tells the story of a conversation between a land owner and a gardener. Although the land owner is unhappy and ready to chop down a particular barren fig tree, the gardener intercedes on its behalf. He appeals for one more year to tend and fertilize the tree. Yet the gardener concedes that if the fig tree fails to yield fruit after a year, then, yes, the land owner should cut it down. Curiously, the land owner is very specific about how long the he had been looking for fruit from this particular fig tree — three years, which is the same length of time as Jesus’ public ministry. Does that mean that the gardener represents Jesus himself? Indeed, it does. The land owner should be understood as God, and Jesus, as the gardener. The fig-tree parable is about God’s impending judgment upon his own chosen people. Luke Chapter 12 and the rest of Chapter 13 bear this frightening interpretation out. In fact, at the end of Chapter 13, Jesus laments over the forthcoming doom of the City of Jerusalem, since its residents had been unreceptive to him, just as they had with previous prophets.
This interpretation is all the more certain when the Old Testament is cross-referenced. Using gardening metaphors in Hosea 9:10-17, God indicts his chosen people for their rebellion and their obstinance. Verses 16 and 17 include an especially poignant prophecy of judgment. But rather than quote them here, I would encourage my readers or listeners to go read those two verses for themselves.
The barren fig-tree in the Matthew, Mark, and Luke, then, is a figurative symbol, used consistently in every instance. It represents an obstinate, unreceptive group of people — people who should have known better. But you might miss all this if you do not recognize the symbolism for what it is. And this is how prophetic material often appears in the Bible, in terms of representative symbolism. If a reader catches that, it unlocks the manner in which we are to approach a lot of prophetic material in scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments.
With an overly literalistic reading of the fig-tree curse, Jesus comes across as an impetuous and maybe even capricious person. But with a symbolic reading of the fig-tree curse, Jesus’ actions are entirely understandable as enacted prophecy. The tendency to insist on the most literal interpretation possible can lead to gross misunderstanding and even theological error.
“I lift my eyes up to the mountains; from where does my help come?” – Psalm 121:1
“Should I stay or should I go now? Should I stay or should I go? If I go, there will be trouble. If I stay, there will be double.” – The Clash
Be careful, Little Feet, where you go. Be careful, Little Feet, where you go. For the Father up above is looking down … _______________ ( …in love? …to judge? ), so be careful, Little Feet, where you go.
Your geographical whereabouts can help you or harm you, spare you or sink you. That can be an undeniable, stubborn fact. Yet as it stands, it is not a particularly profound statement. The reason why it is not particularly profound is because it is not always true. Sometimes your geographical whereabouts are simply incidental to whatever happens there. Sometimes serves as the controlling word in the previous sentence. The locale and the events thereof can be unrelated — can be. Yes, a bad thing or a good thing may have happened right here, but it might as well have happened over there. There’s no particular connection to be made between this location and the event that happened here. Should an accident or incident occur here, the location ought to be considered akin to an innocent bystander. “I had nothing to do with it. I just happened to be standing here,” said the unsuspecting house where the dastardly deed was done.
But certain locations are more likely than others to have incidents and accidents. Oftentimes we are well aware of that fact. Still, we choose to go there all the same and nonetheless. Sometimes our chosen whereabouts are not incidental at all. We go where we go (or don’t go) premeditatedly, knowing in advance that we may suffer the serious consequences of going there (or not). The premeditated part is what matters. We were able to weigh our options in advance. We weighed. We chose. We went or we didn’t. And we will reap what we have sown. Did we choose well? Time will tell: Be assured of that.
Heavy stuff to consider, isn’t it? Lest this be too heavy, it ought to be said that most of our daily whereabout decisions are not do-or-die, life-or-death-hanging-in-the-balance in nature. Unless you drive a car — then they are. But I should not negate myself from one sentence to the next.
Anyway, this is not a meditation on driving safety, but on an event known ominously as the Abomination of Desolation. Yes, another light and whimsical topic is our intended focus here. Sarcasm intended: This is neither light nor whimsical. But I should not negate myself from one sentence to the next.
The Abomination of Desolation: What is that? And why would anyone write about it?
The Abomination of Desolation is a dramatic, ominous event that occurred at a particular geographical location in the past. More precisely, it is a dramatic, ominous event that occurred at the very same geographical location at least twice in the past. And it is a dramatic, ominous event that will occur at a similar spiritual location in the future.
Brakes squeal here. We yield here. A lot of knowledgable Bible readers (and friends) will hit pause at this point and begin to argue with me about the final sentence of the last paragraph. They will take issue with the words similar spiritual location and insist I say same geographical location. But I said what I meant and meant what I said. If this confuses any of my readers or listeners, I will eventually explain what I mean in the paragraphs to come. For now, just realize that I believe the future Abomination of Desolation, the ultimate Abomination of Desolation to come, will be similar in its character to the previous two occurrences, but not identical in its location. This is a necessary and important distinction, lest we miss it when it occurs. If you look for it in the wrong place, you will likely miss it.
The term Abomination of Desolation originally comes from the Prophecy of Daniel (see Daniel 9:27 and 12:11). Historically, the first Abomination of Desolation occurred when a frustrated Greek despot known as Antiochus IV Epiphanes invaded Judea and desecrated the Temple in 167 BC/BCE. Among other sordid doings, evil Antiochus the Fourth desecrated the Temple by setting up an image of Zeus there, and by sacrificing forbidden animals, such as filthy swine, upon the blood-consecrated altar there. To say that this desecration was a shocking sacrilege is a massive understatement. It resulted in a violent reactionary uprising and a regional war. In the intervening period, God’s chosen people were unable to worship God as prescribed by the Torah — not until their sanctuary was liberated, cleansed, and rededicated. The Hanukkah holiday is an annual commemoration of that Jewish uprising and the rededication of their sanctuary, the Jerusalem Temple. For our purposes here, please do note why this occurred. It all began when evil Antiochus interrupted and perverted the prescribed worship of God in the Temple by trampling its precincts and imposing his own preferred form of idolatry.
Significantly, Antiochus IV Epiphanes went even further afield with his sacrilege and idolatry. Antiochus also insisted that he himself was to be regarded as the human embodiment of a god. The name Epiphanes means manifest — as in god manifest. Antiochus had ego issues.
We have here the beginnings and makings of a working definition, then: The Abomination of Desolation might be identified as an idolatrous political imposition that both interrupts and perverts the prescribed worship of God in his Temple. And the one doing the imposition often — perhaps invariably — make blasphemous grand claims about himself, even divine claims (regarding this, see Paul’s discussion of the Man of Lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4).
Another oh-so-close Abomination of Desolation occasion occurred when Emperor Gaius Caligula attempted to once again re-purpose the Sanctuary in Jerusalem into a pagan temple. Sometime in 40AD/CE Caligula determined that a statue of himself, a statue fashioned in the likeness of the Roman god Jupiter, ought to be placed in the inner sanctum of Jerusalem’s Temple, a gilded inner room known as the Holy of Holies. This rightly worried one Herod Agrippa, who was both a royal dignitary from the region and a childhood friend of Caligula’s. Herod Agrippa did what he could to dissuade Caligula from his statue-installation scheme. Moreover and more effectively, even one of Caligula’s own political appointees resisted the scheme. The appointed Imperial Governor of Syria, Publius Petronius, very courageously delayed the implementation of Caligula’s orders. By means of his deliberate delays, Petronius ultimately succeeded in thwarting Emperor Caligula, whose assassination meant the end of the whole crisis. But the Temple’s second Abomination of Desolation was only temporarily stalled.
The actual second Abomination of Desolation occurred 30 years later when Roman legions under the command of the future Emperor Titus overran Jerusalem, killing or enslaving all its inhabitants, and demolishing its Temple in 70AD/CE. This destruction of Jerusalem came in fulfillment of an anguished prophecy that Jesus spoke against the city, because most of its inhabitants had rejected him as their promised Messiah. Within one generation of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the Temple was reduced to ruins; and biblically-prescribed worship there ceased (and to this day has never resumed). The City of Jerusalem and its Temple were left both desecrated and desolate, just as Jesus had foretold (see Matthew 23:37-39).
Jerusalem’s destruction came under the command of a Roman general named Titus Flavius. Titus thereafter followed his father Vespasian as emperor, and was succeeded by his brother Domitian. All three of these Flavian emperors practiced pagan idolatry. Titus had his troops carry the Temple’s furnishings to Rome as spoils, where they were presented as trophies before the gods of the Roman pantheon. Thus Titus took what was dedicated to God and belonged to God and offered it instead to his own gods. Titus’s brother Domitian would later encourage his subjects to worship his late father, his late brother, and even himself, and even while he was still alive. Sacrilege and blasphemy ran in the Flavian family line, it seems.
All of this is helpful and necessary background information, because someday a foretold third Abomination of Desolation will transpire. Indeed, in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 Paul says that the Day of the Lord will not occur until a rebellion or apostasy occurs, and someone known ominously as the Man of Lawlessness is revealed. The Man of Lawlessness will “oppose and exalt himself against every so-called god and object of worship.” Furthermore, the Man of Lawlessness will “take his seat in the Temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.”
If the Day of the Lord confuses you, just know that it serves as Paul’s shorthand for the return of Jesus Christ. Paul is saying that Jesus Christ will not return for the Church until some sort of rebellion or apostasy occurs, and the Man of Lawlessness presents himself as an alternative god, the one everyone ought to worship. This, I propose, is the third and final Abomination of Desolation. Paul presents precisely this scenario to the Christians in the Græco-Roman city of Thessalonica as the tell-tale sign that Jesus is about to return. Paul’s whole purpose in writing his second letter to the Thessalonians was to reassure them that they had not missed the Day of the Lord. Rather, they could know that the Day of the Lord was at hand if and when the Man of Lawlessness was revealed by his Desolation of Abomination deed.
On basis of this passage in Second Thessalonians and on basis of passages like Revelation 11:1-3 and 13:5-10, a lot of Bible interpreters expect a future world leader will someday set up an image of himself in a rebuilt Temple in the City of Jerusalem. While it is an understandable interpretation, if it is wrong, it could cause us to look the wrong direction.
This is an extremely important point, simply because Paul told Christians to look out for the event. In Matthew 24:15-16 Jesus likewise instructs his disciples with these words: “So when you see the Abomination of Desolation spoken of by the Prophet Daniel, standing in the Holy Place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.”
A lot of interpreters will immediately react to my last point by insisting that Jesus was talking about the second Abomination of Desolation, the desolation that occurred back in 70AD, when Titus’s Roman legions razed Jerusalem and demolished the Temple. And that is undoubtedly partially right. But “let the reader understand,” including latter readers. I contend that Jesus also means for us to understand he is talking about the third and final Abomination of Desolation, the same event that Paul describes in Second Thessalonians. If so, we are supposed to catch the parallels and the manifest differences between the previous two Abominations and the future third Abomination.
One manifest difference is that no Old Testament-prescribed Temple currently stands in Jerusalem. Yes, Temple furnishings have been made. And yes, there are some who would eagerly rebuild such a Temple, if only they had the opportunity. Nevertheless, there is no such Temple currently in Jerusalem. However, a New Testament-prescribed Temple does exists. It is not in one particular geographical location. Instead it is made of a particular people. According to the New Testament, the global Christian Church is now the Temple of God.
If the global Christian Church is the Temple of God now, how might the Man of Lawlessness take his seat in it, and proclaim himself to be God in the Church? Perhaps a Man of Lawlessness will somehow have the power to insist that Christians bow to him instead of the Triune God.
And if the Church is the Jerusalem of God, what might it mean for Christians to flee to the mountains when we see the Abomination of Desolation standing in the Holy Place? Perhaps Jesus meant that we should not knowingly associate with a potential Man of Lawlessness or cooperate with his attempts to co-opt the Church and pervert its worship. Instead, we are to distance ourselves from any such personality and eventuality. However we can, we are to withdraw.
Jesus made it very clear that his return will catch most people unaware and unsuspecting. I wonder if that is because many of us will be looking for events — or for a particular event — that might never occur. I suggest it would be entirely too obvious if the grand debut of the Man of Lawlessness occurs in a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. If instead, the Man of Lawlessness is revealed by what he does to or in the Church (which is both the spiritual Temple and the new Jerusalem, by the New Testament’s reckoning) then far fewer people will notice it when it occurs. Indeed, we have already witnessed instances where various political leaders have insisted that resident Christians give their primary allegiance (that is, their worship) to a designated Head of State, instead of to God.
Jesus is Lord and God, not Caesar nor any other claimant. So when we see pretenders and usurpers insist on total devotion and ultimate allegiance, it is time to pay attention, and may well be time to be contrarian and withdraw. Be careful Little Feet where you go, for the Father up above is looking down in love (and to judge); so be careful Little Feet where you go. And if at all possible, go attend a Christ-centered church, since that is where you are most likely to find help and encouragement “even more as we see the Day approach” (see Hebrews 10:25).
Sometimes what comes immediately before and what comes immediately after explains that something in between so much better. A frustrated reader can spend hours or even more trying to figure out what a section or particular passage means, but to no avail — none whatsoever. Sometimes the reader’s real problem is the immediacy of his focus, or rather, the narrow constraint thereof. And by reader I happen to mean me. And by a particular passage I happen to mean Matthew 25:1-13, a passage which is otherwise and more catchily known as the Parable of the Ten Virgins, or else, the Ten Exhausted Bridesmaids, or perhaps, the Ten Sleepy Lasses.
For a very, very long time, I could not figure out what Jesus was trying to teach his listeners in the Parable of the Ten Virgins. In my vigorous self-defense, I will point out that most other interpreters (at least those I have read) come across as equally clueless. This is a parable, after all. Parables can be problematic, an interpretive headache. Parables contain a variety of symbols that can be quite slimy and slippery. Still, you might think by now interpreters would have figured it out. You might think.
Jesus, always a masterful storyteller, here tells the story of ten young women — ten virgins — who “went out to meet the bridegroom.” The bridegroom would be Symbol Number One of the parable. Thankfully, Symbol Number One is easy enough to figure out. The Bridegroom is — drumroll — Jesus himself, upon his return, his second-coming, his parousia. We know this because the New Testament often symbolizes Jesus’ parousia as a wedding, with Jesus as the groom and the Church as the bride (for example, see 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 19:7 and 21:9).
The story goes on: Five of them are wise lasses, while the other five are foolish lasses. But just who are these maidens, really? And is it anachronistic to think of them like the bridesmaids we see in weddings today? Who exactly is symbolized as these ten virgins? See? It is getting trickier and more slippery already here at Symbol Number Two.
The story goes on: In case they must wait for the Groom past dark, the five foolish virgins do happen to bring some lamps along, but somehow fail to bring enough oil for their lamps. The five wise virgins also bring their lamps, but have the foresight to bring some extra oil.
So here we have a few additional parable symbols: darkness, lamps, and oil.
To their disappointment, the Bridegroom’s anticipated arrival is delayed well into the night, and so all ten of the bridesmaids get drowsy and fall asleep. At midnight, the ten bridesmaids hear an urgent, awakening cry, “The bridegroom is here!” They all get up and grab their lamps. Though still groggy, the five wise bridesmaids are ready to meet him, with their lamps now lit and with adequate oil. But sadly, the five foolish lasses are caught unprepared and off guard. Their lamps sputter and start going out, because these five foolish bridesmaids did not prepare adequately by bringing enough oil.
Perhaps if this parable were updated for today, the bridesmaids’ situational crisis might be that the batteries for their mobile phones get weaker until they died. And no battery chargers were brought.
The five foolish lasses then turned nervously turn to the five wise bridesmaids and said, “Hey, we have a problem. We are in a bit of a fix here. We need some more oil. Please share some of yours with us; okay?” But the five wise bridesmaids respond by saying, “OMG! So sorry, but we really don’t have enough for both you and ourselves. Maybe you should hurry out to the store, and go buy some of your own.”
While the five foolish lasses were away to buy more oil, the Bridegroom and his party arrived. The wise bridesmaids who were ready and waiting found themselves totally caught up in the happy moment, and thus completely forgot about the foolish lasses. The entire bridal party then accompanied the bridegroom to the wedding reception, except, of course, for the absent foolish lasses. No one waited around for them to return. They were left behind.
Finally, the foolish lasses found their way to the banquet hall. But when they attempted to get inside the reception, the bridegroom himself went to the door and turned the irresponsible bridesmaids away, saying, “Sorry, you foolish, negligent bridal attendants, but I do not know you.”
And thus it ends, with Jesus warning his listeners to watch, for they are ignorant of the day and the hour (of his appearance). And so we are. And yet we must watch.
Watch for what, Jesus? How do we know if we are watching like we ought to watch? How do we know who the wise bridesmaids actually are and who the foolish bridesmaids are? In the end, how can we avoid being the un-admitted foolish bridal attendants? You want us to be wise and not foolish: That we do get. But what does this mean for us in practice, Lord?
If the parable is to be understood, the interpreter obviously needs to explain the symbolism.
For a long time, I got stuck in the oil, or on the meaning of the oil. I supposed that if I figured out what the oil symbolized, that would take me a long way towards a correct interpretation. But I had gotten ahead of myself, or ahead of the symbolism of the parable, since I had not actually figured out who the bridesmaids were. I had erroneously assumed that the ten bridesmaids were just ordinary Christians, some of whom were wise, and some of whom were foolish. But, as it happens, that ain’t right.
Eventually, it dawned on me: The parable is actually missing a key character, an all-important character. That character is the Bride. In this parable, the bridesmaids are not the Bride herself. They are instead attendants to the Bride. They are her designated servants. They are the bridesmaids.
Someone at this point may second-guess my interpretation. And I understand why that someone might second-guess my interpretation. Someone may think, “But the passage does not say that the ten virgins are bridesmaids. That’s just your contemporary understanding of it, based on your ethnocentric cultural experience of weddings nowadays. Your interpretation is both ethnocentric and anachronistic.”
And initially, I might be inclined to concede my erroneous interpretive ways. I might defer to that castigating someone, if not for the two passages that sandwich the Parable of the Ten Virgins.
In the passage immediately before, Jesus talks about two servants, one of whom diligently takes care of his underlings, and the other who abuses his underlings. This is easier to understand. Jesus is talking about leaders who are entrusted with the care of their Master’s populace. Some are good and faithful; others go bad and start abusing their Master’s people.
In the passage immediately after, Jesus talks about servants who are entrusted with their Master’s resources. Some make wise and diligent use of their Master’s resources and are subsequently rewarded. Others are less diligent, but receive a due reward. One, though, is entirely negligent, and receives a fearsome punishment rather than a reward.
Crucially, all three passages are speaking about the same thing: the faithfulness of appointed leaders in their respective roles. The bridesmaids are actually church leaders. Their assignment is to give light to the Bride of Christ, though she goes unmentioned in the parable. The foolish bridesmaids fail the Bride the worst the very moment she need them most. They let the fire go out before the Groom arrives. They give no light to the Bride. This particular interpretation might seem to be a stretch, if not for the passage that comes immediately before and the passage that comes immediately after. Jesus is speaking to just one topic, the rewards or the punishment that await his appointed servants based on their degree of faithfulness in serving him and his Bride, the Church.
An astute family member of mine pointed out that Jesus does something very similar in Luke 15: He uses three consecutive parables to illustrate his one point there, which is just how graciously and lavishly God responds to genuine repentance.
Back to this parable, then. The bridesmaids are church leaders entrusted with preparing and teaching the truth of God’s Word. The wise bridesmaids are diligent and faithful in preparing and teaching the truth. The flame of the Holy Spirit continues to shine where they serve because they persist and continue to present the pure truth of the Word, especially in the darkest hour. The foolish bridesmaids have also been entrusted with the solemn responsibility of presenting the truth of the Word, but they fail to do so adequately, and thus the flame of the Spirit is extinguished where they serve. Ultimately, because they have failed to do their part in keeping the flame of the Spirit lit, the foolish bridesmaids themselves are denied entrance into the Kingdom. They are left behind and shut out. Terrifying.
This is sobering stuff. Bridesmaids, beware: You are responsible to continually light the way for the people of God. Give me oil for my lamp; keep me burning. Give me oil for my lamp, I pray.
As a rule and whenever possible, I use Scripture to interpret Scripture. That’s especially true with the Book of Revelation. Revelation is constantly referencing prior Scripture. Once an interpreter gets a hold of that fact, interpretation of Revelation becomes a matter of looking back to the scriptural allusions and references, and then connecting the dots into a coherent design.
Following Galatians 4:21-31, the Astronomical Wonder Woman in Revelation Chapter Twelve should be interpreted as the Covenant of Promise. In Galatians 4 the Apostle Paul is arguing for the primacy and superiority of the Covenant of Promise over against the Law of Moses. God’s covenant with Abraham comes before and is better than God’s covenant with the Nation of Israel. Both Christ and the Church are born from the Covenant of Promise. As Christians, we are not Children of the Law of Moses, but Children of the Covenant of Promise. Allegorically, She is our Mother. We are the seed of one covenant, not the other. We are children of promise. We are children of The Promise — the ancient promise to elderly Abraham and Sarah (see Genesis 15:5-6; Genesis 18:10-15). Therefore, Revelation Chapter Twelve draws directly upon Paul here.
Am I wrong to suggest that Revelation Twelve might be alluding the a Pauline illustration? No. In fact, it is quite likely that Revelation would draw upon a known New Testament allegory. Galatia was not far from the Roman Province of Asia. By the time Revelation was written and circulating, the Churches of Asia were familiar with all of Paul’s epistles. Moreover, I believe Revelation also alludes to the Book of Ephesians and the Book of Colossians.
So, that’s how I interpret the Woman of Revelation 12: She is the Covenant of Promise, which ultimately becomes the New Testament.
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.
Aside from shouting loudly with a roar like a lion, the Mighty Angel in Revelation Chapter Ten performs two conspicuous actions. First, he raises his right hand to heaven and makes a solemn vow by Him who lives forever and ever that there will be “NO MORE DELAY!” And second, he gives Narrator John an edible small scroll and instructs him to eat it, but warns John beforehand that it will hard on his stomach. Therefore, we will focus here on a solemn vow of prompt completion and an edible, yet indigestible small scroll. In my previous blog-cast I mentioned that I would get to each these two loose ends from Revelation Chapter Ten, so here I go.
As I explained previously, the Mighty Angel is actually Christ Jesus himself, but in the guise of the Angel of the Lord, which was how he appeared to people over and over throughout the Old Testament. The Mighty Angel (who is Christ Incognito) stands on the sea and the land. To stand on the sea and the land is a symbolic action of dominance. It shows the Mighty Angel’s supreme sovereignty over the Sea and the Land. Throughout the Book of Revelation the Sea represents foreign and distant nations, especially the diverse ethnic groups that populated the Roman Empire. The Land represents local and native people, which would mean the Jewish people, if and when Israel is the narrative point of reference, or alternatively, the natives of Roman Asia, if the Province of Asia is the point of reference. Thus the strident symbolism is meant to show that even when Christ is Christ Incognito, he is still sovereign and dominant over the the various peoples of the Roman Empire, and by extension, the whole world.
For the first recipients of Revelation, the natives of Provincial Asia, this imagery of the Mighty Angel astride the land and sea very likely (read: almost certainly) brought to mind the nearby ruins of the Colossus of Rhodes. The Colossus of Rhodes was once a tourist-attracting giant harbor-front statue, something like the Statue of Liberty near Manhattan. Like the Temple in Jerusalem, the Colossus of Rhodes was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. And also like the Temple in Jerusalem, the Colossus of Rhodes was associated with one particular deity; in the case of the Colossus, that deity was the Hellenistic sun god Helios. But by the time Revelation was written and circulating, both had been toppled and were in ruins. The Temple in Jerusalem had been demolished by Emperor Titus’s troops, the Colossus of Rhodes by an earthquake. It is contextually telling, therefore, that the Mighty Angel of Revelation Ten stands astride the sea and the land. Revelation’s message must be that Jesus Christ stands supremely sovereign, where the Colossus had fallen.
Back to the narrative of the passage, though. In the fifth verse of Chapter Ten, the Mighty Angel raises his right hand to make his vow of prompt completion. This hand-raising action refers back to not one but two key Old Testament passages. The first passage is Deuteronomy 32:39-42, wherein God says, “For I lift up my hand to Heaven and swear, ‘As I live forever … I will take vengeance on my adversaries and will repay those who hate me.’” With the threat of certain vengeance, this might disturb a 21st century reader. But it makes the point clear that God is not to be trifled with. It also begs the question of whether the Mighty Angel is somehow the same person as the Divine Vow-Maker of Deuteronomy, given the strong similarities and the slight differences of the two passages. See my previous blog-cast entitled “The Cast of Chapter Ten” on that point.
The second passage is Daniel 12:5-13, where we see a Mysterious Figure — a Man. The Man is clothed in (white?) linen. He stands atop or above the Tigris River (see Daniel 10:4). He raises both his right hand and left hand to Heaven in a vow. He then informs (or perhaps more accurately, declines to clearly inform) the statesman-prophet Daniel how long he and his readers must wait until the end arrives. Daniel is given the cryptic answer of “a time, times, and half a time” until everything is accomplished. For Daniel, there will be delay — a very long delay. In the ninth verse of Daniel 12, the Mysterious Man solemnly says, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are to remain secret (that is, a mystery) and sealed until the time of the End.” This passage is exactly what Revelation 10:5-7 references. Daniel is informed of a very long delay. Alternatively, John and his readers are promised that the delay will end promptly, when certain conditions are fulfilled. We are meant to catch that.
Of utmost importance, the Mighty Angel/Christ tells John that the Mystery of God will be fulfilled (or accomplished) when the seventh angel sounds his trumpet. What then, is the Mystery of God? Recall that the Mystery of God was sealed to Daniel. Does it remain sealed? Can we know what the Mystery of God is before the End? We can know it; and we do know it. We are already living in the last days, which is the Church Age. And we are privy to the Mystery of God.
While the Book of Revelation usually references the Old Testament, here we have to look to the New Testament. The Mystery of God is an important theme of the Apostle Paul’s. And yes, John’s listeners would have known that, because they were very familiar with the Pauline Epistles. Paul had written to them and their near-neighbors before John wrote Revelation. Therefore, when Jesus through John began talking about the Mystery of God, they knew exactly what he was talking about. The Mystery of God was their own adoption into the family of God. Adoption was and is the Mystery of God. Even though most of them were once pagan Gentiles, they had been invited to come join the household of God. Before the Church began, this was something unheard of and almost entirely unexpected. But God had extended an invitation to outsiders and foreigners. They, too, could accept the invitation and choose to be part of the household of God. The Mystery of God was the extent of his gracious invitation: It was even for Gentiles, who were previously excluded (see Ephesians 1:3-14; Colossians 1:24-27; 1 Timothy 3:14-16).
Consequently, when the Mighty Angel/Christ says in Revelation 10:7 that the Mystery of God will be fulfilled when the the seventh angel sounds his trumpet, he means that when the End comes, all the Gentile peoples will have had a chance to accept the invitation to be adopted — to join the family of God. The Mystery of God is accomplished when the Church accomplishes its mission of proclaiming the Gospel of Christ worldwide (see Matthew 24:14; Mark 13:10).
As for the scroll that the Mighty Angel gives to John, it contains information — bittersweet information. Although it is true and ultimately good, it is nonetheless very difficult and even sometimes terrifying. As with Ezekiel, the scroll that John must eat contains information about various trials and catastrophes that are yet to come (see Ezekiel 2 through 5, where God tells Ezekiel of the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem). This is unwelcome information that the recipient must nonetheless pass along. It is information that pertains to the events of the End, as in, the end of the Church Age.
Considered as a whole, Chapter Ten is about Christ’s commissioning of John to pass along a preparatory revelation of the events to occur at the end of the Church Age, which I believe is about where we find ourselves in history. (Parenthetically, I say that because the fulfillment of the Great Commission seems both foreseeable and likely within the next century, if not sooner.) The contents of the Little Scroll are found in chapters eleven through twenty-two of the Book of Revelation. The Little Scroll reveals what Daniel 12 conceals. What was sealed to Daniel has been revealed to us by Christ via John in the Book of Revelation.
Count the characters. This chapter of Revelation presents listeners with a variety of characters. How many do you count? While some observers say Chapter Ten presents listeners with ten different characters, I see six fewer. No, not ten — only four. One, two, three, four, and no more characters are to be found in Chapter Ten. Of those four, one or two are primary and focal, while the other two are mostly peripheral. You might not agree with me. You might count more. How is it I count only four? Why so few?
John, of course, counts as one character, albeit a relatively minor character. John serves throughout the Book of Revelation as the vision transcriber and as our narrator. For the most part, John quietly and inconspicuously narrates what he sees and hears, and does so whenever possible from the periphery. He does not focus on himself. That is true here in Chapter Ten, except for when he must eat the edible yet indigestible scroll. More on the edible scroll in a forthcoming blog cast.
The Seven Speaking Thunders count as a second character. I say they are a character, as opposed to an event, since they do more than rumble. They speak, and speak intelligibly. Although they are said to number seven, they neither do nor say anything obviously distinctive from each other, but appear to function just as one message bearer. Perhaps they spoke simultaneously in stereo surround sound or echoed the same message in turn; yet nothing in the text indicates that they delivered seven different messages. Again, the Seven Speaking Thunders seem to function narratively as just one character. Furthermore, the Thunders cannot be considered a major character in Chapter Ten, since they appear only briefly in verses 3 and 4, where they deliver a message that is curiously censored, and immediately so.
Forgive me, but to make my point I must resort to Seminary-speak in this paragraph. As I already said, the Seven Speaking Thunders function narratively as one — as a singularity. That fact may be intended to point Revelation’s listeners to an underlying ontological/essential reality: Somehow the Seven Speaking Thunders are best understood as one — a unified one. Ontologically (that is, in essence), they may be just one spiritual entity. Like the Seven Spirits of Revelation 1:4 and 4:5, the Seven Speaking Thunders may constitute not seven separate and distinct individuals, but just one single, yet diverse, entity. Indeed, if Chapter Ten is best interpreted using a Trinitarian hermeneutic, as I would argue it ought to be, then the Seven Speaking Thunders may well be one and the same as the Seven Spirits before the Throne — the one Holy Spirit. I am suggesting that the Seven Speaking Thunders may be the same entity as the Seven Spirits before the Throne, also and more commonly known as the Holy Spirit. Please reference in particular Revelation 4:5, where peals of thunder and seven flaming torches are some of the phenomena associated with the Throne of God.
As for Chapter Ten’s third character, the Mighty Angel stands center stage. And the fourth character, though very, very important, is heard but never seen. That would be the Voice from Heaven. Throughout its eleven verses, Chapter Ten turns John’s attention, and thus the listener’s attention, to these two primary characters, who sometimes act and speak in tandem. Do notice that the Mighty Angel gets most of Chapter Ten’s airtime, by far. Thus the Mighty Angel ought to be considered Chapter Ten’s central character and primary focus.
Now that the four main characters have been counted, I will move on to my next controversial claim. Here it is: The main character is probably not whom you think he is.
Many Revelation-readers/listeners will quickly get the identity of one of these characters right, and just as quickly get identity of the other character wrong. The Voice from Heaven must be God, they will decide, and correctly so. As for the Mighty Angel, he is most likely a high-ranking angel, such as an archangel, many will conclude, incorrectly. Sorry, but that’s the wrong answer, albeit entirely understandable. No, the Mighty Angel is not merely a high-ranking angel. He is mighty. The adjective is there for a reason. He is mightier than other messengers, and far greater than other heavenly emissaries. The Mighty Angel is someone mightier than other messengers, and yet someone other than God Almighty. Who could it be?
Many Revelation interpreters will doubt with my assertions at this point. Some may anticipate where I am going, and disagree with me on this point. They will argue that the Mighty Angel is obviously portrayed as a high-ranking angel. The text clearly says he is an angel, so he must be a heavenly emissary, simply an angel. What else or who else could he be? If not a high-ranking angel or an archangel, what else or who else could the Mighty Angel of Revelation Chapter Ten possibly be?
That is a key question, a crucially important question. Chapter Ten effectively poses that very question to those who are familiar with the Bible. But those who are not well acquainted with Old Testament prophecies will likely make some quick assumptions and even miss the question altogether, because it is implied. The Book of Revelation makes a lot of subtle scriptural references and drops a lot of detailed hints. Key questions and leads are there to be discovered; but they usually require a significant degree of prior biblical knowledge and a substantial measure of theological discernment. The Book of Revelation does this sort of thing very frequently. You gain deeper understanding of the Book of Revelation as you catch the subtle referential hints, which are almost always hidden in plain sight, there in the details. In fact, it may be an accurate statement to claim that no detail whatsoever in the Book of Revelation is extraneous. Every detail given to the listener and provided by the Book of Revelation is there deliberately and intentionally. Such details often require further study. The interpreter will have to reference and re-read Old Testament prophecies. But it will be worthwhile, since the details will help a careful interpreter arrive at a clearer interpretation.
To be blunt, the hints all point to the Mighty Angel being Jesus Christ himself. More specifically, the Mighty Angel is a New Testament cameo of the pre-incarnate, pre-existent Jesus Christ. The Mighty Angel is who Christ Jesus was before he was born as a human being. Throughout the Old Testament, Jesus appears and reappears as a mysterious figure known as the Angel of the Lord. And Revelation Chapter Ten is dropping hints galore that the Mighty Angel is the pre-incarnate Christ. That is indeed the correct interpretation, in spite of how things may initially seem on a superficial, un-referential read.
In particular, two key Old Testament passages are hidden in the details of Revelation Chapter Ten. The first key passage is the opening vision of Ezekiel the exiled priestly-prophet, found in the Book of Ezekiel chapters one and two. The second key passage is the concluding vision of Daniel the exiled statesman-prophet, found in the Book of Daniel chapters ten, eleven, and twelve. If a reader/listener compares Revelation Chapter Ten to the opening chapters of Ezekiel and the closing chapters of Daniel, the detailed references are overwhelmingly obvious.
In both the opening of Ezekiel and the closing of Daniel, a Mysterious Figure appears. Although the Mysterious Figure seems like he might well be God himself, the two passages leave the identity of the Mysterious Figure something of a mystery, because unlike God, he is described as visible and likened in form to a human being, a man. So if he is not exactly God, who is the Mysterious Figure? Is he a variation or manifestation of God, or an angelic proxy, or what? Revelation Chapter Ten points the discerning listener directly to both prophetic passages, and links the Mighty Angel to the Mysterious Figure therein, leaving the distinct impression that the Mighty Angel is one and the same as the Mysterious Figure in both passages.
Therefore, at least three claims can be made. First, the Mysterious Figure in Ezekiel and Daniel is, at very least, God-like in position, appearance, and glory. Second, the Mysterious Figure in Ezekiel and Daniel personally and authoritatively delivers divine messages and interpretations to the respective prophets. Third, Revelation Chapter Ten ties or even fuses these two Mysterious Figures together into one. In Chapter Ten, the equation is not one plus one, but one times one. This is just one individual. The Mysterious Figure in the opening chapters of Ezekiel is one and the same as the Mysterious Figure in the closing chapters of Daniel; that is what Revelation Ten portrays in the person of the Mighty Angel.
So if the Mysterious Figure of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation is the same singular being throughout, who is he? If your inclination is to say that he is an angel of some sort, I would caution you with the observation that he is enthroned in glory among the cherubim in Ezekiel (see also Ezekiel 10:20). Enthroned in glory, like God and as God. Among the cherubim, like the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant, where the presence of God resided. However, if your inclination is to say that he is simply God, I would ask you, How is it that he appears visibly in the likeness of a man in both Ezekiel and Daniel? How is it the prophets can see anyone at all, since God is invisible, and since no one can see God and live (see Exodus 33:20, John 1:18, and 1 Timothy 6:16)?
This individual defies easy categorization because he actually fulfills all three. He is wholly divine. But sometimes he takes the role of a heavenly angel/messenger in order to appear to human beings. But then he went an additional condescending step and even assumed full humanity in the incarnation. He became a man for our sake. Only one individual in history fits all three categorizations: Jesus Christ. Therefore, especially when its two primary Old Testament prophetic references are taken into account, Chapter Ten of Revelation pushes a trinitarian portrait of God, the whole way through. The Voice from Heaven is God the Father. The Seven Speaking Thunders are the Holy Spirit. And the Mighty Angel is Jesus Christ.
But I have not covered everything in Chapter Ten yet. There are two big remaining narrative issues from Chapter Ten that need to be addressed. There is a vow made by the Mighty Angel. And there is an edible scroll given by the Mighty Angel.
My last point (that is, point # 18 from yesterday’s blog-cast) brought us to the climatic 7th Trumpet; but I ought to backtrack a bit because in jumping directly from the 6th Trumpet to the 7th, I skipped over a small and yet very important section of Revelation. Between the conclusion of the 6th Trumpet and the beginning of the 7th, readers will discover a 24 verse narrative digression, which includes all of Chapter 10 and over two-thirds of Chapter 11. Why does this textual digression occur? My hunch is that it allows for a period of time. A considerable amount of time must elapse between the 6th Trumpet (which is essentially the ongoing fulfillment of the Great Commission) and the 7th Trumpet (which is — or will be — the Second Advent of Christ and the Rapture of the Church). To synchronize the text chronologically to the here and now, that’s precisely where we presently find ourselves on Revelation’s redemptive timeline: somewhere between the 6th and 7th trumpets.
In Chapter 10, John sees “another Mighty Angel coming down from Heaven.” Additional details provided about the Mighty Angel must not to be overlooked, though — details that lead to the conclusion that this particular “angel” must be someone other than an ordinary angel. The Mighty Angel 1) is wrapped in a cloud, 2) has a rainbow over his head, 3) has a face like the sun, 4) has legs like a pillar of fire, and… drum roll… 5) has a scroll in his hand. Here there is more than one Old Testament allusion — plus a very clear, direct reference. The reference is to the opening chapters of Ezekiel, in which an extraterrestrial Cherubim-carried Throne appears to an awestruck Ezekiel. The One seated on the Throne has a human appearance (Ezekiel 1:26) and delivers an edible scroll (Ezekiel 2:8-10), just as the Mighty Angel does in Revelation 10:8-9. The Mighty Angel/Messenger also roars like a lion. That’s likely another Old Testament allusion, and perhaps even a direct reference, to Amos 3:7-8, which links the Lion’s Roar to the Spoken Word of the Sovereign Lord. Therefore, the Mighty Angel of Revelation is very, very likely one and the same as the One seated on the Throne in Ezekiel, who roars the word of the Sovereign Lord. This Mighty Angel/Roaring Lion is Christ himself. And Christ himself was the One seated on the Throne in Ezekiel. Thus Christ existed long before his lowly birth in Bethlehem, and existed as the Enthroned One. In Seminary-speak, this is extremely high Christology. Christ is on par with God.
But if the Mighty Angel of Revelation 10 is actually Christ himself, John could just say so plainly; right? So why keep it a big mystery, and force the reader to detect subtle Old Testament allusions and references? Why indeed. We are supposed to ask ourselves exactly such questions. The reason why Christ is “disguised” as the Mighty Angel in Revelation 10 is because Christ is likewise disguised in various ways throughout the entirety of Old Testament, especially as a reappearing character known as the Angel of the Lord (see Genesis 16:7-13; Genesis 22:15-18; Exodus 3:2; Judges 6:12; Zechariah 3). In English translations, the first four words of the Book of Revelation are “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” The Book of Revelation is exactly that. It is a Revelation of Jesus Christ, from Jesus Christ, about Jesus Christ.
In Revelation 10:3-4, John hears Seven Thunders speak. And yet John is instructed not to write down what the Seven Thunders have said. My proposal is that the thunders revealed information about historical events to occur between the Sixth and Seventh Trumpets. Although God foreknows the course of the future, we are not supposed to know too much in advance. We are better off not knowing some things to come. That’s just my guess, though. Someday we will know what the Thunders thundered.
Just like Ezekiel before him, John is told to eat the scroll that the Mighty Angel/Christ gives him. It tasted as sweet as honey, but was hard on his stomach. This probably means that the message contained on the scroll was not particularly pleasant. In fact, the message contained on the scroll probably immediately follows in Revelation 11. The gist of that message is that the Church cannot triumph unless it first suffers as Christ suffered. Like Christ, the Church will be raised triumphant; but first it must suffer rejection and face the prospect of death. It is a message that is hard to stomach, for us as well as John.
Here are some of my key insights into the Book of Revelation:
1. Beginning with the Trinitarian Benediction in the first chapter, Revelation repeatedly, if subtlety, depicts the doctrine of the Trinity. In Revelation 1:4-5 grace and peace issue forth from the I Am, the Seven Spirits, and Jesus Christ. The Old Testament’s Yahweh or I Am equals the One who is, and who was, and who is to come. The Seven Spirits equal the Holy Spirit, in a nod back to the Menorah symbolism of Zechariah 4:1-6, where an angel deciphers the Menorah as a symbol for the Spirit of the Lord. And Jesus Christ is simply and unambiguously called by his name and title.
2. Jesus is presented as fully divine, insofar as he is worthy of all worship. Compare the worship of the Creator (the Lord God Almighty) in chapter 4 to the worship of the Redeemer (Jesus Christ, the Lion/Lamb) in chapter 5; and note 5:13 in particular. No one else is worthy of worship — regarding that Revelation is emphatic (see 19:10; 22:9). Jesus also shares the Throne in Heaven with God (Revelation 22:1-3).
3. Jesus is presented as royally sovereign over and present amidst the seven churches (see Revelation 1:5; 2:26-27; 17:14), as opposed to the self-aggrandizing, satanically-inspired Caesar. At the time Revelation was written, Emperor Domitian became the first Roman Emperor to encourage his subjects to hail him while alive as “Dominus et Deus,” which translates to Master and God. By Revelation’s reckoning, Domitian’s blasphemous claim to divinity made him an incarnation of the Beast from the Sea, that is, an Antichrist.
4. The messages to the seven churches of Roman Asia are addressed only secondarily to the seven congregations, but primarily to actual, fallible human messengers/heralds — emphatically not to heavenly messengers (angels), nor to figurative proxy-personifications (see Revelation 1:20; 2:1; 2:8; 2:12; 2:18; 3:1; 3:7; 3:14). These are mere mortals. These are seven (hopefully correctable) human heralds who have pastoral responsibility over seven distinct late-first-century churches. Said a bit differently, the “angels” of the churches are just the duly established human messengers — simply the pastors or bishops.
5. While they were absolutely meant for the seven churches back then-and-there, Christ’s messages to the seven churches are also intended to be typological and trans-historical. Each message is meant (if the shoe fits) for additional messengers/pastors and their congregations throughout Church history. “Whoever has an ear ought listen to what the Spirit says to churches.”
6. Jesus Christ, the Lion/Lamb, has always been and remains sovereign, even in the darkest, most tragic events of history. This is shown through the breaking/opening of the seven seals to the scroll, and the cryptic or frightening personifications and representations that present themselves in turn. Manifestations of evil are only allowed for a short season; and they are never on equal footing with Christ, in spite of grandiose, blasphemous claims or circumstantial appearances.
7. The Scroll which the Lamb opens is a completed covenant — a will, which the sacrificed Lamb himself has duly fulfilled (see Revelation 5:5). The resurrected living Lamb now serves as the executor of that same will.
8. Six of the seven seals to the Scroll are the unresolved mysteries/tragedies/horrors of history, especially of the prophetic sort. They are the curses/judgments upon disobedience threatened and foretold in the “fine print warnings” of pivotal passages like Deuteronomy 28.
9. The 144,000 servant-soldiers sealed after the sixth seal are all the saints — all the Elect — throughout all of human history, right up until the Second Advent/Parousia of Jesus Christ. The number 144,000 derives from a military census in 1 Chronicles 27, where the number of total troops from Israel doubles 144,000. Not all of Israel is actually elect; but the number of God’s elect greatly exceeds the number of Israel (see Revelation 7:9, where the 144,000 servant-soldiers are paradoxically said to be an innumerable multitude).
10. All the tragedies/curses/horrors of Deuteronomy 28 are resolved or overturned through the final seventh seal, which silences all of Heaven as “another angel” makes an important offering (see Revelation 8:1-5). This Angel offers incense at heaven’s golden altar — incense mingled with the prayers of the saints. This “other Angel” may well be Christ himself and/or the Holy Spirit, since his offering is explicitly priestly and turns the entire course of redemptive history.
11. The opening of the seventh seal initiates another series of seven — the Seven Trumpets, which are symbolic depictions of the most significant Church-age historical events and efforts. The first six trumpets herald various Christophanies, or veiled appearances of the sovereign Christ throughout the Church age. The seventh trumpet heralds Christ’s unveiled final arrival/second advent.
12. The First Trumpet is a symbolic depiction of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, as told in Acts 2. The Pentecostal outpouring is symbolized (unsurprisingly) as falling fire — and (surprisingly) as hail mixed with blood, thrown down upon the Earth. This hail reference likely points back to the seventh plague of the Exodus from Egypt (see especially Exodus 9:20-21, for a further interpretive insight on the importance of belief). The Earth here is symbolic of the Jewish people — not just their land, but the people themselves. The Holy Spirit first fell as transformative fire on believing Jews in Jerusalem, but also fell as destructive (albeit invisible) hail on their unbelieving counterparts. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost seems to fulfill a prophecy in Isaiah 28, which significantly includes the phrase “thrown/cast down to earth” (compare Isaiah 28:2 with Revelation 8:7). The prophecy in Isaiah 28 also mentions both destructive hail and unintelligible foreign languages, within the threat of a terrifying impending judgment.
13. The Second Trumpet is a symbolic depiction of the Conversion of the Roman Centurion Cornelius at Caesarea Maritime (for the account read Acts 10). The Conversion of Cornelius and his whole household was effectively a second Pentecost/Outpouring of the Holy Spirit, but this time specifically upon the Gentiles. This event is depicted symbolically as a Great Mountain thrown into the Sea. The Great Mountain symbolizes the Kingdom of God/the Church (see Daniel 2:35; 7:18). The Sea symbolizes the Gentile nations (see Psalm 89:25), especially the ethnic groups that comprised the Roman Empire. Note that the Romans proudly claimed the Mediterranean as “Our Sea,” and used shipping to project their power Empire-wide. Caesarea Maritime was an artificial harbor city constructed by Herod the Great on the Mediterranean shore. It was only possible to construct the harbor because of innovative Roman engineering, or more specifically, hydro-hardening concrete. Understanding that the Sea symbolizes Rome and diverse Gentile nations unlocks other symbolism in the Book of Revelation, such as the Beast from the Sea.
14. The Third Trumpet is a symbolic depiction of the Destruction of Jerusalem and its (now God-Forsaken) Temple in 70AD on Tisha B’Av (the same calendar day that Solomon’s Temple was destroyed in 587/586 BC). This cataclysmic event is depicted symbolically as a great shooting star, resembling a “flaming torch,” named Wormwood. Shooting Star Wormwood crashes and contaminates or poisons “the Rivers and Springs.” There are several important key explanatory Old Testament references here. That Wormwood resembles a “flaming torch” refers to God’s solemn covenant-establishing appearance to Abraham in Genesis 15, in which Abraham receives a promise of both descendants and delineated property. The name Wormwood itself refers to a solemn warning in Deuteronomy 29:18, and, more importantly, to a prophecy of judgment upon Zion/Jerusalem in Jeremiah 9:13-22. The Rivers and the Springs are a reference to the well-watered land promised to Abraham (see Genesis 15:18, and, significantly, Deuteronomy 8:7, which describes the Promised Land as “a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs.”
15. The Fourth Trumpet symbolically depicts the historically momentous Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which was God’s judgment upon seemingly-Triumphant Emperor Titus (Domitian’s older brother and predecessor), as well as God’s assault upon the celestial Roman Pantheon. Before becoming emperor, Titus commanded the Roman legions that destroyed Jerusalem and demolished God’s earthly temple. In Revelation 8:12, the sun, moon, and stars (or planets) are “struck,” and dimmed by a third. When Italy’s Mount Vesuvius explosively erupted in 79AD, it poured so much volcanic ash into the atmosphere that both the day and night were darkened over the Mediterranean world for a period of time. Interestingly, Isaiah 24:17-23 can be read as a prophetic depiction of both the eruption of Vesuvius and the fearsome concomitant destruction of Sodom-like Pompeii.
16. The Fifth Trumpet symbolically depicts historic (demonically inspired) efforts to stop and counter the spread of the Gospel. Vast swarms of locust-like hybrid creatures (somewhat similar to mythological Manticores) go around afflicting (deceiving) those who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. The threatening locust swarm motif harkens to the Old Testament Book of Joel. The fantastical description of the hybrid locusts borrows in part from locally-known Græco-Roman mythology.
17. The Sixth Trumpet symbolically depicts the inexorable worldwide advance of the Gospel of Christ. Christian martyrs/witnesses are likened to another mythological creature — the chimæra, which breathes fire and kills a third of mankind. Two things signal that these creatures are Godly and good, not bad. First, they wear a breast plate that is tricolored, like the breast plate of the High Priest. Second, they breathe out (holy) fire. In the Book of Revelation, exhaling fire is symbolic of preaching the Spirit-inspired Word. To be slain by such fire is actually beneficial. We die to ourselves (to our egos) when we receive the Gospel message.
18. The Seventh Trumpet in Revelation 11:15 announces the Second Advent/Eschatological Arrival of Christ and the Rapture of the Church. The Ark of the Covenant in Revelation 11:19 symbolizes Christ reunited with the Church, which has been temporarily raptured/taken from Earth to Heaven.
Just like English, Biblical Greek has one word that means to come, and another that means to arrive. For the Greek geeks, the words are respectively ἔρχομαι and ἥκω. But although the two words are technically different, they are commonly and casually used interchangeably. Such overlap usage is both understandable and forgivable, because we do exactly the same thing in English. Yes, we do.
For example, if she were running later than expected, I might text my wife and ask her, “When will you come home?” But if I were instead to ask, “When will you arrive home?” I would mean essentially the same thing. In such a scenario, I am basically using the words come and arrive interchangeably. No big deal; most everyone talks this way.
But if you think about it, there is technically an itty-bitty difference between the two words. To come home implies and involves the movement, transit, or (in her case) the drive from one starting point to another destination. Alternatively, to arrive specifies not the transit, but the exact ending point of the transit. Someone can only arrive after they have come.
Therefore, if my wife wanted to mess with me, she could reply to my inquisitive text with something like, “I will come home in about 15 minutes. But I will not arrive home for about 30 minutes.” In which case, I would smirk, because I would realize that she is being unnecessarily technical, when I just wanted a general answer. Plus, she knows me well enough (and English well enough) to correctly interpret my text. I just wanted to know what time she’ll get home.
But so what? I just spent four paragraphs discussing the difference between the words come and arrive. Why bother discussing the technicalities of common words?
Well, I bother because Jesus is coming quickly, but no one knows exactly when he will finally arrive. He is coming quickly but arriving slowly. Let me nuance that statement now. On occasion and all along, Jesus has been coming quickly since he ascended to heaven; but he has yet to finally and ultimately arrive.
Jesus has not arrived yet, in an ultimate second-coming sense. That said, I should affirm that he could arrive very soon. Indeed and frankly, I expect his ultimate arrival, his Parousia, in the near future. I even hope to skip the grave and live to see it.
Alternatively, Jesus has come and continues to come (quickly) through the years. In some manner or another Jesus has already come, even numerous times. For example, Jesus came when he appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus. And Jesus came when he appeared to John on the Island of Patmos.
Someone will likely protest, “But those appearances do not count! Jesus did not actually come to Earth. Those were only visions or voices.”
Okay, I will grant you that Paul and John may not necessarily have had a physical encounter with Jesus, though in the case of John, that is entirely debatable. But they both really, truly encountered him. Or rather, Jesus encountered each of them. In that way, Jesus did actually come. They had a genuine encounter with the risen, ascended Jesus. And each of them were alive and breathing on Planet Earth when it occurred. Since he appeared to them, it is fair to say that Jesus did come for them.
Please notice that I am making a distinction here between coming and arriving. I am not saying that Jesus has arrived. I am just saying that he briefly came. In the Book of Revelation, this is an important distinction that will help a reader make sense of a lot of Jesus’ statements.
I would like to suggest that we should recognize the paradoxical validity of both the distinction and the overlap. To arrive and to come can effectively mean the same thing. But they do not always mean the same thing. In the Book of Revelation when we hear Jesus saying, “I am coming quickly,” we should ask ourselves whether he is possibly pointing to brief provisional historical appearances or to his ultimate eschatological arrival. Consider that paradoxical possibility as you read through the Book of Revelation. It might help you make sense of a number of passages. It does make sense of things for me.