By its very nature, the Book of Revelation is cryptic. Like a secret code, it is meant to be progressively figured out. Like a jig-saw puzzle, it is meant to be pieced together until it slowly coalesces into an increasingly coherent whole. That should be somewhat self-evident.
Here are some safe assumptions about the Book of Revelation:
Since the Author has a vested interest in the integrity of the text, and since the Author has the ability to safeguard its integrity, you can assume that every single received word of the text is actually meant to be there. Besides conjunctions (perhaps), no word is merely incidental or superfluous. And even some of the conjunctions can be very important. Every word in the Book of Revelation counts. Some count considerably more than others; but every word does indeed count.
You can assume that identifiable word groupings — phrases — are even more important and meaningful than single words alone. This is true even of very short phrases, such as those comprised of two words. For example, if a noun has an adjective, that adjective definitely matters and must not be overlooked. Furthermore, the phrase must be held together when an effort is made to decode the meaning of a particular passage. As pedantic as it may sound, this is a highly and hugely important exegetical insight. Every phrase counts. And phrases count even more than single words.
You can assume that the symbolism within the Book of Revelation will be used consistently throughout. Know this, because it is important. Symbolism, once established, remains consistent throughout the text. It means the same thing whenever it reappears. However, that is not to say that a symbol cannot be developed through the narrative. Individual symbols can be developed, and sometimes are. Sometimes symbols are developed so that they take on additional layers of meaning. But each established symbol has a single consistent meaning at its core. If this were not so, the Book of Revelation would be completely indecipherable.
You can assume that the narrator will drop interpretive hints throughout the text. Indeed, he does just that. He drops hints and even gives straightforward interpretations. That is because the Author wants the text to be deciphered, even if it takes centuries for the Church to complete the task. The Author would not have revealed the Revelation if He did not want it deciphered.
You can assume that the text, when interpreted correctly, will communicate a coherent, necessary, and edifying message. Not only that, you can assume that the message will not contradict the rest of Scripture. That is because the ultimate Author of the Book of Revelation is the same ultimate Author of the rest of the Bible. If not, the Book of Revelation is a spurious, misleading prophecy, and thus does not belong in the Bible. But the Church has long since accepted the Book of Revelation as legitimate and canonical, and with good reason.
You can assume that the rest of Scripture will help a diligent interpreter unlock the symbolism in Revelation. I cannot overstate this. I cannot overstate this. Can I overstate this? No, I cannot. I cannot overstate this. Please do understand how important this point is. It is crucial. Catching and pondering the many, many scriptural references and allusions is vital, vital, vital. It will unlock the Book of Revelation like nothing else. I cannot overstate this. Missing this is precisely how most interpreters go wrong.
You can assume that knowledge of its immediate geographical and historical context will help unlock the meaning of the Book of Revelation. I have a degree in history and have read much about the historical situation in which Revelation was written. It really, really helps make sense of the text. I would go so far as to say that you cannot effectively understand the Book of Revelation without studying its original historical context. Knowledge of the Roman Empire will help you.
You can assume that typology will help an interpreter make sense of the Book of Revelation. History does not repeat itself; but it does rhyme. Typology takes that insight seriously. What happened way back when will happen again — not exactly, but similarly.
You can assume that Almighty God is truly behind the Book of Revelation and that Jesus Christ really did appear to the narrator, John the Elder. It is prophecy, after all. And only God can preordain future events. Oh yeah — you can assume it foretells future events, even future events from our vantage point in history.
Those, then, are what I consider safe assumptions for someone who would interpret this particular text.
To start, I should probably give credit where credit is due. The term Eschatological Exodus does not originate with me, but, as far as I know, with (the now semi-retired) Professor Richard Bauckham from Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Personally, I consider Professor Bauckham to be the most important recent and living interpreter of the Book of Revelation. Professor Bauckham may even eventually rank as the single most insightful and influential interpreter of the Book of Revelation (and similar biblical literature) in the last several centuries. Yes, centuries. I know, I know: That’s quite a big claim to make. Yet it may be both apt and true.
Although it has a rather generic title, way back in the early 1990s a younger Dr. Professor Baukham wrote a refreshingly brief, catchingly brilliant, and now-absolutely-essential scriptural study of Revelation called… drumroll… The Theology of the Book of Revelation, which will be abbreviated from hence as TBR. In TBR, Professor Bauckham identifies three primary symbolic themes that recur throughout the Book of Revelation: 1) The Messianic War, 2) The Eschatological Exodus, and 3) The Witness of Jesus. Nowhere is the second symbolic theme, the Eschatological Exodus, more prominent within the Book of Revelation than Chapter Fifteen. To quote Dr. Bauckham regarding that theme:
In 15:2-4 the Christian Martyrs, victorious in heaven, are seen as the people of the new exodus, standing beside a heavenly Red Sea, through which they have passed, and singing a version of the song of praise to God which Moses and the people of Israel sang after their deliverance from Pharaoh at the Red Sea (Exodus 15).
Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, p. 71.
To be something of a fastidious stickler, I will mention here that while Professor Bauckham identifies the triumphant throng as “Christian Martyrs,” Revelation Chapter Fifteen itself does not use either descriptor. Those who are have triumphed over the Beast, its Image, and the Number of its Name are called neither Christians nor Martyrs in Chapter Fifteen. Dr. Bauckham is making a slight interpretive move (quite understandably) when he designates the heavenly throng as Christian Martyrs. I will explain why I am taking issue with his subtle interpretive move in a few paragraphs. But as it is, I am getting ahead of myself. We ought to start at the beginning of the chapter with Verse One.
Here in Verse One we are put on notice of utterly terrifying things to come. John, the narrator, sees a sign in Heaven: He sees seven angels with seven final plagues. The Wrath of God is about to be dispensed in seven sequential measures upon the Earth. Hitherto in the Book of Revelation the Wrath of God has not been dispensed on the Earth.
For those who harbor doubts as to whether the Wrath of God has been withheld prior to this point in the Book of Revelation, a quick word study of Wrath and God will yield the following seven references in the Book of Revelation: 14:10; 14:19; 15:1; 15:7; 16:1; 16: 19; and 19:15. I interpret the two references to the Wrath of God in Chapter Fourteen as synchronous with (happening at the same time as) the terrifying events that come with the outpouring of the Bowls of Wrath in Revelation Chapter Sixteen. I would encourage the especially studious to read through those seven wrathful references; and will boldly suggest that if they do so, they will most likely come to the same conclusion: The Wrath of God only begins when the Bowls are poured out, one by one.
Verse One, therefore, lets the reader know that the outpouring of the Wrath of God is about to commence upon the Earth. But nonetheless, our vantage point is still up in Heaven. We are witnesses to what is happening in Heaven Above immediately before all Hell breaks out on Earth Below. Remind me then: What is happening in Heaven? Verse Two gives us the scene and tells the tale.
A celebration is happening. A concert is happening in Heaven Above. There is singing and rejoicing. It is a time of Triumph, an occasion of celebration.
Does that not strike you as somewhat strange? I mean, although all Hell is about to be unleashed on Earth, the seaside throng in Heaven is celebrating some sort of victory. Why is that? What is going on? Who are these triumphant harpists in Heaven?
We are told that the celebrants in Heaven are those who have triumphed over the Beast, its Image, and the Number of its Name. From henceforth I will refer to that nefarious trio as the Notorious B.I.N.N.
Bauckham says that these triumphant celebrants are Christian Martyrs. He is only kind of right about that. The problem is that you might misunderstand what he means with those two words. Christians are not necessarily those who loosely self-identify as such, but those who are really redeemed, the truly faithful, the steadfast Saints throughout the centuries and millenia. And the Martyrs are not necessarily those who have died for their faith, but include all those who have kept the faith and maintained their witness for Christ Jesus. That is because the word martyr originally just meant a witness. In contradiction to the very esteemed Professor Baukham, then, I want to suggest that in Chapter Fifteen we are seeing an even bigger crowd. The throng of triumphant celebrants in Heaven includes not just Christian Martyrs in a narrow sense, but all the Saints through the centuries, right up until the Second Coming or Advent of Jesus Christ. I do mean all of them, every single one, including you and me, hopefully.
To identify the size and compostion of the throng, the Notorious B.I.N.N. serve as perhaps the most important clue. One reason why the Notorious B.I.N.N. are mentioned here is because they will appear in their ultimate and worst incarnations right at the very end of this current common era.
For the sake of clarity, I need to explain what I mean by “the end of this current common era.” When I was a child, the historical timeline was usually divided according to the abbreviations of B.C. and A.D. But for better or worse, that chronological division has since changed. Now the abbreviations B.C.E. and C.E. are used more commonly to divide the timeline. And what do those abbreviations stand for? B.C. once abbreviated “Before Christ”; and A.D. once abbreviated Anno Domini, which translates from Latin to “in the year of the Lord.” To avoid the implicit Christian chronological assumptions of B.C. and A.D., sensitive souls in Academia made a switch to B.C.E. and C.E. over the last 35 years or so. As you may know, B.C.E. abbreviates Before the Common Era, while C.E. abbreviates the Common Era. So now, with this timeline revisionism explained, I will hereby assert and solemnly affirm that according to Revelation Chapter Fifteen this Common Era will come to an abrupt end with the return of Christ, the return of Christ for the Church. When Christ comes back for the Church this current Common Era will end ubruptly. Perhaps, then, the loss of the B.C. and A.D. abbreviations was not actually a loss, theologically speaking. One might argue that Anno Domini, the year of our Lord, actually begins when Christ returns for the Church.
So then, Revelation Chapter Fifteen shows us the scene in Heaven Above immediately after the current Common Era ends. In Chapter Fifteen, Christ has come. The Church has been lifted from Earth and has arrived triumphantly in Heaven. The throng beside the Sea of Glass is celebrating their escape from and Triumph over the Notorious B.I.N.N. and all their persecutors on Earth Below. Just as the Children of Israel were miraculously delivered from their Egyptian enemies through the Red Sea, so all the Saints of God will someday be miraculously delivered from their enemies through Resurrection and Rapture, when Christ himself returns to claim his Church.
And so, moving along to Verse Three, the Trimphant Celebrants are said to sing a particular song of deliverance – the Song of Moses, the Servant of God, and the Song of the Lamb.
If you were to cross-reference Revelation’s Deliverance Song with the original Song of Moses in the Book of Exodus Chapter 15, you might be struck by the comparative similarities and the differences. While both songs celebrate the amazing saving deeds of God, the Original Exodus Song is almost entirely ethnocentric and expresses hostility towards neighboring nations, whereas Revelation’s Exodus Song refers to God as the King of the Nations, and affirms that all the nations will ultimately come and worship God. Given its Anno Domini timing and its heavenly setting, this affirmation is intriguing, because it might allow some measure of hope for eventual salvation, even for those who have been left behind, the inhabitants of the Earth who are about to endure the Wrath of God.
And yes, with the phrase “left behind” I am affirming the reality of the Rapture here. The Eschatological Exodus is the Rapture. They are one and the same event. Revelation Chapter Fifteen show us the scene in Heaven Above immediately after all the Saints, and the entire Church, leave Earth Below. To be honest and fair to Professor Bauckham, I think he would not concur with me here. In TBR and his other books, Dr. Bauckham does not equate the Eschatological Exodus with the Rapture. He just says that those who are beside the Sea of Glass in Heaven are Christian Martyrs (as opposed to all the redeemed Saints and the entire Church throughout history). My question for him and for those who follow him would be how Chapter Fifteen fits in its wider narrative context. As I see it, the reason for our disagreement is because he does not see a sequential, chronological progression from the Series of Seven Trumpets (Revelation 8:6-11:19) to the Series Seven Bowls of Wrath (Revelation 15:1-16:21). I do. I see a clear sequential and chronological progression. There is an important topical excursus between the two series (from Revelation 12:1 through 14:20); but otherwise they follow each other sequentially and chronologically.
Interpretive decisions about how to divide and how to connect the flow of the narrative and the various scenes within Revelation are necessary and inescapable. Whether an interpreter sees a sequential, chronological progression from the Series of Seven Trumpets to the Series of Seven Bowls of Wrath will determine whether Revelation allows for and depicts a Rapture or not, in my estimation.
Plus, I believe that what Paul teaches in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 absolutely requires the Rapture be taken literally and seriously. It is simply what immediately follows the general resurrection of the redeemed. We ascend to meet Christ in the air. We ascend to Heaven, just as Christ himself was resurrected and ascended. We follow the same pattern set by Christ. And Revelation Chapter Fifteen gives us a brief glimpse of their/our celebration upon our arrival in glory.
But back to the passage at hand. In Verses Three and Four, we read the lyrics of the New Exodus Song. The Triumphant Celebrants in Heaven give praise to God for His marvelous deeds, question the folly of not fearing and glorifying the Lord, and affirm both God’s Holiness and the inevitability of His universal acclamation. All of this is of course fitting for what Christ accomplished through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. It would be all the more fitting for what Christ accomplishes if and when he delivers us, the Church, from the final persecution of the Notorious B.I.N.N.
Now we move on the Verse Five. I cannot recall ever hearing someone teach or preach from the pulpit about this particular verse. John the Narrator sees the Temple of the Tabernacle of Testimony in Heaven opened. The Temple of the Tabernacle of Testimony has a nice alliterative ring, with its triple Ts, an alternative translation being the Sanctuary of the Tabernacle of Witness. Significantly, the Church is often called a Temple or a Sanctuary in the New Testament. And I do suggest that the Temple of the Tabernacle of Testimony in Heaven is the Resurrected Church while it resides in Heaven. Here John the Narrator sees the Raptured Church as a Temple or Sanctuary. He witnesses its inaugural opening in Heaven. Based on Old Testament passages regarding the inaugural opening of the Tabernacle and the Temple (see Leviticus 9:22-24; 1 Kings 8:11; and 2 Chronicles 7:1-3), we ought to anticipate something awesome is about to occur. And so something does.
At the Sanctuary Church’s inaugural opening in Heaven, seven angels resembling priests emerge, dressed in their Sabbath finest. They have business to attend to.
The angel-priests are dressed immaculately in clean linen and golden sashes. You might even say that the seven angel-priests are dressed to kill. One of Heaven’s Four Living Creatures gives each of the seven angels a bowl, each full of the Wrath of God. The angels are about to visit Earth, where they will execute divine vengence on the Notorious B.I.N.N. and the pitiful Inhabitants of the Earth.
And though the Sanctuary Church in Heaven is open for the seven exiting angels, the Glory of God makes it entirely impossible for the anyone to enter from the outside (again, this refers back to Leviticus 9:22-24; 1 Kings 8:11; and 2 Chronicles 7:1-3) until after the Seven Bowls of Wrath are dispensed, each in turn. The Sanctuary Church in Heaven is thus temporarily closed to any incoming traffic. Any repentant Inhabitants on Earth must wait until the Wrath of God is entirely spent.
To me, the scenario presented in Chapter Fifteen only makes coherent sense narratively and historically if the Rapture occurs. With the Church off the scene, the Current Common Era comes to a close. Then the truly scary stuff commences.
Thanks to Horrible Hal (Hal Lindsey, that is, whom I honestly do not regard as highly horrible) — thanks to Horrible Hal and other End-Times Enthusiasts, no one takes the idea of the Rapture seriously any more. Okay, yes, that is a wee bit of an overstatement. But as overstatements go, it holds true more often than not. Practically speaking, the rejection of the Rapture is a widespread reality that must serve as any theologian’s operational assumption within contemporary Anglo-American Christian Academia. And the same assumption also applies at most self-respecting, liturgically-formal churches. As a doctrinal and eschatological scenario, the Rapture is widely regarded as rather ridiculous, even embarrassing. Nowadays, the Rapture is usually held in derision by those who are convinced they know better.
But I do believe in the Rapture. When Rapture-skeptics realize that I do in fact believe the Rapture will occur, they usually respond with comments like, “So… do you mean you seriously believe in the Rapture? As in, the sudden disappearance of all true Christians, past and present, from around the globe, upward from Planet Earth? Beam me up, Jesus! Seriously? You do know the word rapture doesn’t even appear in the Bible, right? You really ought to go read what N.T. Wright has to say about that.”
And yada, yada. The (usually polite) ridicule just featured is what the Rapture skeptics will often rehash.
And as I quietly endure the skeptics’ very predictable, polite ridicule, babies jettisoned along with their bathwater come to mind, as do diamonds discarded with dirt. To the dismissive (and potentially smug) skeptics who still might be reading or listening to this, I want to request that you hear me out. Please consider the Rapture again, and try to set any knee-jerk prejudice aside. Please do not immediately reject what might in fact be a valuable interpretive insight just because it has been poorly packaged. Just because the Rapture has often been misrepresented over the last 50 years does not mean it should be rejected without careful scriptural study. I mean, as a kind of parallel, just because zombie movies often make the resurrection look like a freakish scenario does not mean that we should dispense with the doctrine of the resurrection. Similarly, just because the Rapture has been portrayed poorly in low-budget movies does not mean it ought to be discarded. The truly important thing to consider is whether Scripture teaches it will happen.
To repeat and rephrase somewhat, the really important issue is whether Scripture presents the Rapture as a future event that will occur.
So please grab your Bibles, ye studious People of the Book. If you will, look up Revelation Chapter 15. Read it and re-read it. You might not recognize it at first as the thorough-going Rapture passage that it is.
1 Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished.
2 And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. 3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,
“Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations!
4 Who will not fear you, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy.
All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
5 After this I looked, and the sanctuary of the tent of witness in heaven was opened, 6 and out of the sanctuary came the seven angels with the seven plagues, clothed in pure, bright linen, with golden sashes around their chests. 7 And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever, 8 and the sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished.
Revelation 15:1-8 ESV
At the risk of being harsh, I have a few questions for you. When was the last time you heard a sermon about this passage? When was the last time you heard anything coherent taught about this particular passage? If you yourself were asked to interpret this passage in its narrative context, how would you do? Could you present it coherently, or would you and your listeners walk away completely confused?
These probing questions I do ask because I am willing to bet that the vast majority of skeptics who ridicule the Rapture cannot make much sense of this passage in its broader context, that is, immediately after the events of Chapter Fourteen, and immediately before the Seven Bowls of Wrath are dispensed. However, please realize that these eight verses make perfect sense to those who take the Rapture of the Church seriously. With the Rapture in mind and in place, this passage is completely coherent within the overall contextual flow of the Book of Revelation. It is like a puzzle piece that fits exactly where it ought. And that clean, orderly coherence should give y’all pause, especially because alternate explanations are almost always messy and incoherent.
Please allow me to interpret and explain this passage.
Those who have conquered the Beast, and its image, and the number of its name — who are they, exactly? Most interpreters would agree that these conquerers are true Christians, Faithful Witnesses for Christ. And while that interpretation is not wrong, it is not precise enough. Yes, these are Christ’s Faithful Witnesses, true enough. But more exactly, they are all the Faithful Witnesses who have persevered and thus prevailed through to a particular point in Church History — to its final terminus, to the end of the present age or era. The Beast, its Image, and the Number of its Name (referred to hereafter as the Notorious BINN) will not appear in their final, ultimate, and most fearsome manifestations until the end of this era. Therefore, the Faithful Witnesses who persevere and who thereby manage to conquer the Notorious BINN must necessarily include all of those who live through (and perhaps die during) the very end of this current era.
By the way, and very importantly, please do notice that I do not mean to exclude any of the Faithful Witnesses who died in the centuries and decades before the final days — not at all. Instead, I simply mean to include those who have lived through (and those who may die during) the final tumultuous period of time. The Faithful who prevail over the Notorious BINN include all the faithful throughout the entirety of the age. Chapter Fifteen depicts all the Faithful Saints, from the beginning to the utter end of the Church Age.
Notice where these conquering Saints are said to be standing. They are standing beside the Sea of Glass, otherwise and alternatively known as the Crystal Sea. And where, pray tell, is the Crystal Sea? If I am not mistaken, the Crystal Sea is not on Earth, but is up there in Heaven. Yep, according to Revelation 4:6, the Crystal Sea is situated before the very Throne of God, up in Heaven. (This matters because those who deny the Rapture will often claim that after Christ’s Second Coming his Saints do not go to up heaven, but instead stay on Earth.) So, based on Revelation 15, is it safe to assume that all the conquering Saints have somehow made their way up to Heaven? Personally, I am altogether willing to assume just that. The Saints got there somehow. In Revelation 15:2 all the Faithful, Conquering Saints throughout the entire Church Age are seen standing beside the Sea of Crystal in Heaven. Rapture skeptics need to explain how this is true.
Okay then, exactly how did those conquering Saints get up there to Heaven?
They either made it up to Heaven through Death or through the Rapture. As far as I can tell, the Bible offers human beings no alternative means of transport to Heaven. Death or Resurrected Rapture — those are the only two viable transit options to Heaven. And be very careful before you easily opt for Death as their sole means of transit. In 1 Thessalonians 4:17 Paul claims that some very blessed Christians will escape death altogether. Those Christians will be physically transformed in an instant (for that, see 1 Corinthians 15:51-52), and will meet the Lord Jesus in the air. I would like to suggest that from their meeting place in the air they will (or hopefully, we will) continue to ascend to Heaven, where they/we will find ourselves besides the Sea of Crystal, before the Throne of God. While we are there, absent from Earth, the Seven Bowls of Wrath will be poured out upon the unrepentant upon the Earth. And notice that exact sequential scenario follows the narrative flow of Revelation Chapters 14, 15, and 16, neatly, cleanly, and coherently. Uh huh, it really does.
If this is the correct contextual interpretation of Revelation 15, then the Resurrected Rapture can and should be understood as one and the same as the Eschatological Exodus. That simply means that just as the Children of Israel were once delivered from Egypt by means of the Miraculous Parting of the Red Sea, so the the Church of God will be instantaneously delivered from out of the fiefdoms of this world by means of a miraculous Parting of the Time-Space Fabric. The Eschatological Exodus is the Resurrected Rapture of the Church; and its immediate aftermath is the scene presented in Revelation Chapter 15.
When the roll is called up yonder, will you be there? I do hope to see you beside the Sea of Crystal in Heaven someday, perhaps even someday soon.
According to a well-positioned and entirely reliable informant, a popular theology instructor at a local educational institution once believed that Jesus Christ was likely to return to Earth before the end of 1988. Someone had convinced him that the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 meant that Jesus could return anytime, but likely no later than 1988. When he returned, Jesus was to take the worldwide Church upward from Earth in an event called the Rapture; and that astonishing event was supposed to transpire no later than the end of 1988. Yet while that year came to pass, the expected Rapture of the Church did not. And now the year 1988 recedes further and further into the past. In retrospect, that same popular theology instructor now looks to that unfulfilled date with both chagrin and wisened dismissiveness — chagrin that he was naïve enough to believe such a silly, errant “the-end-is-nigh” prediction, and wisened dismissiveness for anyone who would again presume to promote speculative eschatology.
Nonetheless, in spite of repeated misses, the speculators and predictors continue to predict Jesus’ imminent return. And some of them even dare set hard deadlines. Who would be foolish enough to do such a thing? Who would presume to set dates for Jesus’ second coming and promote speculative end-time predictions? If and when the end-of-the-world date-setters are proven wrong — as they invariably are — they make themselves look immensely foolish. They set up themselves and their gullible followers for public ridicule and derisive scorn. And yet one doomsday predictor after another invariably steps forward. They just keep on coming along, predictably mis-predicting that the end is near because Jesus is once again about to return.
Okay, zany apocalyptic preacher, exactly why should we believe yet another doomsday prediction? What makes you right, unlike everyone who came before you? Is the sky actually falling this time, Reverend Chicken Little?
Somewhat surprisingly, one of the most famous or infamous of the doomsday-predicting preachers is still active in the ecclesiastical eschatology-speculation business, after fifty-one years of date-setting miscalculations and subsequent adjustments. Yes, although he is now in his early 90s, this particular predictive preacher is still actively at it. He is considered by many to be the very epitome of repetitive eschatological error. And exactly who is this man? At the pinnacle of the heap of nefarious doomsday preachers stands a mustachioed Oklahoman named Hal Lindsey.
Here, though, is the twist and the kicker. It is something I should perhaps hesitate to admit: I kind of like Hal Lindsey, even respect him. When he speaks about the Bible (even about portions of the Book of Revelation), what he has to say is sound — at least what I have heard. Admittedly, I have only heard and read a little, and should listen to more of what he says. But what I did hear from Hal Lindsey demonstrated real depth of insight. I would even use the descriptive word profound for the recent sermon I watched online. He did not sound like the speculative, slick villain I had been expecting. Yet many Christians have nothing good to say about Hal Lindsey whatsoever.
Let me tell you why. Back in 1970 Hal Lindsey and a co-author wrote a best-selling book entitled The Late Great Planet Earth. It ranks as the 55th best-selling book of all time. And it was on basis of The Late Great Planet Earth that many prophecy-speculators began to believe that Jesus would probably (or definitely) return by 1988. However, this particular speculation fell flat. What Hal Lindsey suggested might someday happen did not happen, and seemingly cannot happen any longer, simply because the global political scene has changed so much since the 1970s. Over the last fifty years, Lindsey has consequently needed to make some adjustments to his prophetic political scenarios. And after a while, many have tired of such adjustments.
Yet when he speaks on the Bible, Lindsey is learned, sound, and even profound. How can that possibly be? And what does someone do with that? Someone explains why it is so. In my estimation, the main reason Lindsey has gotten Revelation wrong through the years is because he insists on reading and interpreting Revelation too literally.
If you understand his determination to interpret Revelation as literally as possible, Lindsey makes understandable interpretive mistakes. I would argue that Lindsey makes forgivable interpretive mistakes. Lindsey takes Scripture very seriously, and has been doing his best to make sense of Scripture for over fifty years. But his best-selling book made some errant speculative predictions. In the minds of many, it now stands as a massive embarrassment within Christianity. By virtue of at least one major errant speculation, Lindsey (and his interpretive scions) have given end-times eschatology a bad name.
That all said, at least some of what Lindsey wrote needs to be given re-consideration. If you understand why Lindsey suggested that Jesus might return by 1988, it actually makes a lot of sense. No, of course, Lindsey wasn’t right about it. And history has long since disproved his speculation. But his argument makes sense, nonetheless. Based on some of Jesus’ cryptic actions and explanations, Lindsey reasonably suggested that the generation that witnesses the re-establishment of the State of Israel must be the generation that sees the return of Christ. Since Israel was re-established in 1948, and since a biblical generation is 40 years (or so Lindsey once believed), Lindsey speculated in The Late Great Planet Earth that Jesus Christ would necessarily return by the end of 1988. To be fair, Lindsey was very careful to hedge his speculation about that particular date. But others after him were not as careful. If Lindsey had been writing in a sad old commentary somewhere, his errant speculation would be just a trivial curiosity. But to date, Lindsey’s book has sold well over 15 million copies. And it has even inspired a unique apocalyptic niche in literature and film.
Sometimes people will say that Lindsey is a false prophet. In my estimation, that is much too harsh. Lindsey is instead a slightly misguided biblical interpreter. He made and continues to make an honest effort at interpreting some very difficult sections of Scripture. By defaulting to a literal approach in interpreting symbolic prophetic material he and like-minded interpreters continue to bend the scenes from the Book of Revelation to unfolding or expected political events. Sometimes such interpretations may in fact work. Alternatively, such speculative interpretations can be (and have been) disproven by ensuing historical events.
Finally and affirmatively, I must say that I side with Lindsey more than many other Revelation scholars, insofar as I do believe that the Book of Revelation actually does predict the future. It actually does give specific details about future characters and events, and especially those in the political realm. I just believe Lindsey is too intent on defaulting to a forced literal reading of Revelation, when a figurative, symbolic reading actually yields a more coherent message.
Does the Book of Revelation actually belong in the Bible?
For a while, the canonical status of the Book of Revelation was debated. From the second century to the early fourth century of the Church, Christian leaders were divided on whether the Book of Revelation truly belonged in the New Testament. Revelation was suspect back then for the same reason it is suspect now. The Book of Revelation confuses people. It is hard to understand, and thus lends itself to conjecture and attracts overly-enthusiastic ecclesiastical loony birds. It took a while for a general consensus to emerge that yes, weird though it may be, the Book of Revelation is an authentic prophecy. It is a genuine word from Christ, legitimately inspired by the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ himself really did appear in an authoritative canon-closing vision to an apostle named John while he was in exile on the Island of Patmos.
The fact, though, that some prominent early Christian Bishops were uncertain and hesitant about accepting the legitimacy of the Book of Revelation might prompt latter-day skeptics to second-guess its legitimacy anew. A question quietly crystalizes: “What if they got it wrong? What if those old Churchmen erred when they recognized Revelation as canonical?”
In response to that doubt, I think it is necessary to start by pushing back with a simple assertion: They were not wrong when they gave the Book of Revelation canonical status. They were right. The prophecy rightfully belongs in the New Testament.
Okay… but my pious opinion and bland assertion will probably not convince anybody. Why should anyone take an unknown blogger’s word for it? So perhaps I ought to do a bit more work to convince my readers.
The first and most obvious test of its legitimacy is its historicity. As a piece of literature, is the Book of Revelation historically accurate? Or does it betray historical inaccuracies? The answer to that is yes, it is entirely historically accurate, and to a degree that does away with any doubt. The more a serious scholar researches the Book of Revelation, the more she or he realizes that it fits exactly in the time and place it claims for itself. No imposter came along later and wrote a bit of fiction that was spuriously spun as legitimate. A skeptic will look in vain for historical inaccuracies. There aren’t any. Go ahead and look into the archeology and cross-reference all the historical records. The Book of Revelation passes the test of historicity with flying colors. It is historical.
Someone could reply, “Well, maybe so. Maybe it is historical legit; but just because the Book of Revelation is historical does not necessarily mean that John the Exile really had a genuine and authoritative vision of Jesus Christ. He might have just been delusional or tripping. Other than its historicity, on what basis should the Book of Revelation be accepted as canonical?”
Theology. The intricate and nuanced theology of the Book of Revelation establishes it as orthodox and legitimate. This is precisely the point where those crusty old Churchmen had a distinct advantage over many latter-day skeptics. Most of them knew the Bible very well. And their thorough knowledge of the Bible gave them the ability to detect theological deviations.
Here I will turn to an illustration: Years ago I heard a sermon in which a preacher addressed the question of spiritual counterfeits. How can someone recognize a fake, a counterfeit? As an analogy, he claimed that the people who specialize in currency — in bank notes — are so familiar with the design and construction of authentic bank notes that they can spot the mistakes of counterfeits, and usually with ease. I do not actually know if the preacher was right about that, given that stores here now routinely test bank notes with special ink (and it annoys me when they do), but whatever. His intended point is valid and insightful all the same: Extended and habitual familiarity with the authentic makes it far easier to detect what is inauthentic. Those old Churchmen had extended and habitual familiarity with the content of the Bible. And by virtue of their extended and habitual familiarity with the other 65 books of the Bible they were able to come to a consensus: The Book of Revelation is indeed authentic prophecy. It passes the test of scrupulous theological scrutiny.
How can you be confident of that for yourself, though? Honestly, this point is where determined homework is simply unavoidable. You cannot know with any degree of confidence that the Book of Revelation is actually theologically sound unless you first know the other 65 canonical books of the Bible. This time I will confidently assert that point on the authority of my own extended and habitual familiarity with the Bible. The Book of Revelation definitely belongs in the canon of Scripture. I believe you will come to exactly the same conclusion as you grow in your own knowledge of the Bible.
Am I done? I thought I was. But I realize that I need to add one more point.
Academic knowledge, while necessary, is not enough. Academic knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient. There is an intuitive, subjective aspect to spiritual discernment that must be recognized and acknowledged. A theologian named Karl Barth once spoke about hearing the voice of God in Scripture. He said that one can know that the Bible is truly God’s word because God speaks through scripture. Barth even acknowledged that his claim could be called circular reasoning: “I know that the Bible is God’s word because I hear the word of God in the Bible.” Yes, that is a circular argument. But experientially, it is true. I do subjectively hear God speak through the Bible. No, I do not hear God speak audibly; but somehow I do discern the living word of God through Scripture. And it must be said to be subjective, because it only happens on a person-to-person basis. It happens to me, as an individual person, as I delve into Scripture.
Those crusty old Churchmen had exactly that experience as they read the Book of Revelation, I dare suggest. Individually, they each experienced a nod from God. “Yes, this is the real thing. This is actually Jesus speaking, speaking to each one of us through this document.” Moreover, what validated each one’s subjective experience was the subsequent discovery that others had had the same subjective experience. And that is exactly how the Holy Spirit works — back and forth, individually and corporately, within a believer and in between believers. I hope and pray you have the same subjective experience as you read and listen to the Book of Revelation and the other 65 books of the Bible.
The Book of Revelation matters. It matters more than most people realize. The Book of Revelation matters more than most people realize because some of the key events which it describes are current events. Revelation symbolically describes events that you are likely to watch on television today, or read about on your digital device today. Significant portions of the Book of Revelation are not locked in the distant past nor safely set in the distant future, but are instead happening as you read this.
Yep, to make that claim might make me a propeller-beanie wacko. Or it might make me someone with genuine interpretive insight. Take your pick. Actually, don’t take your pick quite yet, because if you decide too quickly you are likely to come to the wrong conclusion. Hear me out instead, please.
Revelation depicts a lewd prostitute that it calls Babylon, otherwise known as the Great Whore of Babylon. That wealth-obsessed prostitute was actually symbolic of the economically exploitive Roman Empire, back when the Book of Revelation was first written. But that same prostitute is also symbolic of an exploitive economic system that continues to this day. If that is indeed a correct interpretation, then Babylon is in the news every day, and may be soliciting you in your mailbox or inbox.
Revelation also depicts an overreaching autocrat that it calls the Beast from the Sea, who is known elsewhere in the New Testament as Antichrist. At the time the Book of Revelation was first written that autocrat was personified in the Roman Emperor Domitian. But the Beast from the Sea is also “reincarnated” or reoccurring (figuratively, not literally) as the various self-aggrandizing dictators who have popped up again and again throughout history, including recent history, right up until the present day. If that is indeed a correct interpretation, then the Beast of the Sea is in the news (and potentially eavesdropping on his/her citizens) every single day. The Book of Revelation refers to the ultimate Beast from the Sea as the Beast from the Abyss, who is known elsewhere in the New Testament as the Man of Lawlessness.
Revelation also depicts a quasi-religious entity that it calls the Beast from the Earth, otherwise known as the False Prophet. Back when the Book of Revelation was first written, that False Prophet was especially manifest in the Roman Emperor Cult. But that same False Prophet has been “reincarnated” (figuratively, not literally) as the various quasi-religious institutions and individuals intent on making the populace bow in homage and submission to the Supreme Leader — whichever Supreme Leader, wherever, whenever. If this is indeed a correct interpretation, then the Beast from the Earth works especially in academia and the news media. It can be found throughout the cultural milieu every single day.
In other words, the Book of Revelation symbolically portrays the world we live in, and is thus much, much more relevant than you might initially realize.
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.
Sometimes you should not show your cards. Sometimes you should. Most of the time you only show the select cards that you believe will benefit you. But both my amateur observations and this card-shark analogy hinge on the presumption that you, the player, are completely invested in your preferred game — that you’re in it to win it. But what if you’re not? What if you’re only in the game for the sake of another player? And what if you do not care if you lose?
When playing games, sometimes I do not care if I win. Sometimes I even want the other player to win. That is true especially if and when I am playing against a child. However, there are times I dearly want to win, so much so that I will go to great lengths to achieve victory. Years ago, my wife beat me in chess — not once, but multiple times. This was entirely unacceptable. My ego was badly bruised. I needed to find a way to beat her. Finally, I managed to pull out a victory. Somehow I did win one game. To this day, I cannot be sure whether I really won outright, or whether she let her childish, overly-invested husband win.
Anyway, I deliberately embarrass myself here because honest introspection is good for the haughty soul. Sometimes ego gets the best of me. When it does, some form of humiliation usually follows shortly thereafter, if not immediately. And we witness that same predictable theme play out repeatedly on the stage of history. In the King James’ idiom, “Pride cometh before a fall.” Yes, it does, again and again.
But the line between pride and due confidence is not always obvious. Sometimes we believe someone to be proud or arrogant when that person is not, but is instead duly confident. For example, my wife is quite good at chess. She really is. And she has ample reason for self-confidence, when it comes to the game of chess (among other things). Yet she is never arrogant about it, nor boastful. If, however, she were to say to you, “I stand a very good chance of beating most people in a game of chess,” she would be right, IMHO. She will not say that, though, so I will say it for her here. You’re welcome, my Dear.
Why am I talking about this? You may be wondering that, at this point. I am talking about this because this blog sometimes gets me in trouble with people I know. Most people are too polite to say so outright, but they believe there is a certain amount of audacity for anyone to claim what I claim. And what is it I claim? I claim that my readers or listeners can learn relevant and important information about very, very controversial sections of Scripture from audacious me. The simple act of posting what I routinely post shows a lot of audacity, perhaps even hubris. Who do I think that I am? A fair question, actually. But most people are too polite and too conflict-avoidant to directly ask that question. That’s okay: If I were in their shoes, I would not ask it either, so I will ask it for them.
The straight answer to that (usually unspoken) question is this: Rightly or wrongly, I honestly believe that I must blog what I blog. Writing what I do gets me nowhere professionally (at least, not thus far). Nonetheless, the spread of the dread virus affords me the opportunity and time to blog, so blog I will. And my understanding of Scripture is what I sincerely believe I have to offer my readers and listeners, as I have given a lot of time to the pursuit.
That said, there is only one way for anyone to know if what I have to say is actually worthwhile. You have to read it and take the time to consider it. Some people do, for which I am quite grateful. And if you have read or listened to me thus far, thank you.
Now I am going to show a few of my key cards. I am going to point out exactly where I know most of the experts are likely to disagree with me. And when I say the experts, I mean it. I have read most of the esteemed interpreters of Revelation. Perhaps I should say most of the esteemed interpreters who are published in English (as opposed to German; but most of the German interpreters and theologians eventually get translated into English). Here’s a big card: Most of the esteemed experts would either be uncertain or dismissive of how I interpret the Seven Trumpets, a section of Revelation stretching from the beginning of Chapter 8 to the end of Chapter 11. Yet I will contend that the Seven Trumpets are where I have important insights to offer. And I hope that I can convince some of my readers and listeners to recognize the value of those insights. Yes, I need to be more specific. But I need to take a step back first.
In terms of organization, the Book of Revelation has four sets of seven scenes. The first Set of Seven has to do with the Seven Churches of Asia. This is the least controversial of the four sets. I follow most Evangelical interpreters closely regarding this first set, except that I claim that the respective angel of each of the churches is actually the pastor or bishop. That is a minor point, though. And most of the big interpreters will recognize that my observation might have validity.
The second Set of Seven has to do with the Seven Seals of the Scroll, which are broken in succession by the worthy sacrificed Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Interpreters are all over the place in explaining this set of seven. I understand it as having to do with the progressive historical fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
The third Set of Seven is the Seven Trumpets. This is where I believe I can make an important interpretive contribution. As with the Seven Seals, the esteemed interpreters are all over the place in explaining the Seven Trumpets. I understand the Seven Trumpets as having to do with the progressive historical fulfillment of New Testament prophecy, specifically prophecy concerning the Church and its mission. If you were to go read the Seven Trumpets now, there is a very good chance you will think I am crazy to say what I do. But you will probably miss the symbolism, because you will probably be thinking too literally. Each of the Seven Trumpets is symbolic; and the symbolism is only to be deciphered by looking back to Old Testament references, and, to a certain extent, to portions of the New Testament. Everything I claim here depends on a symbolic, cross-referential reading of the Seven Trumpets. That bears repeating: It all depends upon a symbolic, cross-referential reading of the Seven Trumpets. Yes, I do need to flesh that out for you. And I have fleshed it out in a previous blog post; see Eighteen Interpretive Insights, dated September 8th 2020.
The fourth Set of Seven in the Book of Revelation is the Seven Bowls of Wrath, which is found in Revelation Chapters 15 and 16. I understand the Seven Bowls of Wrath pertain to the awful events that occur in a fearsome period of time after Christ has returned for the Church, but before Christ has returned with the Church. Notice the wording and the distinction there: returned for versus returned with. I believe Christ does take the Church away for a brief time.
Of course, there is much more material in Revelation to explain. But this should be a helpful introductory overview for any reader of Revelation. You should know that these four sets of seven are there, and that they each need to be interpreted. The last three sets of seven are sequential in historical chronology, in my reading: first the Old Testament, then the New Testament, and then a very brief, very intense, very terrifying period of time before Christ himself comes to visibly and physically establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. In a nutshell, that is how I understand the bulk of the Book of Revelation.
The Château Apocalypto and its Four Grand Pavilions
Welcome to the Château Apocalypto, where time and space stand as no impediment whatsoever to your reliable and knowledgable extraterrestrial guide.
At the Château Apocalypto, your extraterrestrial guide will take you on a breathtaking tour of not just one, not just two, not three, but all four of our Grand Pavilions, each pavilion in its proper sevenfold sequence, one pavilion after the other.
In the first Grand Pavilion of the Château Apocalypto our reliable and knowledgable guide will spirit you and your fellow travelers back in time nineteen centuries, where you go from city to city a total of seven times, in a diagnostic tour of the Seven Luminary Churches of Græco-Roman Asia. During your tour, you will be asked this most challenging and introspective question, “Of these seven luminary churches, which is most like me and my own community?”
In the second Grand Pavilion of the Château Apocalypto our guide will deliver you and yours straight up to highest Heaven — narratively, that is — where you will witness the indescribable beauty of the Throne of the Almighty and there behold a most worthy sacrificial Lamb, a Lamb who progressively breaks open the shocking and somewhat disturbing seven seals to an entirely important, yea, wholly determinative document — a document that unfurls before you in the telling form of an Ancient Scroll. Reassuringly for you, the sacrificial Lamb asserts his hard-won authority over the seven somewhat disturbing seals of the scroll and its exacting contents.
In the third Grand Pavilion of the Château Apocalypto our guide will direct you and the rest our guests to gaze downward from your heavenly vantage point upon the earth below. You will be given Heaven’s own perspective on seven of the most significant events in all of human history, each of which is heralded with a Conqueror’s trumpet blast. These seven chronological events unfold during the Church’s wilderness sojourn, beginning shortly after the ascension of the Messiah and ending with his second advent or Parousia. This advent coincides with the resurrection and immediate ascension of the Church herself, an event otherwise known as the Rapture. As it so happens, you are currently living during the midst of the sixth, penultimate trumpet event — an exciting time indeed to follow the Lamb and participate in His conquests!
Between the third and the fourth pavilions, your guide will prepare you for a difficult and troublesome period. He will personally escort you and your fellow travelers through that difficult and dark season ahead. Your guide will give you an up-close-and-personal preview of the sinister characters and the intense hardships that the followers of the Lamb must endure during the period immediately preceding and immediately following the seventh and final trumpet blast. Although this is an extremely difficult transitional period, it is necessary to endure it, if you desire to make it safely to the Coming Kingdom. And please believe us, you definitely do want to have a place in that Kingdom! Its rewards far outweigh any temporary hardship someone may have to endure.
In the fourth and final Grand Pavilion of the Château Apocalypto, you and your fellow guests will again watch from the safety of Heaven as the deceptive Beast from the Abyss and the pitiful Inhabitants of the Earth are subjected sequentially to the seven bowls of the wrath of God. This is every bit as terrifying a spectacle as it sounds. And yet it is God’s way of demonstrating his righteousness to the Inhabitants of the Earth and of vindicating his faithful followers.
However, the fourth and final Grand Pavilion is not our travelers’ final destination in the Château Apocalypto. Beyond the final Grand Pavilion, the Kingdom of God and a great Eternal City await you, where the Lamb will rule with his saints, and the Almighty will forever reside with those who have faithfully followed God.
The word commentary — what does it mean to you? What comes to mind when someone mentions that word? Do you think of a thick, old, rarely-opened reference book that stands unnoticed on a library shelf somewhere, alongside others of its kind, waiting, waiting, waiting, indefinitely waiting in tedious silence, gathering dust, feeling ever sadder and unfulfilled? I do. When I think of a commentary, that is exactly what comes to mind. And although I have been told that books have no feelings nor longings nor pangs of forlorn grief, I am nonetheless inclined to feel pity for sad, neglected, unnoticed commentaries. The months, the years of waiting for a reader must be nigh to insufferable.
Sympathies aside, however, perhaps commentaries go unnoticed for a reason. Most library browsers do not see the particular pertinence of said commentaries, I would venture to say. Otherwise, they would not go neglected. What is a sad, dry, aging commentary even good for? Why bother paging through a commentary? More often than not, commentaries are just books about other books. Sometimes commentaries are even books about books about books. I beg you: Try not to let that confuse you. I will make that concept of bookish regress less abstract in just a few sentences. Though it is not a book, this here blog post is about a particular commentary, which, in turn, is about a New Testament book, yea, the 27th and terminal book. In other words, what you are reading is my own commentary, about a very old commentary, about an even older book.
Hang it there, please. Thinking it through backwards might help. The book at the terminus is the Book of Revelation. The commentary in the middle is Andreas of Caesarea’s Commentary on the Apocalypse. And the blog post most immediate is what you have before you. Simple enough; yes?
Okay then: Now why should you care about what some old, old churchman from Caesarea of Cappadocia said nearly 1400 years ago? And where in the world is this Caesarea of Cappadocia? Starting with the last question first, the city of Caesarea was located not too far from the seven cities mentioned at the beginning of Revelation. Today it is known as Kayseri, Turkey. And as for why should you care about what Andreas of Caesarea had to say about the Book of Revelation, that is a fair question; and I am glad you asked. Many of my readers/listeners probably have never even heard of Andreas of Caesarea before, I suppose. Andreas is otherwise known in the English speaking world as Andrew. The most concise answer as to why you should care about what Andreas-Andrew of Caesarea had to say is this: Andreas-Andrew of Caesarea wrote the first, good, complete, surviving commentary about the Book of Revelation ever, in all of commentary history. Again, Andrew’s Commentary on the Apocalypse was the first, good, complete, surviving commentary.
Yes, I had to write it exactly that way. His commentary is not really the first known commentary on Revelation in history. It is the first good commentary. It is also complete, insofar as it covers the entire Book of Revelation from its first verse to its last. And somewhat surprisingly, it has survived nearly fifteen hundred years. If those four factors are taken together — its age, its quality, its complete-ness, and its having-survived-ness — Andreas of Caesarea’s Commentary on the Apocalypse understandably prompts interest among Book of Revelation aficionados and scholars, even wannabe scholars, like yours truly.
Put another way and summarized a bit, Andreas of Caesarea gives us an open window into how the Book of Revelation was read early-on and understood by Christians very long ago. How, then, did people long ago make sense of the Book of Revelation? Given that they lived much closer to when it was written, did Andreas and the Christians of his day understand the Book of Revelation any better than us today? Or did they understand it worse than us today?
The answer to that question really depends on whom you count as us today, because we have a wide variety of interpretations circulating today, as you may be aware. Some of our current interpretations are pretty good, while others, not so much.
Until recently, English speakers did not have immediate lingual access to Andreas-Andrew’s commentary. But about five years ago (that is, in 2015) a good translation from the original Greek was published. The translator’s name is Eugenia Scarvelis Constantinou. She is now a professor of New Testament at a seminary in beautiful San Diego, California.
Within the last 12 days, I acquired Constantinou’s translation of Andreas’s commentary in an electronic format and began to read it. In particular, I wanted to learn how Andreas interprets some of the more controversial and difficult passages in Revelation. (Incidentally, I also want to know how his working manuscript of Revelation compares with what we now have.) Thus far, I have found what he says insightful and intriguing. That’s not to say that I think he is frequently right. He is not; and one reason he is not frequently right is because he commits himself early on to a particular chronology or textual timeline. Andreas believes that after the first three chapters the rest of the Book of Revelation must necessarily reference the future, and not the past. Because of his commitment to a futurist understanding, Andreas misreads entire sections of the book, IMHO. But then again, a lot interpreters do the same thing today: They commit themselves to a futurist chronology (or alternatively, to a long past chronology), and then attempt to force everything in Revelation to fit that pre-selected chronology. Alas, if an interpreter’s assumed chronology is faulty or skewed it will always distort how the Book of Revelation is read and understood. Yet choosing a chronology is unavoidable, as Revelation by its very nature does require chronological decisions from any would-be interpreter.
Although I disagree with his chronological scheme, I must say that Andreas’s reading is theologically sophisticated, and surprisingly so. In his favor, Andrew-Andreas understands that much of the Book of Revelation must be read symbolically. And he constantly endeavors to explain the various symbols. I am not surprised by that, though. He was (probably) a native Greek speaker; and knowledge of Greek makes the symbolic nature of Revelation all the more obvious. Sadly, English and English translations often stand in our way of understanding aspects of the Book of Revelation. Sad, but true.
Finally and to be fair, Andrew-Andreas does get some very important things right. For example, he correctly explains that the introductory benediction in 1:4-5 can be understood as trinitarian, noting that “the One who is, and was, and is to come” can be understood in verse four to refer specifically to the Father, and that the Seven Spirits can be understood as “the activity of the Live-Giving Spirit,” and that Jesus Christ “became a man for our sake,” by which Andreas implies Jesus’ pre-existent divinity. Andreas thus interprets the book’s introductory benediction as a person-by-person-by-person depiction of the Trinity, which is exactly right and how it ought to be understood. Andreas nails the benediction.
All of these are just a few of my initial reading observations, though. I do look forward to learning more about Andrew-Andreas of Caesarea (Caesarea in Cappadocia, that is) and reading more of the English translation of his Commentary on the Apocalypse.
In conclusion, even very old commentaries should be appreciated, picked up, and read. It makes them feel purposeful, appreciated, and far less lonely. They also have more to offer than you might assume.