Perhaps no book in the Bible is more fascinating and at the same time more perplexing than the Book of the Revelation. It has spawned numerous commentaries, debates, and even best-selling novels. It is, in fact, a book that has an important message for believers today. And yet we largely miss the point of the book, because we bring certain theological assumptions to it, and these assumptions obscure the theme of the book.
The most commonly held assumption is that the church will be raptured before the onset of the Great Tribulation. Since much of Revelation describes the events of the Tribulation, according to the Pretribulation Rapture theory these events will occur after the church is gone. Thus most of what the book says about the plight of the saints does not apply to us, and our main interest in the book is “when does it all take place”?
Many Christians, however, would be surprised to learn that the Pretribulation Rapture view is largely without scriptural evidence to support it. Even its advocates admit that there is no passage that explicitly says that the rapture of the church will occur before the Tribulation. Instead they rely on a series of inferences to support their position. The inferences, however, are tenuous at best.
Another position that has a long history behind it is that of Amillennialism. According to this view there will be no literal, earthly millennial kingdom as described in Revelation chapter 20. But the proponents of this theory typically use an ingenious method of interpretation to support their view – the “Recapitulation Theory.” It is ingenious, too ingenious in our estimation. It amounts to forced exegesis.
We believe that if the theme of the book is traced from beginning to end a startling but coherent interpretation emerges: the church will go through the tribulation, its faith will be severely tested, and it will be rewarded if it remains faithful to the end.
The message was directed initially to seven actual churches that existed in the Roman province of Asia (the western part of the modern country of Turkey) in the First Century. It was a time of persecution, apparently during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96). John himself, who received the revelation, had been banished to the island of Patmos off the coast of Asia Minor.
The Revelation begins with a description of Jesus as “the ruler of the kings of the earth . . . who loved us and redeemed us from our sins” Thus the book begins by establishing two basic facts, Christ is the sovereign Lord of history, and believers occupy a privileged position in the scheme of redemption. The text then goes on to say, “He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him . . .” (1:5-7; NKJV). This, of course, is a reference to the Second Coming of Christ, which is the focal point of the book.
Chapters 2 and 3 contain individual letters to the seven churches. All but two of the churches (Smyrna and Philadelphia) are criticized for their spiritual and moral laxity and are told to repent. Several churches, however, are commended for their perseverance. Significantly, the Greek word for “perseverance” (hypomone) occurs seven times in the book – it is, in fact, a major theme.
The church at Philadelphia is told about an “hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world” (3:10), an apparent reference to the Great Tribulation. And the purpose of the Tribulation is stated: viz., “to test those who dwell on the earth.” Each of the seven letters concludes with a promise to those who “overcome” (nikao – to conquer, prevail, be victorious, overcome). It is an ominous glimpse of what lies ahead.
In Chapter 4 attention is turned to “which must take place after this” (4:1). The vision of the future begins with the scene in heaven. Chapter 4 describes God as sitting on a throne, a symbol of power and authority. Then, in chapter 5, we are introduced to “the Lion of the tribe of Judah,” (v. 5) who turns out to be a Lamb! Although a Lamb, he is One who can break the seals on the scroll – to unlock the seals of history.
Then follows a succession of seals, trumpets, and bowls. Each event in heaven presages a corresponding event on earth: wars, natural disasters, and persecutions. The implication is that what happens on earth is controlled by decisions made in heaven. History does not unfold by accident or blind fate; it is purposefully guided by the hand of God.
The rationale for what happens in the end times is given to us in Rev. 6:9-11. After the fifth seal is opened the martyrs of the past cry out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” The answer given is that the martyrs of the past “should rest a little while longer, until both the number oftheir fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.”
In Chapter 7 we are introduced to the 144,000 who are sealed on their foreheads, and after them a numberless multitude “of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues,” who are described as “the ones who came out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” To these are given a promise: they are before the throne of God, and God will dwell among them; “They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (7:9-17).
More natural disasters follow, and yet mankind still does not repent (9:20,21). Then, in Chapter 11 we are meet the two witnesses who prophesy for 3 1/2 years. They are gifted with supernatural powers, but are ultimately martyred and then resurrected. We then are shown the scene in heaven, in which the 24 elders fall on their faces before God and worship Him,
“. . . Because you have taken Your great power and reigned.
The nations were angry, and your wrath has come,
And the time of the dead, that they should be judged,
And that You should reward Your servants the prophets and saints,
And those who fear Your name, small and great,
And should destroy those who destroy the earth.” (11:17,18).
And thus the theme of the book is announced. It is about the justice of God, vindicating the persecuted saints and punishing their oppressors. And all of this reaches a climax with the appearance of the Antichrist.