Themes in Revelation
Macro-Structure · God's Judgment on Evil · The Establishment of God's Kingdom · The Overcoming of the People of God · Conclusion
The book of Revelation is one of the most feared books in Christendom. It is feared because of the horrors of judgment of which it speaks, and because of its intense symbolism and ordering of events has made it very difficult for the modern reader to interpret. Many students of the Bible have studied every major doctrine of the Scripture, and every book of the NT except for Revelation and its eschatology because they are so confused on how to interpret the book. Truly there are many interpretations and methods of interpreting to decide between, but it is sad that this has led to its neglect, for it is the only book in the NT that pronounces a blessing upon those who read it (1:3). Despite the difficulties in interpreting all the symbolism and understanding the time-frame of the seals, trumpets, and bowls, much of the interpretation of the book can be known. The macro-structure can be identified with a fair amount of accuracy and certain themes are apparent. With this in mind I will address the macro-structure of the book and elaborate upon the development of the book's three most prominent themes.
The book is broken down into past, present, and future events (1:19). Chapter 1 contained what John had already seen. Chapters 2 through 3 were epistles written to seven churches which then existed in Asia-Minor. Chapters 4 through 22 are prophetic of future events which John was able to see in the Spirit (4:1-2).
There are three series of judgments pictured, each happening in seven stages: opening of seals (6-8:1), blowing of trumpets (8:2-11:19), and the emptying of bowls (15-16:21).
Seven major visions are depicted in the book. The first vision is that of the exalted Christ when He appeared to John and instructed him to write to the seven churches (1). The second is that of the heavenly throne room where the seven-sealed book is first depicted as being in the hand of the One who sits on the throne. The Lamb who was slain appears in order to open the contents of the book (4-5). The third vision appears between the 6th and 7th seals, where 144,000 Israelites are sealed by angels so as to protect them from the judgment to come upon the earth. This is followed by a multitude of every sort of people who came out of great tribulation, appearing in the presence of the Lamb (7). The fourth vision appears between the 6th and 7th trumpet, where thunderings uttered words that were forbidden to be recorded, followed by John eating a book given him by an angel (10). The vision continues with the introduction of the two witnesses in Jerusalem (11:2-13). The fifth vision is of the conflict between God and Satan, where Satan is cast to the earth and persecutes the saints after his attempt to defeat the Messiah was frustrated (12). The sixth vision is the destruction of Babylon, the harlot who prostituted the true religion of the Messiah (17-18). The seventh vision pictures the final victory of God over evil and the establishment of His earthly kingdom (19-22:6).
The book depicts the end of the age in three different segments: one ending at chapter six, one at the end of chapter eleven, and one at the end of chapter 16. This is evidenced by the many phrases depicting the finality of things. The import of this leads us to believe that the seals, trumpet, and bowl judgments overlap in time-frame. Although they are to be distinguished from one another, they seem to describe similar events, causing us to believe that they happen simultaneously, or at least at approximately the same time. Thus chapters 4-6, 8:2-11 cover the entire seven year tribulation period twice, and chapters 12-16 begin to explain the period a third time, seemingly starting at the midst of the seven-year period, although this is debated. Chapters 17-20, then, go into detail over the last few events immediately preceding the establishment of the kingdom on earth.
Having established the macro-structure of the book, we will turn our attention to the three primary themes of Revelation: God's judgment on evil, the establishment of God's kingdom, and the overcoming of the people of God.
God's Judgment on Evil
I have heard it said all too often that the tribulation is the "devil's hay-day." It is a common fallacy to think that all the evils to come upon the earth are from the devil. Although he does yield an unparalleled amount of power during this period, it is given him by God for God's purposes. God uses him for His own purposes just as He did in the case of Job (Job 1-3). God granted Satan this power for God's purposes to be accomplished. Beyond this, however, the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments all come directly from the throne of God. This is the time in which God punishes His people (Jews) for their sins and rejection of the Messiah (the time of Jacob's trouble), and the Gentiles for their sins and rebellion against God. It culminates with Jesus coming back and destroying the armies that fight against Him (19). This is God's "hay-day," not Satan's.
Of the major themes of the book, the theme of judgment is the most apparent. A bulk of the book is taken up with the subject (the majority of chapters 6, 8-9, 11, 14-20). It could actually be said that judgment begins with the epistles to the seven churches. Although we do not see judgment being administered, various threats of judgment are given to them if they would not repent of their deeds.
The first judgment we see being administered begins with the seals. There is debate as to whether or not the first seal is judgment by an evil administrator or blessing by Jesus Christ (6:1-2). The second seal, however, is clearly judgment. Here a red horse is given a sword to take peace from the earth. This resulted in men killing one another in war (4:3-4). The third seal brings famine, seemingly to purge unbelieving Israel from their land in the same way Joshua used the destruction of the fields to purge the Canaanites from the land in the days of the Conquest. The fourth seal brings the murder of 1/4 the population of the earth. The fifth seal predicts martyrdom to the saints still living on the earth, but this is not a result of God's wrath (6:9-11). At the sixth seal the cosmos is affected. The sun turns black, the moon becomes as blood, the stars fall from heaven, and the people of the earth hide themselves from the Lamb of God because of His great wrath (6:12-17).
There is a pause in the administration of wrath to seal the 144,000, and gathering of the great multitude to heaven. It is resumed, however, through the seven trumpets, which are given at the opening of the seventh seal (8:1-2). The earth and the cosmos, and not necessarily the people of the earth, are the primary focus of these judgments. The 1st through 4th trumpets result in the burning of 1/3 of the trees and all the grass, 1/3 of the sea becomes blood and kills 1/3 of the sea-life and destroys 1/3 of the ships, 1/3 of the fresh-water turns bitter and kills many, and 1/3 of the sun, moon, and stars are darkened. The fifth trumpet occasions the release of demons from the bottomless pit who sting men, bringing them near to death, but leaving them in torment (9:1-12). The sixth seal releases an army which kills another 1/3 of earth's population (9:12-21). The seventh seal finishes the judgments (10:7), bringing the kingdom of God to earth (11:15-19).
The vision of chapter 12 is very important. Not only is it the backdrop to explain the persecution against the saints that follows, but it begins the judgment of Satan. It starts with him being cast to the earth after a failed attempt to destroy the Messiah (12:1-9), after which he turns to the persecution of believing Israel (12:12-13, 17). In his final attempt to destroy God's people, he raises up the beast (anti-christ) and false prophet (leader of false religion) to propagate his worship on the earth (13:1-17). The beast is given power to overcome the saints as well (13:7).
God's judgment upon Babylon and those who received the beast's mark is then announced (14:8-11), followed by the killing of more people (14:14-20).
At this time the bowl judgments are poured out upon the earth. At the pouring of the first four bowls sores were given to those who received the beast's mark, the sea becomes as blood and kills everything in it, the rivers turn to blood, and the sun scorches men (16:1-9). The fifth bowl is directed toward the beast's kingdom. It brings darkness and pain (16:10-11). The sixth bowl does not bring judgment, but gathers men together to Armageddon to bring them their judgment when the Lamb returns to earth (16:12-16). The last bowl ends the age with a great upheaval of the earth and the destruction of the great city Babylon, where the beast dwells (16:17-18:24). After this, the Lamb returns to earth as a conquering King when He destroys the evil armies fighting against Him, casts the beast, false prophet, and those who received the beast's mark into the Lake of Fire, and binds Satan in the bottomless pit for 1000 years (19:11-20:3). After the 1000 years are expired Satan is loosed, wherein he leads a rebellion against God one final time (20:7-9). Finally Satan, the first to sin against God, is defeated and cast to the Lake of Fire (20:10). Immediately the sin-cursed heavens and earth are destroyed and the dead are judged (20:11-15).
In the end, evil men, Satan, and the sin-cursed world have all been judged. Evil no longer reigns, but God's kingdom is established in pure righteousness.
The Establishment of God's Kingdom
The establishment of God's Kingdom on earth comes in two stages: the destruction of evil, and the coming of eternal life with the new heavens, new earth, and New Jerusalem.
The first allusion to the kingdom of God is John's association of the church as being "kings and priests to God" (1:6).
As with the judgment of evil, the first mentions of the coming kingdom are found in the letters to the seven churches. The church at Thyatira was promised to have power over the nations to rule them with a rod of iron (2:26-27a). The church of the Laodiceans was promised to sit with Jesus in His throne, another reference to the coming kingdom (3:21).
The twenty-four elders and four beasts sang a song wherein were the words "we shall reign on the earth" followed their identification as kings and priests (5:10). Then we are moved to see a great multitude appearing in heaven who came out of great tribulation. The Lamb, "who was in the midst of the throne," was to wipe away all their tears. These saints had been redeemed and were in anticipation for the soon-coming kingdom (7:9-17).
At the 7th trumpet in chapter 11, which is John's second picture of the end of the age, Christ returns to the earth to set up His kingdom. It is announced by an angel saying, "The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign forever and ever" (11:15). Jesus takes to Him great power and begins to reign (11:17).
Chapter 12 resumes the idea of kingdom when it refers to the Messiah as the man child who was "to rule all nations with a rod of iron" (12:5). The next inference to the kingdom appears in 14:1-5 where the 144,000 are pictured with the Lamb on Mt. Zion singing a new song that no one else could know. The receiving of the kingdom was just around the corner for these redeemed Jews.
Until 19:11, the coming of Christ is only alluded to, briefly mentioned, or vaguely explained, but now John turns His complete attention to the revealing of Christ from heaven and the subsequent establishment of the kingdom of God. Jesus returns to earth in strength and glory to establish His kingdom. The setting up of the kingdom occurs in two stages: the millennial reign on earth, and the eternal reign in the new heavens and new earth.
The first thing Jesus does is finish the problem of evil. He destroys those who are fighting against Him, and casts the beast and false prophet into the Lake of Fire with those who had received the beast's mark (19:20). Satan is bound by an angel into the bottomless pit, to be kept there for 1000 years (20:1-3).
Finally, the souls of all the righteous dead and martyred tribulation saints are raised to reign with Christ for a thousand years (20:4-6). This is the time known as the Millennium. It is a time of restrained evil because Satan is bound, but evil is not completely eradicated yet. Satan is loosed from his prison and allowed to deceive the nations once more. He gathers a final rebellion against God, at which time God destroys Him by casting him into the Lake of Fire, along with those who followed him (20:7-10). Following this is the destruction of the earth and heavens, and the final judgment of men (20:11-15).
The problem of evil being completely taken care of, the new heavens and new earth are created, and John sees the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven for the bride of the Lamb (21:1-2). It is a glorious city for the saints of the Most High God. John gives a detailed description of the city, demonstrating its splendor and glory (21:9-22:6). It is here that the saints will dwell with their Savior for eternity (21:3-7).
After long anticipation, first with the OT saints, and then with the NT saints, the kingdom of God is established upon earth and righteousness reigns.
The Overcoming of the People of God
As was the case with both the themes of judgment on evil and the coming of the kingdom, so too the theme of overcoming first peers its head in the letters to the seven churches. Every church was promised something if only they would overcome their circumstances. The church at Ephesus is promised the tree of life to whoever overcame their spiritual stupor (2:7). The church of Smyrna is promised eternal life if they overcome. They would be part of the first resurrection, and escape the second death, if they would be faithful even to death (2:10-11). The church in Pergamos is promised that they will eat the hidden manna and receive a stone with a new name written on it if they will overcome the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes (2:15-17). If the church of Thyatira would keep doing works which follow the pattern of Jesus instead of the false-teacher Jezebel, and thereby overcoming, they would be granted power over the nations (2:20-27). The church at Sardis was promised to be clothed in white clothing, have their names written in the Lamb's Book of Life, and have their names confessed before God and the angels if they would overcome by perfecting their works before God (3:3-5). The Philadelphia church would overcome by holding on to what they already had, and would inherit the New Jerusalem (3:11-12). The Laodicean church was promised to sit with Christ in His throne if they would overcome their spiritual arrogance (3:21).
The next time we have overcomers mentioned is in the great vision of the struggle between Michael and Satan. When the devil was cast out of heaven he persecuted the saints, but "they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony..." (12:12). Even in the face of great persecution the people of God could overcome the enemy, though it appeared as though the devil was overcoming them (13:7). That he did not overcome them is also evidenced in 15:2-3 where the saints who had gotten victory over the beast, his image, and his mark stood on the sea of glass singing the song of Moses (15:1-4).
The last mention of overcoming is made by Jesus Himself. He promised that he who would overcome would inherit all things, and Jesus would be his God, and he could be Jesus' son (21:7). In the end the saints who endure, overcome false doctrine, evil works, the beast, Satan, and any other foe, inherit the kingdom of God prepared for them.
The three themes I have elaborated upon, based on the macro-structure of the book, are not the only themes, but are the central message of the book. We are able to receive the same message as did the early church: The Lord is coming soon to destroy evil, at which time our patience and endurance of suffering will be rewarded, when we overcome and receive the kingdom that Jesus will set up at His second coming, there to be with the Lord forever. This message brings hope to every age, regardless of one's interpretation of the finer points of the book. We all wait in hopeful anticipation for the day in which we "shall see his face" (22:4).
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