Friends: I find Ben Dunson’s article very helpful and comforting in how he correlates ‘crises’ in relationship to the book of Revelation. We all hear and see so much focus and information on the various interpretations related to the what is referred to as the ‘end time events’ (es·cha·tol·o·gy…the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind. “Christian hope is concerned with eschatology, or the science of last things” – Oxford Dictionary) Such variety of interpretation within current eschatological views can be confusing and even disturbing. I appreciate how Ben Dunson provides a wonderful and balanced overview and makes his emphasis that ‘we’, as believers, are safe in ‘ALL’ crises and ‘All’ circumstances. Amen. dh
HOW THE BOOK OF REVELATION EXPLAINS OUR CRISES
June 30, 2020
Article by Ben C. Dunson, Minister/Teacher of New Testament Studies
Two Part Article: Part I
ABSTRACT: Are our current crises God’s judgment on the world? The answer to that question depends on the meaning of the word judgment. Crises such as the coronavirus may not be specific judgments against specific people for specific sins, but neither are they mere “natural disasters.” According to the book of Revelation, calamities like hurricanes, earthquakes, famines, and pandemics are indeed judgments for those outside of Christ, but they are limited. As foretastes of the final judgment to come, they sound a wake-up call to a world lost in rebellion, inviting all to come to Christ and be saved.
Is this the end? Our world is in turmoil. Civic unrest is occurring across the world. We are still facing a pandemic that is frightening as much for what we don’t know about it as what we do. The world economy is shattered. Visions of apocalypse dance in our heads.
Even non-Christians can hardly describe COVID-19 without invoking the notion of judgment. Sarah, Duchess of York, for example, is convinced that Nature itself is judging us. She recently tweeted that “Mother Nature has sent us to our rooms . . . like the spoilt children we are. She gave us time and she gave us warnings. She was so patient with us. She gave us fire and floods, she tried to warn us but in the end she took back control.” It has been hard for people to process what is going on around them in any other way. Catastrophe is in the air.
Is God judging the world? Are all the troubles the world is currently facing punishments from above? The simple answer is yes . . . and no. Charles Spurgeon once quipped that “only fools and madmen are positive in their interpretation of the Apocalypse” (The Sword and the Trowel, October 1867). Perhaps you will bear with me in a little foolishness as I explain myself, with the book of Revelation as our guide.
Revelation is an apocalypse. In fact, “apocalypse” (apocalypsis) is the very first word in the Greek text of the letter. “Apocalypse” means an “opening up” or “revelation,” hence the English title to the letter. The whole letter is a revelation of God’s plan for his creation, although many read it in the exact opposite way, as if it were a book of mysteries meant to be concealed from us. For this reason, many believers find Revelation intimidating and even overwhelming. They fear they will never be able to make sense of it all.
But God wants you to understand this book. In Revelation, God is opening up (revealing!) his wonderful plan for the ages. He promises that he will bless those who read and hear what is written in the letter (Revelation 1:3). You can’t be blessed by what you can’t understand. And do you think God intends that for his people? Surely not.
What Is Revelation?
To understand Revelation, we must know what it is. And God has not left us in the dark. Revelation is a word from God the Father, given to God the Son, “to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1) in this world. How does Jesus Christ reveal these truths? He sends “his angel to his servant John,” and John bears “witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (Revelation 1:1–2). The last phrase in verse 2 gives us the key to making sense of everything that follows: God reveals his plan for the ages to John in a series of things that John sees, that is, in a series of visions (the visions are called “signs” throughout Revelation).
How do you make sense of a vision or sign? Praise God he didn’t leave us to figure this out on our own. In addition to the numerous visions of the Old Testament prophets (many of which are interpreted for us, like Daniel’s four beasts in Daniel 7), the first sign in Revelation is also explained for us. The seven golden lampstands (Revelation 1:12) that John sees “are the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20) that John writes to in the letter. Signs, then, are just that. They are signs. They are not the thing itself, but images that help us understand something else.
The rest of Revelation is a series of signs shown to John that reveal to God’s people “the things . . . that are and those that are to take place after this” (Revelation 1:19). Through these signs, God unveils the true state of this world, both at the moment of John’s writing and throughout the remainder of this age as it draws near to its close with the return of Jesus Christ.
Readers of Revelation can easily get off track if they fail to recognize the visionary nature of the letter. The question is not “Is Revelation literally true?” but rather “How is God revealing his truth?” God reveals himself in many ways in the Bible — in laws, in histories, in songs, in proverbs, in letters, and, as in Revelation, in visions.
When we recognize this vital fact, we will read the letter differently than many people do today. By far, the most common way of reading Revelation is to assume that it is more or less a continuous narrative from Revelation 1:1 to Revelation 22:21. It is to approach Revelation as if we were watching a movie from start to finish. It is easy to see why someone might read the letter in this way. Once John finishes recording Christ’s word to each of the seven churches (Revelation 2–3), he moves on to a vision of “a door standing open in heaven,” introducing it with the words “after this I looked” (Revelation 4:1). Some variation of this phrase introduces all of the remaining visions in the letter (see, for example, Revelation 4:1; 5:1; 7:1, 9; 15:5; 18:1; 19:1, 11, 17; 20:1, 4, 11; 21:1, 9–10; 22:1). Do these time indicators mean that each vision unfolds sequentially, much as the plot of a movie would unfold?
Not at all. Instead, John is shown a series of visions one after the other. First he is shown a door open into heaven (Revelation 4), and then he is shown a scroll in the hand of “him who was seated on the throne” (Revelation 5:7), and he watches as the seven seals on the scroll are opened (Revelation 7). “After this” John see four angels “holding back the four winds of the earth” (Revelation 7:1), and on and on it goes throughout the letter. It is not that the visions show us a series of things that (necessarily) happen in time one after the other, but that the visions are shown to John one after the other. When the events recorded in each vision may occur in the history of this age has to be determined within each vision itself. For example, Revelation 12:5 is about the birth (and life, death, resurrection, and ascension) of Jesus Christ, even though this event obviously occurred before the situation of the seven churches described in Revelation 2–3.
Rather than thinking of Revelation as a single unfolding narrative (like a movie or novel), we would be much better off thinking of it like a series of paintings in an art gallery. You take one painting in, and then you move on to the next until you have had a look at every painting in the whole gallery (or until your wife has become exasperated with you for reading every single detailed description of each of the paintings . . . but I wouldn’t know about that). In the same way, John is shown one vision, and “after that” shown another, until the Lord has shown him every vision to be passed on to Christ’s church. To figure out how each vision maps on to time in this world requires us to take the visions one by one. Some visions take place outside of time (the heavenly throne room of chapter 4), some cover the whole of this age (the trials of Christ and his church in Revelation 12), some refer to the time immediately leading up to the final judgment (Revelation 20:11–15), and so on. Each painting (as it were) reveals something absolutely vital for God’s people to know about the plan of God in this age.
What Is Revelation About?
What is that plan? To understand Revelation, we must know what it is, but we must also know what it is about. Here too God has not left us to flounder in darkness. Revelation is about the things “that are and those that are to take place after this” (Revelation 1:19). And John is told to “write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches” (Revelation 1:11). But what is this letter to the church about? What are the things “that are and those that are to take place after this”? Although we obviously can’t answer this question exhaustively in this article, God has given us a key in Revelation 2 and 3 that enables us to make sense of everything that follows: each of the words from Christ to the seven churches foreshadows the central themes of the whole letter.
The word to Ephesus mentions the patience necessary (Revelation 2:2–3; see Revelation 13:10; 14:12) to arrive at the day when God’s people can eat of the tree of life and live forever (Revelation 2:7; see Revelation 22:2).
Pergamum’s exhortation gives us a glimpse of the mission of the church, which is to bear faithful testimony to Christ (Revelation 2:13; see Revelation 11:3, 7), fighting a spiritual war with Christ’s sharp sword (Revelation 2:12, 16; see Revelation 19:15).
To Thyatira is held out the authority that the saints will exercise in Christ over the nations for all eternity (Revelation 2:26–27; see Revelation 12:5; 19:15), an authority paradoxically exercised in the midst of suffering (Revelation 1:6; 5:10), even as it will be consummated in victory on the last day (Revelation 20:4, 6; 22:5).
To Sardis is given a warning that Christ’s return in judgment will be like a thief breaking into the house of one unprepared (Revelation 3:3; see Revelation 16:15). Furthermore, it is said of those who conquer (that is, persevere in faith) that they “will be clothed thus in white garments” (Revelation 3:5; see Revelation 4:4; 6:11; 7:9, 13–14; 19:14). The book of life recurs many times in the letter as well (Revelation 3:5; see Revelation 13:8; 17:8), being the only solid basis for hope on the last day (Revelation 20:12, 15; 21:27).
Philadelphia is reminded that Christ is coming soon (Revelation 3:11; see Revelation 1:5; 22:7, 12, 20) and that the New Jerusalem awaits all the saints (Revelation 3:12; see Revelation 21:22–22:5), a place where they will be pillars in the temple of God (Revelation 3:12; see Revelation 7:15; 11:1–2, 19; 14:15, 17; 16:1, 17; 21:22).
Finally, to Laodicea, the saints are told that they will one day sit with Christ on his throne (Revelation 3:21), which throughout the Bible is associated with the ark of the covenant (thus the place of worship). God’s throne appears in Revelation over 35 times, culminating in the worship of God in the new creation (Revelation 22:3) where we will feast with Christ (Revelation 3:20; see Revelation 19:6–10).
Chapters 2–3, in other words, give us the key that opens up the meaning of the whole letter: this age is an age of spiritual battle in which Christ and his people reign and triumph in the midst of suffering. It is an age in which the saints must long patiently for the age to come, sustained by worship at God’s throne. And in the midst of the trials and tribulations of this age, God’s people are given the grace to endure by glorious visions of what awaits them on the other side of their suffering: the marriage supper of the Lamb, eating from the tree of life, not being harmed by hell (the second death), having their names written in the book of life, entering into the majestic and eternally secure New Jerusalem, where the temple presence of God fills all.
(Part II tomorrow) 🙂