Text: Rev 20:1-10
NT Text: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 ("The Parable of the Weeds")
Featured Verse: Matt 13:30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”
Main Idea: We will continue to explore the practical importance of millennial views.
After yesterday's marathon post, we will return to the theme of the Millennium, but we will focus on practical implications (and hopefully keep this to a more reasonable length.)
I would like to continue to explore the practical relevance of millennial views by sharing a paraphrased post from Dave Snoke. Dave is overseas, but we have been discussing this over email and I asked his permission to modify our recent exchange and include it in the blog.
In summary, the "Parable of the Weeds" gives a good overview of Church history from an Amillennial viewpoint. In this view, both the weeds (Kingdom of Darkness) and the wheat (Kingdom of God) grow together until the harvest. (Matt 13:30) When we see the Millennium as referring to the Church age, it means Satan is (now) restrained and unable to prevent the worldwide spread of the gospel by "deceiving the nations." (20:3) Therefore, the Kingdom of God ("wheat") can grow. At the same time, the agents of Satan are active in the world ("weeds"), but with limited power. Babylon grows in splendor. The beast and the false prophet emerge to attack the church. Both of the Kingdoms are growing - until the final harvest at the end of the age.
So how does this impact our view of the Christian life, now? The following is Dave's contribution to this discussion.
Guest Post - Dave Snoke
Here is a thought on how this relates to us, practically. We can ask the basic question, "How should we see the Church overall-- as a defeated power on the run, or as victorious over its enemies, or with its future in doubt--maybe one or the other?"
Premillennialism has often been associated with pessimism-- the church is a defeated scrabble on the run. This leads us to think, "This is the devil's world." By contrast, Postmillennialism is often associated with optimism-- "just a little more work and we will make this world into paradise!" Historically these views are correlated with how much influence and power the church seems to have at that time in a culture. In the late 1800's people felt the church was winning and everything was getting better, and Postmillennialism grew in popularity. In the late 1900's, after two world wars and the sexual revolution and "God is dead" movement, the church turned strongly to pessimistic Premillennialism.*
I think the Postmillennialists have a good point in directing us to all of the passages that talk of the church victorious-- the growth of the church like leaven, the stone of Daniel's vision that grows to fill the world, Jesus talking of the Gospel going to all nations, etc. But one can hardly read Revelation and see only upward progress. Satan is real and active!
I think the answer is to have both pessimism and optimism - about different aspects. We should be optimistic that the church is on the march, and the gates (defensive positions) of hell will not hold against the victorious march of the church to save souls from all cultures. But at the same time, persecutions and opposition also increase, as well as the temptations to worldliness. The more influential the church, the more its enemies fear it and fight against it.
This also affects how we view our work and calling. If we have an entirely pessimistic view, we will see work to build long-term structures in this world as pointless. Instead, we would just do evangelism to save a few people from the fire before everything collapses. (I was told in the 1970s that working to make this world a better place was "polishing the brass on the Titanic.")
On the other hand, if we view ourselves as building heaven on earth by conquest and influence, then we want to "lawyer up" to gain power, try to take over institutions, etc. (I was told by Postmillennialists in the 1980s that evangelism would always fail if the secular humanists controlled the schools, so control of the society was the first task.)
An Amillennial view allows us to take a "both/and" perspective. It says that savings souls AND cultural influence are both valuable, but neither is ascendant. We should not neglect evangelism, but we can also work with a long-term vision to create positive institutions.**
* I'll add my own comments here and point out that Premillennialism was popular among the fundamentalists, while Postmillennialism was more popular among modernists. So, the Pre/Post debate split along the lines of liberals and conservatives in the early 20th Century. Historically, Postmillennialism had advocates from other parts of the church, but I think that Dave's point about the attraction of various systems based on the perceived cultural power of the church in a given society is a really good insight. (Matt)
** As we consider Christian history, we can see ways in which the Church has often had tremendous influence on the culture around it. There is reason to believe that God's Spirit, working in the midst of his people, can bring salt and light into the fallen world. Amillennialism makes sense of this sort of optimism during the Church age, while Satan's power is constrained. At the same time, our hopes are tempered by realism. The ultimate goal of our Christian hope is the return of Jesus and the restored humanity after the final judgment. Amillennialism guards against utopian dreams which seek to bring the fullness of the kingdom into the world, here and now. Unfortunately, utopian dreams (both religious and secular) have been the justification for great atrocities in history. The road to hell is paved with "utopian" intentions. (Matt)
Text: Rev 20:1-10
NT Parallel Text: John 12:31-32 "Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
Featured Verse: Rev 20:7-8 And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea.
Main Idea: This vision of the Millenium (1,000 years) in which Satan is bound and prevented from deceiving the nations is a recapitulation of Church history that shows Satan's power limited by the resurrection of Jesus. The passage offers (yet) another look at the last battle in which the nations gather and God brings final victory.
Ok, hang on to your seats. These 10 verses are among the most hotly debated in the book of Revelation. We will spread this section out over two posts and two days. We'll start by trying to understand what this 1,000 period of time refers to and then tomorrow we will discuss in greater detail why this matters.
When we step back and look at it, this vision refers to a 1,000 year period of time in which good things are happening. Satan is bound and prevented from deceiving the nations. (20:1-3) The saints are alive and reigning. (20:6) Eventually, Satan is released, and there is a final battle before the cosmos is undone and Satan is finally sent to the lake of fire. (20:11-15) So, it ends brutally, but all-in-all, this is a fairly pleasant appearing section of time. Based on this vision alone, a person might say, "I would like to live during the Millenium." Today I will (1.) share what I think is the best way to interpret these verses (2.) compare that to other Millennial views, and then, (3.) defend that in more detail. Depending on how deep you want to go, you may not keep following past the first section. But, before we dive in, let's briefly consider the significance of this.
When viewed alone, the Millennium can be an attractive vision. But it is also very confusing. In fact, it may be tempting for us to say, "This is all too confusing, I don't think it is worth discussing." Therefore, we need to see up front - there are very practical implications. In his commentary on Revelation, Tim Chester shares a summary of why Millennial views matter. While we will dive into this more tomorrow, we can simply say that the search for the Millennium is the search for a "golden age" of human flourishing. As, I will argue today, that is probably the wrong way of thinking about this, but nonetheless, that is how the discussion normally goes. Tim Chester detailed how particular views of the Millennium drove Christian behavior in history. Sometimes people were convinced that they were about to enter the golden age of Christianity and that the normal expectations for the Christian life were about to be upended. For some folks, the golden age of triumphal Christian living could be ushered in by our activism. For others, the Millennium was so far in the future that they gave up any hope in this present world. Finally, Chester noted that secular variations of the Millennium drove Marxist hopes and the Nazi dreams of a "Third Reich" that would last 1,000 years.* Subdued versions of this seem to animate the hopes of modern-day progressives who long to be "on the right side of history" and finally reach a place free from human conflict. Certainly, John Lennon's memorable song, "Imagine" seems to be calling his listeners to imagine a secular millennium.
In other words, the question about when we can "find a golden age of human flourishing" is a powerful idea which haunts even the dreams of our secular neighbors. How we think about this will say a lot about our theology.
I shared in a prior post that this series has been written from the viewpoint of what can be called an "Idealist-Amillennial View." This view relates to much we have seen in the book. We understand Revelation as a prophetic book in which John reveals spiritual truths about the history of the world by using symbolic images. We are not looking for the images to fit together in a linear sequence, rather, we expect that they are often stacked on top of each other. Like an anatomy book that shows multiple layers of different systems in the same body, John is frequently laying his visions on top of each other, as they recapitulate key sequences of events from different perspectives.
In short, the view I am espousing understands this vision to be one large recapitulation. The 1,000 Millenium is a symbolic number for the age of the church.** It begins with Satan being bound after the resurrection of Jesus. This is a recapitulation of a prior vision in which Satan is cast out of heaven. (12:10) During this 1,000 period of time (throughout the age of the church), Satan is not absolutely bound, but he is constrained in his ability to "deceive the nations." (20:3) This is why the Church is growing throughout all people groups on earth. Satan is still our enemy, but he is limited in his ability to stop the kingdom of God. Derek Thomas wrote, "Satan is on a chain." Like a leashed dog, he can growl and threaten, but he cannot truly harm those who are in Christ. If we resist him, he will flee. (James 4:7)
During this time, those who have died faithfully in Christ experience a spiritual resurrection. They are spiritually present with Christ - a reality that we have already seen in the vision of the fifth seal as they gathered beneath the altar of God in heaven. (6:9) This is the first resurrection, a spiritual resurrection. The second will be at the final judgment when all of the dead are raised. That is the second resurrection, the resurrection of the body. This first resurrection is for all believers, but those that are killed for their faith are especially emphasized and are representative for the way in which all of God's people suffer in this present age. The "rest of the dead" (20:5) refers to those who die outside of Christ and are consigned to Hades as they wait for the final judgment.
At the end of the church age, Satan's constraints will be lifted and he will then be free to deceive the nations and gather them for a final battle against the church. This is the same final battle that we have seen so many times before. Essentially, we are arguing that Armageddon (16:16), the Battle of the Rider in White (19:19), and the Battle at Gog and Magog (20:8) are all the same climactic battle. Following this we see the final judgement (20:11-15), which will be discussed in a separate post.
This vision is another layer onto the anatomy of the Church age. We have seen how the period between the resurrection of Jesus and his return is characterized by the dominance of Babylon (chapters 17-18), and that God shakes the heavens and earth through a series of judgments to allow his unshakeable kingdom to be established. (I am explaining the 4 series of judgements in chapters 6-16 with the language of Hebrews 12:26-29.) At the same time, Satan's power is limited, and the church is growing... spreading to every tongue, and tribe and nation, because Satan is constrained from deceiving the nations. Together with the other visions in the book, we see a complete picture of the reality of the Church age. In that time, the church is growing and spreading... but the kingdom of darkness is also growing. Our view is one in which real advance for the Gospel is expected, but the opposition is not about to vanish any time soon. Satan is loud, but he is on a chain. Babylon, the City of Man is radiant but hollow and doomed for destruction. At the same time, the people of God share in the weakness of the Lord, even as he makes his glory known through them to the ends of the earth.
Compared to Other Millennial Views
Ok, maybe you are satisfied with that explanation. I once heard it said, that anyone can feel like Revelation is easy if you only read one commentary. When there is only one explanation present, the answer may seem plausible. But if you have been exposed to very different ways of reading this book, and in particular different ways of understanding the Millennium, then everything gets a lot more complicated. Let's briefly return to the topic that was introduced in an earlier post - comparative views of the book of Revelation. Tim Chester included a chart in his commentary. It summarizes how various views of the Millennium understand the connection between, (a.) the return of Christ, (b.) the Millennium, and (c.) the final judgment. (Note, there are variations of each view and this is therefore a necessarily oversimplified chart.)
Pre-Millennialism - This understands the connection between the vision of the Rider in White (19:11-21) to happen chronologically before the Millenium. Jesus comes back before ("pre") the Millenium. The idea is that all of the stuff in this vision of the Millenium happens after Jesus returns, but before the final judgement. Obviously, the Millenium would be very different from the Church age as we know it now. This view has been very popular in America over the last 150 years. I think it is fair to say that proponents of this view see the golden age as something that happens only after Jesus returns and are therefore pessimistic about the hope for this present age.
Post-Millennialism - This understands the vision of the Rider in White to be something other than the literal return of Jesus, but represents some climactic moment during the Church age in which we enter into a new period of growth and flourishing. Tim Chester listed ways in which some form of this view shaped church life after Constantine converted to Christianity and after the Reformation. I think that it is fair to say that proponents of this view see the golden age as attainable and are therefore optimistic (even triumphalist) in regard to life in this present age.
Amillennialism - This understands the Millennium to be one of many layers of visions which describe life in the present Church age. It is not a literal 1,000 years (hence the "a" which means "not" in the title "A-millennial.") Of course, when someone presents two extreme options and then offers their own, exactly in the middle, Goldilocks smiles and nods. (It's not too hot, or too cold.) All joking aside, I think it is fair to say that proponents of this view expect to see both a growing Kingdom of God in fellowship with Christ, and increased opposition from the world, culminating in a climactic conflict (of some sort) at the end of the age.
A Defense of an Amillennial View
Tomorrow, we will consider in greater detail the implication of these views. But I want to write a little more about why I am convinced that this interpretation is the best way of reading the text. In the interest of brevity on an already extremely long post, I will write in bullet point "Q&A" comments.
Why is it attractive to see the (a.) return of Christ, (b.) final judgement, (c.) and the resurrection of the dead as grouped together? The rest of the NT directs our hope to the return of Christ as the focus of our future orientation. The idea of a millennial "golden age" that occurs prior to the final judgment is not supported by any other clear teaching of Scripture. Furthermore, the return of Jesus is always associated with the final judgment (See Matt 25) and the resurrection of the dead (I Cor 15, 1 John 3:1-2.) Peter writes that we should "set our hope fully on the grace that will be ours when Christ is revealed" (1 Peter 1:13), and the Apostles Creed says he is "returning to judge the living and the dead." A 1,000 year gap between the return of Jesus and the final judgment seems to confuse both of those statements of faith.
Why should we understand the Millennium to be figurative and not a literal period of 1,000 years? Nearly all of the numbers in Revelation are symbolic. We already saw that there are "seven Spirits" before the throne of God and we understand that there is only one Holy Spirit. Also, the 144,000 saints are parallel to a "great multitude that no one could number." (7:9) Obviously, there must be more than 144,000 of them, if they cannot be numbered. If the 1,000 was a literal 1,000-years it would be nearly the only number used in Revelation that is not symbolic. Finally, the number 1,000 is used often in the Bible to refer to a long period of time. (See Psalm 90:4)
Why does this all seem to happen after the other visions? It is natural for us to think that a literary sequence would imply a historical sequence. But that is not how prophetic visions work. We have already seen many examples of this in the OT and the book of Revelation as a whole, so I will not repeat it here. But it is a critical point for our interpretation. "The order is not chronological, but theological."***
Why do you think this recapitulates other visions? This is really important to see. There is huge linguistic overlap between this vision and prior visions. In particular, the "Last Battle" is described with the same language in three places, and referred to in many others. (16:4, 19:19, 20:8; 11:7, etc.) Furthermore, the destruction of the cosmos is described in similar terms in both 16:17-21, and 20:11. Both occur after a description of this final battle. Clearly, that is not something that could happen more than once.
How can we say that Satan is bound now, if the NT warns about the realities of Spiritual warfare? If we read this as one vision of many, describing the Church age, we get a remarkably familiar perspective about spiritual warfare. First, it seems that the binding of Satan (20:1-3) is the same as Satan being thrown down from heaven, and no longer able to "accuse the brethren." (12:10) The NT as a whole portrays spiritual conflict as one in which Jesus has already won the decisive battle through his death and resurrection. Satan is not yet removed (12:10), but his power is limited. In reference to fighting the Devil, Jesus said, that "no one can plunder the house of a strong man, unless he first binds the strong man" (Matt 12:29) Because Satan is specifically said to be constrained in his ability to "deceive the nations", the binding of Satan during the Millennium makes possible the realization of the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) as the church grows among all nations in ways never witnessed before the Resurrection of Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus himself connects the "casting out" of the ruler of this world, with his death and resurrection. (John 12:31-32)
What does it mean for Satan to be released at the end of the Church age? This seems to be similar to a warning that the Apostle Paul gives to the Thessalonians, that at the end of the age, "a man of lawlessness" will no longer be "restrained" and will create havoc, until "the Lord Jesus will kill him by the breath of his mouth." That seems very much to relate to the final battle which is described in both Rev 19:19-23 and 20:7-10. Beyond those bare details, we don't know much, but this fits into a harmonious picture.
How can John describe saints as already experiencing the first resurrection during this present age? John describes a first and second resurrection. If those are two phases of physical resurrection, then it would seem to contradict the NT hope of a singular resurrection of all believers at the return of Christ. (1 Thess 4:13-18) By contrast, the NT does regularly use the term resurrection to describe either a spiritual resurrection or a physical resurrection. (Rom 6:4-13) We know that those in Christ who are absent from the body are present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8), which clearly implies a spiritual vitality for those in Christ, after their physical death. We see exactly that picture in Rev 6:9-11, where those who have died for their faith are in heaven, "under the altar" and crying out for justice. It seems far less problematic to assume John describes this reality as the "first resurrection" than it is to upend the clear teaching of other Scriptures with a doctrine that portrays various stages of physical resurrections.
How did you have time to write all of this? Well, I will admit this has been more time consuming than I had expected. But I find this to be enjoyable and I have really appreciated the feedback people have been giving. The bigger question is, "how did you have time to read all of this?" If you are still chugging along through this enormous post, my hat is off to you. I hope you found it to be helpful! Let us set our hope fully on the grace that will be ours when Christ is revealed!
*Tim Chester, Revelation for You, 147-152.
* In that sense, it is similar to the earlier phrases which are equivalent to 3.5 years, 42 months, or 1260 days, or "time, times and half a time." They are all ways of referring to the period of time between the resurrection of Jesus and his return, which we call the "Church Age."
*** Derek Thomas, Revelation for You, p161.
Text: Rev 19:11-21
NT Parallel Text: 1 Cor 15:20-28
Featured Verse: Rev 19:11 Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.
Main Idea: The final battle is fought - and won - by Jesus.
[We have made the argument throughout that Revelation recapitulates,* that is it retells a story from a different angle. Therefore, we maintain that this is a new perspective on the same final battle which has been previously depicted as the battle of Armageddon. (Rev 16:16) The new perspective on that battle is that Jesus is the one who fights and brings deliverance for God's people.]
This Rider on a White Horse is NOT the same as the First Horseman of the Apocalypse, who also rode a white horse.** By contrast, this rider is depicted with all of the same descriptions used of Jesus in the opening vision.*** (Check out the notes below!) We have now come full circle. We started the book with a vision of Jesus among the churches, now we see him returning to bring deliverance for his people. This is the work of King Jesus - he sustains them in their earthly pilgrimage and defeats their enemies at the end of time.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks a question about how Jesus does his work as king and answered the question this way:
Christ carries out the office of a king in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies. WSC #26.
In Revelation we see how Jesus won a victory on the cross. His death and resurrection bring victory over sin and when God draws us to put our faith in Christ our sins are forgiven through his salvation. But the close of revelation also shows a different type of victory. When Jesus returns, we will come in glorious power and his arrival will bring the defeat of his enemies. This text is a pictorial display of Jesus "restraining and conquering all his and our enemies."
In some ways, it is all pretty simple. This same idea is found throughout the Bible in multiple places, but one of the strongest examples is found in 1 Cor 15:20-28 where Paul speaks of Jesus returning and putting all things under his feet.
Conclusion and Application:
Because Jesus is our king, we can live a life of faithful obedience. He has power (now) to restrain our enemies. As we wait for his return, we follow Jesus in a cruciform life. Our earthly experience is one in which we "share in his suffering" (Phil 3.) But that is not the end of the story. When Jesus returns, "every knee will bow and every tongue will confess." (Phil 2) Even his enemies will be forced to recognize his absolute power. It is hard to know how the symbolic language of Revelation would relate to real world conflict, but as the Rider on a White Horse, Jesus himself, will be personally involved in our deliverance.
* There are a lot of really significant overlaps when we look at the final battle, but this vision has one that really screams for us to make the connection. John tells us that the Rider in White has the name written on his robe, "King of kings and Lord of lords." (19:16) This is the exact same description of Jesus when he fought against the beast and false prophet in Revelation 17:14. So, unless we are to assume that Jesus came and fought two different battles against the same enemy in which he is described in the exact same way... we have to recognize the pattern of recapitulation. -- And please don't use Rocky I and Rocky II, or the whole disastrous set of third generation Star Wars movies as examples of repeated plot lines. I don't accept Hollywood sequels as a legitimate basis for Biblical Interpretation! (Please read those last comments with a wink and a nod.)
**It should be noted that this Rider is clearly different from the first horseman of the Apocalypse who also rode a white horse. That rider is associated with demonic power, while every other feature (except for the white horse and the crown) is different from the horseman depicted in Rev 19. In particular, this Rider is labeled with a title already given to Jesus: "Faithful and True." (3:7 and 3:14) For modern readers, it is natural to think that the white horses would be similar, since we see very few horses and very few horsemen. But in the ancient world, this would not have seemed as strange. By way of comparison, if someone told us a story about a white car, it would not automatically occur to us that the next white automobile in the story must therefore be exactly the same.
*** I said it was "simple", but there is a lot of very interesting stuff going on in the details. This enhances the main idea that Jesus is our long-awaited king who brings deliverance from our enemies. In particular, notice how these references tie together Jesus among the lampstands (Rev 1), with Jesus speaking to the churches (Rev 2-3), and Jesus victorious in the final battle (Rev 19:11-21). Here are some references on the details:
(v.12) "Eyes like fire." See the earlier description of Jesus (1:14) and his address to the churches (2:18.)
(v.13) "A robed dipped in blood." This is a reference to Isaiah 63:2-3 which explains that the bloody robe comes from treading the winepress, a theme which is found in verse 15, and ties back to the vision of the final harvest (16:19).
(v.13b) "He is called the Word of God." See the Gospel of John 1:1-18.
(v.14) "The armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him..." This is similar to other descriptions of the followers of Jesus. (3:4, 7:9)
(v.15) "From his mouth comes a sharp sword." This is also a throw back to the first vision (1:16) and picks up a theme written to the church in Pergamum. (2:16)
(v.15b) "And he will rule them with a rod of iron." This references one of the most famous OT Messianic Psalm. (Psalm 2:7-12.)
Text: Rev 19:1-8
NT Parallel Text: Eph 5:22-33
Focus Verse: Rev 19:7 Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready;
Main Idea: In addition to celebrating the downfall of Babylon, the multitude from heaven celebrates the return of Jesus to be with his church.
[This song from heaven follows the lament from earth. While the earthly kings and merchants lament Babylon, the heavenly perspective celebrates the removal of this enemy of the church.]
The contrast between the City of Man and the City of God is born out in this song from heaven. While the earthly city is pictured as a prostitute who both corrupts the world and is consumed by it, the heavenly city is described as a bride. Of course, the only difference between any particular human being associated with the church vs. the world is merely the saving power of Jesus.* He is the one who makes us ready for his heavenly marriage.
The picture of Christ relating to the church like a husband to a wife has deep biblical roots. In the OT, God is pictured as married to Israel, who is largely an unfaithful wife. (See the prophet Hosea.) In the NT Jesus told many parables about how the Kingdom of Heaven is like a wedding feast. The Apostle Paul also compared human marriage to the heavenly model of Christ loving and dying for his church. (Eph 5:22-33)
Conclusion and Application
Of course, there are limits to this analogy as there are to every analogy. No husband can save his wife from her sin through his own life and death - nor should he try. All of us need Jesus. It is also possible to place too much emphasis on human marriages, in ways that cause singles to feel excluded. The nature of every analogy is to make a comparison and there are always limits to how it can be applied.
With that in mind, it is still worthy pondering the marriage analogy as a picture of Christ and the Church. Consider these points that flow from the analogy of the marriage and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb:
- Anticipation. Because the Wedding Supper of the Lamb is still future, this highlights that the church is waiting with anticipation for the return of Christ. Like the whole of the book of Revelation, we are future oriented people who are anticipating the return of Jesus.
- Joy. The Wedding Supper is a joyous celebration. Let us "rejoice and exult" as we think about this future hope.
- Preparation. The bride "making herself ready" (19:8) is part of the picture. Of course, it is the work of Jesus through the Holy Spirit that empowers us to grow in holiness. But, nonetheless, it is still the church working together, with the gifts of its members, that causes the whole body to grow up in grace. (Eph 4:11-16)
* Here is a link to a great song from one of our own musicians on Spotify. Runaway Bride, John Stuart
Text: Rev 18:9-24
OT Text: Ezekiel 27:1-36 ("A Lament over Tyre")
Featured Verse: Rev 18:15-17a The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud,16 “Alas, alas, for the great city
that was clothed in fine linen,
in purple and scarlet,
adorned with gold,
with jewels, and with pearls!
17 For in a single hour all this wealth has been laid waste.”
Main Idea: The fall of Babylon brings grief to those who were complicit in her sinful prosperity.
[The text from yesterday's passage depicted the fall of Babylon. Now we see two different responses in the form of two different songs. The first (today) is a lament from those who shared in her wealth and sin. The second (tomorrow) is a victory song from those who suffered at her hand.]
A "lament" is a common Biblical expression of grief for something that is lost. Often it is given in the form of a song. Some of the most famous laments in the Bible take place after the destruction of Jerusalem. In fact, the entire book of Lamentations is one long song of sorrow remembering the Babylonian conquest of the city in 586 BC. In this sense a lament serves to help grieving people process by remembering the significance of their loss. At the risk of trivializing this phenomenon, a modern song like The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, serves a similar purpose in regard to a tragic loss of a ship hauling iron ore on Lake Superior during a storm in 1975.* To risk trivializing this even further, a "break up song" is another modern phenomenon in which a person might listen to a sad song to cope with their feelings of loss after a romantic relationship ends. Because modern people don't have very good processes of dealing with grief, other, more serious forms of lament are harder to come by.
However, the Bible also uses lament in a different way. Sometimes a lament song for a fallen enemy helps to highlight the significance of a victory. The best OT example is found in the book of Ezekiel. In terms strikingly parallel to Revelation 18, the downfall of Tyre, an ancient enemy of Israel, is lamented by the merchants who had benefitted from her prosperity. (Ezekiel 27) In this sense, the song of lament becomes something of a "taunt." A modern example would be the simple chorus, "Na na na-na na na, Hey Hey Hey, Good Bye", sung at opposing teams in the waning moments of a sports victory. We know that this is the case in Revelation 18, because the very next chapter presents a contrasting song from heaven. While the earthly kings and merchants, who were complicit in the oppressive luxury of Babylon grieve her downfall - the heavenly chorus sings, "Hallelujah... he has avenged on her the blood of her servants."
Conclusion and Application
Is it wrong to celebrate the downfall of your enemies?
It can be dangerous to celebrate the downfall of your personal enemies. After all, we are not particularly good judges and our hearts are easily biased. But it is a different thing to celebrate the downfall of God's enemies and the enemies of the church, who have been defeated by God's power. After all, God is perfectly just and his verdicts are not tainted by human selfishness or sin.
One of the things that Revelation reveals to us, is the reality of opposition. There is spiritual opposition (the dragon) that is driving our spiritual war. But we also face oppression at the hands of our fellow humans and their worldly institutions. Babylon is the face of worldly and oppressive power. Her downfall removes the boot from the neck of God's people throughout the world and throughout history. When the gospel brings conversion and our enemies repent and turn to God, there is a type of victory there. For those who do not repent, the end of history and the final judgment will bring their defeat. One way or another God will remove the enemies of the church.
In history, particular manifestations of Babylon, the City of Man, did fall into ruin. The literal city of Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians in 539 BC. The oppressive Roman Emperor Domitian was assassinated in 96 AD, not long after he opened his reign of terror on the churches. By that time, he had made enemies for himself far beyond the church. The first century Roman Pliny the Younger described the response to the death of Domitian and the way people attacked the many statues that had been set up throughout the Empire as signs of his imperial power.
"It was our delight to dash those proud faces to the ground, to smite them with the sword and to smash them with the axe, as if blood and agony could follow from every blow... All sought a form of vengeance in beholding those [statues] mutilated, limbs hacked to pieces, and finally that baleful, fearsome visage cast into the fire to be melted down."***
The response to Babylon's fall brings a song of lament from those complicit, and a song of rejoicing from those who resisted her influence. When Babylon falls, which song will you sing?
* This is one of my all-time favorite songs. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
** Here is another musical selection. Kiss Him Goodbye
*** Quote from Tim Chester, Revelation for You", p131, and references fellow author Nelson Kraybill.
The text that we will cover in the sermon on Sunday is Revelation 17:15-18:8.
The entire service is Livestreamed and recorded and will be available on our church YouTube channel.
Text: Rev 17:6b-18
NT Text: 1 Peter 5:13 She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.
Featured Verse: Rev 17:9 This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated;
Main Idea: In any particular age, the "City of Man" takes the form of various human empires. For the first century Christians, Rome was the embodiment of Babylon.
[Verses 15-18 will be part of the Sunday Sermon, so we will not discuss them much today.]
Yesterday we saw that Babylon is a symbolic representation of the "City of Man." But in every age, Babylon shows up in various human empires. All of these particular empires are destined to fall, and at the end of time the entire system of worldly human rebellion will crumble before the power of the Lord Jesus.
There are many aspects of the depiction of Babylon - the great prostitute - that show timeless principles. These things are associated with every human empire in every age. In particular, we have seen that she influences with power (17:18), sex (17:2,4), and money (17:4, + repeated references to "luxury" and "wealth" in chap 18.) These things are true in varying degrees in every manifestation of Babylon - in every human empire. BUT... there are also features of Babylon which bear a particular resemblance to the Roman Empire experienced by the first century Christians to whom John wrote this letter.
Tim Chester has a detailed analysis of why "Babylon" should be understood to be referring to 1st century Rome.** In particular, Rome was described by its own writers as being the "City of Seven Hills." John tells us that the interpretation of Babylon the Great "calls for a mind of wisdom", and then he says, "the seven heads are the seven hills on which the woman is seated." (17:9) He seems to be giving us a clear hint about the way in which the churches would experience the power of Babylon in their time. It is also noted that the Roman Emperors wore purple, but their priests wore scarlet, the clothing that the Prostitute is said to be wearing. (Rev 17:4,18:12) Finally, there is other evidence that first century Christians began calling Rome by the name "Babylon" because of its oppressive imperial power. Peter seems to do this at the end of his first letter. (See additional reading.) This process may have been accelerated after 70 AD, when Rome followed its namesake and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple.
Conclusion and Application
When I titled this post " Babylon with a Roman Nose**", I was expressing the idea that the ubiquitous "Babylon, City of Man" has some features which seem to link it closely to first century experiences with the actual Roman Empire. This helps us to remember that "Babylon, the Great" is not just a theoretical abstraction, but it takes the form of real institutions and cultural practices. The seductive power of the City of Man had already been gaining inroads in the churches of Asia Minor. Back in chapter 2, the church in Thyatira was warned that the false teacher named for the OT queen Jezebel was luring the church into compromise on sexual immorality. This is essentially Babylon/worldly influence finding a home in the church!***
Honest recognition of the seductive power of Babylon helps us resist the siren call of worldliness. Unfortunately, it isn't just "out there", but the ideas of the world find influence among those who claim to be Christian teachers. The past ten years have been filled with numerous painful examples of public Christian figures renouncing their position on historic Christian teaching - particularly around sex and gender. John reveals the power of these temptations, the diabolical origins, and the end result of those who align themselves with the powers of Babylon.
* Greg Beale (in his typical exhaustive detail) lists the many similarities between the OT character of Jezebel and the Babylonian Harlot of chapters 17-18. Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, p377.
** Wikipedia has a short entry on "Roman noses" for those interested. Apparently, they are found in lots of people groups who have no apparent Italian connection. But, I hope you see that is not the real point of this, anyway.
Aquiline nose - Wikipedia
*** Tim Chester, Revelation For You, pages 127-129.
# The photograph used at the head of this post was taken by Andre Sinou and found on a website dedicated to the photos that he took while on active duty in Iraq. May 2003 photographs of Babylon (stlcc.edu)
Text: Rev 17:1-6a
OT Text: Hab 1:6-7
Featured Verse: Rev 17:5 And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth's abominations.”
Main Idea: We are introduced to "Babylon the Great", which represents the collective efforts of fallen humanity.
We saw yesterday that we are now in a new section of Revelation. While chapters 6-16 were dominated by four series of seven judgments, these remaining chapters zoom in on the end of the world and the restoration of all things. These final six chapters are also dominated by the contrast of two cities - Babylon and the New Jerusalem.
We have already had two references to Babylon, but now we are "properly introduced."* She appears like a great prostitute**, riding the beast. She is characterized by three things: wealth (17:4), power(17:18), and sexual immorality (17:2). Most importantly, when we pull back from this vision and look at the big picture, Babylon stands in sharp contrast with another city, the "New Jerusalem." (Rev 21:1-4)
- Babylon is a prostitute, but the New Jerusalem is a faithful bride.
- Babylon is characterized by pride and blasphemy (17:3-5), but the New Jerusalem by the presence of God.
- Babylon is responsible for oppressing the saints, for the shedding of their "blood." (17:6)
- Babylon will fall (18:2), but the New Jerusalem will come down from heaven, eternally secure. (21:1-4)
Also, note that she is pictured "riding the beast" and that she influences the kings of the earth, causing them to become drunk with sin. (17:2) Later we will see that this then extends to "peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. (17:15) This pictures a chain of influences. From the dragon to the beast to the harlot to the kings of the earth to all the people on earth. To live in proximity to Babylon is to wrestle with the influences of money, sex and power, all of which are used by Satan for his destructive purposes.
Conclusion and Application
In the first century, as today, the literal city of Babylon was not a place of great importance, but it retained great symbolic value. In the OT, the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and their 70 years in exile became the quintessential encounter with hostile worldly powers. Daniel and his friends faced enormous pressures in Babylon, and their ultimate return to Jerusalem under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah was a national and spiritual rebirth for God's people. Author Tim Chester wrote, "in the Bible, Babylon became the archetypal idolatrous empire." In every age, this archetypal empire appears in a particular form. As we shall see tomorrow, first century Christians thought of Rome as the "New Babylon" and many aspects of her appears her have Roman features.
But today I want to consider Babylon's symbolic value. After the eventual fall of Rome in 410 AD, St. Augustine wrote a groundbreaking book called The City of God. In this book, he argued that the Bible is always contrasting the earthly city of man (called "Babylon") with the heavenly city of God ("the New Jerusalem.") When he wrote this, he was not thinking of the physical cities, but the underlying systems. What we are calling, "Babylon" or the "City of Man", can also be referred to as "the world." It represents all the efforts of rebellious humanity to craft a city for their own glory, in their own power, apart from God. It is not easy to remain uninfluenced and uncorrupted by Babylon. By contrast, Christians are citizens of a heavenly kingdom. We look forward to the city that God will establish, as we seek to align our trust and our love with God. Here is how Augustine famously described it:
"Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord." - Augustine of Hippo, City of God, section 283.
Which city exercises greater influence on your life?
* Rev 14:8 Another angel, a second, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality.” (and) Rev 16:19 The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath.
** I recognize that modern readers can be sensitive to this symbolic image and perhaps feel like the Bible is unfairly demonizing prostitutes. We recognize that many women in difficult circumstances are coerced into prostitution, and that there is a legitimate aspect of victimhood that runs throughout. In many cases, the consumers of prostitution really bear the greater guilt. It is also good to remember that Jesus had a very active ministry to prostitutes and that the grace of the gospel brings redemption and renewal to people in all sorts of destructive lifestyles (Matt 21:31-32.) Recognizing these things, it is still possible to appreciate the contrasting images of prostitute and bride for their symbolic value.
Text: Rev 16:17-17:2
Featured Verse: Rev 16:17 The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!”
Main Idea: Another look at the final stage of judgment, gives us an opportunity to reflect on the structure of the book and some of our main principles of interpretation.
The content of the seventh bowl describes a scene that should be familiar by now. I think that it offers a good opportunity for us to widen our scope and look at the big picture of the book of Revelation.
One of the challenges I have found as we walk through the book of Revelation is trying to determine how to keep the overall structure of the book in view as we look at individual sections. On one hand, thinking about the structure is really an important part of how we interpret the book. On the other hand, a detailed discussion of structure can seem very abstract and can be hard for readers to follow. Let's quickly review what we have been saying so far.
First, the book is written to first century churches, but grounded in Biblical imagery. Therefore, our interpretation is guided by Biblical context and historical context.
Second, we have seen that Revelation is a highly symbolic book. This follows the overall pattern of Biblical prophecy. John, himself, introduces symbolic images (such as seven lampstands), then tells us what they refer to (the church.)
Third, we have noticed clear patterns of seven in the structure of the book.* In particular, the seven seals, seven bowls, seven thunders (replaced by visions), and the seven bowls have obvious overlap. In many cases, it seems clear that Revelation is presenting the same event from a different perspective. We call this repetition recapitulation. This is not uncommon in the Bible and in fact, it is found whenever people are discussing a really important event.
The seventh bowl is a clear example of recapitulation. Here is the way in which each of the seventh judgments are described:
Seventh Seal, Rev 8:5 Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.
Seventh Trumpet, Rev 11:19 Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.
Seventh Bowl, Rev 16:18,21 And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake....and great hailstones... fell from heaven...
Notice the similarities?
When we recognize a pattern of recapitulation, what we are saying is that John doesn't intend for us to think of this as three different events with three different earthquakes, but instead we are to see this as three pictures of the same event. When John hears a voice saying, "It is done!" (16:17), we are intended to understand this as the end of history. That is the easiest way to understand the phrases, "every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found." (16:20) But, you may be thinking, this is not the end of Revelation - we still have five more chapters to go?!
So what is going to happen for those five remaining chapters. The answer is, more recapitulation. Not simply a retelling of the same event in the same way, but we are going to "zoom in" for a closer look at these important events.
This is exactly what John is told by "one of the seven angels." (17:1) In the vision of the seventh bowl, we are told that "God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath." (16:19) Then, in the next vision, John is told, "come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on the many waters... and on her forehead was written, 'Babylon the Great.'" (17:1-5)
Picture it this way. It is as if John is taking the map on his smart phone and swiping his fingers outward, so as to zoom in. I image that everyone with a touch screen has done this thousands of times. (Sometimes I forget and try to do this on a paper map and feel dismayed at how much tech has influenced me.) We know that John did not have a smart phone or a touch screen computer. But the literary device is similar. In the next two chapters we will zoom in on one aspect that was depicted in the seventh bowl. We will see how God "remembers Babylon" and brings judgment on the human city. In the coming days, we will see a detailed portrayal of the fall of Babylon, which represents the seductive power of the world. It is a very important topic because "worldliness" is a major enemy of the Christian life. In the book of Revelation John's visions have already revealed the realities of spiritual warfare. In this section he is revealing the true realities of worldly power and showing its ultimate downfall.
And, as you may have guessed, Babylon will look a lot like Rome. It will also have eerie similarities to our modern western culture. (As it does to all embodiments of worldliness down through the ages.)
* Some of the patterns are clearer than others, but here is a tentative outline of the entire book.
1.) (chap 1) Jesus among the Seven Lampstands
2.) (chaps 2-3) Letters to the Seven Churches
[Interlude] (chaps 4-5) The throne room of heaven
3.) (chaps 6:1-8:5) The Seven Seals are opened
4.) (chaps 8:6-11:19) The Seven Trumpets sound
5.) (chaps 12-14) The Seven visions replace the Seven Thunders
6.) (chaps 15-16) The Seven Bowls are poured out
7.) (chaps 17-22) Seven Angels narrate the destruction of the enemies of God and the recreation of all things
I think that this is correct, but I offer it with a grain of salt. Some of the "sevens" are clearly labeled in the book. Others are not. You will notice that I excluded two chapters with an "interlude" which allowed this final list to have seven sets of seven. I think that is legitimate, but maybe I am "cooking the books" so that I can get seven groups of seven. Finally, the least clear of all these sections are the final six chapters that I label "The Seven Angels." There are references to seven different angels in this section, but for the most part John doesn't seem to draw too much attention to it.
Bonus Materials - Further Analysis
I'm always asking myself, how much can I write about the interpretative details without losing people? Personally, I find the interpretive details to be very interesting, but I realize not everyone feels that way. If you are still reading, and want to dive a little deeper into the structure of Revelation I will provide "bonus" material in the rest of this post.
As many of you have noticed, there are many ways to read the book of Revelation. I discussed this some in the introduction materials, but it is worth considering again. In particular, I want to focus on the question of when things in Revelation happen. Most people would agree that the early chapters of Revelation (1-3) were written to first century churches in Asia Minor. Furthermore, everyone would agree that the last 3 chapters (20:11-21:21) describe the end of the world - the final judgment, the recreation of the world and life everlasting. But what do we do with the sixteen chapters in the middle? In summary, it all occurs somewhere between the first century church and the end of the world. The debate is where in that range we expect this to occur.
One way of categorizing interpretative approaches is with the terms, preterist, futurist, idealist.
- The futurist believes all events will happen in the future. (Relative to our current position.) That is, they have not yet happened, but will happen at some future moment when the "end times" begin.
- The preterist believes that all of the events in this section happened in the past. That may seem a little strange since some of the language is so catastrophic. But it is not uncommon for the Bible to use catastrophic end-time language to describe when God's judgments break into history. The most common preterist position is to see this relating to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. That was a cataclysmic event in redemptive history, but it seems really hard to see how this would have impacted the churches in Asia Minor.
- The idealist believes that all of the events are depicting the entirety of the church age. (This is the approach that I have taken in writing and preaching.) We believe that Revelation is meant to convey spiritual truths for the church throughout history and is not intended to give a prescription for either the fall of Jerusalem or some future "end times."
However, there are elements of both the futurist and the preterist positions which should be received. For example, when John describes church history as a battle between Satan (the dragon) and the church, the characters on the battlefield bear a strong resemblance to aspects of the Roman Empire. In this sense, there is a historic context to Revelation which spoke to the situation of these first century churches. On the other hand, the trajectory of the book is clearly moving toward the return of Christ and the final judgment. There seem to be multiple references to a climactic last battle in which the enemies of God seem to totally surround God's people and only the power of God can bring deliverance. I don't know what exactly that will look like, and I don't think John intends to tell us or provide clues to predict the timing. After all, "no one knows the hour or the day" of the return of Christ - even Jesus said he did not know. (Matt 24:36)
In summary, because the idealist approach is focused on the entire church age, it goes hand in hand, with viewing the visions as depicting the general course of the church age and not specific events. In that sense, the visions are really concerned with ideals, that is with the cosmic war between Satan and the church, and not the particular details of any one battle.
As we look ahead to the end of the book, we can see that more recapitulation is coming. The climactic last battle is described two more times, with increased vividness. The first is in the account of the "Rider on the White Horse." (19:11) The second is at Gog and Magog after Satan had been bound for 1,000 years. (20:1-10.) This reference to 1,000 years is often called "the Millenium." Perhaps you have heard of the Millenium in reference to the end times. This one section of ten verses, near the end of the book, often becomes a convenient test case for various interpretive methods. In fact, descriptions of the Millenium are often used to characterize one's approach to the entire book.
The futurist approach generally looks at the Millenium as a literal period of time which will happen in the future after the return of Jesus. There are variations of how this is described, but this is called, "Premillennialism." A particular form of Premillennialism became very popular during the 19th century as part of a school of theology called Dispensationalism. This approach to the book of Revelation became very influential in America and is associated with things like "the rapture." It was made popular by books like The Late Great Planet Earth, and Left Behind. In a nutshell, Pre-millenialism, looks forward to the return of Christ, then expects to see a literal 1,000 year period of time when Jesus will reign on earth after his return, but before the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, and the New Heavens and New Earth.
Another approach (kind of the opposite) is to view the 1,000 year period of time as referring to something that happens before Jesus returns. This view is called "Post-Millennial." I don't know for sure if this logically connects to Preterism, but both views have had strong proponents in Church history. (I'll have to read more about the history of this before we get to Revelation 20.) Generally, Post-Millennial proponents are looking for a "golden age" of the church to finally occur for 1,000 years before Jesus returns.
In conclusion, here is the connection that I want to make. The idealist perspective on 1,000 years doesn't see this as a literal period of time that is separate from the age of the church in which we live. Rather, it sees this story as a recapitulation of Church history. (To be clear, this is the view that I hold and write from.) That is, the period of 1,000 years is a symbolic way of describing the entire age of the church. The term for this perspective is called "Amillenial." The prefix "a" simply means that there is not a specific and separate period of time called the millennium. Rather the entire church age is represented in this phrase. We are living in the Millenium now.
The point of this entire explanation is to help readers locate this approach in interpretation among alternate viewpoints. On one hand, I want to say clearly that good and faithful Christians have different views on these matters and that it is ok to disagree. Revelation is a difficult book and we should not be surprised when well-meaning folks reach different conclusions. On the other hand, I also want to be clear that there are really different approaches to this book and depending on which approach you take, the interpretation and use of the book will be very different. I tried to do a little explanation up front, but I didn't want to get lost in this sort of abstract discussion. It also seemed easier to deal with some of this in a "bonus section" after people had become more familiar with what the actual issues were.
Finally, I wanted to give this explanation to help readers understand that the approach to Revelation that I have been using is part of a much larger school which is growing in influence. The idealist-amillenial approach to reading Revelation (and other similar books) has become very influential in Reformed circles. It is far and away the most common way of interpreting Revelation in the PCA. Many of the commentaries that I have been reading share this approach. For example, Greg Beale is a professor at Westminster Seminary whose Revelation commentaries have left a huge impression on the Reformed theological tradition. I have relied deeply on his books while writing this and tried to reference this enough to make the dependence clear. Another great but shorter commentary by Derek Thomas of Reformed Theological Seminary in the "Let's Study the Bible" series helped to develop these ideas at a less academic level. Finally, Tim Chester is a British pastor whose book Revelation for You reaches similar conclusions. I have supplemented with many other books, but on the whole the remarkable convergence of interpretations by various authors helps to demonstrate that an "idealist-amillenial" approach yields good spiritual fruit.
Text: Rev 16:15
Parallel Text: Matthew 24:36-44 ("like a thief in the night")
Featured Verse: Rev 16:15 (“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”)
Main Idea: The uncertainty of the timing for the return of Jesus is meant to instill vigilance in his followers.
Our entire reading for today is from one verse in the book of Revelation, which is set apart as a parenthetical statement. It links strongly to a story told by Jesus concerning his return at the end of the world.
The parenthetical note in Rev 16:15 seems clearly to be drawn from a statement that Jesus made to his disciples about the end of the age.* In his comments (Mt 24:36-44) Jesus emphasizes the uncertain timing for his return at the end of the age. The principle is illustrated with a saying about a thief who plunders a home at night.
"But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect." (Mt 24:43-44)
We see the exact same connection in Revelation 16:15.** Jesus urges the listeners to stay awake, because of the uncertainty of his return. To illustrate this principle another way:
- If you knew when you were going to get in a car wreck, you would only have to put your seatbelt on before car wrecks. But you don't know, therefore, you should be prepared and always wear your seatbelt.
- If you knew when your house was going to catch on fire, you would not need a smoke detector. Because you don't know, you should update the batteries in your smoke detector and have plenty of fire extinguishers on hand.
Conclusion and Application
There are two main points we can draw from this.
(i.) Revelation is not a book that is intended to give us secret information about how to date the end of the world. Not only do we have clear instruction from Jesus on that point (Mt 24:36-44), but that point is explicitly referenced here in this parenthetical comment. Admittedly, the book of Revelation has some imagery that can be confusing and sometimes we need a healthy does of humble uncertainty as we deal with it. But we can clearly rule out this intention for the book: Revelation is not an instruction manual for how to date the end of the world.
(ii.) On the other hand, the uncertainty of the return of Jesus is meant to have a stimulating effect on our thinking. Because the return of Jesus will be like a thief, we should remain spiritually vigilant and "stay awake." This is a call to review our spiritual health and to be on guard against complacency.
In what ways do you find yourself sliding into spiritual "sleepiness"?
What actions can you take to better stay awake?
* Matthew 24-25 is one long discussion in which Jesus answered two questions from the disciples. Because Jesus addressed these questions sitting on the Mount of Olives - which was across a small valley and had a view of Jerusalem - this is often referred to as the Olivet Discourse. The topic of conversation had been the majesty of the temple, when Jesus predicted the coming destruction of the temple. (Mt 24:1-2) After retreating outside the city, the disciples asked Jesus two questions. "Tells us, when will these things be (the destruction of the temple) and when will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age." (Mt 24:3) Jesus then proceeds to give two very different answers to these two events. (The disciples may have assumed that the destruction of the temple was the same as the end of the age.) Jesus told them that there would be clear signs which predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple, and that when his followers saw those signs - the armies gathering to surround the city - they should flee from Jerusalem. (Mt 24:15-16) They were to "flee to the mountains" and not waste time packing their suitcases. We know from history that after the people of Jerusalem rebelled, Rome besieged the city and eventually destroyed it in 70 AD. By contrast, Jesus warns that there are no signs to predict the end of the age. "But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows." (Mt 24:36) He highlights this point by talking about the uncertainty of the flood of Noah (Mt 24:37-42) and then tells a story about how a thief always arrives unexpectedly. (Mt 24:43-44) Some casual readers of the Bible miss the huge distinction between these two events and the fact that one is predicted (destruction of the temple in 70 AD.) and one arrives at a time that CANNOT be predicted (the end of the age.)
** Incidentally, this is another reason to recognize that the battle of Armageddon and probably the entire series of seven bowls of wrath is pointing to the end of the age. If that is the original context for the saying of Jesus, this reference would surely have a similar context.