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.