Key to the Understanding of Revelation

Johan Malan, Mossel Bay, South Africa (April 2015)

Read Revelation 1.

The last book in the Bible is titled, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ”, as this book contains important prophecies on how the glorified Son of God will be revealed as Judge, Bridegroom and King in the end-time during the day of the Lord. The book has been given as a revelation to the church of Christ on what the future holds for humanity, and is therefore not an incomprehensible mystery. If we discover and correctly apply the key to the understanding of this book in its first chapter, we will be ready to embark on an exciting prophetic journey which will keep us away from many dangers on our path through life, and also affords us a biblical perspective on the future which will culminate in the creation of a new heaven and earth.

The Lord Jesus confirms to John the chronological nature of the events which he saw in his vision in the year 95 AD: “Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this” (Rev. 1:19). In this statement, reference is made to three categories of events: those that have already taken place, those that are contemporary, and those that are still future. The things which John saw refer to the glorified Christ among the seven lampstands: that is Christ at the beginning of the church age. The contemporary things relate to the church dispensation – John was very near to the beginning of this dispensation and we are very close to its end. The review of the seven churches refer to the entire church age, and this period has not yet expired. The things which will take place after this refer to everything that will happen after the church dispensation, when all true believers will be resurrected, glorified and caught away to heaven. Shortly afterwards, the tribulation of seven years under the rule of the Antichrist will commence, followed by the coming of the Lord Jesus on the Mount of Olives. Subsequently, the Lord Jesus will rule for a long time as the King of kings here on earth, and then act as Judge at the final judgement. Severe confusion is caused when this chronological order is disturbed by, for instance, reading the church dispensation into the scenario of the thousand-year reign of peace in Revelation 20, or entertaining the erroneous view that the Antichrist has been revealed in historical times and that the devil has already been bound in a pit so that he cannot deceive the nations.

While John was on the Isle of Patmos he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day. Some people wrongly conclude that John had his vision during the weekly Sabbath or Sunday, but that is not the case. The expression “The day of the Lord” (Heb. Yom Yahweh) is a well-known biblical term which refers to the Messiah’s end-time revelation when He will come in power and glory to bless, to rule and to judge. The day of the Lord is a long period of slightly more than one thousand years. It begins at the rapture of the true church, followed by the seven years of tribulation, then the millennial reign of Christ, concluded by the final judgement, which will be followed directly by the creation of a new heaven and earth. All the events are directly linked to the revelation of Jesus Christ in different capacities. They will take place in the following order:

·         The day of the Lord will start the moment when the trumpet sounds for the rapture. Christ will then be revealed to His true church as Bridegroom, but also as their Judge. Each one of us have to give account of our lives before the judgement seat of Christ (Rom. 14:10-12), and for that reason Paul says: “Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved HHis appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8; “that day” refers to “the day of the Lord”).

·         After the church has been glorified and united to Christ they will assemble around His throne to judge the world in righteousness. The Lord Jesus will then, as Judge, break the seals of God’s judgements upon an unrepentant world. That will be followed by the sounding of the seven trumpets and the pouring out of the seven bowls of God’s wrath. Together, they will give rise to a great tribulation on a scale which the world has never seen (Matt. 24:21-22). Panic-stricken people on earth will know that the Lamb of God has poured out these unprecedented judgements because of the world’s wickedness, sinfulness and disregarding of the call towards repentance (Acts 17:30-31). They will be overcome by great fear and during the rumbling of gigantic earthquakes they will flee to the mountains and cry out to the mountains and rocks: “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand? (Rev. 6:15-17). The day of the Lamb’s wrath is an important phase in the longer day of the Lord, of which it forms a part. Many prophecies, particularly in the Old Testament, focus upon this unequalled time of disasters and divine judgements upon an evil word. Isaiah says: “Behold, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land [and the whole earth] desolate; and He will destroy its sinners from it” (Isa. 13:9). Joel says: “For the day of the Lord is great and very terrible; who can endure it?” (Joel 2:11). The culmination of the seven-year tribulation will be the day of Christ’s second coming. Zechariah says: “And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives. … And this shall be the plague with which the Lord will strike all the people who fought against Jerusalem: Their flesh shall dissolve while they stand on their feet, their eyes shall dissolve in their sockets, and their tongues shall dissolve in their mouths” (Zech. 14:4, 12). John describes this scene in much more detail in Revelation: “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron” (Rev. 19:11-15).

·         After the judgements of God upon the nations, all those who survived this dark time will see Christ coming on the clouds of heaven and, with repentant hearts, embrace Him as their Saviour. In His Olivet Discourse, the Lord Jesus said, “… and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30). That will also include the entire remnant in Israel as they will look on Him whom they have pierced, and mourn for Him (Zech. 12:10). Christ will then be revealed as King in Jerusalem: “And in that day it shall be that living waters shall flow from Jerusalem, half of them towards the eastern sea and half of them towards the western sea; in both summer and winter it shall occur. And the Lord shall be King over all the earth” (Zech. 14:8-9). There will indeed be many summers and winters in the day of the Lord, when Christ will come to judge and then to rule as King. Zechariah 14:16 says: “And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles.” That will happen during Christ’s thousand-year reign of peace, when He will rule as King over the whole world (cf. Zech. 8:21-23). The nations shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks as no wars will be fought against each other (Is. 2:2-4). In the book of Revelation, John often refers to the kingdom dispensation of the day of the Lord. After the rapture, the glorified church will sing in a song of praise to the Lamb: “[You] have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:10). They will look forward towards returning with Him to the earth to inherit His kingdom with Him. John is very clear on the length of this reign of peace, and leaves no doubt on that: “Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years” (Rev. 20:6).

·         After the millennial reign the final judgement will follow, which still forms part of the important events of the day of the Lord. All the unsaved dead of all ages will then be resurrected to appear before the great white throne and receive their righteous judgement (Rev. 20:11-15). They will be cast into the lake of fire together with the devil and his angels. This judgement coincides with the end of the present heaven and earth as we know them today, in which the consequences of the Fall can clearly be seen. The end of the day of the Lord will therefore be attended by the creation of a new heaven and earth, into which no sin will ever enter. When Peter speaks about the day of the Lord, he refers to the time at the end of the millennial reign when the present heaven and earth will come to an end and be replaced by a new creation. Through our unwavering dedication we should right now be prepared to one day inhabit the new heaven and earth: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in [at the end of] which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless” (2 Pet. 3:10-14). The day of the Lord already begins at the rapture when He will come unexpectedly like a thief in the night to snatch away His bride. He says in Revelation 16:15, “Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches and keeps his garments…” This event will be followed by the marriage of the Lamb, the seven-year tribulation on earth, and then the thousand-year reign of peace. Only at the end of the millennial reign will the present heaven and earth pass away.

John describes the different scenarios in Revelation in exactly the same sequence in which he has seen them. The day of the Lord begins in Revelation 4:1 when John was called to heaven by the sounding of a trumpet, and there he saw the glorified church. They sing to the Lamb: “You were slain and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). The rapture will therefore already have occurred at that stage, directly following the first resurrection when all the deceased believers will arise from the dead and, together with those who are still alive, will be caught away to heaven in glorified bodies (1 Thess. 4:16-17; John 14:2-3).

The seven-year tribulation period begins in Revelation 6:1, when the first seal of God’s judgements is broken in heaven, leading to the appearance of the Antichrist on earth. That will be followed by a large number of judgements which will be poured out during the Antichrist’s relatively short reign on earth. The culmination of the judgements will be Christ’s second coming at the end of the tribulation period – this time not like a thief in the night but in public so that every eye will see Him. He will judge the Antichrist and his followers with the sword that proceeds from His mouth (Rev. 19:19-21).

In Revelation 20 the thousand-year reign of peace is discussed, when Christ will rule over the whole world from the restored throne of David (Acts. 15:16-17). The creation of the new heaven and earth is described in the last two chapters of Revelation, and that concludes the events of the day of the Lord.

In the light of these facts it is obvious that the book of Revelation has a futuristic fulfilment from chapter 4 onwards, since the day of the Lord only commences when Christ reveals Himself to the church at the rapture. However, there were times in the past when Christians were severely persecuted and were strongly convinced that there would not be a rapture as they already experienced the judgements of the day of the Lord. Paul corrected frightened Christians who were in such a situation: “Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us [false versions of biblical eschatology], as though the day of Christ had come” (2 Thess. 2:1-2).

John sees the Lord Jesus in the present dispensation as the One who walks in the midst of the seven lampstands and is intimately aware of everything which His followers are doing – also secretly. He says to all of them, “I know your works…” The various churches are represented by lampstands, which are the containers into which the oil of the Holy Spirit is poured. If the members of the congregation are continuously filled with the Holy Spirit they will be able to shine brightly in a dark world and thus fulfil their calling.

Christ’s countenance is like the sun which dispels all darkness. His special witnesses, and particularly the pastors of the seven churches, are described as brightly shining stars in His right hand. They must cause the light of the sun of righteousness to shine in a dark world, and be prepared to decrease so He can increase in their lives. They are also described as the angels of the seven churches. An angel (Gr. “angelos”) means a “messenger”. All believers are messengers (Acts 1:8), but particularly those who have a full-time calling as pastors or evangelists. Jesus said to His disciples: “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (John 20:21).

A messenger is obliged to proclaim the message of salvation purely. He has a solemn responsibility to do it with integrity while remaining absolutely true to Scripture, thereby preventing a situation in which members of the congregation are exposed to false doctrines. In case deception does sneak in it should be countered and resisted by correct teachings from Scripture: “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2-3). Paul also said to Timothy: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).

The command to rightly divide the word of truth refers to the ability, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and backed by a thorough knowledge of Scripture, to offer the correct exposition of divine teachings. Biblical pronouncements should be explained dispensational in the context in which they were made, which demands that the expositor determines whether they apply to the dispensation of the law, the church, the reign of the Antichrist, or the kingdom dispensation of Christ’s reign of peace. This principle applies particularly to the book Revelation, in which the church age (chap. 1 to 3), the glorification of the church (chap. 4 to 5), the reign of the Antichrist (chap. 6 to 19), and Christ’s millennial rule (chap. 20) are clearly distinguished. If this distinction is not made, big confusion, false expectations, dangerous ignorance and serious deception will follow.

Various other matters should also be taken into account in expositions, such as the individuals or groups about whom a statement is made (e.g. Israel, the church or the Gentiles), as well as the literal or symbolic nature of a statement or parable. Replacement theology should not be practised by substituting Israel with the church, and logical statements should not be spiritualised or explained metaphorically only to avoid their literal meaning. The messengers of the Lord therefore have a big task to correctly and purely proclaim the world of truth. If they are deceived themselves, they will also cause many other to fall in error, thereby exposing themselves to stricter judgement (James 3:1).

Judging the church

In the year 95 AD when John received his prophecies on the end-time there were already extensive problems in the early Christians church – on the one hand due to persecution and pressure from outside, and on the other hand because of internal spiritual and doctrinal deception which was widely prevalent. This situation had so many negative consequences that the church of Christ was in a serious struggle for survival. The powers of darkness were actively working, and various congregations were in danger of completely losing their faith and divine calling. However, some of them did not backslide and succumbed to the onslaught, and they are encouraged not to become despondent but to keep on fighting the good fight of faith and finish the race as overcomers.

In view of these widespread problems, various warnings on spiritual deception are extended to Christian churches. Should they continue with their wrong views, certain immediate consequences would follow, such as the Lord withdrawing their lampstand from them, which symbolises the light of the Holy Spirit. The congregation would then either cease to exist or it would continue as a dead church in which fables or myths are proclaimed to members. Christ says to one such congregation: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (Rev. 3:1). In another case He says about a false prophetess who deceive almost an entire congregation: “And I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality [unfaithfulness], and she did not repent. Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds” (Rev. 2:21-22). The deceived people will remain behind at the rapture and be judged in the great tribulation together with all the sinners. All backsliders receive the same message: “Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and fight against them [those who apostatised] with the sword of My mouth” (Rev. 2:16).

However, true believers will not be in the tribulation period to be judged with all the wicked people. John has already earlier confirmed in his Gospel that everyone who believes in Christ as his Saviour, “has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgement” (John 5:24). Their works will indeed be judged before the judgement of Christ in heaven where rewards of grace will be given to them; that is why the elders in heaven all have victors’ crowns on their heads (Rev. 4:4). Faithful church members are encouraged to persevere on the right way, not allowing the devil to rob them from their fruitfulness and dedication to Christ: “Behold, I come quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown” (Rev. 3:11).

The overcomers will rule over the nations with Christ in His thousand-year reign of peace if they do not become slack and give up the struggle: “But hold fast what you have till I come. And he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations” (Rev. 2:25-26). Even if other believers around you start wandering away from the truth, you should not join them in backsliding. The Lord Jesus says to faithful followers who persevered on the way of holiness in the midst of a large majority of spiritually dead members: “You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life” (Rev. 3:4-5).

The small group of faithful disciples of Jesus have the obligation to proclaim the gospel of salvation to all people on earth. The whole world will be judged in the day of the Lord if they continue rejecting this message. In a spiritual sense, the true disciples of Christ have the future of the entire world in their hands, as the Lord has commissioned us to make disciples of all the nations. If we fail to do this work, these people will be lost but the Lord will require their blood at our hand. However, if they hear the message of salvation and reject it, they will still be lost but they, themselves, will be responsible for their ruin.

Can you see how vitally important is the commission to evangelise the world, and how imperative that churches do not deviate from the Word, but remain absolutely true to Him who is the incarnate Word? The saving grace of God has become manifest in the life, preaching, atoning death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Soon, He will return from heaven to catch away His bridal congregation to eternal bliss, and subsequently judge the unsaved world in righteousness. All people will appear before Him as the omnipotent Judge, and every knee shall bow. Some people will see Him as Saviour and Bridegroom and greatly rejoice in Him, while others will only see Him as the Judge who will condemn them because of their unbelief. In the great tribulation, unrepentant sinners will be panic-stricken and flee away from His face.

In which of these two groups are you, the members of your family, other relatives, friends and colleagues? Are all of them ready to appear before Christ? It is now the time to awake spiritually and not to follow the example of the foolish virgins who will only wake up after the Bridegroom has left with His bride, with the darkness of the impending tribulation rapidly enfolding the world.

When the four horsemen of God’s end-time judgements start running over the world, as described in Revelation 6, humankind will be defenceless against the Antichrist’s rise to supremacy. His power of deception will be so big, and the political, military and economic powers which he will acquire as world leader so extensive, that no human power will be able to prevail against him. It will only be possible to prevail against him spiritually through the blood of the Lamb by people who love not their lives to the death (Rev. 12:11). Only a steadfast faith, as well as fearlessness in the face of a martyr’s death, will be able to overcome him. However, there is a far better way to follow: “Watch therefore, and pray always, that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36). Vigilant Christians will be in heaven when the Antichrist is revealed on earth to do his destructive works.