Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Hard Things in the Bible, part 3: Revelation

The book of Revelation or Apocalypse certainly qualifies as ‘hard things’ of the Bible. But don't leave! I promise, we can make some sense of it.
Revelation is full of prophecies and symbolism. That shouldn’t surprise anyone: Revelation tells you, right at the beginning, that it was written in symbolism:
Rev. 1:1 “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants the things which must shortly take place. And He sent it and signified it by His angel to His servant John.”
Sometimes we signify something by raising our hand or nodding our head. But the Greek word can also be translated “in signs or symbols.” And given that what follows includes some amazing word pictures, it seems likely that John was using the word in that way. Does anyone think that John was warning us to be on the lookout for literal dragons and 7-headed beasts?
  • As we pointed out in part 1 of this series, opinions are a dime a dozen... everybody has them, and they all have the same value: zero. The only way to know for sure that your understanding of a hard Bible passage is on the mark is to compare it to other parts of the Bible.  So that’s how we’re going to go about this.
Before we get to the individual symbols, we need to understand when to look for these signs or symbols. Does Revelation answer that?
Rev. 1:10 “In the Spirit I found myself present on the day of the Lord.”
John’s use of the term “Day of the Lord” didn’t mean Sunday. Sunday didn’t have any special significance until hundreds of years after John died and even then, it was part of Catholicism’s attempt to overwrite pagan ideas. But there are other biblical references to a special future “day”. 

The Bible frequently refers to ‘Judgment Day’, what some call Armageddon. One of the earliest of these references is when Jehovah speaks to Job about “the day of battle and war. . .” (Job 38:23) I don’t imagine anyone thinks that “day” refers to a literal single day. Wars take time. They usually happen after some period of warning, after some time was spent on peace negotiations that have finally broken down.

The translation “ON the Lord’s day” is misleading. The first definition of the Greek en is ‘in’, not ‘on’. No doubt most of the translators rendered it ‘on’ instead of ‘in’ because it’s a phrase pointing to a day. When we are being specific we say ‘on such and such a day’, but when we are referring to a time period, we say “in”: ‘In my grandfather’s day.’ If the translators had recognized that John was speaking about a time period rather than a single day they wouldn’t have had to try to bend Greek grammar.
So: Jehovah’s ‘Day of war’ means more than a single day. Did John mean the war of Armageddon when he spoke about the Lord’s Day? Not exactly. In several places in Revelation, such as at chapter 16, verses 14-16, John talks about events, in some cases events that would require years to happen, leading up to “the war of the great day of God the Almighty” (Armageddon). But John includes all these preliminary events leading up to Armageddon in his expression ‘the Lord’s Day’ – a time period other Bible writers refer to as “the last days.”  1 Timothy 3:1 is an example.
Can we corroborate this understanding from another place in the Bible, to prove that John was speaking about a time period building to Armageddon?
Well, how about this:
“Just as the days of Noah were, so the presence of the Son of man will be. For as they were in those days before the Flood, eating and drinking, men marrying and women being given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and they took no note until the Flood came and swept them all away, so the presence of the Son of man will be.” (Matthew 24:37-39)

Jesus refers to the period preceding the Flood as a parallel to his future presence. (By the way, if your Bible says “coming” instead of “presence” in these passages, you need to get a better Bible. The Greek word in all these places is parousia, from which we get our English word “presence”... It even has a P, an R, and an S, just like “presence.” The Greek word for “coming” is erkhomenon; and the fact that the root part of that word ‘kom’ sounds a lot like the English word “coming” is not an accident, either.)
 At the start of that chapter, some of his apostles had asked Jesus for a sign of his presence. And this passage about the pre-flood world was part of his answer. His answer also included wars on a massive scale, food shortage, pestilences and earthquakes in one place after another – clearly signifying a period of time, not one day.
So when John says that in some spirit-assisted way he found himself ‘in the Lord’s Day’, it is reasonable that he was speaking about seeing visions of that same future, pre-Armageddon period of time.
If further proof is needed, John’s description of the ‘horsemen of the apocalypse’ in Revelation chapter 6 includes war, famine and pestilence – the same signs Jesus told his apostles,in Matthew 24, would mark 'the last days'.
What has confused some readers of the Revelation account is that the first horse out of the gate is the white horse, and his rider is armed with a bow, given a crown, and described as heading toward a conquest. People want to equate that picture with Armageddon, but it almost seems backwards: if the white horse and the crowned rider refer to the establishment of Jesus’ kingdom, why is it immediately followed by war, famine and pestilence? Billy Graham even went so far as to claim that the rider on the white horse couldn’t possibly mean the establishment of Jesus’ kingdom; It had to represent some false kingdom.
He and several other Bible commentators, however, are failing to connect the dots. You have to use the Bible, not your own intuition, to understand the Bible.  
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When Jesus apostles asked about his (future) presence Jesus answered that it would be characterized by many bad things that would begin happening on Earth.  So yes, Billy, the establishment of Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t happen at Armageddon. It happens earlier, and then is immediately followed by bad things, rising to the crescendo of Armageddon.
Another vision within Revelation makes exactly the same point:
“War broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels battled with the dragon, and the dragon and its angels battled but they did not prevail, nor was a place found for them any longer in heaven. So down the great dragon was hurled... On this account be glad, you heavens and you who reside in them! Woe for the earth and for the sea, because the Devil has come down to you, having great anger, knowing that he has a short period of time.” (Revelation 12:7-12)

Again, we see a reference to a period of time, marked by ‘woe for the earth’, that precedes the climax that will spell the end for Satan.
Of course, there’s way too much to the book of Revelation to discuss in a short article like this one. In coming discussions we’ll deal with some of the individual symbols, characters, beasts, and numbers.
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Bill K. Underwood is a columnist, consultant, photographer and author of three bible-friendly novels available in either ebook or paper at