Rescuing Revelation: Part II

This is Part II of a 2-part essay. For Part 1, click HERE

Covenant context

Most Bible teachers apply the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles directly to Christians today without any thought of the historical – and more importantly, legal – context. The ministry of Christ and the Apostles began a day of reckoning that had been predicted in the Law and the Prophets. The phrase ‘the last days’ in Hebrews 1:1-2 does not refer to the New Covenant era but to the death throes of the Old:

For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch… Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. (Malachi 4:1, 5)

I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matthew 3:11-12)

Jesus and the Apostles, like John the Baptist before them, were murdered because they were prophets who faithfully spoke the truth to those in power in their day. This explains the number of times Jesus refers to ‘this generation’. Those powers were abusing the authority given to them by God as part of the Old Covenant administration. The Pharisees were exploiting the seat of Moses (priesthood: Oath), and the Herods – who were descendants of Esau – had usurped the throne of David (kingdom: Sanctions). This means that the New Testament, which includes the book of Revelation, can only be rightly interpreted in the light of the Law and the Prophets. And so, the testimony of two witnesses was required to condemn Israel (Deuteronomy 17:6Matthew 18:16-2026:59-60Mark 14:561 Corinthians 14:291 Timothy 5:19), thus the authority of the two witnesses, Moses (Law) and Elijah (Prophets), the men who could turn the sea into blood and shut up the sky, was transferred to the testimony of Jesus and His Church (Matthew 17:4-5Luke 16:29-31Revelation 11:6-7).

Covenant context is also invaluable when it comes to interpreting the warnings in the book of Hebrews. These were written to the Jewish Christians of the first century, so the ‘apostasy’ about which they were warned was not something a Christian can commit today. It was a return to a system of atonement that was now obsolete and soon to disappear. Those who had been enlightened by the Gospel, yet trampled underfoot the blood of Christ in their return to the Old Covenant ‘shadows’, would be judged and destroyed under the Law in which they sought shelter. For them, the destruction of the Temple and its sacrifices for sins would be a great day of ‘uncovering’ before the face of God.

We must remember that the New Testament was written for us, not to us. Therefore, prophetic books only make sense when understood as ‘covenant lawsuits’ for a particular era. But this does not mean they are now irrelevant. Nobody interprets the warnings of Jeremiah as being written to us today, yet we can still apply them. Likewise, the book of Ezekiel, although it warns of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem, reminds us that judgment upon the nations always begins at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). As with any literature, the rule must be ‘interpretation before application’. We cannot apply a text if do not first seek to understand it in its historical context. This includes the book of Revelation, which not only reiterates the legal process of the book of Ezekiel but also reprises much of its imagery.

(Mis)reading apocalyptic passages

As the New Testament records, and as many Christians recite in the Apostles’ Creed, our faith is founded upon actual historical events, and that is a crucial part of the strength of our testimony. Our God is not a myth and neither are His acts in history. The problem we have concerning the book of Revelation stems from our failure to take into consideration the immediate results of those first century events. Taken at face value, the New Testament appears to warn its first readers about coming events that were not only momentous but also imminent. This means that there is a great discrepancy between the sacred texts and the things that modern Christians are actually taught. C. S. Lewis writes:

The apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else. This is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.1

Is Lewis correct in this observation? If Jesus and His disciples were wrong, then it follows that nothing else in the New Testament can be trusted. This was the very conclusion reached by atheist Bertrand Russell, who, although he granted that many of the teachings of Christ were excellent, regarded such apparent defects as clear evidence that the Scriptures were not inspired but merely the work of humans:

For one thing, [Jesus] certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that. He says, for instance, ‘Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of Man be come.’ Then he says, ‘There are some standing here which shall not taste death till the Son of Man comes into His kingdom’; and there are a lot of places where it is quite clear that He believed that His second coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of His earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of His moral teaching.2

The reason for Lewis’ concern about the Bible’s ‘most embarrassing verse’ and Russell’s logical dismissal of Jesus as the Son of God is our failure to understand what imminent event Jesus was actually talking about. The blessings and curses pronounced by the Apostolic Church were not ‘pie-in-the-sky’ promises or false alarms, and the fact that they came to pass precisely as predicted, in the time frame expected, is further proof of the identity of Jesus as the incarnate Word. Where Matthew, Mark and Luke include the Olivet discourse concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, John gives us the book of Revelation. The Pharisees condemned the harlots and tax collectors but their city had become the epitome of spiritual adultery and a den of thieves.

To assert that the days of vengeance described in the book of Revelation are anything but the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD – the very city that had been commissioned with the task of mediating before God on behalf of all nations – is to deny the basic logic of the entire Bible. When the New Testament (including Revelation) is read in the light of the books of Moses, many of the inexplicable things that Jesus and the Apostles said suddenly make perfect sense. The final book of the Bible is not about the end of history. Revelation is not about the end of the world. Like Ezekiel, it is about the end of a covenant era – in this case, the Old Covenant. Once it is understood in its historical – and more importantly, ‘covenant’ – context, not only is the question of Jesus’ trustworthiness answered but the Revelation itself is rescued from the obscurity of the ‘fringe’ of biblical studies and is allowed to shine as one of the most insightful and enlightening books of the Bible.

The future is Christian

Now, this likely raises more questions than it answers, but the only real problem is our ignorance of Scripture – our lack of familiarity with the symbolic language of the Bible, its sacred architecture and its careful literary sequencing. The solution to that is further reading, and I make some recommendations below. But the main question would be this: ‘Does the book of Revelation contain predictions of anything that is still future for those of us living today?’

The answer is, yes, most certainly. The final chapters of the book correspond to the Succession step of the biblical covenant, which outlines the future for those who passed through the first century Sanctionsof the Covenant with the blessing of God. Following the judgment of Jerusalem and the Gentiles with whom the Herods had conspired, chapter 20 describes this current age in which Satan is bound from gathering all nations together at once against the Church. Like a deposed king, he is bound with a chain so that Jesus might gather a harvest from all nations. This means that any attempt at international unity outside of the Gospel of Christ is not only doomed to fail, but also a sign that the end of the world is anything but nigh.3 The nations will remain divided until they are conquered. Only after the Gospel has reached all nations, and all rebellion against Jesus reaches maturity – deliberate revolt rather than unwitting disobedience – will the final judgment occur.

The event commonly referred to as Jesus’ ‘second coming’ is history. He came ‘without delay’ in 70AD, just as He said He would. He now rules the nations with a rod of iron, but the final judgment is yet to come. Jesus’ claims concerning His resurrection were vindicated, proving Him to be a better Adam. Revelation describes His vindication as a better Abel, finally avenging the blood of the martyrs upon the brothers who slew them, in this case the Edomite Herods (the ‘first resurrection’). His next vindication will be global, the harvest of the world in the power of the Spirit (the ‘second resurrection’). So keep planting and keep watering. God will bring the increase. Every nation on earth has a Christian future.

What can we learn from the terrible events of the first century, which the Revelation describes as the sacrificial offering of the ‘firstfruits’ of the Christian Church? Like all those who have followed in their footsteps, those early martyrs died to bring down the principalities and powers of the day. This means that the suffering of the saints is not the mark of an irredeemable world but the very means of its transformation. Every trial and test we face, both as individuals and as local gatherings, follows the covenant pattern established in Adam and perfected in Jesus. Trust the words of God, persevere in patient obedience, and you will change the course of history.

Mike Bull is a graphic designer in the Blue Mountains of Australia, and author, most recently, of Moses and the Revelation. This post was originally found on Ethos.org

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References   [ + ]

1. From C. S. Lewis, ‘The World’s Last Night’, 1960, found in The Essential C. S. Lewis.
2. From ‘Why I Am Not A Christian’, a lecture delivered in 1927 to the National Secular Society in London, found in Why I Am Not A Christian And Other Essays, 1957.
3. See my five-part article on the binding of Satan and its geopolitical implications at https://theopolisinstitute.com/brexit-and-the-binding-of-satan-part-1/.
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