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Studies in the book of Revelation: How to stand for God

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Revelation 10-14

Seals, trumpets, and signs

I. Seven seals (6.1-8.1):

A. White horse of conquest (6.2)

B. Red horse of war (6.3-4)

C. Black horse of famine (6.5-6)

D. Pale horse of death (6.7-8)

E. Altar of slain faithful (6.9-11)

F. Great earthquake of the wrath of the Lamb (6.12-17)

Interlude—the sealing of the 144,000 (ch. 7)

G. Silence in heaven for “about half an hour” (8.1)

II. Seven trumpets (8.2-11-19):

Interlude: the angel with incense, the prayers of the saints (8.2-5)

A. Hail and fire—1/3 of earth burned up (8.7)

B. Huge mountain thrown into the sea—1/3 of sea to blood, 1/3 of

its creatures killed, 1/3 of its ships destroyed (8.8-9)

C. Great star fell on 1/3 of the rivers, turning water bitter (8.10-11)

D. 1/3 of sun, moon, stars struck and turned dark (8.12)

E. First woe: Abyss opened, scorpions released to attack all without

the seal of God (9.1-12)

F. Second woe: four angels released to kill 1/3 of mankind (9.13-21)

Interlude: the angel with the little scroll (ch. 10), two witnesses (11.1-14)

G. Praise of God by heaven and the 24 elders (11.15-19)

III. Seven signs (12.1-14.20)

A. The pregnant woman (12.1-2, 5-6, 13-17)

B. The red dragon which wars against her (12.3ff)

C. The beast out of the sea (13.1-10)

D. The beast out of the earth (13.14-18)

E. The Lamb and the 144,000 (14.1-5)

F. The three angels condemning Babylon and calling for faith in God

(14.6-13)

G. The harvest of the earth by the “son of man” and his angels (14.14-20)

The angel and the little scroll (Revelation 10)

The purpose of this interlude: to answer the perennial question of the martyrs. Those who suffer and die for Jesus will not die in vain; their pain is known, and their victory assured. The purposes of God “will be accomplished” (v. 7), despite current appearances.

The angel’s identity: “Another mighty angel”—cf. 5.2, “I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice….” The rainbow above his head signifies God’s pledge never to destroy the earth again with a flood (Genesis 9.8-17), using symbols from Ezekiel 1.26-28. His legs “like fiery pillars” recalls the pillar of fire which guided (Exodus 13.21-22) and protected (Exodus 14.19, 24) the Jews during the exodus and in the wilderness. He stands both on sea and on land, showing that his message is for all of creation and all the world. By taking his stand on earth, he moves the focus from heaven (4.1) to earth.

His “little scroll”: Not the same scroll as in chapter 5, which was intended to reveal its contents; this scroll is to be eaten by John. Some see this as the vision of chapter 11, others as a second revelation which begins with chapter 12. In the Ezekiel context (cf. 2.8ff), it seems most likely that this is a general commission to preach a message of judgment for sin and condemnation upon Rome (Summers 161-2).

The thunders which accompanied him: “The voices of seven thunders spoke” (v. 3). Their voices were legible, so that John was about to write down their messages. Then he was prohibited from doing so by “a voice from heaven” (v. 4).

In Revelation, thunder is typical of warning (cf. 8.5, 11.19, 16.18). Elsewhere they are a premonition of judgments of divine wrath. But here they are not to be recorded, because there is no more warning: “There will be no more delay!” (v. 6).

His oath: He “raised his right hand to heaven” (v. 5), a practice in Jewish oath taking (cf. Genesis 14.22-23, Deuteronomy 32.40). He “swore by him who lives for ever and ever” (v. 6), encouragement to those facing martyrdom. He promised that “the mystery of God will be accomplished” (v. 7a). And he connected this “mystery” with the message of the prophets (v. 7b).

His gift to John: John asked for the little scroll, and was told to eat it (v. 9), symbolic of grasping fully its contents. It was “sour” in his stomach, indicative of hardship and suffering to come. But it was “sweet as honey” in his mouth, showing that it is ultimately good news for John and his people (cf. the scroll in Ezekiel 3.3, “It was in my mouth as sweet as honey”).

Applications

God and his message are sovereign over the world, appearances notwithstanding today.

We are to speak as God speaks to us, and to be silent where he commands it. We are to announce the full counsel of God’s message—both the bitter and the sweet. We are to tell people of sin and judgment, as well as salvation and grace. The bitter makes the sweet relevant. We must be willing to sacrifice our comfort to obey Jesus.

The two witnesses (Revelation 11)

The reed for measuring the temple (1-2): The “reed” was a bamboo-like cane which often grew to a height of 20 feet and was an excellent and typical measuring rod. John was not to measure the outer court of the Gentiles (approximately 26 acres in size).

This is clearly symbolic in nature, as the actual temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70. But dispensationalists see this as a promise that the temple will be rebuilt for or during the “Great Tribulation.” Many are engaged in efforts to bring about this rebuilding even now.

Dr. John Newport sees this temple as reference to the church during the Great Tribulation—its existence and protection. It seems to me that the vision shows us that the real temple of Jesus Christ is indestructible: the believer in the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 3.16, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?”).

The assault on the holy city (v. 2): Their assault would last 42 months. When the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes (168-165 BC) assaulted Jerusalem, his desecrations lasted for three years. This may be the meaning of the vision.

Others see this as a reference to the 70th week of Daniel (Daniel 9.27), divided into two equal parts. Some further interpret this period as the first half of the “Great Tribulation.” If this is the case, the vision could have little reference to John’s first-century context and needs. In apocalyptic language, this may simply refer to a limited period of unrestrained wickedness.

The identity of the two witnesses (vs. 3-12): Given the nature of their work (“power to shut the sky so that it will not rain” and “power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want”), most have identified them as apocalyptic references to Elijah and Moses. If so, the vision is identifying the present-day persecutions of God’s people with those they have always experienced, even under their greatest prophets and leaders.

Others (cf. Larkin) see the “two witnesses” as actual figures who will appear in the future.

B. H. Carroll (continuous-historical school) identified them as the apostasy of the church (he makes the 1,260 days correspond to 1,260 years), and these preachers as forerunners of the Reformation and witnesses of the true gospel.

The dispensational approach typically refers these events to the period following the “rapture,” and argues that the temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt and Moses and Elijah will be returned to minister there.

Their work and its results: They preach with great effectiveness for 1,260 days (42 months x 30 days each), apparently the same period as the assault of verse 2. This period probably corresponds to the early success of the apostolic movement.

They are killed by “the beast that comes up from the Abyss” (v. 7), a reference to demonic opposition to their message and ministry. They are mocked by their enemies, but only for 3 ½ days. This is probably a reference to the Roman persecution which attempted to end the apostolic movement of Christian faith.

Then they are returned to life (v. 11), as “terror struck those who saw them.” They are returned to heaven (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4.17, “we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air”). This shows that the Roman opposition to the gospel will not succeed, and that faithful witnesses will be rewarded eternally.

The earthquake which follows (v. 13): God often uses earthquakes to bring judgment; cf. Ezekiel 38.19: “In my zeal and fiery wrath I declare that at that time there shall be a great earthquake in the land of Israel.” 7,000 are killed; the rest acknowledge the God of the heavens.

The seventh trumpet: praise in heaven (vs. 15-19): “Loud voices” praise God, for the kingdom of the world has now become the kingdom of Christ, and “he will reign for ever and ever” (v. 15). The 24 elders join their praise, for “the time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets” (v. 18). The Holy of Holies is opened, the ark of the covenant is seen, and lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and a great hailstorm respond (v. 19).

Applications

God will redeem our suffering for his glory. Jesus will one day make the kingdom of the world his kingdom, and he will rule it forever. We must be willing to sacrifice our lives and our reputations for Jesus.

The first two signs: pregnant woman and her war with the dragon (ch. 12)

The “great and wondrous sign” of the pregnant woman (vs. 1-2): Some see this vision as a reference to Mary, given that her son is the Messiah (v. 5). The symbolism shows how God exalted and would protect her. Others see this as reference to the church and her members.

The red dragon who assaults her (vs. 3ff): Herod tried to kill her child in Bethlehem. Here we see the satanic origin of this attack, and of all others against Mary and the followers of her Son (cf. Job 7.12, Psalm 74.14, 89.10, Isaiah 27.1, 51.9, Ezekiel 32.2).

He has “seven heads,” “ten horns,” and “ten crowns,” showing his power and universal sovereignty over the nations of men; this is another reference to the demonic power resident in the Roman Empire’s attacks on Christianity. Against such power, the existence of the church must seem perilous, indeed. This is most likely a reference to Domitian, the demonic and insane persecutor of Christians during the writing of Revelation.

The child who is exalted: He will “rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” Cf. Psalm 2.9, fulfilled finally in Jesus’ Second Coming: “Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter.’ He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty” (Revelation 19.15). He is “snatched up to God and to his throne” (v. 5) in his resurrection and ascension.

John may be using popular legends to show powerfully the identity and victory of Jesus. The Babylonians told of the overthrow of the wicked sea monster Tiamat by the young god of heaven Marduk, the child of Damkina, the earth mother. The Persians and Egyptians had similar stories.

The Greeks told of the birth of Apollo: his mother, the goddess Leto, reached the time of her delivery, but was pursued by the dragon Python who sought to kill both her and her unborn child. The island of Delos welcomed her, where she gave birth to the god Apollo. Four days after his birth, he found Python at Parnassus and killed him in his Delphic cave (cf. Newport 230-1). If these tales are in John’s mind, he uses them masterfully to show how Christ is the real Lord of the universe.

The woman’s protection: During the 42 months of persecution she will be protected in “a place prepared for her by God” (v. 6). She is “given the two wings of a great eagle so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the desert” (v. 14). Lindsey sees this as a reference to the United States military, perhaps the 6th fleet in the Mediterranean.

Satan tries again to attack her with a river, but “the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of its mouth” (v. 16).

It is interesting to note that Mary lived with John in the hills above Ephesus, where their persecutors could not find and attack them.

If this is a reference to the church in general, it is a promise that Satan cannot destroy us. Cf. Justin the Martyr, “You can kill us but you cannot hurt us.”

The war in heaven (vs. 7-9): This is not the original war of Satan against God, but the enemy’s renewed (and perhaps final) attempt to overthrow the Lord. Michael, the fighting angel, and his forces war against Satan. Once again he is defeated and “hurled to the earth, and his angels with him” (v. 9).

The faithfulness of God’s people (vs. 10-12, 17): The “accuser” (the meaning of “Satan” in Hebrew) has accused us before God day and night. But we can overcome him “by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (v. 11). We must not love our “lives so much as to shrink from death” (v. 12), for then we will be rewarded eternally.

We should expect persecution to continue, for “the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (v. 17). Jesus warned us, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15.20). But in Christ we will overcome.

Applications

Satan is a defeated foe. He tries four times to defeat God and his people, and fails each time: he attacks the “woman,” her Son, the Lord, and his followers. But God is triumphant, as his people will be. We must be willing to sacrifice our lives for Jesus (v. 11). Then Satan can have no hold on us.

Next two signs: beast out of the sea and beast out of the earth (ch. 13)

The “beast out of the sea”: Has ten horns, seven heads, and ten crowns on his horns, on each a blasphemous name (v. 1). Lindsey sees this as the ten nations of the European Common Market, and its economic power as represented by that financial entity.

He resembles a leopard, with feet like a bear and a mouth like a lion (v. 2). This shows his vicious power to make war. The dragon gives the beast “his power and his throne and great authority” (v. 3), showing the demonic power behind Domitian’s rule.

He has a “fatal wound” which had been healed (v. 3). Some see this as the Antichrist of the “end times” (though that title is nowhere used in Revelation). But 1 John 4.3 says, “every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard is coming and even now is already in the world.” 2 John 7 adds, “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.”

Response: “The whole world was astonished and followed the beast” (v. 3). Men worshipped the dragon as a result, and the beast as well (v. 4).

Blasphemy: “All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose named have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (v. 8). This beast exercises authority for 42 months (v. 5). He blasphemes God and makes war against his people (vs. 6-7).

So, “This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints” (v. 10). The reference makes it problematic to claim that Christians will not be present during the period in history described by this text.

The “beast out of the earth” rises to accompany the first beast: He has “two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon” (v. 11). (Given his Christ-like outward appearance, Calvin and Luther identified him with the pope and thus the Roman Catholic Church.)

His purpose: he “made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed” (v. 12). There was a council created in Asia Minor to enforce state religion, and is most likely referenced here (Summers 178).

His work: He performed “great and miraculous signs” (v. 13). This caused people to set up an image in honor of the first beast (v. 14). He was “given power to give breath to the image of the first beast” (v. 15). He forced everyone to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, without which he could not survive economically (vs. 16-17).

His number: 666 (v. 18): This number can be calculated by anyone who “has insight” (v. 18a). It is “man’s number” (v. 18b). Many schemes and solutions have been proposed, using numeric equivalents for letters of various languages (“gematria”). For example, “Nero Caesar” in Hebrew would be “Nron Ksr”; the Hebrew numeric equivalents would add to 666 (N=50, R=200, O=6, N=50, K=100, S=6-, R=200). There was a common belief in John’s day that Domitian was Nero returned from the dead, so this number would identify the Emperor.

By this system, Euanthas and Lateinos (the first Roman ruler) have been suggested as well. Hitler could be identified, if the English alphabet has numerical equivalents beginning with A=100, B=101, etc. Other schemes have made Henry Kissinger’s name equal 666, and even Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Most likely, the vision uses 6 as the evil number, just short of perfection (7). The number six stated three times would be the “unholy trinity” of the red dragon and his two beasts, corresponding to the Holy Trinity (symbolized as 777). Anything elevated to the third level in Hebrew thought is made to be of the highest degree; thus this is ungodliness to the highest (or lowest) level.

Applications

Satan is deceptive (cf. 2 Corinthians 11.13-15: “Such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And it is no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve”). He will use any means to coerce people to follow him.

We must be willing to sacrifice for Jesus.

The last three signs: Lamb, angels, and the harvest of the earth (ch. 14)

The “Lamb” now stands before John on Mount Zion. Jesus is the “Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13.8). He fulfills the Paschal lamb of the sacrificial system, dying one for all of humanity (cf. Hebrews 10.10: “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”).

He stands on Mount Zion, the fortress of the pre-Israelite city of Jerusalem which was captured by David and made his capital (cf. 2 Samuel 5.7; Psalm 48.2-3, Joel 2.32); in Revelation, it stands for the heavenly Jerusalem, the eternal dwelling place of God and his people.

With him are the 144,000 (cf. Rev 7.4): Some see these as reference to the actual Jewish tribes, the faithful Jewish remnant. Others claim that Jews will all be included in heaven. Jehovah’s Witnesses see these as those in heaven by God’s reward for their faithful service on earth through JW ministry. Most see this as symbolic of all the faithful believers living through tribulation.

They sing a new song, keep themselves pure sexually, and live with blameless morality. This is not works-righteousness, but the result of a heart and soul which seek Jesus passionately and sacrificially.

Three angels follow with proclamation (vs. 6-12): The first proclaims the “eternal gospel” (v. 6), the only time “gospel” is used in Revelation. He calls the earth to “Fear God and give him glory” (v. 7).

The second pronounces, “Fallen is Babylon the Great, which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries” (v. 8). Babylon represented all that was vile to the Jews, and is the typical symbol in Revelation of Rome and her Empire (cf. 1 Pt 5.13, “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark”). “Fallen” is the “constative aorist,” “which looks upon the entire process of Rome’s fall as one momentary act of falling. So certain is the fall in the mind and purpose of God that it is looked upon as already having taken place” (Summers 181).

The third warns the populace not to take the mark of the beast (emperor worship), lest they be “tormented with burning sulfer in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb” (v. 10).

And so “patience endurance on the part of the saints” is required (v. 12). With this promise: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on…they will rest [the word means to be “refreshed”] from their labor [the word means “great adversity”], for their deeds will follow them” (v. 13).

We are reminded of Jesus’ promise, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5.11-12).

The earth is now “harvested” or judged (vs. 13-20; cf. Is 63.1-6): The “son of man” on a cloud “swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested” (v. 16). Another angel (Jewish tradition identifies Gabriel with this task) with a sharp sickly “swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath” (v. 19).

Cf. Joel 3.13, “Swing the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Come, trample the grapes, for the winepress is full and the vats overflow—so great is their wickedness!”; and Jesus’ words, “The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels” (Matthew 13.39).

The wine rose as high as horses’ bridles “for a distance of 1,600 stadia” (v. 20)—about 180 miles, approximately the length of Palestine.

Applications

God rewards his faithful. He will punish the wicked. We must be willing to sacrifice morally and endure patiently for Jesus. Like John, we are called to speak God’s words. They will be both sour and sweet, but they are urgent and essential.

Such obedience will cost us everything we have, but it will lead to blessing and reward such as only God can give. Satan’s worst forces will be destroyed, as Rome was, and “we win!”