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"And they had on their heads crowns of gold" (Revelation 4:4).
 

7

Revelation

Revelation, the last book of the Bible, is exactly what its name implies, a revelation. It is not a dark mystery book sealed to our understanding. It is open. "Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand" (Revelation 22:10). As the time becomes more and more at hand, people are understanding the book more and more. Some of the symbols, of course, await the events to occur to clear them up. But most of the symbols we understand already, and the main message of the book is open. (The book of Daniel also is becoming more and more unsealed as the time of the end approaches in fulfillment of Daniel 12:9.)

This book climaxes the entire Bible in many ways. In the progress of revelation this forms the capstone. This being so, we would expect the time of the rapture to be more clear in Revelation than it was in Thessalonians. And so it is. First Thessalonians reveals a description of the rapture, but not the time. Now Revelation reveals the time. This is all according to God's pattern of revealing truths one step at a time.

 

THE DUAL PURPOSE OF REVELATION

God gave this book "to show unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass" (1:1). This raises the question: What does the church care about tribulation events if we will not even be around then?

The answer is the same here as it was in 2 Thessalonians because Revelation is a companion volume to 2 Thessalonians. Both books were occasioned by persecution (2 Thessalonians 1:4; Revelation 1:9), and both show the recompense for persecution by dealing with events during the great tribulation climaxing with the return of Christ in glory.

The church has a live interest in these events even though we will not be on the earth. As we discussed in our chapter on 2 Thessalonians, we desire God to reveal His glory to the world and take vengeance on the wicked. The first generation Thessalonian believers are in heaven now and so are the church members to whom John wrote Revelation. Were these books irrelevant to them? Of course not! They met a real need in their lives. They offered hope and encouragement when needed most. And now that the first generation is in heaven I'm sure their prayer still is, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth" (Luke 11:2). My point is this: our desire for God's judgment is not diminished just because we are in heaven—it is enhanced.

In fact, Revelation is written from the heavenly point of view. Ask an alumnus in the grandstands if he cares who wins the homecoming game. Sure, he is no longer a student. Sure, he is not playing in the game. Does this mean he doesn't care? More than spectators from the grandstands, those in heaven actively participate in the battle between good and evil. Some join the fight (angels) and others are cheerleaders (men). We care who wins.

Ask the souls under the altar if they care. Just because they are in heaven does not prevent them from crying with a loud voice, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?" I'm sure they would never say that presence in heaven diminishes interest in tribulation events.

Revelation has a purpose not only for the church, but also for tribulation saints. For some of the symbols in the book the meaning will unfold only as the events transpire. I am sure tribulation saints will keep one eye on Revelation and one eye on the world. Just as a baseball fan follows a program to tell the players, so tribulation saints will use Revelation to give them understanding of surrounding events.

If Revelation is written for tribulation saints also, does that not prove that tribulation saints and church saints are one and the same? Not necessarily, because it is perfectly legitimate for a later group to read Scripture originally written for an earlier group. We profit from reading the Old Testament even though it was originally written for Israel. "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable" (2 Timothy 3:16). I am not the type of dispensationalist who chops off portions of God's Word saying that it does not apply to us. (For example, the "Feast of Trumpets" has application to the church as well as to Israel as we saw in chapter five.) Both church saints and tribulation saints, two distinct groups, profit from Revelation.

Have you ever noticed the double introduction to Revelation? Verses 1–3 are addressed to the "servants" of God. This term is broad enough to apply to tribulation saints and for them these events will "shortly come to pass." Tribulation saints will be able to "keep those things which are written therein" because they will be alive to refuse the mark of the beast.

Then verse 4 starts all over again with another introduction just as though the previous introduction didn't exist. The second introduction is addressed specifically to the "churches" (verses 4–6).

 

Introduction
to tribulation saints

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to show unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John: who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw. Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.

Introduction
to the church

John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne; and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

 

THE CHURCH AND THE TRIBULATION

Revelation 3:10 gives a wonderful promise to the church that she will not go through the tribulation: "Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth." Pre-tribulationists take this to mean that we will be raptured before the tribulation.

 

"Keep Thee from the Hour of Temptation." Post-tribulationists view this promise differently. To them the word "keep" means protection during the tribulation. And to them the word "from" (ek, also translated "out of") implies existence in the tribulation before we can come out of it. The identical preposition is used in Revelation 7:14: "These are they which came out of great tribulation." To clinch their point they use John 17:15 which uses both words together: "I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil." They use this verse to show that we are "kept from" while still in the world.

Their logic seems airtight at first glance, yet through all of these arguments one thing has escaped notice. It is like a young boy swinging a hammer who has hit all around the nail without once hitting the nail on the head.

What have they missed? It is the force of the unique combination of the words, "keep" and "from (out)." Suppose we approach a high voltage area and we see a sign in big red letters with two words on it, "KEEP OUT." That means if we go into this high voltage area we will be kept safely so that we won't get electrocuted. OUT. That means if we go in, we are guaranteed to come out safely. The sign says we can go in safely. Let's go. Forget the high chain link fence and the barbed wire. Let's go in.

You see, you can't divorce the words and reason that way. You have to take the words as they come, together. Together they mean something that separately they do not. The unique combination is the key. If God promised I will be kept out of the hour of temptation, it means exactly that.

Now for a Biblical illustration of the same point, let's go to John 17:15, and I will illustrate my point from the post-trib's own verse:

I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil [one].

In this verse, what is the object of "keep from"? Is it the "world"? No. It is "the evil one." We are kept from the evil one! If we were kept from the world we would not have been born. This verse proves nothing about our presence or absence in the world during the tribulation, because our word "keep" is not used in connection with the world.

Let us analyze this further. What does it mean to be kept from the evil one? Does this mean we are kept in the evil one? Or does it imply existence in the evil one and God want to take us out? God forbid! The believer is so kept that "that wicked one toucheth him not" (1 John 5:18). To be kept from something means that it will not even touch you! This verse illustrates our meaning beautifully. Just as we are not in the evil one, so we will not be in the tribulation.

 

"keep from the evil [one]" (John 17:15)

"that wicked one toucheth him not" (1 John 5:18)

"keep from the hour of temptation" (Revelation 3:10)

that hour toucheth us not

 

"Ah, but we are in the sphere of the evil one" some may say. "God wants to keep us while in the sphere of the evil one." Let me remind you, though, the object of "keep from" is not "the sphere" but "the evil one." All I am asking is that we take the verse straight without inserting additional words.

It is objected that Peter was under the power of the evil one because Jesus prayed for him. A close reading of Jesus' words, though, shows that Satan did not have him. Jesus says only that "Satan hath desired to have you ... but I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not" (Luke 22:31–32). This was spoken the same night as the prayer of John 17, and it is further evidence that the disciples were not in Satan at that time. First John 5:18 is a foolproof commentary as to the extent of any believer's being in the evil one.

It is further said that the word "keep" necessarily implies the presence of danger which in turn implies presence in the tribulation. These implications do not necessarily follow. Since the church is carried up to the brink of the tribulation and since she would plunge into it except for the Lord's intervention, we can truthfully say that our prior separation is in light of a present danger looming before us. Even if "keep" did imply a continual keeping throughout the tribulation, it is still possible to keep something in heaven (1 Peter 1:4)! The post-trib implications don't stand up.

Again I say, the unique combination of "keep" and "from" is critical. Let us just separate the two words and see what happens. A different preposition with "keep" is used in Acts 12:5: "Peter therefore was kept in prison." Obviously, he was not prevented from entering the place. But if the passage read that Peter was "kept from prison," then you would know that he never entered prison in the first place.

A different word before "from" (or "out of") also changes the meaning. Those who "came out of great tribulation" (Revelation 7:14) obviously were not prevented from entering it. Likewise to "take them out of the world (John 17:15) implies previous existence in the world. A similar preposition is used in Jeremiah 30:7 which speaks of Israel being in "the time of Jacob's trouble, but he shall be saved out of it." All these passages imply previous existence within by the words "came" out, "take" out, or "save" out. The word "out" by itself implies nothing. It alone does not tell you if the meaning is "out beforehand" or "out afterwards." But putting it with another word tells the whole story. I can tell you I "stayed out" of a bar or I "came out" of a bar, and you would get the picture very swiftly. The unique combination of words is the key.

Different word combinations give different meanings. To communicate deliverance afterwards you would say "save from." To emphasize protection during you would say "keep in." But to promise prior prevention you would say, "keep from." (This is part of the contrast in John 17:15. Instead of belated separation from the world, Jesus asks prior separation—even stronger—from the devil.)

 

Word Combination

Meaning

Time Indicated

keep from

prevention

beforehand

keep in

preservation

during

save from

deliverance

afterwards

 

Keep out, keep in, take out

 

"Keep from the hour" signifies separation from the events of the hour. By God's prior prevention we will be kept from entering into the events of the tribulation so that they "touch us not." Here lies one difference between John 17:15 and Revelation 3:10. Whereas it is possible to be totally separated from the evil one while still in the world, it is not possible to be totally separated from the events of the tribulation while still in the world as we will demonstrate below.

 

John 17:15

Revelation 3:10

Separation from the evil one does not require separation from the world.

Separation from tribulation requires separation from the world.

 

The Purpose of the Hour. Further support for the rapture of the church prior to the tribulation comes from the purpose of the hour. The purpose according to Revelation 3:10 is "to try" those who dwell upon the earth. That is why it is called an "hour of testing." ("Temptation" here means "testing" instead of "temptation to sin.") That period has a purpose for tribulation saints because they have yet to be tested (Daniel 12:10), but the church has already been tried. "Because thou hast kept the word of my patience...." The church has successfully passed the test and kept the word of His patience. As a reward God will keep her from further and unnecessary trial. Our trial is past! There is no purpose for the church in the tribulation! If there is a purpose, what is it?

One approach says that we will be exempt from God's judgment during the tribulation, but we will not be exempt from persecution. In other words, Revelation 3:10 promises protection from only one aspect of the tribulation. There are five reasons I have difficulty accepting this theory.

First, it would be difficult to separate persecution from the hour of testing in light of other Scripture. Matthew 24:15–21 indicates that persecution upon believers is a part of the great tribulation. The word "temptation" is elsewhere used for persecution of believers (see Acts 20:19 and 1 Peter 1:6).

Second, Daniel 12:10 shows that saints during the tribulation will experience trial. Tribulation saints are not kept. (See Revelation 6:11; 13:7; 14:13. Except for Jewish saints—see Daniel 12:1 and Revelation 7:1–8—there is no promise of protection in the tribulation. Isaiah 26:20 refers not to the tribulation, but to when the Lord returns from heaven after the tribulation; notice 26:21–27:1.)

Third, Revelation 1:9 provides a contextual setting for Revelation 3:10, revealing one aspect of the tribulation which is in view. Revelation 1:9 (using the word "tribulation") clearly speaks of the patience of believers in persecution.

Fourth, those who have "kept the word of (His) patience" in Revelation 3:10 are those faithful in persecution (not the judgments of God). The reciprocal promise to keep them would miss the mark if it too did not include persecution.

Fifth, to promise partial exemption (exemption from the judgments of God, but not from persecution) is to weaken the promise of Revelation 3:10. God is promising a reward. What kind of reward would it be to say, "Since you have been faithful you will not have to suffer certain things during the tribulation, even though that hour will bring greater suffering for you in terms of fleeing for your life, and the chances are that you will be killed. But at least you have this reward: you will be exempt from the other judgments." That type of reward does not sound too compelling or convincing. Christian prisoners behind the Iron Curtain who have been tortured for years would not be impressed by such a promise. I could promise unbelievers a reward of equal size: "For not believing I promise you will be exempt from persecution." What is the difference in the size of rewards as far as the time span of the tribulation is concerned?

For these reasons I believe exemption from all the events of the tribulation are in view in Revelation 3:10. Other Scriptures indicate that persecution is included in the hour of temptation, Daniel 12:10 includes tribulation saints in the testing, contextual evidence includes persecution in the hour of testing, and the promised reward to be meaningful must be full. Therefore, if the "hour of temptation" signifies the events within that hour, then persecution must be included as one of those events, and to be kept from persecution we must be taken out of the world.

 

"All the World." "All the world" is the scope of the tribulation according to Revelation 3:10. This tells me that the verse is talking about the great tribulation of the future rather than some period of persecution in past history. It is true that persecution would try Christians, but it would not try all "them that dwell upon the earth." (By the way, Revelation 3:3 shows that these things have application to the last generation as well as the first generation.)

I have two questions about "all the world" for post-tribs. Do you believe the word "all" includes both believers and unbelievers? If you do, then persecution of believers must be included in the "hour of temptation," and we would have to be raptured in order to be kept, not killed.

Second question. Do you believe "all" refers only to unbelievers? If you do, how can "all the world" consist of unbelievers if believers enter the tribulation? Only under pre-tribulationism does "all the world" consist of unbelievers at the outset of the tribulation because all the believers will have been "caught up."

The promise of Revelation 3:10 is clear. When God puts a promise in the Bible, He intends for us to take it at its full face value. He does not intend for us to try to find a way around it. If some string were attached He would say so. The simplest interpretation, the one a child can understand, is usually the best.

 

Contrast 2:10 and 3:10. The church in Smyrna was warned, "Ye shall have tribulation ten days" (2:10). Note the contrast between 2:10 and 3:10. One says "you," the other says "them." One is obviously a local and earlier tribulation; the other is worded with wider application.

With the unique combination of "keep" and "from" implying prior separation, the church is left with no fair forewarning if she is to go through the tribulation. On the other hand, Israel is expressly told in unmistakable terms that they will be in that time (Jeremiah 30:4–7; Daniel 12:1,10). The church in Smyrna received a forewarning of a smaller-scale tribulation. If the church at large is going through the great tribulation, is it fair that she should receive no such clear forewarning?

 

Other Prepositions? Gundry asks the question, "Why was not another preposition used (apo, "away from" instead of ek, "out from") which did not imply previous presence within?"1 Actually the two words became so close in meaning by New Testament times that the difference between them was not critical. They are even used interchangeably in parallel passages. The preposition ek was strong enough and clear enough for Jesus to express prior separation from the devil in John 17:15. Linked together with "keep" it does imply prevention. Only with different verbs does it imply previous presence within.

Maybe some Greek scholar has more light than I have, but perhaps the only reason ek was chosen over apo is that ek happens to be a more common word in the New Testament, and especially in John's writings. Gundry suggests five other prepositions which are even less common. Since the more common preposition expressed the idea strongly enough there was no demand to go to a less common or to a rare preposition.

On the other hand, the preposition "through" (dia) is just as common as ek, and "in" (en) is far more common than either. If post-tribulationism were correct, there would be a demand to say "kept safely in" or "preserved through" in order to avoid the idea of prior separation which "from" has when used with "keep."

Gundry's own explanation for the usage of "from" (ek) is that the emphasis is on emergence. (As the promise was fulfilled for the first generation Philadelphian church, they did not emerge from the tribulation because they did not live to enter it. The only way the promise could hold true for them is if prior prevention were in view.) However, if the emphasis were on emergence, then why the word "keep" (tereo) instead of "deliver" (hruomai)? "Deliver would better fit the concept of emergence, it is commonly used with "from," and so we would expect it to be used. "Keep," however, is rare with "from" and it better suits prevention instead of emergence. The two words "keep" and "from," are working against each other, like mules pulling in opposite directions if one emphasizes preservation and the other emergence. The words don't cooperate with each other unless you understand this, not as deliverance afterwards, not as preservation during, but as prior prevention.

  

"As a Thief" (3:3; 16:15). Revelation 3:3 contains a warning addressed to the church in Sardis: "If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee." This raises a question. If Christ's coming "as a thief" is after the tribulation (as it uniformly is in other contexts), then how can this be addressed to the church?

The answer lies in the probability that those given the warning are unbelievers within the local church. As unbelievers they will miss the rapture and go through the tribulation and meet Christ's coming "as a thief."

Why do I suspect that these are unbelievers rather than believers? These people in Sardis are described as spiritually "dead" (3:1) and it is implied that their names are not in the book of life (3:5). As to the possibility of unbelievers in other local churches see Revelation 2:14–15,20; 3:17–20. These references include Balaamites, Nicolaitanes, Jezebel, and those unclothed with white raiment with Christ outside the door of their heart. It should never be that unbelievers are allowed to become church members, but unfortunately it happens.

When we approach the end of the tribulation in Revelation 16:15, we find the statement again: "Behold, I come as a thief." Here it does not say, as in Revelation 3:3, "Thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee." Why the omission? The reason is that 16:15 is addressed, not to unbelievers only, but to both believers and unbelievers. Unbelievers will not know the hour the thief comes, but tribulation saints will know the hour (compare Luke 12:39).

 

THE TIME OF THE RAPTURE

As you remember, First Thessalonians gave a description of the rapture without revealing the time. It left us hanging in the air. Revelation builds on that, not repeating the full description, but it does reveal the time. Revelation 4:1 locates the time at the beginning of the tribulation:

After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter.

Symbolism Used. The "trumpet" in connection with the words "come up hither" identify this as symbolizing the rapture. (There is no trumpet at Revelation 11:12.) Also the heavens open only twice in Revelation, once here at Christ's pre-trib coming and once in 19:11 (same event as 6:14) at His post-trib coming. The heavens open only for His coming.

(Gray-haired perspective: When I first wrote the book I had noticed that a door opens in heaven only twice in Revelation. But I didn't notice that a voice says "Come up hither" only twice in Revelation. The other place is Revelation 11:12, not the rapture, but a rapture-like event, when the two witnesses ascend in a cloud. So several symbols converge to confirm the same interpretation.)

Let it be clear that I never use this verse to "prove" a pre-trib rapture. I take my proof from elsewhere in the Bible that the rapture cannot occur at the end of the tribulation. Some of this evidence we saw in chapters two, three, and four, and even stronger evidence is coming in the chapters following. Having seen the evidence against a post-trib rapture, the only remaining question is: When does it occur? If it does not occur at the end, does it occur in the middle of the tribulation, or at the beginning, or sometime before the beginning? Since Revelation is the capstone in the progress of revelation it is only natural that it should answer this one last question. Revelation 4:1 is not the foundation to my belief; it is the capstone sitting on top of all the other evidence.

Do you wish that this verse spelled out the rapture in straightforward language instead of using symbolic language? This is only what we would expect in Revelation because God told us in Revelation 1:1 that He is communicating this book by "signs" ("... He sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John"). So it is perfectly normal for the rapture to be portrayed in symbolic language. Post-tribs likewise see a symbolic representation of the rapture in Revelation 14:14–16. So we are not asking you to accept anything unusual. Of course, the symbolism in no way denies that John also was literally caught up to heaven in Revelation 4.

As with any symbol there is always the danger of making the symbol stretch too far. Anyone who does stretch a symbol will find that it does not fit in all details, because a symbol is designed to communicate the central facts only. In this case the "trumpet" in connection with "come up here" are sufficient to identify this as the rapture without any stretching of the symbolism or of the imagination. Trumpets occur elsewhere without signifying the rapture, but here the trumpet in combination with "come up here" is the tip-off.

 

The Twenty-Four Elders. The scene is definitely set in heaven in the following verses.

And round about the throne were four and twenty seats [thrones]: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold (Revelation 4:4).

The controversy about the twenty-four elders involves the question: Do they represent the church, and if so, do they represent a raptured church? I will follow a different (and easier) line of argument here than is usually taken. I will not try to prove that they are the church, I will only try to prove that they are men. This is easy enough to prove from their characteristics.

Elsewhere in the Bible only men are "elders."

Only men sit on thrones (except God and Satan).

Only men wear white raiment (hi-ma-ti-on in Greek).

Only men wear crowns. This is fitting because the Greek word means a "victorious crown" rather than a "kingly crown." The Greek distinguishes between the two types of crowns. A heavenly being may wear a kingly crown, but no heavenly being has gone through the battle of life on earth in order to earn the victor's crown. (Revelation 9:7 is unique because a figurative creature is involved. Even here, though, these locusts are not heavenly beings, and it is expressly stated that their faces are as "men." Revelation 14:14 also fits the pattern because Christ as "the son of man" is a man as well as God.)

All four characteristics constitute sufficient evidence that the twenty-four elders are men. It might be possible to discount one or two of them if that were all there were. But four characteristics all at once is too much to get around. To try to explain these away, or to try to get around them one by one, is like trying to hold down four jack-in-the-boxes with one hand. The same hand that holds down one lets the other three jump up. A comprehensive and unified explanation is impossible unless we understand that these are men. (Not the church necessarily, just men.)

It may be objected, "We cannot be certain who the twenty-four elders are." (They cannot be angels, Revelation 7:11. If not men or angels, what other possibilities are there?) But remember Revelation is an unsealed book (22:10). Maybe some minor points in Revelation we do not understand yet, but the twenty-four elders are major. They are the first feature focused on in the heavenly scene after God Himself. They figure prominently no less than four times in chapters four and five. Later in the book they reappear several times at strategic events. Can we not understand a major item in an unsealed book? Obviously, God intends for us to know who they are.

God has made their identification clear, not only from their characteristics, but also from the previous context. In Revelation 2 and 3 He promises "I will give thee a crown of life ... white raiment ... to sit with me in my throne." In light of these promises in the previous context, to see the elders sitting on thrones, wearing white raiment and crowns, it is impossible to miss their identity. What can Revelation 4 be if it is not the fulfillment of these promises? The promises (in chapters 2 and 3) match the fulfillment (in chapter 4) as perfectly as a glove fits on a hand. Or would God fool us by giving us a host of false and misleading clues in a book that is unsealed? If so, the title of the book should be changed from "Revelation" to "Obscuration."

After establishing that the twenty-four elders are men, the second step in our line of argument is to notice that they have crowns on their heads.

Third, the time for men to receive crowns is at the coming of Christ, not before (2 Timothy 4:8; 1 Peter 5:4). (Exceptions occur later in Revelation in the more symbolic visions of John. However, for real men this is the rule. Of course, in 14:14 Christ wears a crown because He is resurrected and glorified as we will be at the rapture. The rapture and crowning occur simultaneously. This accounts for John's seeing the elders with crowns the moment he was caught up to heaven.)

Fourth and finally, if men's crowns are received at the coming of Christ, and if these twenty-four men have crowns, then there must have been a coming of Christ prior to this. If all three previous points are correct, then we are committed to a pre-trib rapture. (If this scene of the twenty-four elders comes at the beginning of the seven years, then this rules out a mid-tribulation rapture.)

Now we went through this entire argument without once assuming that the twenty-four elders represent the church. After finishing the argument, however, I can safely conclude that they represent New Testament saints only, because the resurrection of Old Testament saints occurs after the tribulation (Daniel 12:2).

Let us pause here to catch a glimpse of the amazing privilege God has given us. The thrones of these elders surround God's throne. This indicates that we will be associated with God as co-rulers with Him in the judgments of the tribulation! We will be on top instead of down under. What an encouragement to remain patiently under our problems just awhile longer. We also learn from the elders' attitude of praise that prayer is a high privilege. We do not have to wait to enter into this privilege, but we can live now like the kings and priests God has called us to be by offering intercession and praise.

 

THE CHRONOLOGY OF REVELATION

We owe a debt to Gundry for enlightening many of us on the chronology of Revelation.2 Seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven vials outline the events of the book. Normally we would think that they follow one another in succession. But Revelation was not written in our modern times; it was written according to the Semitic style of apocalyptic literature. The seals, trumpets, and vials run concurrently instead of successively. The seals cover the entire tribulation, the trumpets back up and elaborate on approximately the last half of the tribulation, and the vials back up again and elaborate on the cluster of events at the end.

When you watch a television program with the "flashback" method, you find no fault with the chronology. No one says, "Hey, this TV program is out of order. Those producers had better get their chronology straight." No one objects because the "flashback" method is a perfectly accepted literary device of our day. Likewise, the chronology of Revelation follows the normal pattern of the day in which it was written.

If we did not know about the Semitic pattern of apocalyptic literature, we would still have a way of knowing that the seals stretch to the end of the tribulation. Under the sixth seal the sun and moon are darkened and the stars fall (6:12–13). According to Matthew 24:29 these events occur after the tribulation. (Isaiah 2:10–21 pinpoints this time as the day of the Lord.) This will be significant as we discuss the winepress in chapter ten.

Likewise the seventh trumpet occurs at the end, as a simple reading of its contents will tell you (11:15–19; compare 10:7). It is the time of God's reigning, wrath, judgment, and reward. This is significant because it tells us when the two witnesses minister. The death and resurrection of the two witnesses occur shortly before the seventh trumpet (11:14). If their 1260-day ministry ends shortly before the end, this means their ministry begins a few days before the middle of the tribulation when antichrist is revealed. Their career almost parallels that of antichrist providing an alternative and a challenge to him. The chronology is significant also because it undermines those who use the seventh trumpet as a basis for the mid-tribulation rapture theory.

The resulting picture is that the seals, trumpets, and vials all stretch to the end of the tribulation. They run concurrently instead of consecutively. The sixth seal is the end because the seventh seal gives rise to the seven trumpets. The seventh trumpet, in contrast, does not give rise to the seven vials. In other words, the sixth seal, the seventh trumpet, and the seventh vial all synchronize, occurring at the end.

 

Seals, trumpets, vials overlap

 

"LEND ME YOUR EARS" (13:9)

Chapters two and three repeat over and over again, "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches." This phrase occurs not once, nor twice, nor even three times, but seven times it is repeated "unto the churches."

Post-tribulationists discount the fact that the church is not mentioned on earth in Revelation 4–19. (I believe the church is mentioned in heaven in the form of the twenty-four elders who inherit the thrones, raiment, and crowns promised to the church.) Perhaps they are right. Maybe it is too much to expect the church to be mentioned. But Revelation 13:9 is a different story: "If any man have an ear, let him hear." Here we would expect the church to be mentioned because of the consistent pattern previously. Why the omission of "unto the churches"? Is the church no longer on the earth?

At the very least, Revelation 13:9 dulls the sharp edge of the contention that Revelation is written only to the church. As we saw earlier, the church is interested in all the contents of Revelation, but those alive during the tribulation also will have a vital interest in it.

 

NEITHER JEW NOR GREEK (7:1–8)

"There is neither Jew nor Greek ... for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

How different is the account of the 144,000 Israelites in Revelation seven! God is dealing with Israelites in a special way! To set them aside unto a special group tribe by tribe, and to even set a seal on their foreheads is something He never did in the church age. Obviously the tribulation period is distinct from the church age.

Today whenever a person believes, he automatically becomes a member of the church, Christ's universal body. This is true for Jew or Gentile, for in the church there is no difference between Jew and Gentile; it is all one. There is no such thing as non-Jewish believers belonging to the church while Jewish believers do not belong. Even post-tribs admit a distinction between two groups of believers, Jews and non-Jews, in Revelation seven. That distinction is fine for the tribulation, but there is no such distinction in this age. The church must be raptured and taken out of this world altogether before such a distinction can take place.

Can we explain it away by saying the 144,000 are figurative? No, because John lists 12,000 from each tribe. And he names each tribe. John went to a lot of trouble and detail in order to explain who these 144,000 are. They are literal.

If the church age extends into the tribulation period, then how do we explain God's special dealing with Israelites?

 

"FIRSTFRUITS" (14:4)

"Firstfruits" are the first part of the harvest from the field. Scripture applies the term also to a spiritual harvest of men. For example, Epaenetus was "the firstfruits of Achaia unto Christ" (Romans 16:5). In other words, he was one of Paul's first converts in that region.

The tribulation period also has firstfruits. Revelation 14:4 says the 144,000 "were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb." In what sense are the 144,000 the firstfruits of redeemed men? How could that be? By now millions the world over have been harvested into the church. The time for firstfruits has passed!

They could only be firstfruits if God were starting over again with a new class of converts during the tribulation. This tells me the church has been completed and raptured before the tribulation.

In order to get around this some post-tribs may object, "The 144,000 are firstfruits of the millennium rather than firstfruits of the tribulation." This objection cannot stand because the evidence shows that they are converted during the tribulation instead of after. What evidence? The seal. They have the seal of the living God on their foreheads (7:2–3) in contrast to the mark of the phony god which unbelievers wear. If they wear the seal of God, they must belong to God. This is no ordinary seal. It is no less than the "Father's name written in their foreheads" (14:1). Unbelievers? With God's seal? Incredible!

Therefore, the 144,000 "were redeemed from among men [during the tribulation], the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb" (14:4). Being "firstfruits," the 144,000 are some of the first converts in the tribulation. Although most Jews will be converted at the end, just before Christ returns as we saw in chapter three, a few will be converted earlier (see Daniel 12:1,10; Matthew 24:9). The 144,000 are "firstfruits." If they were converted at the end they would be "lastfruits."

(If the 144,000 constituted the Jewish remnant converted at Christ's return, as some post-tribs say, then multiplying that figure by three should result in the present world population of Jews. Zechariah 13:8–9.)

 

THE HARVEST (14:14–20)

Revelation 14:14 pictures the coming of Christ after the tribulation as a harvest:

And I looked, and behold a white cloud, and upon the cloud one sat like unto the Son of man, having on his head a golden crown, and in his hand a sharp sickle.

What is the sharp sickle for? One view is that He swings the sickle to catch up believers (post-tribulationism). The other is that He swings the sickle in judgment (pre-tribulationism). Which is right? Is Christ reaping believers or unbelievers?

Let us run to the commentary for help. The best commentary on this passage was written by the prophet Joel, because Joel forms the backdrop for this passage in Revelation. Let us put his explanation alongside Revelation 14:14–20:

 

Revelation 14:14–20

Joel 3:12–13

14. And I looked, and behold a white cloud, and upon the cloud one sat like unto the Son of man, having on his head a golden crown, and in his hand a sharp sickle.

12. Let the heathen be wakened, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat [compare "valley of decision" in verse 14]: for there will I sit to judge all the heathen round about.

15. And another angel came out of the temple, crying with a loud voice to him that sat on the cloud, Thrust in thy sickle, and reap: for the time is come for thee to reap; for the harvest of the earth is ripe.

13. Put ye in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe:

16. And he that sat on the cloud thrust in his sickle on the earth; and the earth was reaped. [Compare Matthew 13:38, "The field is the world."]

 

17. And another angel came out of the temple which is in heaven, he also having a sharp sickle.

 

18. And another angel came out from the altar, which had power over fire; and cried with a loud cry to him that had the sharp sickle, saying, Thrust in thy sharp sickle, and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth; for her grapes are fully ripe.

 

19. And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.

 

20. And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs.

Come, tread [the winepress]; for the press is full, the fats [vats] overflow; for their wickedness is great.

 

Thank you, Joel for explaining it for us. We see now that the sickle is for judgment. Pure judgment from start to finish. The sickle is not aimed at believers, but unbelievers.

Let's look at some of the details. Judgment lies in the very name of the valley. "Jehoshaphat" in Hebrew means "Jehovah judges," and so the valley of Jehoshaphat is the valley of "the Lord's judgment." The valley also goes by the name "the valley of decision." "Decision" has double meaning in Hebrew. It can mean "decision" or "cutting." How fitting it is, because the decision of the Lord is the cutting of the Lord as He swings His sharp sickle to reap the wicked. The sickle signifies cutting, decision, judgment.

The judging takes place in two phases, the reaping and the treading. First, the Son of man reaps (Revelation 14:15–16). This is the cutting-off point for every person in the whole world. Not just believers are reaped, but the entire "earth" is reaped (compare Matthew 13:38, "The field is the world," not the church). As the Son of man reaps He makes His decision concerning every individual, saying, "This man believes in me, that one rejects me." This is the cutting-off point. Repentance now is too late. Those who are wicked now will be wicked forever. Those who are righteous now will be righteous forever. The final results are in. The earth is reaped.

After the Son of man passes judicial sentence, the angels carry out the execution of that sentence as phase two of the judgment, the treading (Revelation 14:17–19). After the Son of man has reaped, the angels gather the grapes and cast them into the winepress. Then comes the invitation to the Son of man to tread, according to our commentator, Joel. (The KJV in Joel 3:13 reads "get you down," but "tread" is generally accepted to be the correct reading.) When the press is filled to overflowing the Son of man treads the winepress (Revelation 14:20).

So the reaping of Revelation 14 does not picture the rapture at all. After the tribulation comes, not rapture, but judgment. From start to finish it is judgment. Judgment in two phases, reaping and treading, or to put it another way, cutting and casting.

It is well-known that Revelation constantly alludes back to Old Testament passages. When John wrote the book, he assumed knowledge of the Old Testament on the part of his readers. All I am asking is that we interpret Revelation 14:14–20 in light of Joel 3:12–13 as John intended for us to do. To divorce the two passages is to interpret in the dark.

The harvest of Revelation 14 not only accords with Joel, but it also harmonizes with the proper order of gatherings. In the next chapter we will learn from Matthew 13 that the wicked are gathered first. The post-tribulational interpretation of Revelation 14:14–20 is precluded by the mere fact that they have the wrong order. They see a gathering of the righteous (verses 14–16) before the wicked (verses 17–20). Since the order is wrong this cannot picture the gathering of the righteous. Rapture doesn't fit here at all.

Where does this leave us? Since the rapture is not pictured in Revelation 14, this means there is no description of the rapture whatsoever in the entire book of Revelation unless there be a symbolic representation of the rapture in 4:1, and that would place the rapture before the tribulation.

 

THE ARMIES IN HEAVEN (19:14)

The account of Christ's returning on a white horse in Revelation 19 mentions white-robed armies following with Him. These saints coming with Him are those already "in heaven." No mention of any saints "caught up" to join Him. Why the omission of saints caught up, or raptured, to join the armies already in heaven?

Post-tribs would say the omission is not significant and does not prove anything. I agree that omissions in some places are not significant, but here? Here is the climax of the whole book! At this climactic point in the drama I think that John would want to highlight and make the most out of the victorious King of Kings and His accompanying armies. What makes more sense? To strengthen a climax or to weaken a climax? What author of a novel would build up to the climax only to dissipate it? What playwright would purposely weaken the high point in his drama? Likewise, it doesn't make sense for John to leave out saints "raptured" here if there really were a rapture here.

Unless he omitted the rapture accidentally. But that couldn't happen because the Holy Spirit was guiding every word John wrote. It has to be a purposeful omission.

According to post-tribulationism the armies in heaven are souls not yet resurrected. How easy it is to picture resurrected church saints riding down from the sky in one smooth descent. However, post-tribs insert the resurrection into the middle of the descent. Now imagine yourself as one of those white horses. You leave heaven with a soul on your back. But when you reach cloud level you halt while the horseless soul swoops down to the ground to get its body. A moment later the body hops on your back and you resume your descent. Not impossible, of course, but interesting. Not to mention the horses that must leave heaven riderless so that living saints caught up from the earth will have something to ride on.

 

THE FIRST RESURRECTION (20:4–6)

After the tribulation we find an account of the "first resurrection" (20:5). Why is it called "first resurrection" if there is another resurrection seven years earlier at the rapture?

Well, let's think about it. We know that Christ arose, along with other believers in Jerusalem (Matthew 27:52–53). This happened 2000 years ago. Also the two witnesses arise before the end of the tribulation (Revelation 11:12–14). If the first resurrection does not nullify these earlier resurrections, then to be logically consistent, neither does it eliminate an earlier resurrection with the rapture.

If earlier resurrections happen, then why is this called the "first" resurrection? If the terminology is not meant to exclude earlier resurrections, then there must be another reason for the word "first." The answer, as usual, lies in the context. In the context following we find the "second death" (20:14). The reason for the term "first resurrection" is to contrast the "second death." A sharper contrast cannot be found. "First" contrasts "second" and "resurrection" contrasts "death." There is no "second resurrection," strictly speaking, the second is not a resurrection, but a death. How terrible a fate for the unbeliever. His body becomes alive again only to suffer a living death in the lake of fire for ever and ever.

How wonderful, in contrast, is the destiny of the believer who partakes of the first resurrection. Believers are in the first resurrection; unbelievers are in the second death. This is the contrast and this is the purpose of the terminology in this context. A word takes on meaning only as we use it in a context. If the word "first" had arms and hands so that it could push, it would not be pushing against earlier resurrections; it would be pushing against the "second death." All I am asking is that we let the context give us the meaning of the word instead of inserting our own definition for "first resurrection."

If the first resurrection allows for earlier resurrections, this also helps to explain a similar problem in 1 Corinthians 15:54:

So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.

This passage quotes from Isaiah 25:8 which according to the context there places the time of victory over death at the end of the tribulation. Here is the problem. If 1 Corinthians 15 is talking about victory over death at the rapture, then how can the rapture occur at the beginning of the tribulation if Isaiah 25:8 places victory over death at the end of the tribulation? Why the discrepancy of time between the two verses?

I can best answer this by giving you another example. By comparing Joel 2:28 with Acts 2:17 we see a similar problem regarding the time of the pouring out of the Spirit. The church has already entered into the promise of Joel 2:28 early, only about 2000 years early. My point is this: nothing in the Bible prevents an earlier and partial fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. If the church can enter into one promise 2000 years early, then surely she can enter into another promise seven years early. All I am asking for is consistency of interpretation.

Shall we forget early fulfillment and be strict about the time? All right, let us be very strict about the time and see what happens. The promise from Isaiah 25:8, "He will swallow up death in victory" in its final fulfillment, comes 75 days too late to be a resurrection at a post-trib rapture! I'll show you what I mean.

The resurrection of Revelation 20 includes the resurrection of Old Testament saints. We all agree on this. Now Daniel was an Old Testament saint, wasn't he? Again we agree.

Now let me ask you one question: When is Daniel's resurrection? When? You'll find the answer in the last verse of his book:

But go thou thy way till the end be: for thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of the days (Daniel 12:13).

When is Daniel's resurrection? At the end of the days. When is that? As we pointed out in chapter two, Daniel's last chapter gives three dates:

 

1260 days
1290 days
1335 days

When is Daniel's resurrection?

At the end of the days.

 

When is Daniel's resurrection? The end of the days is the 1335th day. Since Christ returns on day 1260, as we saw in chapter two, then Daniel's resurrection comes 75 days too late to be a rapture resurrection! Therefore, the resurrection of Revelation 20 cannot take place at the rapture.

We will learn more in the next chapter about this 75-day gap between the tribulation and the millennium. Rather than taking place at the end of the tribulation, the resurrection of Revelation 20 occurs later, at the beginning of the millennium. Notice the context. Revelation 20 comes after Christ returns and destroys the Armageddon armies. You see, this tiny overlooked detail from the context places the resurrection after Christ sets foot on earth, not while He is still in the air as it would happen at the rapture. The order of Revelation 19 and 20 accords with 1 Corinthians 15:26, "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." He must put the Armageddon armies under His feet before He destroys death at the resurrection. This resurrection occurs even after Satan is bound. The visions of chapters 19–20 are chronological; they are not part of the overlapping visions of chapters 6–18. Even if we did change the order of the visions, the first resurrection still occurs in the same vision as the millennium (20:4–10) which is 75 days too late for the post-trib scheme.

Shall we be strict about the time? Not only is Daniel's resurrection 75 days too late, not only does the resurrection of Revelation 20 occur at the outset of the millennium, but also the promise of Isaiah 25:8, "He will swallow up death in victory," occurs in a pre-millennnial context. This evaporates the argument that the resurrection of Revelation 20 is identical to the resurrection of 1 Thessalonians 4 and that the time of the rapture can be proved by the "first resurrection."

 

SUMMARY

In summary of Revelation, let me leave you with the following questions which I hope will stimulate all of us to dig into our Bibles a little deeper:

Is not the church interested in the contents of Revelation as heavenly participants—exactly the role of the first generation church—even though we will not be earthly observers?

In Revelation 3:10, why the unique combination of "keep" and "from"?

How could the twenty-four elders have crowns if Christ had not come previously?

Why does Revelation 13:9, contrary to expectation, contrary to the consistent pattern, address individuals instead of churches?

Why does God deal in a special way with 144,000 Israelites, something that He does not do during this church age?

Why are the 144,000 called "firstfruits" instead of "lastfruits" unless a brand new class of converts arises during the tribulation?

How can the harvest of Revelation 14:14–16 be the rapture when Joel explains it to be the harvest of the wicked?

Why are the white-robed armies all in heaven before Christ leaves heaven to return to earth?

If the resurrection of Revelation 20 is the rapture resurrection, then why does it occur well after Christ sets foot on the earth?

 

1. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation, pp. 57–58.
2. Ibid., pp. 74–77.

 

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