“Well, I’m not worried about the book of Revelation too much because I won’t be here when all that stuff goes down anyway.”
Perhaps you’ve heard someone say something like that. I’ve heard it many times. In fact I have uttered those words myself. That seems to be the sentiment that’s just kind of in the air among many Christians. That is, the idea that by the time of the events described in the book of Revelation unfold the Church of true believers won’t be here because she would have been raptured, that is taken up to heaven to await the end of a period of seven years of great tribulation.
This is what is called a pre-tribulation rapture which is part and parcel of a premillennial, dispensational theological paradigm of the end times. Man! That last sentence was a mouth full, wasn’t it? This is the viewpoint on which the “Left Behind” series of novels and several movies, including a new one starring Nicholas Cage is based.
The idea is that before a period of seven years of tribulation and before the final judgment Christ will partially descend to “take” true Christians up to meet him in the air. Then after seven years of worldwide tribulation Christ will return with his church to destroy the wicked and set up his kingdom. The problem is that you can’t read this exact sequential scenario in any one place in the Bible. It is a narrative that is pieced together by taking bits of passages from here and there.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 for example contains one of those bits, and is one of the primary places used to “prove” the rapture, although the bit about the church waiting out seven years of tribulation with Christ in heaven is not there. The meeting in the air is simply concluded with the statement, “a so we will be with the Lord forever” (v. 17 NRSV)). Many scholars believe that the imagery of meeting the Lord in the air evokes the common imagery in the ancient world of a special envoy going out to joyously welcome a king or some other dignitary and then immediately escorting him back into the city. One such scene may be found in the Gospels when Jesus makes his entry into the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday! Moreover, neither does chapter five of 1 Thessalonians contain any such narrative of the Church awaiting with Christ in heaven during a great tribulation. There is simply a warning that the second coming will come unexpectedly like a thief and followers of Jesus should be found awake and sober, not lulled asleep into conformity with the ways of an evil world and not drunk on its spiked Kool-Aid either. This is symbolic imagery that Jesus himself used.
This brings me to Matthew 24. Here Jesus is answering a two pronged question from his disciples, when will the temple be destroyed and what will be the sign of his coming and the end of the age. He then goes on to warn them about deception and coming persecution and calls them to endure to the end in order to be saved (see v. 13). Then he describes an unprecedented time of suffering and THEN AFTER those things he speaks of his second coming and the gathering of his elect. In other words, there is a gathering of the saints after not before the tribulation of which Jesus speaks. Next he goes onto to compare the time of his second coming to the days of Noah. He speaks of those who were taken in the flood. Then he says so it will be when he comes again, some will be taken and others left. The imagery evoked here by the comparison to the flood is that to be taken is to be taken in the judgment of God’s wrath like those in the flood and to be left is to be left or preserved for the New Creation similar to Noah and his family. So in this context to be left behind is a good thing.
This brings me back to Revelation. As one cannot read a pre-tribulation rapture scenario from any one place in Scripture, neither can one read it from Revelation, although one can certainly easily read it into Revelation. The idea that the Church is taken up in a rapture in Revelation is simply not there. It is common however, for some to read it into chapter four where John and John alone is told by a voice from heaven to “come up here” to receive the vision that unfolds through the end of the book. To read this as a rapture is eisegesis (reading into Scripture things that are not there) at its worst. It is reading Revelation this way that leads to the idea that Christians don’t have to worry too much about the events in most of the rest of the book. According to this view most of the book is then left for us to engage in the tantalizing task of speculation, and boy do we have a lot of that, rather than reading it for transformation as I believe it was meant to be read.
Toward the end of Revelation Jesus tells John that “this testimony” (no reason to here to think that he is not talking about the testimony of all that was just revealed to him) is “for the churches” (22:16), which is followed by a warning to those who would dare alter the message through addition or subtraction (vv. 18-19). Revelation is a message for the churches and it is for more than just speculation, it is for our transformation. So what churches is he talking about?
How about for starters the same churches that he addresses in chapters 1-3, seven specific churches (1:4) that were in existence in the Mediterranean world at that time? First and foremost this was a message for them and that means the whole book. It was a message that they were to hear and to keep for their blessing (1:3), as opposed to adding to it or subtracting from it which would be to their cursing. Seven as a symbolic number of completion and wholeness probably signifies that this message was meant for all churches, as many scholars would tell you, and I would add for all churches past, present, and future. The fact that we have it in our cannon today, even as uncertain as it was for a while early on, is a testimony to that. It is a message for us today too, and as it was for the original churches it is a message of hope, encouragement, and warning.
One key, I believe, to seeing this is to begin with the promise of the New Heaven and Earth in chapter 21. Who will inherit the New Heaven and Earth? The answer is given in verse seven. It is for “those who conquer”! The word conquer, in some versions is translated “overcome” or “to gain victory”, is exactly what each of the seven churches in chapters two and three are called to do. The word “conquer” is a translation of the Greek word, nikaō, the noun form of which is where Nike get its name. This is what Jesus calls each of the seven churches to do in his tailor-made messages to them in chapters two and three, to get to work and “just do it,” to conquer.
While each of Jesus’ messages is tailor-made for the unique problems and specific situations of each of those seven churches, the recurring refrain that begins with “Let anyone who has an ear listen …” indicates that each message is an encouragement and warning to all the churches and the call to conquer is a way of summarizing all of the specific things to which Jesus calls each church. In other words, all the churches are called to hear what Jesus is saying to each church and to take note of the encouragements and admonitions. As a summary term to conquer from the context of the messages in chapters two and three means to endure, to not tolerate false teaching, to not be worn down by the pressures of living in an ungodly culture even if it hurts your livelihood, to not lose the fervor of your first love and wane in your labor for the Lord, to be faithful unto death even in the midst of deadly persecution, to not deny one’s faith in Jesus amidst such threats, to not compromise with those who practice idolatry and sexual immorality, to hold fast to the faith, to continue to do the works of Jesus to the end, to stay awake and strong in the Lord, to be faithful to keep the word and testimony of Jesus, to not grow complacent and lukewarm amidst wealth and the ease of luxury, in other words to simply be faithful and not be conformed to an ungodly culture. The apostle Paul would say be not conformed to the world but rather be transformed (Rom 12:2). Paul might also say to sum up these messages from Jesus, “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, IF we do not give up” (Gal 6:9).
The promise for those who conquer is eternal life through resurrection in the New Heaven and New Earth (Rev 21:7; see also Gal 6:7-10), and to be saved from the second death, the lake of fire that is first and foremost for “the cowardly” (Rev. 21:8), those who fail to conquer as described above. While Revelation is first a message of hope, we should not downplay its warning, which by the way is directed first and primarily to the churches. The promise of the New Heaven and New Earth is held out to each of the churches when Jesus says to the church in Ephesus “To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God” (2:7). Conversely, the promise of salvation from the second death (see 21:8) is also held out to those who conquer in his message to the church in Smyrna (2:11). Along with the other promises associated with conquering, this indicates that the promise of chapter twenty-one is inextricably bound up with the call of each of the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3 to conquer.
Of course, some will say, the promise of paradise is for the churches, but the tribulation described after chapter 5 is not because the Church is saved from the wrath to come as 1 Thessalonians 1:10 promises. In fact, they may say that was a promise to the church of Philadelphia. There Jesus tells them that because of their faithfulness, “I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth” (2:10).
Yes, Jesus will keep them, and all the saints, from the trials and tribulation that will be inflicted upon the “inhabitants of the earth”. Nonetheless, Revelation makes a sharp distinction between “the inhabitants of the earth” and the people of God, the saints. The former refers to the wicked who refuse to worship God (9:20) and destroy the earth (11:18), and the later refers to those who refuse to compromise, to be conformed, and worship the image of the beast (13:15). In Revelation the saints are indeed spared from the wrath of God’s judgments poured forth on the earth to bring the wicked to repentance because they are protected by God’s seal and refuse to take the mark of the beast. All the saints are saved from God’s wrath, but not necessarily from the wrath of the dragon working through the beast, “who is allowed to make war on the saints and conquer them” (13:7). Revelation 9:9 makes it clear that only those who do not have the seal of God are inflicted with God’s wrath, and 13:16-17 makes it clear that those who do not accept the mark of beast are susceptible to the wrath of the dragon carried out through the beast and the empire over which he rules. And of course the saints who conquer are saved from the wrath of God’s final judgment too, but the wicked and those who allow themselves to be conformed are not. This is how the Church is saved from the wrath to come.
Therefore, there is no really good reason to read any part of Revelation without the Church in view. Consequently, there is really no good reason to interpret the vivid and intricate symbolism as if it has nothing to do with the Church. All throughout Revelation there are calls for the endurance of the “saints,” a term that is used throughout the New Testament to refer members of particular churches in specific locations. In 5:8 and 8:3-4, we have assurance that God hears the prayers of the saints on earth and in heaven. In 12:11 we hear of those who “conquered” the dragon by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death (see 2:10). In 12:17 we see that after the wrath of the dragon against the messiah child of the woman is thwarted by his ascension, which assumes his resurrection, it (his wrath) is then redirected toward “the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.” There’s no good reason to think that this isn’t saints in the Church. In chapter 13 we see the dragon working through the beasts to bring him worship, but also to carry out his wrath against those who refuse to do so. At the end of 13:10 there is a direct call for “the endurance and faith of the saints” echoing the messages of Jesus to each of the seven churches. Again, in chapter 14 after the call of the angel with the “eternal gospel” for people on earth to worship God and a warning for those who worship the beast and receive his mark, there is another “call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus” (v.12), which, again, is exactly that to which the seven churches were called in the beginning. In chapter 16 after talking about demonic spirits that call kings of the earth to battle against God, there is a parenthetical blessing with an implicit warning that echoes the language of Jesus and Paul directed toward Christians elsewhere (i.e. 1 Thess 5). “(‘See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame’)” (v15; compare Mark 8:34-38). A similar warning occurs in 18:4 when the people of God are warned not to take part in the sins of the corrupt city, Babylon. There is no reason to not take this as a warning for the churches, indeed for members of the Church universal to not be conformed to the idolatrous worship and wicked practices of an evil empire.
There is much, much more to Revelation than that which I have laid out here. There is much, much more to see and hear, but one thing that isn’t there is the rapture as it is popularly understood. I’m not saying that anyone who does in fact believe in the rapture is bad. I know of many very faithful Christians who love the Lord dearly who believe this. I used to believe this myself, but like many others, over the years and after much reading and study of the Bible I have come to a different conclusion. One major problem that I had and that I think others with a dispensational viewpoint may be susceptible to, is that I thought I was somehow exempt from the extreme demands of faithfulness to which Revelation calls the saints. Jesus first disciples were not exempt from those demands (see Matthew 10:28 in context) and neither will the last disciples or anyone in between be.
I do believe that Christ will come again, and I do believe that we need to be found faithful when he does come. Revelation, all of it, can help us to do just that, or should I say, “just do it!” Reading Revelation should be an event that is more than just speculative. More than that, it should be transformational. Whether or not you or I will end up going through great tribulation, I do not know; but I do know that Jesus promised that in this world we will have tribulation (John 16:33). As with the churches that Jesus addressed in Revelation the tribulation we face in this world may come as a threat to our livelihoods (2:8-11), being able to buy and sell (13:16-17), a threat to the integrity of our faith in Jesus, or a threat to our lives. For any of us the pressure to conform our faith so that it is acceptable to a fallen world hell bent on idolatry, violence, greed, and sexual immorality will be great. Nevertheless, Jesus says, “take courage: I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). By his blood and the word of our testimony we can conquer too. Let us then hold fast until he comes! “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20)