Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?

wrote-book-revelation_e5084222746a34b7A few years ago, I wrote: Why we don’t have a senior pastor. In this post I explained why many Christians are committed to a leadership model of plural eldership. I showed how there is a consistent pattern throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by a council of elders, with no elder distinguished from the rest as a “senior” or “lead” pastor/elder. I followed up this article with a series of posts addressing various challenges to this leadership model. A few days ago, a reader emailed me asking about the angels in Revelation 2-3. This question warrants being included in this series, so let’s take a look.

In Revelation chapters 2-3, John is instructed to write seven letters to seven specific churches. Each letter is entrusted to the “angel” of the intended church. Some see these angels as indicating the senior pastor of each church. Does this work?

We should make a couple of observations right at the outset. The commentaries are all over the place on who these angels are. Some don’t address the question at all; most others describe various possible interpretations, while maybe leaning toward one. The only consensus seems to be that there is insufficient basis here for being dogmatic about the identity of these angels.

I would also note this claim (that these angels = senior pastors) is very rarely used by scholars and pastors arguing for a normative senior pastor type role. In fact, many of those who support a senior pastor role have specifically rejected this interpretation of Revelation. Let’s see why.

First, let’s remember the first three rules of biblical interpretation: context, context, context. Where are these references? In the book of Revelation. What do we know about Revelation? Revelation is a kind of writing know as apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature was always highly figurative, utilizing elaborate symbolism. Readers were to assume that elements were symbolic unless there was a clear reason to take them literally.

Do we see this in Revelation? Absolutely. Right from the first chapter, we have lampstands that aren’t literal lampstands, stars that aren’t literal stars, and a two-edged sword that isn’t a literal sword. Often the text doesn’t tell us what the various symbols symbolize, and so we discuss and debate what they mean. (What exactly do the two witnesses, the mark of the beast, the great prostitute, etc., represent?) Fortunately, we’re sometimes given the meaning of the symbols. So, for instance, we’re told that the seven lampstands represent seven churches, and the seven stars represent the angels (or messengers) of these seven churches.

While Revelation is filled with symbols that represent something real, what we don’t see are symbols of symbols. If the great dragon represents Satan, then that’s it. We don’t have to debate what Satan then represents. The Lamb who was slain is a symbol for Jesus, but Jesus is not a symbol for anything else. So the seven lampstands symbolize seven churches, which do not then symbolize anything else. And the seven stars represent the aggelos of each of these churches. We don’t have to figure out what these aggeloi (the plural form of aggelos) symbolize; we just need to make sure we understand what the word means.

blog11Each letter to one of the seven churches begins the same way: “Write this letter to the aggelos of the church in ____________ .” This Greek word is found over 170 times in the New Testament. It’s almost always translated “angel.” A few times it indicates a human “messenger.” So this now shows us the key interpretive question for these references: Are these aggeloi angels or human messengers? And this is where the scholars disagree.

Notice that—either way—the letters are not written to a single leader or messenger, but to the entire church of Ephesus, Smyrna, etc. (“Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches.”) Each church is either commended or confronted, not a sole leader. The “you” being addressed in the letters is plural. But to whom are these letters entrusted: angels or human messengers?

Could these be literal angels? This isn’t as odd as it sounds, and many scholars think this natural reading is the best one. Remember our context is within the book of Revelation. And Revelation states at the very beginning:

“He [Jesus Christ] sent an angel to present this revelation to his servant John”

If an angel was part of Christ conveying this revelation to John, why would it be odd for angels to be part of conveying the letters to the seven churches (which are included in the revelation)? The word aggelos is used over 60 times in the book of Revelation; every time (besides these chapters) it means “angel.” We also have the intriguing references in Daniel 10 that seem to indicate there are angels assigned to certain nations. Some also point to passages such as Matthew 18:10 and Acts 12:15 that hint at the idea of a guardian angel for each person. Is it such a stretch to think that each church would enjoy the protection and service of a specific angel?

But how would angels be involved with the delivery of these letters? Well, remember that Revelation is written in a highly stylized, dramatic form. It also depicts a heavenly, spiritual perspective of these events, not a primarily human one. Unless we want to assume that angels have no real part in human events, we shouldn’t too quickly reject the idea of angelic involvement in the revelation of these letters to these seven, specific churches.

Ok, but could these be human messengers? That’s certainly a plausible interpretation of these passages. Let’s assume these passages are, in fact, speaking of human messengers. What could these chapters tell us about these human messengers? Well, they would tell us there was one messenger designated for each church, and that each letter was written to the whole church but entrusted to a messenger. That’s it. There is nothing in these chapters indicating a leadership or pastoral role for these angels or messengers. Because there is one angel/messenger designated for each church, some have read back into this passage our traditional practice of having one main pastor for each church. But nothing in the text indicates such a role.

Are there any reasons we should not see these messengers as senior pastors? Well, first we observe that the word aggelos is never used anywhere else in the New Testament to indicate a church leadership role. Next, as we saw above, there is nothing in the context that would clearly and directly indicate a senior pastor role. (Actually, in the context of the New Testament church, if these were human messengers, they would more likely be exercising a prophetic role than a pastoral one. They may have simply been the people responsible for physically carrying the letters to the churches.) And this interpretation would be introducing a senior pastor role that isn’t even mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, and one that would conflict with the consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by groups of elders with no designated senior leader. (Notice that none of the New Testament epistles [letters to the churches] are addressed to the “pastor” of the church of Corinth or Philippi, etc.)

bible-magnifying-glassThere’s a principle of biblical interpretation that says: ‘Clear passages in Scripture help us understand the passages that aren’t so clear.’ It makes sense to take the clear and consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament as the model we’re to follow. But it makes poor sense to take an ambiguous passage in a highly symbolic book, form a conclusion—not from the reading of the text, but based on pure speculation—then use this questionable assertion to challenge the clear, consistent pattern found elsewhere in Scripture. This would be circular reasoning—assuming the senior pastor role when interpreting the passage, and then using the passage to establish the senior pastor role!

Regardless of whether we understand the aggeloi in Revelation 1-3 as angels or human messengers, there is nothing in these passages that point to a senior pastor role in the churches.

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

The past few weeks, we’ve been exploring the return of Christ, particularly examining the views on the millennium and rapture that have sometimes divided Christians. In the next three weeks, we’ll wrap up this series by looking at some of the other end times elements that often pique our curiosity.

The tribulation

Especially in the books of Daniel and Revelation, we see emphasized a period of 7 years, which we usually refer to as “the tribulation.” This tribulational period immediately precedes Jesus’ return to earth.

If you’ve read many books or materials from pretrib teachers, you’ve probably seen very precise interpretations of what the vivid elements in the book of Revelation are supposed to describe. But, as we saw in our previous study Revelation: The story comes full circle, it’s a mistake to assume that the descriptions in Revelation should be taken literally, and it’s typically pretrib teachers who interpret Revelation in an overly literal manner. This explains why the people who try to date the return of Christ or tell us how the latest altercation in Iran or Iraq fits precisely into end times prophecy (and then have to later retract their claims!) are invariably pretrib teachers. Now, the best pretrib teachers don’t indulge in this kind of speculation, but—unfortunately—there are many more of their fellow pretribbers who over-compensate for these teachers’ restraint.

Apocalyptic = symbolism
As we saw in our previous study on Revelation, this book is an apocalyptic form of literature, which means we should expect it to be highly symbolic. And it doesn’t take us long to see this is just what we find in Revelation. We have lampstands that aren’t literal lampstands, and dragons that aren’t literal dragons, and stars that aren’t literal stars, and a seven-headed, ten-horned beast rising up out of the sea. Usually in our study of Scripture we assume the text is literal unless something indicates otherwise, but in Revelation we must assume these descriptions symbolize something else unless we see something in the text that convinces us we must take it literally.

This apocalyptic, symbolic nature of Revelation is the reason why most posttrib teachers are hesitant to take literally such things as the 144,000 (search out the immediate problem with the list of tribes in Rev. 7:4-8), the description of the bizarre locusts in Rev. 9:3-11, or even the two witnesses in Rev. 11:1-14. Of course I realize this isn’t nearly as fun as thinking we can figure out ahead of time exactly how each of these events will take place and what they’ll look like! And because of this caution we don’t have a flood of posttrib books the way we do pretrib materials. But I would argue this is a much more biblically sound and balanced approach, and it avoids the embarrassing, outlandish claims we’ve all too often witnessed.

What will happen during the tribulation?
It’s not uncommon for people (even non-Christians) to think of this 7-year tribulational period as a virtual hell on earth. But as we learned in the post on Revelation, this isn’t the case. Actually the first part of this time will be relatively peaceful for many, and the only possible indication we’re in this final period will be uniquely new developments in the Middle East. (More on this next week.)

There are a few things that we know will occur during the last part of this tribulation before Christ returns:

Great persecution will take place against both Jews and followers of Christ.

Then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers.

Matthew 24:9

When the dragon realized that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. . . . And the dragon was angry at the woman and declared war against the rest of her children—all who keep God’s commandments and maintain their testimony for Jesus.

Revelation 12:13-17

This means that God’s holy people must endure persecution patiently, obeying his commands and maintaining their faith in Jesus.

Revelation 14:12

Large numbers of people who have claimed to be followers of Christ will turn away from the true faith.

And many will turn away from me and betray and hate each other. And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many people. Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Matthew 24:10-13

Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons.

1 Timothy 4:1

All of the world will be reached with the gospel.

And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come.

Matthew 24:14

After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar,

“Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne
and from the Lamb!”

Revelation 7:9-10

God will pour out plagues on the earth.
Just as with the plagues God poured out on Egypt, at first these plagues will be mostly disruptions and inconveniences. But near the end of the tribulation, these plagues will begin to build in intensity as a woman experiencing the pains of childbirth. The stage is then set for the final, crashing crescendo of the return of Christ that occurs after the tribulation.

The first plagues are described as testing the inhabitants of the world. What Scripture refers to as “the wrath of God” against those who are openly rebelling against him only occurs at the very end. As we saw a few weeks ago (Removed or protected?), these plagues from God will not touch or harm those people who belong to him. As with the judgment of Egypt, because we place our faith in the sacrificial Lamb (Jesus), God will protect and pass over us.

We also find other details about the tribulation in biblical prophecy, with some passages referring to a rebellion against God led by someone most of us have heard of: the “Antichrist.” Who is this guy? What can we know about him? We’ll explore this next week.

Related post:

Revelation: The story comes full circle

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation) [see above]

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

Do we have to be baptized to be saved?

Let’s start this week with a couple of questions: When Jesus taught the importance of putting new wine into new wineskins (Matthew 9:17), was he mostly concerned with preserving literal wine? When Jesus told Peter and Andrew, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people [Matthew 4:19]” did he mean they would go out with literal, physical nets and scoop up new converts?

We all know the answers to these questions because these kinds of references are common in Scripture. All through the Bible, God uses physical illustrations to convey spiritual truths. When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman about “living water” (John 4:10-14), we know he wasn’t referring to some specially-infused literal water; he was speaking of spiritual life and using water to illustrate and contrast it with the woman’s natural life. When Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be “born again” (John 3:3-4), and Nicodemus responds: “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” every reader understands that Nicodemus is missing the point (probably intentionally).

Some become confused when Jesus says of the bread “This is my body” and of the wine “This is my blood [Matthew 26:26-28].” They assume this must be meant literally. (Of course, that would be a problem since Jesus was still standing there in front of them with his body and blood intact!) But we use this kind of language all the time. If I take out a photo, hand it to you, and say, “This is my wife,” have I just literally handed you my wife? As with baptism, communion is a physical act illustrating a spiritual truth.

One of my favorite passages to show how this works is John 13 where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Peter resists Jesus, questioning what he’s doing. Jesus responds with an interesting comment: “You don’t understand now what I am doing, but someday you will.” Peter understood all too well that Jesus was humbling himself, but there was a spiritual truth Peter was not yet getting. The continuing exchange confirms this deeper spiritual dimension:

Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.”

Simon Peter exclaimed, “Then wash my hands and head as well, Lord, not just my feet!”

Jesus replied, “A person who has bathed all over does not need to wash, except for the feet, to be entirely clean. And you disciples are clean, but not all of you.” For Jesus knew who would betray him. That is what he meant when he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

Notice, Jesus is using physical elements and acts to communicate spiritual realities. If we miss this in Scripture and over-interpret the physical elements, we’ll end up with erroneous ideas about the Christian life.

Scripture uses physical actions to illustrate spiritual truths.

Baptism as illustration
Why is all of this important? Because there are many passages that use the physical act or water of baptism to illustrate specific spiritual truths. We want to make sure we don’t misunderstand what the Scriptures are teaching. For instance, many passages speak of baptism in the sense of the person being ‘washed.’ Some have assumed it’s the physical act of baptism that washes our sin away. In Acts 22:16, Ananias tells Saul (aka Paul):

What are you waiting for? Get up and be baptized. Have your sins washed away by calling on the name of the Lord.

I appreciate the way this translation (NLT) makes it clear that one’s sins are not washed away by being baptized, but by calling on the name of the Lord. Baptism is a physical act that illustrates this spiritual truth. If you read each passage carefully, you’ll see the primary spiritual truth and the way it’s being symbolized. Here’s another example from Titus 3:5:

He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

Notice again, the emphasis is not on some physical act of washing, but on rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, thus making us spiritually clean.

But what about . . . 
There are three passages some use to claim that baptism is necessary for salvation. The most common one is Mark 16:16:

Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned.

Now we could point out that this passage says the ones condemned are those who refuse to believe, not those who refuse to be baptized. But there’s a bigger problem with using this verse. All current translations have a note after Mark 16:8 explaining that the earliest and most reliable manuscripts don’t include this section (16:9-20). For hundreds of years, Bible scholars have known that these verses are almost certainly not found in the original text of Scripture. (Interestingly, this is the very section that speaks of handling snakes!) We just shouldn’t base an important teaching on such a highly questionable passage.

1 Peter 3 describes how Noah’s family was saved through the water of the flood, and then continues in verse 21:

. . . and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.

Notice how the passage itself takes the emphasis from the physical act and the physical element and places it instead on the believer’s faith toward God. Peter is comparing two different examples of how water illustrates God’s saving work in our lives.

The third passage is from Acts 2:38:

Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Some have taken advantage of a certain ambiguity in this passage. We can use the word “for” in a couple of different ways. I can say ‘I’m going to the store for some milk;’ I can also say ‘I’m going to the store for my wife.’ I’m using the same word, but in quite different ways. If I’m going to the store for some milk, I’m going in order to acquire the milk. But if I’m going to the store for my wife, I’m not going for the purpose of acquiring my wife, am I? I’m going to the store because of or in response to my wife.

Which way is this passage using the word? It’s helpful to see similar wording in John’s comment in Matthew 3:11, “I baptize you with water for repentance.” We don’t have to think long about this before we realize it doesn’t make sense for them to be baptized in order to repent. If they weren’t already repentant, they wouldn’t be willing to be baptized! The fact they would humble themselves and be baptized was powerful testimony to the authenticity of their repentance. So they were being baptized because they had repented.

Why is this important?
We need to be clear about this. If Peter was telling the people they needed to be baptized in order to receive forgiveness of their sins, then there is something other than faith that is required for salvation. And this flies in the face of all the passages that connect salvation and forgiveness of sins with faith alone. We could give scores of such references, but here are two examples:

All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

Acts 10:43

Then he brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.”

Acts 16:30-31

Salvation and forgiveness come simply through placing our faith in Christ. If baptism is necessary for salvation, then there is something—in addition to faith—that we must do. There is a good act we must perform. But this idea contradicts the vital truth taught in Ephesians 2:8-9:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.

So, in Acts 2:38, Peter was saying that the people must be baptized not in order to be forgiven, but because they had been forgiven.

We aren’t baptized to be saved;
We’re baptized because we are saved.

We must be careful not to fall into the error we see in Galatians. These people were being drawn to the Old Covenant Jewish law, and had made circumcision a “Christian” necessity. But Paul was adamant. If they added any necessary action or law to the purity of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not only were they corrupting the gospel but they were altering it to the point where it was an entirely different gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). If we add something to the gospel as an essential requirement for salvation, we’re in danger of falling away from God’s grace and being cut off from Christ (Galatians 5:2-4).

We must not take Scripture passages out of context and cobble together isolated phrases to make baptism into something God never intended. We do encourage believers to be baptized as the Bible teaches. But we must not weaken the scriptural truth that, by God’s grace, we are forgiven and saved solely through our faith in Jesus. We celebrate baptism as a public declaration of a person’s faith in Christ. And we practice the physical act of baptism in water to beautifully symbolize a profound spiritual truth: our old life of sin has been washed away from us, and we now live a brand new spiritual life in Christ.

Baptism series:

What is baptism?

Who should be baptized?

Do we have to be baptized to be saved? [see above]

What is baptism?

Easter Sunday is not far off, and our church typically has a baptism during our annual Easter festivities. This day when we celebrate the resurrection of Christ is a wonderful time for a person to be baptized. “Why is that?” someone might ask. “What is baptism all about anyway?” Baptism certainly seems to be a very important practice. After all, it’s something Jesus specifically instructed us to do:

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20 

So we know we should be baptized out of obedience to Christ. But what exactly is baptism? There are many questions associated with this practice, so let’s see if we can clear up some of the confusion.

Historical background
Though baptism is referred to many times in the New Testament, it isn’t really defined or explained in Scripture. The people back then didn’t need an explanation; it was a common practice. Every first century Jew understood its meaning, so it would be helpful for us to learn how they understood baptism.

The Greek word translated “baptize” can mean to wash, dip, immerse or dye (as in dyeing clothing). We find evidence in various ancient religions of this practice, and it seemed to include the same primary meaning regardless of the specific religious context. It was always a public declaration that a person was converting to a new faith. The Jews were very familiar with this ritual washing. To them, it was a public sign that a Gentile was converting to the Jewish faith.

If we understand what this action meant to the Jews of Jesus’ day, we get a better sense of how shocking the ministry of John the Baptist was. He called the people to “be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven [Mark 1:4].” What he was essentially requiring of them was to humble themselves just like a brand new convert, like a Gentile! They were publicly showing they were starting all over again with God, in the same way as someone just beginning in the Jewish faith.

In Acts 2, we see the gospel of the resurrected Christ powerfully declared for the first time. The words of Peter pierced the hearts of the people, and they asked him and the other apostles, “What should we do?” The answer was they were to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. This was a clear challenge for the people; they were to publicly demonstrate to all that they were placing their faith in Christ and committing themselves to follow him.

The people in the first century understood the deep significance of this action. And it still holds this important meaning for us today as well. Baptism is a way for us to publicly show everyone—our family, friends, community, church, even God—that we are placing our trust in Jesus Christ and committing our lives to him.

How are we to be baptized?
How should a person be baptized? Should we dunk, pour or sprinkle? The Greek word for baptize often means to immerse, but it can also mean to wash, dye, dip or flood. We tend to use the word somewhat technically, to refer to a specific religious practice, but the word wasn’t always used this way in biblical times. Sometimes it was even used just for washing one’s hands (Luke 11:38; Mark 7:3-4).

As we’ll see, there is striking imagery in Scripture that seems to best fit immersion. But there are some other descriptive passages that fit with other forms of baptism. For instance, in Titus 3:5-6, we read:

He washed away our sins, giving us new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior.

This passage seems to support the pouring of water over a person (just as the Holy Spirit is “poured out”), and there are other passages that have similar readings. But then, Hebrews 10:22 says:

For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.

Verses such as this seem to indicate sprinkling.

Those who insist on baptism by immersion will often point to the account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:38-39, where the text specifies that they “went down into the water,” and then after baptizing “came up out of the water.” Similarly, John 3:23 clarifies that John was baptizing in a certain location “because there was plenty of water there.” These kinds of details might cause us to lean toward immersion, but they are by no means unambiguous.

It’s hard to find justification in the Scriptures for us to be dogmatic about any one form of baptism. A very early Christian writing, the Didache, taught that immersion was the normal, standard form of baptism, but that—if sufficient water was not available—pouring water over a person’s head was fine too. This seems to be a healthy approach, respectfully drawing as much as we can from Scripture without slavishly demanding one (and only one) method.

The passage that many of us find particularly compelling in pointing to immersion is Romans 6:3-4:

Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.

Being buried in baptism does seem to fit best with immersion. The whole immersion process beautifully illustrates this passage. As we step into the baptismal pool and declare our faith in Christ, we relinquish our old life (thus dying). Being lowered under the water is very reminiscent of being lowered under the ground in burial. And then being raised back upright fits perfectly with being raised to live a new life, as this passage in Romans describes.

But the specific method of baptism should not be our main focus. It’s not even the physical act of baptism itself that is most significant. We need to remember this:

The physical act of baptism illustrates a spiritual reality.

We are baptized out of obedience to Christ, and to publicly declare to everyone our faith in him. In baptism, we demonstrate that our allegiance has changed, our citizenship has been transferred. We now belong to the Kingdom of God. The physical act of being baptized in water illustrates how we have been baptized in the Holy Spirit, thus making us one with Christ and one with his body, the church. The physical water washing over our body illustrates the spiritual reality that we have been washed by the Spirit of God, cleansed of our sin.

As the passage above from Romans shows us, in baptism we identify our old lives as dead and buried with Christ, and our new lives as being lived through the power of Christ’s resurrection. These spiritual truths are the profound meaning revealed in the physical act of baptism. And this direct connection of baptism with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ is why Easter is a perfect time for a Christian to be baptized.

[We’ve looked at what baptism is, how it’s done and what it means. So who should be baptized? We’ll explore this question next week.]

Baptism series:

What is baptism? [see above]

Who should be baptized?

Do we have to be baptized to be saved?

Revelation: The story comes full circle

We often refer to being ‘fed’ by God’s Word. You could even think of the various biblical genres as different kinds of food. To me, the letters to the churches are like a thick, juicy steak, something you can really sink your teeth into. (If you’re a vegetarian, maybe you could compare it to a savory veggie lasagna.) Some of the psalms are almost the equivalent of a sweet, creamy ice cream sundae. On the other hand, the genealogies or chapters of laws and regulations are often more like lima beans or brussels sprouts; we know they serve a purpose and are good for us, but they’re not the most enjoyable thing to eat!

I compare studying the book of Revelation to eating a crab (or maybe an artichoke). Imagine going out with friends to a seafood restaurant that specializes in crab—but you’ve never eaten crab before. The smell is different but somehow appealing, and people seem to be enjoying eating it . . . but how in the world are you supposed to get into this thing and find the meat?! This is the kind of challenge we often experience with Revelation. The book is strongly compelling to many believers, even to brand new Christians. But it also creates a lot of confusion. Just how are we supposed to crack this book open?

Adding to our desire to get a handle on this book is a potential blessing described right in the book:

God blesses the one who reads the words of this prophecy to the church, and he blesses all who listen to its message and obey what it says, for the time is near.

Revelation 1:3

This sounds like a book we want to understand, doesn’t it? Thankfully, there are some basic facts about this book that help us sort out what it’s all about.

If you’ve been with us through the rest of this series on studying the Bible, you’ve seen different kinds of biblical literature that are probably familiar to you. We still have letters today, and also history, legal codes, poetry and even proverbs. We can relate to these scriptural genres. But the book of Revelation is a kind of literature called apocalyptic, and this is not as familiar to us. We no longer have apocalyptic literature being written today, but it was fairly common in the 1st century. So what exactly is it?

Apocalyptic writings claimed to reveal the secrets of what would occur at the end of time. The biblical book of Revelation is not only apocalyptic, but also prophetic. These weren’t just some strange visions that John somehow got a glimpse of, they were given to him by God for the purpose of communicating them to God’s people. But there is a common characteristic of apocalyptic writing that we have to be very aware of when we begin to read and study the book of Revelation:

Apocalyptic writing was always highly symbolic. Very little was written clearly and literally, but symbolism was used throughout these writings to communicate their message. That’s the nature of this kind of literature, and this is what we should expect when we read Revelation. Is this what we find?

In the first chapter of Revelation, we’re introduced to seven gold lampstands, which we discover represent seven churches. Seven stars represent the angels of these seven churches. It doesn’t take us long to see that this book is filled with symbols that represent something important, but we need to recognize that most of what we read in Revelation was not intended for us to understand literally. These vivid, colorful descriptions represent things that are very real, but the descriptions are meant to be symbolic.

If you search through Christian art from the Middle Ages, you can find paintings depicting Christ returning with a sword protruding from his mouth. But all biblical scholars recognize that this sword (Revelation 19:15) is not to be understood as a literal sword, but as a symbol or representation of the Word of God. If we aren’t trying to interpret everything in this book literally, we’ll avoid a lot of confusion. For example, some of you may have heard attempts to understand, as literal, the scorpion-like locusts in Revelation 9:1-12 with gold crowns on their heads, faces like humans, hair like women and teeth like a lion. If we try to hard to interpret something literally that is meant to be symbolic, the results can be pretty silly—and we can miss the whole point of the elements in the prophecy.

This is challenging for many of us, because we’re accustomed to understanding the Bible literally. While the Bible includes metaphors and colorfully poetic expressions (as do most writings), everything indicates that the events recorded in Scripture are to be understood as actual, literal events. As a rule of thumb, we assume what we read in the Bible is literal unless something in the text indicates otherwise. In other words, it means what it says (just as we do today). With apocalyptic writing such as the book of Revelation (and parts of the Old Testament prophetic books such as Daniel), we have to turn this rule completely around: In Revelation we must assume that what we read is symbolic unless something in the text indicates otherwise.

Tied to the Old Testament
John (the author) makes specific references to the Old Testament over 200 times in the book of Revelation. The imagery he uses is almost always drawn directly from the Old Testament. This means the more familiar we are with the Old Testament, the easier it will be for us to understand the book of Revelation.

Not written in chronological order
You may have noticed there are many series of seven in the book of Revelation. In the first three chapters, we see seven churches. In the rest of the book, we find seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, etc. If you’ve ever tried to fit all of these into chronological order, you may have become very confused. Here’s an example of why this is a problem. If you read in Revelation 6:12-17, you’ll see a description of what happens when the sixth seal is broken:

I watched as the Lamb broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake. The sun became as dark as black cloth, and the moon became as red as blood. Then the stars of the sky fell to the earth like green figs falling from a tree shaken by a strong wind. The sky rolled up like a scroll, and all of the mountains and islands were moved from their places.

Then everyone—the kings of the earth, the rulers, the generals, the wealthy, the powerful, and every slave and free person—all hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. And they cried to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to survive?”

What is this describing? It certainly sounds like the very end, doesn’t it? But if we’re trying to fit Revelation into chronological order, we have a real problem because we still have seven trumpets and seven bowls to go. If you read the end of the series of seven trumpets (Revelation 11:15-19) and the series of seven bowls (16:17-21), they also sound like the very end. How do we make sense of this?

If you’re familiar with the Old Testament, this actually shouldn’t be so confusing. We often see in Scripture what the scholars call “recapitulation.” For instance, do you realize we have three accounts of creation in the first part of Genesis? What does the first sentence of the Bible say? “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That’s one complete (albeit very brief) account of creation. The rest of chapter one tells us the story again, this time describing in greater detail how God created and focusing primarily on the story from the perspective of the earth. Chapter two “recapitulates” the story, this time zooming in on the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve.

The book of Revelation is doing something similar. When we study the seven seals, there is very little that ties these descriptions to the end of time until we get to the sixth seal. The seven trumpets seem to zoom in much closer to events of the very last days. They also grow in intensity, from the seals affecting one-fourth of the earth to the trumpets affecting one-third.  The seven bowls not only zoom in even closer to the time of the end, but there are amazing parallels between the trumpets and the bowls: how they affect the earth, seas, water, living things, the sun, bringing darkness, ushering in a great final battle, etc. And the bowls intensify from affecting one-third to everyone and everything.

This is just a brief taste of the parallels and patterns you’ll find in the book of Revelation. But if you don’t try to fit everything into some chronological order, you’ll avoid a lot of confusion and unnecessary exegetical gymnastics (that is, trying to fit square pegs into round holes to make everything fit).

The scope of the book
Throughout much of the history of the church, Bible scholars have debated the intended range and focus of this book. Some have felt that Revelation gives us only a very broad, generally encouraging theme of struggle and suffering, but ultimately of God triumphing. Others have protested that there seems to be much more rich detail in this book than would be required for a general, encouraging message of “God wins.” Some have thought what is described in Revelation is prophecy regarding events that have already occurred, while others see Revelation as being entirely fulfilled in our future.

More and more, students of Scripture are seeing Revelation as being, in a sense, all of the above. It is undeniably a figurative depiction of the struggle and suffering of God’s people and the ultimate judgment and triumph of God. And we can see where certain sections may very well point to things that have already occurred in history. But it seems just as clear that much of the prophecy in this book awaits fulfillment and, as we learned last week, prophecy often has a partial, immediate fulfillment and a final, complete, ultimate fulfillment.

Full circle
One of the most important things for us to do when reading Revelation is to see it from a ‘big picture’ perspective, in light of God’s master plan as revealed in Scripture. When we see Revelation in the context of the rest of the Bible, we find more wonderful parallels.

Genesis begins with creation. Revelation ends with new creation, a new heaven and a new earth. The first chapter of Genesis shows God systematically bringing order into chaos. In Revelation, we first see God removing his order and maintenance from his creation and allowing the encroaching chaos free reign (in essence, undoing much of Genesis 1), and then reestablishing his perfect and beautiful order. We go from the Tree of Life restricted from humanity in the Garden, to the Tree of Life freely given in the new Jerusalem.

Most importantly, we go from separation from God in Genesis—with the corresponding curse, decay and death—to complete restoration and reconciliation in Revelation. Heaven and earth as one (Revelation 21:3-5):

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

And the one sitting on the throne said,

I am making everything new!”

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle [see above]