EDITOR’S NOTE: This groundbreaking series is being offered in celebration of a previously top-secret project and now unprecedented new 3-Volume book series (over 10-years in the making) from best-selling scholar Dr. Thomas Horn and acclaimed biblical history and theology majors Donna Howell and Allie Anderson: THE MYSTERY OF JESUS FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION—YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
The judgments in the book of Revelation are represented by the last three common symbols identified in the previous section. Each judgment is a set of seven, representing a series. In the order in which John described them, they are: 1) seven seal judgments; 2) seven trumpet judgments; and 3) seven bowl judgments.
A nearly never-ending hermeneutical debate is whether or not all three of these series are simply “retellings” of the same judgment three times (parallel), or if they are three complete and different sets of judgments, one set leading directly into the next (sequential). Some believe it’s a mixture, wherein some of the seals are also trumpets, some of the trumpets are also bowls, and so on.
To illustrate how parallelism works, we will use a very old and familiar example you will probably recognize: Imagine three blind men approaching an elephant. The first outstretches his hands, takes hold of a leg, and after feeling the rough skin, concludes that it is the trunk of a tree. The second touches the side of the animal, believing it to be a rough wall. The third lets his hands roll down the tail and announces that it’s a rope with a frayed tip. (Other versions involve different imagery, such as the idea that the tail is a broom, the husk is a smooth spear, and so on.) All three men felt the same animal, and all of their reports were true according to what they experienced, but because they could not see what they were touching, none could accurately describe the full reality of the elephant.
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John the Revelator was given special sight into the end times through Jesus, personally (Revelation 1:1). But because these are prophecies of things to come, and no prophet draws from his own understanding regarding the fulfillments (2 Peter 1:20), John could both a) report the truth honestly according to what he saw; while b) report the same events telling different details each time he sees it—like a blind man being led from an elephant’s trunk to its side, or whatever combination. From the parallel perspective, there could be a judgment from the “seals” series that overlaps a judgment from the “trumpets” series, and so on, even when that telling involves slightly different details in Scripture. In other words, though there are differences, they are not contradictory.
However, because there are very real differences between the judgments series, some prefer to adopt the sequential model: the seven seals occur, then the seven trumpets, then the seven bowls, totaling twenty-one distinct events.
There is evidence to support both sides of this debate. We authors personally believe that what is being described in the seal judgments is conspicuously different from the other two series, while we admit that the trumpet judgments bear a remarkable similarity to the bowl judgments. For instance, the second trumpet involves a “mountain” being thrown into the sea, and the second bowl reports that everything in the seas die. The third trumpet states that many people die from the bitter waters, while the third bowl details rivers and springs turning to “blood.”
Focusing only on the trumpets and bowls to decipher whether they are parallel or sequential, perhaps the place to start is not to compare how judgment series are similar, but how they are different in their effect on people and how each event plays out. From that approach, 1) the trumpets only affect part of the population, while the bowl plagues are global; 2) humanity’s repentance appears to be a significant response to the trumpets, while the narrative of the bowls reports that humanity curses God (Revelation 11:21); 3) the first four trumpets do affect the inhabitants of the earth, but only indirectly, as the judgments are carried out upon the earth, while the bowls launch into a direct attack upon those who take the mark of the Beast (16:2); 4) the effects of the trumpet series appear to be more gradual than those of the bowl series, which read like a rapid outbreak of one judgment after another; 5) the similarities are not enough to cancel the divergent descriptions—for example, the fourth trumpet and fourth bowl both affect the sun, but the trumpet darkens a third of the sun while the bowl describes the sun scorching people on the earth; 6) a sequential description allows the natural reading that the judgments increase in their intensity; and 7) the trumpets could lead to what happens with the bowls, making them related but distinct (the second trumpet’s “mountain” thrown into the sea could cause the second bowl’s conclusion that everything in the seas die).
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As for our personal opinion: We have no problem allowing the three series to be sequential (therefore separate), not only because of the distinct differences just listed, but also because we believe God is supremely loving and will give as many “last chances” as possible before the end. That said, we acknowledge that the varying parallel theories are legitimate and responsible, so our approach in the coming chapters will be to cover the events in the order John lists them, without any intent to aggressively teach sequential-judgment theology.
Speaking of parallelism: For space reasons, we will not be addressing how some of the judgments are an outright reflection of a number of plagues upon the Egyptians in the Exodus account, as that discussion can get lengthy. We do, however, encourage you to open your Bible and do your own comparative study. It’s clear that the God who punished the Egyptians is the same God who rains His judgment down heavily in the end times, and for similar reasons (persecution of His people and corporate, pagan rejection of Him). Though this is a fascinating trail, it opens up other theologies that branch off into deep, Old-Testament dialogue, so we are foregoing the temptation to lay out all the similarities at length. Likewise, though the book of Revelation is intrinsically tied to certain books of the Old Testament (Daniel, for example)—and though we reference those texts quite often—we do not plan to go into as much comparative details as some works do. Our purpose in the conversation of Revelation’s contemporary relevance is to show what John said and how he said it, using other books and evidence to support or clarify his prophetic narrative regarding future judgments, not to launch into a bottomless theological discourse on every verse. This book points to Jesus, primarily, so we build to that climax, hoping to offer a basic overview that serves as a) an approachable outline for newer readers/believers, and b) a helpful reminder for mature readers/believers.
Finally, let’s get into the book of Revelation itself. When we are finished, please do not skip the ending… This book closes with a powerful exhortation of Christian action.
Jesus’ Appearance to John (Revelation 1)
John opens his document with the paramount statement that this book is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:1). This is an important disclosure, as it immediately notifies the reader that all of the content to follow (for the next twenty-two chapters—Revelation’s total length) was not only written through the guidance of the Spirit, like the rest of Scripture, but that it was delivered directly from the Risen Messiah.
John further explains that this Revelation of Christ was given to the Messiah by God to show His “angels” (or “servants”) what is coming “soon.” Christ then sent an angel to present the message to John, the servant of God who therefore recorded what he saw. Then John states that the one who reads this book to the Church, and the one who listens to it and obeys it, will experience a blessing, for the time of the document’s fulfillment is nigh (1:1–3). (Scholars have marveled throughout the centuries at this declaration, as this is the only book of the Bible that promises a blessing, in no uncertain terms, for those who read it, obey it, and tell others about it. Many commentaries note that this is probably a central reason Revelation has gotten so much more attention than any other biblical book, because otherwise, its enigmatic nature may have discouraged a lot of folks, including theologians, from tackling it the way they have.)
This early on, some commentators dive in on the word “soon” and find reason to believe that it supports events occurring during John’s day. That’s not necessarily an irresponsible conclusion based on word studies and grammar, but in the context of biblical literature—wherein God’s timing is not our timing (Psalm 90:4; 2 Peter 3:8)—“soon” should stress the importance of “readiness” on behalf of the recipients as opposed to a rapid fulfillment within history. This language is paramount behind the doctrine of the “imminency” of Christ’s Second Advent (“imminent,” meaning “could happen any moment”). As Revelation was likely written in AD 95, then from AD 95 forward (not representing events of Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70), Christ could literally return at any moment, regardless of one’s interpretation of signs and worldwide events. (This can add further evidence in support of pretribulational Rapture and premillennial Advent timing. For if Christ’s return was post-tribulational, we wouldn’t have need to “watch the signs”; we would merely watch as the Tribulation plays out and count down to an identified time of return, which the Bible refutes with language regarding Jesus coming “like a thief in the night” [Matthew 24:36–44, 1 Thessalonians 5:1–3, 2 Peter 3:10, Revelation 3:3].)
Between the short introduction and the coming letters to the seven churches individually, John writes a salutation from his own voice to all of the seven churches in the province of Asia. He wishes them grace and peace from the One who was, is, and is yet to come, from the “sevenfold” Spirit of God and Christ. Jesus Christ is the Faithful Witness of these things, as the first to rise from the dead, and as the ruler over the world. All glory and power forever goes to Him whose blood was shed for our benefit; He has turned us into a Kingdom of priests for God, the Father (1:4–6). (According to Beale, the “sevenfold” Spirit, or “seven spirits” in some translations, represents fullness and completion, not “seven entities” or “archangels,” as some suppose from ancient, apocryphal or extrabiblical Jewish literature.[i])
Jesus is going to come with the clouds of heaven, and all will see Him, including those who contributed to His death, and all nations “shall wail” because of Him—even so, “Amen” (a word meaning “we agree”; 1:7).
There has been some confusion about this statement. Commentators note that it initially seems “un-Christian” for John to write a hearty “amen” at the idea that everyone will “wail.” Likewise, the “all” is a little confusing, considering that the sight of Jesus would assumedly be a joyful thing for believers. Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown sheds some light on this moment, explaining that this reference to “all” includes “the unconverted at the general judgment; and especially at His pre-millennial advent, the Antichristian confederacy (Zec 12:3–6, 9; 14:1–4; Mt 24:30).… Even the godly while rejoicing in His love shall feel penitential sorrow at their sins, which shall all be manifested at the general judgment.”[ii] This is a moment in which an “amen” is no longer out of place, because the consummation of God’s plan and His vindication are about to be realized in these texts. John, an apostle driven by passionate zeal for the lost in all his other writings, therefore would not have said “amen” to the suffering of people, but to God’s plan on earth being carried out in the interest of the lost and vindication of the saved, finally.
John goes on to write that Jesus says He is the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End, who is, always was, and is still to come—the Almighty One (1:8).
John is, to these churches, a brother and fellow partner in suffering for the Kingdom, enduring alongside them in patience in and endurance of what Jesus has called His people to do. Because of John’s boldness in sharing his personal testimony and preaching about the Name of Christ, he was exiled to the island of Patmos. On the “Lord’s day” (a Sunday, as the Greek from the second century on suggests), John was worshipping in the Spirit, when suddenly, he heard a voice from behind him as loud as a trumpet blast. The voice instructed him to write down everything he was about to see and send it to the seven churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (1:9–11).
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When John turned to see who was speaking to him, he saw seven golden candlesticks (more often, “lampstands,” representing the seven churches; now the fullness of the Church universal). In the middle of these was the Son of Man, wearing a long robe with a golden sash that ran across the width of His chest. The Son of Man’s hair was white like wool or snow, and His eyes looked like flames of fire. His feet were like bronze that had been refined in a fire (meaning purified—Jesus is a wholly “pure” being; see similar treatment in Revelation 3:18). His voice thundered like the waves of the ocean. He held seven stars (representing the “angels” of the seven churches; more on this in a moment) in His right hand. From His mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword (the Word; judgment of God against His [and our] enemies). And His face shone like the brilliant sun (similar to the description of Stephen, whose face shone like the sun as he saw Christ at the right hand of the Father during his stoning event; this signifies majestic connection to God).
This depiction of the Son of Man in Revelation 1:12–16 was used of the Ancient of Days in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, it is of Jesus—titled after, and described nearly identically to, what Daniel saw in his prophetic vision (see Daniel 7:9–13; 10:6; 12:3, 6–7). (For more on “lampstands” or “stars,” see Zechariah 4 and Daniel 12:3; for “sharp, two-edged sword,” see Isaiah 11:4; 49:2.)
When John saw Him, he fell at His feet as if he were dead. But the Son of Man laid His hand on John and told him not to be afraid, for He was the First and Last, the Living One, who died but was now alive forever, and who holds “the keys of hell and of death” (He has authority over death and the grave). Jesus then instructs John to write down “the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter,” and then Christ selfinterprets what John is seeing: “The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks [or “lampstands”]. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches” (Revelation 1:17–20).
UP NEXT: Seven Letters to Seven Churches (Revelation 2–3)
[i] Beale, G. K., The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press; 1999), 189.
[ii] Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, 552.