Revelation Isn't Chronological

One of the things that makes interpreting the visions of John, Daniel, Ezekiel, and others difficult is our tendency to try to read them chronologically. The reader of, say Revelation chapter 11, might assume that the events described there happen before the events of Revelation chapter 20. This approach makes a common sense interpretation impossible.

The visions given to the prophets are highly symbolic. The writers are seeing an image in their mind and then putting those images to paper in the form of words - using words to describe what they saw.

They weren't seeing future events, like watching the news. They were seeing scenes, full of symbolic images that conveyed concepts about the future. Remember God's goal in giving these visions to the prophets: to tell the saints that they ultimately win.

The Purpose of Parables

But I think God has another goal in choosing to reveal these things in symbolic language: to keep this message concealed from those for whom it is not intended - to keep it hidden from the enemy and the lost. The message of the prophets isn't plain. You really have to think about it. You need the help of the Holy Spirit to understand it. You have to want to know the truth and seek it every day. God wants to reveal His plans to those who love Him, love the truth, and prove that by pursuing it every day.

Jesus said that He spoke in parables so that they "would not understand" (Matthew 13:10-17). The message of the parables is intended for those who love and follow the truth. A parable is a memorable and convenient way to deliver a deep message - but only for those who "have ears to hear". Those who pursue, accept, and respond to truth will get it - and be given more.

In parables, ideas are conveyed through stories, or scenes. The images given symbolize something else. The diligent student will start to pick up on these symbols and through that start to "decode" meaning from the scenes being described.

The visions given to the major prophets are intended to accomplish the same thing as when Jesus spoke in parables; namely, to communicate deep meaning to the person for whom it is intended and who is willing to seek it out and believe it.

Interpreting the Visions

When interpreting the visions written down by the prophets, I believe the reader must be ready to approach them understanding this fact: the writers of these visions write what they saw chronologically, but what they saw isn't chronological. For example, in the Book of Revelation, after the messages to the churches in Revelation 1-3, John sees a vision of the throne room of heaven in Revelation 4. He starts with the words, "After this I looked, and behold a door standing open in heaven!"

Revelation chapter 5 starts with "Then I saw..."
Chapter 6 begins with, "Now I watched..."
And chapter 7, "After this I saw..."

Each of these is a variation on the statement, "and I saw". John is telling us the order in which he saw things - not necessarily the order in which they are meant to be understood or that they take place in historical time.

Further, we are reading these visions as experienced and told by prophets who know clearly what they saw, but not necessarily the meaning of what they saw.

Progressive Revelation

Through all the the prophetic visions, especially Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation, we the readers are receiving a progressively expanding picture of what is going on in heaven, on earth, who the major participants are, and the nature of each of these things - all delivered through the language of parables. We are receiving progressively more information with each vision. Especially in the Book of Revelation, with each "and I saw", we pick up additional information about some element of the story that increases our understanding of the whole.

Think of the way people tell a story of something that they experienced. They tend to tell highlights, the things that were most memorable, followed by other details as they come to mind and are needed to fill in the gaps. If a child comes home from an amusement park, they don't start with talking about how they rode in the car, then stood in line for tickets, then walked through the park, etc. They start with, "Mom! I rode a roller coaster!" Then as the story unfolds about their experiences of the day, other less poignant details get added. "We ate hotdogs for lunch, and Dad let me have a chocolate shake." You get a progressively expanding picture in your mind of the day that was experienced by the child, although the story wasn't given to you chronologically.

In each "and I saw" John is revealing some additional facet, some truth, some detail that is relevant to what the churches will face in the future, who the major players in this story are, and how it will turn out - but the order of these "and I saw" statements is not communicating the order in which they will happen as prophecy unfolds.

To miss this fact will require wild interpretations of the prophetic visions - especially the Book of Revelation which is quite long and contains lots of detail. Requiring a chronological interpretation of events will entirely distort the meaning of the book.

All the major prophecies found in the Bible communicate to the reader a complex scene that is multi-dimensional. While time unfolds in a linear manner, describing it linearly doesn't work. To get the full message, John, in the Book of Revelation and their other prophets in their writings have to see and communicate to us ideas and concepts that are happening partly in heaven, partly on earth, with some events having elements in the past and others in the future, with parties that are involved in some elements and not others. There is a lot going on here which cannot be explained with an "A happened, then B happened, then C."

Let's say that someone is writing a book about the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. Fully describing this major historical event could not be done chronologically very well. A better method would be to tell the story over and over - each time from a different perspective. In one chapter you may discuss it from the perspective of a soldier on the front lines. In another from the perspective of the President. Later from the point of view of family whose loved one is on battlefield. You may tell the story of a slave whose future hinges on the war's outcome. The writer will probably move from perspective to perspective, focusing here for a bit, there for bit, moving forward and backwards through chronological time to emphasize elements at the appropriate point to communicate the ideas that the author finds most important.

With each rendering of the same story, the reader picks up additional detail and gets a deeper understanding of the events, their impact, the people affected, and how they were affected. This is the technique being used by God as the prophets experience the various visions that they wrote about.

So lets dive into the Book of Revelation next "reading" it in this context.

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Allegiance - Setting the Stage for the Great Tribulation

A Reminder: We Win!

I want to discuss the Beast and the Great Tribulation by starting with Daniel 7.

In chapter 7: 1-15 Daniel sees a vision of four beasts with various characteristics. The fourth and final one being terrifying, dreadful, and exceedingly strong. This beast overcame all the others.

Yet, in verse 9, we see that the Ancient of Days (God), took His seat, pronounced judgement on this beast, it was killed and its body turned over to be burned. The dominion was also taken away from all the other beasts.

Verses 13 and 14 show that the Ancient of Days gave dominion to "one like a son of man", that everyone would serve Him, and His dominion will never be taken away.

So a quick interpretation: here on the earth, worldly kings will rise and fall. One king will overtake another. Governments will grow in strength, handing over their power one to the next until a final earthly king who is exceedingly strong will have dominion over all the earth. This king it says elsewhere will even prevail against the saints, but God comes, takes His seat, pronounces judgement, destroys the enemy, and hands us the victory.

So lets unpack that and I'll show you how I got there. Lets start with a discussion of the enemy over whom we'll eventually have victory.

Interpretation of the Beasts

Daniel had the vision of chapter 7 interpreted for him by an angel starting in verse 15. The angel plainly tells him in vs 17 that:
These four great beasts are four great kings that will arise out of the earth.
The beast is symbolic of earthly kingdoms, or earthly governments. More pointedly: governments of men. The number 666 that we see in Revelation 13:18 is interpreted for us as the number of a man. In Daniel 7:8, it says the fourth beast has the "eyes of a man".

The Counterfeit Messiah

The beasts of Daniel and Revelation are human based earthly governments. Further, they are a counterfeit Messiah. The lost, who have been deceived because they see with their eyes rather than with eyes of faith, can only put their trust in that which they see. They cannot see God. But they can see government. They can see kings. So they ask the king to care for them, to protect them, to provide for them. They ask earthly kings for that which they should be asking of Christ - namely, salvation.

The Israelites asked Samuel for a king (1 Samuel 8:6). At the time they were completely free. God had merely placed judges in their land to resolve disputes. But they were not ruled by the Judges, God Himself was their only King. When Israel pressed Samuel for a king, God said that it was a rejection of Him (vs 7). He also warned them that a king would cost them their freedom and their wealth (vs 11-18). An an aside, America was the first nation on earth founded deliberately on the notion that human beings should be free, and that when too much authority is given to government, it will consume the people. The founders of this nation purposely tried to limit government, but warned posterity that only through their personal relationships with God would they be able to keep it limited.
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other (John Adams)
But many people, those who have no love or trust for God, want a king/government they can see, and are willing to give all that they have to get the security that they believe a king will provide. Unfortunately, what they will receive instead is the ultimate insecurity.
We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security. (Dwight Eisenhower)
Human history is a story of allegiance. A story of our choice, made as individuals and collectively, about whom we will follow, love, and serve.

It is human choice that empowers either the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Hell. Jesus said in Luke 17:21 that "The Kingdom of God is within you." Simply put - the Word of God shapes us from the inside out. When Jesus "comes to live in our hearts" it means that we believe the Word in our hearts (Rom 10:8) and are changed on the inside.  That change starts to take effect in the things we do and say. The things that we do and say shape our environment and our relationships. Rejecting the Word of God has the opposite, but same kind of effect. Individuals produce in the world around them either the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Hell by what they agree with and act upon.

Taken together (those that believe and those that reject the Word of God), our beliefs shape the entire world. The world we live in is a product of what its inhabitants believe - a product of what every human being, taken as a whole, says and does.

The Great Tribulation

The Great Tribulation is the final playing out of the misplacement of human allegiance. It is the final culmination of human trust in a physical government rather than a trust in God.

Revelation 13 has many parallels to Daniel 7. Revelation 13:3-4 says that humanity "marveled as they followed the beast." God has given each human being the freedom to choose. That freedom gives us authority. Trusting in man gives that authority over to Satan.

It is the dragon that gives the beast power. Revelation 13:4 says:
And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, "Who is like the beast, and who can fight against, it?
When mankind trusts government instead of God, they empower the dragon (who is Satan, as interpreted in Rev 20:2). One government may rise and be replaced by another - we see this clearly in Daniel 7 in the four beasts described there. But the authority given away by each individual to the beast (when they trust man rather than God) strengthens the dragon.

Generation after generation of empowering the dragon led to his eventual "release" (Rev 20:3). It has always been the aim of the dragon to control the entire earth through a centralized government. Every "great" ruler throughout world history has attempted to increase the size of their Kingdoms. Even our movies and various stories reveal that the villains' goal was always to "rule the world!"

Fully aware of the threat imposed by that possibility, God decentralized human government when he confused the languages at the Tower of Babel. He said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them." (Gen 11:6) The lost have been trying to centralize it again ever since.

The Great Tribulation is the accomplishment of that perpetual goal of the enemy - total centralization. At that time, the people of the world will have utterly surrendered over their lives, their freedom, their hope, their wealth, and their potential to one final earthly all-powerful government. And they will have done so willingly in their vain search for security.  Once that occurs there will be no human power capable of stopping the dragon and the beast. Anything the enemy chooses to do during the Great Tribulation is possible to him. During that time the enemy will have total and complete control over human beings on the earth. You won't even be able to buy or sell anything unless you are part of his system (Rev 13:7).

In the Great Tribulation the enemy will prevail even against the saints:
As I watched, this horn was waging war against the holy people and defeating them (Daniel 7:21)
It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. (Revelation 13:7)
And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them (Rev 11:7)
And at the latter end of their kingdom, when the transgressors have reached their limit, a king of bold face, one who understands riddles, shall arise. 24 His power shall be great—but not by his own power; and he shall cause fearful destruction and shall succeed in what he does, and destroy mighty men and the people who are the saints. (Daniel 8:23-24)
For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short...29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:21-30)
But God will end the Great Tribulation and the suffering of the saints by His coming. Don't forget Daniel 7 (reviewed at the start of this article) - God pronounces judgement on the beast and destroys his work with His coming and all dominion is given to the Son of Man. So while there will be a time of great suffering on the earth for the saints due to the world's love for and empowerment of the dragon and the beast, this will be cut short and we will be handed the victory. So take heart Christian - you're on the winning team.


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