The reason many people today find Revelation difficult to understand is because they are trying to apply the prophecies and symbols of Revelation in a way that was never intended.
The truth is that the book of Revelation was written for the Christians living in the apostle John's generation. We are wrong to interpret it futuristically, as if its message was primarily intended for a time 2000 years after John wrote it. Of course, the events John foretold were “in the future” to John and his readers; but as John indicates in his book, the events occurred soon after he wrote them. To interpret the book otherwise is to contradict the book itself. For us, the majority of the Revelation is history: It has already happened. Once we grasp this concept, we find that the book is easy to understand and the symbols make perfect sense in light of actual historical events that occurred in the first century.
John stated that his book was intended for “the seven churches which are in Asia” (1:4), and we must assume that he meant what he said. He clearly expected that even the most difficult symbols in the prophecy could be understood by his first-century readers (cf Rev. 13:18). Not once did he imply that his book was written with the twentieth century in mind, and that Christians would be wasting their time attempting to decipher it until Uriah Smith published Daniel and Revelation in the nineteenth century! The primary relevance of the Book of Revelation was for its first-century readers. Of course, it still has relevance for us today as we understand its message and apply its principles to our lives and our culture.
Here is the evidence the book was intended for first-century Christians:
“Was a book sent by an apostle to the churches of Asia Minor, with a benediction on its readers, a mere unintelligible jargon, an inexplicable enigma, to them? That can hardly be. Yet if the book were meant to unveil the secrets of distant times, must it not of necessity have been unintelligible to its first readers – and not only unintelligible, but even irrelevant and useless? If it spake, as some [Uriah Smith] would have us believe, of Huns and Goths and Saracens, of medieval emperors and popes, of the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, what possible interest or meaning could it have for the Christian churches of Ephesus, and Smyrna, and Philadelphia, and Laodicea? Especially when we consider the actual circumstances of those early Christians – many of them enduring cruel sufferings and grievous persecutions, and all of them eagerly looking for an approaching hour of deliverance which was now close at hand – what purpose could it have answered to send them a document which they were urged to read and ponder, which was yet mainly occupied with historical events so distant as to be beyond the range of their sympathies, and so obscure that even at this day the shrewdest critics are hardly agreed on any one point?
Is it conceivable that an apostle would mock the suffering and persecuted Christians of his time with dark parables about distant ages? If this book were really intended to minister faith and comfort to the very persons to whom it was sent, it must unquestionably deal with matters in which they were practically and personally interested. And does not this very obvious consideration suggest the true key to the Apocalypse? Must it not of necessity refer to matters of contemporary history? The only tenable, the only reasonable, hypothesis is that it was intended to be understood by its original readers; but this is as much as to say that it must be occupied with the events and transactions of their own day, and these comprised within a comparatively brief space of time.”
New Testament writers understood themselves to be living in the last days. For example, Peter said the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was a fulfillment of Joel's prophecy:
But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel: And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit...". (Acts 2:16,17, Joel 2:28-32)The last days is not a reference to the last days of human history. Instead, it is a reference to the last days of the old covenantal relationship of God with the nation of Israel. This was the end of the forty-year “generation” (Matt. 24:34) between the Ascension of Christ (A.D. 30) and the Fall of Jerusalem to the Romans (A.D. 70). The book of Revelation, therefore, is not concerned with either the scope of world history or the end of the world, but with events that were in the near future to John and his readers. Revelation is a “covenant lawsuit,” prophesying the outpouring of God’s wrath on Jerusalem.
The following is a list of some New Testament verses that Christians indicate the "last days" were in the first century:
(All Scripture taken from the NASB.)
The truth is that there is no dilemma at all! The disciples were living in the "last days" of God's covenant with Israel. In a sense, Jesus returned in 70 A.D., just as He had promised in Matthew 24, to execute vengeance upon the Jewish nation. Clearly, those were the last days of the Jewish nation. This is not to be confused with the end of human history.
In Rev. 1:4-6 John addresses his prophecy to the seven churches in Asia. It is obvious from the descriptions that follow (chapters 2-3) that he definitely has these actual churches in mind. The notion propagated by Uriah Smith and Ellen White that these represent “seven phases of the spiritual history of the church” is a mere fiction, with no objective evidence; and it is quite arbitrarily and selectively applied. There are at least three fallacious presuppositions held by those who advocate this doctrine:
Uriah Smith and Ellen White propose that there will be a special resurrection of those who killed Christ so that they can witness his Second Coming. Unfortunately, this special resurrection is never described anywhere in the Bible. It is based upon a flawed understanding of Revelation 1:7.
Rev. 1:7 announces the theme of the book, which is not the Second Coming of Christ, but rather the Coming of Christ in judgment upon Israel, in order to establish the Church as the new Kingdom. John proclaims "He is coming with the clouds," using one of the most familiar Biblical images for judgment (cf. Gen. 15:17; Ex. 13:21-22; 14:19-20, 24; 19:9, 16-19; Ps. 18:8-14; 104:3; Isa. 19:1; Ezek. 32:7-8; Matt. 24:30; Mark 14:62; Acts 2:19). Over and over, through-out the Bible, "coming on the clouds" refers to God's act of judgment and vengeance. This is the Glory-Cloud, God’s heavenly chariot by which He makes His glorious presence known. The Cloud is a revelation of His Throne, as He comes to protect His people and destroy the wicked. One of the most striking descriptions of God’s “coming in the clouds” is in Nahum’s prophecy against Nineveh (Nah. 1:2-8):
The LORD is a jealous and avenging God. The LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on His foes... His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, And clouds are the dust of His feet.... The mountains quake before Him and the hills melt away. The earth trembles at His presence, the world and all who live in it.His coming in the clouds thus brings judgment and deliverance in history. There is no reason, in either the overall Biblical usage of this term or its immediate context here, to suppose that the literal end of the physical world is meant. John is speaking of the fact, stressed throughout the “last days” period by the apostles, that a crisis was quickly approaching: As He had promised, Christ would come against the present generation “in the clouds,” in wrathful judgment against apostate Israel (Matt. 23-25). And every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him (the Gentiles, John 19:34, 37). The crucifiers would see Him coming in judgment – that is, they would experience and understand that His Coming would mean wrath on the Land (cf. the use of the word see in Mark 1:44; Luke 17:22; John 3:36; Rom. 15:21). The Lord had used the same terminology of His Coming against Jerusalem at the end of that generation (Matt. 24:30), and He even warned the high priest: “You shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). In other words, the apostates of that evil generation would understand the meaning of Christ’s Ascension, the definitive Coming of the Son of Man, the Second Adam (Dan. 7:13). In the destruction of their city, their civilization, their Temple, their entire world-order, they would understand that Christ had ascended to His Throne as Lord of heaven and earth. They would see that the Son of Man had come to the Father.
Jesus had said also that “all the tribes of the Land will mourn” on the day of His Coming (Matt. 24:30), that “weeping shall be there and the gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 24:51). John repeats this as part of the theme of his prophecy: all the tribes of the Land [the Jews] will mourn over Him. Both Jesus and John thus reinterpreted this expression, borrowed from Zechariah 12:10-14, where it occurs in an original context of Israel’s mourning in repentance. But Israel had gone beyond the point of no return; their mourning would not be that of repentance, but sheer agony and terror. Yet this does not negate the promises in Zechariah. Indeed, through Christ’s judgment on Israel, by means of her excommunication, the world will be saved; and, through the salvation of the world, Israel herself will turn again to the Lord and be saved (Rom. 11:11-12, 15, 23-24).
The Beast of Rev. 13 arises from the sea. In the Bible, after the Fall, the picture of the raging deep is used and developed in Scripture as a symbol of the world in chaos through the rebellion of men and nations against God: “The wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot be quiet, and its waters tossup refuse and mud” (Isa. 57:20; cf. Isa. 17: 12). St. John is told later that “the waters which you saw . . . are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues” (17: 15). Out of this chaotic, rebellious mass of humanity emerged Rome, an entire empire founded on the premise of opposition to God.
The Beast has ten horns and seven heads, a mirror-image (cf. Gen. 1:26) of the Dragon (12:3), who gives the Beast his power and his throne and great authority. The ten crowned horns (powers) of the Beast are explained in 17:12 in terms of the governors of the ten imperial provinces, while the seven heads are explained as the line of the Caesars (17:9-11): Nero is one of the “heads.” In a nightmarish parody of the Biblical High Priest, who wore the divine Name on his forehead (Ex. 28:36-38), the Beast displays on his heads blasphemous names: According to the Roman imperial theology, the Caesars were gods. Each emperor was called Augustus or Sebastos, meaning One to be worshiped. They also took on the name divus (god) and even Deus and Theos (God). Many temples were erected to them throughout the Empire, especially, as we have noted, in Asia Minor. The Roman Caesars received honor belonging only to the one true God; Nero commanded absolute obedience, and even erected a 120-foot-high image of himself. For this reason Paul called Caesar “the man of sin”; he was, Paul said, “the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God” (2 Thess. 2:3-4). John emphasizes this aspect of the Beast: "And there was given to him a mouth speaking arrogant words and blasphemies. . . . And he opened his mouth in blasphemies against God" (13:5-6).
The Christians were persecuted because they refused to join in this idolatrous Emperor-cult. The Roman Empire is further symbolized as a ravenous, ferocious animal, untamed and under the Curse. St. John says the appearance of the Beast was like a leopard, with feet like those of a bear, and a mouth like the mouth of a lion. These are also the very animals (listed in reverse order) used to describe the first three of the four great world empires in Daniel 7:1-6 (Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece; cf. Daniel’s description of the same empires under a different symbol, in Dan. 2:31-45). The fourth empire, Rome, partakes of the evil, beast-like characteristics of the other empires, but it is much worse: “Behold, a fourth Beast, dreadful and terrifying and extremely strong; and it had large iron teeth. It devoured and crushed, and trampled down the remainder with its feet; and it was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns” (Dan. 7:7). This, as we noted at 12:3, is the origin of the Dragon’s (and thus the Beast’s) ten horns and seven heads (the three heads of beasts 1, 2, and 4, plus the four heads of beast 3: Dan. 7:6). The Beast of Revelation is clearly the Roman Empire, which “combined in itself all the elements of the terrible and the oppressive, which had existed in the aggregate in the other great empires that preceded it; its extension too was equal to them all united.”
The Beast receives a head wound which should make us think of the scene in the Garden of Eden, when God promised that Christ would come and crush the Dragon’s head (Gen. 3:15). Daniel had prophesied that in the days of the Roman rulers, Christ’s Kingdom would crush the Satanic empires and replace them, filling the earth. Accordingly, apostolic testimony proclaimed that Christ’s Kingdom had come, that the devil had been defeated, disarmed, and bound, and that all nations would begin to flow toward the mountain of the Lord’s House. Within the first generation, the Gospel spread rapidly around the world, to all the nations; churches sprang up everywhere, and members of Caesar’s own household came into the faith (Phil. 4:22). In fact, Tiberius Caesar even formally requested that the Roman Senate officially acknowledge Christ’s divinity. For a time, therefore, it looked as if a coup were taking place: Christianity was in the ascendant, and soon would gain control. Satan’s head had been crushed, and with it the Roman Empire had been wounded to death with the sword (see 13:14) of the Gospel. But then the tables were reversed. Although the Gospel had spread everywhere, so had heresy and apostasy; and under persecution by the Jews and the Roman State, great masses of Christians began falling away (1 Tim. 1:3-7, 19-20; 4:1-3; 6:20-21; 2 Tim. 2:16-18; 3:1-9, 13; 4:10, 14-16; Tit. 1:10-16; 1 John 2:18-19).
The New Testament gives the definite impression that most of the churches fell apart and abandoned the faith; under Nero’s persecution, the Church seemed to have been stamped out entirely. The Beast had received the head-wound, the wound unto death – yet it still lived. The reality, of course, was that Christ had defeated the Dragon and the Beast; but the implications of His victory still had to be worked out; the saints had yet to overcome, and take possession (cf. Dan. 7:21-22; Rev. 12:11). And the whole Land wondered after the Beast; and they worshiped the Dragon, because he gave his authority to the Beast; and they worshiped the Beast, saying: Who is like the Beast, and who is able to make war against him? John is not speaking of the world (the “earth”) following the Beast; the word he uses here should be translated Land, meaning Israel. We know this because the context identifies his worshipers as those who dwell on the Land (Rev. 13:8, 12, 14) – a technical phrase used twelve times in Revelation to denote apostate Israel (see above on 3:10). It is true, of course, that Nero was loved all over the Empire as the benevolent provider of welfare and entertainment. But it is Israel in particular which is condemned for Emperor-worship. Faced with a choice between Christ and Caesar, they had proclaimed: We have no king but Caesar.
The Beast was given authority to act for forty-two months and to make war with the saints and to overcome them. The period of 42 months (or three and a half years, a broken seven) is a symbolic figure in prophetic language, signifying a time of trouble, when the enemies of God are in power, or when judgment is being poured out, while God’s people wait for the coming of the Kingdom (the Beast oppressed the Old Covenant saints for 42 generations, according to Matthew 1:1-17). Its prophetic usage is not primarily literal, although it is interesting that Nero’s persecution of the Church did in fact last a full 42 months, from the middle of November 64 to the beginning of June 68.
This Beast of Rev. 13 is not just an institution, but a person; specifically, as we shall see, it is the Emperor Nero. This is because, particularly the way the Bible looks at things, the two could be considered as one. Rome was, to some extent, covenantally identified with its leader, as the human race was with Adam; the Empire was embodied and represented in the reigning Caesar (Nero). Thus John’s prophecy can shift back and forth between them, or consider them both together, under the same designation. And both Nero and the Empire were sunk in degrading, degenerate, bestial activities. Nero, who murdered numerous members of his own family (including his pregnant wife, whom he kicked to death); who was a homosexual, the final stage in degeneracy (Rom. 1:24-32); whose favorite aphrodisiac consisted of watching people suffer the most horrifying and disgusting tortures; who dressed up as a wild beast in order to attack and rape male and female prisoners; who used the bodies of Christians burning at the stake as the original “Roman candles” to light up his filthy garden parties; who launched the first imperial persecution of Christians at the instigation of the Jews, in order to destroy the Church; this animalistic pervert was the ruler of the most powerful empire on earth. And he set the tone for his subjects. Rome was the moral sewer of the world.
The ancient languages used each letter of the alphabet as a numeral as well; thus, the “number” of anyone’s name could be computed by simply adding up the numerical value of its letters. Clearly, St. John expected that his contemporary readers were capable of using this method to discover the Beast’s name — thus indicating, again, the contemporary message of Revelation; he did not expect them to figure out the name of some 20th-century official or some religious leader during the dark ages. At the same time, however, he tells them that it will not be as easy as they might think: it will require someone “who has understanding.” For John did not give a number that could be worked out in Greek, which is what a Roman official scanning Revelation for subversive content would expect. The unexpected element in the computation was that it had to be worked out in Hebrew, a language that at least some members of the churches would know. His readers would have guessed by now that he was speaking of Nero, and those who understood Hebrew probably grasped it instantly. The numerical values of the Hebrew letters in Neron Kesar (Nero Caesar) is 666. John’s Biblically informed readers will have already recognized many clear indications of the Beast’s identity as Rome (indeed, they already knew this from reading the Book of Daniel). Now Nero has arrived on the scene as the first great persecutor of the Church, the embodiment of the “666-ness” of the Empire, and – Lo and behold! – his very name spells out 666.
It is significant that “all the earliest Christian writers on the Apocalypse, from Irenaeus down to Victorious of Pettau and Commodian in the fourth, and Andreas in the fifth, and St. Beatus in the eighth century, connect Nero, or some Roman emperor, with the Apocalyptic Beast .“ There should be no reasonable doubt about his identification. John was writing to first-century Christians, warning them of things that were “shortly” to take place. They were engaged in the most crucial battle of history, against the Dragon and the evil Empire that he possessed. The purpose of the Revelation was to comfort the Church with the assurance that God was in control, so that even the awesome might of the Dragon and the Beast would not stand before the armies of Jesus Christ.
Just as the Beast from the sea was in the Image of the Dragon, so we see another creature who is in the Image of the Beast. John saw this one coming up from the Land, arising from within Israel itself. In 16:13 and 19:20, we are told the identity of this Land Beast. He is the False Prophet, representing what Jesus had foretold would take place in Israel’s last days:
“Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many. . . . Many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many” (Matt. 24:5, 11).The rise of the false prophets paralleled that of the antichrists; but whereas the antichrists had apostatized into Judaism from within the Church, the false prophets were Jewish religious leaders who sought to seduce Christians from the outside. As Cornelis Vanderwaal has noted, “In Scripture, false prophecy appears only within the covenant context”; 14 it is the imitation of true prophecy, and operates in relation to the Covenant people. Moses had warned that false prophets would arise from among the Covenant people, performing signs and wonders (Deut. 13:1-5).
The Jewish false prophets had the appearance of a Lamb, as Jesus had warned:
“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves” (Matt. 7:15).This is a reference not only to the false prophet’s disguise as a member of God’s flock, but to his specifically messianic pretensions. In reality, he was a wolf, a Beast, who spoke as a Dragon. How does the Dragon speak? He uses deceptive, subtle, seductive speech to draw God’s people away from the faith and into a trap (Gen. 3:1-6, 13; 2 Cor. 11:3; Rev. 12:9); furthermore, he is a liar, a slanderer, and a blasphemer (John 8:44; Rev. 12:10). The Book of Acts records numerous examples of Draconian false witness by the Jews against Christians, a major problem for the early Church (Acts 6:9-15; 13:10; 14:2-5; 17:5-8; 18:6, 12-13; 19:9; 21:27-36; 24:1-9; 25:2-3, 7). The Jewish leaders, symbolized by this Beast from the Land, joined forces with the Beast of Rome in an attempt to destroy the Church (Acts 4:24-28; 12:1-3; 13:8; 14:5; 17:5-8; 18:12-13; 21:11; 24:1-9; 25:2-3, 9, 24). Thus the Land Beast exercises all the authority of the First Beast: “As the first beast is the agent of the dragon, so the second beast is the agent of the first beast. ‘All the authority’ makes the second beast the complete agent of the first .“ Apostate Judaism became completely subservient to the Roman State. This is emphasized by St. John’s statement (repeated in v. 14) that the False Prophet exercised the Beast’s authority in his presence. This is in direct contrast to the function of the true prophet, who stood “before [the face of] the Lord,” in God’s presence, under His authority and blessing (1 Sam. 1:22; 2:18; 1 Kings 17:1; cf. Num. 6:24-26; Hos. 6:2; Jonah 1:3, 10).
And he causes all to be given a mark on their right hand, or on their forehead, and he provides that no one should be able to buy or to sell, except the one who has the mark, either the name of the Beast or the number of his name. The Book of Acts is studded with incidents of organized Jewish persecution of the Church (Acts 4:1-3, 15-18; 5:17-18, 27-33, 40; 6:8-15; 7:51-60; 9:23, 29; 13:45-50; 14:2-5; 17:5-8, 13; 18:17; 20:3; 22:22-23; 23:12, 20-21; 24:27; 26:21; 28:17-29; cf. 1 Thess. 2:14-16). All of this ultimately served the interests of Caesar against Christ and the Church; and the “mark of the Beast,” of course, is the Satanic parody of the “seal of God” on the foreheads and hands of the righteous (3:12; 7:2-4; 14:1), the mark of wholehearted obedience to the Law in thought and deed (Deut. 6:6-8), the mark of blessing and protection (Ezek. 9:4-6), the sign that one is HOLY TO THE LORD (cf. Ex. 28:36). Israel has rejected Christ, and is “marked” with the seal of Rome’s total lordship; she has given her allegiance to Caesar, and is obedient to his rule and law. Israel chose to be saved by the pagan state, and persecuted those who sought salvation in Christ.
The New Testament gives abundant testimony of this fact. The Jewish hierarchy was involved in a massive, organized attempt to destroy the Church by both deceit and persecution. In pursuit of this diabolical goal, they united in a conspiracy with the Roman government against Christianity. Some of them were able to perform miracles in the service of Satan. All this is exactly what is told us of the Beast from the Land. The False Prophet of Revelation represents none other than the leadership of apostate Israel, who rejected Christ and worshiped the Beast.
There are several reasons to identify the harlot as Jerusalem. The Harlot is called Babylon. Babylon is called the great city in Revelation 14:8; Revelation 11:8, which is the first mention of the great city, refers to the place where our Lord was crucified, which was Jerusalem. She is great because of her covenantal status in the Old Testament. Jerusalem had previously been called by pagan names comparable to Babylon, as in Revelation 11:8, "spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt". This is because she acts like God's enemy. In Isaiah 1:9-10, God calls Jerusalem `Sodom and Gomorrah' because of her sinfulness.
The harlot is filled with the blood of the saints according to Revelation 17:6, 16:6, and 18:21&24. Throughout the book of Acts, Jerusalem is portrayed as the persecutor of Christianity.
Acts 7:51-52 (NKJV) "You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers."In the Olivet Discourse context Jesus said in Matthew 23:34-36,
"Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation."The harlot is arrayed in Jewish priestly colors according to Revelation 17:4. Exodus 28 prescribes these colors for the High Priest. The High Priest also wore a tiara on his forehead that said, "holiness unto the Lord" (Exodus 28:36-38). This harlot has a blasphemous tiara on her forehead, Revelation 17:5. She was supposed to be holy to the Lord but she has become the mother of harlots.
There is an obvious literary contrast between the harlot and the bride that comes down out of heaven. If we compare Revelation 21 & 17, we see two women: one is a harlot, the other a bride; one is Jerusalem that is above, the other is Jerusalem from below. Paul talked about these two Jerusalems in Galatians 4:25-26 (NKJV):
For this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem that now is, and is in bondage with her children; but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.Notice how John is introduced to the harlot, and notice how he is introduced to the bride. They are negative mirror images.
Revelation 17:1 (NKJV) "Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and talked with me, saying to me, "Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters,"The harlot is seated on the seven headed beast which obviously represents Rome. This indicates not identity with Rome but some form of alliance with Rome. The Jews were the ones that demanded Christ's crucifixion. When Pilot wanted to turn Jesus loose because he found no guilt in him, the Jews said in:
Revelation 21:9 (NKJV) "Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls filled with the seven last plagues came to me and talked with me, saying, "Come, I will show you the bride, the Lamb's wife."
John 19:15 (NKJV), "But they cried out, "Away with Him, away with Him! Crucify Him!" Pilate said to them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but Caesar!"The Jews were siding with Caesar against Jesus. The Jews constantly agitated against the Christians to get the Romans involved in their persecution. In Acts 17:7 the Christians were accused by the Jews as those who preached another king contrary to the decrees of Caesar. The harlot is seated on the beast because Jerusalem depended upon Rome to persecute the Christians.
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