Rightly Dividing the Book of Revelation

Introduction

This is a follow-up to my 2004 article, “We All Get Left Behind”, which examined the arguments of Tim LaHaye and others regarding the pre-Tribulation Rapture. As I said then, I agree with LaHaye that the Book of Revelation refers largely to future events and that the Antichrist will rule the world before the Second Coming of Jesus, but I disagree over the timing of the Rapture, Jesus’ coming for His church. LaHaye believes it will occur before the Tribulation. I argued that it will take place at the end, simultaneously with the Second Coming.

I also argued that some of the scenes, which LaHaye and others take literally, are meant to be interpreted symbolically. For example, LaHaye believes the two witnesses in Revelation 11 are two literal people. However, Revelation 11:4 explains that the two witnesses are lampstands (luchniai) and back in Revelation 1:20, it says that lampstands (luchniai) are churches. So, instead of being two literal people, the two witnesses more likely symbolize the ministry of the Church during the Tribulation and its persecution by the Antichrist.

This time, I am going to address the question of the chronology of the Book of Revelation.

Is the Book of Revelation linear?

I once assumed Revelation was a straight-forward linear portrayal of the Great Tribulation in chronological order – 7 seals (Rev. 5-8), followed by 7 trumpets (Rev. 8-11), followed by 7 bowls (Rev. 15-16), then the Second Coming (Rev. 19), the 1000 year reign (Rev. 20) and the new heaven and earth (Rev. 21-22). However, one passage, which did not feel right with this interpretation, was the opening of the sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-17;

I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. And the stars of heaven fell to earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its pace. And the kings of the earth, the great men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and free men, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?

This sounds like a description of the Second Coming. Jesus said the sun would darken, the moon would not give its light and the stars would fall from heaven immediately before His return (Matthew 24:29). It is also reminiscent of descriptions of the “Day of the Lord” in Isaiah 2 and 13 and Joel 2. I have shown this passage to Christians out of context, and they have assumed it refers to the Second Coming.

Furthermore, in the next chapter it describes “a great multitude” before God’s throne (Rev. 7:9) and it says, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation.” (Rev. 7:14)

It looks like the end of the Tribulation, the Second Coming, is described, followed by the scene in Heaven after the Tribulation. However, according to a linear interpretation of Revelation, the sixth seal occurs in the early stages of the Tribulation.

more than conquerors

Then I came across books like More than Conquerors by William Hendriksen and The Rapture Book by James McKeever which argued that Revelation is not linear, but it repeats itself and the visions overlap.

rapture book mckeever

McKeever gave the example of the fall of Babylon which is mentioned three times (Rev. 14:8, 16:19, 18:2). Obviously, Babylon does not fall three times. The same event is described three times in three separate visions or sequences. (1)

The visions in Daniel, the other main apocalyptic book in the Bible, are not linear, but cover the same ground. No one would suggest the vision of the four kingdoms in Daniel 2, followed by another vision of four kingdoms in Daniel 7, means there were going to be eight kingdoms. They are the same four kingdoms in two visions.

The divisions of Revelation

According to William Hendriksen in More than Conquerors, Revelation can be divided into seven parts or sequences which could be described as;

The seven churches (Rev. 2-3)

The seven seals (Rev. 4-7)

The seven trumpets (Rev. 8-11)

The woman and the beast (Rev. 12-14)

The seven bowls (Rev. 15-16)

The fall of Babylon and Armageddon (Rev. 17-19)

The final victory of Christ (Rev. 20-22). (2)

Apart from the first sequence of the seven churches, the Second Coming of Christ can be seen in each of these sequences.

We have already seen how the Second Coming is described when the sixth seal is opened (Rev. 6:12-17).

The Second Coming is also described when the seventh trumpet sounds;

Then the seventh angel sounded; And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever! (Rev. 11:15)

And the temple of God was opened in heaven, and the ark of His covenant was seen in His temple. And there were lightnings, noises, thunderings, an earthquake and great hail. (Rev. 11:19)

According to “linearists”, like Tim LaHaye, the seventh trumpet sounds at the middle of the Great Tribulation, when the Antichrist achieves world domination (3), that is, when the kingdoms of the world become the kingdoms of the Antichrist – the opposite of what the Bible says. The linear interpretation does not make sense. If the seventh trumpet takes place at the time of the Second Coming, then it makes sense.

The Rapture (the harvest) and the Second Coming are described again at the end of the next sequence in Revelation 14;

Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and on the cloud sat one like the Son of Man, having on His head a golden crown, and in His hand a sharp sickle. And another angel came out of the temple, crying with a loud voice to Him who sat on the cloud, “Thrust in Your sickle and reap, for the time has come for You to reap, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” So He who sat on the cloud thrust in His sickle on the earth and the earth was reaped.

Then another angel came out of the temple which is in heaven, he also having a sharp sickle. And another angel came out from the altar, who had power over fire, and he cried with a loud cry to him who had the sharp sickle, saying, “Thrust in your sharp sickle an d gather the cluster of the vine of the earth, for the grapes are fully ripe.” So the angel thrust his sickle into the earth and gathered the vine of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trampled outside the city and blood came out of the winepress, up to the horse’s bridles, for one thousand furlongs. (Rev 14:14-20)

The Second Coming at the Battle of Armageddon can be seen in the sixth and seventh bowls;

Then the sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, so that the way of the kings from the east might be prepared. And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs coming out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet. For they are spirits of demons, performing signs, which go out to the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty.

“Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame.”

And they gathered them together to the place called in Hebrew, Armageddon.

Then the seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” And there were noises and thunderings and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such a mighty and great earthquake as had not occurred since men were on the earth. Now the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. And great Babylon was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath. Then every island fled away, and the mountains were not found. And great hail from heaven fell upon men, each hailstone about the weight of a talent. Men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail, since that plague was exceedingly great. (Rev. 16:12-21)

After a detailed description of mystery Babylon and its destruction, the Second Coming at the Battle of Armageddon is described;

Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dripped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written:

KING OF KINGS

AND LORD OF LORDS.

Then I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the birds that fly in the midst of heaven, “Come and gather together for the super of the great God, that you may eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them, and the flesh of all people free and slave, both small and great.”

And I saw the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army. Then the beast was captured, and with him, the false prophet who worked signs in his presence by which he deceived those who worshipped his image. These two were cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone. And the rest were killed with the sword which proceeded from the mouth of Him who sat on the horse. And all the birds were file with their flesh. (Revelation 19:11-21)

While pre-millennialists believe the imprisonment of Satan in the abyss and the 1000 year reign refers to the reign of Christ on earth, a-millennialists, like myself, believe it symbolizes the Church Age which begins when Satan is defeated and bound by the death of Christ.

The release of Satan from the abyss (Rev. 20:7) is the same as when the Beast comes out of the abyss at the fifth trumpet (Rev. 9:1-12). It signifies a resurgence in Satanic power which had previously been bound. Paul presumably means he same thing when he says the restrainer will have to be removed before the Antichrist is revealed (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).

The gathering of armies by Satan is the same as the gathering of armies for Armageddon in Revelation 16:13-14. Their destruction is at the Battle of Armageddon at the Second Coming;

And [Satan] will go out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for battle, whose number is as the sand of the sea. They went up on the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured them. (Rev. 20:8-9)

Five of these seven sequences clearly end with the Second Coming of Jesus. However, there is still the question of the order of the other events in these sequences. The seventh trumpet and the seventh bowl are simultaneous, but do the first trumpet and the first bowl also occur at the same time? Some have suggested they are meant to overlap completely;

Seals                    1   2   3   4   5   6   7

Trumpets               1   2   3   4   5   6   7

Bowls                     1    2   3   4   5   6  7

Alternatively, they may partially overlap;

Seals                      1   2   3   4   5   6   7

Trumpets                                              1   2   3   4   5   6   7

Bowls                                                               1  2   3   4   5   6   7      (4)

gundry church tribulation

In The Church and the Tribulation, Robert Gundry writes that the “universally acknowledged Semitic style” of understanding Revelation’s chronology would be;

Seals                 1          2          3          4         5         6        7

Trumpets                                                1   2   3   4   5   6   7

Bowls                                                                     1 2 3 4 5 6 7                               (5)

This section will attempt to arrange events in Revelation in chronological order leading up to the Second Coming, comparing them with other Bible prophecies.

Death of Christ 

The death of Christ is symbolized by the Lamb being slain before the seven seals were opened (Rev. 5:6).

Through Jesus’ death, Satan is defeated (John 12:31-33, Colossians 2:15, Hebrews 2:14). Satan’s defeat is symbolized by his being cast out of heaven (Rev. 11:7-12) and also his being bound in the abyss (Rev. 20:1-3). Satan is bound in the sense that he cannot the spread of the Gospel and he cannot gather the enemies of Christ together to destroy the Church (6).

The Church Age (Rev. 2-3, 20:4-6)

Many commentators believe the seven churches in Asia Minor represent different periods in church history. This is probably true. However, not every church during the “Philadelphian period” would have been like the Philadelphian church. There would have also been churches which would have been like the churches of Thyatira and Sardis. The seven churches could also represent seven types of churches which exist at any time.

While evangelicals today like to think the Philadelphian church represents them, they are more likely closer to the Laodecian church (Rev. 3:17).

The Gospel is preached to all nations

Christians do not agree on the identity of the first horsemen when the first seal is opened (Rev. 6:1-2). Some say it is the coming of the Antichrist, others that it represents Jesus or the proclamation of the Gospel. Jesus said the Gospel must be preached to all nations before the end comes (Matthew 24:14). The first horsemen could mean the Gospel has been finally preached to all nations, so the Great Tribulation can begin (7).

The beginning of sorrows

The second, third and fourth seals and their horsemen, war, scarcity and death, seem to parallel what Jesus called the beginning of sorrows;

For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there shall be famines, pestilences and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. (Matthew 24:7-8)

The first four trumpets

The trumpet judgements appear to be a result of the prayers of the martyred saints from the fifth seal so they must come after it (Rev. 6:10-11, 8:3-4).

Since there is no explanation, like elsewhere in Revelation, for any symbolic meaning of these trumpet judgements, they are presumably meant to be taken literally.

The revealing of the Antichrist

Satan is released from the abyss (Rev. 9:1-12, 20:7, 2 Thessalonians 2:7-8). As I suggested earlier, the power of Satan to deceive and destroy the Church was bound and restrained as a result of the death of Christ. At the fifth trumpet, this restraint is removed resulting in a resurgence of Satanic power and deception and the revealing of the Antichrist.

The Beast or Antichrist will be a political figure before Satan is released. He will make a treaty with Israel but break it after 3½ years (Daniel 9:27). This will apparently happen at the same time Satan is released. It looks like the Antichrist will be assassinated (or will appear to be), then he will be resurrected, possessed by Satan (Rev. 13:2).

The Antichrist will desecrate the new temple in Jerusalem. This is described as the “abomination of desolation” which sounds like an idol of the Antichrist. He will claim to be God and demand to be worshipped (Daniel 9:27, Matthew 24:15, 2 Thess. 2:3-4, Rev. 13:15). People must take the mark of the Beast in order to be able to buy or sell anything (Rev. 13:16-18).

After the abomination of desolation is set up, there will be 1290 days (Daniel 12:11), which seems to mean the time til the Second Coming. However, Jesus said, “unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened.” (Matt. 24:22) This suggests the time will be less than 1290 days.

The Antichrist persecutes the Church

The two witnesses represent churches during the Tribulation (Rev. 1:20, 11:4). They have authority to still proclaim the Gospel for 1260 days, the first half of the Tribulation (Rev. 11:3). After Satan has been released and the abomination of desolation is set up, there is a resurgence of demonic power. Authority is, in effect, transferred from the Church to the Antichrist who has authority to persecute the Church and overcome them for 42 months, the second half of the Tribulation (Matthew 24:15-22, Rev. 11:7, 13:5-7).

The first four bowl judgments (Rev. 16:1-9)

Since the first bowl judgement affects those who have taken the mark of the beast (Rev. 16:2), it must take place during the second half of the Tribulation, after the mark has been instituted.

Like the first four trumpets, because there is no explanation of the symbolic meaning of the bowls, they are presumably meant to be interpreted literally.

Sun goes dark

I assume the darkness from the fifth bowl (Rev. 16:10) is the same as the sun going dark described in Isaiah 13:10, Joel 2:10, Matthew 24:29.

Preparation for Armageddon

Satan gathers the world’s armies for the Battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16:13-6, 20:8-9).

Both the sixth trumpet and the sixth bowl involve the Euphrates River (Rev. 9:13-15, 16:12). The drying of the Euphrates is preceded by the darkness of the fifth bowl. Although Hal Lindsey subscribes to a linear interpretation of Revelation, he appears to regard the sixth trumpet and the sixth bowl as simultaneous. He interprets the kings of the East of the sixth bowl and the 200 million man army of the sixth trumpet as referring to a Chinese-led army invading the Middle East leading to the Battle of Armageddon (8).

If the drying up of the Euphrates is not meant to be taken literally, it may refer to the removal of political power in the region, enabling the invasion.

Fall of Babylon

Mystery Babylon is a city with seven hills, so it sounds like Rome (Rev. 17:9, 18). Because Babylon is riding the beast (Rev. 17:3), this suggests the Antichrist is somehow dependent on Babylon for his power. The Antichrist and his ten kings resent this and destroy Babylon (Rev. 17:16-17).

The fall of Babylon takes place at the time of the seventh trumpet, immediately preceding the Second Coming (Rev. 16:19).

The Second Coming and the Battle of Armageddon

As we have seen, the Second Coming is described several times in Revelation. The Antichrist is captured and his armies are destroyed (Rev. 19:20-21).

The earth is “burned up” (2 Peter 3:10) and there is a new heaven and earth (Rev. 21:1).

Conclusion 

As readers can see, this interpretation is still partially linear. Most of the seals still precede the trumpets and most of the trumpets still precede the bowls. Nevertheless, judging by the repeated references to the Second Coming in Revelation’s different sequences, a strictly linear interpretation of Revelation is clearly wrong. What I have proposed is closer to what Robert Gundry called the Semitic interpretation.

While I think I am right, or at least closer to the truth than many other prophecy writers, I believe we should not be dogmatic when it comes to interpreting Bible prophecy and be open to the possibility we could be wrong. Over the years I have seen several Bible prophecy authors proved wrong. For example, in The Late Great Planet Earth, Hal Lindsey said that the Second Coming would probably occur by 1988 (9), and implied that the rapture, at the beginning of the Tribulation, would have to be by 1981. In a 1980 book The 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon, Lindsey wrote, “The decade of the 1980’s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.” (10)

1980s countdown

Likewise, in 88 Reasons why the Rapture will be in 1988, which sold over 4 million copies, Edgar Wisenant wrote that the Rapture would occur between September 11 to 13, 1988, and the Battle of Armageddon would take place on October 4, 1995 (11). After the supposed date of the Rapture came and went, Wisenant published another book claiming the Rapture would be in 1989, then 1990 and so on.

88-reasons

This happens a lot in evangelical circles, but usually not as blatant as Wisenant. Authors publish books on Bible prophecy and current events. They make a lot of money. Their interpretations and predictions are proved wrong, but they do not repent and acknowledge their mistakes and misleading their readers. They publish another book with new predictions.

I do not know how many, if any, Christians have had their faith shipwrecked when these writers and their predictions were proved wrong. I hope they understood to distinguish between putting their faith in God and the Bible and putting their faith in the fallible interpretations of human writers. The Bible does tell us everything which is going to happen in the future and Christians do not need to have the future all laid out for them. We need to trust God whatever may happen (Romans 8:31-39), which is more important than anything written about interpreting Bible prophecy.

Notes

(1) James McKeever, The Rapture Book, Omega Publications, 1987, p 73-74

(2) William Hendriksen, More than Conquerors, Baker, Michigan, 1982, p 21

(3) Tim LaHaye, Revelation Illustrated and Made Plain, Zondervan, Michigan, 1975, p 156-159

(4) James McKeever, Revelation for Laymen, Omega Publications, Oregon, 1980, p 214

(5) Robert Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation, Zondervan, Michigan, 1973, p 75

(6) Robert Clouse (editor), The Meaning of the Millennium; Four Views, InterVarsity Press, Illinois, 1977, p 162

(7) Revelation for Laymen, op cit., p 103-105

(8) Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth, Bantam, New York, 1980, p 151-152

(9) Ibid., p 43

(10) Hal Lindsey, The 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon, Bantam, New York, 1981, p 8

(11) Edgar Wisenant, 88 Reasons why the Rapture will be in 1988, Arizona, 1988, p 43

Bibliography

Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Robert Clouse (editor), The Meaning of the Millennium; Four Views, InterVarsity Press, Illinois, 1977

Robert Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation, Zondervan, Michigan, 1973

William Hendriksen, More than Conquerors, Baker, Michigan, 1982

Tim LaHaye, Revelation Illustrated and Made Plain, Zondervan, Michigan, 1975

Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth, Bantam, New York, 1980

Hal Lindsey, There’s a New World Coming, Vision House, California, 1973

Hal Lindsey, The 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon, Bantam, New York, 1981

Jim McKeever, Revelation for Laymen, Omega Publications, Oregon, 1980

Jim McKeever, The Rapture Book, Omega Publications, Oregon, 1987

Edgar Wisenant, 88 Reasons why the Rapture will be in 1988, Arizona, 1988

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Author: Malcolm Nicholson

I am a small business owner and I live in northern Tasmania. I am a graduate of the University of Tasmania and I have a Master of Arts in Early Christian and Jewish Studies from Macquarie University. I am a member of the Churches of Christ. I have been a teacher librarian, New Testament Greek teacher, branch president and state policy committee chairman of a political party, university Christian group president. My interests include ancient history, early Christian history, the Holocaust, Bible prophecy, revival, UFOs, peak oil and science fiction.

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