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The Meaning of “Trumpets” in the Bible (Trumpets 2)

The seven trumpets section of Revelation (particularly 8:2 – 9:21) is one of the most difficult passages in the Bible to interpret. Faithful Adventist students of the Bible have not come to agreement on its meaning through the years, even though Ellen White makes passing reference to the passage in the book Great Controversy. There are enough biblical and historical issues with Josiah Litch’s explanations (referenced in GC) that consensus on the passage’s meaning has been elusive. But there are aspects of the passage that are reasonably clear and one of these is how it builds on the symbolic meanings that trumpets have exhibited throughout the Bible.

The Greek words for trumpets (nouns) and trumpeting (verbs) occur 144 times in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT. The vast majority of those references (105 out of 144) concern either signaling in warfare, worship and prayer, or a combination of both. The clearest single passage on the meaning of trumpets is Num. 10:8-10. According to this text, in ancient Israel the trumpets were always to be handled by the priests (10:8), even when being used in the context of warfare. So there is a spiritual meaning that Israel was to discern in the blowing of trumpets.

The defense of the nation of Israel was considered a sacred task in the OT. So when Israel went out into battle, the trumpet priests went with them. The sounding of the trumpets not only indicated the moves that the battle line was to make, it represented a prayer for God’s intervention in that battle (10:9). Likewise, in the temple and on the feast days, the blowing of trumpets invited God’s spiritual intervention in the lives of His people (10:10). So the core meaning of trumpets in the OT is covenant prayer, calling on God to remember His people, both individually and collectively.

Most of the occurrences of trumpets and trumpeting in the NT are in Revelation, chapters 8 and 9. At first glance it might seem that signaling in warfare is the primary meaning in the seven trumpets of Revelation. But the connection between the trumpets and the fifth seal (see previous blog) underlines the prayer theme as the primary one here too. The trumpets are a response to the prayers of the suffering saints of God (Rev. 6:9-10; 8:2-6, 13). It assures them that God has noticed their suffering and, even though He may seem silent in their experience, He is already acting in history against those who have persecuted them. So the trumpets are more than just an outline of history, they contain a deep theological message for those who are suffering. God’s silence in the experience of His saints is not the whole picture. He is often responding in ways that we may not detect until later.

The 144,000 and the Great Multitude (Interlude 1)

Back to our series on the theology of Revelation. This blog begins a series on the interlude between the sixth and seventh seals, chapter seven.

Chapter seven functions as an interlude between the sixth and seventh seal. The chapter and verse designations in our English Bibles were not original, but were added many centuries after the Bible was written. So the division between chapters six and seven may mask the fact that chapter seven is part of the sixth seal. In the context of the very final events of earth’s history (Rev. 6:15-17) a crucial question is asked and is left dangling at the “end” of the chapter. The question of Revelation 6:17 is: “Who will be able to stand at the second coming of Jesus?” Chapter seven offers a two-part answer to that question. The ones who will be able to stand when Jesus returns are the 144,000 sealed ones (Rev. 7:1-8) and the Great Multitude in white robes (Rev. 7:9-14). Both groups represent the end-time people of God who will make it through the challenging events of the End-time.

Careful examination of chapter seven will lead us to address a number of themes:

1. The Meaning of Seals and Sealing. Documents are sealed to conceal or validate their contents. People are sealed as a sign of ownership or for protection.
2. Eph. 4:30 and the Cosmic Conflict. In context, the grieving of the Spirit in one’s own life is a localized version of the cosmic conflict.
3. Is the number 144,000 Literal or Symbolic? This is a controverted question, but evidence in the text leads me to believe that the number should be taken symbolically, and this will be detailed in a later blog.
4. Are the 144,000 and Great Multitude Two Different Groups or Two Ways of Describing the Same End-Time People of God? This question is also controverted and will be addressed in a later blog.
5. Rom. 3:19-23 and the Meaning of “Without Fault” (Rev. 14:5). The 144,000 are described in Revelation 14 as “without fault.” What exactly is that supposed to mean? I will make reference to Romans 3 to argue against an absolute perfection interpretation of “without fault.” Stay tune for blogs that follow this one.
6. Other Issues Concerning the 144,000. The picture of the 144,000 raises many practical questions. To what degree is God responsible for the suffering and violence in today’s world? What are we supposed to make of the military imagery in Revelation 7:1-8? What is the new song that only the 144,000 can sing (Rev. 14:3)? Stay tuned.

Waco and My Family

In spite of many differences, Koresh’s free-wheeling use of proof-texts from the Bible, interspersed with quotations from Ellen White, mean he was a bit more Adventist than most Adventists would like. The Branch Davidians kept the Sabbath, were vegetarians, abstained from tobacco, alcohol and most drugs, were constantly talking about Bible prophecy, and believed that the King James Bible was the only true and authoritative version. The Branch Davidians were culturally very similar to the most conservative of Adventists.

This came home powerfully to me when my family and I spent two weeks in New York City in 1999. As a family we stayed in a small apartment behind and above my childhood church, now called Church of the Advent Hope, in Manhattan. One evening the kids (12, 14 and 17 at the time) got a little bored, so I went down the street and rented the documentary “Waco: Rules of Engagement.” I had seen it at a scholarly conference (where I met James Tabor) some time before and thought they would find it interesting. The documentary includes footage of both federal attacks and also video from inside the compound between the two attacks (February 28 and April 19).

My children were not easily frightened by videos, but this documentary completely traumatized them. They couldn’t sleep the whole night afterward. When I questioned them about it later, they emphasized several things. The Davidians inside the compound talked and acted so “Adventist.” As children in Sabbath School they had been taught that the end-time persecution was coming, and it would affect them personally. To them the video was evidence that what they had been taught was beginning to happen. So when my children saw the charred bodies of Davidian children, they identified very strongly with them and feared that the end-time persecution was about to happen. Koresh in many ways deviated strongly from Adventism, but the similarities are troubling. While commitment and faithfulness are important things, in an end-time context they can be carried too far.

25 Years After Waco: My Own Personal “Near-Miss”

About a year ago I got my first chance to actually visit the site of the Waco tragedy that occurred 25 years ago next month. I interrupt a series of blogs on the theology of Revelation to repost and rewrite (as needed) a series of blogs that I did for a different context (the war with ISIS) a few years ago. In this series I share my own recollections and regrets about what might or might not have happened if I had been more involved at the time.

On February 28, 1993, scores of federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms approached the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. Their mission was to serve a search and arrest (to arrest Vernon Howell, aka David Koresh) warrant on weapons charges due to the large amount of weapons the Branch Davidians had accumulated. While the ATF would have preferred to arrest Koresh outside the compound, they were incorrectly told that he rarely left it. Surprise was lost when a mailman tipped off Koresh that the raid was coming. The Branch Davidians were armed and in defensive positions when the federal agents arrived around 9:45 AM. It isn’t clear whether the Branch Davidians or the federal agents fired first, it is likely an accidental discharge on one side or the other triggered the shooting on both sides. A cease-fire was arranged a couple of hours later (in part because the federal agents were running out of ammunition), but by that time five Branch Davidians were dead (another was shot and killed trying to enter the compound that evening) and the ATF had suffered four dead and sixteen wounded.

The incident brought the Branch Davidians and their Seventh-day Adventist “cousins” into the international spotlight. In the course of the siege and after its tragic conclusion on April 19, 1993, I was contacted by the BBC, CNN, ABC and NBC to answer questions about the situation. The roughest question came from a BBC reporter, “What is it about Seventh-day Adventists that breeds these kinds of people?” But the most disturbing phone call of all came in early March from a fellow Adventist, Dan Serns, at the Texas Conference. He told me that the FBI was looking for an Adventist scholar familiar with how Adventists think about the book of Revelation and the End-times to help in the negotiations with Koresh. To be honest, I wanted nothing to do with the situation at the time, yet I felt that it would be wrong for me to ignore the request. I took the FBI number I was given and gave my contact information to Serns for them to call if they wanted to.

I called the FBI number three times but no one picked up. In retrospect I think my lack of enthusiasm for the potential assignment caused me not to try too hard to reach the federal authorities. As far as I know, the FBI never attempted to call. I wonder what would have happened had I tried a little harder. The role that I might have played was offered to James D. Tabor, a religious scholar at the University of North Carolina (Charlotte) and J. Philip Arnold, a religion scholar from Houston, Texas. From what I have seen in the media and my one meeting with Tabor six years later, they seem to have been good choices. They warned the federal officials that the harsh siege tactics they were using would only encourage the Branch Davidians to think this was a truly apocalyptic event with cosmic implications. The Davidians’ beliefs were sincerely held and they were willing to die for them. I understand that these scholars’ interpretations were convincing enough that Koresh was willing to leave the compound. But in the end, the advice to federal officials appears to have been ignored (one possible reason is that no arrest could legally occur until the search verified illegal guns on the premises– so the compound had to be entered and searched first somehow). The final assault began before the date Koresh had agreed to leave. The siege ended tragically on April 19 with the death of some 75 Branch Davidians when a fire broke out during the final assault using Bradley fighting vehicles (essentially tanks). Among the victims were 21 children.

I still wonder if I could have made a difference. Given the fact that Tabor and Arnold gave sound advice which was ignored anyway suggests it wouldn’t have mattered, but. . .

The Women of Revelation (Churches 7)

There are four women portrayed in the visions of the book of Revelation. Two of them are positive figures and two of them are negative. The first of the four women is Jezebel, the leader of the church of Thyatira who is in opposition to the faithful ones there (Rev. 2:20-23). It is not clear from the text whether “Jezebel” is a symbol that refers to a specific leader of the local church (who could be either male or female), or represents the larger faction of the church as a whole.

The second woman of Revelation is the godly woman of Revelation 12 (Rev. 12:1-2, 5-6, 14-17). She seems to represent Israel as a whole, both Old Testament Israel and Judah (theocratic nation-states) and New Testament Israel (the church). The third woman of Revelation is prostitute Babylon (Rev. 17:1-7, 16). She is the counterpart of Jezebel, representing end-time opposition to God and His people. The Christian origin of Babylon is represented in the dress of prostitute Babylon, she is dressed like the High Priest of the Old Testament sanctuary system (Rev 17:4). The fourth woman of Revelation is the bride of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-8). She represents the faithful people of God at the close of earth’s history.

All four women in the visions of Revelation are ultimately associated with the church, either positively or negatively. If the first part of the message to Thyatira represents the medieval church, then the two images are very closely related. Opposition to Christ often wears a Christian face, and is prophesied to do so again in the period leading up to the Second Coming of Jesus (Rev 19:11-1). Similarly, the woman of Revelation 12 represents the faithful people of God throughout history. The bride of the Lamb (Rev. 19), on the other hand, represents the faithful people of God at the very end of history. So it stands to reason that Babylon (Rev. 17-18) represents opposition to God from within the church as a whole at the end of time. “Woman” in Revelation represents both the best and the worst of human interaction with God.

A Couple of Spiritual Lessons From Rev. 1:12-20 (Vision 6)

1. Why is the gracious, forgiving Jesus, who washed the feet of His disciples, portrayed in such a spectacular and frightening way in Revelation 1:12-16? While the appearance of Jesus frightened John to his core, fear was not the response Jesus desired (Rev. 1:17-18). Like an elementary-school teacher in the classroom, God sometimes has to earn our respect before we will take His graciousness seriously. But to truly know God is to love Him. The Father is just like Jesus (John 14:9).

2. When Jesus meets people where they are, how far is He willing to go? In coming to John as the First and the Last (Rev. 1:17), Jesus assumes a title claimed by Yahweh in the Old Testament (Isa. 44:6; 48:12). He is everything the Jews of His time were looking for. But there is more. Revelation 1:17-18 presents Jesus as the fulfillment of (Gentile) pagan longings as well. In Asia Minor there was a Greek goddess named Hekate who exhibited many similarities with the picture of Jesus here in Revelation 1:17-18. She was called the first and the last, the beginning and the end. She was the goddess of revelation. She held the keys to heaven and hell. She could travel to and from these realms and report what she experienced there. She was also known as “Saviour” and used angels to mediate her messages.

Jesus, therefore, offers the reader everything that the worshipers of Hekate were looking for. This is a surprising extension of the principle that God meets people where they are (see also 1 Cor 9:19-22). Revelation teaches us that Jesus loves us and meets us just where we are. And as we come to Jesus, He will also lead us to where we need to go.

The Main Themes of Revelation’s Prologue (Prologue 1:2)

The Prologue to the Book of Revelation (Rev 1:1-8) introduces the following themes:

1. Jesus is the Central Figure of Revelation. This is made clear by the title of the book (Rev. 1:1), the qualities and actions of Jesus Christ (1:5-6) and His central role at the Second Coming (1:7).

2. The Book Concerns Future Events. These are not just end-time events, most were already future in John’s day (Rev 1:1).

3. The Vision Is Given in Symbolic Language. This is clear from one of the key words in Rev. 1:1 and that verse’s allusion to Daniel 2.

4. The Threeness of God. There is a “triple trinity” of persons, qualities and actions in Rev. 1:4-6.

5. The Return of Jesus. Rev. 1:7-8 addresses this.

I will have more to say about each of these themes in the blogs that follow.

The Prologue (1:1-8) of the Book of Revelation (1:1)

This is the first in a series of blogs on the big picture of the book of Revelation. On Facebook and Twitter I have been working the details of the book of Revelation piece by piece over many years. In the process of looking at the details, the big picture can easily be lost. So halfway through the larger project (chapters 1-5 and 10-14 are complete), I thought it would be helpful to go through the entire book in a series of blogs that would bring out the big picture view of each section. The first few blogs will focus on the Prologue to the book of Revelation, Rev. 1:1-8.

The Prologue to Rev. (Rev. 1:1-8) introduces the main themes of the book in relatively plain language. These verses contain no scary beasts, no heavenly journeys and no seven-fold sequences. Instead, they describe how the book got here (1:1-3), who sent it (1:4-6), and how everything will turn out in the end (1:7-8). The Prologue expresses the centrality of Jesus Christ to the whole book and prepares the reader for what is to come in straightforward language.

New Work on Revelation (The Big Picture)

I have completed blogging ten of the twenty chapters in the new book Conversations About God. Since I am not entirely done with editing that book, I am pausing the publication of those chapters in order to share some of my new work on the Book of Revelation. In the Facebook commentary I am publishing a paragraph a day toward a complete commentary. I started five or six years ago and have completed chapters 10-14 and 1-5. I plan to continue posting those daily, working through the four horses of chapter six right now. But that is the detailed picture. What often goes missing in that work is the big picture. I plan to blog the big picture for the next several months, chapter by chapter and section by section, building toward a complete theology of Revelation. Stay tuned.

Questions and Answers (10:4)

Lou: Here is a somewhat unrelated question. “The Larger View,” this person writes, “seems very intricate, very subtle and needing of a lot of study. Does this imply that a simpler view is still necessary for the masses of people who do not have the time or the knowledge to understand the Larger View?” And here’s a related question, “What is the truth about God? I hear it must be simple, and yet it seems almost too complicated to encompass. Please help me understand.”
How would you respond to these?
Graham: Ah, those are very fair questions. I think that the number one characteristic of the Larger View is its simplicity. Nevertheless, it might require a good deal of study to figure out. But when you apply the very best scholarship available to you, and you do a thorough job on the sixty-six books, you come up with this view about our God. All He asks of us is trust; not trust in a stranger, or trust in mere claims, but on the basis of demonstration. I don’t think anything could be simpler than that.
But I see validity to the question. Paul on Mars Hill delivered a magnificent address (Acts 17:22-31). He quoted the philosophers. He quoted the poets. He used long words. In fact, he used the longest word in the Greek New Testament. To the Athenians he said, “Oh, you are deisidaimonesteros (very religious)” (Acts 17:22). He even won a few of them that way (Acts 17:34). But in 1 Corinthians he says, “I’ll never preach like that again, magnificent as it was. This one thing I’ll do from here on: I will preach the message about Christ and Him crucified” (based on 1 Cor 2:1-2). So Paul, with all his scholarship, eventually focused in on the all-important thing. But when he preached Christ and Him crucified, he was preaching the Larger View about the One who died for angels as well as men. So the focus on the cross led him to the Larger View. I believe the thief on the cross knew enough to be saved, but I wouldn’t want to settle for that. So I’m going to keep on investigating, but if my discourses become more complicated, I’m moving in the wrong direction. So I like the implication here. It ought to be clear. It ought to be simple. But there are no shortcuts to that kind of clarity and simplicity.

Lou: Here’s a question that really touched my heart. This person wrote, “How are we, who have been raised as Seventh-day Adventist Christians, and have been taught to fear God and His judgments, to change to a love relationship? I am afraid of God! How do I dispel this fear?”
Graham: The One who would love to hear that question the most would be God Himself. If you came face to face with God and said, “God, I hesitate to tell You this, but I’m scared,” I wonder what He would do. Would He say, “I appreciate that?” Or would He say, “I think maybe I’d better not talk to you any longer, you’re so scared. I’ll send for My Son.”
In practical terms, the solution is to become convinced from Scripture that the One who came down to earth is fully God. We’re not afraid of Jesus. Yet the One who was with us is no less than God! And that’s what the Sabbath reminds us of, that same gentle Jesus is the Almighty Creator. When we know Him, perhaps, we could truly accept the “testimony of Jesus.” The ultimate testimony of Jesus is, “Do you want to know what My Father is like? If you’ve seen Me, you’ve seen the Father” (John 14:9). We find it hard to believe that. It takes a little time. For one thing, it seems incredible on the face of it. And second, the enemy is opposed to our knowing this, so he will throw up every roadblock he can to keep us from believing this incredible truth.

Lou: In the next chapter we’re going to talk about “God’s Emergency Measures.” Those are the actions of God in the Bible that have raised a lot of questions.
Graham: Yes, because these measures can be misunderstood as supporting Satan’s charges. But when I think about God’s use of emergency measures, I think it speaks very well of Him. He took a number of risks when He chose to run things the way that He has done. We’ll get into all that in the next chapter.