How shall we understand the “mark of the beast” in the context of Revelation 13? The most obvious parallel to the mark is the seal of God. The seal is placed on the foreheads of God’s servants (the 144,000) to protect them from Satan’s destructive efforts when the four winds of the earth are released (Rev 7:1-3). An evident parallel to the seal of God is the 144,000 having the Lamb’s name and His Father’s name written on their foreheads. In the Hebrew context names are associated with a person’s character. So the seal of God seems to have something to do with the character of those being sealed.
This is supported by the wider use of sealing in the New Testament. In Ephesians 1:13, sealing by the Holy Spirit is the consequence of a faith response to the gospel. It represents the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. This sealing is a lifelong experience of the Spirit after conversion (Eph 4:30). It is the evidence that a person truly is known by God and belongs to Him (2 Tim 2:19). In the Second Christian Century, sealing was associated with baptism. So the seal of God has to do with the character transformation that happens as a consequence of a genuine relationship with God.
Revelation 7 and 14 place this sealing in an end-time context, as does Ellen White: ““(The seal of God) is not any seal or mark that can be seen, but a settling into the truth, both intellectually and spiritually, so they cannot be moved.” SDABC, vol. 4, 1161, Last-Day Events, 219-220. Ellen White understands the last-day sealing to be deepening of commitment and a completion of Christian maturity. Those who have to pass through the trials of the end-time cannot be the kind of believers Paul talks about in Ephesians 4:14, “Tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine. . . .” Likewise, at the End, Satan is forming his image into those committed to his side of the conflict. That makes the mark of the beast the mirror counterpart of the seal of God. The three angels (Rev 14:6-12) and the three frogs (Rev 16:13-14) both go out to the nations of the world. The end result is three types of people, as mentioned earlier. Those fully committed to God (the sealed), those fully committed in opposition to God (marked on the forehead), and those who go along with the beast and its image in order to preserve their lives and economic opportunities. Just as the seal of God provides protection to God’s people at the End (Rev 7:1-3, cf. Ezek 9:1-7), so the mark of the beast provides “protection” against the death decree and economic boycott of Revelation 13:15-17.
There is one further element to the mark of the beast. It is part of the beast’s counterfeit of the first four commandments of the Decalogue. The forehead and the hand echoes Moses’ call for Israel’s complete commitment to the commandments of God (Deut 6:4-8). In contrast, the beast and his image violate the first four commandments. The first commandment says to have no other gods before Yahweh. The dragon and the beast seek to be worshiped as gods (Rev 13:4, 8). The second commandment forbids the worship of images, the beast sets up an image to be worshiped (Rev 13:15). The third commandment forbids taking the Lord’s name in vain, the beast is full of blasphemy (Rev 13:1, 5-6). The mark of the beast is in defiance of the Sabbath, which is brought in on God’s side in Rev 14:7 (cf. Exod 20:11). If the law of God is a transcript of His character, you can see what is happening here, a rejection of God’s character and an affirmation of Satan’s. Satan’s character, in contrast with God’s, will be fully revealed in the final conflict.
The previous paragraph underlines that the Sabbath is a crucial issue in the final conflict. It also suggests that some counterfeit of the Sabbath will be central to the beast’s actions in the same conflict. What is less clear in the text is exactly what form that counterfeit will take. I can think of four options: 1) Another day (as in Sunday), 2) no day is a Sabbath (abolished), 3) every day is a Sabbath (not much different than two), and 4) force work or forbid worship on Sabbath. When dealing with Revelation 13 Ellen White normally works from number 1) above, but on at least one occasion mentions number 4). In the blogs that follow we will look at the evidence of Ellen White herself in the context of American religious history.
I distinctly remember posting the below, but it doesn’t seem to be in the blog site, so just to be complete, here it is now.
The last of the sixty-six books of the Bible, the book of Revelation, describes the war that began up in heaven, triggered by distrust regarding God’s character and government (Rev 12:4, 7-10). A lack of trust led one-third of the brilliant and intelligent angels to rebel against God. That war is further described (Rev 14:6-12) as culminating in three final messages of warning and invitation, all sent from a heavenly Father who wants none of His children to be lost. So the same Bible book that describes the beginning of the war also speaks of its end.
The final resolution of this conflict of distrust includes the second coming of Christ and the restoration of this damaged planet to its original beauty and peace. But Revelation also tells us that some great and terrible events stand between us and that full restoration. We can trust the God we worship and admire not to leave His children unenlightened and unwarned. So He gave us a picture of three angels, bringing three messages from heaven. Each of these angels proclaims a special message of warning and invitation. I share the whole passage here:
Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth — to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship Him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
A second angel followed and said, “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great, which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.”
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.” This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus (Rev 14:6-12, NIV).
The Messages to the Seven Churches
The first part of the Revelation is devoted to praise and rebuke, advice and promises to the seven churches to which John’s letter (the Revelation) was addressed (Rev 1:4-11).
Try it yourself
What indications can be found in the seven epistles in Rev 2–3 that they refer to the situation in the congregations at that time, to later times or also to church history?
What indications are there that this section is meant as a prophecy of seven periods in church history, or what contra-dicts this notion in the text and the context?
What allusions can be found in the messages to the seven churches, and what do they imply for the interpretation?
Signposts / keys for the interpretation
In the context of the seven epistles there is a hint for their interpretation which is mostly overlooked. Immediately before Jesus Christ says to John, according to Rev 1:19:
Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now
and what will take place later. (NIV)
And right after the seven messages we read his command to John in Rev 4:1c (NIV/ESV):
Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.
The difference is obvious: The words what is now are missing.
Where is this what is now—in other words: the present conditions in the time of John—described? Logically between them in chapters 2 and 3. Therefore, the descriptions of the seven churches refer to their present condition; future deve-lopments are described only afterwards in the Revelation.
That the messages to the 7 churches (and the promises to the overcomers) were not only meant for them, but were addressed to all Christians in every age, is clear from the exhortations at the end of each message:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says
to the churches. (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22)
This means that every congregation in the post-apostolic period should ask itself which of the descriptions of the churches applies also to them, and then follow the advice that Jesus gave to the congregation in question. And, likewise, each church or faith community should ask itself again and again critically whether one of the descriptions applies to it.
In this way, these seven epistles, like all the letters in the New Testament, are relevant to all Christians and churches throughout the time until the Second Coming of Christ.
The application of the seven churches to seven periods of church history has been widespread since the post-Reformation period, and Seventh-day Adventists were not the first to interpret the messages in this way. But this interpretation is supported neither by the context or the description of the churches nor by logic or church history.
An attentive perusal of the seven messages shows that there are no internal indications that they were also meant prophetically.
One argument for this, which is repeatedly stated, is the prediction to the congregation of Smyrna that some members of the congregation will be thrown into prison, be tested and will have a tribulation for ten days (Rev 2:10b). This is applied to the great persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian, and the year-day principle is applied to the ten days. However, this principle of a prophetic day signifying a real year only applies to symbolic biblical predictions (such as in Daniel 7 and 8). However, in Rev 2:10 no symbols are used, everything is to be understood literally. And the Diocletian persecution lasted only 8, not 10 years (303-11). In addition, the text includes a possible allusion to Daniel 1:12-14, which describes the trial of Daniel and his friends with regard to their diet. In the Greek text of the Septuagint, three words agree (test [peirasein] and ten days), the subject is the same.
A lot of factual and historical arguments speak also against the interpretation of the seven epistles as seven consecutive periods of church history.
Ephesus is applied to the state of the churches in the first century, but the seven epistles testify that the churches in the first century differed greatly from each other.
Sardes is applied to the Reformation period, but the church receives less praise than the church of Thyatira, which sup-posedly represents the medieval papal church. (Compare this with the very positive evaluation of the protestant reformers by Ellen White in her book The Great Controversy, chaps. 7–13). Moreover the description of the church in Thyatira does not accord with the description of the papal church in Rev 13:1-7.
Jon Paulien concedes that the verbal parallels between Rev 16:15 and 3:18 are “the best evidence” that “Laodicea represents the final church of earth’s history,” but this is not convincing at all, for there are also verbal and especially thematic parallels of Rev 16:15 to 7,14 and 22,14, while 3:18 has several thematic differences to Rev 16:15.
And how should the church of Laodicea accomplish the necessary proclamation of the eternal gospel before the Second Coming of Christ (14:6; cf. Matt 24:14), if all churches in the last days would be in the state of lukewarmness?
When the seven churches are interpreted in terms of periods of church history, either the text of the Revelation or the facts of church history are distorted.
Contemporary historical background
The descriptions of the churches contain numerous references to the situation in the respective cities:
• Smyrna (today Izmir) was an important harbour and trading centre, one of the wealthiest cities in Asia Minor (cf. 2:9: but you are rich).
• Pergamum had a famous temple of Zeus with a monumental altar that was twelve metres (40 feet) high; it looked from afar like a throne (cf. 2:13: throne of Satan, Zeus was sometimes represented by a serpent, as well as the god Asclepius, who was also worshipped in Pergamum; cf. 12:9).
• Thyatira possessed a sanctuary of the goddess Sambethe, an oriental Sybil and alleged prophetess (cf. 2:20: Jezebel … who calls herself a prophetess).
• Sardis was a centre of the wool and dyeing trade (cf. 3:4: white garments).
• Laodicea did not have sufficient water sources; the water that was needed was therefore led from hot springs, located six miles the north of Laodicea, by means of an aqueduct. It arrived in Laodicea lukewarm (cf. 3:16: because you are lukewarm).
The situation of the churches and their members was marked by the circumstances in the province of Asia in which they lived. Since Augustus it was the stronghold of emperor worship in the Roman Empire. The first provincial temple of the imperial cult was erected in Pergamum as early as 29 B.C. Smyrna got a temple for Tiberius in 26 A.D. and Ephesus a temple for Domitian in 89/90 A.D.
The Christians were exposed to possible persecutions du-ring this time. There was no general persecution of Christians (the first general persecution took place only in the years 249–51 under Emperor Decius), but the edict of Emperor Nero in the year 64, which had condemned the Christians in Rome to death, was probably included in the collection of edicts for the governors in the provinces, so that Christians could be con-demned on complaint for the simple reason that they were Christians (no special misconduct was required). If they participated in the imperial cult, they could escape punishment or execution (cf. the case of Antipas in Rev 2:13; the wording hold fast my name and you did not deny my faith points to the context of a lawsuit).
The letters to the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia indicate that these complaints probably came frequently from the Jewish side (cf. 2:9; 3:9). The historian Ethelbert Stauffer explains:
When the trials against Glabrio, Clemens and comrades on account of lese majesty became known in the year 95 … severe anti-Christian excesses and executions took place in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum and elsewhere, and we have many evidences to the fact that the Jewish community in Asia Minor participated in these like [the Jewish historian] Josephus did in Rome at the same time.
The structure of the letters with introduction, central section and a double conclusion reflect the structure of royal and imperial edicts. Moreover, the introductory formula Thus says… was the primary feature of imperial decrees promulgated by Roman magistrates and emperors. Ethelbert Stauffer observes:
The introductory formula of the seven decrees of Jesus
is unmistakably formulated in antithetical analogy to the
introductory words of the Dominitian edicts.
Thus the seven letters should not be understood as informal letters, but rather as formal and public edicts. Christ thus presents himself to the churches as the eternal sovereign and King of kings (19:16b), who gives instructions to his subjects. In fact, the messages to the seven churches have almost nothing in common with personal letters.
On the other hand, the seven epistles also have parallels to the structure of ancient covenants with (1) a preamble, (2) a prologue, (3) stipulations or demands, (4) blessings and curses and (5) witnesses. The preamble (1) introduces Jesus with the phrase The words of him who (literally: Thus says), followed by a title; the prologue (2) speaks of past relations in such terms as I know your works; the stipulations (3) are introduced with the imperative of repent (to change one’s mind), usually follo-wed by instructions as to what should be done; the blessing (4) consists of a statement of reward in the promises to the over-comers, or sometimes of threats (2:16; 3:3b); and the Spirit, who must be listened to, acts as witness (5). The seven epistles would thus function as a statement of a kind of covenant renewal to each of the seven churches.
Both interpretations of the structure of the seven messages to the seven churches have some merit and are not mutually exclusive. In the following studies we will find again and again that both the Old Testament background and the parody of the Roman imperial cult play an important role in the Revelation.
Rev 2:6, 15: works/teachings of the Nicolaitans. Who are meant by this is unknown and has often been the subject of speculation. The term derives from the Greek name Nicolaos, which is a compound of the verb nikeiv = to win and laos = people, meaning “the one who conquers the people.”
2:9/3:9: synagogue of Satan. Both times this expression is related to the phrase those who say that they are Jews and are not. After the lost war against the Romans and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the Jewish Christians were no longer tolerated in the synagogues because they refused to take part in the fight against Rome. In order to identify and disfellowship them from the synagogues, an 18th blessing was added in 90 A.D. to a Jewish prayer with 17 blessings. This was pronounced in religious services, and was actually a curse on the Nazarenes (the followers of Jesus of Nazareth; see Acts 24:5) and on heretics. The Jewish Christians were thus forced to identify themselves by their silence at this point and could then be excommunicated. The sharp judgment in Revelation against the Jews may have been a reaction to this. Christ called the Jews who wanted to kill him children of the devil (John 8:41, 44).
2:14: teaching of Balaam. In this verse we find an allusion to the machinations of Balaam against the people of Israel. The story in Genesis 22–25 must be taken together with the remark in 31:16 in order to interpret the statement in Rev 2:14. Balaam was a role model for false teachers and seducers.
2:14b, 20b: eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. Already the Council of Jerusalem ordered the Gentile Christians to abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols … and from sexual immorality (Acts 15:29). This involved sacrifices in pagan temples and participation in public festivals, when sacrificed meat was eaten, as well as participation in cultic temple prostitution, which at that time was part of the cult and generally accepted. Paul also warned emphatically against these practices in his letters (see 1 Cor 10:14-22; 6:15-20; the private consumption of meat from the market, which may have been offered to an idol before, was considered harmless by Paul, if the Christian brother was thereby not wounded in his conscience, see 1 Cor 8). It is possible that the teaching of the Nicolaitans led to the same practice as the teaching of Balaam; the connection between Rev 2:14 and V. 15 supports this suggestion.
2:20: Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. The name Jezebel refers to the wife of King Ahab, who led him into idolatry (1 Kings 16:31-33; 21:25), killed the prophets of the Lord (1 Kings 18:4a, 13a) and practiced idolatry and sorcery (2 Kings 9:22b). The false prophetess Jezebel in the church of Thyatira, like Balaam, also seduced Christians to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.
Through the seductions by Balaam and Jezebel, behind which was certainly Satan (cf. 12:9), and the frequent mention of Satan (2:9, 13, 24; 3:9) and the devil (2:10), we also see how the basic motive of the conflict between Christ and His church and Satan shines through in the seven epistles.
3:19: those whom I love. Here the usual NT verb for love (agapeiv) is not used, but the verb for amicable or brotherly mutual love (phileiv). When we respond to God’s love, a amicable relationship also arises from God’s side, as John 16:27 shows (here, too, phileiv is used).
3:21: the one who conquers. The term literally means who wins and according to the grammatical form in Greek (a present participle) points to a constant victory or overcoming. This verse gives us a clear explanation of what is meant by it the comparison with Jesus. It is not about overcoming sin, but overcoming all Satan’s hostilities and temptations. How this is possible is explained in Rev 12:11, immediately after the description of the central motif of Revelation (vs. 7-9):
They (the brothers and sisters) have conquered him
by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony,
for they loved not their lives even unto death.
This overcoming is possible because of Christ’s redemption, and their public loyalty to him, and the use of his help (cf. Heb 2:17-18; 4:15-16; Jude 24-25). Because of the conflict between Christ and Satan, into which every follower of Christ is drawn, undivided faithfulness to Jesus is required. This includes:
• to hold fast to the first love for Jesus (2:4);
• to remain faithful in persecutions until death (2:10);
• to abstain from idolatry and fornication (2:14, 20);
• to persevere in awaiting the return of Christ (3:3);
• not to be lukewarm and satisfied with oneself (3:16-17).
Make a list of everything Jesus praises in the churches, and a second list of what he rebukes. Which focal points do you recognize?
Follow the basic motive of the Revelation, the conflict be-tween Christ and Satan, in the seven letters to the churches.
Find in Rev 21–22 how the promises to overcomers at the end of each letter will be fulfilled on the new earth.
Statements by Ellen G. White
The only time Ellen White dealt with the Revelation in an entire chapter of a book is in Acts of the Apostles, chapter 57, where she applies the message to the congregation of Ephesus “as a symbol of the entire Christian church in the apostolic age”. She wrote about the other messages in general (on p. 585):
The names of the seven churches are symbolic of the church in different periods of the Christian era. The number 7 indicates completeness, and is symbolic of the fact that the messages extend to the end of time, while the symbols used reveal
the condition of the church at different periods in the history
of the world.
Ellen White, however, wrote nothing more in her chapter about the meaning of the other epistles and did not apply them to periods of church history. Moreover, the above passage is a paraphrase of Uriah Smith’s statements about the meaning of the seven epistles.
Ellen White applied the message to Laodicea to the Adventist churches from 1873 onwards (her husband James had done this first). This statement from 1889 may serve as an example:
If ever there was a people that needed to heed the counsel of the True Witness to the Laodicean church to be zealous and to repent before God [Rev 3:19], it is the people who have had opened up before them the stupendous truths for this time, and who have not lived up to their high privileges and responsibilities. We have lost much in not living up to the light of the solemn truths which we profess to believe.
But she often applied the rebuke to the church of Ephesus for leaving their first love (2:4) also to the Adventist churches.
She had already written in 1859 on the individual application of the counsel to the church in Laodicea:
Individuals are tested and proved a length of time to see if they will sacrifice their idols and heed the counsel of the True Witness [Rev 3:18]. If any will not be purified through obeying the truth, and overcome their selfishness, their pride, and evil passions, the angels of God have the charge: “They are joined to their idols, let them alone,” and they pass on to their work, leaving these with their sinful traits unsubdued, to the control of evil angels. Those who come up to every point, and stand every test, and overcome, be the price what it may, have heeded the counsel of the True Witness, and they will receive the latter rain, and thus be fitted for translation.
Which of the seven churches most closely resembles our local church? Which advice of Jesus is therefore applicable to us? (This question should be discussed in a group.)
Which accusation against one of the seven churches applies to me personally? What then am I supposed to do?
Preparation for Revelation 4–5
Search in Revelation 4–5 for parallels and possible allusions to statements in the Old Testament.
Notice the drama described in chapter 5, in contrast to chapter 4. What might that indicate, in connection with the statements about the lamb, regarding the opening and the content of the scroll with seven seals?
Reactions to my elaborations are welcome. They can be sent directly to me per e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I would welcome, too, if the PDF is shared, or the website with the elaborations is recommended to other church members.
In the coming weeks I will discuss in my local church the inter-pretation of the chapters of the Revelation corresponding to the theme of the respecting Sabbath School lesson. A summary as PDF will be provided each Friday on the website before the respective lesson begins in the Sabbath School Bible Study Guide.
You can download all PDFs of the project “Revelation DIY” under https://1drv.ms/f/s!Agfvhk0oak34jZBoDxAbbPJKmCC2JQ. Link to an overview of all available files and a video (Hints in the Introduction):
Share this analysis with your Portuguese speaking friends, courtesy of Matheus Cardoso, a Brazilian follower of this site:
Tema básico: A visão de Cristo e a igreja em Éfeso (Ap 1:9–2:7)
As mudanças no auxiliar de professor da Lição da Escola Sabatina para adultos foram relativamente pequenas nesta semana. Vou analisar as mudanças que foram mais interessantes ou significativas. No final do Esboço (Parte I), menciono originalmente a “imagem assustadora de Jesus” em Apocalipse 1:12-16. Os editores alteraram “assustadora” para “surpreendente”. Suponho que consideraram desagradável a ideia de que Jesus poderia ser assustador. No entanto, baseei esse adjetivo em Apocalipse 1:17, onde Jesus assegura a João: “Não tenha medo” (NVI). Compreendo a mudança, mas prefiro usar a linguagem bíblica sempre que possível.
No primeiro parágrafo do Comentário (Parte II), os editores eliminaram uma frase em que observo que os versículos 11 e 19 formam um “invólucro” (ou envelope) em torno da visão de Jesus (Ap 1:12-18). Sendo que o verso 11 convida João a escrever o que ele vê, e o verso 19 o encoraja a escrever o que viu, considero que toda a visão do Apocalipse (resumida em 1:19) foi comtemplada entre esses dois versos (minhas razões são apresentadas na terceira seção do Comentário, cujo texto foi mantido). Isso significaria que todo o livro de Apocalipse foi dado em uma única visão. Já os editores preferem a ideia de várias visões. Se Apocalipse 1:19 descreve todo o livro – “as [coisas] que são” descrevendo as mensagens às sete igrejas e “as [coisas] que hão de acontecer depois destas” se referindo a Apocalipse 4–22 (compare com Ap 4:1) –, então meu ponto de vista é preferível. Acredito que a razão para remover essa frase seja proteger a ideia de que o papel profético das sete igrejas seja a intenção primária, o que considero difícil de enxergar no próprio texto. Entendo as mensagens às sete igrejas como cartas proféticas, com um endereçamento primário para a audiência original (“as [coisas] que são”), mas tendo implicações proféticas para a história da igreja. Essa não é uma questão de vida e morte. De qualquer forma, a aplicação profética das sete igrejas é exegeticamente justificável, mesmo se não for exegeticamente convincente. Relacionado a isso, na terceira seção do Comentário, é removida uma sentença na qual declaro que as mensagens às sete igrejas não são de estilo apocalíptico, como Daniel 7 e Apocalipse 12. Deixo que o leitor compare esses textos e decida por si mesmo.
Na segunda seção do Comentário, uma sentença foi removida: “Nenhuma igreja individual, portanto, tem a imagem plena de Jesus.” Acredito que esse fato é evidente no texto, já que cada igreja é endereçada com uma a três características de Jesus, e não com a totalidade do que é descrito em Apocalipse 1:12-18. [É interessante notar que a segunda sentença que apresenta essa ideia foi mantida: “E se nenhuma igreja ou nenhum cristão têm a imagem plena de Jesus […].” – Nota do tradutor.] Suspeito que a frase tenha sido removida para evitar que os leitores concluam que a Igreja Adventista do Sétimo Dia possui menos do que uma imagem completa de Jesus. Podemos discutir o que “imagem plena de Jesus” significaria nesse contexto. Em minha experiência, tenho aprendido muito a respeito de Jesus com cristãos que não são adventistas do sétimo dia.
Os editores acrescentaram a quinta seção do Comentário, já que originalmente não abordo a mensagem à igreja em Éfeso, deixando que o leitor estude a respeito do assunto a partir da lição de aluno. Em minha opinião, esse foi um acréscimo bastante útil e positivo.
Finalmente, na Aplicação Para a Vida (Parte III), observei que os editores mantiveram minha declaração de que “a aparência de Jesus tenha atemorizado [em inglês, “frightened”, assustado, apavorado] João”. Isso me diz que a alteração anterior foi uma preferência editorial, em vez de uma profunda diferença na teologia ou na interpretação bíblica.
Much of my intention for this week’s lesson came through, although editing was heavy in places, with some interesting theological implications. In the “Lesson Themes III” portion of the Introduction (see previous blog for my version of the teacher’s notes being analyzed), “Vision” was changed to “Visions.” As we will see later (in the analysis of the Week 2 lesson), this has to do with how one interprets Revelation 1:11 and 1:19. I think of Revelation as a single vision, received during John’s experience in chapter one (Rev. 1:12-18), which has many parts. The editorial team seems to prefer the idea that Revelation is a collection of many different visions, as was the case with Daniel, Isaiah or Jeremiah. This is an interesting difference, but not very significant to interpretation.
Potentially more significant is the removal of my phrase “triple trinity” in Lesson Themes IV, replacing it with “threefold description of the Trinity.” In the Commentary portion of this lesson (section IV. The Threeness of God), the language of “triple trinity” is removed several times. My first impression was that the final editor must be anti-trinitarian, but then noticed the editorial insertion of the word “Trinity” in two places of this lesson. Early on in the Advent movement many leaders were not Trinitarian, but the church came to the place where the concept of Trinity is clearly expressed in Fundamental Belief number two. Anti-trinitarianism is making something of a comeback in some Adventist circles, but is firmly rejected by church leadership. Since the word “trinity” is not a biblical word, there was sentiment among church leaders to remove it from the title of Fundamental 2, but it was left there due to the concern that removing it would provide encouragement to the anti-trinitarians in the church. I am disappointed in the removal of my phrase “triple trinity” because it clearly expresses what is going on in Revelation 1:4-6 (three three-fold descriptions), I don’t think the editor(s) understood that, this change had to do with a preference in wording, it does not seem to have been theologically driven.
A more significant issue has to do with the prophetic interpretation of the messages to the seven churches (Revelation 2:1- 3:22). Seventh-day Adventists, along with many protestant Christians, have long interpreted the seven churches as a prophecy of Christian history, treating them much like Daniel 2 and 7. But the biblical form of these messages is not overtly apocalyptic, they read more like letters of Paul than apocalyptic visions. And there is no statement within them that clearly identifies them as prophetic of future churches in the course of history. So I prefer to see them on the surface as “prophetic letters” written to seven churches in John’s day (1:11; 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14; 22:16) that have value for all readers of the book (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). I believe, however, that there is good evidence that the church history interpretation of these seven messages was intended by John as an extended meaning. Many, especially non-scholars of Revelation, find such an approach inadequate and prefer to assert an overt prophetic or apocalyptic meaning as the primary intention of the messages to the seven churches. The changes made to the Teacher’s Edition of this lesson seem to reflect such a preference.
This brings me to an important observation. I speak and write in two different roles, as a believer and as a scholar. As a Seventh-day Adventist, I believe in the teachings of the church and seek to support them whenever I can. But as a scholar, I recognize that some SDA teachings have a more solid biblical basis than others. Such a dual stance allows me to live with conviction and commitment as a believer while at the same time being open to learning and growth in understanding. Such a dual commitment, I believe, is healthy and authentic. But many people have difficulty maintaining such a tension in their lives and the editors of the lesson in this case were acting to protect such from doubt and uncertainty. Whether such a move will ultimately support belief or work against it, time will tell.
A very small but important change occurred in the opening part of the Commentary section. I believe the seven trumpets end with Revelation 11:18 rather than 11:19. In my view, 11:19 is the “sanctuary introduction” for chapters 12-14. The editors shifted the end-point of the trumpets to 11:19, removing the sanctuary introduction from the following section. I think this move is wrong exegetically, but there are good scholars on both sides of the issue, so I suspect no serious harm is done by this change.
In section I of the Commentary section, a number of changes suggest the final editor did not understand the Greek text of Revelation 1:1-3. In the Greek there is a chain of revelation from “what God gave” (1:1) to “what John saw” (1:2) to “what John wrote” (1:3). This observation (removed from the lesson) serves two purposes: 1) it does not limit the “testimony of Jesus” to the Book of Revelation, as some opponents of Adventism claim, and 2) it equates John’s visionary experience with that which the end-time remnant will have in 12:17. The editors left in the claim that 12:17 looks forward to future prophetic revelations, but took out the best Greek evidence for that claim. Since I had to be brief, it is understandable if editors did not fully understand what I was doing here.
Finally, the last section of Part III: Life Application had the most numerous and significant editorial changes. I have observed that many Seventh-day Adventist believers today, especially younger ones, feel a tension between traditional historicist readings of Revelation and the book’s claim to be a “revelation of Jesus Christ” and the gospel. I sought to acknowledge that tension and offer reasons why a both/and approach is better than an either/or approach. The editors seemed uncomfortable with that concession and removed the language of “tension” and “value added” that I had placed there. The motive, I am sure, was to protect believers from doubt, and that is important to do. But if the younger generation perceives a tension here, ignoring that reality won’t persuade them to embrace the historicist perspective. I prefer candor and openness to protectiveness, but I hope, in this case, that people above my pay grade have made the best decision for the church.
For those who don’t have access to the standard printed edition of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide or the Teacher’s Edition for this quarter, you can access them online week by week at https://www.absg.adventist.org/. My original pre-edited Teacher’s Edition manuscript for this week is provided in the previous blog. You can also download audio of me teaching the lesson ahead of time each week at http://pineknoll.org/sabbath-school-lessons.
Study Focus: The Prologue (Rev. 1:1-8) and the Book of Revelation as a whole.
Introduction: 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.
Lesson Themes: The Prologue to the Book of Revelation 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.
Life Application. The concluding questions invite the participants to balance the powerful insights of a Seventh-day Adventist reading of Revelation with the centrality of Jesus Christ in the End-Time story.
Part II. Commentary
The introductory essay tells us that the entire lesson series is based on the SDA concept of inspiration, the historicist method of prophetic interpretation, the unique organizational structure of Revelation, and a Christ-centered approach to interpretation.
The historicist method is supported by the broad structure of Revelation itself. The book begins with the seven churches (Rev. 1:9 – 3:22), which primarily concern the situation of John’s day. The seals and the trumpets, on the other hand, each cover from the time of John to the End (4:1 – 11:18). The last half of the book (11:19 – 22:5), on the other hand, focuses almost exclusively on the last days of earth’s history and beyond. This method is also supported by the allusion to Daniel 2 in the very first verse of the book (see the elaboration on this point in theme 3 below).
Main Themes of Lesson 1 Elaborated:
1. Jesus is the Central Figure of Revelation (Rev. 1:1, 5-7). The book opens with a chain of revelation that centers in Jesus. He is the first person mentioned in the book, and the One who passes the revelation on to John (Rev. 1:1). What God gave to Jesus is called “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1). What Jesus passed on to John is called “the testimony of Jesus” (1:2), “the things that he saw” (Greek: hosa eiden). What John passed on to his readers was “the words of this prophecy” (1:3), what John wrote.
This chain of revelation is important for Seventh-day Adventists. It indicates clearly that the “testimony of Jesus” here is not the book of Revelation itself, which is what John wrote (1:3), it is the visionary gift that John saw (1:2). The remnant of Rev. 12:17 will later also have the “testimony of Jesus,” a visionary gift similar to the one John had.
So the Prologue points to Jesus as the central figure of Rev. The book is a revelation from Jesus and about Jesus (1:1). Jesus is qualified for His special role by his death, resurrection and heavenly reign (1:5a). In the End, He will also come with the clouds (1:7).
2. The Book Concerns Future Events. Rev. 1:1 tells us that a major purpose of the book is to “show His servants what must happen soon.” These are events in the future, from John’s perspective. But what does the text mean by “soon”? The 2,000 years that have passed since Rev. was written do not seem like soon! So the word “soon” must clearly be from God’s perspective in which a day is like 1,000 years (2 Peter 3:8).
But from our perspective the return of Jesus has always been soon as well. We don’t know when Jesus will actually come, but we do know that in terms of our conscious experience (Eccl. 9:5) He will seem to come an instant after we die. So the opportunity for us to get ready for His coming is now rather than sometime in the future. If Jesus’ coming were not portrayed as soon, many people would delay getting ready for His return.
3. The Vision Is Given in Symbolic Language. Generally, the best way to approach Scripture is to take everything literally, unless it is clear that a symbol is intended. In Rev. the opposite approach is indicated by the first verse. There it tells us that the entire vision was “signified” (Rev. 1:1, KJV, Greek: esêmanen) by either God or Jesus. So in Rev. the best way to approach the text is to treat everything as a symbol, unless it is clear that a literal meaning is intended (for example, “Jesus Christ” in Rev. 1:1 should be taken literally).
This insight takes even clearer shape when the reader discovers an allusion to Daniel 2 in the first verse of the book. The only other place in the Bible that combines “signified” with the unusual expression “what must take place” (Rev. 1:1, RSV, NIV, Greek: a dei genesthai) is Daniel 2. Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a great image was the place where God “signified” (2:45) to him “what must take place” (2:28) in the last days. What was to be “in the last days” in Daniel is now “soon” in Revelation.
At the very opening of the book of Revelation, therefore, one finds a powerful allusion to Daniel 2. This allusion ties the two books together, like companion volumes. While Revelation alludes to many of the prophets, there is a special bond between it and the book of Daniel. So we should expect at least some of the symbolism of Rev. to point to sequences of history that run from the prophet’s time until the End. Not all of Daniel is historical apocalyptic, but much of it is, and that is the case also with Revelation.
4. The Threeness of God. Rev. 1:4-6 opens the book with what could be called a “triple trinity.” First of all, there is a “trinity” of persons; the Father (the one who is, was, and is to come), the Holy Spirit (represented by the seven spirits), and Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is mentioned last because He is the subject of the next two “trinities.”
Next comes a trinity of qualities that ground the role Jesus plays in Rev. He is the one who died (He is the faithful witness/martyr— Greek: martus), rose (the “firstborn of the dead”), and joined the Father on His throne (“ruler of the kings of the earth”). The death and resurrection of Jesus provide the foundation of His heavenly reign.
The final “trinity” is a trinity of actions. Jesus loves us (Greek present tense), has freed or washed (two different Greek words that sound the same, but are one letter different) us from our sins by His blood, and made us a kingdom and priests to God. The ultimate outcome of Jesus’ love, as expressed in His death and resurrection, is to raise His people to the highest possible status; kings and priests.
5. The Return of Jesus. The picture of Jesus’ return in Rev. 1:7 is based on allusions to Daniel 7 and Zechariah 12. The “he” of 1:7 clearly refers to Jesus, as He has been the subject of the previous two verses. “Coming with the clouds” recalls the son of man who comes with clouds to the Ancient of Days and receives dominion over the kingdoms of the earth (Dan. 7:13-14). In Rev. Jesus’ right to rule over the earth is recognized in heaven at His ascension (Rev. 5) and on earth at the Second Coming (Rev. 1:7).
The allusion to Zechariah is particularly interesting. In Zech. 12:7-8 it is Yahweh who comes (Zech 12:7-8), in Rev. it is Jesus who comes. In Zech. 12:10, it is Yahweh who is pierced, in Rev. it is Jesus who is pierced. In Zech. it is the inhabitants of Jerusalem who see God come (Zech. 12:8-10), in Rev. it is the whole earth that sees Jesus come. In Zech. 12:11-12 it is the clans of Jerusalem that mourn, in Rev. it is the tribes of the whole earth that mourn.
In Revelation’s use of the Old Testament, therefore, there is a shift in emphasis from Yahweh to Jesus. There is a similar shift from the literal and local things of Israel to the spiritual, worldwide impact of the gospel and the church.
Part III: Life Application
1. The lesson focuses on the opening to the book of Rev., the Prologue (1:1-8). One way to begin the lesson would be to ask What is your favorite Bible story opening? Participants might answer “baby Moses in the bulrushes,” “the diet test for Daniel and his three friends in Daniel 1,” “the anointing of David, the shepherd boy,” or “angels visit the shepherds at Jesus’ birth,” as examples. How does the opening of a Bible story or book affect the way you understand the rest of the story?
2. The lesson brings out two things that participants may feel are in tension with each other: a) the centrality of Jesus Christ, and b) the value added of a Seventh-day Adventist, historicist, reading of Rev. The teacher can invite the participants to wrestle with this tension by questions such as: What value does the unique SDA approach offer in today’s world? How do you keep a balance between articulating the historical details of the SDA reading of Rev. and uplifting Jesus Christ as the center of all hope? Some answers to the first of these questions: The SDA view a) answers the three great philosophical questions; Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? b) helps us see the hand of God in history, c) gives us confidence in the midst of chaos that God is still in control of history, and d) gives us confidence that since God has been active throughout history, the hope that we have for the End is also real.
We have learned from our study of the Bible that all God asks of us is trust. If we would only trust in Him enough, He could readily heal the damage sin has done. That is all He asked before the war began. That’s all He asks now of those who have been damaged and caught up in this war. All He will ever ask of us in the future is trust. Where there is mutual trust and trustworthiness, no cheating, there is perfect security, perfect freedom, perfect peace. And this is what God desires the most. But is that conclusion based on the right interpretation of the Bible? Have we rightly weighed and understood the biblical evidence?
Others have read the biblical evidence and drawn different conclusions. Many of these are sincere followers of God, yet they perceive Him as arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. Many of them earnestly seek to win others to that kind of God. But if that is the kind of person God is, then He is not worthy of our trust, nor is He safe to trust. Sadly, this picture of God sounds a lot like the accusations Satan has made against God from the beginning of the conflict.
In responding to the accusations against Him, God is not willing to issue mere claims or denials. Anybody could do that. But when a person has been falsely accused of being untrustworthy, it does no good to deny it or to simply claim to be trustworthy. So God has answered the charges against Him with the evidence of demonstration. Only by the demonstration of trustworthiness over a sufficiently long period of time, and under a great variety of circumstances, can trust be re-established and confirmed. The Bible is a record of just such a demonstration.
Why is there so much historical detail in the Bible? So much of it seems of such little importance. But if God’s way of revealing Himself is demonstration, it is involving Himself in human affairs and saying, “Watch the way I handle situations. That’s the way to find out what I’m like.” If we did not have the historical details, we would not be in a position to recreate those original settings and understand why God would thunder one time and speak so softly another time.
The Bible is no mere collection of theological statements. Nor is it a code book of deeds to be done and sins to be shunned. It is rather an inspired record of God’s handling of the crisis of distrust in His universe. The only way to truly understand the Bible and rightly interpret it is to pick up the Bible and read it through as a whole. To be confident that we see the real meaning of the Bible, we must view it as a whole, relating all its parts to the one central theme — the truth about God Himself. Of every story, teaching and event, the same question must be raised: What does this say about God? Another question naturally follows: Can we trust the God that we see? That will be the subject of future chapters.
Without the Bible we would know nothing about this conflict in God’s family. Nor would we have the record of how He has demonstrated His trustworthiness by His infinitely skillful and gracious way of handling the revolt. But can the Bible itself be trusted? Do we have the right collection of sixty-six books? Have the words been accurately preserved? Can we trust the many translations? And, most of all can we have confidence that we understand the meaning?
How should one decide which books of the Bible belong and which books do not? I think it helps a great deal to know the origin of these books. The opinion of centuries of believers, who were much closer to the writing of these books than we are, is of consequence. But nothing compares with reading them all. I have done it several times. It takes a long weekend without any interruption. I read all the way through the Old Testament and then the Old Testament Apocrypha and the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and the New Testament, and the New Testament Apocrypha. And when you arrive at the Revelation of Peter, you haven’t forgotten Maccabees and Enoch and Romans and Genesis. They are still in your mind. Based on that experience, I agree with Catholic Jerome, Protestant Luther and the great Bible Societies, that the sixty-six books of our Protestant Bibles are the only ones that really measure up.
Have the words of the Bible been accurately preserved? All the original copies of the Bible have disappeared. There are thousands of hand-written copies, though, that have come down to us through the years. And no two of them are the same, which could distress a person who doesn’t know better. But there is a bright side to this. When you look at thousands of these manuscripts, and note what the differences are like, you would be moved to say that no other ancient document has been preserved with such care and accuracy as the books of the Bible. Let me quote the one-time curator of the British Museum, who spent a lifetime studying such matters, “You can pick the Bible up with confidence and say, for all practical purposes, we have the word of God.”
“In many and various ways” (Heb 1:1-3) God has spoken to us through the years. And in many and various ways those words have been translated into English and most of the other languages on this earth. How else could the gospel go to all the world? How could people find out about our God? So there is no substitute for taking the Bible (or preferably the versions, plural, of your choice) and sitting down together to read and study. Never has the evidence contained in the Bible been so readily available. And having all this evidence so readily available, let’s read it. Can we confidently come to the conclusion that we understand the meaning? That the evidence is really there? That the Bible can be trusted? And, as some of us who have spent a lot of time reading these versions believe: the Author who is behind the Bible can be trusted because there is trustworthy evidence in the record.
This part of Revelation 13 contains one of the clearest allusions to the Old Testament in the entire book of Revelation. There are multiple parallels in the latter part of this chapter to the story of the three Hebrew worthies and Nebuchadnezzar’s worship test on the plain of Dura. First of all, in both Revelation 13 and Daniel 3, people from all over the world are compelled to worship. In Daniel, the worship demonstration is required of representatives from all the provinces. The demonstration in Revelation 13 seems to be truly worldwide. The entire world is required to worship.
Second, in both chapters there is a death decree attached to the command to worship. In Daniel 3, those who refuse to worship the image are cast into a fiery furnace. Revelation 13 simply says that the non-compliant will be killed, there is no mention of the specific method. Third, in both chapters the center of focus for the worship is an image. The image of Daniel 3 is probably modeled on the image of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2. The image of Revelation 13 is modeled on the sea beast that was introduced earlier in the chapter.
Finally, both the worship demand on the plain of Dura and the end-time worship decree are associated with the number six. The number of the beast in Revelation 13:18 is six hundred sixty six. This seems an intentional allusion to the dimensions of the image in Daniel 3. That image is 60 cubits tall and six cubits wide. Since there is no reference to depth, it is possible that the image was a wall relief rather than a free-standing statue. The important element that connects this aspect of each passage is the multiple use of the number six.
The allusion to Daniel 3 in Revelation 13 indicates that, in the final crisis of earth’s history, the scenario of the plain of Dura will be repeated, but in a spiritual and worldwide sense. The literal and local description of a specific event in the history of ancient Babylon becomes the model of a spiritual and worldwide attempt to compel worship at the end of earth’s history. The Babylon of the End is a spiritual, worldwide entity in opposition to the gospel and those who proclaim it. The experience of Daniel 3 will be re-visited upon earth’s final generation, but not in the literal way that it occurred in the original context. There will be a worldwide attempt to compel worship in the final crisis of earth’s history.
How should we see the world differently because of the cosmic conflict? What would it be like to live without that knowledge? The cosmic conflict powerfully answers the three great questions of philosophy; 1) where did I come from, 2) where am I going, and 3) why am I here? 1) According to the cosmic conflict, where did I come from? I come, first of all, from the mind of God, who foresaw me back in eternity and shaped me in His image. He has created me free, with the commission to copy His creative work in the formation of little people like myself. My life has meaning and purpose when I live it in relationship with God and in a creative fashion that honors Him.
2) According to the cosmic conflict, where am I going? To join God in resolving the crisis in the universe by non-violent means. God will bring an end to sin and sinners and will restore the universe to a condition of freedom, joy and peace, grounded in love and trust. Along the way it will appear that all is lost, but the lost battles will not undo the final outcome. God and His ways will win in the end and we can know we are on the winner side no matter how bad things may be now. Knowledge of the outcome gives us confidence to keep trying and avoid discouragement.
3) According to the cosmic conflict, why am I here? I am made in the image of God to reflect His character to others. To bear witness to the unique facet of God’s character that He has gifted me with. My purpose each day is to “fight” for the kind of world and universe that God is leading to, to bring a piece of that glorious eternity into everyday experience today. The little battles we fight every day are part of a much larger war. This gives meaning and purpose to all that we do.
Knowledge of the cosmic conflict provides meaning and purpose to all that we do, connects us to a purpose far bigger than ourselves, and enables us to cope with the past, no matter what we have done or what has been done to us, and relaxed about the future, knowing it is safely in God’s hands.
What is the significance of the heavenly “war of words” on our picture of what God is like? God’s side in the cosmic conflict places priority on love and self-sacrifice, respects the freedom of God’s creatures, and does not coerce but rather is patient, seeking to provide persuasive evidence. On the other hand, Satan seeks to win by persecution (force) and deception (telling lies). The casting out of Satan in Rev. 12:9-10 is more intellectual than physical. The hosts of heaven no longer take his lies seriously, his arguments have lost credibility at the cross.
Our picture of God to a large degree determines how we live and behave. If we think of God as severe and judgmental, we become more like that. If we think of God as gracious and self-sacrificing, we become more like that. We become like the God we worship.