How to Interpret the Signs of the End

It has never been easier to stay informed about world events. With the help of the internet one can amass a huge quantity of information about world affairs in a short period of time. But there are several problems when it comes to analyzing the significance of such information for Christian faith. For one thing, within this enormous mass of information one must distinguish between information which is sound and that which is simply someone’s empty speculation forwarded from computer to computer. It is necessary to become familiar with a news source’s track record over time, with its biases, and with its reasons for offering information on the internet. Christians must be slow to accept the latest report or conspiracy theory, especially when relatively reliable filters like major news organizations or church papers are silent on the subject.

But even when information is reasonably solid, it is imperative to look at the evidence from all sides of the question. Those who emphasize the nearness of the End love to talk about rising crime statistics, catastrophic earthquakes and floods, wars and rumors of wars, imminent economic collapse, and declining morality. But credibility is severely damaged when we ignore solid evidence that points in other directions. For example, many sincere Christian speakers and writers regularly predict the imminent arrival of a national Sunday law in the USA. Yet in my lifetime public attention to the idea of Sunday laws in the USA has been in a steady decline.

But what if your information is unquestionably solid, balanced, and carefully verified? You still have to determine whether that solid information is of any spiritual significance or not. It is all too easy to jump to conclusions about the significance of particular world events. Just because events are taking a course that reminds us of a particular prophecy, doesn’t mean that this particular event is what that prophecy was pointing to. COVID-19 is certainly one of the greatest international crises the world has faced in my lifetime. Yet there is no specific biblical prophecy that tells us a contagious disease will be a definitive mark of the End-time. No matter how solid our reading of the “signs” seems to be, we are expected to stay sober as we approach the End (1 Thess 5:1-11)! We damage the credibility of all preaching about the End when we use inaccurate information, are selective in our use of solid evidence, or make exaggerated claims that are inappropriate to our level of expertise.

A Different Look at “Signs of the End”

If wars, earthquakes and famines are signs of the age, it should not surprise us that what many call the “signs of the end” have been with us from the beginning of the Christian age. There were false messiahs already in Jesus= day (Acts 5:36-37), and plenty more shortly after. While peace characterized the Roman province of Palestine in AD 31, there were “wars and rumors of wars” throughout the 60s. There were famines (Acts 11:28), earthquakes (Laodicea in 60 AD, Pompeii in 63, Jerusalem in 64, and Rome in 68), and heavenly signs. It is reported that the quake in Jerusalem damaged the newly finished temple, just before the Roman sieges began in AD 66. The NT also contains abundant accounts of persecution, false teachers and false prophets in 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, 2 Peter, 1 and 2 John, Jude and Revelation 2-3 (note 2:20 especially). Paul could even claim that the gospel had gone to the world within his lifetime (Col 1:23; Rom 1:8; 16:26). It is no wonder, then, that the apostles believed that they were living in the last days (Acts 2:14-21; Heb 1:2; 1 Pet 1:20; 1 John 2:18).

Compounding the issue is the question of just how unusual the events of the End will be. There is no question that NT descriptions of the final days are momentous. People develop strange diseases, rivers and seas turn to blood, and humanity is subject to climate change of searing proportions (Rev 16:1-9). Nations are angry (Rev 11:18) and confused (Luke 21:25), and the world is seriously divided over issues of faith (Rev 17:14). Unusual events take place in the sky and earthquakes, storms and disasters become more severe (Luke 21:26; Rev 6:12-15; 16:18-21). There is the deceptive confusion caused by competing claims to truth (Matt 24:24-27; Mark 13:19-23; 2 Thess 2:8-12; Rev 13:13-14) and direct demonic intervention (1 Tim 4:1). Although they were realities already in Paul=s day, social unrest and contempt for faith are expected to increase (2 Tim 3:1-5). The people of God suffer greatly from persecution (John 16:2; Rev 13:15-17; 16:4-7; 17:6). And many more considerations could be given.

But there is another side to NT teaching on this subject that is often ignored. Both Jesus and Paul portray the last days as exceedingly normal times in spite of all the spectacular events that will take place. As in the time just before the Flood (Matt 24:37), people will pursue their normal round of eating and drinking, and weddings will not be postponed (Matt 24:38). As in the days of Lot, there will be buying and selling (Luke 17:28), which suggests that the basic economic structure of the world is still intact. Planting and building continues (Luke 17:28). Most people seem to have no premonition that the End is upon them (Matt 24:39). Believer and unbeliever are working together in the field or in a factory on the day when Jesus comes (Matt 24:40-41).

Paul announces to the Thessalonians that the terrible destructions associated with the Second Coming itself (see 2 Thess 1:5-10) will come at a time when people are proclaiming “peace and safety” (1 Thess 5:2-3). To the average person on the street, the last days may seem like a golden age of peace and prosperity. The troubles, disasters, social disruptions, and persecutions of the End-time will be on the radar screen, but will not seem out of proportion to normal times. The majority, perhaps the vast majority, of people on earth will be surprised to see the ultimate end of history take place when it does. This should make us cautious in our broad and confident pronouncements regarding current events. But at the same time we must not overlook that the same text assures us that God=s true people will not be surprised (1 Thess 5:4-7). The normalcy will only be an apparent one, apparent to those without the eyes of Christian faith.

Signs of the End: Are the Signs Really Signs?

When I was eight years old, I stood with my parents in front of our home and watched Sputnik (the first man-made satellite of earth) move with surprising speed across the night sky. Shortly after that an earnest fellow believer declared, “God will never let man land on the moon, Jesus will come first.” For him, as for many Christians, various events in today’s world provide evidence or signs that the coming of Jesus is truly near. He felt that since it would be inappropriate for human beings to defile another planet (having already messed up this one!), the approach of human exploration of the moon and the planets became a “sign” that the second coming of Jesus was at hand.

A few years later I got up at three in the morning to witness the live broadcast of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. Jesus did not come to intervene. Evidently human occupation of the moon was of less concern to God than my fellow believer had assumed. It turned out not to be a “sign of the End.” Incidents like these make people wonder: Will we ever know with absolute certainty that the return of Jesus is at hand? Are the signs really signs?

When we examine the New Testament, we discover that many world events that Christians take as “signs of the End” are really “signs of the age” instead. Rather than pointing to the timing of the second coming, they confirm that His predicted return at the end of the age is secure. They encourage us to believe that if Jesus knew the character of the whole age in advance, He will not be mistaken about the event that brings it to a close.

For example, when the disciples asked Jesus (Matt 24:3) about the “sign”of His coming and the end of the age, He replied, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” Matt 24:6 (NIV). Wars and rumors of wars made great signs of the End in the Jewish apocalyptic of Jesus’ day, but in Matt 24 they do not herald the End, they are part of what life is like before the End.

To fully understand what Jesus was doing in Matthew 24, it is helpful understand how the Judaism of Jesus’ day handled the same ideas (an excellent summary of the early Jewish perspective on signs can be found in D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964], 271-276). The Jewish understanding of signs, which the disciples of Jesus would have shared, was based on the Day of the Lord passages in the OT. It was felt that the near approach of the End would be marked by wars, wickedness, earthquakes, famines, and heavenly portents, among other things. So Jesus is not inventing the concept of signs, He is moderating their impact on the disciples. So it is fascinating that Jesus’ “signs” are generally used for the opposite of the purpose He intended.

Jesus goes on: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.” Matt 24:7-8. Wars, famines and earthquakes do not signal the End, they signal the beginning! The disciples asked for a sign of the End, Jesus gave them signs of the age. These “signs” are not intended to stimulate speculation regarding the timing of the end, they are to remind us of Jesus’ words, which encourage us to be watchful for the End at all times (Matt 24:42).

Jesus does seem to give a measurable sign of the nearness of the End in Matt 24:14. The End will come when the gospel has been preached to the whole world. Yes, the gospel must be preached to the world before the Lord comes, but it is not the kind of sign you can base a calculation on. After all, Paul had the impression that this sign had been fulfilled already in his day (Col 1:23). The only sign that meets the disciples’ intention is the “sign of the son of man” in 24:30. But this appears to be the literal glory that surrounds Jesus Himself at His coming. Those who wait for this sign will be too late.

Jesus’ response to His disciples is disappointing to me in a way. It would seem easier for us if He would have given us all the details about the End, and the events leading up to It, then we could line them all up, see exactly where we are, and know when we have to get ready. But apparently that wasn’t Jesus’ purpose. Apparently that wouldn’t have been the best thing for us. What then was His purpose in this chapter? He gives us that in Matt 24:42. “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.”

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (26): The Time of Jesus and John

Someone noticed number 26 was missing. I wrote this and somehow never posted it. So here it is, in belated fashion.

The result of the dragon’s attack in 12:4-5 is to split up the woman and the child. He is snatched up to heaven and she flees into the desert, under God’s protection but still on earth (Rev 12:6). When the male child reaches heaven war breaks out there, with the result that the dragon and his angels lose their place in heaven and are hurled down (evblh,qh) to earth (12:7-9). When did this casting out take place? Verse 10 clearly addresses the same point in time as the war of 7-9. “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers has been hurled down.”

The time of the war in heaven is the time when the kingdom of God and the authority of Christ were clearly established (12:10). In the book of Revelation, this took place at the enthronement of the Lamb in as a result of His overcoming at the cross (Rev 5:5-6, cf. 3:21). Throughout the New Testament the Kingdom of God was seen as a present reality in the person of Jesus (Matt 12:28; Luke 17:20-21, etc.) and was established in force at His ascension when He joined His Father on the heavenly throne (cf. Heb 8:1-2, etc.). “Accuser of our brothers” (12:10) is a play on the Hebrew meaning of the word Satan (12:9), which means “the one who accuses.” Apparently up until the cross, Satan and his accusations still had a certain credibility in heavenly places (Job 1:6; Zech 3:1-2), but now this is all over. The accused can now overcome Satan by “the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (verse 11). Beale addresses this matter in a fascinating way, “The emphasis on Satan’s accusatorial role in 12:10 reveals that the angelic battle of vv 7-9 was figurative for a courtroom battle between two opposing lawyers, with one losing the argument and being disbarred for employing illegal tactics.”

The language of 12:7-9, however, is also reminiscent of 12:4, where the dragon hurled (e;balen) a third of the stars from heaven to earth. But that event occurred before the birth of Christ, and the war of 12:7-9 occurred after the ascension. So there are two separate events in this chapter in which a hurling down from heaven occurs, one is prior to the birth of Christ (12:4), and the other is after His ascension (12:7-10).

How long before the birth of Christ did the dragon sweep a third of the stars from heaven to earth? The traditional Adventist answer is “before creation.” The exact timing of that action is not addressed in this chapter, but a strong hint is found in Rev 13:8, where the Lamb is described as “slain from the creation of the world” (tou/ evsfagme,nou avpo. katabolh/j ko,smou). This comment finds no context in the entire book unless the dragon’s action in 12:4 represents that primeval attack on the Lamb. If that is the case, the war in heaven of 12:7-9, while clearly in the context of the cross in Revelation 12, nevertheless speaks in the language of that earlier conflict, as noted by scholars such as Adela Yarbro Collins.
In His earthly life, therefore, Jesus was participating in a war that had begun in heaven before His arrival on earth (Rev 12:3-4,7-9). At His ascension, Jesus establishes His kingdom and casts the “accuser of the brothers” (Rev 12:10) out of heaven. Since the dragon had already been cast out of heaven physically, according to the symbolism of 12:4, the language of 12:7-12 implies that after the Christ-event, Satan has no more influence over heavenly deliberations. This casting out is, therefore, more spiritual than physical. It is interesting, that while the dragon appears in all four stages of the conflict in chapter 12, the actions of Jesus, expressed in the images of the male child, the Lamb, Christ, and probably Michael, are confined to the second stage, the time of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and heavenly rule (Rev 12:5-10).

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (29): Conclusion

Even in apocalyptic prophecy God meets people where they are.  Although He knows the end from the beginning, He does not choose to express Himself beyond the comprehension of the original writer and audience.  Historicism, therefore, is built on passages where the time element is not explicit at the point of first reception.  Events can be portrayed as a long time in the future (Dan 8:26-27: 12:11-13) or extremely near (Rev 1:3; 22:10).  Whether the sequence of Daniel 2 would take a lifetime or thousands of years was not evident in the vision itself, but becomes evident with the passage of time.

So it is also with Revelation 12.  The vision clearly begins with the generation of Jesus and John and moves to the final events of earth’s history.  But the great length of the intervening period is not obvious from markers in the text, being hidden in the use of days instead of years among other things.  As history progresses and the time of fulfillment comes, the sequences and their historical fulfillment become more plain (John 13:19; 14:29).

It is probably true that none of the biblical writers foresaw the enormous length of the Christian era.  The passage of time has opened up new vistas in terms of the Lord’s patience and purpose.  Having foreseen such a delay, would not God prepare His people to understand the great events by which He is bringing history to its climax?  Historicism is grounded in the conviction that God knows the end from the beginning and cares enough for His people to share an outline of those events.  While it is only from the perspective of the Parousia that history will speak with perfect clarity, each generation must make the attempt to understand biblical apocalyptic or risk being surprised by God’s final acts (Rev 16:15 cf. 1 Thess 5:1-6).

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (28): The Final Attack on the Remnant

Rev 12:17 serves as a summary introduction to Revelation’s portrayal of a great final crisis at the conclusion of earth’s history. It indicates that there are two sides in the final conflict, represented by the dragon, on the one hand, and the remnant on the other. But the dragon does not immediately act on his anger. Instead he “went away” to make war. Why? Because he was frustrated by repeated failures in the course of apocalyptic history. He was not strong enough to last in heaven (Rev 12:8), he failed to destroy the man-child of the woman (Rev 12:3-5), and he failed to destroy the woman herself (Rev 12:16). Because of his repeated failures he realizes he doesn’t have the strength to defeat God’s purposes by himself, so he decides to enter the final conflict with allies, a beast from the sea and a beast from the earth (Rev 13:1-18). The remnant are ultimately, therefore, faced with three opponents: 1) the dragon; 2) the sea beast, and 3) the land beast.

In the book of Revelation, God is often spoken of in three’s–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Rev 1:4-5). So the dragon, the sea beast and the land beast in Revelation 13 would seem to be a counterfeit of the holy three, an alternative to the true Godhead. These texts indicate that there is to be a great, final world-wide deception where a counterfeit “trinity” stands in the place of the true God. The purpose of the counterfeit is to deceive the world.

Rev 12:17 summarizes the final stage of earth’s history in a nutshell, the rest of the book of Revelation elaborates on that summary introduction. Rev 13, for example, outlines in more detail the dragon’s war against the remnant of the woman’s seed (Rev 12:17). Linguistically this occurs in two great stages signaled by the Greek tenses in relation to the final attack of Rev 12:17. Two beasts (from the sea and the earth) are each given “character introductions” in past tense (Rev 13:1-7; 13:11). These past-tense portions begin with a visual description of each character followed by an account of that character’s subsequent actions. Being in the past tense, these actions would seem to have occurred prior to the dragon’s final war against the remnant.

In each scene the Greek of Rev 13 then moves from description in the past to a mixture of present and future tenses (Rev 13:8-10; 13:12-18), describing the actions of these two beasts in the context of the final attack of Rev 12:17. So two stages of history are clearly marked off by the Greek tenses signaling events prior to the dragon’s war (past tenses) and an elaboration of the events of the war itself (present and future tenses). Beale has noted that Rev 13 is parallel in time with 12:13-17, which coheres with the Adventist position described here.

There is one further passage in Revelation which speaks to this end-time deception, Rev 16:13-16, the famous Battle of Armageddon passage. Here the counterfeit trinity of Rev 13 uses demonic spirits that look like frogs to gather the kings of earth for the final battle. Since frogs were the last plague that the magicians of ancient Egypt were able to counterfeit (see Exod 7:18-19 in context), the use of frogs as a symbol here signals that the message of Revelation 16 has to do with the last deception of earth’s history.

The three frogs are the demonic counterparts of the three God-sent angels of Rev 14:6-12. Both groups of angels have a mission to the whole world (Rev 14:6; 16:14), one trio calling the world to worship God, and the other seeking to gather the people of the world into the service of the unholy trinity. The final showdown takes place at “Armageddon” (Rev 16:16).

My work on the “Armageddon” article for the Anchor Bible Dictionary led me to the conclusion that the best way to understand the word Armageddon, in the light of the Biblical evidence, is as the Greek form of a couple of Hebrew words that mean “Mountain of Meggido.” Meggido was a city on a small elevation at the edge of the Plain of Jezreel. Looming over the place where the city of Megiddo was, however, is a range of mountains called Carmel.

What counts for Revelation is that Mount Carmel was the place where the great Old Testament showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal took place (1 Kings 18:16-46). On that occasion God answered Elijah’s prayer to bring fire down from heaven onto an altar in order to prove that Yahweh was the true God, not Baal.

According to Revelation, the Mount Carmel experience will be repeated at the End. Once again there will be a showdown between the true God and a devious counterfeit. But it will be different this time. At the End the fire that comes down falls from heaven will fall on the wrong altar. It will be the counterfeit Elijah and the counterfeit three angels who bring fire down from heaven to earth (Rev 13:13,14). On that day all the evidence of the five senses will suggest that the counterfeit trinity is the true God. Adventists see themselves as the “church of the remnant” whose recognition of the realities described in these prophecies enables them to help prepare their fellow Christians and others for the unique challenges of the last days.

Revelation 12, therefore, clearly demonstrates the successive stages of prophetic history that are characteristic of the historical type of apocalyptic found in Daniel 2 and 7. Observing carefully the markers in the text, the author’s use of character introductions and way the Old Testament is utilized, we have detected three stages of Christian history running from the time of Jesus and the John to the end of all things. When we note that at least two of the main characters in the chapter were active in the time before the birth of Jesus (which we will call below Stage Zero), there are a total of four successive stages of apocalyptic history.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (27): The Broad Sweep of Christian History

Rev 12:12 makes the transition between the experience of Jesus, in his various symbolic representations, and the vision’s renewed focus on the woman back on earth. Her exile into the desert was introduced in 12:6 and now becomes the focus of the devil/dragon, who was angered by his casting out and by the knowledge that “his time is short.” In apocalyptic language this verse tells us that after Jesus’ ascension to heaven, the church took the brunt of Satan’s wrath on earth (Rev 12:13-16). Having been cast out of heaven, the dragon pursues the woman into the desert (12:13). The language of 12:13-16 is reminiscent of several accounts in the Old Testament, the vision of Daniel 7, the Exodus from Egypt, and the temptation and fall in the Garden of Eden.

The language of “a time, times and half a time” recalls Dan 7:25, as do the seven heads and the ten horns of the dragon who pursues the woman. In Daniel 7 the breakup of Rome into ten parts was followed by a little horn power, which was to persecute and “oppress God’s saints for a time, times and half a time.” (Dan 7:25) The only time in history that comes even close to matching this description is the Middle Ages, when the Roman Papacy dominated the Western world and drove competing views of Christianity into obscurity.

“The mouth of the serpent” (Rev 12:15) reminds the reader of the deceptive words of the serpent in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3). The flooding waters that attack the woman in the desert (the faithful church), therefore, imply deceptive and persuasive words as much as persecuting force. In the Middle Ages, unbiblical teachings were fed to the people in the name of Christ.

The woman fleeing into the desert on the two wings of a great eagle (Rev 12:14) reminds the reader of the Exodus experience, where God carried the tribes of Israel “on eagle’s wings” out of Egypt (Exod 19:4). So the experience of the woman, who represents the people of God, is built on the language of Old Testament Israel, both before and after the time of Christ. The experiences of Old Testament Israel and those of the Church are closely entwined in the book of Revelation.

In Rev 12:16 the “earth” helped the woman. This is a further allusion to the Exodus and Israel’s experience in the desert. The desert protected Israel from the “flooding waters” of both the Red Sea and the Egyptian army. If “sea” also represents the settled populations of the earth (as Rev 17:15 may suggest), “earth” here may represent more desolate places where the true people of God obtained refuge from deceptive and persecuting opponents; the Alps in Europe during the Middle Ages, and places like North America, South Africa, and Australia afterward. Toward the end of the 1260 years (the 16th through the 18th centuries) many forces came together to elevate the Bible and to end the persecution of God’s people; the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, and the beginnings of the great missionary expansion of the 19th century. During that period of calm, the dragon prepares for his final attack (Rev 12:17).

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (25): Revelation 12

A good reason to choose Revelation 12 as a sample passage for detecting apocalyptic is that it is widely seen as a center and key to the entire book. In addition, Adventists understand Revelation 12 to offer an apocalyptic prophecy of three sequential stages of Christian history. The first stage is the Christ-event back in the first century (Rev 12:1-5). The third is the final battle between the dragon and the Remnant (12:17). The second is the vast middle period of 1260 years of papal supremacy in the Middle Ages and beyond. Let’s take a careful look at the chapter in light of the previous work in this paper to see whether it best reflects the historicist sequences of apocalyptic prophecy, or whether it should be interpreted along the lines of classical prophecy.

First of all, chapter 12 does have a couple of the textual markers that indicate passage of time. In Rev 12:6 the woman is taken care of by God in the desert for 1260 days. In Rev 12:14 she is taken care of for a time, times and half a time, presumably the same period as 12:6. So Revelation 12 is not describing a single event, but a considerable period of time. This alone inclines an interpreter to see Rev 12 in apocalyptic terms rather than those of classical prophecy.

This impression is enhanced when the reader realizes that the cryptic phrase “a time, times, and half a time” (Rev 12:14) is unquestionably based on a couple of the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel (Dan 7:25; 12:7). Further study leads to the discovery that Rev 12 builds on Daniel throughout. The dragon of Rev 12:3-4 has a number of the characteristics of the beasts of Daniel 7 and of the little horn (Dan 7:7,24; 8:10). Among other things, if you total up the number of heads and horns among the four beasts of Dan 7 you get seven heads and ten horns. The war in heaven of 12:7-9 makes several allusions to Daniel (Dan 2:35; 10:13,20-21; 12:1). This broad utilization of Daniel’s apocalyptic prophecies enhances the impression that Rev 12 should be interpreted along similar lines.

Finally, Revelation 12 contains a number of character identifications with their typical time sequences. First, a woman appears in heaven, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head (12:1). 12:1-2 is based on the Old Testament image of a virtuous woman as a symbol of faithful Israel (Isa 26:16-27; 54:5; 66:7-14; Hos 2:14-20), anticipating the arrival of the messianic age. So the woman of Rev 12 has a “pedigree” that carries back well into Old Testament prophecy. According to Isa 66:7, she is the faithful Israel that longed to give birth to the Lord’s salvation. But in verse 5 she acts in the context of the vision, giving birth to a male child who is generally recognized to be a symbol of Jesus. So her character and actions described in 12:1-2 are clearly prior to the actions in verses 5 and the actions of verse 5 are prior to the actions of verse 6. After she gives birth to the child (12:5) she is seen fleeing into the desert for a lengthy period (12:6). So the experience of the woman in Rev 12:1-6 is actually depicted in three stages; 1) the time of her appearance and pregnancy, 2) the time of giving birth, and 3) the time of fleeing into the desert.

The second character to be introduced in this chapter is the dragon (Rev 12:3-4), who represents the devil, or Satan (Rev 12:9). The dragon’s initial action in the context of the vision is described in 12:4, where he waits before the woman, seeking to devour her child as soon as it is born. Scholars widely recognize that the dragon’s attack on the male child in Rev 12:5 represents Herod’s attempt to destroy the Christ child by killing all the babies in Bethlehem (Matt 2:1-18). But the description of the dragon, as it was with the woman, carries back to a time before the events of the vision.

The dragon’s pedigree is seen in the heads and the horns of Daniel 7 (Rev 12:3), it is the embodiment of the kingdoms of the world in service of Satan. His pedigree, in fact, goes all the way back to Eden (“the old serpent”– Rev 12:9,15). And prior to his attack on the woman, his tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to earth (Rev 12:4), an allusion to Daniel 8:10.

But the dragon isn’t finished when the male child gets away in verse 5. The dragon pursues the woman into the desert (12:13-16) and eventually makes war with the remnant of her seed. So the dragon in chapter 12 is actually described in terms of four successive stages, 1) his attack on a third of the stars (12:4), 2) his attack on the male child (12:4-5), 3) his attack against the woman herself (12:13-16), and finally 4) his war against the remnant. The character and actions of both the woman and the dragon suggest the successive periods of a historical apocalypse.

The third character to be introduced in this chapter is the male child, the woman’s son. The scene is reminiscent of Gen 3:15, where the seed of the woman is the one who will crush the serpent’s head. This character introduction is unique in the sense that instead of describing a pedigree or prior action on the part of this male child, the introduction focuses instead on action beyond the time of the vision. Using the future tense, He is described as the one who “will rule (me,llei poimai,nein) all the nations with an iron scepter” (Rev 12:5). This allusion to Psalm 2:9 describes Jesus’ judgment role at the end of time. The very next phrase reverts to the visionary past, “her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.” In 12:5 reference is made, then, to the birth, the ascension, and the ultimate victory of Jesus Christ. The death of Christ on the cross is only brought into play in verses 10-12.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (24): Detecting Apocalyptic Sequences II

Old Testament Roots
When reading the Book of Revelation one is plunged fully into the atmosphere of the Old Testament. No book of the New Testament is as saturated with the Old as this one is. But while it is not difficult to recognize the central place of the Old Testament in the Book of Revelation, it is difficult to determine exactly how it is being used there. A reader acquainted with the Old Testament quickly notices that Revelation never directly quotes the Old Testament, rather it alludes to it with a word here, a phrase there, or a concept in another place. Careful and consistent application of method is essential to recognizing the Old Testament subtext to the apocalyptic prophecies of Revelation. Such a method is laid out in the report from the Daniel and Revelation Committee in the early 90s.

The importance of the Old Testament in Revelation can be seen by a second look at the character introduction passages examined above. The vision in which Jesus is physically introduced to the reader (Rev 1:12-16) is based on a variety of Old Testament texts. The golden lampstands are a reminder of the lampstand in the Old Testament sanctuary (Exod 25:31-40) and the vision of Zechariah (Zech 4:2,10). Jesus’ dress recalls the dress of the High Priest in the same sanctuary (Exod 28:4,31). The voice like rushing waters reminds the reader of the appearance of Almighty God in the book of Ezekiel (Ezek 1:24; 43:2). The two-edged sword coming from Jesus’ mouth is reminiscent of Yahweh’s judgments through His messianic Servant in Isaiah (Isa 11:4; 49:2). The reader’s appreciation and understanding of Revelation’s apocalyptic-style symbolism is greatly enhanced by following up a veritable mosaic of Old Testament allusions.

But what ties all these Old Testament allusions together is a comprehensive utilization of the descriptions of two characters in the book of Daniel, the Son of Man of Dan 7:13-14 and Daniel’s mysterious visitor in 10:5-6. Virtually every detail of the description in 1:12-16 is found in those two passages. The same Jesus who walked and talked with ordinary people here on earth is described in terms of the mighty acts of Yahweh and of His heavenly and earthly messengers in the Old Testament. The parallels to the Old Testament lend much meaning to what otherwise would be a bewildering and incomprehensible description. So Jesus is depicted in this introduction as a heavenly priest, cosmic ruler, and divine judge. In 1:17-18 he exercises his priesthood in his merciful gentleness to John, 1:19-20 makes clear that his royal rule will be exercised in judgment, both positive and negative, toward the churches. And this marvelous passage right at the beginning of the book of Revelation emphasizes its strong ties to the apocalyptic book of Daniel.

The description of the two witnesses (Rev 11:3-6), on the other hand, is based on the lampstand passage of Zechariah (Zech 4:2-3,11-14), and also the exploits of Moses and Elijah in the Old Testament (cf. Exod 7:17-21; 1 Kings 17:1; 2 Kings 1:10-12). The two witnesses are prophets like the great prophets of the Old Testament; Moses, Elijah and Zechariah. But the prophets in Revelation all bear witness to Jesus (Rev 1:9; 2:13; 12:11,17; 17:6). The richness of these background narratives is crucial to understanding what John was trying to say in writing the visions out as he did. So careful attention to the Old Testament becomes a crucial part of the process by which apocalyptic prophecies need to be understood.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (23): Detecting Apocalyptic Sequences

Before we take up the analysis of Revelation 12, I would like to lay out some principles for detecting apocalyptic sequencing in the symbolic visions of the Apocalypse. It is not appropriate to force a chapter into the historicist mode if that was not the intention of the text. We must allow the characteristics and purposes of each text to emerge out of the text. Only then can we accurately determine whether the chapter is a historical apocalypse or not.

Textual Markers
A significant indicator of an apocalyptic historical sequence is the presence of terms and developments in a text that indicate the successive passage of time. A major reason that the Daniel and Revelation Committee, for example, saw the trumpets as more apocalyptic than the seals was the presence of significant textual markers that time was passing as you moved through the trumpets, while such textual markers are completely missing in the seals.

The seven trumpets (Rev 8:2-11:18), for one thing, contain a number of time periods. There is a period of five months (Rev 9:5,10), a period of forty-two months (Rev 11:2), a period of 1260 days (11:3) and a period of three and a half days (11:9,11). No such periods of time are found anywhere within the seven seals (Rev 4:1-8:1), with the exception of the half-hour at the close. The sequential nature of the trumpets is strongly confirmed by the woe series after the fourth (Rev 8:13). The first woe (fifth trumpet) ends before the second begins (9:12) and the second (sixth trumpet) ends before the third (seventh trumpet) begins (11:14). Trumpets five, six, and seven, therefore, not only occur as a sequence of time, each is completed before the next begins. This is a strong parallel to the apocalyptic sequences of Daniel. One further marker of the passage of time in the trumpets is found in Rev 10:7. There the blowing of the seventh trumpet immediately follows the completion of God’s mystery, which is defined as the preaching of the gospel through God’s servants the prophets. The textual markers in the seventh trumpet, therefore, strongly suggest that the vision of the seven trumpets is to be interpreted as an apocalyptic sequence of historical events. Further research also indicates that the trumpets run from NT times (the time of the human author) to the end of time.

Character Introduction
Another significant indicator of the passage of time in Revelation is the literary strategy we could call character introduction. Consistently throughout the book, the author of Revelation introduces characters in general terms before describing their actions at the time of the vision. In other words, when a character appears in the book for the first time, there is a general description of the character’s appearance, and often a number of prior actions (and occasionally even future actions), followed by a description of the actions the character takes in the context of the vision’s own time and place setting. These character introduction passages normally offer clear markers of sequence.

When Jesus is introduced to John in chapter 1, the historical setting is John’s location on the Island of Patmos (Rev 1:9). John then goes into vision and sees one like a son of man. This is the first appearance of Jesus in the book, although He and His works are mentioned earlier (1:1,4-7). While this passage (Rev 1:9-3:22) has few other characteristics of an apocalyptic prophecy, there is a clear movement in time taking place as you work through the passage. John first hears Jesus’ voice sounding like a trumpet (1:9-11), then he sees and describes Him (1:12-16), then he experiences His comforting and explanatory words (1:17-20), finally he hears His messages to the seven churches (2:1-3:22).

A similar thing happens in chapter 11. The visionary setting of the two witnesses passage is Rev 10:8-11, where a voice out of heaven and the angel of the previous vision (Rev 10:1-7) engage John in a prophetic action (10:8-10), followed by an explanation. As we have seen from our study of Daniel 2 and 7, explanations come to the prophet in terms of his own time and place. Since John continues to be engaged (Rev 11:1-2) and addressed (11:3ff.) in Revelation 11, the standpoint from which John experiences chapter 11 is his own. It is not surprising, therefore, that the major time markers of 42 months and 1260 days are expressed in the future tense (Rev 11:2; Rev 11:3. These periods of time were future from the perspective of John.

The two witnesses themselves are introduced with a description of their appearance and an overall description of their characteristics and their actions in the present (11:4-6) and in the future tense (11:3). These present and future tenses are to be understood from the perspective of an explanation to John in terms of his own time and place. The entire character introduction passage (11:3-6), the elements in future tense (3) as well as those in present tense (4-6), occurs prior to the visionary description that follows (11:7-13).

The following time sequence, therefore, is evident in Rev 10:8-11:12. John is engaged and addressed by a voice from heaven and a visionary angel in his time and place. He then measures the temple, which is to be trampled for 42 months in John’s future, presumably the same period as the 1260 days of 11:3. Then the two witnesses are introduced. Whoever they are, they clearly exist in John’s day (present tenses) and have an ongoing existence. At some future point from John’s perspective, the two witnesses pass through a 1260 day period of testimony. It is only after that period of testimony that the martyrdom of these witnesses and their resurrection is to occur.