Book of Revelation
Categories: Apocryphal/Apocalyptic Writings, Noah
In Sunday school last Sunday, one of my High school kids wanted to know about the seven last plagues and why God sent these plagues? And if God is Love, how could he do this? I am new to these types of questions and how to answer them. Another question asked: In the story of Noah and the ark, at the end God promised never to do this again and gave us a rainbow to remind us of his promise. Why did we have more plagues?
The flood story is perhaps the best-known biblical narrative. It has various counterparts among the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia, although each story has its own nuance. The biblical story differs from the others in that at the outset the "hero" (Noah) is destined to be saved. Scholars have also noted parallels between the flood and creation stories. Literally, the flood is the undoing of creation. Within its context this is seen as God's response to the moral depravity of the human race, but it is also a testament to God's grace and mercy. Noah and his family were saved. The "never again" from is that "never again shall all flesh be [Gen 9:11] cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." This is God's unilateral, covenantal pledge that no other universal catastrophic flood will occur. The rainbow is a reminder of God's promise to creation and a visible manifestation of God's vow. Regardless of what happens, God is committed to His creation and will protect it. This story occurs at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis. At the end of the Bible stands Revelation, which includes the seven last plagues.
These two books act like bookends, encompassing the entire story of God and His people. If Genesis is the beginning of the story, then Revelation is the end of the story. Indeed, the subject of this book is eschatology, i.e. the doctrine of the last things. It is sometimes referred to as The Apocalypse, the Greek word meaning "The Revelation." An apocalyptic work discloses mysteries (usually future ones) that are oftentimes veiled in inscrutable symbols. The author of Revelation is a human recipient for such enigmatic visions, as well as a trip to the heavenly world. Though there are no exact quotes, there are more allusions to the Old Testament in Revelation than in any other New Testament book. The entire framework of the book is built around the "sovereign kingship of God from the standpoint of God's transcendency over this world. God is both creator and judge, the lord over history."1
The seven last plagues (Rev. 15:1-16:21) echo the time of the Exodus, where the plagues were instrumental in breaking through the bonds of slavery. In the beginning the plagues only affected the Egyptians; these plagues will affect the whole world. These plagues comprise the final judgment. God is in complete control; evil has basically come full circle and will participate in its own destruction. In showing the powerlessness of evil, God is inviting the nations to turn to Him and repent. The invitation is not only rejected, but God is cursed and blasphemed. The unsaved refuse to accept God's offer of salvation. In a sense the plagues chronicle the dismantling of creation to the point where the eschaton or the end of time arrives. By the end of the seven last plagues, God's earthly judgment is complete. The only thing remaining is the actual destruction of the evil empire (chapters 17-19) and the final judgment (chapter 20). At that point John is given a glimpse of the new heaven and the new earth.
How does this mesh with "God is love?" The problem lies in whether the events of Revelation are to be taken symbolically or literally. John probably did see these events as visions and he recorded them. John's audience had the benefit of being familiar with these symbols, with apocalyptic writings. But now 2000 years later, we're struggling to understand their meaning. One scholar suggested that the closest modern parallel would be the political cartoon. The cartoon sends a message relating to some contemporary situation. We all get it. Frequently the US is represented as an eagle; Russia is a bear; Britain is a lion. Sometimes these images are given human faces and are doing human activities. Generally whatever they're doing is exaggerated to make the point.2 Two thousand years from now, their meaning might not be so obvious.
There are basically four main schools of thought regarding Revelation.
- The idealist interpretation. It holds that this book is about timeless truths, the perennial struggle of good and evil.
- The historical approach thinks this is an inspired forecast of events from the beginning of time to that of the interpretation. Mostly it focuses on western (read European) events.
- The futurist interpretation sees meaning in these visions for the end of time. These events are to be expected at the end of the age.
- The preterist approach locates the visions of Revelation to the events of John's day. Just like any Biblical text, it was written to assure the first century readers that God had not abandoned them. It claims that John was totally preoccupied with his own time and had no interest in later ages.
As one scholar suggested, despite multitudinous studies done on Revelation, the definitive commentary has yet to be written.
What scholars can agree on is that Revelation testifies to the fact that God finishes what he starts. In that sense, Revelation is both the end and a new beginning. The last two chapters describe this new beginning. God says, "Behold, I make all things new." This newness can only occur when the existing social order has been destroyed, purged if you will. The paradox, of course, is that this new creation was the goal all along. Creation, as we know it, must be renewed, purified, and restored to its original destiny. The end, then, really fulfills the beginning. All things will be reconciled to God in harmony, which brings the beginning to its predetermined fulfillment. In the beginning God created the heaven and earth. In Revelation we have a new heaven and earth. In the beginning there was a river flowing in Eden; in Revelation the river flows from the throne of God and the lamb. In the beginning there was a tree of life from which man was separated upon his exit from the garden; in Revelation the tree of life is accessible to all the redeemed. The claim of Revelation is that the paradise that had been lost has been regained through Christ. God is love and by the end of Revelation, that's all that exists - infinite God, infinite good.
1 Grant Osborne. "Revelation." Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. 2002. p.31
2 cG.R. Beasley-Murray "Revelation." The New Century Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B Eerdmans. 1981. p16-17.