3 The Great Theme
"Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him" (Revelation 1:7).
This announcement is the first great message of Revelation; it comes straight after the title, the introductory explanations and the blessings. Indeed, it soon becomes evident that the second coming of Christ is the main theme of the book of Revelation. The evidence for this is overwhelming, as a quick review of the subject matter of Revelation will demonstrate.
Some readers will already have discovered for themselves that the great theme of Revelation is the Lord's return. For them the merest glance at the main section of this chapter should suffice. But they are recommended to read more carefully the section of the chapter that begins with the sub-heading Other themes.
So to the quick review.
The vision of "one like unto the Son of man" is a picture of Christ in glory — the Christ who will soon confront the world. In figure, John died and was raised to life again. His experiences and the words addressed to him are a vivid reminder that the faithful will be raised and made immortal at the Lord's coming:
"And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death" (verses 17,18).
Chapters 2 and 3
The messages to the seven churches could be described as interim judgments. The invisible Lord moves amongst the churches and beholds the things that are hidden from human gaze. "I know thy works", is the solemn assurance he gives to each church, and to all who have ears to hear. There are repeated reminders that a day of reckoning is coming. The Lord's standards are the basis of judgment — do we measure up to them? Soon the Lord's coming will determine irrevocably the destiny of all who claim to be saints. "Be watchful"; "Hold fast and repent"; "Behold I come as a thief"; "Behold I stand at the door and knock". Those who overcome will enjoy great blessings — when the Lord returns.
In the large section of Revelation that follows, there are references, again and again, to the glorious and terrible day of the Lord. Although the heavenly temple, described in chapter 4, reads like a contemporary and a continuing picture of heaven and what could be described as the angelic hierarchy, it also helps us to understand what conditions will be like when God's will is done on earth, as it is in heaven. The picture presented in chapter 4 contains such blessings as are promised to those who overcome in chapters 2 and 3. It is therefore, in a sense, a 'kingdom' picture.
There is an expanding programme of praise in chapter 5. The second of three songs of praise concerns the destiny of the redeemed when Christ will reign on earth. The third and last song of praise involves all creation. It can only be sung when the Lord has returned and completed his great purpose with the earth.
Revelation 6 is about four horsemen. An attempt will be made to expound this symbolism later. The point to be noted now is that the last, decisive phase in the conquering career of the rider of the white horse is described in chapter 19. The rider's name is "The Word of God". An army of white horses follows him, and they destroy the army of the beast and the false prophet. This destruction evidently takes place after the Lord's return.
The name of the rider of the fourth horse of Revelation 6 is Death, and "Hell follows". Chapter 20 speaks of the time wheji Death and Hell are cast into the lake of fire — also after the advent.
The souls under the altar (referred to in the prophecy of the fifth seal of chapter 6) cry out for vengeance — a vengeance that awaits the Lord's return.
A series of catastrophic events are set in motion by the opening of the sixth seal. The climax to these catastrophes is a great confrontation — when the Lord returns.
"And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; and said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: for the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?" (6: 15-17).
The fact that some features of the sixth seal could well be descriptive of judgments relating to Jerusalem in A.D. 70 does not detract from the greater fulfilment at the Lord's return.
The triumphal song of the great multitude of chapter 7 can only be sung when the saints are glorified — at the Lord's coming.
Chapters 8 and 9
Although the great theme is not referred to directly in chapter 8, there is an intriguing similarity between the last two verses of this chapter, where the consequences of the sounding of the fourth trumpet are described, and the words concerning the signs of the Lord's coming in the 'Olivet' prophecy of Luke 21. The two passages are set out here for comparison:
Revelation 8: 12,13
"And the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars . . . And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!"
"And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; nuVs hearts failing them for fear, and for looking aftfc those things which are coming on the earth ..."
The words quoted from Luke 21 certainly describe the L'tate of the world immediately before the Lord's return. Could not the fact that the language of Revelation 8:12,13 is so similar be an intimation that the fourth trumpet is likewise related to the latter days? It is not difficult to see that the trumpet series of Revelation is in chronological sequence. From the concluding section of chapter 8 (quoted above) we learn that the last three trumpets introduce three woes. Now see the force of the following statements: "One woe is past; and, behold, there come two woes more hereafter" (9: 12); and "The second woe is past; and, behold, the third woe cometh quickly" (11:14). Thus the woes, and the trumpets that herald them, follow in order: number five, number six and number seven. It has already been suggested that the fourth trumpet (of chapter 8, verses 12 and 13) concerns the latter days. If this is true, the fifth, sixth and seventh trumpets must bring us nearer and nearer to that great day.
Chapters 10 and 11
In fact the seventh trumpet announces that the great day has come. Revelation chapters 10 and 11 make this plain. Here is a quotation from chapter 10 (verses 5-7): "And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever . . . that there should be time no longer: but in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished, as he hath declared to his servants the prophets."
These words should be compared with those of Daniel (12:7): "And I heard the man clothed in linen, which was upon the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand unto heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever that it shall be for a time, times, and an half; and when he shall have accomplished to scatter the power of the holy people, all these things shall be finished."
Lifting up hands to heaven, swearing by him that liveth for ever — clearly there is a connection of thought here. From Daniel we learn that the promise and the oath are in response to the question: "How long?" This must therefore be the question implied in Revelation 11 - "How long?"
And the answer? The waiting of the saints will come to an end when the seventh trumpet sounds.
The concluding section of chapter 11 concerns this momentous occasion:
"And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. And the four and twenty elders, which sat before God on their seats, fell upon their faces, and worshipped God, saying, We give thee thanks, O Lord God Almighty, which art, and wast, and art to come; because thou hast taken to thee thy great power, and hast reigned. And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth" (11:15-18).
The seventh trumpet announces that the time of the kingdom has come; the time of resurrection and judgment. The last of a series of trumpets, it is surely the great trumpet of the Gospels and the Epistles1 —the trumpet that proclaims the Lord's intervention, the gathering of the saints and resurrection. It is the "last trump".
Whichever interpretation of Revelation 12 one adopts — and there are several interesting possibilities — the great day is clearly anticipated by the words:
"Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night" (verse 10).
Chapters 13,15 and 16
Chapter 13 is about the beast. This is a power that emerges at the end of the times of the Gentiles: the clash between the beast and the Lord Jesus is only one of the evidences of this fact. But more concerning the beast later! Chapters 15 and 16 are about God's judgments (the vials) on a beast-worshipping world. They imply divine intervention.
The opening scene of this chapter depicts the Lamb standing on Mount Zion with the 144,000. Then, following the sequence in the chapter itself, three heralds warn of impending judgments — against the world, against Babylon and against the beast. Finally there are two reapings — the harvest of the earth and the vine of the earth. All these scenes and messages are obviously connected with the second coming.
Chapters 17 and 18
The main theme of chapters 17 and 18 is the destruction of the great whore called Babylon. Need more be said concerning the time of fulfilment?
The marriage of the Lamb; the destruction of the beast and his army by the Lamb and his army — the central character, the Lamb, is on the earth.
The theme is resurrection and judgment. This fact is enough to tell us that it is post-adventual.
New heavens and a new earth; Jerusalem coming down from heaven, prepared as a bride for her husband; the tabernacle of God is with men — the Lamb is there. Indeed, "the Lamb is the light thereof".
The concluding chapter of the Revelation is full of reminders about the Lord's coming. The final words are impressive:
"He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen." (22:20,21).
Does someone want to say incredulously: "So everything in Revelation is about the second coming?"
No, not quite! The second coming is indeed the central prophetic theme of the book, but some prophecies are not directly concerned with this great event.
It has been remarked that the heavenly temple of chapter 4 would seem to be a continuing vision (expressed in symbol) of heaven and the angelic hierarchy. We catch glimpses of it again and again in Revelation.
The seven-sealed book is another great theme. The problem of finding one worthy to unseal the book was a problem related to John's day; it affected John personally, for he wept much. And the processes revealed by the unsealing operations span the centuries.
The sealing of the 144,000 of chapter 7: the view that will be presented later is that this takes us right back to Jewish times.
Likewise the earlier trumpets of chapter 8 would seem to be concerned with judgments on unrepentant Jewry.
And there could well be a 'panoramic' picture that spreads over a long period of time in the great prophecy of Revelation 12 concerning the woman, the dragon and the man child.
Nor should it be forgotten that there is a substantial spiritual content in Revelation that has a long-term relevance. This is often overlooked.
"Behold I come quickly"
What is the meaning of this urgent announcement that occurs three times in the last chapter of Revelation (with a slight variation on the third occasion)? The same announcement occurs twice in Revelation 2 — once to Ephesus and once to Pergamos. In each case there is a rebuke and a call to repentance, followed by the warning — introduced in the first instance by "or else", and in the second by "lest" — "I will come unto thee quickly". The coming concerning which Ephesus and Pergamos were warned was a coming to judgment and destruction, and in these contexts, would hardly have been the second coming.
Impending judgment is likewise implied in Revelation 22. But here the judgment would not be a catastrophic intervention prior to the second coming, but the second coming itself.
But what about that word "quickly"? Various explanations have been offered. It has been suggested, for example, that it is there to remind us that there can never be too much time to prepare, and that the Lord's coming is always nearer than we think; that because of the shortness and precariousness of human life, the available time before the Lord's coming is very limited. Since the book of Revelation has a message for every generation, these explanations could well have their relevance. Even the ambiguities of some Bible expressions are there by design.
To us, however, who are living immediately before the second coming, these words have a special relevance. Indeed the whole of the book of Revelation has a special relevance to believers who live in the last days. To us the word "quickly" means "quickly" in the most immediate and urgent sense.
"What shall this man do?"
Does the fact that the main theme of Revelation is the Lord's return suggest an explanation of those mysterious words at the end of John's gospel? Peter had asked a question about John's future
— "What shall this man do?" — and the Lord's answer was: "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?" (John 21: 21,22). More than a way of telling Peter to mind his own business, this may have been an intimation that John would be privileged to receive a preview of the Lord's coming when he witnessed the Revelation on the island of Patmos.
It could thus be compared with the preview that the same John had been given earlier of the Lord's "coming in his kingdom", when he was on the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter and James.
The title of the book
It seems likely that the very title of the book, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, is an announcement that the book is about the occasion when the Lord Jesus will be revealed to the world, in other words, that this book is about the Lord's second coming. Try saying the words slowly: The Revelation of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is revealed in this dramatised prophecy.
Certainly the word "revelation" (Greek apokalupsis) is applied to the Lord's second coming in the Gospels and the Epistles. Here are some examples from the Epistles:
"Even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 1:6,7).
In the Greek, the phrase "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" is almost the same as "The revelation of Jesus Christ" of Revelation 1:1. Both passages are about the apokalupsis of Jesus Christ, and 1 Corinthians 1:7 so obviously refers to the Lord's coming that the translators have actually translated it as "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ".
". .. and to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God ..." (2 Thessalonians 1:7,8).
Here again the word apokalupsis is used, and here again it refers to the Lord's coming. Notice, incidentally, that the related verb, apokalupto is used in a similar way concerning a very different type of person in chapter 2 of this epistle. The reference here is to the revelation of the man of sin. In effect, Paul is saying that the revelation of Jesus Christ will not take place until the man of sin has been revealed.
"Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:13).
"The revelation of Jesus Christ": exactly the same form of words as the title of the book of Revelation — and it obviously has reference to the Lord's coming. This is also true of verse 7 of the same chapter, where again the same phrase occurs in the original:
"That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ."
Here then, it is submitted, is a preview of the glorious appearing of the Lord Jesus Christ. What then, one might ask, is the meaning of ". . . which God gave unto him" (1:1)? The suggestion is that this preview of the Lord's coming and events relating to it was first given by God to the Lord Jesus himself, who then "sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John".
It was intimated earlier that another theme is woven into the symbolism of Revelation — that concerning the beast.
Several beasts are actually referred to, but one plays a dominant role. Sometimes it is called "the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit"; sometimes, "the beast whose deadly wound was healed"; and sometimes it is simply "the beast". The part that it plays is immensely important. This can quickly be demonstrated by taking into account the amount of space that is devoted to this power in the book of Revelation. Direct references to the beast occur in chapters 11, 13, 14, 15,16,17,19 and 20. It is a subject that we dare not neglect.
By evident tokens the 'beast' prophecies of Revelation relate to the end of the times of the Gentiles. Apart from other indications, the confrontation of the beast with Christ establishes this fact.
This means we can expect the emergence of the beast in our day — if it has not akeady appeared. This is more than interesting, it is extremely important. Are we preparing for this great testing time?
1. Matthew 24:31; 1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16