Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Understanding Revelation: Past, Current, and Future Fulfillment

I have been blessed in my own in-depth study of the book of Revelation the last couple of months.  While there is still so much in this wonderful book that I don’t understand, I feel like I understand the book a lot more now.  We are having a Bible study on Revelation at our church, and I also want to share some of what I learned with those who read my blog.

While parts of Revelation are very clearly about the past (the specific events in the letters to the seven churches) or about the future (the last few chapters of Revelation about the final judgment and the New Heavens and the New Earth), most of the middle section is less clear.  Therefore, one of the many issues which arise when attempting to interpret Revelation is whether the visions are referring to events in or around the time of John’s life (which would of course be in the past for us), or events throughout the church age (which would of course include 2016), or events which will take place immediately before the return of Christ and the end of this world as we know it (in the future). Good Bible believing Christians disagree on this basic question of timing.

So, what is my own understanding? Is it past, present, or future? Sometimes, the answer is “yes”!

To see what I mean, consider 1 John 2:18 (written by the same author who wrote Revelation):

John tells us that “the antichrist” is coming at some point in the future. But John also tells us that many antichrists have already come in his day. I think that John is saying, “Yes, in the future there will be one terrible Antichrist who will appear”, but right now (and all throughout history until Jesus comes back) there are already many “little antichrists”.

In a similar way I believe it is possible, in fact very likely, that many of the visions seen in Revelation have multiple fulfillments, some in the past which took place during the lives of the Christians who initially received John’s letter, other fulfillments all throughout history (including today!), and some final, probably much “bigger” fulfillments which will come at the very end of this age (which could be anytime).

All this will make more sense (I hope!) if we consider two concrete examples.  The first example is, to be honest, a bit “scary” if taken by itself.  So please don’t stop reading after the first example.

First Example of Multiple Fulfillments:  The Devil, The Beast, and The False Prophet

In Revelation, John sees the enemies of God (and of God’s people) in the symbolic form of terrible beasts.  These enemies include: The Devil, The Beast, and The False Prophet.

The Devil: The Devil is seen in John’s vision as a dragon (see Revelation 12:9). It is obvious from scripture that the devil is opposing God’s people all throughout history (see 1 Peter 5:8).  Thus, it is right to understand verses like Revelation 12:17 as containing truth which is directly applicable to us, today, even if it also points to specific events in the future.  The Devil hates us and is fighting against us.

The Beast:  “The beast” in Revelation seems to be an image of an evil ruling power on earth.  Human government was designed by God to punish evil and reward good (see Romans 13:4 and 1 Peter 2:14).  When the power of government, which includes using force, is twisted and used to punish those doing good and promote evil, then government power becomes like a dangerous, ferocious beast.  This may take the form of an evil worldwide government power in the future (imagine if the Nazis had won, or if Communism had succeeded in taking over the world, or if ISIS or similar groups gained worldwide dominion).  But as I’ll share in a moment, this was already taking place on a smaller scale in John’s day, and is taking place around the world today.

The False Prophet:  God’s true prophets reveal His truth to us.  Tragically, throughout history there have also been many false prophets who claimed to be speaking for God, but were actually spreading lies.  In Revelation we see that the “The False Prophet” (also referred to as a second beast) joins forces with and supports “the beast”. I do expect some type of “ultimate” fulfillment of this in the future.  Yet, I also see clearly how false religion was allied with the evil use of government power both in John’s day and in our day.

When Jesus revealed the contents of Revelation to John, He included seven letters to seven real, local, historic churches located in Asia (modern day Turkey).  One of these letters was sent to the church in the city of Smyrna.  This church was already facing a form of these evil “beasts”, as we can see in Revelation 2:9-10:

The “synagogue of Satan” likely refers to Jews who had not only rejected Christ, but were actively opposing Christianity.  The mention of “slander” by these Jews may mean that they were making false accusations against the Christians to government authorities.  These government authorities persecuted some of the Christians in Smyrna by placing them in prison, persecuting them, and executing some of them.  The Devil was behind all this. The Church in Smyrna was facing an evil alliance of false religion, wrong use of government power, and the Devil.

Today, many Christians are facing this same evil alliance.  A recent newsarticle in Newsweek magazine reports on how the Russian government is cracking down on evangelicals.  Tragically, not only is the power of government being used against these churches, but some parts of the Russian Orthodox Church are in favor of this crackdown.  Again, we see an evil alliance of false religion (not all Russian Orthodox, but those who oppose other Christians) and abusive government.  Do you doubt that the Devil is also involved?

Could this happen in America?  Of course.  There have already been cases of Christian business people facing economic persecution at the hand of our government because these Christians would not compromise their Bible-based beliefs.  If our society continues on its current trajectory, there may soon be cases of Christians being put in jail for standing on God’s truth.  And don’t be surprised if some of those serving as witnesses against us are not atheists, but false “Christians” who oppose what they will call “evil fundamentalists”.

The point is that while the book of Revelation is about the future, it is also about today!

Second Example of Multiple Fulfillments:  Sealed and Protected by God

In Revelation 7:3 God commands that a seal be placed on the foreheads of His servants. Later, we see that those who have been sealed by God are protected from the plague of demonic locust-like creature (Revelation 9:4).

There are MANY opinions among Bible believing Christians about exactly what the locusts are.  If you’re hoping that I am going to clear up that question, I’m sorry to disappoint you.  But I see a very important and fundamental principle which applies directly to our lives and which does not depend on correct, precise identification of the locusts.  Here is that principle:

In the midst of a dark world filled with terrible enemies, God seals and protects His people.

The same word used for “sealed” in Revelation 7:3, is also used in Ephesians:

ESV Ephesians 1:13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,

So all of God’s children are “sealed”.  And we are also all protected.

Jesus said,

NIV Luke 10:19 I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.

But what kind of protection is this? Jesus promises “nothing will harm you”, but He also tells us that we will be hated, slandered, persecuted, betrayed, thrown into prisons, and killed!  The answer is that the type of protection which God gives us is the VERY BEST type of protection.

Paul wrote,

NIV 2 Timothy 4:18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

The protection of God does not mean there will be no painful, evil attacks. God’s protection does mean  that despite these attacks, God will bring us safely to His Heavenly Kingdom.  Peter explains the same truth in these words:

1 Peter 1: 3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you,
 5 who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
 6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.

Jesus does not promise the Christians in Smyrna (or Christians today) that we will not suffer from the cruel attacks of the beast, the false prophet, and the Devil.  But He promises those in Smyrna (and us, today!) something much better:

Revelation 2: 10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor's crown.
 11 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.

Can we be sure that this promise made to those in Smyrna applies to us?  We sure can:

Hebrews 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others . . .

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