This chapter will not be a detailed explanation of the book of Revelation. Rather, it will discuss the Apocalypse in a general way, particularly the understanding of the three divisions of the book given to us in its first chapter (Rev. 1:19). We desire to see the big picture – how the three dispensations may be found in the Revelation and how the book’s different divisions relate to them. In this prophetic book we also find the most detailed reference to the eternal state – that which is beyond the last dispensation of time (Rev. 21:1-8). Here is the verse where we find the three parts of the book:
“Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this.” (Rev. 1:19)
- The things which you have seen – this is the first division of the Revelation and refers to John’s vision as written down and recorded in chapter one (Rev. 1).
- The things which are – this is the second division of the book and refers to the seven messages to the seven churches in Asia minor. This is recorded in chapters two and three of the book (Rev. 2, 3).
- The things which will take place after this – this is the third division of the Revelation and refers to the recording of the visions beginning in chapter four to the ending salutations (Rev. 4 – 22:5).
The Jewish dispensation physically ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans in 70 AD. In a moral sense, Israel was set aside by God after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7). At that time God turned with the gospel to the Gentiles. John’s exile to the island of Patmos and his writing the Apocalypse likely followed years after these events (Rev. 1:9). Because the first dispensation had already passed, there is little direct reference to it in the book.
However, this doesn’t mean we won’t find reference to Jewish things in the Revelation. On the contrary, the book is filled with them. The Apocalypse is a book of prophecy (Rev. 1:1–3, 22:6–7). The character of prophetic writing is that it will be directly or indirectly about Israel; it will be about the earth and God’s government of the world. The main part of the book, its third division, provides prophetic details about the future tribulation and millennium. The tribulation is the transitional period between the Christian and millennial dispensations known as Jacob’s trouble (Jer. 30:7, Appendix D). And we have already discussed in previous chapters how the future millennium will be very similar to the failed Jewish dispensation, only without any of the failures. The Jews will be restored in their land, and, by the blessing and favor of God, will become the greatest nation in the millennial world.
The things which you have seen – this first part of the Apocalypse is mostly introductory and sets the stage for the following two divisions of the book. From the outset it is established that the Revelation will be a book of prophecy (Rev. 1:3). What the first chapter does early on is introduce to the reader the Godhead in its particular association with the prophetic character of the book.
Rev. 1:4–5 (NKJV)
“…Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth.” …
Jehovah, the eternal ‘I am’, is described as He who is – His existence established in relationship to both the past and future – who was and who is to come. Jehovah is the name by which God revealed Himself to the nation of Israel in the Jewish dispensation. The Holy Spirit is described as the active agent of God’s government of the earth, and that in the perfection (seven) of divine power and intelligence.292 The Spirit is before the throne – this is, we will see, a throne of government over the earth. And finally, Jesus is depicted in His work as a Man and in relationship with the earth.293 It was on the earth and as a man that He was God’s faithful witness, that He died and was raised from the dead, and that He is destined to rule over all the kingdoms of the world.
292 [This description of the Holy Spirit can be understood by comparing Rev. 1:4 with Rev. 4:5 and 5:6]
293 [Prophetic writings are about earthly things. Therefore, the Lord’s relationship as a man with the earth is established early in the Apocalypse, while His relationship with the church in the heavens is completely missing from the book. There is no mention in the Revelation of Jesus being Head of the body or High Priest for the Christian, the two relationships He has with us because of His glorification to His place in heaven. Also, God is never depicted in the book in the Christian relationship as our Father – He is only shown as the God and Father of Jesus Christ (Rev. 1:6, 14:1). The relationship of the Holy Spirit as the believer’s Comforter and Teacher is also missing in the book. Although the book was given to the church, it isn’t about the church. Remember, the church, Christendom, Christianity, and the Christian dispensation, are things properly hidden from prophetic writings, and so, are dealt with in the book either in very obscure ways or omitted entirely. We do not find the use of the terms “the body of Christ” or “the church” anywhere in the book. From material found later in this chapter, we should come to understand that the use of the word(s) “churches” or “the seven churches” in the first three chapters of the Apocalypse are symbolic representing the entire corporate body of Christendom. The “seven golden lampstands” represent how well Christendom is doing carrying out its responsibilities during the dispensation – how much of the true light and testimony of God is being shown forth to the dark world. The reader can see that the church is never dealt with directly in prophetic writings]
The descriptions of the Godhead found in this introductory passage (Rev. 1:4–5) couldn’t have any better alignment with the stated character of Bible prophecy. Also, this introduction connects nicely with the third division of the book – the part of the Apocalypse which should be understood as the prophetic portion of the book (the things which will take place after this – please read Rev. 4:1). Beginning in chapter four, John is caught up to heaven and sees a throne set in heaven and One sitting upon it. It is obvious from further descriptions in the chapter that this is a throne of government and judgment over the earth (not a throne with the character of grace associated with the Christian dispensation). Again, the Spirit of God is seen in the position of “before the throne.” Only here in this chapter we are given further details. He is seen as seven lamps of fire burning – symbolism which establishes the Spirit as the instrument and perfection of God’s judgment (fire) in His government of the earth. Then more details are given by the four living creatures saying day and night, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!” – here we have many of the Old Testament names of God, those which were associated with the previous Jewish dispensation. And when Jesus Christ is seen in chapter five, He is in the midst of the throne as a Lamb as though it had been slain (Rev. 5:6) – a representation of Jesus which emphasizes His rejection by the world when He walked on the earth. This is the same world that God will begin to prepare, through various judgments raining down upon it from the throne in heaven, for the physical return of His Son, Jesus Christ.
The events that follow in the remainder of the Revelation (in the third division of the book), beginning in chapter six, are the prophetic details of the tribulation (Rev. 6:1–19:10), the return of Jesus Christ to the world (Rev. 19:10–21), the millennium (Rev. 20:1–15, 21:9–22:6), and the eternal state (Rev. 21:1–8). These are future things, the prophetic content of the book, the things which will take place after this. And a noteworthy detail of this third division, especially in relationship to the historical order of the prophetic events contained therein, is that when John’s heavenly visions begin in chapter four, the twenty-four elders are already found seated on endowed thrones circling the throne of God in heaven (Rev. 4:4). They continue in this relative position throughout the entire time of this final division. Who do the elders symbolically represent? They are the raptured and glorified saints – Old Testament saints together with the New Testament church. What may we properly conclude from this?
- The rapture of the true church, the body of Christ, takes place before the beginning of the future tribulation (Rev. 6). Her position (in heaven) remains the same throughout the remainder of the events predicted in the book. When the dragon and his angels are cast out of the heavens down to the earth during the tribulation, it is the church in heaven seen rejoicing as a consequence (Rev. 12:7–12). When the Babylonian harlot of chapter seventeen and eighteen is judged by God and destroyed on the earth, the saints in heaven are seen celebrating her demise (Rev. 19:1–4).294 Immediately following is the marriage supper of the Lamb in heaven (Rev. 19:5–9). The church is the bride/wife and the invited wedding guests are the Old Testament saints. During the millennium, the last dispensation of time, the church is depicted as the heavenly Jerusalem above, raining down blessings and grace upon the millennial earth (Rev. 21:9–22:5).295 Grace is the proper character of the true church.
294 [The impression given of the harlot is that she pretends to be the bride of Christ. She is that which remained of Christendom on the earth entering the tribulation, after the rapture of the true church. The church, the true bride of Christ in heaven, is particularly motivated to rejoice as a consequence of the destruction by God of the false bride on the earth during the tribulation (Rev. 18:20)]
295 [This is similar to the Lord’s words from His interpretation of the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt. 13:37–43) describing the position of the righteous, the sons of the kingdom, during the future millennium. Although the Son of Man will have His kingdom on the earth, Christians will be in the heavens above, shinning forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. We may note that this is additional revelation in the interpretation of the parable, as the parable itself has nothing which would correspond to such information (Matt. 13:24–30). This technique is noticeable in more than a few prophetic parables and visions found in Scripture]
- In previous chapters of this book we taught that the rapture of the true church will take place near the end of the Christian dispensation. Our teaching above agrees with this assessment. If the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse represent the glorified saints, we see them already settled in heaven before God begins to bring forth judgment upon the world. The rapture will take place before the future tribulation.
- Christendom, minus the true church, is what remains on the earth of the responsible corporate body of the Christian dispensation, moving on into the tribulation. This is why we say that the rapture is not the event which ends the Christian dispensation. The general rule we’ve discussed in the earliest chapters of this book is that Bible dispensations end by the judgment of God. The Christian dispensation doesn’t end until what remains of the corporate body of Christendom is judged – this is the harlot of Revelation seventeen. God will use the ten kings together with the beast to accomplish her destruction before the end of the tribulation and the return of Christ (Rev. 17:16–17).
Now we will consider the things which are – the second division of the Apocalypse (Rev. 2, 3). The content of these two chapters is seven distinct messages to seven Spirit-selected local churches in Asia Minor. On face value, because they are messages to certain churches, we would have to agree that this division is only associated with the Christian dispensation. And if we go back to the first division, back to chapter one of the Revelation, we will find there a different part of John’s introductory material that correlates nicely with this (second) division – a different part of chapter one from that which was quoted above and identified as associated with the third division of the book:
Revelation 1:10–18 (NKJV)
10 “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet, 11 saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,” and, “What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”
12 Then I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. 14 His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; 15 His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; 16 He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength. 17 And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. But He laid His right hand on me, saying to me, “Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. 18 I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death.”
I believe the reader can see the obvious connections. This passage introduces us to the second division of the book. If we choose to view the passage and the seven messages of chapter two and three simply with a literal interpretation, then at best we have seven distinct messages being sent by the Lord to seven local churches that existed in first century Asia Minor. Even though this would be a very limited perspective, it would still associate the second division of the book with the Christian dispensation.
However, the reality is that the seven messages have a more intimate connection with the Christian dispensation than to just these seven local churches, which today no longer exist. We cannot forget that the Revelation is a book of prophecy. Like parables, prophetic writing usually employs a heavy use of symbolic language and typology. Without getting into any specific details or proofs, I can confidently say that, together, the seven messages tell the story of the prophetic history of Christendom as it passes through the time of the Christian dispensation. There are seven different moral states/conditions represented by the seven messages. The first four are epics of time through which Christendom would pass chronologically. The last of these four, Thyatira with Jezebel, represents the full development of the Roman Catholic church. This entity has dominated Christendom from the sixth century to the present day. The last three churches represent the development of Protestantism from the time of the Reformation (sixteenth century). These are symbolic of three different moral states which developed through time, but today exist simultaneously. The last four churches – the older Roman church and the three younger Protestant forms – exist together today. All four will go on to near the end of the Christian dispensation. Together they form the totality of Christendom. Together they comprise the content of the corporate body given responsibility for the glory of Jesus Christ and the testimony of God on the earth in the present dispensation.