Summary: Written October 2022: This is the first of several articles which will be indispensable in teaching Christians how to better understand the book of Revelation. We should be seeking to gain greater comprehension of the big picture the book presents – what is its overall character, how is it organized, what is its general subject matter? This allows us to see the forest instead of only a tree.
Are you aware that the book of Revelation can be divided into three distinct sections? Seeing this helps our comprehension of this difficult book. Jesus gives us this division when He speaks to John in the first chapter:
Write therefore the things which you saw, and the things which are, and what is about to take place after these.
The words of the verse compel us to ask the question, what does Jesus mean by these three phrases? Just passing it off as an obscure verse in a difficult book will not do. God intends for us to understand all His word, even difficult passages. The Holy Spirit is the Author of all the word of God and one of the signature privileges of Christianity is that every true believer has the Holy Spirit dwelling in him (Rom. 8:9). He is the Spirit of truth given to us to guide us into all truth (John 16:13)
This verse gives us the general threefold division of the book of Revelation: first, the things that John saw; second, the things which are; third, what will take place after these.
- The things that John saw – (notice the past-tense of the verb) Here Jesus is referring to His glory in relation to this book, as John sees and describes it in the first chapter (Rev. 1:9-20). Even though this section is short, we should not underestimate its importance in connection to all that follows. In this section Jesus is revealed as formally assuming His judicial character. John’s vision shows us this by presenting a mixture of two distinct images: that of the Son of Man and the Ancient of Days.
The Son of Man as Judge – “For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself., and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man.” (John 5:26-27)
The Ancient of Days as Judge – “I watched till thrones were put in place, and the Ancient of Days was seated; His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like pure wool. His throne was a fiery flame, its wheels a burning fire; A fiery stream issued and came forth from before Him. A thousand thousands ministered to Him; Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.” (Dan. 7:9-10)
In Rev. 1:13 John describes Jesus as the Son of Man, whose garment is down to His feet and girded about the chest. This is the high priest prepared for judgment instead of service (the high priest serving would have Jesus girded about the waist with a towel as we see in John 13. His present service is the washing of our feet from the defilement we may accumulate during our walk in this world. As our high priest, He is our Advocate at the right hand of God, if we commit any sin – 1 John 2:1). In Rev. 1:14 John describes Him having the same features as the Ancient of Days from Daniel’s vision. Make no mistake, this is the character of judgment. The Revelation is a book of prophecy (Rev. 1:3). One thing the subject of bible prophecy features is God’s government of the earth. This government primarily involves His judgment and eradication of evil. The character of the book is established in this first chapter.
- The things which are – (notice the present-tense of the verb) What was present at the time of John’s visions on Patmos in the first century was the body of Christ (the church) on the earth. She is still present today in the twenty-first century. As long as the church remains on the earth being gathered by the Holy Spirit, it is considered as the time of the Christian dispensation. This dispensation was present in John’s day and continues on as present today.
This “things which are” section refers to the second and third chapters – the only place in the book where God is dealing with churches on the earth (Rev. 2, 3). Therefore, these two chapters are the only ones in the book which involve the timeframe of the Christian dispensation. In this we have the Lord’s messages to seven churches located in Asia Minor. But if we simply view these messages literally and limited to the first century when they were given, we will only garner a small portion of the information and insights the Holy Spirit intends on teaching us. Again, this is a book of prophecy – noticeable will be the frequent use of prophetic symbols and types to convey the intended meaning.
The use of the number seven (7) in the bible, especially in prophetic passages, caries the primary meaning of perfection or completeness. Literally counting to seven is more its secondary meaning in scripture. Without lengthy explanations, I’ll go directly to the prophetic meanings. The seven individual churches each represent the whole of Christendom at a specific point in its history. Christendom should be viewed as one corporate body made up of all individuals and all groups, big or small, who profess to have faith in Jesus Christ. It is not equivalent to the body of Christ (the church), but much larger. The believer should realize that Christendom includes all true and false profession of Christ – wheat and tares mixed together in one crop sitting in the field of the world (Matt. 13:24-30, 37-43). Christendom contains the entire body of Christ, but in reality, it is much larger than the true church.
Still, all that profess Jesus Christ have responsibility to God for that profession. Here we get to the meaning of the lampstands and the light they give off. The world lies in darkness. Plainly, the churches were responsible to exhibit the light and testimony of the Spirit during the time of the Lord’s absence from the earth. Because the lampstands represent the churches (Rev. 1:20), they speak of the corporate responsibility of Christendom. (Here I ask you to separate in your thinking between corporate and individual responsibility, as well as distinguish between Christendom and the body of Christ)
The seven messages together represent the complete time (7) of the progressing Christian dispensation, from the days of John exiled to the future rapture. Therefore, the individual messages, in their order, represent the condition of Christendom during seven distinct epochs of time. Together these seven epochs encapsulate the totality of the remaining time the church spends on the earth, or better, what is left of the Christian dispensation.
When we examine the seven messages, we are taught by the Spirit that the first three churches are a sequential development of the general spiritual condition of Christendom over time. The first message, that to Ephesus, represents how God viewed Christendom’s state at the time John was on Patmos in the first century. In time this condition progressed to what is represented by Smyrna (persecuted by the world), and then on to Pergamos (protected by the world). The progression through the first three eventually results in the establishment of Thyatira (ruling the world). This fourth church is Roman Catholicism by the 5th or 6th century.
The last three churches represent the condition of Protestantism as it progressively developed after the Reformation (1517). It is obvious from the messages that the last four churches, regardless of when in time they began their existence, once started, continue on to the end of the dispensation. This would mean the one Roman form and the three distinct Protestant forms exist today, and that the four together represent the body of Christendom quickly approaching the end of its dispensation.
The first three churches have disappeared. In time, the conditions they represented resulted in man establishing the Roman Catholic church and her teachings (Jezebel and her doctrines, Rev. 2:20-24). This represented the spiritual condition of the whole of Christendom from approximately the 5th to the beginning of the 16th century (1000 years), except for a small faithful remnant God kept (Rev. 2:24). The Reformation (1517) was the occasion which allowed for a definitive separation of Christendom. Although Roman Catholicism is strong today and will continue to the end of the dispensation, by the mid-1500s it no longer represented the totality of Christendom. After the Reformation, three distinct Protestant conditions sequentially developed over the next five hundred years (Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea). We have now exhausted the prophetic representation of the seven churches. We are very near the end of the Christian dispensation. We wait for the rapture.
Certainly, there are many more prophetic symbols that could be unpacked in these two chapters, but that is not the intension of this article. We’re writing to delineate the three divisions of the book. “The things which are” division is about present things. Present then in what sense? Just for the latter days of the last apostle’s life when he was writing the book, and now those days long past. Or as many Spirit-led teachers now consider, days that are present still? Our Lord possesses perfect wisdom, knowledge, holiness, and love. He knew what Christendom’s history would be before it ever existed. Wouldn’t it then be reasonable that He would reveal these things to those He calls His friends (John 15:14-15)? The Spirit we have all received as believers, does He not reveal to us things to come (John 16:13)? Surely the full meaning of His messages reaches well beyond the condition of these seven first century churches in Asia Minor. Certainly today, with spiritual eyes, we can see Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Each of the seven messages ends with Christ saying, “He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches.” Do not His words strongly encourage the prophetic view of the messages?
- What is about to take place after these – (notice the future-tense of the verb) This section of the book includes the nineteen chapters which follow from the start of chapter four (Rev. 4 – 22:5) This division is labeled by the Holy Spirit as future things. It is a contrast to the present things division we just considered above. Before we do a general examination of the content of this last division, we must first consider the importance of this contrast of phrasing the Spirit is using. These perceptions help us better see the big picture.
What should be obvious, future things wait until present things are completed. Everyone will say, “Yes, it makes perfect sense that chapter three must be completed before we proceed to chapter four.” But we need to realize what this implies. If present things are about how God judges the history of Christendom on the earth, then the end of chapter three is the end of that history. It also represents the end of the Christian dispensation. As we mentioned above, what fulfills the believer’s calling is the rapture (Heb. 3:1, 1 Thess. 4:13-18). It is the event which ends the dispensation. Chapter four cannot begin until after the church is no longer on the earth. The rapture takes place between the end of chapter three and the beginning of chapter four.
The problem with teaching this timing of the rapture is that it doesn’t actually describe it taking place at the end of chapter three or the beginning of chapter four. There are multiple reasons for this omission by the Holy Spirit, and it would require another article to fully list and discuss them. However, I’ll mention several of the less obscure proofs of the rapture having taken place here.
- Jesus promised the Philadelphians He would keep them out of the future seven-year tribulation (Rev. 3:10) – “…the hour of trial which will come upon the whole world to test those who dwell on the earth.” That trial begins at the start of chapter six with the Lamb opening the first seal. The only way that His promise can be kept is to remove the true church, dead or alive, from the earth (1 Thess. 4:13-18).
- The appearance in chapter four of twenty-four elders in heaven, clothed in white robes sitting on thrones with crowns of gold (Rev. 4:4) is another reason. Such a group in heaven cannot be found in scripture before this chapter. They continue to be seen, always in heaven, throughout the remainder of the book (Rev. 4:10, 5:5, 6, 8, 11, 14, 7:11, 13, 11:16, 14:3, 19:4), up to the time Jesus returns to this earth (Rev. 19:11-21). These are not angels, but the full complement of heavenly saints, Old Testament and New. Their presence in heaven indicates the rapture has already taken place.
- The rainbow-girdled throne in chapter four is a throne of government and judgment – “Out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunders and voices.” It is plain that the “throne of grace,” that which Christians have every right to boldly approach that they may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16), is not the throne described here. The throne of grace is associated with the Christian dispensation, which ended with the close of chapter three. The rapture ends the Christian dispensation.
- The wording of the first verse of chapter four (Rev. 4:1) strongly suggests the rapture of the saints taking place with John serving as a proxy. ‘…a door standing open in heaven…and the first voice…saying, “Come up here…”’ John’s previous vision had taken place on the earth when Jesus was walking among the candlesticks in order to judge the churches (Rev. 1:10). The Holy Spirit uses two similar phrases to connect John’s first two visions for the purpose of contrasting their different locations (heaven or earth). In Rev. 4:2, John is again “…in the Spirit.” 1:10 is similar. Then in both, it is the same loud commanding voice of the Lord demanding John’s attention to what He wants John to see (Rev. 1:10, 4:1). This is a new vision with an entirely new location – heaven. In a slightly obscure way, John represents the heavenly saints being removed from the earth in the rapture.
There is an immense change taking place when we arrive at the beginning of chapter four. The candlesticks of the previous vision were on the earth and the Son of Man was there walking among them. But when “the things which are about to take place after these” begins, churches on the earth are no longer recognized. Now John is called up to heaven and we are privy to quite a new and different sight. Instead of candlesticks, we see God’s glorious throne of government and judgment – lightnings, thunderings, and authoritative voices emanating from it (Rev. 4:2, 3, 5). Instead of Jesus dressed as our High Priest, ready for judging Christendom (Rev. 1:13), we see Him depicted as “a Lamb as though it had been slain,” who prevailed to open the scroll and to loose its seals (Rev. 5:3-6). No longer is it judgment of Christendom, but now judgment of Israel and the Gentile world (a Lamb slain is symbolic of His rejection when on the earth by Israel and the world. With the eye of faith the believer sees Jesus in heaven crowned with glory and honor Heb. 2:8-9. Still, this book emphasizes God’s judgment of Israel and the world for their rejection of His Son. This makes “the slain Lamb” an appropriate symbol of use in this book).
Chapter four starts the narrative of future things, the third and last division of the book. We are convinced of this by a phrase Jesus uses at the opening of the chapter (Rev. 4:2) – “Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after these. This is the same phrase He used in chapter one giving us the third division of the book (Rev.1:19). Keeping in mind all we have said to this point, we can make some reasonable conclusions that help us focus on the big picture.
- Future things cannot begin until present things have ended. Present things are completed at the end of chapter three because we see future things begin at the onset of chapter four.
- Present things are about the history of Christendom on the earth. The end of chapter three represents the conclusion of this history. It represents the end of the Christian dispensation.
- The rapture ends the Christian dispensation. The rapture takes place between the end of chapter three and the beginning of chapter four.
- The future seven-year tribulation on the earth starts at the beginning of chapter six with the opening of the first seal in heaven. This shows that the rapture takes place before the future tribulation.
The “future things” division is the part of the book we can properly call prophetic – all prophecy is about events of a future time. A general analysis of bible prophecy shows that it centers on three topics – Israel, the earth, and God’s government of the world. Notice the church and heaven are excluded from this listing. The church is not the proper subject of bible prophecy. She has a heavenly calling, and in heaven everything is eternal in its character. Although time is counted down in many prophetic passages, there is no counting of time associated with heavenly things. That is one of the reasons why the history of Christendom and the Christian dispensation are labeled by the Spirit as “present things.” Also, it is why no one can predict when the Christian dispensation will end and when the rapture will take place. The counting of time in Scripture is never connected with the church, but instead with Israel and the world (Dan. 7:25, 9:24-27, 12:7, 11, 12, Rev. 11:2, 3, 12:6, 14, 13:5). And Christian believers, who together constitute the corporate body of the church, are not of the world (John 17:14, 16). They are of heaven, as Jesus is (John 3:31, 8:23).
The main part of “future things” involves providing more details about the coming tribulation and its culmination with the physical return of Jesus Christ to this world (Rev. 19:11-21). We know there are seven years of time unaccounted for in Daniel’s seventy-week prophecy. This hallmark prophecy revealed the counting down of time in the previous Jewish dispensation (Dan. 9:24-27). Sixty-nine weeks were completed, measuring to when God’s Son came to Israel as their promised Messiah. Because the Jews rejected and crucified Him, God suspended this counting down of time. One week (seven years) remains to fulfil the time of the Jewish dispensation. This is the future seven-year tribulation.
If we are prayerfully discerning, the Holy Spirit will open to us the understandings of God’s big picture. The future seven-year tribulation belongs to the previously suspended Jewish dispensation. In character, it will be seven years of Jewish time. God will again acknowledge the earthly calling of the nation of Israel. This general truth is confirmed when we see God sealing 144,000 Jews in the seventh chapter of the book (Rev. 7:1-8). An important biblical principle to be mindful of is that God never sanctions two different callings at the same time. His recognition of the heavenly calling of believers concluded with the end of chapter three and the rapture. From chapter four on, it will be a question of God dealing with the evil of the world, of which Israel holds the central place. Jeremiah calls these years “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7-11). Daniel says it will be a time of great trouble for the Jewish people, “…such as never was since there was a nation until that time.” And Jesus wholeheartedly agrees with this prophetic testimony (Matt. 24:15-22). Previously, the Jewish dispensation was suspended by God because Israel rejected His Son. Consequently, there yet remains seven years of miserable trial and judgment awaiting the Jews and the world.
Not only will God seal and protect an elect Jewish remnant during the tribulation (Matt. 24:22, 24, 31, Rev. 7:1-8, 14:1), but He will also save an innumerable multitude of Gentiles (Rev. 7:9-17). These are the two groups which will survive the terrible tribulation in order to repopulate the world in the time of the earthly millennial kingdom of Jesus Christ. Notice in chapter seven that the two are expressed as distinct from each other – Jews and Gentiles. These designations are quite incompatible with any true description of the church – she has neither Jew nor Gentile in her composition (Eph. 2:11-16, Gal. 3:26-28, Col. 3:10-11, 1 Cor. 12:12-13). However, the designations well suit the time of the tribulation and the millennial dispensation that follows. Eventually God will gather the Jewish remnant back to possess the Promised Land (Matt. 24:30-31). He will restore them, grow them in numbers and prosper them, and Israel will become the greatest nation among all the nations on the millennial earth. This agrees with the Lord’s prophecy in Matthew twenty-five (Matt. 25:31-46) – the sheep are the Gentiles that God will save, while the goats are the ones who perish; “the least of these my brethren” are the Jewish remnant. So, we see that chapter seven of the Revelation is anticipatory – it reveals who God will show mercy to in this terrible time of trial and judgment upon the world.
The overall theme of the “future things” division of the book is the providential actions of God’s throne in heaven having immense consequences on the world – acts which show either mercy in saving some (Rev. 7) or judgments upon its evil and unbelief (Rev. 6, 8:1-6, 16:1). God’s purpose is to prepare the world for the millennial reign and kingdom of Jesus Christ (Rev. 11:15, 20:4). The Lord will come into possession of His long-promised inheritance of all things (Ps. 2:7-8, Col. 1:16, Heb. 1:2).
There is one last general theme of the book needed to be highlighted. The Revelation is a book of prophecy (Rev. 1:3). There are many books of prophecy in the Old Testament – they usually bare the name of the prophet the Spirit of God used to bring forth the revelations contained in them. As we pointed out before, these Old Testament books concentrate on three main prophetic subjects – Israel, the earth, and God’s government of the world. Certainly, the Revelation has a similar focus. However, as the only book of prophecy to be found in the New Testament, it has one noticeably different characteristic from prophecy’s usual Old Testament pattern. The Revelation is a book given to the church (not to the Jews) to profit from its instruction. Knowing that the Christian believer has a heavenly calling (not the earthly calling of Israel), the book reveals for the first time in Scripture (and noticeably as the last communication of Scripture) the hidden connection heaven has with these earthly prophetic subjects. There are numerous examples of this scattered throughout the book which make this point. Here are just a few:
- The viewpoint beginning in chapter four is from John being called up to heaven to see things there which will have a profound influence and effect on future events on the earth – “things which must take place after these.” What this directly reveals is the providential control God exercises in His government of the world.
- The throne John sees in heaven is God’s throne of government (Rev. 4:2). Lightnings, thunderings, and authoritative voices proves it has this character (Rev. 4:5). It is not God’s throne of grace which Christians have today during “present things” (a.k.a. the Christian dispensation) (Heb. 4:16). What John sees mimics what Israel experienced when God brought them to Sinai and gave them the law (Ex. 19:16, 20:18). God’s law is the basis of His government (grace is never the basis of government – Isa. 26:9-10). God is preparing to judge Israel and the Gentile world. He is about to begin counting down of the last seven years of the previous Jewish dispensation.
- The description of the Holy Spirit in the symbol of seven lamps of burning fire before the throne is all related with God’s government of the earth (Rev. 4:5). The number seven speaks of the completeness or perfection of the Holy Spirit’s power as God’s instrument of divine judgment. The Spirit is always the hidden hand of God carrying out His providential actions throughout the earth. In the Revelation, the phrase “before the throne” always refers to a settled established relationship with the throne of God (the phrase usually not referring to the geographical physical location in heaven). Thus, the Holy Spirit works in the world on behalf of God’s throne above. The instrumentality of the Spirit in connection with the slain Lamb is established in Rev. 5:6 – seven horns is the perfection of power; seven eyes the perfection of insight, wisdom, and knowledge, all for the government of the earth (sent out into all the earth).
- The rainbow around the throne speaks of God’s covenant with the earth and creation below (Rev. 4:3). Remember, the institution of God’s government of the earth began when Noah exited the ark (Gen. 9:5-13). And four living creatures are seen as part of this heavenly throne. They represent the heads of God’s lower creation – the chief creatures of earth and air (the sea excluded) which were saved in Noah’s ark; the lion, the ox, the man, and the eagle. They are emblems of the power(lion), firmness (ox), intelligence (man), and swiftness (eagle) of the throne’s providential judgments. When they worship, they use the names for God by which He revealed Himself to Israel in Old Testament times (Rev. 4:8) – Elohim Jehovah Shaddai. These are names associated with the Jewish dispensation (it is not worship of God as our Father in the Christian dispensation).
- The twenty-four elders represent all the saints, Old Testament and New, in heaven after the rapture (Rev. 4:4). These saints will be made “kings and priests” to our Lord’s God and Father (Rev. 1:6). This “being made” is anticipating the future millennial dispensation. The glorified and perfected heavenly saints will rule and reign with Christ over the millennial earth. Chapters four and five show this anticipatory picture – chapter four depicts them as kings (Rev. 4:4), while chapter five depicts them as priests (Rev. 5:8). The worship of the elders in chapter four references God’s creation glory (Rev. 4:10-11). Their worship of the Lamb in chapter five speaks of His redemption glory (Rev. 5:9-10). The last part of verse ten should read, “And have made them kings and priests to our God; and they shall reign over the earth.” This references saints on the earth who will be martyred during the coming tribulation; some in the first half (Rev. 6:9-11), others in the last 3 ½ years (Rev. 14:13, 15:2). These two groups will join with the raptured saints to rule over the earth with Christ for a thousand years (Rev. 20:4-6).
- The connection between heaven and prophetic objects and events running their course on the earth continues to be revealed in the opening of the seals (Rev. 6:1-17), the blowing of trumpets (Rev. 8:6), and the pouring out bowls of wrath upon the earth (Rev. 16:1). These three groupings all have the throne in heaven as their source and the earth below as their object of judgment.
I could go on and on. The Revelation is filled with these heavenly connections. They are all new revelations which cannot be found in any of the prophecies of the Old Testament. It gives this book a unique character. The Revelation was given to the church, and it purposely reveals the peaceful and secured heavenly place she occupies throughout the coming tribulation and millennium.
- The prophetic symbol of the twenty-four elders makes its first appearance in Scripture in the fourth chapter of the Revelation. This represents the heavenly saints which includes the church, the body of Christ. It is clear in chapter four that the elders are in heaven and have an intimate association with God’s throne of government. As we mentioned previously, this position is maintained throughout the future tribulation period (Rev. 5:5, 6, 8, 11, 14, 7:11, 13, 11:16, 14:3, 19:4).
- The last use of the symbol of the elders is early in chapter nineteen where they are seen rejoicing and praising God for His judgment and destruction of the great harlot on the earth (Rev. 19:1-6). Later in this chapter heaven opens for the Lord’s return to the world (Rev. 19:11-21). His return marks the end of the seven-year tribulation. It is between these two passages where we see the symbology representing the heavenly saints change. At the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-9) the church is the wife of the Lamb, and the Old Testament saints are the blessed guests invited to the feast. There shouldn’t be any doubt that this marriage celebration takes place in heaven and before the Lord returns to this earth.
- The central and defining point of bible prophecy is, without doubt, the return of Jesus Christ to this world. He will destroy all His enemies and establish the earthly kingdom of God (Dan. 2:34-35, 44-45, 7:13-14, Matt. 13:41, 16:28, 24:30, 25:31, Luke 21:25-27, Rev. 11:15, 19:11-21). The armies in heaven that follow Him will include the glorified church (Rev. 19:14 compared with Rev. 19:8 and 17:14). This fulfills what Paul told the Colossians – when Christ appears to the world, we will appear with Him in glory (Col. 3:1-4).
- 20:4-6 establishes who will reign with Christ during the future millennium – they are the saints who have part in the first resurrection. This includes four distinct groups: the rapture included both Old and New Testament (the church) saints; then those martyred during the first half of the tribulation (Rev. 6:9-11) and those martyred during the last half under the reign of the Roman beast (Rev. 15:2). Having part in the first resurrection means these individuals have been glorified/perfected by God conforming them into the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29-30, 1 Cor. 15:47-55). The Revelation makes it clear that Christian believers, as the glorified church, are the primary part of this four-part coalition (Rev. 2:26-27, 3:21).
- The last symbol the Spirit of God uses in the book to show the privileged place the body of Christ has been given in the counsels of God is the holy and heavenly city Jerusalem (Rev. 21:9-10). The connection is made by the angel saying, “Come, I will show you the bride, the Lamb’s wife.” The description of the city starts in Rev. 21:10 and continues to Rev. 22:5 – it is God’s source of grace and blessing raining down from above on the earth during the millennial dispensation. The church is the tabernacle of God, the bride and wife of the Lamb. During the Christian dispensation the church is the result of the sovereign grace of God – this establishes her character of being the source of God’s grace and blessings. This privileged place continues on into the eternal state (Rev. 21:1-4).