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The Challenge of an Hermeneutical View of Law and Gospel in the Apocalypse

The Book of Revelation is a unique creation and of a genre of its own within the New Testament. Whether it is primarily apocalyptic or prophetic in character, or a combination of both,1 its distinctive literary style and contextual content set it to one side from the other writings of the New Testament.

The immediate clue that alerts the reader to this distinctive uniqueness is its visionary language in which its message is presented.2 Its symbolical and illustrative metaphors, through which its message is conveyed to the reader, challenges the mind and stirs the imagination. But as the reader begins to receive the message of Revelation and comes to an understanding of the use and meaning of its visionary literary style, the mark of Revelation's true identity becomes clear, that of prophetic literature. While Revelation can be described as apocalyptic because of its literary style, its message and content is prophetic. Though given to the reader in apocalyptic thought patterns, its message is that of a prophet. Revelation's true character then is that of prophecy.3

The ancestry and line of descent out which Revelation arises is that of the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. As this descendant, Revelation draws to a climax and to a conclusion (táXoç) the oracular voice of the prophets of old. It does so by prophetically pointing to the reign of the victorious and exalted Christ. Revelation is thus prophetic in character because it summarizes the prophetic voice of the Old Testament in view of the exalted Lord Christ, and it continues this prophetic voice into the future as it relates to and describes the reign of Christ upto the End.

The Purpose of Revelation

The purpose of the Apocalypse can be seen in the first three words of its text, 'ArcoicáXixqriç 'I~cvoii XpunoU, "The revelatory unveiling of Jesus Christ." That is, the book unveils before the eyes and faith of the Christian the glorious reign of the ascended Christ as Lord of lords and King of kings, a reign that is over all creation and peoples and history. But it does so not just for the glory of God and His Christ, but also and primarily for the preparation of the church to carry out her prophetic ministry, her prophetic witness of Jesus Christ as judge and savior of the world.4

As heir of the prophetic voice, which in the Old Testament declared the sovereignty of God over Israel and the human race through the promised Davidic Messiah and King, that voice now proclaims in Revelation that Jesus Christ has come into that royal promised reign. In and by this royal reign of Jesus Christ, God will judge all peoples. And it is God's people, now the church of Christ, who are to speak through this prophetic voice to all the world that Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Judge of the human race.

Within and under the reign of the risen and ascended Christ the church is to carry out this prophetic witness. And the purpose of displaying the glory of the reigning Christ, as Revelation does, is to encourage and motivate the church in this mission. The Lord Christ rules the world and all history so as to make it possible for His people on earth to complete that mission. And when it is finished, then the Lord Christ will come and bring an end to this present world and create a new heaven and a new earth for Himself and His bride.

Be means of the message of the Apocalypse the Holy Spirit of God, given through the Christ, prepares the church to carry out this prophetic witness by teaching her and helping her to realistically view the signs of the historical time from Christ's earthly ministry and ascension upto the End. The church is prepared to see her place in history as the handmaiden of God in her important prophetic mission. That is, she is led by the Spirit to understand that her witnessing ministry to Christ is the reason for the continued existence of the human race, and that the world and its history are so governed by God in order to enable her to carry out and complete this prophetic mission. And when that mission is completed, God in His Christ will bring an end to human history in this present age. An important element in this teaching of the church, through Revelation by the Spirit, is that she understands and believes that everything that happens in this present age is under God's sovereign will for the sake of the church and her prophetic mission.

In this preparatory teaching the Spirit of God also motivates the church to understand and acknowledge that suffering will attend her mission. While God protects and provides for His church in her mission5, nevertheless, she will suffer persecution because of her faithful witness to her Lord Christ. She will be opposed by the world and the various religions and especially by apostate Christianity.6 Mother important part of this preparatory teaching by the Spirit is the realization that in and through her suffering the church is all the more emboldened and motivated in her prophetic ministry.

Especially, however, is the church prepared for her prophetic witness, prepared through the message of Revelation, by the comfort that the Spirit bestows upon her? Some of the most beautiful pictures in the entire Bible by which the Spirit of Christ comforts His people is in Revelation. Who can ever forget the scene in Revelation 4 and 5 of God's glory in heaven in which the exalted Lamb is enthroned at the heavenly Father's right hand. The angels and the saints, represented by the twenty-four elders, break out into a celebration of joy and worship. Or in Revelation 7 the picture of the countless multitude of the saints who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and have been translated from the terrible suffering on earth and now stand at peace in the heavenly court before God. Or the scene of the wedding banquet in Revelation 19 in which the church of Christ is received by Him as His glorious bride. Or in Revelation 21 and 22 the vision of the new heaven and new earth in which the people of God will dwell as the holy of holies for the very presence of God Himself Oh how the Book of Revelation through its message prepares the church on earth to take such godly comfort in these glorious pictures of her life now in faith and hope and of her future eternal life. And this comfort and sustaining hope is given to the church in the midst of her terrifying persecution and suffering incurred by her prophetic witness to Jesus Christ. In truth of fact, the more the church is trodden under foot, the more clearly she sees these visions of her hope and eternal rest by which she is comforted in her faith and mission.

Such preparation of the church for her prophetic ministry is the purpose of the message of Revelation.

The Prophetic Message of the Apocalypse

The prophetic voice of the Apocalypse is disturbing and difficult: difficult to understand, difficult to believe, and difficult to relevantly proclaim. This is so not because of its esoteric and figurative language, though initially such a symbolical literary style can seem to be perplexing. Rather, what is disturbing and difficult to receive is the message itself, once one knows what is being said. For the message of Revelation is so full of doom and darkness and judgment. In fact a major portion of its text contains prophetic pictures of horror and tribulation that stagger the imagination. As if there were nothing left for the human race but chaos and suffering, and then the End. What is to be made of this? And how does this serve the church in preparing her to carry out the mission of the Lord Christ? However, Revelation is not alone in emphasizing such a dark view of earthly life. The prophets of the Old Testament have a similar view of the future for the human race, a view of the horrors and suffering that the human race experiences because of the judgment of God. This judgment of God is an important part of the prophetic message of the Old Testament. And Revelation is an heir, a descending line of this prophetic voice of the Old Testament.7

Both the prophets of old and John of the Apocalypse present God on the one hand as an angry and vengeful God. How often through the prophetic voice of the Old Testament are we told that God sent plagues and drought and famine and war and death and natural disasters on the peoples of the earth. All because of His anger and wrath over their sins.8 In Revelation its prophetic message also describes an angry God hitting the human race with plagues of judgment.9 Similar to those by which He plagued ancient Egypt, the prophetic voice of Revelation declares that God will hit the peoples of the earth with wars and famine and death (6:1-11), with natural disasters and diseases (8:6-13; 16:1-11), with demonic forces of evil (9:1-11). All because of His fury and anger in His judgment over the sins and rebellion of the human race (15:1-8).

What are we to make of this? For the Book of Revelation in describing such acts of God's anger and judgment does not refer to some time in the past, as if God only acted this way in ancient times described in the Old Testament. Nor in such descriptions does it refer to some indefinite time in the future. What the prophetic voice of the Apocalypse declares and describes, takes place throughout the entire New Testament era, from Christ's ascension upto the End. It is taking place now. But again, what are we to make of this?

According to the prophetic proclamation of both the Old Testament and of the Revelation of John, there are no such things as accidents of nature or of history or of social events. To think of such is idolatry. Rather, everything is under the sovereign and permissive will and control of God. While man because of his sin and rebellion and godless living is the cause of all the evils and sufferings that he experiences, God Himself is in control of such punishing results. He governs them and permits them and measures them out according to His will under his judgment. God is in control of history and all human events and the people who act them out. Not some blind fate or mindless chance or evolutionary force. To think of such is idolatry. But what are we to make of this?

All the horrors and terrifying events that afflict the human race, whether from man himself in the shedding of blood or in his acts of evil, whether from the forces of nature in earthquakes and droughts, or whether from the many diseases that infect the human body, all result because of man's sin against God. But all take place under the sovereign permissive will of God for the purpose of leading mankind to repentance, and He controls them for that purpose and for the ultimate benefit of His creation and His own glory.10

Listen to the prophetic cry of the prophet Amos (4:10), "I (Yahweh) sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt. I killed your young men with the sword, along with your captured horses. I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps, yet you have not returned to me (MV)." This prophetic cry is emulated in Revelation (16:8), "And the fourth angel poured out his censer upon the sun, and there was given to it to burn men in fire. And the men were burned with great heat, and they blasphemed the name of God who had such authority over these plagues, and they did not repent to give to Him glory."11 And Moses himself warned the people not to disobey God for their God would send curses on them. He would plague them with diseases, with scorching heat and drought and blight and mildew. And they would be defeated by their enemies (Deut 28:20~29).12 This prophetic voice is trumpeted loud and clear in John's Apocalypse, "And the angel took the censer and filled it with the fife from the incense altar and then he cast it down onto the earth (8:5)." There then follow the seven trumpet-angels who announce the wrath of God upon the earth in the form of plagues which hit nature (8: 1-13). These are followed by the seven censer-angels who pour out upon the human race God's anger in the form of boils and festering sores and poisoned waters from which people die - in addition the people are hit by burning scorching heat. But people do not repent but rather grow all the more angry against God and blaspheme Him (16:1-11).

It is quite clear from the prophetic voice of God through His prophets of old and through His prophet John of the Apocalypse that it is God Himself, and not the false gods of chance or fate or luck or mother nature, that sends these afflictions on earth and among the human race. All for the purpose of attempting through His discipline to move mankind to repentance.13

What is the role of the church in all this? Are we Christians to just suffer along with all the people around us while this is happening, as we help to sustain each other? Are not we who are the followers of the Lord Christ to seize these opportunities to be witnesses for our God? As we experience the same plagues of God's anger as do all the other people, we are to prophetically proclaim that we all are under God's judgment. That certainly was the witnessing task of John and the seven churches of the Revelation. They were not just to suffer along with all the peoples of the earth God's signs of His anger. As they were hit also with God's acts of judgment, they were to prophetically proclaim the purpose of such (10:1-11). We too are to proclaim that unless we repent, we will all perish.14 As our homes are blown away by the forces of nature, as we suffer bloodshed and war, as we are afflicted by the plagues of God's wrath, it is our mission to proclaim to all that these tragedies are taking place under God's anger and judgment over our sins, not just the sins of those who have been hit, but also our own. And when people in fear and tears seek answers, Christians must tell them the truth of God's judgment. And then when they ask what must we all do, we followers of Christ answer by proclaiming the love and salvation of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We people of the cross of Christ who often suffer the same plagues of God's anger as do others, in such tragedies and sufferings we have an opportunity to point to the salvation that is Christ Jesus, as we ourselves repent and look to the cross in faith and hope. As ones who suffer along with the peoples of the world that are being hit with the plagues of God, it is our prophetic role to proclaim the gospel of God's love and forgiveness in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.15

The Prophetic Role of the Church

But is the church carrying out this prophetic mission? Where today is the prophetic voice of a Jeremiah? When the church's voice is silent and we acquiesce and accept the world's view of events, we encourage and foster the idolatrous notion that all of our lives are in the hand of fate or luck or chance or the evolutionary forces of nature. We then seek to either control these forces of fate or throw up our hands in hopeless despair, or we seek to blame others for what is happening. And in the process we never take the responsibility of acknowledging our own guilt before God, nor begin to understand that it is for our offenses against His holiness that God is visiting these plagues upon us. Because we don't acknowledge our own guilt before God's judgment, we begin to look upon ourselves as victims rather than the objects of God's anger. And when we don't see ourselves as responsible moral beings under the judgment of God, then we can never see ourselves, and others, as the objects of God's saving love in His Christ.

When we don't view ourselves under God's judgment as we suffer His plagues poured out on us and thus thinking of ourselves as innocent victims, we look elsewhere for the guilty, those who would become the objects of our own judgment. Who today would see the terrifying Holocaust as an act that happened under the permissive providence of God's judgment? But that is exactly what a Jewish man has recently declared. David Klinghoffer in an article in the April (1998) issue of First Things entitled "Anti-Semitism Without Anti-Semites" attempts to encourage his fellow Jews to begin to understand that what happened to their race was not just because of the hatred of the Gentiles, but also because of the judgment of God. For such an understanding he points to their own Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. He says, for example, "... in Lamentations, and throughout the Bible.... Occasionally God will send a plague [to punish His people], but for His own reasons, He prefers to work through Gentile aggressors. ... the Jews of the Bible, and indeed the Jews of every generation until a century or two ago ... understood Gentile hostility to be an expression of God's displeasure with us as a community." And then he adds, 'We (the Jews of today) understand it (such a view of God's displeasure) to be essentially meaningless." The Jews of the Bible, however, "understood that God punishes the People of Israel as a community." With regard to the Holocaust Klinghoffer then says, "It would be a presumption to assert that God caused the Holocaust, or allowed it to happen, in order to punish European Jewry for their increasingly widespread devotion to secularism. ... But it would also be a presumption, and a worse one, to assert that such punishment was not what He (God) had in mind. ... Anyway, if He did intend that event as a punishment, a warning, a lesson, it would fit the Bible's pattern neatly."

Where is such a modern prophetic voice of a Jeremiah and/or of a John of the Revelation within visible Christendom to speak thusly to the Christians of this world who are suffering the acts of God's judgment and then as fellow sufferers to speak to the world at large? However postmodern man views such events, the prophetic voice of both the Old Testament and that of Revelation proclaims that God uses the wickedness of human nature and the hatreds of the peoples of the world and their evil acts towards each other to punish. In His divine providence these punishing acts become means of showing His anger as a dire warning. And at times God can and does intervene amongst His use of the wickedness of mankind with His own particular plagues. For example, in Jeremiah 27 the prophet declared how wicked Nebuchadnezzar was called "the servant of God" when he acted against Jerusalem to destroy it and to carry off into captivity the Jewish people (27:6). And if anyone would not of his own will submit to the slavery of Babylon, God would punish those people with the sword and with famine and plague (27:8). But after Babylon in its wickedness had served God's purpose as His instrument of judgment and punishment towards His own people, He in turn would judge and destroy that evil power, as Jeremiah declares later in his prophecy (50-51). And as Isaiah (13:17; 14:12-15) prophesied, God would move the Medes to rise up against Babylon so that she who thought she would ascend to heaven would be cast down into hell.

Such use by God of the forces of evil spawned by human hearts and actions to punish the human race is graphically portrayed in the prophecy of John, as illustrated by the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (5:1-8) - which judgment also hits God's own people in Christ (5:9-1 1). Though God is selective about which part of the human race is to experience His anger at any given time, whether the Jewish people at one time and then the Gentile Christian world or other parts of the human race at another, all peoples are to take heed. For all are equally guilty. Though God at a given time and place hits only this or that part of the human race, the prophetic voice of the Apocalypse declares that all should listen and repent. And unless those who at that moment and place are not experiencing God's acts of punishing judgment repent, they too will be hit and destroyed (cf. Luke 13:1- 4). However, for us to question God's permissive will why this or that people are the objects of His anger and not others is out of place. Instead what the prophet voice would lead us to do is to pray for mercy for those who are being hit and for ourselves and all people (Rev. 6:9-11).

In this twentieth century not only were four to six million Jews put to death by the hatred and evil of fellow man, but also millions of other races. In World War Two alone, in the short span of six yeas, some fifty-five million were killed. In the communist take-over of Russia from November, 1917 upto and through the purges of Stalin in the early 1930s more than thirty million people were killed. Most of these millions were Gentiles and/or Christians. Millions more can be added to this horrendous total in this century, from other wars and blood letting, from the forces of nature in the form of earthquakes and other natural disasters, from famine and diseases and pestilence. Are we to look upon all this horror caused by the evil heart of man in his sin and transgression and idolatrous living against God merely accidents of history and nature? Not if we believe the prophetic voice of the prophets of old and that of the prophet John in Revelation. While man is the cause of these terrible sufferings, God in His sovereign permissive will controls and uses all this in an effort to lead mankind to repentance, before it is too late for such repentance. And according to the prophetic voice all such catastrophic events are to be understood as the judgements of God by which He would punish and humble the peoples of the earth. So that God can then reach down in mercy through His Christ to all who cry out to Him. And thus God the creator will be glorified.

But where is the church today? Is she in company with world which denies God's judgments? Or is she the prophetic voice of a Jeremiah and of a John that directs the peoples of the world, Jew or Gentile, to the judgment of God and then to those who listen to the cross and resurrection of Christ in God's mercy? Is the church of today making use of these opportunities, terrible though they are, to witness to the only message that is truthful and faithful, that prophetic message of God?

If True to God - No Other Mission

A rabbinical writing of the early second century A.D. called 2 Baruch urges the Jewish people not to hate and rebel against the Romans who had destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D.. The author uses ancient Babylon and her destruction of Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C. as a type of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. He refers to the Romans as the modern Babylonians. Similar to the way that Jeremiah urged the people of ancient Jerusalem not to rebel against Babylon, so this author of 2 Baruch urges his fellow Jews not to rebel against Rome, as they would do in the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132 A.D.. For as Jeremiah told the people that Babylon was not their enemy, but rather God, so the author of 2 Baruch declares that the enemy was not Rome but God. God was using the animosity and hatred of the Romans to punish the Jewish people because of their sins and rebellion against their creator. And unless they would repent, they all would he destroyed forever in God's judgment at the End.

Where today is there a similar prophetic voice amongst visible Christianity that is relevantly applying the prophetic pronouncements of a Jeremiah and of a John of Revelation? If any group of peoples today deserves the punishment of God as much, if not more, than the Jewish people of both ancient times and of the twentieth century, it certainly is that of the Christian western world. If the church is to be true to the prophetic voice of the prophets of old and of that of John of the Apocalypse, she must proclaim that we are not to fear our fellow men and blame others for our hurts and sufferings. The peoples of the human race are not the enemy, even when they strike us in war or in any future holocaust, or strike each other. God is the one who judges and punishes. He will use the animosity and hatred of one people against the other. He will use their determination to destroy and to enslave and to kill in order to demonstrate that He, God, is the punisher and judge to whom the entire human race is accountable. In His permissive will and controlling sovereignty God never justifies the evils of people that He uses to warn mankind. Fm when He has used it, He will then judge and punish that rod of His anger, as He did Babylon of old and a Nero and Rome of John's own time and a Hitler and his third Reich of our own day. Nor are we to question God when He uses this or that peoples and this or that catastrophy to punish others. Rather we all are to recognize ourselves as equally guilty before God. And unless we repent and cry out for mercy, God then becomes the enemy whom we must fear. If we heed the prophetic voice of Revelation and are true to the godly mission Jesus Christ has given to His church, we will then be the prophetic voice of a Jeremiah. And to all those who heed the warning cry of God's judgment, the church is then to proclaim the gracious announcements of God forgiveness and eternal peace in His Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. And we do this as fellow sinners under the same judgment of God.

While on the one hand the Apocalypse presents terrifying pictures of man's sin in evil actions and the sufferings that result, and while it does present God as an angry and punishing judge, all this serves as a backdrop for the most beautiful pictures in the entire Bible of God's mercy in Christ and of the eternal glory that awaits those who repent and look to Him in fear as their judge and in faith and hope as their Savior. Once seen, no one can ever forget the vision of God's glory in heaven and the exaltation of the victorious Christ (Rev. 4-5); or the picture of all the saints in heaven standing before God's throne dressed in white robes that have been cleansed in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7); or the triumphant wedding feast of the Lamb when He receives the church and honors her His bride (Rev. 19). And all this is God's gift to His people who were once under His judgment on earth, but who came out of the great tribulation, even though through death. In that tribulation they had lived in continual repentance before God's fearful acts of judgment. But also throughout their lives of prophetically witnessing to the truth of God, even in the midst of that tribulation, they remained steadfast to their faith and hope in the promise of an eternal salvation in their Lord Christ. And this faith and hope was not denied them, for now they are singing the greatest Te Deum ever voiced in that choir of both angels and saints. God through His Christ desires this for all the peoples of the earth. For to His honor and glory, He would far more want to be known not as the God of judgment, but as the God of mercy and love.

The church on earth, no matter how much she suffers in carrying out her mission of being that prophetic voice of God, she must continue to proclaim the great message of God's love in Christ for all peoples of the human race.16 So that all peoples of every race can hear that God desires all to be with Him and His Christ forever in the glory of the new heaven and new earth. But the church can proclaim this glorious gospel only if she first proclaims the judgments of God. Otherwise her message of God's love and mercy will seem irrelevant and thus fall on deaf ears. Therefore she must remain faithful to that prophetic voice of a Jeremiah and of a John of the Apocalypse.17

1 Frederick Mazzaferri (The Genre of the Book of Revelation from a Source-critical Perspective) believes that Revelation is more prophetic than apocalyptic while Christian Rowland (The Open Heaven - A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity) thinks it is more apocalyptic in character. An excellent review of the prophetic message of Revelation is that of Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy. Studies on the Book of Revelation.
2 G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible.
3 In the epilogue the author claims that his work is in line with the prophetic spirit and as a result calls his work a prophecy (22:6-7, 9-10, 18-19).
4 In Rev. 10:1-11 the mighty angel who represents God and the Christ makes this graphically clear as he commissions John, and the churches, to proclaim the message to all peoples.
5 Rev. 11 graphically portrays such care and protection in the vision of the two witnesses.
6 Such opposition is displayed by the two beasts of Rev. 13 and by the harlot of Rev 17-18.
7 In Rev, 10:7 it says that at the End (the seventh trumpet-angel) the mystery of God will be completed, which mystery He graciously promised to His prophets. In Rev. 22:6 the words of the message of Revelation are said to be true because the same God of the prophets has sent them through John.
8 E.g. Amos 4:6-12; Is. 3:1-26; 10:5-19; 13:11-12; 17:1-23:18; 24:1ff.; Jer. 7:30-8:12; 9:7-16; 14:11-12: Ezek. 6:1-7; Hosea 5:10-15.
9 E.g. Rev. 6:1-11; 8:1-9:21; 15:1-16:16.
10 See Rev. 6:1-18; 16:9, 11; 9:21.
11 Cf. Jer. 3:3; Hosea 2:8-13; Amos 3:14-15; 4:7-9; Zech. 14:17-19.
12 Moses even mentioned boils and festering sores striking the people under God's judgment. He mentions also blindness and madness and confusion of mind (Deut. 28:27-28).
13 In Hebrews 12:4-11 such discipline is meted out because of God's love. His anger serves His love.
14 In Luke 13:4-5 Jesus warns that we should not think the people upon whom a tragedy falls are worse sinners than those who escaped it. Rather, we should all repent unless a worse thing happen to us.
15 2 Cor. 4:1-15 addresses this, though in a different vain (cf. Gal. 6:17).
16 In Rev. 10 this mission and its imperative is graphically portrayed as the mighty angel from heaven commissions John and the churches to do so.
17 For further reading concerning 2 Baruch, see its text in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:615-52; and Frederick J. Murphy, "2 Banich and the Romans," JBL, 104 (Dec., 1988), 663-69.

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